Minority rulePosted: March 4, 2015
How do flawed policies that are opposed by a majority of MPs manage to survive unscathed?
One of the remaining mysteries of this parliament was solved in the Commons yesterday. Why has it taken the government almost a year to fail to respond to the all-party work and pensions committee’s report on housing benefit? The answer has much to say about how coalition government, and power, work.
We know that a clear majority of MPs are opposed to the bedroom tax in its current form. The coalition currently has a working majority of 73 MPs. However, following the Lib Dem change of policy last year, the opposite now applies when it comes to what the minority call the removal of the spare room subsidy. Labour and the Lib Dems, plus the SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, UKIP and other parties opposed to the policy now have a comfortable majority and that doesn’t even count Tory abstentions and the odd rebel. This much was clear in the vote on Andrew George’s Affordable Bill calling for significant amendments in September. A majority of the House of Lords has disagreed from the beginning.
We also know that there is all-party agreement that urgent changes are needed to the changes in housing benefit made since 2010 that go well beyond the bedroom tax. In its report published in April 2014, the work and pensions committee significant new exemptions from the bedroom tax and benefit cap, a more generous standard of bed spaces within the bedroom tax and a full cost-effectiveness review of the policy by March 2015.
The MPs were heavily critical of the government’s reliance on discretionary housing payments and of local councils for the way they apply them. And they also called for urgent reviews of the impact of changes to the local housing allowance and shared accommodation rate.
As you may have noticed it is now March 2015 and none of this has happened. By convention, governments are meant to reply to select committee reports within two months. In December, in what I called the Groundhog Day debateon the bedroom tax, committee chair Dame Anne Begg complained that: ‘Every time the Government’s response has been chased up, we have been told that it is lost somewhere in government—I am not quite sure where.’
Yesterday we found out why as MPs debated the report even though there has still not been a government response to it. Dame Anne noted the unusual circumstances and repeated the case made by the committee and called on the minister to ‘fill us in on why the Government’s response has still not made it out of the DWP and into the light of day’.
Here’s what work and pensions minister Mark Harper had to say:
‘The Government have the greatest respect for the parliamentary process and engage with the Select Committee. She will know that, with the exception of this report, no response by my Department has taken longer than six months, but I fear that there is a very simple and straightforward answer as to the reason for the delay and I am afraid it will not mean an early response. ‘
‘Respect’ is presumably used here in the same sense that the Conservative manifesto promised to ‘respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants’ but what could the reason possibly be? Harper explained:
‘As the hon. Lady will know, we have a coalition Government—something I hope will not be necessary after the election—and that, despite our coalition partners having agreed on this policy all the way through the Parliament, they now towards the end of it do not agree. Unfortunately therefore, despite the fact that the response is broadly ready to go, we have not been able to secure agreement across the Government. I am afraid harmony has not broken out and, until it does, the Government will not be able to respond to the Committee. ‘
Dame Anne asked why it couldn’t publish ‘a partial response to our proposals, addressing all the other points on which there presumably is agreement across Government’. Harper responded:
‘I am sorry about that, but the blame does not lie with the Conservatives in the Government; it lies elsewhere. [Laughter.] I am just being honest here at the Dispatch Box.’
So there we have it. It’s all the Lib Dems’ fault. After the usual series of dodgy statistical and financial claims from the minister, that was it for the debate and that looks like it for hope for any change of tack until after the election.
This is not a new point. It was clear from the moment that the Conservatives blocked Andrew George’s Bill in committee and even perhaps when the coalition split and the government was defeated in September’s vote.
I’ve blogged about this many times before and judging from the sparse attendance at yesterday’s debate few MPs find this of interest with the election so close. Maybe a bland government response to a select commitee report would make no difference. But there is a serious point here that I think is an important one. A clear majority of MPs think that a policy that affects hundreds of thousands of people is unfair and should be changed. An all-party committee of MPs charged with scrutinising the impact of policies agrees and thinks changes are needed to other housing benefit measures too. Yet a parliamentary system designed with majority rather than coalition governments in mind somehow allows the minority view to prevail.
The election in 63 days time looks very likely to produce another coalition. Depending on the result, we may see the end of the bedroom tax or we may see cuts to welfare and housing benefit that make those introduced since 2010 look mild by comparison. Will our system allow flawed policies with minority support to triumph all over again?