Miliband pledges that a Labour government will scrap the bedroom tax

Labour leader announces: "We’ll scrap the bedroom tax by abolishing the shady schemes of tax loopholes for the privileged few which the Tories keep inventing."

Last month, I revealed that one of Labour's "policy goodies" for conference was likely to be a pledge to scrap the bedroom tax - and Ed Miliband hasn't disappointed.

The party has announced tonight that a Labour government will repeal the measure, which has already forced around half of those tenants affected into rent arrears, a quarter of those for the first time ever. Significantly, rather than merely another policy that Labour would enact "were it in government now", this is a manifesto commitment. 

The National Housing Federation and the National Audit Office have predicted that the measure could end up costing more than it saves by forcing social housing tenants into the more expensive private sector (due to the lack of one-bedroom council properties available) and by increasing rent arrears (which deprives councils of revenue). But in order to demonstrate their commitment to fiscal discipline, Miliband and Ed Balls have still outlined how they will raise the £470m the Treasury claims the measure will save this year.

Labour has said it will: 

- Reverse the £150m tax cut for hedge funds announced in the 2013 Budget.

- Abolish George Osborne's "shares for rights" scheme, which businesses have been using to avoid capital gains tax (shares sold at a profit are exempt) and which the OBR has forecast could cost up to £1bn. 

- Prevent construction firms avoiding tax by falsely listing workers as self-employed. 

Miliband will say tomorrow: 

One Nation Labour is meeting here in Brighton talking about the most important issue facing families in Britain: the cost of living crisis.

Under David Cameron life is getting harder and harder with prices rising faster than wages in 38 of the 39 months that he has been in Downing Street. And working people are an average of almost £1,500 a year worse off under his government.

But we have a Tory-led Government which listens only to a privileged few. Tax cuts for millionaires and tax breaks for hedge funds.

I am leading a different Labour Party, a One Nation Labour Party, which listens to and will stand up for ordinary families like that of Danielle Heard, who I met this week.

We’ll fight for her like she has fought cancer heroically for 14 years. She is disabled and battling cancer again. But now her family must pay £80 a month they can’t afford under this government’s hated bedroom tax.

The bedroom tax – not what the Tories call the spare room subsidy – the bedroom tax: a symbol of an out of touch, uncaring Tory government that stands up for the privileged few – but never for you.

So we will scrap that tax. And what’s more I can tell you how.

We’ll scrap the bedroom tax by abolishing the shady schemes of tax loopholes for the privileged few which the Tories keep inventing. Tax cuts for hedge funds, the billion pound black hole created with a scheme for workers to sell their rights for shares, and by tackling scams which cheat the taxpayer in construction.

That’s what a One Nation Labour government will do. That’s a party that will fight for you.

The Tories will respond by arguing that Labour has abandoned its commitment to fiscal responsibility and returned to its old spending ways. But unlike on other issues, such as the benefit cap, they find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. A ComRes poll published today by the National Housing Federation (NHF) found that 59% of the public believe the policy should be abandoned, up from 51% when it was introduced in April. Four-fifths of Labour supporters (79%) favour its repeal, along with 65% of Lib Dems and 34% of Tories. 

And one doesn't have to look far for evidence why. As I noted, a survey by the NHF of 51 housing associations found that more than half of those residents affected by the measure (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April and June, a quarter of those for the first time ever. 

Ministers have defended 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, on the basis that it will encourage families to downsize to more "appropriately sized" accommodation. But they have ignored (or at least pretended to ignore) the lack of one bedroom houses available. In England, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available to move to. Rather than reducing overcrowding, the policy has largely become another welfare cut, further squeezing families already hit by the benefit cap, the 1% limit on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms cut) and the 10% reduction in council tax support. 

The measure is also coming under increasing fire from the Lib Dems. Shirley Williams described it as "a big mistake" at the party's conference and delegates passed a motion 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." It also called for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children." 

Whether or not the coalition eventually goes as far as scrapping the measure, to prevent Labour surfing a wave of public outrage, it is hard to see it surviving in its current form. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the TUC conference at the Bournemouth International Centre on September 10, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.