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The bedroom tax and Bermondsey

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This week the Lib Dems claimed they didn't support the Bedroom Tax. Bermondsey and Old Southwark Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes was the main media spokesperson on the issue. On the same day the Lib Dems announced their (latest) change of position, Tory attempts to water down Human Rights protections for UK citizens were also announced. The Minister for Justice (Lib Dem Simon Hughes MP) was nowhere to be found on this issue.

But on the Bedroom Tax, Hughes was prominently claiming not to support a policy he voted for at least six times.

The more politically astute will know Hughes has form for duplicity, but he also claimed in 2013 he would oppose the harsh policy before supporting it alongside other Iain Duncan Smith policies which have come radically unstuck upon implementation.

Even when other Lib Dems voted against, Hughes was found in the Tory voting lobby. Party President Tim Farron MP voted against the policy despite Hughes voting for his Tory-led Government.

The real surprise about the Lib Dem volte face is how late it has come. They were warned about the damage the Bedroom Tax would do. The Department for Work and Pensions confirmed in 2011 that two-thirds of all the people affected by the policy would be disabled people. Charities, including the Disability Alliance, briefed Ministers right up to the Deputy Prime Minister (Lib Dem) Nick Clegg MP of the impact of the Bedroom Tax. I know, because I helped run Disability Alliance until 2012 and was at the meetings and wrote the briefings. The Lib Dems were not interested in listening.

Nor were the Lib Dems concerned at who would be affected. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and other charities took the Coalition to court to try and mitigate the worst effects of the Bedroom Tax. Thanks to charities like CPAG, some disabled children and their families were exempted from the Bedroom Tax by a legal judgement. The Lib Dems did not try and stop disabled children being affected, despite having a Minister in DWP since 2010 (Steve Webb).

Following losing the legal cases, the Coalition has shamelessly attempted to gag charities like Disability Alliance and CPAG. This could have prevented disabled children being exempt from the Bedroom Tax.

And Hughes' public renunciation of the Bedroom Tax comes too late for the thousands of people already hit by the policy in Southwark.

I have helped many people affected by the policy, including 56 year old Noreen in my ward who had retired early through ill health but was hit with the Bedroom Tax and a cut in council tax benefit caused by Hughes' votes in Parliament. Recently, I have helped a woman who had to move from her home of 39 years and another woman who has to move after 19 years in one flat. The people hit in Bermondsey and Old Southwark know only one of the borough's MPs voted for the Bedroom Tax.

My own ward, Newington, was the worst hit by the Bedroom Tax, but another area hit very hard by the policy is the Canada Estate in Rotherhithe. The local tenant's association chair Barry Duckett described the Bedroom Tax as having caused significant poverty and led to some residents shoplifting to eat: "stealing to survive" he put it. This would accord with foodbank use locally - which has risen dramatically since the Lib Dems took office. Barry also highlighted what the Coalition and Lib Dem Ministers chose to ignore: that there aren't enough homes for people to move into. Southwark council has been forced to spend thousands of pounds subsidising the Bedroom Tax: moving some people; paying Discretionary Housing Payments and Hardship Funds to even more people; and taking council staff time off other activities.

Labour will abolish the Bedroom Tax if we win the election next May. There is a chance to test the Lib Dems' new-found opposition to the Bedroom Tax in the coming months. Labour will force another vote to the Commons when Parliament returns after the summer recess. It will be a further chance to examine whether Hughes is able to regain one principle, or whether he will still put his Ministerial salary ahead of the needs of thousands of people in Bermondsey and Old Southwark.

If you have been affected by the Bedroom Tax, I would like to hear about your experience. Please complete the short survey.

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