At the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference recently, I asked three questions about the so called “bedroom tax”. I got a range of answers , although the one that saddened me the most mainly focused on whether the words “bedroom tax” were right.
The argument about whether the “over occupancy reduction” is a tax or not is frankly not the point.
I despair when I hear our Parliamentarians begin an answer by talking about word definition.
I studied philosophy so can argue about what words mean for ever, but in the real world, when families face losing substantial parts of their weekly budget, starting off by talking about semantics not only looks cold hearted, it is cold hearted.
Not everyone wants to be in a house that’s too big for them. When I was a Parliamentary Candidate I used to get letters from people complaining about a lack of smaller properties to move into.
And there’s the problem. If there are no smaller properties, what do you do?
If you’ve just managed to get a part time job near home so you can also pick up the children from school, the option to move to another town isn’t there. Single people like me, with few obligations, are free to move for work reasons or financial reasons or just for a change of scene. But for families with children in school and all sorts of arrangements around work, and shifts, it’s simply not a real option.
People in social housing have either made decisions or had them made for them. They may have waited a long time for a home, or been housed very quickly. But however it happened, decisions were made. They were based on what was available, what was needed and what might be needed in future.
The bedroom tax however creates a situation in which the Government asks people to make a decision that they can’t make and then penalises them for not making it. If there are no smaller homes available in my area I simply can’t decide to move into one of them.
So, it’s not possible to move. What other options does the Government want me to explore?
I could get a lodger. Yes for some people that will be a good idea. I have had lodgers when I have been short of money and it can work. But it’s not the answer for everyone and most families will have reasons not to do this.
I could earn a bit more money. This is certainly what Steve Webb expects people to do. And logically if I need to spend more I need to earn more.I have certainly had second jobs when I had financial problems. But the people hit hardest by the bedroom tax are the very group for whom this will be most difficult. I doubt any of our MPs have actually tried getting extra paid hours from an employer on a regular basis. It’s actually extremely difficult unless you have no other restrictions in your life.
So at the end of the day the only option left is simply to have less money.
You can’t downsize because there’s nowhere to go, you can’t earn more because the jobs are not there.
And this is the sense in which it’s fair to say the bedroom tax is not a tax. In fact it’s a fine, a fine for being poor.
Now obviously when there is a housing shortage under occupancy is not something that can be ignored. And a scheme which came in very slowly and which had real incentives and real choices could well have worked.
But what we have here is a sudden (and it is sudden) pulling of the rug out from under people’s feet.
And the Government sort of knows it’s not going to work because otherwise why is there a fund to deal with problems and why are there (welcome) exemptions at the 11 th hour
I believe the Liberal Democrats in Government should have stopped this. I may be being unfair. We don’t always hear about the behind the scenes arguments and it may well be that this was a row we lost.
But even if we did fight and lose, it is not our job to defend this piece of retrospective punishment.
Nick Clegg has done well on some issues to distinguish what we believe as Lib Dems from what the Government is doing. Surely he needs to come out and do the same for this.
After all we exist to build a fair, free and open society in which no one is…. enslaved by poverty.
Paula Keaveney is a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council and a former Leader of the Lib Dem Group on Liverpool City Council.