By Alex Stevenson of Politics.co.uk
Ministers have vowed to press ahead with their ‘bedroom tax’ on under-occupied council housing, after yet another government defeat in the Lords.
Peers voted by a majority of ten in favour of independent crossbencher Richard Best’s amendment to proposals to strip housing benefit claimants of £14 a week if they have a spare room.
The Lords had originally backed an amendment postponing the housing benefit cut until an offer of alternative accommodation had been refused.
But the government, which expects 85% of those affected will not be able to move elsewhere because of a shortage of housing, restored the measure – dubbed a ‘bedroom tax’ by campaigners – in the Commons.
Lord Best sought to reduce the cost of the measure to £100 million by limiting the claimants eligible for the postponed cut to vulnerable groups, including the disabled, those not required to work, war widows and foster carers.
He told peers: “Even though this amended, amended amendment is now providing much less relief than I feel the situation requires, it nevertheless draws a line by mitigating at least some of the hardship for at least some of those on the lowest incomes, and now exclusively for those who are not in a position to go out to work because they act as carers or are disabled themselves.”
Welfare reform minister David Freud responded by acknowledging that the government did not expect all of the 670,000 affected people to move house. He said claimants had a number of options to try to “make up any shortfall and stay where they are”.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is seeking to cut £2 billion from the housing benefit bill. Lord Freud added: “We are trying to sort out our budget deficit, and we need to make sure that we spread that load right across society in as fair a way as we possibly can.”
But he and other ministers faced accusations of “dishonesty” from Labour peer Patricia Hollis of Heigham, after officials acknowledged that 85% of those affected would have to stay put as they have nowhere to move to.
“The government are publicly requiring people to downsize and then, knowing that the stock is not there, they hope and expect that people will ignore what the government are telling them to do – otherwise they will not make the savings,” she said.
“The government are calling for one outcome but want people to do the exact opposite. We are asking the House not to collude in that false choice.”
John Richard Packer, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds responsible for an earlier government defeat, offered his support to the rebels by warning of “the danger sometimes that, amid the plethora of words, we will cease to be moved by the situation of and the fear felt by those who will suffer because of elements of the bill”.
Lord Best rejected Lord Freud’s plea to abandon his amendment. Six Liberal Democrat peers rebelled against the government to help defeat ministers by 236 votes to 226.
The government is determined to force through its ‘bedroom tax’ changes in full when the bill returns to the Commons once more.
“The House of Commons has made its position clear on amendments which would result in additional spending, and the Government will seek to overturn the size criteria amendment when the Bill returns for further consideration by the Commons,” a DWP spokesperson said.
“The majority of the public agree with the Government’s welfare reforms and we look forward to delivering on these radical proposals that will make our welfare system better and fairer.”