The government has just lost a vote in the House of Commons on the ‘bedroom tax’/removal of the spare-room subsidy/underoccupancy penalty/Size Criteria for People Renting in the Social Rented Sector (the correct, if rather clunky, name). There was a three-line whip from the Tories on the vote, but the Lib Dems had decided they would support their colleague Andrew George’s bill to exempt those who cannot move to a smaller home, or who are disabled and live in an adapted property.
The Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons today, and passed 306 votes to 231. Jacob Rees-Mogg moved an amendment that the Bill should be considered by a select committee, in an attempt to slow it up, but it was also defeated.
It’s less interesting that the Coalition parties have voted in different ways on this Bill: we’ve got rather used to this by now. But what’s interesting is that the Liberal Democrats are quite happy to reinforce what is a Labour campaign. The party announced that it would repeal the ‘bedroom tax’ last year, partly because of pressure from the SNP, who were using it as a key plank of their independence campaign, and partly because it is the one cut that does not poll particularly well. Now Labour MPs are making it very clear that this Lib Dem Bill is just the first step in their campaign to repeal the whole cut. And the Lib Dems, by choosing to make support of George’s Bill an official line, are validating that Labour narrative.
As for the Conservatives, the way this cut has been handled has been an object lesson in how to lose an argument. The underoccupancy penalty is perfectly reasonable when the supply of social housing is extremely scarce and there are 241,000 overcrowded council and housing association properties. Overcrowded housing is a social injustice, and quite horrible to see: four children sleeping one tiny, mouldy room in a flat where there is no room for a table to write your homework at, or any space for a harried parent to get a minute’s peace.
But the cut apparently designed to remedy this (it’s worth remembering that this was announced in the 2010 emergency budget as a money-saving measure, rather than a key part of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms) was poorly designed. The changes that Andrew George is proposing do make sense, and had ministers incorporated them earlier, none of this fiasco would have occurred. It is perfectly reasonable to limit housing benefit to the number of rooms that someone needs in a social rented home – and this tallies perfectly with the end of tenancy for life in the social rented sector that the Coalition introduced when it came to power too. But it is unreasonable to tell tenants that they must move when there is nowhere for them to move, or when you have spent a sizeable amount of money adapting their home for their disability.
Ministers also failed to give the Size Criteria for People Renting in the Social Rented Sector a proper name. Removal of the spare room subsidy is not a proper name, either. And so this measure’s opponents were able to make it sound scary and unreasonable.