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.