Tag Archives: Conservatives

The ‘Bedroom Tax’ narrative is damaging legitimate concerns

If there is one word likely to spark the indignation of voters across the political spectrum then it is tax. The Right tend to loathe it universally and the Left love it, but only when it’s used to punish the people they don’t like and loathe it when it’s applied, apparently unfairly, on the least well off. It is no great surprise then that the new under-occupation housing benefit reduction measures contained within the Welfare Reform Act (2012) and due to come in to force in April have been given the moniker ‘Bedroom Tax’. Granted, this is a lot more catchy and a guaranteed headline grabber and convenient hashtag and has been seized upon by Labour supporters, councillors and Members of Parliament with gusto. Unfortunately it is also misleading, and deliberately so.

A tax and a benefit cut are fundamentally different things. A tax is levied by the government on income or a product, for example. It is a new contribution to the coffers of the Exchequer. A benefit cut is a reduction in the amount of money that leaves the Exchequer’s coffers and makes its way to the pockets of citizens. Both are politically as well as economically motivated. Both are potentially contentious. Both are also very different things. The number of Labour MPs, people who wish to form the next Government, who do not know the difference between the two is startling. Either that or they are shamelessly and damagingly misleading the public for personal and political gain.

The facts, which are so infrequently reported, are as follows-

  • If a tenant has one more bedroom than they need, they will lose 14% of their housing benefit.
  • If a tenant has two more bedrooms than they need, they will lose 25% of their housing benefit.
  • This brings the public rental sector in line with the private rental sector.

In principle, I agree with the Coalition’s decision not to give housing benefit to council and housing association tenants where they are under occupying a house which is already state subsidised. It surely sends out the welcome long-term message that the state, whilst continuing to provide housing for those who need it, will no longer subsidise people’s luxuries because, yes, having a spare room is a luxury. It is something many people in the private sector could only dream of. Others may disagree. There may be those who believe that this is completely justified and that is, of course, their prerogative, providing they justify it using the facts.

Despite my broad support for the proposals, however, there are concerns. Firstly, there is the real and legitimate concern about how people are going to cope when their monthly incomings are reduced through this reduction, however ‘undeserving’ they may be deemed to be.

There are also problems with the fact that families who foster will be hit by this because foster children are not counted in the household for benefit purposes. This is surely a fundamental error in our benefits system and may potentially put people off giving this vital lifeline to vulnerable children. This is an integral issue with the system that is massively underpublicised and should be addressed by opponents and supporters of the changes alike.

There is, too, the broadly publicised and emotionally raw issue of the mother whose two sons are fighting for their country in Afghanistan and who will see her income suffer for keeping their bedrooms for when they return from active service. This is another legitimate area of concern in a bill which, whilst fundamentally necessary and fair, is flawed in certain areas.

Finally, there is the serious issue of a shortage of affordable and flexible housing and this, above all others, should be the main talking point to come out of this debate.

Instead of addressing these particular issues, however, the Opposition have branded it a ‘Tory tax on the poor’ and this is the line dominating the narrative surrounding it. It sets both sides in position in a toxic debate of which there can come no constructive good. Supporters of the bill argue that they’re curbing benefits for the undeserving, cleaning up Labour’s economic mess and attacking shirkers with a culture of entitlement. Opponents attack the immorality of the Conservative Party and wheel out hyperbolic arguments about Coalition hatred for the poor. Neither standpoint is constructive. Neither will solve the inherent issues.

Constructive opposition and effective scrutiny from opposing and Government benches is an integral part of a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the way the Labour Party have gone about attacking this section of the Act is entirely the opposite. Labour MPs are tweeting with glee about door-knocking and raising the issue of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ with constituents. Frightening the public with a false narrative to score political points is something which all three parties have done in the past, some more than others. It is also entirely despicable and the Labour Party should be ashamed of themselves on this.

