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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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.