Eddie Barnes: Public anger unseen since poll tax

IAIN Duncan Smith was charm personified. An hour earlier, in the George Hotel in Edinburgh, he had brazened out a public humiliation as a speech on his welfare reforms was ruined by protesters from the floor variously describing him as a “ratbag” who should go straight back to England.

Now, in a private room in the Scottish Parliament, the minister at the centre of the most controversial programme within the coalition government appeared unruffled. He was meeting MSPs who sit on its welfare reform committee, which is examining the consequences of Duncan Smith’s welfare changes. In particular, they wanted to address the so-called bedroom tax, coming into force tomorrow. Some of them used the opportunity to pile the abuse on further.

“He didn’t bat an eyelid,” said one of those present. “I have to say, I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but he was completely unruffled by all of this. He has a plan and he’s sticking to it.”

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On the other side of the country, in Cumbernauld, 59-year old Iris Henderson would like to give Duncan Smith a piece of her mind. The grandmother, who stands three foot five inches tall, has dwarfism and the home she has lived in for 35 years has been adapted to help ­ensure she can live as independently as possible. The bedroom tax, however, is about to change things. As the house also has a spare room, Henderson will, from next month, find herself £72 a month worse off.

“What angers me is that I spent a lot of money on this place and I spend a lot keeping the garden nice. It’s also got a lot of history for me. And now I’m being told I should spend £8,000 to £9,000 to move somewhere else and set it up like this. What’s the point in that?”

She can’t afford to do that, so she has opted to accept the reduction in her housing benefit. “I’m not going to be able to afford to bring people in to keep the place clean,” she says. In fact, she adds, the cut may mean that she will start requesting care support from the council – support she has so far sought not to call upon. “It’s not even as if there are any one-bedroomed houses to move into here,” she adds. “I don’t think David Cameron and IDS have the first clue what they’re doing.”

Five years into the great crash, austerity Britain has got used to tales of hardship. A whole series of cuts to Britain’s enormous welfare state is being introduced – including the reduction of child benefit to high earners. However, it is Duncan Smith’s attack on the nation’s spare rooms that appears to have become the totemic issue.

Ministers are furious that the Labour- party inspired moniker, repeated by the media, has become part of the public discourse; a reduction in a benefit cannot be described as a “tax”, they insist. But Cameron’s attempt to come up with a similarly catchy phrase to sum it up has singularly failed to catch on (for those who can’t remember, he tried to call it the “spare room subsidy”.) And so “bedroom tax” it has become.

Something about it cuts the nation deeply. Last week, Labour MP Frank Field – who has spent a career supporting reforms to Britain’s complex welfare system – flayed the plans, comparing it to the notorious 17th-century window tax and suggested that people copy their predecessors who bricked up windows to avoid it.

It is also being compared to Margaret Thatcher’s community charge, another levy whose name was forgotten for a more familiar version (the poll tax) and which became emblematic of a nation’s discontent.

The “restrictions to housing benefit for working-age customers living in the social rented sector who are occupying a larger property than their household size” – to give it its proper title – means that people on housing benefit with one spare bedroom will have their payments reduced by 14 per cent, or £11.20 a week for someone on £80 a week benefit. For people with two spare rooms, the fee rises to 25 per cent, or £20 a week for someone with £80 a week.

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However, those figures hide bureaucratic regulations: for example, under the rules under-16s of the same gender will be expected to share, as will under-10s of either gender. It gives rise to the image of bureaucrats snooping around bedrooms to see if they are being used properly.

Last week, Duncan Smith was face-to-face with the kind of fury this bureaucratic measure is introducing and appeared to get through unrepentant. But with the issue in Scotland also threatening to become a central issue in the run-up to the independence referendum campaign, is this one belt-tightening measure that ministers are going to have to dump?

Last week’s event in Edinburgh illustrated vividly one of the core problems the coalition government has found after introducing the plan – quite literally, it is finding it hard to be heard. The reform applies to people who live in council houses or in housing association homes. The government argues that, at present, many people are living in accommodation that is too big for them. Furthermore, they note there is no systematic way of reviewing when homes allocated to people become too big or too expensive – in contrast to the private rented sector, where housing benefit is paid on a household’s “reasonable accommodation needs”. The bedroom tax will change that, so that the housing benefit received reflects the size of the home they live in.

Duncan Smith has launched a desperate counter-attack in an effort to burnish the idea. It will save the public purse £480 million, the government notes, shaving a considerable sum off the country’s enormous £20 billion housing benefit bill.

And all in the name of “fairness”. “It is unfair on taxpayers, it is unfair on those in over-crowded accommodation and it is unfair that one group of housing benefit tenants cannot have spare bedrooms and another group are subsidised,” he argued last week (tenants in private housing pay rent according to the size of their home).

In a perfect world, the reform would see people in council homes that are now too big moving speedily down the road to the readily available home with one-bedroom. A family with three children, waiting in a cramped flat, would then move speedily into that house. Taxpayers and council house dwellers would all be happy. But, of course, the UK’s public administration is not exactly perfect at present.

And while the overall need for the country to reduce its spending and deficit may provide Duncan Smith with the rationale for the changes, they are only making them far, far harder to enact.

For one thing, the spare homes are not there. Most of the 660,000 tenants who will be affected will not be able to find a smaller property. Consequently, people will be left with little choice but to stay put in homes and take the hit.

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Nor do many people especially want to move, add councillors. Duncan Smith may want to shift people to more “appropriate” settings, but people like Iris Henderson have laid down roots.

Jim McCabe, the leader of North Lanarkshire Council, notes that the reforms deal with people’s homes, not mere bricks and mortar.

He told MSPs last week: “I recently dealt with a gentlemen who is on his own in a five-room apartment with four bedrooms. I can assure you that there is no chance that he is moving. He lived there with his family. His wife passed away, and he is staying in the house come what may.

“We offered all the entreaties and everything that we could think of, including a sheltered complex in an ideal location. We offered to pay for everything that was going to cost him, but no, he did not want to know. I respect that. I have been 45 years in a house, and it is just a wooden box for me, but I live there because I love the street and I have great neighbours.”

Most of those affected are therefore likely to stay put. And thanks to another raft of changes under which benefit payments will go straight to households rather than to councils or housing associations, the fear is that people will simply opt to fall into arrears, and spend what money they have on themselves.

Councillor Jimmy Black of Dundee declared: “I have no problem with the rent arrangements and the arrangements for paying rent directly to tenants, but I know that it is going to cause absolute chaos in the next two or three years.”

There is, therefore, the danger of a ­vicious cycle, say other councillors, as increasing rent arrears prevent them from building the homes that are required to sort the problem in the first place.

Dave Fallows, a councillor in the Highlands, added: “At a time when we are seeking to build more council houses – especially smaller properties – the risk is that the effect of increasing arrears as the bedroom tax and then universal credit kick in, will be that our housing revenue account will suffer seriously. The consequence of that could be that we will build fewer houses than we had intended.”

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It will be councils, as usual, which will have to manage as best they can.

However, the issue has now become front and centre in the constitutional battle.

Echoing the language of the poll tax campaigns, the chief executive of the Yes Scotland, Blair Jenkins, writes today in Scotland on Sunday that the tax is a “reckless social experiment” aimed at the country’s most vulnerable people.

Nicola Sturgeon has declared it would be reversed in an independent Scotland. Labour campaigners accuse her of leading Scots down a “magical yellow brick road to a Scottish utopia”.

The truth is, they argue, that ministers could mitigate the plans (with left-wingers suggesting that it is finally time for Scotland to prove its social democratic credentials by upping taxes).

As for Duncan Smith, the minister has already been forced to include several exemptions to those hit by the bedroom tax, including the parents of young armed forces personnel, parents of several disabled children who cannot share a room with a sibling and foster carers.

But, on the broad scheme, his iron conviction that Britain’s welfare state requires shock treatment is unlikely to waver. And while the protests will continue, he can point to the most recent poll which found that 49 per cent of people backed the bedroom tax, as against 38 per cent who oppose it.

Contrary to the political bunfight, welfare reform remains generally popular.

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Broken down by region, however, and based on very small samples, the only place in the UK to oppose the new tax is Scotland – 51 per cent to 38 per cent.

Duncan Smith failed to get his message across last week on his chaotic trip north. But if he wants to win over people to the rightness of his cause, he may need to get back on the plane soon.

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23