Rebelling Against the Bedroom Tax

by Ken Gibb

Yesterday, a private member’s bill seeking to moderate and largely neuter the worst aspects of the bedroom tax won its vote as a result both of the Lib Dems siding with Labour and a large number of Tory MPs ignoring a three line whip (the vote went 306 to 231).

The ‘Affordable Housing’ bill, sponsored by Andrew George MP, would, if enacted, excuse working age social renting households from a cut in their housing benefit if it is not possible for them to be found a smaller property. Disabled households could be exempt also if their condition required a spare room or an adaptation.

Is this the beginning of the end for the spare room subsidy? It is apparent that the policy lacks legitimacy on many quarters, be that the devolved governments (it remains a totemic symbol in the referendum debate), the housing and welfare professions, the media and now, it seems, even among a sizeable number of Conservative MPs, let along their coalition partners.

While the Bill may not actually make it through to law, it can certainly do further political damage to the policy. As I argue below, the actual proposals are not without their own practical difficulties but I think this is all best seen as part of an inevitable process towards the eventual scrapping and drawing a line under a classic policy blunder or failure. I find it hard to believe that the bedroom tax will be with us in its current form a few months after the UK general election, if not sooner.

However, before we hang out the bunting let it not be forgotten that much of the rest of the welfare reform package is likely to be implemented. There remains a high degree of consensus across the main parties around the introduction of a Universal Credit, tying Housing Benefit into that Universal Credit and thereby ending direct payments, the caps on household and aggregate benefits, the work test issues surrounding different benefits and the punitive sanctions regime. As I have argued before the impact of the bedroom tax in comparison is relatively small.

Perhaps we should not make too much of this Parliamentary vote – it also reflects the dog days of the Coalition and I daresay a fair bit of pre-election positioning and the strange current politics of the Conservative party facing the Clacton by-election. Nonetheless, one cannot but feel that within internal party discussions regarding the bedroom tax, and all the flak following successive damning evidenced evaluations, only the most blinkered would not like to remove the problem once and for all. Many of the various forms of human error and systematic failure described colourfully in The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (and more systematically set out by Peter Schuck in the excellent Why Our Governments Fail) are there to be found in this unnecessary and self-inflicted policy wound.

One final thing we must learn from the past year and a half of the spare room subsidy is that well-intentioned plans to reform the cuts still require to be designed and implemented very carefully. How will disability be defined; how will adaptations be defined and measured; how will inability to downsize be systematically identified (and over what time period)? It is the move from abstract objective to practical operationalisation where things go wrong with hasty or ill-considered legislation. Should this become law, let’s not compound existing mistakes.