Clare Foges, the Prime Minister’s former speechwriter, makes a welcome foray into political commentary today. Among her various suggestions for ways to reset the Tory reputation, there’s a particularly attention-grabbing comment about the “bedroom tax”:
“Move on from the bedroom tax. It is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a principled mea culpa moment and move on.”
Of course, the policy has been the focus of huge controversy - it formed the focus for numerous protests and gained a sizeable chunk of airtime in Labour’s election campaign.
But that opposition has come largely from the left – until now. Foges is voicing something that I’ve been picking up on over the last couple of weeks: Tory doubts over the policy are growing behind the scenes. Daniel Kawczynski MP recently told me that not only did he question how it was working in practice, but that trusted activists were spontaneously asking him to press the Government to ditch it. “We need to probe what changes and improvements need to be made on this to minimise difficulties for those in genuine need,” he argues.
Some of those in the wider conservative movement who follow the technicalities of such policies also point to the troubled practicalities of the bedroom tax. Not only is it not saving as much money as intended, but they fear it is hurting groups such as carers who are caught up in its broad sweep despite their personal circumstances. They argue that while it’s perfectly reasonable for the Government to want to reduce taxpayer funding of over-occupancy, that goal isn’t well-served by exempting pensioners (who are the biggest single group of over-occupiers, tending as they do to remain in the family home after their children have moved out) or by simply reducing the benefits of people who are unable to move because of a lack of available smaller homes.
I’m also told the general feeling at the top of the Government – DWP team aside – is similar: that the policy simply isn’t working out sufficiently well to make the political pain a justifiable cost.
Those problems are, in part, down to some Labour councils failing – by incompetence or malign design – to do all they can to help people who find themselves unfairly punished by the policy. As Nick Clegg said in 2013, some have returned money to central Government rather than using it to make Discretionary Housing Payments. If some local authorities really are trying to score political points by harming their residents unnecessarily then that’s disgraceful, but it doesn’t explain the wider problems with the policy.
These Tory doubts come at a time when, as Foges argues, people are mulling different ways to make the most of the election victory in terms of resetting the Conservative Party’s reputation (I made my own suggestion a couple of weeks ago).
So does that mean change might come? It’s unlikely – Duncan Smith has fought a long battle on the topic, and it’s hard to see him accepting a reverse on the subject. Similarly, while Foges and Kawczynski are speaking out, many others prefer to keep their doubts to themselves, lest they appear to be disruptive early in the new parliament. It may be widely considered to be a not very successful policy, but the chances are it is here to stay.