Humiliating Tory Defeat in Parliament Over the Reviled and Unjust Bedroom Tax

9.9.14

On Friday, there was some rare good news regarding the British government’s assault on the unemployed, as a Private Member’s Bill aimed at mitigating the worst effects of the hated “bedroom tax” passed a crucial vote in the House of Commons.

Ever since the wretched Tory-led coalition government seized power in May 2010, the very foundations of the modern British state have been under attack. The brain-dead grandchildren of Margaret Thatcher, the modern-day Tories — and their Lib Dem facilitators — have launched a comprehensive assault on the welfare state, under the guise of an artificial “age of austerity,” lying and playing on people’s least savoury instincts to paint the unemployed as shirkers and scroungers, despite the fact that there is only one job available for every five unemployed people, and also to portray the disabled as being fit for work, when that is not the case, as well as imposing caps on and cuts to benefits, driving people out of their homes.

For my articles covering these policies, see here, here and here.

This shameful sleight of hand, which has failed to deliver any savings, also ignores how much of the benefits bill goes not to the unemployed but to the working poor, and, most disgracefully, how by far the biggest part of the welfare bill is for pensions — an area that governments, and particularly Tories, don’t want to touch, as old people vote, in significant numbers, and everyone in politics seems happy that the general movement of money is from the young to the old.

Throughout the last four years and four months, the Tories’ cynical assault on the welfare state has rarely foundered, in terms of public support, with one exception — the bedroom tax (introduced on April 1, 2013), a typically vengeful but poorly-conceived assault on the unemployed, requiring people in receipt of housing benefit but deemed to have a spare room to downsize to a smaller property if they cannot pay for their “spare room” or “spare rooms” at a cost of between £11 and £21 a week. Many people, of course, simply do not have this money to spare.

Beyond the horrors of a cabinet of millionaires deciding that people in social housing should not be entitled to a spare room, the implementation of the tax has been a disaster in practical terms, as there are very few smaller properties for people to move to, and, instead, people have in many cases had to leave the homes in which they have lived for decades and move to the private sector, where, of course, the costs are much higher.

In addition, many “spare rooms” are used by disabled people, for example, to store necessary medical equipment.

As the Guardian explained on Friday, “David Cameron’s authority received a damaging blow” when a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Andrew George, the Lib Dem MP for St. Ives, was voted through to a second reading by 306 votes to 231. As the Guardian also stated, “Seventy Conservative MPs ignored a three line whip and stayed away from Westminister,” and “Angie Bray, Tory MP for Ealing Central and Acton, voted against her party.”

In his bill, Andrew George has “proposed measures to exclude social housing tenants” from the bedroom tax “until they receive a ‘reasonable offer’ of alternative accommodation with the ‘correct number of bedrooms.'” An exemption would also be made “if a tenant needs an extra room for medical reasons or if the property has undergone substantial adaptations to help them live there.”

As the Guardian noted, despite the unpopularity of the bedroom tax, “Tory ministers have resisted frequent demands for the rules of the policy to be changed,” although the Lib Dems “abandoned full support for it earlier this year, insisting it was not working effectively and that changes should be made.”

Labour opposes the bedroom tax — and has pledged to scrap it. Chris Bryant, the shadow work and pensions minister, said on Friday that Labour “would support George’s bill but reiterated that the party wanted to scrap the bedroom tax should it win next year’s general election.” He added, “Some Government policies introduced since 2010 have been incompetent, and others, I believe, have been unfair, but this one manages to combine unfairness and incompetence to a phenomenal degree — quite a feat.”

Labour’s Rachel Reeves also “repeated her party’s calls for the entire policy to be scrapped,” as the Guardian put it. “David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s cruel and unfair bedroom tax has hit hundreds of thousands of people across the country causing misery, hardship and forcing families to rely on food banks,” she said.

Angie Bray, whose majority in west London is 3,716, told the Guardian that she “disagrees with claims from Tory ministers that changing the current policy would be costly.” She said, “I strongly believe that people should not be penalised in cases where they are agreeable to move but there is no suitable smaller accommodation for them to move to. Where people can demonstrate that they continue to seek to downsize but no suitable accommodation is available they should not then suffer financially as a result.”

Following the vote, Patrick Butler wrote that, although it is remains to be seen whether Andrew George’s bill “will make it through to the statute book,” the vote “means that the bill will now proceed to committee stage for further scrutiny, and potentially on to the Lords, keeping the issue high on the agenda for the next few months.”

Butler also noted that the bedroom tax “has always proved politically controversial,” causing “the first sign of trouble for ministers’ welfare strategy in December 2011 when the government was defeated in the Lords early on in the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill.” On that occasion, “13 Liberal Democrat peers (and one Tory, the late Lord Newton) voted to throw out the policy. Not a single cross-bencher supported it.”

He added that, early on, the government “crucially lost naming rights for this most high profile of policies: only ministers and civil servants, with arcane fastidiousness, still call the bedroom tax the Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy.”

He also stated:

Unlike the benefit cap, which seemed to crystallise wider perceptions of fairness in relation to the welfare state, the public has never been convinced the bedroom tax is just. Pollsters have consistently found it uniquely unpopular among welfare reforms, especially among Labour and UKIP voters, sometimes by a clear majority.

This was the background to Labour’s promise to scrap the bedroom tax, which, it could be said, is a promise that would not have been made had it not been so unpopular. Moreover, a few other Tory MPs have also “admitted to second thoughts,” as Patrick Butler put it, “including Anne McIntosh, Nadine Dorries, and recently, UKIP defector Douglas Carswell.”

