The coalition government sees its majority reduced to 26 in an opposition debate on the so-called “bedroom tax”, as Liberal Democrat MPs voice their disquiet over the controversial policy.
Labour had called on Lib Dem MPs to defy their Conservative coalition partners and vote against the spare room subsidy. It tabled a motion calling for its abolition, but was defeated by 252 votes to 26.
The government usually achieves majorities of more than 50, which shows some Lib Dem members carried out their threat to vote against the coalition government or abstain.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves told Channel 4 News after the vote that the spare room subsidy was “cruel and unworkable” and penalised vulnerable people.
Opening the opposition day debate in the Commons, she said Lib Dem members should reflect the views of their own party conference.
She condemned Work and Pensions Minister Steve Webb, a Lib Dem MP, for defending a policy that was at odds with what his party felt.
At the Lib Dem conference, a motion compelling the party to carry out an immediate evaluation of the impact of the policy on vulnerable people was carried by the vast majority of members.
Ms Reeves said: “It’s a shame that the pensions minister does not listen to his own party, who only in September at the Liberal Democrat party conference voted overwhelmingly against the bedroom tax, saying that it is ‘discriminating against the most vulnerable in society’ and noted that the government had shown ‘a lack of appreciation of the housing requirements of children and adults with disabilities and care needs’.”
Ms Reeves said Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith had “scuttled off” to Paris, leaving Mr Webb to defend the government.
She added: “Let me be very clear – if I am secretary of state in 2015, this will be the first thing that I will do, reverse this unfair and pernicious tax.”
Shadow Northern Ireland minister Stephen Pound told MPs his brother, who has kidney failure, faced losing his home of 20 years because he has a spare bedroom he uses as a dialysis unit.
Senior Lib Dem MPs called for exemptions, with former leader Charles Kennedy saying allowances should be made for those living in rural constituencies like his own. Mr Webb said an extra £5m was being issued to councils in rural areas to support those affected by the cut in benefit.
His colleague Andrew George called the policy “immoral”, saying it victimised the marginalised, undermined family life and penalised the low paid and disabled.
Andrew Peacock, 48, from Bolton, is refusing to pay, writes North of England Correspondent Ciaran Jenkins.
His housing association, Bolton at Home, is now taking him to court and warning him that he could be evicted. He suffers from multiple scleroris and lives in a specially adapted house.
"They can come and try and take my home but they aren't having it," says Mr Peacock. "I've never paid a penny in bedroom tax and I'm not going to either. My four-year-old son stays here on weekends and holidays, so the room isn't spare and I'm not paying for it.
"If the bailiffs come I won't let them in and the community will be here to support me. I believe the public is on my side."
Bolton at Home Chief Executive Jon Lord told Channel 4 News: "We have served Mr Peacock with a 'notice seeking possession', although his case has not yet been submitted to court, and we have asked him to pay off a proportion of his rent arrears or to actively engage with us to do so before the 24.11.13. This is standard process for anyone who hasn't paid their rent and even once this date is reached, it doesn't mean we will take further action providing Mr Peacock is making efforts to reduce his debt.
"Our 'no homelessness policy' guarantees that any tenant evicted from their home as a result of rent arrears due to the bedroom tax will be provided with another home, as long as the tenant demonstrates they have made reasonable efforts to manage their rent situation and/or to explore moving options with us."
Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes said the government should exempt anyone who had applied to live in a smaller property.
Mr Webb said the coalition was currently addressing demands made at the Lib Dem conference, including a review of the impact of the policy, adding: “The idea that (Labour) can reverse this change by finding £500m from some obscure corners is implausible. Many of them would not raise anything like the sorts of amounts we are talking about.
“We recognise that it is not appropriate to expect everyone to move to a smaller property and that is why we have trebled the discretionary housing payments.
“We need action on overcrowding. We need fairness between social and private tenants. We need action on the deficit. (Labour) has no answers to those problems. The coalition has addressed them.”
The government’s spare room subsidy, dubbed the “bedroom tax” by critics, came into effect in April. Under the reforms, people renting social housing who are claiming housing benefit lose a proportion of their benefit if they are deemed to be under-occuping their property.
So far, 600,000 people have had their housing benefit cut by an average of £14 a week. A spare bedroom means a reduction of 14 per cent of housing benefit.
The government says it is making housing benefit fairer by ensuring that taxpayers are not subsidising social housing tenants who are living in homes that are too big for them.
The “bedroom tax” has made it harder to find tenants to rent three-bedroom properties, according to Wirral-based housing association Magenta Living, which is now considering demolishing some of its homes because of the problems it is having filling them.
It is also planning to add bathrooms to homes, in place of bedrooms. This will ensure benefit claimants are not financially penalised. The idea has been welcomed by former welfare reform minister Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead.