Posted by: Jules Birch02/11/2011
Some might say about time too but it’s still good to see some Lib Dem influence on housing at last.
This week has already seen signs of the party’s influence within government (with the announcement of council tax changes on second homes and empty property) and on the backbenches (praying against cuts to the shared room rate).
Unfortunately, it has also seen the Lib Dems accused of sabotaging amendments to the Legal Aid Bill that would have helped people facing repossession.
It’s a pattern that has become familiar under the coalition with Lib Dem ministers emerging from near invisibility to nudge things in their direction or put a questionable gloss on government policy and and backbenchers promising principled opposition only to melt away when it comes to the crunch.
Those council tax changes first. At first glance, the plans announced by Eric Pickles on Monday actually look like like a real achievement for Lib Dem housing minister Andrew Stunell. A consultation paper proposes that councils should have the option to charge full council tax on second homes and empty homes and seeks views on whether councils should be able to levy an empty homes premium on homes empty for more than two years. At the moment second homes get a 10 to 50 per cent council tax discount and empty ones a 100 per cent discount.
Both are Lib Dem priorities, as Stunell was not slow to argue in his speech to the party conference in September or in a piece on Tuesday for the Libdemvoice website. They will not go far enough for many party members - at CLG questions on Monday Pickles squashed a suggestion by Lib Dem MP Stephen Gilbert that councils should have the power to limit the number of second and holiday homes in their area as ‘rather difficult and open to abuse - but, hey, that’s the nature of coalition.
More troubling for the party in the long term may be the spin that sources close to Pickles applied to the announcement in advance: that the coalition’s decision not to conduct a council tax revaluation effectively rules out the Lib Dem case for a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million. That also scuppers the party’s fairness argument that if the Tories want to scrap the 50p tax rate they should replace it with the new property tax.
The opposition to the shared room rent cuts emerged in an early day motion sponsored by Lib Dem backbenchers John Leech and Adrian Sanders plus Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Alan Meale and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. Since signed by five more MPs including two more Lib Dems (Gilbert and Andrew George) it’s a technical move to ‘pray against’ or oppose a cut that will otherwise be introduced by secondary legislation. Gilbert tells Inside Housing that he hopes it will make the government think again.
It remains to be seen whether it will make any real difference. Time after time in the Commons over the last year Lib Dem backbenchers have spoken out against other housing benefit cuts in the Welfare Reform Bill or housing changes in the Localism Bill only for most of them to melt away when it actually comes to a vote.
And that seems to be what happened in the Commons on Monday night in the report stage debate on the Legal Aid Bill. The Lib Dems had put down amendments preserving legal aid in cases including earlier advice for people facing repossession.
However, a furious Labour justice spokesman Andy Slaughter told The Guardian: ‘Several times last night Liberal Democrats made speeches lauding legal aid, but when asked if they would push their amendments to the vote, declined and said they hoped the Lords would intervene.
’They then voted against Labour amendments that had the same effect as their own amendments. As the day drew to a close, they further allied with their Tories to filibuster so we wouldn’t reach social welfare legal aid. It’s all part of a disgraceful new set of tactics designed to allow Liberal Democrats to have their cake and eat it too.’
A Lib Dem spokesman said they may have been probing amendments to stimulate debate and that their MPs may have taken the view that the government might change its mind once the legislation reached the House of Lords.
It’s hard being the junior partner in a coalition. You have to negotiate things in the background and it’s hard to make rebellions in parliament count when half of your MPs are on the government payroll and bound to vote for it.
Sometimes you retreat into self-delusion about your real achievements (as with Stunell’s glossing over of the difference between social and affordable rent and Steve Webb’s claim that criticism of housing benefit cuts is ‘exaggerated’).
But the strategy of waiting for the government to change its mind does not seem to be a great success so far.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context