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Labour's policy on reforming housing benefit is in disarray

By Jonathan Isaby

ConHome house housing cartoon Harry has noted elsewhere this morning the confused position the Labour leader in Camden is taking on housing benefit reform.

And confusion reigns supreme this morning too as to what the national Labour Party position is on the issue.

The Labour manifesto from April this year (written by one Ed Miliband) stated that "Housing Benefit will be reformed to ensure that we do not subsidise people to live in the private sector on rents that other ordinary working families could not afford" - a line sounding not exactly dissimilar to that now being pursued by the Coalition.

But Miliband had changed his tune by mid-July, cited on the Labour Uncut website in reference to welfare reform:

"We shouldn’t talk about getting things reversed, it assumes that we’ve lost the argument. I think some of the things we’ve got to do about benefit changes, I’m particularly worried about what’s happening on Housing Benefit, is to stop those changes happening."

By 24th October the newly appointed shadow work and pensions secretary Douglas Alexander was telling Andrew Marr:

"You’re right, Housing Benefit is an issue that needs to be reformed."

Yet later that week, Miliband reverted to outright opposition to reform, telling the Scottish Labour conference:

"A week from Tuesday we will force a vote in the House of Commons on housing benefit. Our appeal is to all MPs of conscience: Join us, vote against these unfair and unworkable changes and force the government to think again."

This didn't stop shadow health secretary John Helaey telling Sky News last weekend that "those top-level benefits do need to be capped", yet on the very same day shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan gave an altogether different impression when appearing on the BBC's Politics Show:

"Would we have a cap of £400 for those receiving Housing Benefits in four-bedroom properties who… it will mean have to move out of inner cities, London, other cities, and move to outer suburbs with huge turmoil to those families… would we take away that? Answer again is no."

Yet in today's Guardian, Douglas Alexander appears to accept that there is a need for a cap after all, saying that he supports the principle the Coalition has proposed and that "if the government produced a proposal for a staged and lower percentile reduction over years that is something we could consider."

It is next Tuesday that Alexander has called a Commons debate in Opposition time to discuss this very issue. Perhaps by then Labour may have established a credible position on the matter...