LABOUR, THE SILLY SCOTTISH AFFAIRS COMMITTEE AND THE BEDROOM TAX

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Yesterday the silly Scottish Affairs Committee held a debate on its report on the bedroom tax in Scotland. Coming the week that we promised to mitigate in full the effects of the bedroom tax, you would have expected a ‘thank goodness for that’ mood amongst all of us crammed into Westminster Hall who have fought so hard against this iniquitous Tory tax. Not a bit of it. Listening to Labour members you would almost think it was the SNP that was responsible for this tax, that its mitigation was nothing to do with us and it was all down to their efforts! I won’t go into the fact that we can only mitigate and not abolish. I won’t even go into individual Labour members whining about why they failed to turn up to a critical ‘Labour’ vote when the tax could have been beaten in the Commons. Instead, I want to draw your attention to this little snippet of almost outrageous Labour hypocrisy.

With little to say in their redrafted report, the main plank of their complaint against the Scottish Government was their view that we will not recompense the many Scottish people who have suffered financially under the bedroom tax and their demand that we should now repay every single person in full for their losses under this Tory tax. Whether this is even possible is debatable and how this would be done is at best uncertain; what is without doubt is that no Government has ever made retrospective payments when abolishing particular benefits.

I was therefore inclined to ask this of the committee’s chair.

Pete Wishart: I accept the Labour party’s sincerity about scrapping the bedroom tax—it has said that it will do so at the earliest opportunity—but will the hon. Gentleman direct me to the Labour shadow Minister’s comment that Labour will pay in full any arrears of the bedroom tax built up in the rest of the UK? How much would it cost the rest of the UK? How would the UK Government pay for it?

The answer.

Mr Davidson: Regrettably, we are not in power at the moment. We do not have the power either in Scotland or in the UK to take such decisions.

Fair enough. They’re not in power but they could at least say that they are intending to make these repayments. This is only what they are asking the Scottish Government to do. So waiting for the Labour Shadow Minister to get to his feet I was beaten to it by the hapless committee chair when he asked.

Mr Davidson: Does my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham—my party’s spokesman—accept the recommendation of the report that all bedroom tax should be written off and all payments made refunded? Would he, like me, welcome the opportunity to go into a general election with the slogan, “Vote Labour and get your bedroom tax back”?

And what did he get in response?

Stephen Timms: That sounds a very good slogan, but, sadly, I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks.

And with one volley of friendly fire the whole case of the dysfunctional Scottish Affairs Committee was blown away, no bayoneting of the wounded required. I’ll leave it up to you dear reader to describe this type of behaviour from Scottish Labour. I can only describe it as typical.

Labour of course can’t make this commitment as it would cost hundreds of millions of pounds and they would have the same difficulties as any Government in identifying those who were genuinely bedroom tax victims. Labour have also backed the Tories welfare cap and are therefore bound by strict public spending limits on the welfare budget.

The Scottish Affairs Committee love their separation debates. Yesterday they were separated from their own front bench and hoisted by their own unionist petard.

For reference I also include the quite excellent speech from Eilidh Whiteford. Here is how you make a real meaningful contribution on the issue of the bedroom tax.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. When discussing the report today, the key issue that we should not lose sight of is that the bedroom tax should never have happened in Scotland. There has been a broad cross-party consensus that it is a regressive measure and it should be abolished. However, the truth is that it should never have been introduced in the first place. It was brought to us by a Tory Government—propped up by their Liberal Democrat allies—for whom people in Scotland did not vote, and it reflects the same Tory values that brought us the poll tax 25 years ago, and which have been rejected time and again at the ballot box.

The bedroom tax has caused enormous hardship for some of the most disadvantaged tenants in Scotland, the vast majority of them disabled. It has created problems for social landlords and it has cost more than it has saved. The problems created by the bedroom tax were entirely predictable, and were in fact predicted by local

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authorities, housing associations and organisations representing tenants, as well as by Members of Parliament here and in Edinburgh.

To a large extent, the report we are debating today has been overtaken by events, given that a few days ago the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland said that the UK Government would provide Scottish Ministers with a power to set the statutory cap on discretionary housing payments in Scotland, using section 63 of the Scotland Act 1998. The Deputy First Minister made a statement in the Scottish Parliament yesterday and, I believe, met the Under-Secretary earlier today to discuss the process from here. That is a very welcome, if belated development, and follows several months of silence from the UK Government on the issue.

Yesterday’s announcement paves the way for discretionary housing payment to be made to everyone affected by the bedroom tax in Scotland. As the law stands, the only legal way to make regular and ongoing payments directly to tenants to make up for their loss of housing benefit is through discretionary housing payments. The UK Government has allocated Scottish local authorities £15 million for discretionary housing payments, but that is less than a third of the £50 million needed to mitigate the penalty for everyone affected.

Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady accept that local authorities in Scotland have found other ways to give money to their tenants and residents to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax, without using DHP? Can the Scottish Government not also use that, as the UK Government have confirmed?

Dr Whiteford: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. It is something that parties in Scotland have looked at very closely, and I know that senior Labour MSPs such as Jackie Baillie and Iain Gray have very much been part of discussions with the Scottish Government about those issues. Even they have agreed with the Scottish Government about the way to distribute the extra money, in compliance with the law as it stands. They agree that DHPs are the only clear legal route to provide funding for bedroom tax arrears directly to the people affected on a regular and ongoing basis. We are having to jump through a lot of legal loopholes. It is clear there are some solutions—the Scottish Government, certainly, were looking at them very carefully—but it seems that the clearest way forward is through discretionary housing payments and the challenge for all of us is to make sure that they are made.

Fiona O’Donnell rose—

Dr Whiteford: I will not give way just now, because I have quite a lot to say and I need to make some progress.

The Scottish Government have made an explicit commitment to mitigate fully the impact by making £35 million available in this year’s budget for councils to distribute through discretionary housing payments. I believe that agreement has been reached with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that funding is targeted according to need, and much of the funding has already been allocated. My understanding

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is that councils in Scotland have been allocated extra funding up to the limit of the Westminster cap on how much an individual local authority is allowed to spend on discretionary housing payments. Across Scotland, however, that still leaves a £15 million shortfall, which can be allocated only once the cap is lifted.

I have raised the issue of the cap on several occasions both with Department for Work and Pensions Ministers and with Scotland Office Ministers. The Deputy First Minister wrote six letters, and I raised the issue personally with the Deputy Prime Minister. COSLA wrote, as did the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee. It has taken much longer than it should have. It is also worth making the point that the UK Government have not committed to lifting the cap, but will transfer powers to Scottish Ministers to allow them to do so. Inevitably, that two-stage process will take longer than if the UK Government had agreed simply to raise the cap.

Fiona O’Donnell: That is exactly why East Lothian housing association in my constituency took action to write off arrears. Is the hon. Lady saying that it has acted illegally?

Dr Whiteford: By no means. I commend the work that has happened in some local authority areas and with some housing associations, but that is perhaps a more feasible option for some than for others. The agreement that has been reached among the parties in Scotland, on a cross-party basis, is that the discretionary housing payment system offers the clearest legal route to do that in a way that can be regular and ongoing. It is a bit of a legal quagmire, as far as I understand it, and it is not as straightforward as it might first appear. It is also not always easy to disentangle what are bedroom tax arrears and what are arrears due to another financial hardship such as losing one’s job, other welfare reforms or other loss of income. It is not entirely straightforward. Nevertheless, it is a very serious issue and I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s concerns.

I am glad that we have a commitment to proceed under section 63 of the Scotland Act. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who has succeeded where the DWP has failed over the past five months. I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity today to outline a speedy timetable for that process to be enacted. It means that local authorities can plan ahead on the basis that the shortfall will be met in full and that they will have funding to ensure that every single tenant subject to the under-occupancy penalty can receive a discretionary housing payment. Twelve of our local authorities already have a full funding allocation to mitigate the bedroom tax in their areas. The rest have extra funding up to the level of the cap and can now be assured that the rest is coming, just as soon as the relevant orders can be laid in Parliament.

The challenge for all of us is to make sure that tenants apply for their discretionary housing payment. I will certainly be going back to every constituent who has been in touch with me about the bedroom tax, including those who applied unsuccessfully for DHPs in the past, and urging them to reapply. I will also ask my local authority what it will be doing proactively to ensure that everyone who is entitled to discretionary housing payments gets them, now that the policy has

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been fully funded and there is no excuse for anyone who is subject to the bedroom tax to be left without the support that they need.

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): The hon. Lady will be aware that different local authorities are taking very different approaches. For example, in Renfrewshire, which is adjacent to my constituency, staff are employed to go around proactively and get people to apply for discretionary payments. In my area of North Ayrshire, that does not happen. Does she think that the resources need to be put in to ensure that that happens, if we are going to follow the path that she is suggesting?

Dr Whiteford: The hon. Lady makes a really important point, because there are a range of practices across local authorities. However, this is very much their responsibility, and I hope that they will be putting in place a more proactive approach across the board. I know that some have already done that in dealing with other aspects of welfare reform, but I also know that the Scottish Government have made it very clear to every local authority that that money is to be used for the purpose for which it is intended—to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax—and they need to ensure that everyone gets it. It is incumbent on us all to ensure that our constituents know that and to encourage them to get their forms in. After all, it is in the interest of local authorities to ensure that people do not fall into arrears, because that just creates further problems for them down the line. I am confident that most local authorities in Scotland will be keen to ensure that that policy is properly implemented.

