MPs debate impact of housing benefit cuts on Wales

There are few current political issues more controversial than the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy/under-occupancy penalty (delete as appropriate).

Anger is rarely far from the surface among its opponents, who see the cuts to housing benefit paid to tenants of council and social housing as a tax on the poor.

Perhaps it was the more informal setting of Westminster Hall, the parallel House of Commons chamber, but this afternoon's debate on the changes in Wales involved contributions that were unusually calm and reasoned despite deep political differences. Perhaps the tone was set by the chair of the Welsh affairs committee, David Davies, who won cross-party praise for the way he handled its inquiry into such a partisan subject.

Today's arguments were familiar, although both sides could rely on a year of experience to back up their arguments. Labour, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat MPs told the debate that the changes had caused hardship and stress to tenants.

The change, introduced a year ago, means that tenants in council and housing association homes that are deemed to be larger than they need have their housing benefit cut by 14 % for one spare room and 25 % for two. A higher proportion of tenants in Wales were affected than elsewhere, according to the select committee's report.

Work and Pensions Minister Steve Webb said only three of the 22 local authorities in Wales applied for extra UK government funding to help mitigate the impact of the cuts. He said only Cardiff, Conwy and Caerphilly had bid for a share of an additional £20m top-up fund set aside by the government.

"No other local authority in Wales asked us for a penny," said Mr Webb. "We cannot simultaneously say there is un-met need in Newport, Swansea and in other areas, local authorities are having to turn needy people away, when those local authorities didn't ask us for the money to top up their DHP (discretionary housing payment) budget.

"Now what are those local authorities doing? If it's the case that they have constituents for whom the impact of this tax, of the change that's been made is inappropriate or harsh or unfair - the many words that have been used - what were their local authorities doing not drawing down the additional money that was available?"