Fly in the ointment

Could the Conservatives really admit they got it wrong on the bedroom tax? Hard as it is to imagine Iain Duncan Smith admitting he was wrong about anything, pressure is growing for a rethink.

In the Times yesterday, David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges offered her ex-boss some advice a series of options on how to break with the party’s image as the nasty party, including this one:

‘Move on from the bedroom tax. It is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a mea culpa moment and move on.’

Note the lack of pretence that it’s really the removal of the spare room subsidy and that it’s all working brilliantly to save money and use social housing more fairly.

In the Spectator, Isabel Hardman has a piece about growing Tory concern about the policy. She quotes a letter to IDS from Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, in which he warns that ‘I believe the time has come to review this policy and for you to take on board feedback from constituencies as to what is going well and what needs to potentially be reviewed and amended’ and complains that ‘several senior members of my association have expressed concern to me over some of the practical and logistical aspects of this legislation and its impact’. The plight of single fathers who cannot afford a spare room for their kids when they visit is ‘deeply worrying’ for him.

At Conservative Home, Mark Wallace adds this:

‘Some of those in the wider conservative movement who follow the technicalities of such policies also point to the troubled practicalities of the bedroom tax. Not only is it not saving as much money as intended, but they fear it is hurting groups such as carers who are caught up in its broad sweep despite their personal circumstances. They argue that while it’s perfectly reasonable for the Government to want to reduce taxpayer funding of over-occupancy, that goal isn’t well-served by exempting pensioners (who are the biggest single group of over-occupiers, tending as they do to remain in the family home after their children have moved out) or by simply reducing the benefits of people who are unable to move because of a lack of available smaller homes.

‘I’m also told the general feeling at the top of the Government – DWP team aside – is similar: that the policy simply isn’t working out sufficiently well to make the political pain a justifiable cost.’

None of this should come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the manifest unfairness of the policy. It was clear to two current Conservative MPs (Andrew Percy and Gordon Henderson) when they voted against it in the last parliament. It was clear from the sudden u-turn by Douglas Carswell when he defected from the Conservatives to UKIP. It even seems clear that some Tories who did vote for it did so wrongly believing that disabled people would be exempt.

Nevertheless Clare Foges is right about the potential to detoxify ‘the nasty party’. Of all the 12 tests I set out a couple of weeks ago, nothing would signal a One Nation Conservative approach to housing more than what she calls ‘moving on’ or what Isabel calls ‘performing a graceful u-turn’. The election result has opened up a space to change course.

But is a party with Iain Duncan Smith as work and pensions secretary really capable of doing that or is it him that is the real fly in the ointment? It’s only a month ago that he was claiming that people paying the bedroom tax for a second year are ‘choosing’ to stay in their larger homes.

Can a party that considered increasing the bedroom tax in the last parliament really change its spots? That was one of the options drawn up by civil servants that were leaked during the election campaign.

And can a party intent on £12 billion more in benefit cuts really find the extra £500 a million a year that (in his fantasies) IDS claims it saves?

Originally posted on June 10 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

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