Let’s be thankful for small mercies. The left has found a powerful and purposeful cause around which to rally.
As Mike Dailly of Govan Law Centre suggested, the bedroom tax does indeed have the potential to become this generation’s poll tax. And how we are embracing it. Protests are planned, demos are being staged, petitions are circulating.
But none of it will change a thing. Because the bedroom tax is already law and it is coming to a vulnerable family or household near you from April.
We are all arriving late to this party thanks to our political leaders and parties. For the chance to throw out this inequitable, unjust and unfair measure has long gone.
And we should be questioning why they failed to act when we needed them to. And are still failing to act.
To be fair to the SNP, its six MPs at Westminster were never going to be able to turn this provision out of the welfare reform bill. Simple arithmetic and weight of numbers saw to that. And while last week’s debate was a bit of nifty political manoeuvring, demonstrating how the wee parties (in Westminster terms) can punch above their weight and focus on real issues affecting real people, ultimately it will change nothing. The Tories and Lib Dems are not going to do a volte-face on this one, even while they are murmuring to the media that they are looking again at particular groups. Danny Alexander can furrow his brow and raise his concerns all he likes: the most that is going to happen is one group will be removed from the measure’s reach. And the coalition will calculate which one that is based on who matters most in voting and media sympathy terms.
There is more the SNP could have done here at home, either through the Scottish Government or through council administrations in which it plays a role. I helpfully provided a list of possible solutions in an earlier post.
The most obvious one was on rent setting. Local authorities had the chance to freeze rents this year to keep more money in people’s pockets so that they might make up the shortfall in benefit being brought in by the bedroom tax. In councils like Edinburgh, which is run by the SNP in partnership with Labour, not only have they failed to do so, they have conspired to make the situation much worse.
On 7 February, as part of its overall budget, Labour and the SNP approved a rent increase of 5.9%. Not only did such an increase ignore the council’s formula of rent-setting – RPI at September 2012 plus 2.7% (which would have given a rent increase of 5.4%) – but it made such an increase in full acknowledgement of the potential impact of welfare reform. The budget paper presented by officials to elected members allowed for the potential of increased rent arrears as a result of the bedroom tax and estimates that some 4000 tenants might be adversely affected by the policy. The shortfall anticipated as a result is £5.128 million. So what did the council propose to do to mitigate this? Increase rents.
What that 5.9% translates to is an average weekly increase of £4.77, lifting the average rent up to an eye-watering £85.55 per week. Apparently though, this is a good thing, justified by being less than the outrageous hike of 7.9% in 2012 -13. Officials went further, stating that it represented the lowest rent increase since 2010/11.
Worse, it was made without full consultation with tenants. It would appear that Edinburgh has not consulted all its tenants since 2007. Admittedly, it has held workshops at annual tenant conferences in 2010 and 2011 and also consultations with Edinburgh Tenants Federation in subsequent years and budget rounds. But only now will it consult its tenants fully to “assess the extent to which tenants feel they are getting value for money”. So it would appear that their views on exorbitant rent hikes will not be sought.
All this would be fine if such an increase was needed to offset the cost of welfare reform – though how increasing the shortfall for tenants to make up makes any kind of financial sense is beyond me. But the fact is that a 5.9% increase was not needed. At all. Because Edinburgh council, following last year’s big hike, is likely to create a surplus of £10.2 million in income over expenditure and will transfer that to the Repairs Fund as a contingency for the impact of welfare reform.
It did not need to raise a penny extra in current rental income because it is able to meet not only its everyday operating costs but also the potential £5 million in rent arrears the bedroom tax will create, from within current funds. Oh, and still have some left over for repairs and refurbishments.
So why did officials recommend a rent rise of any amount this year? Why did they arrive at a logic that reckons the best way to provide for the impact of a shortfall in housing benefit is to ask tenants to pay still more from their own pockets to keep a roof over their heads? And why oh why, did elected members – specifically SNP and Labour – go along with all or any of it?
It is this inability to join the dots between policy, practice and protest which I – and I’m not alone here – am struggling with.
Frankly, both our main parties here in Scotland are at it on bedroom tax. There is a degree of sophistry operating in how they are behaving on this issue which is breath-taking.
At every opportunity, Labour MPs are railing against it. Yet, when it came to it, during the bill process, Labour did not oppose this measure. The only amendments put at the final stages of the bill’s process were to curtail its impact. And welcome though those were, they would only have protected one group of potential victims, disabled people living in adapted accommodation. So why did Labour fail to fulfil its role as the Opposition and oppose this measure – which it is now telling us daily is going to have such terrible consequences for vulnerable families in their constituencies?
Because it feared the wrath of the right wing press. Because it did not want to be portrayed in the media as standing up for scroungers, as the Tories and Lib Dems had so effectively portrayed this tax’s victims. And it did not want to be accused of opting to grow the housing benefit bill instead of cutting it. Because political image was everything and political principles counted for nought.
We can all dust down our placards and prepare to take to the streets to show our solidarity with disabled people, parents who keep a second bedroom to have their children over to stay, foster carers, kinship carers and widows and widowers who opt to stay in the house where they raised their families before the death of their loved one – and the as yet unidentified victims of this travesty. But it will change things not one jot.
Labour did not oppose this tax when it had the chance to. It is not promising to reverse this tax if elected in 2015. And while the SNP is promising that with independence, we can do so, the ability to change policy like this is at least three years away. Meanwhile, it has done little with the powers Scotland already has to ensure that people are not impacted adversely (and for a fine analysis of what these might be, read Ian Smart’s recent post on what these might be). And politicians of all hues have colluded, no doubt inadvertently, at local level in many areas through the budgeting process to maximise the adverse impact it might have.
And all the while the parties posture – aided and abetted by the likes of us who think we have found a cause we can rally to – real people will suffer.
So don’t sign the petitions. Don’t attend the demos. Find something more meaningful to do instead.
Apply to volunteer at your local CAB. Give money to Shelter and others whose helplines will be flooded with calls. Support the charities that will be in the frontline of supporting the financial, physical and emotional meltdown these welfare reform changes will cause. Hell, make up the shortfall in rent for someone you know yourself.
And ignore these empty political vessels competing to see who can make the most noise to drown out the fact that they are prepared and willing to do little about it.