Sheffield MP Nick Clegg has been accused of ‘unbelievable hypocrisy’ after the Liberal Democrats did a U-turn on the controversial ‘bedroom tax’ the party backed.
The party has now called for a fundamental reform of the measure, one of the Government’s highest-profile welfare reforms, and said it could be in their next manifesto.
Under the welfare reform, social tenants deemed to have more bedrooms than they need have had their housing benefit reduced, to tackle what the Government calls a “spare room subsidy”.
The shift came a day after the publication of a Government review that showed almost 60 per cent of households affected by the housing benefit changes were in arrears as a result and a shortage of smaller properties meant just 4.5 per cent of tenants had been able to downsize to avoid it.
Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said the report showed the changes “aren’t working as well as we had hoped.”
This change of heart is significant as the Liberal Democrats have remained united with the Conservatives over deficit reduction.
Labour, which plans to challenge Lib Dem ministers to back its commitment to scrap the policy in a fresh Commons vote, have accused Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg of “unbelievable hypocrisy”.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said: “This is unbelievable hypocrisy from Nick Clegg.
“The Lib Dems voted for the bedroom tax. There wouldn’t be a bedroom tax if it wasn’t for the Lib Dems. And in February when Labour tabled a bill to scrap the bedroom tax, the Lib Dems were nowhere to be seen.”
Mr Clegg said today: “Unlike Labour, we are not sticking our heads in the sand. Of course you need to do something about housing benefit reform, of course you have to do something about overcrowding. “Unlike the Conservatives, we want to do it as fairly as possible.
“The real trigger was that we published a report, commissioned by the Government itself, which simply showed it wasn’t working in the way that was intended.
“I’m a practical man. I think that when something isn’t working in the way that you planned for it to work, you fix it.”
He denied it represented a sudden U-turn: “This is something my party has been saying for a long time. We first as a party said that this is the approach we want to take publicly last year, it’s something that a cross-party committee in the House of Commons... said that this is the change we should make.
“We then wanted to wait for the evidence. I’m an old-fashioned person when it comes to policy, I think you should be led by the evidence. The evidence this week was quite clear that it’s not working as was intended.”
Mr Clegg said it was “complete baloney” for the Conservatives to claim that they were surprised by the Lib Dem announcement: “I’ve been constantly badgering away within Government with the DWP to try to make sure we really stress-test this properly.
“We have constantly said that we want to look at how this policy is working in practice.”
He added: “I want to fix this. The Conservatives apparently don’t - they just want to carry on making the same mistakes. Labour don’t even want to deal with the problem.”
Mr Clegg said the plan set out by Mr Alexander would be fairer and more effective and would “over time encourage more people to downsize where they can.”