With the eyes of the world riveted on Wales and the NATO summit currently underway there, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing more important than deciding who is next in line to get shot at. The conflicts in Ukraine and across the Middle East are bloody and complicated, but today marks a significant step forward in a long-running conflict within the House of Commons.
One of the most contentious changes made by the Coalition government as part of it’s Austerity measures was a number of changes to how housing benefit was assessed. Popularly known as The Bedroom Tax, people deemed to have more than one bedroom began to have deductions made from the help that they were receiving on low income to help pay for their rent. The move was generally intended to try and level the ground between those paying rent to local authorities and those renting from the private market, but it has largely impacted the disabled, the sick and families on very low income with very little flexibility in their budgets to start with. It is hugely unpopular, even among a raft of unpopular measures, with the policy being blamed for suicides, homelessness and a backlog of court cases.
Those who were penalised under the scheme did have some leeway to apply for extra discretionary funds to try and make up some of the distance, but the practical experience of many has been that this has been very difficult to achieve. While the general response has been to urge people in these circumstances to look for smaller housing, the housing shortage across the UK has made this next to impossible to achieve within social housing. Many have then had no recourse but to look to the more expensive private sector, and found that the payments then leave them with even bigger gaps in their budgets. It should come as no surprise to hear that evictions have been a growth sector ever since. Some estimates in the last year or so have come to the conclusion that these policies have actually ended up costing more than they were intended to save, and that they are purely ideologically motivated.
The upet today is that the Affordable Homes Bill has passed it’s second reading, with Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs winning the vote by 306 votes to 231. A private members bill brought by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, it would normally have been seen as not having much of a chance, but MPs turned out in force for this important and popular issue in the face of concerted Conservative opposition. In addition, the bill was given extra time because Mr George came top of an annual ballot of backbenchers.
Labour had initially indicated that they would not support the Bill given the Liberal Democrats’ involvement in bringing the original legislation in, but Andrew George – who voted against the benefit changes – won people round by telling MPs that he was proposing reasonable changes based on readily available evidence to make the existing policies fairer.
The meat of the new proposals tweaks the existing legislation to guarantee that people who cannot find a smaller home would be exempt, as would disabled people who needed the spare bedroom for partners, carers or equipment, or who had adapted their homes. The Bill will now move to the Committee stage to undergo detailed costing and scrutiny, so there’s still a way to go.
In the meantime, Labour have already made the abolishment of the “Bedroom Tax” a target for their next government, if they can manage to win the elections in 2015. With their current performance, this may be something of a big ask, but it’s not like there aren’t enough low-hanging fruit to put in their manifesto at the moment.