Labour plans to challenge Lib Dem MPs with bedroom tax vote

The party's announcement that it will hold a Commons vote next Tuesday on scrapping the measure is a test of those in Clegg's party who have condemned it.

After flooding what he once called the "blank page" with policies, Ed Miliband is setting a series of parliamentary tests for Labour's opponents. Tomorrow, the party will use an opposition day debate to stage a vote on its proposed energy price freeze. Miliband will say in his speech today on living standards: "It is workable, it will happen if Labour wins the next election. And tomorrow Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs could vote for it. If they line up against it, the British people will know the truth: this government is on the side of the big energy companies not hard-pressed families." It's one thing for the coalition parties not to support an energy price freeze, but it's another for them to actively vote against it. 

Then on Tuesday, Labour will hold a similar vote on its pledge to scrap the bedroom tax. For Lib Dem MPs, this represents a particular challenge. As evidence has grown of the harm inflicted by the policy, Clegg's party has become increasingly uncomfortable with the government's stance. At its recent conference, the party voted in favour of a motion calling for "an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy" and 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 argued that there should be no withdrawal of housing benefit from those on the waiting list for social housing 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)".

But some senior figures went further, with Shirley Williams describing it as "a big mistake" and Charles Kennedy commenting: "I didn’t support it in the Commons and I’m not going to support it here. Mine is the largest geographic constituency in the whole of the UK – but it’s not untypical from any rural area, or for that matter urban area. In a rural area, you don’t have the flexibility, you don’t have the spare capacity in housing to move people vast distances." Another MP, Andrew George, has said: "It is one of the absurdities of the system that it is supposed to save money but it is likely to land the taxpayer with a bigger bill. It will inevitably force rural tenants out of villages where they have lived for years, taking them away from their extended families, schools and support networks. It will take key workers away from areas where they perform vital roles."

Clegg's recent emphasis on the "independent research" the government had commissioned on the policy was an attempt to buy some breathing space. He told the Commons: "Of course, I accept that there will be cases where for some households this change from one system to another creates real dilemmas which need to be addressed through the money we are making available to local authorities.

"To be honest, I have seen lots of widely different figures being cited about the impact of this policy - that is why we are commissioning independent research to exactly understand the impact of this."

While Clegg's words left the impression that he had announced a new review, the study was in fact announced in March by Iain Duncan Smith, who said then: "Going forward I will continue to closely monitor and adjust the implementation of the policy, including an independent evaluation by Ipsos MORI, the Cambridge centre for housing and planning research and the Institute For Fiscal Studies to ensure that the needs of these groups are effectively addressed in the longer term."

As luck would have it, the DWP will this week publish research on "public perceptions of the removal of the spare room subsidy". Should that study confirm public hostility to the measure, a significant number of Lib Dem backbenchers will feel encouraged to join Labour in the division lobby on Tuesday. 

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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.