The Tories are speaking "baloney" after they expressed surprise at the Liberal Democrats' decision to end their support for the highly controversial bedroom tax in its present form, Nick Clegg has said.
As the Lib Dems came under fire from across the spectrum for an apparent change of heart over the policy, the deputy prime minister insisted that his party was not abandoning its support entirely for the policy.
Speaking on his weekly LBC phone-in, Clegg said: "We are not binning the whole thing. We are actually going to say that it has to apply to new tenants in the social rented sector [who] will still only get the housing benefit they need for the number of rooms they need."
Clegg was speaking after Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, called for a major overhaul of the policy to ensure that social tenants living in properties that are too large for their needs would only lose their housing benefit if they refuse an alternative property. Disabled people would also be exempted entirely.
Labour accused the Lib Dems of "unbelievable hypocrisy" after the party intensified its so-called "Tory differentiation strategy" by saying that it would call on its coalition partners to agree to an overhaul of the policy before the election.
The Lib Dems expect the Tories to reject the change to the policy, which means Clegg's party would include the proposals in its general election manifesto.
Clegg was dismissive of Tory claims that he hid his plans from them. He told LBC: "That is such complete baloney. We said as a party collectively we felt that this needed adjustment last year. I have been constantly badgering away within government, with the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], to try and make sure we stress-test this policy."
The deputy prime minister dismissed claims that the new policy amounted to a U-turn. "I am not in any way altering my view that you need to do something to reform housing benefit. I am supporting the application to new tenants. I am saying for people who are offered to go to a smaller property but say no, it applies to them."
Alexander called for an overhaul of the policy after a report by the DWP this week showed that only one in 20 claimants affected by the change had downsized their property.
Under the Lib Dem plans, new tenants would receive benefits based on the number of rooms they need. But Alexander said existing tenants "would only see a reduction in benefit if they are offered a suitable smaller home and, crucially, turn it down".
Clegg hit back at Labour and Tories who had criticised the change of policy. He said: "The big difference between us and the Labour and Conservative parties – unlike Labour we are not sticking our head in the sand; of course you have to do something about housing benefit reform, of course you have to do something about overcrowding. But unlike the Conservatives we want to do it as fairly as possible.
"The real trigger for this week was that we published a report, commissioned by the government itself, which simply showed it wasn't working in the way it was intended. I am a practical man and think that when something isn't working in the way that you planned for it to work, you change it."
Under the bedroom tax, introduced by the coalition as part of its deficit-reduction plan, housing benefit for tenants in social housing is reduced if their house is deemed to be too large for their needs.
The coalition said the policy was designed to bring social tenants into line with those living in privately rented properties on housing benefit. It was also designed to tackle the imbalance whereby 240,000 families live in homes that are too small for their needs while housing benefit is paid to families living in properties that are regarded as too big for theirs.
The Lib Dems, who have faced immense political grief over their support for the policy, voted at their autumn conference to review the tax. Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, announced in April that he was withdrawing his party's support for the measure on the grounds that it had caused "huge social problems".
Labour depicted the move as a cynical bid by the Lib Dems to distance themselves from an unpopular policy less than a year before the election.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: "This is unbelievable hypocrisy from Nick Clegg. The Lib Dems voted for the bedroom tax. There wouldn't be a bedroom tax if it wasn't for the Lib Dems. And in February when Labour tabled a bill to scrap the bedroom tax, the Lib Dems were nowhere to be seen. This just goes to show why you can't trust a word the Lib Dems say – it is clear the only way to cancel the bedroom tax is to elect a Labour government next year."
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