11 Sep 2013

Bedroom tax row: Grant Shapps v ‘woman from Brazil’

Tory chairman Grant Shapps calls for an investigation into the UN official who raised concerns about the so-called bedroom tax, saying she was influenced by “political bias”.

The United Nations special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, has found herself at the centre of a political storm, after her comments that the recently introduced “bedroom tax” could be a violation of the human right to housing and should be axed.

“The so-called bedroom tax has already had impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of society,” she said in a statement, following a two-week visit, taking in Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London

“During these days of my visit, the dramatic testimonies of people with disabilities, grandmothers who are carers for their families, and others affected by this policy, clearly point to a measure that appears to have been taken without the human component in mind.”

‘Woman from Brazil’

Ms Rolnik is an international housing expert with 30 years’ experience. The UN said she was invited to the UK by the government. But Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps has lashed out at Ms Rolnik, calling her report “disgraceful” and referring to her as a “woman from Brazil”.

(Bedroom tax) appears to have been taken without the human component in mind – Raquel Rolnik

He has written to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon calling for an investigation, saying that Ms Rolnik did not meet with the secretary of state at the department for work and pensions (DWP) or request policy analysis on the bedroom tax, and asking for clarification on whether Ms Rolnik met with Labour representatives and those campaigning against the policy.

An extract from Grant Shapps’s letter: click on the image below to see the full text

He told the BBC he would be asking: “how it is that a woman from Brazil has come over – a country that has 50m people in inadequate housing – has come over, has failed to meet with any government officials”.

MP Stewart Jackson, who sits on the influential public accounts committee, also waded into the row, calling Ms Rolnik a “loopy Brazilian leftie” on Twitter.

Housing as human right

The government’s spare room subsidy, dubbed the bedroom tax by its detractors, has proved one of its most controversial welfare reforms. It was damned by paediatricians for its “appalling” impact on families with disabled childrena criticism that also came from the high court, despite ruling in favour of the government that the policy does not discriminate against disabled people in social housing.

Ms Rolnik has now added her voice to concerns. She acknowledged the pressure put on governments because of the economic crisis, and the UK’s good record on social housing, but said that reforms to the welfare system, plus cuts in housing grants, “appear to compromise the realisation of the right to adequate housing and other related human rights”.

It’s right for the UN to look into housing policy in the UK. We have an excellent record on that (social housing), but it is under strain – Kathleen Kellf, JRF

The UN official has previously spoken out against forced evictions and acted as an observer in Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Indonesia. Her role is to assess a country’s provision of article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family” – which includes housing, and which Britain has signed up to.

When asked if the UN had a right to come to the UK to observe housing policy, a Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson told Channel 4 News: “We live in a democracy”.

An extract from Grant Shapps’s letter: click on the image below to see the full text

Mr Shapps said Ms Rolnik had acted inappropriately and had “clearly come over with an agenda”.

“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,” he told the BBC.

In a press release, the United Nations said that she met government officials working on housing issues, various human rights commissions, academics and civil society during a two week which finished on 11 September.

‘Fundamental flaws’

Kathleen Kelly, housing policy specialist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said that Ms Rolnik’s assessment of the UK’s housing policies came at a critical juncture for the UK. A JRF report from April this year found that housing costs had pushed an additional 3.1m people into poverty and called for policy makers to pay more attention to the link between housing and poverty.

“The really fundamental point that the UN special rappourteur is making, is that social housing has been a really important part of the UK’s welfare reform, but the evidence says there are fundamental flaws in the system,” she told Channel 4 News.

“It’s right for the UN to look into housing policy in the UK. It’s important she raises challenges in this area. We have an excellent record on that (social housing), but it is under strain.”

The DWP said in a statement: “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.

“Britain has a very strong housing safety net and even after our necessary reforms we continue to pay over 80 per cent of most claimants’ rent if they are affected by the ending of the spare room subsidy.”

Ms Rolnik’s final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2014.