After flooding what he once called the “blank page” with policies, Ed Miliband is setting a series of parliamentary tests for Labour’s opponents. Tomorrow, the party will use an opposition day debate to stage a vote on its proposed energy price freeze. Miliband will say in his speech today on living standards: “It is workable, it will happen if Labour wins the next election. And tomorrow Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs could vote for it. If they line up against it, the British people will know the truth: this government is on the side of the big energy companies not hard-pressed families.” It’s one thing for the coalition parties not to support an energy price freeze, but it’s another for them to actively vote against it.
Then on Tuesday, Labour will hold a similar vote on its pledge to scrap the bedroom tax. For Lib Dem MPs, this represents a particular challenge. As evidence has grown of the harm inflicted by the policy, Clegg’s party has become increasingly uncomfortable with the government’s stance. At its recent conference, the party voted in favour of a motion calling for “an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy” and for “a redrafting of clear housing needs guidelines in association with those representing vulnerable groups including the disabled, elderly and children.”
Until new guidelines are in place, it argued that 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 (e.g. whose children will pass the age limits for separate rooms within that period)”.
But some senior figures went further, with Shirley Williams describing it as “a big mistake” and Charles Kennedy commenting: “I didn’t support it in the Commons and I’m not going to support it here. Mine is the largest geographic constituency in the whole of the UK – but it’s not untypical from any rural area, or for that matter urban area. In a rural area, you don’t have the flexibility, you don’t have the spare capacity in housing to move people vast distances.” Another MP, Andrew George, has said: “It is one of the absurdities of the system that it is supposed to save money but it is likely to land the taxpayer with a bigger bill. It will inevitably force rural tenants out of villages where they have lived for years, taking them away from their extended families, schools and support networks. It will take key workers away from areas where they perform vital roles.”
Clegg’s recent emphasis on the “independent research” the government had commissioned on the policy was an attempt to buy some breathing space. He told the Commons: “Of course, I accept that there will be cases where for some households this change from one system to another creates real dilemmas which need to be addressed through the money we are making available to local authorities.
“To be honest, I have seen lots of widely different figures being cited about the impact of this policy – that is why we are commissioning independent research to exactly understand the impact of this.”
While Clegg’s words left the impression that he had announced a new review, the study was in fact announced in March by Iain Duncan Smith, who said then: “Going forward I will continue to closely monitor and adjust the implementation of the policy, including an independent evaluation by Ipsos MORI, the Cambridge centre for housing and planning research and the Institute For Fiscal Studies to ensure that the needs of these groups are effectively addressed in the longer term.”
As luck would have it, the DWP will this week publish research on “public perceptions of the removal of the spare room subsidy”. Should that study confirm public hostility to the measure, a significant number of Lib Dem backbenchers will feel encouraged to join Labour in the division lobby on Tuesday.