The Liberal Democrats have been accused of hypocrisy after dramatically withdrawing support for the controversial Government welfare reform branded the “bedroom tax”.
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander said significant changes were needed to the policy and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg claimed the Tories did not want it to be fixed.
The U-turn – which caught David Cameron by surprise – was dismissed by the Conservatives, who insisted they remained committed to the policy.
Meanwhile, shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, said Mr Clegg was guilty of “unbelievable hypocrisy”.
“The Lib Dems voted for the bedroom tax,” she said. “There wouldn’t be a bedroom tax if it wasn’t for the Lib Dems. And in February when Labour tabled a bill to scrap the bedroom tax, the Lib Dems were nowhere to be seen.”
Under the welfare reform, social tenants deemed to have more bedrooms than they need have had their housing benefit reduced, to tackle what the Government calls a “spare room subsidy”.
But an internal government review published this week showed almost 60 per cent of households affected by the housing benefit changes were in arrears as a result and a shortage of smaller properties meant just 4.5 per cent of tenants had been able to downsize to avoid it.
Mr Alexander said no-one should face a cut in state help if there was no suitable smaller property available and all disabled claimants should be exempt.
He said it was the evidence in the report which triggered the shift in the Lib Dem position rather than the hope of a popularity boost with voters after months of poor poll ratings for the party.
He said: “The reason for doing it now is we had a debate at our party conference last September, we said then that we would look at the official evaluation, there is a detailed evaluation being carried out of this policy.
“That evaluation was published two days ago and that confirmed some of the issues that our party had been raising.
“That’s the reason for the timing, it’s off the back of the detailed evidence of some of the impacts.”
He rejected the accusation of hypocrisy, saying: “We are part of the Government and the principle is the right one, which is that people should be paid housing benefit according to the number of rooms that they need.
“This is about how that policy is applied in practice, it’s about listening to the evidence and significantly adjusting the policy in the light of that evidence.”
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said that the Lib Dem policy shift had not been discussed with the Prime Minister or Chancellor George Osborne.
He said: “At the end of the day, there has not been a change in policy. It is open for parties to make commitments for their manifestos, but the Government policy hasn’t changed and won’t be changing.”
Mr Clegg told LBC radio it was “complete baloney” for the Conservatives to claim that they were surprised by the Lib Dem announcement. He added: “I want to fix this. The Conservatives apparently don’t - they just want to carry on making the same mistakes. Labour don’t even want to deal with the problem.”