The mitigation measures mean that no one should fall into arrears or face eviction because of the bedroom tax, but we cannot ignore the fact that it is still on the statute book. The Scottish Parliament does not have the power to abolish it. That means that tenants are still legally responsible for the shortfall in their rent caused by the cut to housing benefit. We should not lose sight of the fact that in order to mitigate the worst impacts of Westminster’s bedroom tax, money has had to be diverted from other devolved spending priorities.

The bedroom tax and the other changes to housing benefit are only one aspect of the UK Government’s assault on people in low-income households. By the end of this financial year, about £4.5 billion will have been taken out of the pockets of people on low and middle incomes in Scotland through welfare reforms and other changes to the tax and benefits system. The figure will rise to £6 billion by 2015-16. Apart from in the bedroom tax itself, that is most evident in the changes to tax credits, which have cost 110,000 households in Scotland an average of £700 each, and of course the uprating of working-age benefits at a level substantially below inflation, which has meant real-term cuts in the value of support. The freezing of child benefit means that, cumulatively, a family with two children will be more than £1,000 worse off by next year. In many cases, the people who have been hit by the bedroom tax are the same people being affected by those other changes. It is those people whom the mitigation measures will help, but we must recognise that we cannot fill a black hole of £6 billion without the powers and the budgets to do so.

The Scottish Government have invested £258 million to temper the worst aspects of welfare reform, but we

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need to be clear that it is a damage limitation exercise, not a solution. As well as the extra £50 million for the bedroom tax, the Scottish Government have put in place arrangements to ensure that 500,000 people in Scotland still get council tax benefit, and have introduced the Scottish welfare fund, which so far has helped 35,000 people.

However, the Scottish Government do not at the moment have the powers or the budget to plug a £6 billion cut in public spending. People would think, listening to the earlier comments today, that the bedroom tax was dreamt up in Scotland and was being imposed by the Scottish Government. The truth is that the bedroom tax is the brainchild of a callous Tory-Liberal coalition Government whom people in Scotland simply did not elect. Responsibility for the bedroom tax rests right here in Westminster. The fact is that housing benefit is a reserved issue and this House has the power to scrap the bedroom tax.

Katy Clark: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Whiteford: I will give way one last time.

Katy Clark: Does the hon. Lady not believe that the Scottish Parliament should be looking to raise the amount of money that it receives through taxation? Can she explain why her party will not support measures such as raising the higher rate of income tax to ensure that we have more money to spend on welfare?

Dr Whiteford: I am very much looking forward to the referendum in September, when people in Scotland will have a say on whether they want control of their own affairs and responsibility for setting income tax levels. I led an Opposition day debate on this issue back in February last year, when I called on the Government to end the policy, but we have had a number of opportunities in the House since then to voice our opposition, which includes opposition on the Government’s own Back Benches. The best chance we had to get rid of the bedroom tax was in November last year, when the Government came tantalisingly close to being defeated in the Commons in a vote following a Labour Opposition day debate. A defeat in the Commons would have forced the Government to rethink their approach, because it would have shown that even their own Back Benchers in the coalition—

Pamela Nash: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Whiteford: I said that I would not take any more interventions, so I will not. [Interruption.] Well, I did say that earlier.

A defeat in the Commons would have forced the Government to rethink their approach, because it would have shown that even their own Back Benchers in the coalition recognised the manifest injustice of the bedroom tax, but that vote was lost by a margin of 26 votes, and 47 Labour MPs did not vote for their own motion. They included 10 Scottish Labour MPs, who apparently were in cosy pairing arrangements with their Tory counterparts. That was the best real chance we had at Westminster to sink the bedroom tax, and it was wasted.

I am well aware that there are often very legitimate reasons why Members of the House of Commons cannot attend votes. At times, all of us will have to deal with illness, bereavement, caring responsibilities or competing

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demands from our constituencies, but for matters of importance, most of us will move heaven and earth to be in the Lobby when we need to be. Those who missed that vote need to ask themselves whether what they were doing was really more important than voting down the bedroom tax.

Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Whiteford: I am winding up my speech, so I will not give way. The bedroom tax and the other changes to our tax and benefits system that are fuelling poverty and hardship in communities across Scotland are the price that we pay for being governed by people we did not vote for. Scottish MPs overwhelmingly opposed the bedroom tax, but we have it anyway, and even now we cannot get rid of it; we can only seek to limit the damage that it is causing. The bedroom tax illustrates perfectly why Scotland needs decision-making powers on these issues. I am looking forward to the day when the people of Scotland have a Parliament with the normal powers of a normal state, a Parliament that is elected by us, responsive to us and accountable to us and that can consign the bedroom tax to history once and for all.

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