Nick Clegg is facing a rebellion by grassroots Liberal Democrats who are demanding that he pledges to abolish the so-called bedroom tax.
Activists have tabled a motion for the party’s Glasgow conference next month attacking the Coalition’s policy on welfare and demanding a new approach in the Lib Dem manifesto at next year’s general election.
Mr Clegg could be defeated over the Government’s decision to end the spare room subsidy for tenants in social housing. That could pave the way for a Lib Dem manifesto pledge to abolish the bedroom tax – as Labour has already promised.
Today, the Deputy Prime Minister was ambushed by a nine-year-old boy during his weekly phone-in on LBC radio. Rohan left Mr Clegg on the ropes over his flagship policy to provide free school meals for all five to seven year-olds. He complained that his own school meals were "unhealthy", saying “the evidence shows they don't make children achieve or behave better”.
With a hint of desperation, Mr Clegg suggested: "You probably need to go back to class." He insisted: "The evidence shows that it is in fact extremely helpful.”
The Lib Dem leader believes that some action must be taken about the underuse of public housing, because there are 1m families on the waiting list. Inside the Coalition, he has pressed for disabled people to be exempt from the bedroom tax and for housing benefit not to be withdrawn until families have turned down an offer of smaller accommodation. But he has failed to persuade Conservative ministers to act.
Kelly-Marie Blundell, a prospective Lib Dem candidate in Guildford and a co-author of the conference motion on welfare, said: “The Lib Dems are the forefathers of the welfare state, and so should lead the way on reforming a system that has become unrecognisable. The Conservative-driven agenda for benefit sanctions has resulted in the unacceptable - people being left without food or shelter. We need to stand up and make sure this doesn't happen. Tackling this is twofold; reviewing sanctions and changing hardship payments to make sure no person is without basic provisions.”
Gareth Epps, co-chairman of the Social Liberal Forum pressure group, said: “No amount of reform will make the bedroom tax palatable, so it needs to be scrapped. If the Lib Dem leadership in 2015 needs to demonstrate one value, it is compassion. Years of painstakingly not opposing what some of them privately describe as appalling, regressive policy have left electoral scars.”
The grassroots motion calls for a review of Universal Credit, which will merge six working-age benefits into one; immediate loans to be made available to people hit by benefit sanctions and for such cuts in benefits to be used only as a last resort.
Mr Clegg is backing a Private Member’s Bill introduced by the Lib Dem MP Andrew George. It would exclude from the bedroom tax people who have lived at an address for more than three years and whose homes have been adapted for the disabled. The Bill will be debated in the Commons tomorrow.