8. Bedroom Tax

I have often wondered whether there was any limit to the outright stupidity of politicians?  This past election in the US with Romney’s off-the-record taped speech about the uselessness of 47 per cent of the voters — would be hard to beat. Prime Minister David Cameron’s introduction of the “Bedroom Tax” (in newspeak, his axe-wielding minister, Iain Duncan Smith, introduced this as a tax on the “spare bedroom subsidy”) is a psychological blunder from which he is unlikely to recover politically.

Cameron is facing re-election in two years and he is astute enough to recognize that the most powerful group of voters in the UK are women. The bedroom holds a special place in a woman’s psyche. The sanctity of the bedroom is consequently not something any politician worthy of the name should ever try to challenge. For a conservative government which has sought to dismantle the “nanny state” to then start measuring bedroom space is a recipe for being mocked-out of office.

British governments have a history of  taxes backfiring: The “Window Tax” of 1696 was introduced  by the Crown to make good “the deficiency of the clipped money.” Home owners were taxed on the number of windows in their houses. This resulted in thousands of windows being bricked-up all over the country- bringing dark and damp into the home. The tax was finally repealed by Parliament in mid-19th Century but the scars still abound around the country.

The English tradition that a man’s home is his castle goes back to even before William Pitt, who, speaking to the House of Commons in 1760 , declared that “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storms may enter,- the rain may enter- but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined  tenement.” Brave words but no listened to anymore.

Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax at the end of the 1980’s was introduced by the conservatives as  a “Community Charge” (actually it was a charge per head.) This tax resulted in Thatcher being pushed out of office. Can’t Tory politicians learn anything from the past?

A welfare reform minister told the House of Lords in March that “It’s only right that we bring fairness back to the system and make better use of the social housing stock.” He argued that there were millions of people on the social housing waiting lists and over a quarter of a million tenants living in overcrowded conditions. But cutting benefits for lower-income people because they have a spare room in their bungalow hardly seems the way forward.  Those people with a spare room now face paying more than £700 (or $1,100) extra per year. The move is expected to affect over 660,000 people when it comes into effect on April 1st. For the seriously stretched budget, this has the potential of cutting back around £500 million (or $750 million) in government expenditures.

Members of the Tea Party in the US would consider this as something of an April Fool’s joke. However, as protests have grown over the past months at this measure, the government has exempted foster carers, parents of children with disabilities or those with offspring serving in the armed forces.. But adults in wheel chairs are not exempt!

The Bedroom Tax seems an invasion of the truly private area of life essential for a civilized existence. While the new tax will not return Britain to four, five or six to a bed as the poor were used to in earlier centuries, it will impose hardship for families with an invalid adult, with adolescent children, or with family members returning from a hospital. Many couples prefer to sleep in separate rooms but the new laws do not take this into account.

The Labor MP Frank Field, who had been appointed by David Cameron to oversee action on poverty in the UK ,told a conference in London in late March that people should defy the new “bedroom tax” by bricking up doors and windows and knocking down dividing walls in their council houses. A London borough even suggested that to avoid paying the tax, tenants in dire straights should say they were taking in foster children!

The verdict on this tax is not yet in, but Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee wrote1 that “historians will see April 1st as the day that defines the Cameron government.” Perhaps there may not be the passionate protests in the streets of yesterday’s militants, but there are likely to be long faces in the Tory party when the polls reveal a critical plunge in their popularity. Alas, it is unlikely that they will learn from their folly.

1Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, March 27, 2013

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