Nick Clegg speaks at Bloomberg's central London headquarters on June 9, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Lib Dems are calling for the bedroom tax to be reformed, not scrapped

The party is splitting the difference again. 

The Daily Mirror leads on the news that Nick Clegg is calling for the bedroom tax to be scrapped. Even by Lib Dem standards, it's a dramatic U-turn that abandons any pretence of collective responsibility. 

But read the accompanying piece and it becomes clear that the position is more complex than presented. Rather than arguing for the policy to be abandoned (after a DWP analysis this week found that nearly 60 per cent of the 550,000 tenants affected are in rent arrears and only one in 20 have been able to move to a smaller home), the Lib Dems are in fact calling for it to be reformed.

Danny Alexander writes in the paper that disabled adults should be exempt from the measure and that no one should have their housing benefit cut unless they are offered a suitable smaller home. But this fall shorts of demanding that it is abandoned altogether (Labour's position). The principle that housing benefit should be reduced for those social housing tenants "under-occupying" their properties remains.

Significantly, however, the Lib Dems are reportedly happy with the "axe" headline. If so, they've created a major hostage to fortune. Should Labour table a motion proposing the abolition of the bedroom tax (as it surely will), they won't be able to support it. 

 

Here's Alexander's statement in full:

As a Liberal Democrat I want everyone to have the opportunity to have a secure and decent home.

We brought in changes to how housing benefit is calculated in the social housing sector with the best of intentions.

However, a recent report shows people are having to cut back on household essentials despite the help offered through Discretionary Housing Payments.

Therefore, we have reviewed our position so only those already in the social rented sector who turn down suitable smaller homes will see a reduction in their benefit.  These commitments will be in the Lib Dem manifesto and we will push for it as government policy right away.

This change, combined with a commitment to build 300,000 houses a year in the next Parliament, will build on the progress we have already made to address Britain’s housing problem.

All the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has done is formnally embrace the policy adopted by the party at its autumn conference last year. The motion passed by delegates called for "a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children". It also argued that, until new guidelines are in place, 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".

The Lib Dems may yet use their manifesto to argue for the full abolition of the policy (as most party activists would wish), but they aren't doing so tonight. Once again, by splitting the difference, they are in danger in pleasing no one. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn sat down on train he claimed was full, Virgin says

The train company has pushed back against a viral video starring the Labour leader, in which he sat on the floor.

Seats were available on the train where Jeremy Corbyn was filmed sitting on the floor, Virgin Trains has said.

On 16 August, a freelance film-maker who has been following the Labour leader released a video which showed Corbyn talking about the problems of overcrowded trains.

“This is a problem that many passengers face every day, commuters and long-distance travellers. Today this train is completely ram-packed,” he said. Is it fair that I should upgrade my ticket whilst others who might not be able to afford such a luxury should have to sit on the floor? It’s their money I would be spending after all.”

Commentators quickly pointed out that he would not have been able to claim for a first-class upgrade, as expenses rules only permit standard-class travel. Also, campaign expenses cannot be claimed back from the taxpayer. 

Today, Virgin Trains released footage of the Labour leader walking past empty unreserved seats to film his video, which took half an hour, before walking back to take another unreserved seat.

"CCTV footage taken from the train on August 11 shows Mr Corbyn and his team walked past empty, unreserved seats in coach H before walking through the rest of the train to the far end, where his team sat on the floor and started filming.

"The same footage then shows Mr Corbyn returning to coach H and taking a seat there, with the help of the onboard crew, around 45 minutes into the journey and over two hours before the train reached Newcastle.

"Mr Corbyn’s team carried out their filming around 30 minutes into the journey. There were also additional empty seats on the train (the 11am departure from King’s Cross) which appear from CCTV to have been reserved but not taken, so they were also available for other passengers to sit on."

A Virgin spokesperson commented: “We have to take issue with the idea that Mr Corbyn wasn’t able to be seated on the service, as this clearly wasn’t the case.

A spokesman for the Corbyn campaign told BuzzFeed News that the footage was a “lie”, and that Corbyn had given up his seat for a woman to take his place, and that “other people” had also sat in the aisles.

Owen Smith, Corbyn's leadership rival, tried a joke:

But a passenger on the train supported Corbyn's version of events.

Both Virgin Trains and the Corbyn campaign have been contacted for further comment.

UPDATE 17:07

A spokesperson for the Jeremy for Labour campaign commented:

“When Jeremy boarded the train he was unable to find unreserved seats, so he sat with other passengers in the corridor who were also unable to find a seat. 

"Later in the journey, seats became available after a family were upgraded to first class, and Jeremy and the team he was travelling with were offered the seats by a very helpful member of staff.

"Passengers across Britain will have been in similar situations on overcrowded, expensive trains. That is why our policy to bring the trains back into public ownership, as part of a plan to rebuild and transform Britain, is so popular with passengers and rail workers.”

A few testimonies from passengers who had their photos taken with Corbyn on the floor can be found here