A favourite maxim among George Osborne’s team is that “you can never be too tough on welfare”. By this they mean that the public will always side with the government over claimants when a benefit cut is introduced. But in the case of the bedroom tax, they’ve been proved wrong.
A new poll by ComRes for the National Housing Federation (NHF) shows that 59% of the public believe the policy should be abandoned, up from 51% when it was introduced in April. Four-fifths of Labour supporters (79%) favour its repeal, along with 65% of Lib Dems and 34% of Tories. And one doesn’t have to look far for evidence why. A survey by the NHF of 51 housing associations found that more than half of those residents affected by the measure (32,432 people), fell into rent arrears between April and June, a quarter of those for the first time ever.
Ministers have defended the policy, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one ‘spare room” and by 25% for those with two or more, on the basis that it will encourage families to downsize to more “appropriately sized” accommodation. But they have ignored (or at least pretended to ignore) the lack of one bedroom houses available. In England, there are 180,000 social tenants “under-occupying” two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available to move to. Rather than reducing overcrowding, the policy has largely become another welfare cut, further squeezing families already hit by the benefit cap, the 1% limit on benefit and tax credit increases (a real-terms cut) and the 10% reduction in council tax benefit.
For these reasons, the moment that Labour pledges to repeal it is drawing close. At the National Housing Federation conference yesterday, Liam Byrne said: “We have got to have this tax dropped now. If people are in this much debt five months in, then heaven help them come Christmas, and heaven help them come the next election.”
Asked whether Labour would promise to scrap the measure, he replied:
“We’re determined to see and find a way to get this dropped.”
He added: “So what we have to do is show where the money will come from in order to reverse this iniquitous and vicious tax and we have to prove that it is costing more than it saves.”
There are whispers that Ed Miliband could pledge to repeal the policy as early as tonight.