Bedroom blues

Just when you were beginning to miss him, Grant Shapps is back with a bang and a complaint to the United Nations about that ‘woman from Brazil’.

The Conservative Party chairman brought an international twist to his old housing stomping ground in a Today programme interview that pitted him against Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s special rapporteur on adequate housing. Readers will need no reminding that in a preliminary statement following a two-week visit to the UK she is calling for the bedroom tax to be suspended immediately and fully re-evaluated.

Shapps described it as ‘an absolute disgrace’ and accused Rolnik of having an ‘agenda’. He went on:

‘It is completely wrong and an abuse of the process for somebody to come over, to fail to meet with government ministers, to fail to meet with the department responsible, to produce a press release two weeks after coming, even though the report is not due out until next spring, and even to fail to refer to the policy properly throughout the report. That is why I am writing to the secretary general today to ask for an apology and an investigation as to how this came about.’

Earlier, a DWP spokesperson had joined in the attack on the UN envoy with a statement that: ‘It is surprising to see these conclusions being drawn from anecdotal evidence and conversations after a handful of meetings, instead of actual hard research and data.’ Coming from the department headed by Iain ‘I believe I am right’ Duncan Smith that was quite a claim.

At a press conference this morning, Rolnik said it was ‘absolutely not true she had come with an agenda and that ‘this was an official visit – I was invited by the UK government and it was organized by the UK government’. It’s since emerged that Rolnik did meet Shapps’s former boss, communities secretary Eric Pickles, as well as officials from the DWP and three other UK government departments, the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish governments, plus numerous other government agencies, local authorities, housing associations and charities, lawyers and academics. For a flavour of some of the discussion, see Ken Gibb’s blog here and for more of the context see Grainia Long’s blog for Inside Housing here.

Rolnik’s full statement is a fascinating read that reveals the high opinion the rest of the world has about housing in the UK:

‘The United Kingdom has much to be proud of in the provision of affordable housing. It has had a history of ensuring that low-income households are not obliged to cope with insecure tenure and poor housing conditions, and can be well-housed. Some of the policies and practices that have played a role in providing social housing include the construction and further regeneration of a large social housing stock as well as a welfare system which covers housing as part of a social safety net. These can serve as an inspiration to other parts of the world.

She was assessing the UK’s performance under international human rights law and specifically the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights. The UK ratified this in 1976 and accepted obligations ‘to take steps to ensure and sustain the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing, making use of the maximum of its available resources’. In addition, governments cannot ‘move backward without offering a strict, evidence-based justification of the need to take such measures and without having weighted various alternatives’ and must protect the most vulnerable members of society. As such that would appear to make the inadequacies of Brazil’s record on housing cited by Shapps irrelevant in a UK or UN context.

In a statement covering a whole range of housing issues and government policies, Rolnik found ‘signs of retrogression in the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing’ and says ‘it is not clear that every effort has been made to protect the most vulnerable’.

She found ‘the so-called bedroom tax, or the spare bedroom under-occupancy penalty’ to be ‘especially worrisome’:

‘In only a few months of its implementation the serious impacts on very vulnerable people have already been felt and the fear of future impacts are a source of great stress and anxiety. Of the many testimonies I have heard, let me say that I have been deeply touched by persons with physical and mental disabilities who have felt targeted instead of protected; of the grandmothers who are carers of their children and grandchildren but are now feeling they are forced to move away from their life-long homes due to a spare bedroom or to run the risk of facing arrears; of the single parents who will not have space for their children when they come to visit; of the many people who are increasingly having to choose between food and paying the penalty. Those who are impacted by this policy were not necessarily the most vulnerable a few months ago, but they were on the margins, facing fragility and housing stress, with little extra income to respond to this situation and already barely coping with their expenses.’

None of that will be news to anyone with a passing knowledge of the issues but such a verdict from a UN official, let alone one from Brazil, was bound to be a red rag to the Conservative half of the coalition. As I understand it, the UN Covenant is not enforceable in UK law but her report will undoubtedly be drawn to the attention of judges considering bedroom tax cases and it will only add to Tory suspicion of anything that includes those pesky ‘human rights’

However, before Shapps seals the envelope on his letter of complaint to UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon he might want to read Rolnik’s statement in full. She has two other recommendations apart from the one about suspending the bedroom tax.

First, ‘I would recommend that the government puts in place a system of regulation for the private rent sector, including clear criteria about affordability, access to information and security of tenure’. Which housing minister was it, I wonder, who rejected any idea of PRS regulation as ‘red tape’?

Second, ‘I would encourage a renewal of the government’s commitment to significantly increasing the social housing stock and a more balanced public funding for the stimulation of supply of social and affordable housing which responds to the needs.’ Shapps had already protested about his ‘170,000 affordable homes’ in the Today interview but it sounds very much like she was familiar with the nuances behind that number.

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing



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