Balls in pledge to scrap bedroom tax

Labour will scrap the government's "unjust bedroom tax" if it gets the keys to the Treasury in 2015, shadow chancellor Ed Balls announced last night.

As the party gears up for its annual conference in Brighton starting tomorrow he said the party was going to act after hearing how families had been affected while on the east of England campaign trail.

Mr Balls, who is the party's regional champion and has family in Norwich, said the promise to scrap the government's under-occupancy charge, which will cost £500m, had been fully funded.

"Labour says the government should get rid of it now.

If they don't we will," he said.

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He said the aim to give people an incentive to move into smaller homes to free up larger ones did not work because the smaller properties did not exist.

"All you are going to do is penalise people and make them worse off.

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They will stay in their home or they will move to a private sector rented home on a bigger rent and increase the housing benefit bill," he added.

The Labour Party conference starts as Norfolk County Council has set out how it could cut £140m – a move critics claim will hit some of the most vulnerable people in Norfolk.

Mr Balls admitted it continued to be "very tough for local government services" but said he could not promise to reverse cuts, with "difficult spending decisions" set to continue.

He said the party would be making difference choices which would be set out at the conference in the coming days.

The shadow chancellor also dismissed calls to commit to the re-nationalisation of Royal Mail if Labour won back power.

Members of the party – which is deeply opposed to the share sell-off announced this month – have said a pledge could prevent the government's sale plans from happening.

But Mr Balls said: "If they (the government) plough on regardless and use the money for something, I don't know what, I can't, 18 months before the election, spend what would be by that point £3bn on re-nationalising Royal Mail, when we are under pressure on many areas of public spending.

Now, to make a commitment to re-nationalisation and a multibillion pound bill, I don't think I can make that promise." But he said if Labour was to win power in 2015 he would follow the suggestion by Sir John Armitt – who led the delivery of the venues and infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympics – to set up an independent report to look at infrastructure spending in the first year of government.

He also raised concerns about government plans to toll the A14.

He added it was "one thing" to build a dedicated new road using tolling, like the Birmingham relief road, but that the case had not been made that it was the "right way to do the A14".

He said: "One of the questions I have raised in recent weeks is whether at a time when the budget for the High Speed Two rail project is rising, I want us to ask 'is that the best way to spend that money?'.

"Are there alternatives? I have supported HS2, but the case has got to be made and there is not a blank cheque.

The question has been asked in the eastern region, are there better alternatives, like the A47, or, as a regular user, the Norwich to London train line? I can't start pre-empting that now saying it is the London to Norwich rail, but I have a vested interest in the London to Norwich line so anything I can do to help."

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