At the Liberal Democrat Conference a few weeks ago in Glasgow there were many important debates on taxation, the environment, nuclear weapons and most notably of all, on the economy. The Social Liberal Forum in particular argued passionately to amend the economy motion. Perhaps, the most important progressive highlight for social liberals was the housing benefit debate. The Conference passed a strongly worded motion attacking the government’s dreaded bedroom tax (also known as the spare-room subsidy cut) and called for a radical reform of it.
The bedroom tax is easily the most disgraceful of all the government’s welfare reforms. It results in social housing tenants losing 14% of their housing benefit for one spare room; and losing 25% of their housing benefit if they have two or more spare rooms. These cuts force tenants in social housing to downsize to a smaller property or risk eviction by forcing them into arrears if their housing benefit no longer covers the rent. The use of the Discretionary Housing Fund to mitigate some of the effects of the cuts to housing benefits is welcome; however much more still needs to be done. Many vulnerable people are still impacted by the bedroom tax such as the poor and the disabled and it is actively reducing their living standards. A recent survey showed that 9 out of 10 of those disabled people hardest hit by the bedroom tax are having to cut back on food or paying their bills. The bedroom tax is an utterly heartless policy and it is the most regressive policy since Thatcher’s poll tax. The Liberal Democrats in the government must not turn a blind eye to the injustices created by the bedroom tax.
How can the Liberal Democrats, a party of the centre-left endorse the current policy? The party’s social liberal forefathers, David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge would be turning in their graves to see their party endorse a policy like the bedroom tax. The answer that John Maynard Keynes would have had to solve the high demand for houses would have been to build more houses and stimulate the construction industry. William Beveridge sought to overcome the five giant evils of squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease. It is in this spirit, that Liberal Democrats are committed to ensuring that . Far from freeing people enslaved by poverty, the bedroom tax is entrenching poverty.
I did not join the Liberal Democrats to make poor and disabled people live in economic hardship, or make them fearful of losing their homes!
The Conservatives in particular support the bedroom tax seeing it as a means to tackle the deficit. The bedroom tax will save £500 million compare that with the potential of raising £2 billion, four times that amount from the mansion tax. That shows all too clearly the priorities of the Tories; make the poor fearful of eviction while avoiding taxing the mansions of the wealthy. On the other hand, the Labour Party has to acknowledge that it introduced a bedroom tax for private rented houses when it was last in government. Furthermore, successive Labour and Conservative governments have utterly failed to build enough houses in this country. The job of the Liberal Democrats, especially the social liberals within the party, is to campaign for more houses to be build and to shield the most vulnerable in society from the hardship of the bedroom tax.
Following the overwhelming vote from the party conference, the Liberal Democrats within the Coalition now have a mandate to overhaul the bedroom tax. Firstly, there must be an immediate impact assessment on how the bedroom tax affects vulnerable tenants in both social and private rented housing. Furthermore the government needs to assess the cost of the policy and the extent to which smaller properties are available. It is fundamental that that the housing needs guidelines are redrafted. This should be achieved in consultation with those representing vulnerable groups such as the poor, the disabled, the elderly and children. In particular the Liberal Democrats must ensure that any household where someone lives with a severe disability is exempted from the bedroom tax. Liberal Democrats must seek to increase the amount of money allocated to local councils for the Discretionary Housing Fund. It is vital that the momentum to introduce a mansion tax is kept up, in order to shift the burden of austerity from the poor to the wealthy.
The Liberal Democrat leadership should listen to the words of those who spoke during the passionate debate on the bedroom tax during the party conference. The bedroom tax needs a radical overhaul. The Liberal Democrats must not forget their historic commitment to social justice and must always stand up for the most vulnerable in society. How can any party hope to create a “fairer society” while defending the current injustice of the bedroom tax?