Labour has a strong and laudable tradition for standing up for the lower-paid, the public sector and those who need help. It is a tradition of which they should be justly proud having established things like the NHS and the Minimum Wage. What they are doing in the way they are approaching this issue, however, betrays that tradition and what they are supposed to stand for. Hyperbole does not hold anyone to account. It does not force ministers to justify their Bill or debate the finer points of it. It will not lead to changes or understanding but to fear and points scoring. It devalues the principles of the party and the democratic point of opposition. The way that Labour are approaching only proves this- that they have no credible alternatives, that they do not focus on addressing the issues that really matter and they cannot form a credible government should they be called upon to do so.

There are issues with welfare reform and these issues need to be addressed but labelling it a tax and ignoring the facts damages the cause of those who are legitimately concerned.

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He could have gone further but Gove’s education message is a step in the right direction.

As a trainee teacher in the academic year 2012-13, I watched with interest the statement given to the House of Commons this morning by the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  He is absolutely right to say that the examination system in state secondary schools in this country is in need of overhaul. He is right to say that the most academic pupils are not pushed to achieve their potential and that their less academic peers are languishing with a false sense of achievement having been failed by an ‘everyone must pass everything’ culture which has led to the degradation of the respectability of our secondary qualifications.

He is absolutely right that something must be done. GCSEs are broadly seen by employers as too easy, often irrelevant and nowhere near rigorous enough to be a true measure of a pupil’s attainment. When the standard we place upon young people to enter further education, be that Sixth Form or vocational college, is often no more than five GCSEs at grade C or above and these can include such ‘subjects’ as Travel and Tourism and Health and Social Care, it is little wonder that GCSEs are belittled and seen as worthless by many. Failure to reform a system engineered to ensure the highest level of results and not the highest level of attainment would equate to failing the next generation of secondary school pupils. It fails those with strong academic potential in not recognising that which should be vigorously cultivated and it fails those who would be much better suited to well-funded, well-taught vocational qualifications by failing to offer precisely that.

There is nothing regressive or divisive about saying that a qualification in Maths, English or Geography should be taught differently to and separate from qualifications in Leisure and Tourism, Hospitality or Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies. Lumping such wildly differing qualifications together under the same umbrella benefits neither and fails both. The left-wing opposition to Mr Gove’s plans disgracefully assumes that vocational subjects are automatically of lesser value to academic ones. This is not what the Government is saying and it is typical of the kind of one-size-fits-all approach to education which has seen this country’s global standing slide dramatically over the last decade. What opponents of reform must understand is that differences are not automatically divisions, they are marks of diversity, something the education system in this country is sorely lacking.

Every child should reach sixteen with good levels of literacy and numeracy and a broad understanding of general scientific principles. That much must not, and will not, change. Beyond these core subjects, however, there is opportunity to push for higher levels of attainment across a vast range of subjects. The new ‘O Level’-style academic qualification can be taught more rigorously, across a broader curriculum to challenge those pupils electing to take it. These pupils will be those who are interested in pursuing the subject in more depth and they will no longer be held back by a teacher having to cater to the lowest common denominator. What it will also mean is that pupils who have no interest at all in an in-depth study of say Geography will not be forced into spending two-years wasting their own and everyone else’s time working, or not, towards an exam everyone realistically knows they are going to fail and which will do them no palpable good whatsoever. This is the reality in schools up and down the country and it fails everyone.

A new, more vocational qualification taught by excellent teachers with good, well-funded resources is a viable and necessary alternative to this production line of low-achievement and valueless qualifications. These courses would not be ‘second class’ as opponents of diversity, individuality and change would have us believe but would be taught to the same high standard and would expect the same level of hard work, motivation and attainment as their academic counterparts. Just as a top-quality History course in Years 10 and 11 will prepare pupils for A Level and undergraduate study, a top-quality Motor Vehicle course, coupled with ‘CSE’-style qualifications for breadth, would prepare the pupils taking it for college or apprenticeships, giving them a grounding that is sorely lacking under the current system. One size does not fit all and we should stop the pretence that it does. GCSEs have lost all their value as a result of this approach so a change is necessary.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Gove’s reforms will incorporate these elements and there are certainly legitimate concerns about having one exam board for each subject but the thinking is correct and it is a step in the right direction. If the Government wanted to truly drive up standards and improve the system then they would champion selective secondary education in the form of the reintroduction of grammar schools. Until then, however, this is a broadly positive move.