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LibDem U-turn on bedroom tax that came far too late

Pray silence for one D Alexander, prominent politician from Invernesshire, contemplating the Coalition's bedroom tax last November.

It was a "particularly unfair" element of welfare reform, he suggested. It penalised tenants and it penalised housing associations "for not being able to magic up a supply of smaller properties."

Lest anyone missed the point, he reminded us that government funding had been focused on providing homes with at least two bedrooms on his patch since that was what rural areas most needed.

Mr Alexander said all this and much more in his annual report as chairman of Lochaber Housing Association. Perhaps he sent his son a copy. If so, we must conclude that Danny Alexander is a slow reader. It took until this week for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and his party leader, that nice Nick Clegg, to conclude that the bedroom tax was one of the Coalition's more spectacular slow-motion car crashes.

Cue LibDem U-turn. The policy wasn't "working as well as we expected" said Alexander the Younger, demonstrating that, whatever else he hasn't mastered, understatement is definitely a strong suit. The LibDems changed their mind, says the Chancellor's mini-me, when this week's research showed there weren't enough small houses around.

But here's the thing: these figures were available from local authorities and housing associations when he helped his brothers-in-arms put this punitive legislation on the books. He either didn't look or didn't care. So cue, too, that battle-hardened chap General Consensus agreeing that this, like the PM's purge of the cabinet "moderates", was the precursor of a pre-election Coalition divorce.

The LibDems' conversion comes a little late for the many thousands of households cast into poverty, debt and anxiety by a scheme long on ideology and short on logic. Don't take my word for it. Consider this week's report from the Department for Work and Pensions, which introduced and promoted the tax.

It found, despite the threat of housing benefit cuts, under five per cent of tenants with a "spare" room had downsized; hardly surprising given the nationwide shortage of available one-bedroom accommodation. So a primary policy aim, to free up larger homes for overcrowded families, has been a dismal failure.

Another key aim, to cut a ballooning housing benefit bill, proved a classic case of firing at the wrong target. The steepest rises are down to avaricious landlords charging funny money, especially in London. Collateral damage has been added by London local authorities ethnically cleansing poorer families on benefits and shipping them off to cheaper housing hours away from family, friends and schooling. Unsurprisingly, the majority of tenants in the south have been pushed into debt as their housing benefit has been cut by between 14 and 25 per cent. Almost two-thirds have had to cut back on lifestyle fripperies like eating and staying warm.

Suffering at the sharp end of this assault on welfare have been the disabled, who simultaneously make up the largest proportion of bedroom tax victims and who are watching their disability allowances scaled back as they move to a new system. If you have a taste for black irony consider this: the discretionary housing payments vulnerable families can apply for are means tested and often won't go to folk in receipt of disability living allowance which takes them over the eligibility criteria; a double whammy that delivers a kick in the teeth.

There is an alarmingly tight margin between being able to participate in society as a disabled citizen and remaining housebound; not through physical incapacity but lack of enough support to live independently or make a contribution. While Scottish tenants have been afforded a degree of protection by money being provided by the Scottish Government to shore up benefits and avoid evictions, funds channeled into an expensive safety net means funds not available for other essential services.

On another front, NHS Scotland is casting fearful glances at its English counterparts where the privatisation of health provision continues apace. Why does this matter to us? Because our "pocket money" via the Barnett formula is based on a percentage of what goes to NHS England. The smaller the size of public provision in England as private companies ride in, the smaller the pot available to Scottish health budgets.

This week I listened as Belfast-born Ayrshire consultant Philippa Whitford spelled out what she saw as the disastrous unravelling of joined-up health care in England and the alarming impact on Scotland if we stay joined at the Treasury hip.

Another curiosity of this week's re-configuring of Coalition personnel and thinking was the fact that Iain Duncan Smith was again posted missing from the cabinet mortuary. You do wonder, in idle moments, just how many catastrophic policies he has to botch before he is fired.

I'm reading Matthew D'Ancona's book on the birth and early days of the Coalition. It provides a number of fascinating insights, not least that George Osborne had long considered Mr Duncan Smith to be a few cents short of the full Euro. His biggest big idea was a Universal Credit to help simplify a complex benefits system.

The deadlines for implementation have whizzed by with a speed Usain Bolt could only envy. To the now familiar litany of IT disasters and inter-departmental duplication we can add a prediction from The Economist.

Having done its sums with probably more care than Mr Duncan Smith, it predicts that, at current levels of progress, we can count on the credit coming fully on stream by 2614. Meanwhile, the Commons public accounts committee called the move to personal independence payments for the disabled, which left people waiting months for their money, a fiasco.

And the testing of people as fit and available for work proved such a disaster that the unloved Atos lost its contract after a shoal of successful appeals; among them, some from the terminally ill whom the company had deemed employment ready.

But Mr Duncan Smith is still there, unapologetic and in serial denial as his policy initiatives lie around his ankles. The saddest thing about the havoc he has wrought on the lives of thousands of innocent families is that he portrayed himself as a friend of the poor and needy, seeking only to free them from the benefit culture.

That there are areas of inter-generational unemployment is undeniable. So, too, is the fact that getting the long term unemployed into proper jobs is a complex business requiring commitment, imagination and targeted initiatives rather than the blunt instrument of sanctions that are being used with brutal ubiquity for trivial breaches of the jobseeking guidelines.

Perhaps Mr Duncan Smith would care to try keeping Job Centre appointments as a single parent whilst looking after three kids and fretting about eviction. He would find it a lot more instructive than a photo opportunity in Easterhouse.

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