Why all MPs should vote against the indefensible bedroom tax

The punitive penalty presents appalling dilemmas for vulnerable families. Ministers should finally accept that they have lost the argument.

Today Labour is calling time on David Cameron’s hated Bedroom Tax with a vote in parliament for its immediate repeal. The tenuous case for the policy now lies in tatters, with mounting evidence that it is not only flagrantly unfair but also counterproductive as a way of controlling benefit costs.

The 660,000 families affected include 400,000 disabled people and 375,000 children. Through no fault of their own, some of Britain’s hardest-pressed low-income households are expected to find, on average, an extra £720 a year – or face losing their home.

This punitive penalty presents appalling dilemmas for vulnerable families already struggling to survive at the sharp end of David Cameron’s cost-of-living crisis. The loss of income is equivalent to losing all child benefit paid for a second or subsequent child – or more than the average cost of a daily school meal. The result has been more people resorting to Food Banks, according to the Trussell Trust, as well as expanding opportunities for payday lenders.

Surveys suggest that as many as half of those affected are already behind with their rent – the mounting arrears further destabilising the precarious finances of local housing providers. And the costs of evicting those who can’t pay, and dealing with the resulting homelessness, could be astronomical.

Many of those who do move are ending up in smaller but more expensive properties in the private sector – which means the housing benefit bill footed by the taxpayer is higher, not lower. Analysis by York University’s Centre for Housing Policy suggests the government has underestimated the costs by £160m a year.

Meanwhile, because overcrowding and "under-occupation" do not neatly match up within areas, the affordable social homes deemed too large for them are often left empty or even marked for demolition. All this at a time when housebuilding is at its lowest level since the 1920s.

The chair of the Lochaber Housing Association, a Mr Di Alexander, put the point perfectly when he said the Bedroom Tax is "particularly unfair in that it penalises both our tenants and ourselves for not being able to magic up a supply of smaller properties, particularly those with only one bedroom, when we have been funded by the Government since our inception to build nothing smaller than two-bedroom flats and houses." It’s just a shame that his son, the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, doesn’t seem to understand.

Meanwhile, DWP ministers have tied themselves in knots trying to defend the indefensible. Lord Freud has said that if "substantial" numbers were expected to move into the private sector "we would not be implementing this change", but has also conceded that that "over the past decade, the social rented sector has built virtually no single bedrooms".

Esther McVey has suggested that three-bedroom properties should be "modified into one and two-bedroom houses"– leaving some to wonder if those affected by the Bedroom Tax should be getting out their sledgehammers to avoid paying it.

Today, MPs on all sides of the House have an opportunity to dissociate themselves from this dog’s breakfast of a policy. We have identified funds that could be used to cover any costs of reversing it today, by reversing tax cuts which will benefit the wealthiest and promote avoidance, and addressing the tax loss from disguised employment in construction. And if this incompetent and out-of-touch government won’t accept it has lost the argument and repeal this ineffective and iniquitous measure today, the British people will soon have an opportunity to elect a Labour government that will.

Rachel Reeves is shadow work and pensions secretary

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.