Rights row: the UN and housing

Seeing ourselves as others see us can be an uncomfortable experience and so it is proving for ministers responding to United Nations special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik.

Her preliminary report in September called for the abolition of the bedroom tax and prompted a furious row with Conservative party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps. Now his ‘woman from Brazil’ is back with a final report that uses the approved Conservative term ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ but still recommends that it ‘should be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its negative impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals and households’. You can read the full report here [downloads Word doc].


The government has had over four months to decide how to respond to the final report so it is perhaps telling that it can’t quite decide how. The official DCLG response from housing minister Kris Hopkins is that Rolnik ‘has failed to correct a number of inaccuracies that have been repeatedly been made clear, meaning her recommendations are of very limited relevance’.

Yet he also pops up to tell The Guardian that it is ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’. And the DWP demonstrates its ability with pots and kettles by describing the report as ‘based on anecdotal evidence and the conclusion was clearly written before any actual research was completed’.

But the final report is about far more than the bedroom tax. It judges the UK’s record to the right to adequate housing under a succession of UN conventions and covenants on social and human rights that our government has signed since 1951. It analyses the current housing situation and its impact on specific groups including people with low incomes, the homeless, the disabled and sick, young people and Gypsies and Travellers though its recommendations are not binding on the UK government.

However, the crucial point is that the starting point for the analysis is the UK’s previous exemplary image on housing and human rights. The conclusions and recommendations start with these two paragraphs:

‘The Special Rapporteur commends the United Kingdom for its history of ensuring that low- and middle-income households have access to adequate housing and have been protected from insecure tenure forms and poor housing conditions. People in the United Kingdom have a deeply anchored trust in their right to housing, regardless of income or other status.

‘Some of the policies and practices that played a role in ensuring access to affordable and well-located housing, facilitating enjoyment of the benefits of mixed neighborhoods in urban centres, and embedding housing in the social safety net serve as inspiration around the world. The Special Rapporteur praises the priority given to social and affordable housing by various Governments over time, including through  public funding for specific housing-related policies.’

The International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, which we ratified in 1976, establishes ‘the principle of progressive realization in the right to adequate housing’. It commits member states to take special care ‘to avoid unjustified retrogressive measures’ and ‘examine themselves against their own legislation and policies’.

This is the context for the recommendations that follow on policies that Raquel Rolnik considers are ‘retrogressive’. These cover the policies of successive governments since 1976, not just this one.

She also recommends that the UK government should:

  • Assess and evaluate the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable people, including whether the costs of implementation may outweigh the savings and whether there are alternative ways to achieve the same objectives
  • Extend and expand grants and subsidies for social housing ‘as these have been essential in responding to the housing need of the most vulnerable’
  • Ensure that current measures to release public land favour social and affordable housing
  • Consider planning measures for the immediate development of land, ‘build or lose’ safeguards and priority for affordable housing
  • Put in place target measures to increase the supply of housing in the private market
  • Increase regulation in the private rented sector, including minimum length of contracts, restraints on rent increases and strict limits on eviction.
  • Promote measures to reduce discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers and to protect the right to adequate housing for migrants and Roma.
  • Address persistent inequalities in housing in North Belfast.

So this report is about far more than just the bedroom tax, or even what you call it: it challenges many of the key changes in UK housing policy made since the late 1970s as well as questioning some current government policies and highlighting areas of discrimination. For anyone looking at housing in terms of social and human rights, these are obvious points. But tor Conservatives suspicious of anything that even mentions human rights, this is clearly enough to make it a Marxist diatribe.

Ironically, on the same day the Special Rapporteur confirmed her call for the immediate suspension of the bedroom tax, one part of the UK revealed that it wants to go as far as it can towards that within its existing powers.

Northern Ireland, of course, has still not implemented the policy and it seems likely that it will not apply to existing tenants when it does. Now Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling on Lord Freud to lift the cap on discretionary housing payments so that Holyrood can add an extra £15 million. That would bring the total budget to £50 million, which would be enough to cover all of the losses suffered by the 76,000 Scottish households who are having their ‘spare room subsidy’ removed (though I can’t see how it will make up for other housing benefit cuts too).

Which brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this blog. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is a quote from the English translation of the ending of ‘To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’ by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. The whole verse seems strangely apt:

‘And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!’

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing


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