A UN human rights expert who has called on the government to suspend its controversial “bedroom tax” – because of its impact on disabled people and other “vulnerable” groups – could also recommend that it scraps its new benefit cap.
Raquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur on housing, said the preliminary findings of her two-week inquiry suggested “signs of retrogression in the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing” in the UK, largely as a result of government “austerity measures”.
She said she was particularly concerned about the spare room subsidy (bedroom tax) housing regulations, which came into force on 1 April and financially punish tenants in social housing who are assessed as “under-occupying” their homes.
She told a press conference at UN offices in London that housing deprivation was “worsening” in the UK, and added: “It is not clear that an effort has been made to protect the most vulnerable. Much of the testimony suggested they are bearing the brunt.”
Rolnik said that during her inquiry into the right to adequate housing in the UK she had spoken to disabled people who had “felt targeted instead of protected” by the government.
She said that in order to live independently, disabled people needed adapted accommodation and a “net” of support in the neighbourhood, and added: “The location, the neighbourhood ties, are very important to maintain this status.”
If they are forced to move by the bedroom tax, she said, they will have to face the lack of one-bedroom properties, and the costs of both moving and making adaptations to their new home.
Rolnik said she had heard testimonies from people with mental health conditions who were under “such stress of fear of losing their homes, of not being able to pay the penalty, that that is causing already an aggravation of their mental health condition”.
She added: “I heard people crying, saying they will commit suicide because they do not know what to do.”
In response to a question from Disability News Service (DNS), she said she was also considering the impact of the coalition’s benefit cap, which is currently being rolled out across the country.
The cap restricts the total amount of benefits working-age households can receive to £500 per week, although it exempts those receiving disability living allowance, the new personal independence payment, and those in the support group of employment and support allowance.
She suggested at first that the cap should be “reconsidered”, but later told the press conference: “The housing benefit cap I didn’t assess sufficiently the situation to say yes, that should be suspended, but I will certainly work much more on that for [her final report]and I will try [in that report]to recommend something on that with more substantive data.”
Her visit to the UK is the 11th she has undertaken to a different country – some of them developed and some developing countries – since taking up the position in 2008.
She said the bedroom tax had been “a big issue” during her mission “because every council I visited, every group or charity I met… they came with the issue of the bedroom tax”, while she had collected hundreds of written testimonies from residents, campaigners, and local councils, all of which were “overwhelmingly on this issue”.
She was scathing about its impact, and said: “The policy wasn’t piloted before being implemented in order to be evaluated. Many, many impacts it could have.
“This policy is causing already harm. Even if it is causing harm for just one individual this is already a violation of human rights.
“We are not talking about numbers. We are talking about human beings. Human rights is about human beings.”
She said the bedroom tax “should be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated”.
Rolnik also called for new regulations for the private rented sector, and a government commitment to increase “significantly” the stock of social housing.
But she insisted that the UK had “much to be proud of in the provision of affordable housing” and had “a history of ensuring that low-income households are not obliged to cope with insecure tenure and poor housing conditions”.
Her preliminary report sparked a furious reaction from the Conservative party, with Grant Shapps, its chairman, writing to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, asking for an “investigation” into Rolnik’s actions, claiming she had shown “political bias” over the bedroom tax.
In an interview with the BBC, he claimed the report was “biased, one-sided”, and asked why “the government wasn’t involved, or informed, or indeed invited to take part in it”.
But Rolnik said this was “absolutely not true” and was able to produce a lengthy list of government officials and ministers – including communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles, and his junior minister Don Foster – that she had met during her fact-finding visit.
A DWP spokesman said a departmental official had attended a meeting with Rolnik and other civil servants at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), and he told DNS that she had had “a large number of meetings covering a range of different issues across housing” with DCLG officials.
DCLG was asked by DNS to confirm this and list the meetings it had with Rolnik, but has so far declined to comment.
During her mission, Rolnik visited London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Edinburgh, meeting government officials, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, academics, housing associations, lawyers, and voluntary organisations, as well as hearing first-hand testimonies during site visits.
Her final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, welcomed Rolnik’s report and backed her call for the bedroom tax to be suspended.
She said that disabled people, who were already hit “nine times harder by cuts than non-disabled people”, were now facing going without food or heating to find the rent money lost in bedroom tax, or having to move to “virtually non-existent” smaller, accessible social housing.
She added: “Rather than making deeply unpleasant comments about Ms Rolnik, Mr Shapps and this government should pause and look again at this policy which is causing untold misery to hundreds of thousands of disabled people and undermining our international standing as a country that respects, protects and upholds human rights, justice and fairness.”
The Conservative housing minister Mark Prisk said Rolnik’s report “fails to recognise the steps we’ve taken to get Britain building, which have delivered over 330,000 homes and 150,000 affordable homes over the past three years”, and which will lead to “the fastest rate of affordable house-building for two decades”.
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.
“These changes will help us get to grips with the housing benefit bill which has grown to £24 billion this year, and make better use of our housing stock. We’ve given councils £190 million to support vulnerable residents who may need extra help.”
12 September 2013