As Butler also noted:

Grim tales of bedroom tax misery and despair meanwhile have piled up: disabled tenants forced to move out of homes which had been expensively adapted at taxpayer expense; parents receiving bedroom tax demands for the bedroom vacated by their dead child; once sought-after family homes lying empty because no-one wants to risk becoming subject to the bedroom tax; estranged fathers unable to afford the charge for the spare bedroom where their visiting children stayed at weekends.

In addition, the United Nations housing envoy Raquel Rolnik focused on the bedroom tax in a review of Britain’s housing policies last October. Shamefully, after she wrote about how disturbing it was to see how the bedroom tax was affecting “the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the people who are on the fringes of coping with everyday life,” senior Tories and the right-wing media attacked her.

However, the most powerful criticism in Patrick Butler’s article came from the Department for Work and Pensions’ own analysis of the policy, published in July, which “showed that it was not working well: a lack of alternative accommodation meant only 4.5% of tenants had been able to move to a smaller home, forcing thousands into dire ‘heat or eat’ financial hardship and debt.”

Butler also noted that, although ministers originally claimed the bedroom tax “would save £500m, by last November it had quietly revised this figure down to £400m.” Furthermore, councils and housing associations “say that by the time the costs of evictions, arrears and debt advice are factored in, the policy will save nothing.”

And as with so many Tory policies, while saving no money, this wretched policy nevertheless has so far managed not only to make numerous people leave their homes, for no purpose, but also to make numerous people’s financially marginal lives even more precarious, with all the horrendous stress that entails.

I thank Andrew George MP for his Private Member’s Bill, and wish it every success as it moves to a second reading. It is time the bedroom tax was consigned to the dustbin of history — to be followed, hopefully, by this entire wretched government.

What you can do now

You can see how your MP voted here (it’s under Division No. 47). Please email your MP (via “Write to Them”) to thank them if they voted for Andrew George’s bill and to encourage them to continue supporting it as it makes its way through Parliament, and to ask them to change their minds if they voted against it. There is also a campaign being run by 38 Degrees.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Mo D’oh wrote:

    yaaaaaaaaay 🙂

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s just the first stage, Mo D’oh, but it’s definitely encouraging.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Good Stuff, Andy. I will share this.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Much appreciated.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mo D’oh wrote, in response to 2, above:

    yes it is….. rooting for the poorer among us…

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Mo D’oh. Yes, the punishment of the poor has been so relentless in the UK for the last four years that it’s wonderful to have some good news.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mo D’oh wrote:

    austerity measures all over europe….. belgium escaped for a while when we didn’t have a gvt 🙂

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, there has been a huge amnesia over the last six years, Mo D’oh, since banks, with the backing of governments, crashed the global economy through their gigantic crimes. People, it seems, cannot comprehend what took place, and have reverted to a 1930s-style Depression scenario , in which we have no money, and immigrants, the poor, the ill, the unemployed and the disabled are blamed for everything. Here’s the Mirror on the successful creation of hatred towards those on benefits by the disgusting Tories:

    A YouGov survey shows:
    – Up to 212,000 have been physically attacked because they’re on benefits
    – 6% say their children have been bullied at school because the family gets state aid
    – 16% of claimants have been turned down for a home, and
    – 11% have even been shunned by their own families

    See: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/212000-people-beaten-up-being-4186370

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh, and Mo D’oh, I like how the answer is not to have a government!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Mo D’oh wrote:

    woooooow, those are hideous figures… resharing the article

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s what happens when cruel and unprincipled Tory politicians – and their PR guru, the vile Australian, Lynton Crosby – decide to play the hate card, Mo D’oh. And the Depression is not the only reminder of the ’30s. The hate crimes reported are reminiscent of how Hitler and the Nazis started.

  12. Bill Jones says...

    “Tory-led coalition government seized power in May 2010”

    Seized Power?

    Don’t overdo the hyperbole.

    Makes you look like a moron.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    It might make me look like I’m exaggerating, Bill, but a moron – I don’t think so. I think that’s your own bias.
    I also think, when you look at what both parties promised what to do and what not to do in their manifestos, and then look at what happened after they forged their alliance, which bore no relevance to what they had said and promised before, it is appropriate to describe that as a power grab. It had very little to do with what we’re told about the fairness of the democratic process.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy, I wish you great luck in the next phase. Those damned Tories (both here and there) need to be run out on a rail (we used to tar and feather them). The destruction of social services for the people at the behest of and benefit of the top .1% of the planet must never be tolerated.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that struggle is essential, Jan, my friend, but people are still slow to remember or to learn that it needs proper commitment on our part, involving both education and activism, and taking up some of our precious time. If people don’t make the time to fight for these things, they’ll be gone.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s 38 Degrees’ page about getting in touch with your MP to make sure they support Andrew George’s Private Member’s Bill as it gets a second reading: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/bedroom-tax-pledge-to-change-it

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Bill Anderson wrote:

    Oh my god, that is freaking medieval ! Maybe that’s what the Tories are aiming for….medieval tyranny

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I believe that the Tories genuinely want to roll back the whole of the welfare state, Bill, which would take us back to the mid-19th century at the very latest. But sure, why not earlier than that – the powdered wigs of the 17th century, or, as you say, the medieval period. Logically, that’s where they’re going.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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