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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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.