Why Labour will consign the Bedroom Tax to the dustbin of history

For the vast majority of those affected, there is nowhere smaller to move to, leaving vulnerable people hit with extra costs through no fault of their own.

We Britons are proud of our national characteristics. Others might see them as foibles but we see them as qualities – doughtiness, support of the underdog, keeping a cool head in sticky situations. But our greatest quality is a sense of fair play. That’s the reason why the British people get so angry about the Bedroom Tax.

The Bedroom Tax is cruel and unfair. For those in social housing whom the government thinks have an extra room, it means paying up or moving house. But for the vast majority of those affected, there is nowhere smaller to move to, leaving vulnerable people hit with extra costs through no fault of their own. In my city of Edinburgh, vacant one bedroom flats are attracting over 200 applications each week.  The average family will lose £720 a year.

Families are facing a cost of living crisis. They’ve seen prices raise faster than wages for the last three years. They are on average £1,500 worse off under this government than under the last Labour government. This is something David Cameron and his out of touch ministers just can’t get their heads around. Even worse the Bedroom Tax hits over 400,000 disabled people hard. It's not just Labour politicians or campaigners who don’t like it, housing experts across the board condemn it. The Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation has described the policy as "an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families."

So it hurts people, but surely you’d think, at least it will bring in some extra revenue to the Treasury and help bring down this government’s borrowing? Well, you’d be wrong. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the Bedroom Tax could cost more money than it saves. The National Housing Federation have said the savings claimed by the government are "highly questionable", partly because those forced to move to the private rented sector will end up costing more in Housing Benefit. Housing Associations say that tens of millions are likely to be lost through the build up of arrears. And the National Audit Office have said that the government’s costing does not take account of the full scale of potential impacts and does not include the additional costs faced by local authorities.

Ed Miliband is crystal clear. The next Labour government will repeal the unfair and cruel Bedroom Tax. So how can this be funded? We need to do this by following our principles – a One Nation approach. David Cameron has cut tax for those who earn over £150,000 a year while raising it for everyone else. A classic example of him standing up for the wrong people.

We’ve been clear that we can’t borrow more to pay for social security changes. And we’ll take tough choices where necessary, including cutting Winter Fuel Payments for the wealthiest pensioners, and not reversing the cuts to child benefit for those on the highest incomes. But we’ll fund this change by getting rid of George Osborne’s tax loopholes, including the extraordinary tax cut for hedge funds announced in the 2013 Budget. We will also reverse his shares for rights schemem, which has been rejected by businesses and has, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, opened up a tax loophole of up to £1bn. And we’ll tackle tax scams in the construction industry. These changes will fully fund the cost of repealing the Bedroom Tax.

This is about taking a One Nation approach to deliver and run an economy that works in the interests of all the people, not just a narrow minority.
The Bedroom Tax is cruel, unjust, uneconomical and offends our sense of natural justice. The next Labour government will consign it to the dustbin of history.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East

Demonstrators hold placards as they gather to protest against the bedroom tax outside the High Court. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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