Ed Miliband speaks to Labour supporters on January 17, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Miliband's pledge to cap rent rises is smart politics

The Labour leader has offered relief to the millions who can't afford to buy and who long for security.

For months, Labour MPs and activists have been waiting for Ed Miliband to announce a sequel to his energy price freeze: another popular market intervention that demonstrates how the party would tackle the living standards crisis and that creates a powerful dividing line with the Tories. In the form of his new policy on private rents, Miliband may have just provided it.

At Labour's local and European election campaign launch in Redbridge tomorrow, he will pledge to cap rent rises and to extend the standard tenancy period from six months to three years. Alongside this, he will commit to banning letting agent fees, forcing landlords to bear the cost and saving the average new household £350. 

Under the plan, modelled on Ireland's recent reforms, an "upper ceiling", based on a benchmark such as inflation or the average market rent in the area, will be placed on rent increases to prevent "excessive rises", and tenants will automatically win the right to remain in their property for at least two-and-a-half years following a six month probation period. Landlords will only be able to terminate contracts with two months' notice if the tenant falls into arrears, is guilty of anti-social behaviour, or breaches their contract; or if they want to sell the property or use it for their family. Crucially, they will not be able to end tenancies simply to increase the rent. 

It is one of Miliband's most politically astute interventions to date. In the form of Help to Buy, the Tories have emphasised their commitment to expanding home ownership (although the policy will ultimately achieve the reverse), but they have had little to offer the large and growing number who are either unable (with or without state subsidy) or unwilling to buy. As Miliband will note in his speech tomorrow, there are now nine million people and 1.3 million households renting privately. There are a huge number of votes to be won from offering them a better deal.

A senior Labour source earlier denied to me that the party had embraced "rent controls" (since the market will still determine the starting level) but Miliband shouldn't run scared of the term. A YouGov poll of Londoners earlier this month found that 55 per cent support rent controls with just 19 per cent opposed - and little wonder. Renters are currently paying an average of £1,020 a year more than in 2010 and those in private accommodation have fared worst. In 2012, rent payments represented an average of 41 per cent of their gross income, compared with 30 per cent for social renters and 19 per cent for owner occupiers.

The beauty of the policy, in this era of fiscal constraint, is that it won't cost a penny of government money. Indeed, by limiting rent rises, it will reduce costs to the state by lowering housing benefit payments. By embracing predistribution (seeking more equal outcomes before the government collects taxes and pays out benefits), Miliband has found a way to reduce inequality whilst sticking to his tough deficit reduction targets.

Miliband isn't promising a reduction in rents, as some in Labour would wish, but he is promising the security and peace of mind that comes with knowing how much you will owe your landlord in three years' time. As he will say tomorrow: "These new longer-term tenancies will limit the amount that rents can rise by each year too - so landlords know what they can expect each year and tenants can’t be surprised by rents that go through the roof.

"This is Labour’s fair deal for rented housing in Britain: long-term tenancies and stable rents so that people can settle down, know where the kids will go to school, know their home will still be there for them tomorrow."

So keen are the Tories to kill the idea at birth that CCHQ rushed out a non-embargoed press release at 5:16pm, with Grant Shapps denouncing Miliband for proposing "Venezuelan-style rent controls" and caving in to Len McCluskey. But this stock leftie baiting won't resonate with an electorate crying out for relief from the ravages of the market (and with no interest in where Hugo  Chávez stood on the issue). As in the case of the energy price freeze, the Tories may denounce Miliband for "bringing back socialism", but they will soon discover that "socialism" is more popular than they think. And having performed the largest-ever state intervention in the mortgage market, through Help to Buy, they will struggle to attack Labour on libertarian grounds.

The Conservatives' aim is to present rent controls as ineffective as well as illiberal. Shapps said: "Evidence from Britain and around the world conclusively demonstrates that rent controls lead to poorer quality accommodation, fewer homes being rented and ultimately higher rents – hurting those most in need." Yet as Labour sources are pointing out, in Ireland, where longer-term tenancies and predictable rents were recently introduced, the private sector has grown, not shrunk. Forget Venezuela, Germany, New York, France and Spain all benefit from imposing limits on the market. 

"Generation rent is a generation that has been ignored for too long," Miliband will say tomorrow. But no longer - and it is Labour that will reap the political benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

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.