Campaigners protest against the bedroom tax in Trafalgar Square before marching to Downing Street on 30 March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Bedroom tax survey poses headaches for the Tories and Labour

Just 6% of tenants affected have moved but the measure is saving money.

When the government introduced the bedroom tax a year ago, it justified the policy on the basis that it would encourage families to downsize to more "appropriately sized" accommodation. Critics responded by warning of the lack of one bedroom houses available. In England, for instance, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available. Unable to move, poor and vulnerable tenants would simply be hit by yet another welfare cut (housing benefit is reduced by 14 per cent for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25 per cent for those with two or more). 

New research out today from the BBC vindicates these warnings. In the first year of the policy, just six per cent of social housing tenants affected have moved house, while 28 per cent have fallen into rent arrears for the first time. But while failing to achieve the behavioural change they wanted, ministers claim that the measure is saving £1m a day. As Prof Rebecca Tunstall, director of the centre for housing policy at the University of York, notes: "There were two major aims to this policy - one was to encourage people to move, and the other was to save money for the government in housing benefit payments. But those two aims are mutually exclusive. The government has achieved one to a greater extent and the other to a lesser extent."

While the policy is also costing money, by increasing homelessness and pushing some tenants into the private sector, where rents are higher (inflating the housing benefit bill), it seems likely that there is a net saving. For Labour, which has pledged to abolish the measure if it comes to power, this is a headache. It was the likelihood that the change would cost money (up to £465m) to introduce that meant some shadow cabinet ministers, such as Ed Balls (who is focused on ensuring fiscal discipline), were sceptical of the commitment. In the end, while noting that the bedroom tax could end up costing more than it saves (and it still may), Labour promised to fund its abolition by reversing the £150m tax cut for hedge funds announced in the 2013 Budget, abolishing 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, and preventing construction firms avoiding tax by falsely listing workers as self-employed. 

But as coalition ministers have repeatedly pointed out this week, Osborne's new cap on welfare spending, which includes the bedroom tax, means that Labour will have to decide which benefits it would cut in order to remain within the £119bn limit. At present, the only welfare cut planned by Labour is the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a change that would raise just £100m a year. While the party rightly argues that the measures it plans to increase housebuilding and to expand use of the living wage will reduce the benefits bill (by increasing tax revenue and reducing welfare payments) these savings will not be achieved immediately. Until Labour can say how it would scrap the bedroom tax without breaching the welfare cap, it faces exactly the kind of "black hole" that Balls is desperate to avoid. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear