Lesley Riddoch: Tory bedroom tax bribe

Giving Holyrood powers to axe this divisive policy will just stoke unrest and bolster the SNP. It won’t happen, writes Lesley Riddoch
Marchers protesting against the bedroom tax wind through Edinburgh earlier this year. Picture: Ian RutherfordMarchers protesting against the bedroom tax wind through Edinburgh earlier this year. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Marchers protesting against the bedroom tax wind through Edinburgh earlier this year. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Has David Cameron pulled a fast one on the Yes campaign by suggesting Scots could axe the hated “bedroom tax” if there’s a No vote in 2014?

Scotland on Sunday reported yesterday: “Senior Conservative sources have told this newspaper the party is to look at devolving power over housing benefit to Holyrood. This would allow a future Scottish Government to scrap the bedroom tax, while Scotland remained within the UK. The Yes camp, it seems, needs to start looking for new flagship campaign issue.”

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If the Tories press ahead with a Scottish bedroom tax opt-out they are almost certain to generate a fierce backlash in the rest of the UK, hand precious English votes to Labour, give a propaganda victory to the “Bedroom-Tax-Slaying” Yes campaign in Scotland and stand revealed as a government prepared to bribe noisy detractors instead of dumping badly-conceived policies.

It could be argued that English voters have long since resentfully accepted that devolution allows Scots perks like free prescriptions, university education and bus travel. Dodging the bedroom tax might be just another irritating addition and, concealed in suitably arcane legislation, might go unnoticed.

No chance. A weekend ComRes poll shows 59 per cent of UK voters want the bedroom tax to be abolished and only one in four actively supports it. That’s not wild and woolly Scotland. That’s a sizeable swing in largely English opinion. In February, 45 per cent wanted the bedroom tax abolished, with 37 per cent in favour. By April the figures were 51 per cent against with 33 per cent in favour. The detailed breakdown of September’s poll findings is even more dramatic.

A total of 61 per cent of folk surveyed across the UK, 76 per cent in Scotland, 75 per cent in the North-East of England and 55 per cent in the South-East strongly agree that “social housing tenants who need a spare bedroom for sick or disabled family members should be exempt from the bedroom tax”.

In the North-East, 75 per cent of folk agree that “David Cameron should abandon the bedroom tax entirely and think of other ways to save money” (72 per cent in Scotland) and 70 per cent of Londoners agree that “the bedroom tax is placing the burden of public spending cuts too heavily on poorer households” (74 per cent in Scotland). Opposition to the bedroom tax is not a Scottish difficulty. It’s a growing UK-wide social movement.

ComRes found nearly seven out of ten people aged 45-54 say the tax must go (the age cohort with the highest propensity to vote) and one in five Liberal Democrat supporters could vote Labour in 2015 if it hasn’t been axed. That could mean an extra 1.5 million votes for Ed Miliband in the general election. David Cameron is already reeling from reactions to Labour’s energy price-freeze pledge. So is he really about to announce Scots can get a special UK bedroom tax opt-out? Not on your nelly.

ComRes chairman Andrew Hawkins said: “Today’s poll shows Labour’s plan to scrap the bedroom tax is gaining momentum with voters. Importantly, it could persuade Liberal Democrat supporters to vote Labour.” Just what the Tories need to kick off their conference in Manchester.

Okay, it’s just one opinion poll – albeit part of a regular series. But if the bedroom tax is still operating this time next year, I’ll eat my hat.

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And that’s all before we get to the vexed issue of believability. No matter how much Ruth Davidson thinks the Conservatives in Scotland have shrugged off the “nasty” label, voters have long, unforgiving memories of past promises broken.

Even though half a million Scots did eventually use Maggie Thatcher’s right to buy council housing, the conversion of Scotland into a property-owning democracy made no impact at all on Scottish voting behaviour. Why would a dodgy bedroom tax reprieve promise be any different?

Excitement over David Cameron’s McBedroom Tax wheeze also overlooks the fact that housing costs are about to be further integrated into the UK-wide package of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare “reforms”. The housing element of the new universal credit, for example, is to be paid directly to claimants – not social landlords – from next month, right across the UK, even though rent arrears doubled in six “direct payment” pilot areas as the poorest claimants found it impossible to juggle spending priorities.

So, the bedroom tax will not be the coalition’s last welfare scandal. Not by a long chalk. And there’ll be no Scottish opt-out from the equally chaotic Universal Credit scheme.

Economist Richard Murphy has calculated that the new marriage allowance will cost more than the bedroom tax can ever save. Which makes bedroom tax-related human suffering all the harder to stomach.

Earlier this summer, a grandmother from Solihull told neighbours she couldn’t find the extra £20 a week for two under-occupied bedrooms and died after being struck by a lorry on the M6. In a letter to her son, Stephanie Bottrill said: “Don’t blame yourself for me ending my life. The only people to blame are the Government.” There will be more stories like this.

A National Housing Federation survey of the 51 biggest housing associations found that half of all residents affected by the bedroom tax – 32,432 people – couldn’t pay their rent between April and June. A quarter had fallen behind with their rent for the first time.

That’s a recipe for debt and social collapse – some achievement for a “reforming” measure.

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The bedroom tax will continue to generate bad headlines all the way through this pivotal pre-referendum year and the Yes campaign can only benefit from the constant reminder that Scots have a different outlook and a different way out of the whole sorry mess. The bedroom tax is a monument to the destructive London-centric dogma that insists policy “medicine” for the overheated south must be inflicted on an underheated rest of the UK too.

Nicola Sturgeon has already stolen Labour’s old clothes by reinstating council housing in Scotland and abolishing the right to buy. A Tory bedroom tax climb-down would further strengthen the connection in Scottish voters’ minds between a strong SNP and defence of core social goods like housing.

So is a Scottish tax opt-out really set to fly? Prepare to see this shameless, half-hearted policy bribe sink without trace.