It is not easy to effect change from the Opposition benches – by definition as the Opposition, we do not have the numbers to outvote the government. We have to seize whatever opportunities we can to put pressure on Government ministers to change course or get enough Government MPs to rebel. This week, on our return to Parliament, we have one such opportunity, as the Lib Dem MP Andrew George, who has the first Private Member’s Bill in this session of Parliament, has chosen to introduce a bill which will exempt disabled people from the bedroom tax. To his credit, Andrew George MP has been consistent in his criticism of the bedroom tax, but the irony is that if his party, the Liberal Democrats, had opposed it in the first place, on one of the six previous opportunities that they have had to do so, there would not have been thousands of families, including 1,341 households in Carmarthenshire alone, hit by the bedroom tax, and left short of money to pay the rent. Anyhow, the important thing now is that we get behind Andrew George and back his bill, which is why I, together with my Labour colleagues, will be staying up in Parliament on Friday, when I would normally be attending to duties in the constituency. Now we need enough LibDem or Tory MPs to help us win the vote.
The bedroom tax is a cruel tax, which penalises people for living in the very homes that the Council has allocated to them. We all appreciate the need to free up three-bedroom houses for families, but bedroom tax rules mean that a 3-bedroom house is deemed too big even for a couple with two teenage boys, and there are simply nowhere near enough smaller properties for people to move to. In fact, less than 5% of people affected have managed to move. Furthermore, it makes absolutely no sense moving a disabled person from a specially adapted property, and incurring more cost adapting another property. Andrew’s bill seeks to exempt some people such as disabled people from the bedroom tax, which is a good start – any measure to abolish this penalty on the disabled is to be welcomed – but we need to go much further and repeal the bedroom tax for all those affected, which Labour will certainly do if we are elected at the general election next year. We will also tackle the root causes of the rising cost of housing benefit, which, we should remember is paid to many people who are IN WORK but whose household income is deemed too low to cover the rent. To that end, we will make work pay, by strengthening the minimum wage (currently £6.50 an hour from Oct 2014), so that it will not be eroded by inflation, and we will raise it gradually to be 60% of the average median wage. We will also extend the living wage (currently £7.65 an hour) with incentives to employers to introduce it, and we will increase housing stock. Labour–led Carmarthenshire has already made a modest start on this by building small bungalows in Llanelli and Kidwelly, and through work to bring forgotten properties back into use, but with a Labour Government in Westminster, we could do so much more.