Labour will soon pledge to scrap the bedroom tax, says Scottish welfare spokesman

Jackie Baillie says "you can expect an announcement relatively soon" as Lib Dem Shirley Williams brands the policy "a big mistake".

To date, while stating that it would not have introduced the bedroom tax and condemning its effect on the vulnerable, Labour has stopped short of pledging to repeal the measure if elected. But as I recently reported, it will almost certainly promise to do so before 2015.

The clearest signal yet that an announcement is likely in the near future came today from the party's Scottish welfare spokesman Jackie Baillie. Asked on the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme whether "a Westminster Labour government abolish the bedroom tax?", she replied:

We are very clear. Labour rejected this approach when it was put to them in government, for social landlords. We have campaigned for its abolition.

Yes we will abolish it. My understanding is that you can expect an announcement relatively soon.

In his recent speech on social security, Liam Byrne described the policy, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25% for those with two or more, as "the worst possible combination of incompetence and cruelty". He noted that "96% of those hit have nowhere to move to" (which means higher arrears and homelessness) and that it was "costing the public an extra £102.5 million to implement", concluding: "It should be dropped, and dropped now." If Labour can demonstrate that the policy is likely to cost more than it saves, it will be hard for the coalition to object to its potential reversal.

At the Lib Dem conference on Monday afternoon, delegates will debate a motion (Making Housing Benefit Work for Tenants in Social Housing) calling for "an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy, establishing the extent to which larger homes are freed up, money saved, costs of implementation, the impact on vulnerable tenants, and the impact on the private rented sector." The motion also calls for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children."

Until new guidelines are in place, it argues that there should be no withdrawal of housing benefit from those on the waiting list for social housing which meets the current guidelines and that there should be an exemption for those who "temporarily have a smaller housing need due to a change in their circumstances, but whose need will predictably return to a higher level (e.g. whose children will pass the age limits for separate rooms within that period)".

While Nick Clegg and other Lib Dems ministers have defended the measure on the grounds that it encourages tenants to downsize, freeing up houses for those in overcrowded accomodation (the problem being the severe shortage of one bedroom properties), delegates are likely to back the motion, with a significant number calling for the immediate abolition of the policy. On the fringe, Shirley Williams has just been greeted with thunderous applause after describing it as "a big mistake".

Campaigners protest against the bedroom tax in Trafalgar Square before marching to Downing Street on 30 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.