Leaders: Welfare reform required as cost rises

Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith. Picture: Getty
Work and Pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith. Picture: Getty
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IN BARELY a month, the row over the “bedroom tax” has escalated into a major political flashpoint. The campaign against the proposal to reduce what the government calls the “spare room subsidy” to release more multiple bedroom homes for larger families trapped in inadequate council accommodation has provided a focus and a rallying point for opposition to welfare cuts in general.

Thousands across the UK have already taken part in demonstrations against the proposed changes to the housing benefit system.

Taken out of the fevered political context, the measure has a core appeal to common sense. For all the protests about government austerity, the UK’s welfare bill continues to rise. Most benefit payments are still rising. Yet our debt burden grows ever heavier and the need for councils to make best use of available accommodation is compelling. Every effort must be made to save costs where possible and to ensure resources are directed to help those most in need. Here the proposed change to housing benefit seeks to pursue a fundamental principle of fairness in helping those with larger families currently trapped in inadequate housing.

But not for the first time, the government has found itself rushing into a welfare reform on the basis of poor research and with little analysis undertaken on how councils could cope with the consequences. For example, the measure should not have been unveiled without prior protection for pensioners, members of the armed forces, and those with disabilities. Instead, the government has found itself having to concede these in the face of a tide of protest – a self-inflicted defeat.

Similarly, very little was done to highlight the plight of struggling families who have found themselves waiting for years in overcrowded accommodation and whose situation deserves every sympathy. The government proceeded as if the social case for this reform was self-evident. When resources are scarce as now, the case has to be made, clearly and with conviction.

Vocal though opposition to the “bedroom tax” has become, it is not clear how opponents would find alternative ways to fund the provision of larger council accommodation. But this point is lost in party point-scoring. Labour has renewed its calls for SNP ministers to divert funding to tenants in accommodation deemed too large for their needs while the SNP has countered by asking why Labour will not pledge to avoid homelessness as a result of the change.

Lip service is paid to the need for welfare reform. But as Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has admitted, such has been the reluctance of the Liberal Democrats to undertake reform, and the opposition that existing changes have aroused, that the reform programme can make little further headway. But as the welfare bill keeps rising, and reform is not undertaken, the debt burden becomes an ever-growing constraint – both on the existing administration and its successors.

Sensible suggestion to start BST earlier

SO SEVERE has been the weather that the well-trodden arguments over moving clocks forward an hour for the start of British Summer Time have seemed irrelevant this year. Freezing temperatures tempt us to stay in bed longer in the mornings while cold and bitter winds will have deterred all but the most intrepid to appreciate the extra daylight in the evenings. But Mike Cantlay, the head of VisitScotland, has got the debate going again with his suggestion to start British Summer Time a month earlier.

It’s a thoughtful and intriguing twist to the standard arguments for and against BST, which have raged for years without change. It is here Mr Cantlay’s more subtle variant side-steps the trenches of the all-or-nothing debate. His argument for moving the clocks forward an hour in February rather than March is that it would provide an hour’s extra daylight in the evening. For children it would make the journey from school to home safer. It would save energy. And it would be consistent to change the clocks at the end of February when morning daylight is broadly similar to

October.

Setting aside this year’s exceptionally prolonged cold spell, it may well be that our “winter time”, as measured by the ritual of clock changing, is too long. Why, he asks, deny that extra hour of useable daylight in the evenings through March – while, with sunrise at 5:48am last Friday, most of us are still in bed?

Moving the clocks forward a month earlier would not of course make the weather any better. But from the middle of the month – when we had notably warm temperatures last year – we would be able to take greater

advantage of the arrival of spring.