When does a bedroom tax turn into a spare room subsidy...?
Prime Minister’s Questions sketch by London Editor Graeme Demianyk.
On occasion, Prime Minister's Questions is reduced to little more than a shameless attempt to get a soundbite on the evening news. This was one of those occasions.
Admittedly, the policy both the Government and the Opposition were attempting to crow-bar into Nick Robinson's BBC package is a tough sell. At first glance, the under-occupancy penalty looks as dry as a bone. Perhaps something to do with parking.
Yet Labour has branded it the far more dramatic "bedroom tax", and used it as the stick to repeatedly beat the Government with in recent weeks. The Government, belatedly, has given it another name, unveiled for the first time yesterday by Prime Minister David Cameron. The "spare room subsidy", he said, also repeatedly.
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It's an important distinction, at least in the world of Westminster politics. You can probably match your political stripe to whether you believe it is a "tax" or a "subsidy".
I should explain, I'll stick to calling it the civil service-approved, non-political "under-occupancy penalty".
So, the reform will affect people claiming housing benefit and living in social housing, or what used to be known as a council house. If you have a spare room, the Government wants to reduce the amount of housing benefit you get.
A tenant will lose an average of £14 a week from next month.
Those, as far as one can tell, are the facts. The rest is interpretation or, put less charitably, spin.
The Government brushed off early criticism, defending the cut on the basis that a) state handouts are "out of control" and b) small families or individuals living in large properties are denying scarce social housing from those trapped on waiting lists.
But Labour weren't having that, dubbing it the "bedroom tax" and warning the poorest and most vulnerable faced a) losing money they desperately needed or b) the upheaval of moving to a smaller home, if there is a smaller home to move into.
And while the Government hoped it might fade into the background, Labour plugged away something like this:
Labour: "The 'bedroom tax' will hit households keeping a spare room free for family members in the armed forces abroad."
The Government: "It's not a tax."
Labour: "The 'bedroom tax' will hit households where tenants are disabled."
The Government: "It's not a tax, and people with severely disabled children and people who need round-the-clock care are exempt."
Labour: "The 'bedroom tax' will hit separated parents who keep a room free for visiting sons or daughters."
The Government: "It's not a tax."
Television news has since carried a series of heart-breaking stories about genuine hard-luck cases hit by the penalty, yet ministers contend the principle of the reform holds true.
And so to PMQs. Backbench Labour MPs began the assault. Derek Twigg MP said the Government should drop the "callous" policy.
Mr Cameron said: "Let us be absolutely clear that this is not a tax. Let me explain to the Labour party that a tax is when someone earns some money and the Government take some of that money away from them – that is a tax. Only Labour could call a benefit reform a tax increase." And here's where the Prime Minister upped the ante: "How can it be fair that people on housing benefit in private rented accommodation do not get a spare room subsidy, whereas people in social housing do? That is not fair and we are putting that right."
For the record, "spare room subsidy" was mentioned seven times during its first public airing – all by the Prime Minister. The "bedroom tax" got ten mentions – seven times by Labour leader Ed Miliband.
In fact, Mr Miliband blended his latest "bedroom tax" barrage with an attack on Chancellor George Osborne's attempts to block an EU cap on generous bankers' bonuses.
"He pulls out all the stops to defend the bankers and their bonuses, but he has nothing to say to the disabled people being hit by his 'bedroom tax'," snorted the Labour leader. "He stands up for the wrong people. It is no wonder his backbenchers and the country think he is totally out of touch."
Mr Cameron was unfazed: "What we have heard today is what we hear every single Wednesday. The Opposition will not support one single change to welfare."
And there is Westminster politics in a nutshell. Labour says the Government is too easy on the rich; the Government says Labour is too weak on welfare. Expect the same next week and beyond.