Ex-Cabinet minister Peter Lilley has unwittingly put his finger on a possible answer to the “spare bedrooms” issue, which has been used to justify the iniquitous Bedroom Tax. Interviewed on BBC Radio Five Live, the former Social Security Secretary attempted to defend savage cuts to Housing Benefit by remarking that his constituents are always complaining that they’re overcrowded in their one-bedroom social housing units. Why then, argued Lilley, is it fair for other tenants to “under-occupy”, and have one or two “spare bedrooms”?
The problem is, of course, that as in all its dealings with the poorer end of society, the Coalition has decided that the bludgeon is the most effective instrument of Government. Hence the rightly-hated Bedroom Tax; ill-conceived, improperly thought-out, poorly presented and unfair to the nth degree. No account is taken of whether there is a genuine option for people affected to move to smaller properties, nor of whether the cost of this undertaking is feasible for them. Any consideration of the distinct needs of the disabled, which may medically justify the use of separate bedrooms for couples, has been specifically ruled out.
A possible answer – a fair, practicable answer at that – lies within the rhetoric of Lilley’s attempted justification of the unjustifiable. If, as he says, there is still a big problem of people suffering from overcrowding, and being in need of larger properties currently under-occupied by smaller families – then why not simply engineer some means whereby these two groups can be made aware of each other and thereby facilitate property swaps? A large part of the reason why the “under-occupiers” won’t be moving is the lack of availability of smaller properties. If “swaps” could be facilitated, on a large enough scale, then we could have a mutually satisfactory solution to the problems of both groups. It would be necessary of course to incentivise such a plan – perhaps a transitional payment and/or financial assistance with removal costs and other formalities. It’s a question of square pegs in square holes – the solution should be neat and simple. But the Government don’t see it that way, because they’re instinctively suspicious of the motives of the poor, who they see as wishing to hang on to their “something for nothing” at all costs, and they are therefore determined to hammer these unfortunates who have no scope to either move on, or pay the rent arising out of the imposed cuts in Housing Benefit.
The whole issue comes down to this Government’s pathological preference for the stick over the carrot. They are bolstered in this instinct by the leanings of their natural supporters, Mail readers and the like, who wish to see “the smack of firm government” applied to anyone who has been sufficiently demonised by a press that seems intent on disseminating Tory propaganda. The ultimate aims of the Bedroom Tax haven’t been all that well clarified either. We hear about the “unfairness” of under-occupation, but it’s being acknowledged that a primary goal is to save on the Housing Benefit bill, with half a billion pounds being mooted as a first year economy. How does this help get larger families into larger properties? Cutting the income of the “under-occupiers” is hardly the best way of persuading them to incur removal costs to move to a smaller property, possibly in the private sector at a higher rent – because all the over-crowded families are in the one-bedroom social housing properties. It’s a real mess, round pegs in square holes, square pegs in round holes, and no strategy to facilitate any sort of reversal to mutual advantage.
Ministers right now are in a full state of alert, ready at the drop of a hat to respond to annoying and inconvenient criticism from the likes of church organisations, fully primed to do their best to defend the indefensible, as Peter Lilley was clumsily attempting to do. To this end, they are prepared to come out, bare-faced with the most unconscionable rubbish. Iain Duncan-Smith, a man who recently claimed £39 expenses for one breakfast, has asserted that he would be able to live on benefit subsistence levels of £53 weekly. Utter nonsense, of course, but this is a symptom of desperation in the face of a tidal wave of opposition, for a government that will brook no alternative. The problem these ministers have is that they are increasingly aware the measures they’re being asked to speak up for are bad policies, and – much, much worse for any mid-term government – bad politics. The current administration are wide-open to charges of callousness, misrepresenting salient facts about poverty and an abject failure, indeed refusal, to listen to any source – however well-informed – that doesn’t unswervingly endorse their chosen path. That’s the kind of leadership that got Thatcher removed – and David Cameron, if he hasn’t already given up hope of winning the next election, increasingly looks in dire need of a Plan B.
Practically, I believe that what I might be tempted to term “The Lilley Plan”, allied to sensible investment in the construction industry, could go a long way towards solving the conflicting issues of over-crowding and under-occupancy – as long as it would be properly funded and incentivised. It’s still a matter of trying to get people to move out of homes they may have lived in for years after all; which is still uncomfortably close to social engineering. But if carrots are tried, for once – instead of the endless battalions of Tories wielding sticks – then maybe some progress could be made, and there would be benefits too for the wider economy of more investment in construction; jobs, taxes raised, housing options created, growth – that sort of thing. They’re all distant and unattainable dreams for the Coalition at the moment, but maybe, just maybe, a little more of an imaginative approach to government might reap some reward.
But it is the Tories we’re dealing with here, and they’re brought up from the nursery to think they know best so – you know – don’t hold your breath.