Bedroom Tax and reconciliation

It would be fair to say I often deploy sarcasm or humour in the things I write. Here, I need to make something perfectly clear, and in an unequivocal manner: I am entirely opposed to the views and policies of the DUP – the Democratic Unionist Party – with regard to their archaic stance on abortion, equal marriage, equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and climate change.

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When I sat down to write these words, my intention was to ask a simple question: In the event of some form of coalition between the Conservative party and the DUP, would the housing sector, which is in a period of change and discovery on issues of equality, support housing policies determined by a government only in office through anti-abortion, anti-equality climate change deniers?

Perhaps this is still an interesting question.

Originally I envisaged this piece being a juxtaposition of the principles people proclaim to hold, and a detached sort of ‘realpolitik’ that would mean people would say “Well, housing is a devolved matter, so we don’t have to worry about whether we’re quietly supporting ideas from the Jurassic Age, it’s nothing to do with us. In the housing bubble, realpolitik is viewed simply as pragmatism to get policy implemented without conflict.

Then something strange happened when I went to gather evidence for a case to resist a government beholden to a party that does not believe in women’s reproductive rights.

Rifling through the DUP’s manifesto, and the voting records of some of their MPs, it turns out that despite the fact they hold terrible views that we should challenge, their policies on housing and social care are considerably more progressive than Gavin Barwell’s.

Issues around welfare reform have also been a particular focus of the DUP, taking a stance much more in favour of ordinary working families than our government has. Nowhere is all this summed up better than a Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland briefing, urging the DUP to protect both tenants and the housing sector from brutal cuts set in Westminster, reported at the time here on 24housing.

This brings us back to the issue of realpolitik. There are now a majority of MPs in the House of Commons opposed to the Bedroom Tax. There is an argument about devolved policy here, but the Bedroom Tax was implemented before English Votes for English Laws stopped MPs from taking a UK-wide approach to later housing and welfare policy.

For a brief moment I had the horrible feeling that I was considering the benefits of allying with the DUP in order to get rid of the bedroom tax. Fortunately, it turns out this would not be necessary. A vote on the bedroom tax would simply be a matter of parliamentary mathematics. Regardless of whether the DUP are in a formal or informal alliance with the Conservatives, to give a tiny majority of 2 seats, more MPs now oppose bedroom tax than support it.

Other things that have been muddied by the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ legislation could also have been brought into the limelight. There are now more MPs opposed to the sale of housing association homes to tenants than support it, although crucially for England, not in England.

There are more MPs opposed to cutting the rents payable in supported and sheltered housing to the Local Housing Allowance rate, than support it, currently in the House of Commons.

The argument about many of these things being devolved is a good one, but as with the bedroom tax, governments in Scotland, and Northern Ireland and theoretically Wales, would not be able to abolish policies like bedroom tax without being expected to pay for it. The amount of money the Westminster government allocates in block grants would be reduced to make sure that tenants are not supported.

It might be easy for Theresa May, with her rudimentary grasp of politics and Gavin Barwell with his rudimentary understanding of the effects of his housing and welfare policies to ignore the devastating effects of their policies on lower earners. As Citizen’s Advice Bureaux are busier than ever and foodbanks feed ever more people, as Universal Credit is about to reintroduce cuts to child tax credits, disabled people face more cuts and carers are continuously taunted with shifting earning thresholds, it’s difficult to see what kind of country for everyone is being hammered out, here.

We should all continue to ask ourselves how much support we should give to a government beholden to anti-abortion climate change deniers. This may ignore the fact there were 8 MPs from the DUP in our government before this election and nobody batted an eyelid. We should be working to ensure that their archaic views are changed, we should be unequivocal about those views having no place in the modern world.

Taking a moral stance on these issues might be made more difficult when the DUP hold the moral high ground over Conservative policy on housing and welfare, but that’s no reason for us not to do it.

In the meantime, now is the time for an Opposition Day debate on the social sector size criteria, the removal of the spare room subsidy, and Housing Benefit Regulation B13. There is a parliamentary majority for getting rid of Bedroom Tax, and we should exercise it before the government collapses.

I would like to thank CIH Northern Ireland’s Justin Cartwright for pointing me towards their stance on the housing and welfare angles, and both he and Nicola McCrudden for discussing it with me a bit on Twitter, where the contributions of a number of other people helped me shape my pondering.

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