Bid to scrap bedroom tax to get second Commons reading

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A Labour MP's bill calling for the bedroom tax to be scrapped will get a second reading after successfully passing its first hurdle.

Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery (pictured) yesterday introduced a 10-minute bill on scrapping the controversial under-occupation penalty, which was backed by 226 votes to one.

During the debate, Conservative Party whips were in the lobby telling MPs not to vote.

Although the 'Housing Benefit and Universal Credit in the Social Housing Sector (Regular Payments)' bill is unlikely to be passed into law, it has given MPs a further chance to air their views on the bedroom tax policy.

Introducing the bill, Ian Lavery said: "I would hope that my bill would receive support from members in all parties. It is an olive branch for those who, perhaps wrongly, underestimated the real consequences of walking through the government lobby to support the introduction of the bedroom tax.

"Perhaps I am being too generous in saying that, but the alternative—that those who supported the introduction of the bedroom tax knew fully of the dire consequences it would have on those affected—quite frankly beggars belief.

"Make no mistake about it, the full and sole intention of this bill is to sweep away the dreaded bedroom tax. It seeks to restore justice for up to 660,000 people—some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, two thirds of whom are disabled.

"They have been inhumanely let down by the government's reforms to housing benefit in the social sector. The tax has caused heartache and devastation to thousands of residents up and down this country. It is a tax whose forced implementation has put extreme pressure on councils, housing associations and social landlords. It is a tax that has put extreme pressure on the ordinary working people who are forced to deal with those unable to move and those unable to pay.

"On the introduction of the tax, ministers argued that the changes would encourage people to downsize to smaller properties and, in doing so, help to cut the £23 billion annual bill for housing benefit; would free up living space for overcrowded families; and would encourage people to get jobs. Significantly, it has achieved none of those objectives. At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions has trumpeted the measure as, 'returning fairness to housing benefit'. The words 'fairness' and 'bedroom tax' should not be uttered in the same sentence.

Lavery added that the bedroom tax was a "problem in every constituency up and down the country".

He went on: "I was contacted only last week by a distraught resident from the Tory shires who is hoping that my bill will be successful, because he, a disabled man, is living in a three-bedroom property and has just received an eviction notice for bedroom tax arrears. He is not alone. The bedroom tax sufferers in Liberal Democrat and Tory constituencies number around 250,000. Perhaps we should ask them whether they think this abominable tax has restored fairness to housing benefit.

"My bill seeks to restore fairness and to end the misery that the bedroom tax has caused. There are hundreds if not thousands of appalling examples of suffering. There was the mother of two who suffered a crippling illness. She committed suicide after realising that she could not pay the bedroom tax. Her family received correspondence later saying that she should have been exempt from paying the tax."

Lavery cited several cases in which the bedroom tax threatened to devastate people's lives.

"A widow, aged 59, pleaded with the prime minister not to force her to move. Her husband’s ashes had been buried in the garden under the rose bushes that she had been given by her friends at the funeral. She did not have a disability or health problems, but this was a family home for goodness’ sake, and that means something. A home is where people bring up their children and cry tears of joy. In this case, there were many tears of sadness when the husband unfortunately passed away.

"This next case is hard to comprehend; it really is difficult to try to get to grips with. The family of the 1999 child of courage who spent years battling multiple cancers is suffering at the hands of this horrible reform. These people are not living a life of luxury in palatial properties; they are living in a place in which they feel safe and which they call home.

"It is time to listen. I am sure that most fair-minded individuals would agree that a bedroom is not spare when carers sleep in it, when couples use it because one of them has health problems and they cannot share a bed, or when it houses vital medical equipment, yet this indiscriminate tax deems it so.

"The reality is that yet another measure introduced by this government is in total and utter chaos. It lies in tatters, with the victims left to pick up the pieces. As thousands suffer, there is a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. The National Housing Federation has said that the savings claimed by the government are 'highly questionable', partly because those who are forced to move to the private rented sector will end up costing more in housing benefit.

"Surely, as politicians and members of the general public, we are entitled to question the motives behind the introduction of the bedroom tax. The tax does not deal with the problem of under-occupation. In fact, the government’s costings on the yield raised from the bedroom tax explicitly assume that people will not move into smaller properties. There are simply not enough smaller properties for people to move into.

"Some 180,000 households were deemed to be under-occupying two-bedroom homes, yet only 85,000 one-bedroom homes became available during the whole of 2012. The savings projections of the Department for Work and Pensions assume that not one of the 660,000 households affected would respond to the policy by moving to a smaller home. Put simply, this is yet another example of the government balancing the books on the backs of the disabled and the vulnerable. The tax must be scrapped now.

"Housing associations say that tens of millions of pounds are likely to be lost through the build-up of arrears. Reports this morning estimate that 144,000 people have fallen behind with their rents since the introduction of the bedroom tax and that 14% have received eviction notices. Was that really meant to happen? Was this eviction of the poor really the plan of the government?

"In October, research by the University of York, which was based on data by the housing associations that have tenants affected by the bedroom tax, suggested that the policy could save up to 39% less than the DWP had predicted. In the past week, it has emerged that more than half of the £500 million that the government claim will be saved by the hated tax will be spent on re-housing disabled people. These are vulnerable people who already live in properties that have been adapted for their needs and who have built up local support networks with their friends, family and neighbours. The future for them lies in communities that are unknown and foreign to them. They have been cast out like the proverbial dog in the night.

Lavery also referred to the DWP's recent attempt to "mop up the mistakes" after the pre-1996 exemption fiasco.

"In the past months, it has emerged that a loophole in policy exempts thousands of people. It is suggested that that loophole has been closed. As ministers scramble to mop up the mistakes, another challenge to the hated tax has arisen. A judge has overturned the tax in the case of a Rochdale man who argued that one of his bedrooms was used as a dining room. The appeal was upheld on the basis that the dictionary definition of a bedroom is a room that contains a bed that is used for sleeping in. An avalanche of appeals is on its way.

"I am proud to see that, only last week, the Scottish Labour party shamed the Scottish National party into abolishing the bedroom tax. I must put it on the record that I am also proud that one of the first acts of a future Labour government will be to end this full frontal attack on the vulnerable. However, we cannot afford to wait until the general election of 2015. I urge the supporters of this tax to think again. The question is this: are they happy to see the misery and social disruption of the vulnerable and disabled?

"I began this speech by expressing the view that those who voted in favour of introducing this dreaded bedroom tax may have underestimated the human suffering that it would cause. That is no longer in any doubt, so I urge them all to do the honourable thing and support my bill."

The bill's second reading is due to take place on February 28.