The political row over the changes to housing benefit, labelled the ‘bedroom tax’ by opponents, intensified this evening. In an open letter to the Labour leader (reproduced below), Iain Duncan Smith accuses Miliband of ‘a pathetic exercise in political point scoring and scare mongering’.

In the feisty letter, Duncan Smith argues that the taxpayer is currently paying for close to a million spare rooms. He argues that taxpayers ‘should not be paying for what is effectively a benefit subsidy for empty rooms’. He also takes issue with the personal case stories that Labour are using. He alleges that Miliband is seemingly unconcerned about ‘children having to stand to do their homework and others sharing bedrooms with their parents and baby siblings’, arguing that their plight is a consequence of the inefficient use of social housing stock.

This row is only going to intensify as we get nearer to the introduction of these changes in April. Both sides reckon that they have the better case. Labour feel that the personal stories brought out by this policy could move public opinion on the fairness of welfare cuts and that they can persuade voters that the changes will be self-defeating if they result in claimants moving into more expensive accommodation in the private rented sector. While the Tories — who have carried the public with them on welfare reform so far — are confident that this argument is winnable, and that the public don’t believe they should be paying for housing benefit claimants to have more rooms than strictly necessary.

Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP

House of Commons

London

SW1A 0AA

February 2013

Dear Ed,

We would both agree that social housing is invaluable for the hundreds of thousands people in the United Kingdom who need help and support in getting accommodation.

With 2 million households in England on housing waiting lists and 250,000 families living in over-crowded accommodation, I am sure you would agree the need to tackle the issue is pressing and deserves to be debated in Parliament.

But what we saw from you at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday was not an attempt to engage in a constructive discussion on how to address the problem of helping people find suitable housing, rather it appeared to be a pathetic exercise in political point scoring and scare mongering that does not help one single person, child or parent move any closer to having the home they need.

Your description of this as a ‘bedroom tax’ says more about your lack of understanding of how Housing Benefit works than anything else. This government is restoring fairness to a welfare system that was left in dire straits following thirteen years of Labour Government. One of the many steps we are taking is bringing housing benefit and social housing back into line with the private sector, so you only receive a payment for the number of rooms you need.

The truth is that after years under the last Labour Government, where this problem was allowed to grow out of control, it is the Coalition Government that has decided something must be done. You should know that local authority housing waiting lists rose from 1 million in April 1997 to 1.8million in April 2010. You should also know that by April 2010, house building in this country had fallen to its lowest peacetime levels since the 1920s, with the number of social rented housing stock falling by 421,000 units from 1997 to 2010. These are problems that we are having to deal with in government and try our best to resolve. To do that we have invested £19.5billion in affordable housing and will deliver 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015.

Given the last government, of which you were a member, failed comprehensively to deal with the housing problem, I would have thought you would have been the last to criticise what we are doing to alleviate the crisis you left behind. Nearly one third of working age social housing tenants on Housing Benefits are living in accommodation that is too big for their needs. That equates to nearly a million spare rooms currently being paid for by taxpayer and denying hundreds of thousands of people the chance to adequately house their family.

I am sure you would agree that every family deserves the chance to be housed comfortably. I would hope that you would also agree that the hard working tax payer who has to make tough choices of their own about what sort of property they can afford to live in, should not be paying for what is effectively a benefit subsidy for empty rooms.

At no time in the last 2 years and 9 months have you explained how you would deliver your 2010 manifesto commitment which stated very clearly that Housing Benefit would be “reformed to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford.” Your colleague, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Liam Byrne MP as forced to admit last year that the cost of Housing Benefit – at £20billion a year – was too high and you admitted last year that Labour in Government “didn’t do enough” on housing and that you “don’t have a solution for this”.

However, despite this admission, you sought to play politics with this issue. Yesterday, you referenced two cases of vulnerable people without making any mention of the fact this government has made £155million available to Local Authorities through Discretionary Housing Payments so that those very people you speak about can be helped make any adjustment necessary.

The use of individual case studies may provide political sound bites, but I must tell you that in every local community there are case studies about children having to stand to do their homework and others sharing bedrooms with their parents and baby siblings. You seem to have failed to be concerned about their plight, caused by the last Labour government’s housing failings which we are now trying to rectify.

The changes we are making are ensuring that our social housing stock is used as evenly as it can be so as many people as possible can access this invaluable resource.

I remind you that the Labour government you were part of, left us with a housing benefit bill which almost doubled in 10 years to £20billion and under your own forecasts would have risen to over £25billion by 2014-15, as well as over-crowded housing and an appallingly low level of house building. Not a legacy I would have thought you would have wanted reminding of.

Yours,

Iain

Tags: Ed Miliband, Iain Duncan Smith, UK politics, Welfare