There has been a lot of noise about the Lib Dem's change of position/u turn on the bedroom tax announced on Wednesday. Out of that noise, it has been possible to glean a little detail about what Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and the Lib Dem leadership are proposing as their position. In particular, this Channel 4 news interview with Danny Alexander repays watching. (Apart from the fact that it is a spectacular car crash, in which Danny Alexander tries and fails to cope with the point that everyone knew, before the bedroom tax was introduced, what the effects would be, so trying to rely on the 'now we know' DWP report as a scales from the eyes revelation is a bit, you know, pathetic).
(Interview is here if not displayed below)
- Nobody to face the bedroom tax unless they refuse an offer of a 'suitable' smaller property.
An exemption for disabled adults. But while Danny Alexander in the Mirror said "Disabled adults should be treated the same as disabled children, by permanently exempting them", it turns out that Danny Alexander did not understand his government's current policy. What the Lib Dems apparently mean is an exemption for people who need an extra bedroom for reasons of medical disability, but that is not the current position for disabled children, so who really knows?
That is it. (oh, except for a new duty on social landlords to "manage their stock more effectively so more people get put into the right home". Because currently they just put people in willy nilly, caring not about bedrooms, their stock or policies).
The spin is that this would practically exempt almost everyone, unless until they were offered a suitable downsized place and refused it. And thus, the Lib Dems announce, being equivalent to the LHA provisions.
But for every housing professional, let alone housing lawyers, these proposals are enough to raise eyebrows.
Let us start with this 'offer of a suitable smaller property'. An offer? By and large social landlords don't make offers on downsizing transfers. People bid, with allocated priority, on choice based letting schemes, as a rule. So there is no 'offer' to be refused. Are we to have a whole new scheme of downsizing 'offers'? Or limits on bidding and not accepting? That would be a big change for CBL schemes.
Even if there was an offer (and social landlords changed their transfer practices to include direct offers, with all the related costs in doing so), what does 'suitable' mean? Are we talking importing the Part VII Housing Act 1996 version of suitability? And with it the review and county court appeal process? Or would it be appeal to the FTT on the basis of suitability - I have to think surely not as that is an appeal to the FTT is on a benefit decision, not the landlord's decision on suitability on an offer of a smaller property. If not akin to Part VII, what is the definition of suitable? And how can the landlord's decision be reviewed or challenged? And can the benefit authority actually rely on the landlord's decision as to a suitable downsizing offer in law? You can see the judicial reviews lining up...
And then a disability exemption, but on what terms? Given Danny Alexander's utter ignorance of the current state of exemption in relation to disabled children, (For anyone not aware by now, like Danny Alexander only not in charge of Government policy, this is roughly Yes for children who cannot share a room by reason of disability - like Burnip/Gorry, but No for children who require an overnight carer - Rutherford, for example), what hope is there of a cogent definition of 'needs an additional bedroom by reason of disability'. I suspect a whole fresh round of FTT appeals would promptly result, and probably judicial reviews too.
Then there are the wider repercussions, as if an entirely new administrative process for both landlords and benefit authorities wasn't enough. Councils' transfer and allocation policies would need to be revised to incorporate the new rules. A lengthy and expensive process.
Oh, and then there is this supposed new duty to manage allocation more effectively. Whatever that might mean beyond pure PR guff. Social landlords will have to deal with it, despite it being deeply unclear what the 'duty' would amount to and how enforced.
I don't think this has been thought through, not one little bit, though clearly planned by the Lib Dems for weeks if not months. It is a hugely administratively expensive, legally dubious, challengeable set of tweaks to a failed policy.
As a face saver for supporting the policy in the first place, it would be very expensive indeed. And, as Danny Alexander keeps telling us, these are straitened times. Are the Lib Dems seriously asking us to pay to cover their embarrassment? Scrapping the bedroom tax would frankly be cheaper, and the better practical and legislative option.
And as a political move? Did they really not see coming the inevitable Labour votes on scrapping the bedroom tax, and the sheer public embarrassment of Lib Dems having to vote, yet again, for the current regulations? It was my first thought on seeing the Mirror headline.
Nevertheless, there is significance here. Whether it will have any effect in the current parliament is something to wait for, but now at least two of the main parties are against the bedroom tax as it stands. And who knows what the Lib Dems would vote for after the election.