Bedroom tax, inadequate housing are human rights issues

UK housing minister Kris Hopkins has tried to dismiss a critical report by UN special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik as a "misleading Marxist diatribe". But it is clear that the government is failing to meet important human rights obligations, at a heavy human cost.

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” states article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

States signed up to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights “recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”, and agree to “take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right”. The Convention on the Rights of the Child includes recognising “the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development” and, if needed, providing “material assistance and support programmes, particularly with regard to nutrition, clothing and housing.”

Despite these and other commitments, many UK residents now struggle to afford adequate housing and specific policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ have made matters worse. After a visit to the UK in 2013, United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing Professor Raquel Rolnik, a highly experienced urban planner, highlighted immediate concerns, but the UK government was dismissive. Her full report has triggered further attempts to discredit her rather than engaging seriously with her careful and thorough analysis and recommendations.

She praises the UK for its history of “housing, land and planning policies designed to provide adequate housing and to address backlogs or poor quality of existing housing stock, and a welfare system that included housing benefits”, but describes how this changed, including the loss of much council housing.

There is now “a critical situation in terms of availability, affordability and access to adequate housing, particularly in some geographic areas. The gap between supply and a much higher demand must not be underestimated. In England, for example, there were around 115,000 completions in 2012, of which 89,000 were by private house builders, against a baseline need estimation of 250,000”. Homelessness and substandard accommodation (especially in the private rented sector) are major problems and there is a grave shortage of affordable housing, so that even people in work often need benefits to meet the cost of renting a home.

The impact of “welfare reform” is studied, including the “removal of the spare-room subsidy”, widely known as the “bedroom tax” The financial assumptions behind this are shown to have been flawed and the human cost is described: “In the face of hard choices, between food, heating or paying the rent, many testimonies to the Special Rapporteur placed a strong value on staying in and saving a home. Some mothers in their 50s talked about their homes as the place they had raised their children and lived their lives. Many felt targeted and forced to give up their neighbourhoods, their carers and their safety net.” She points out that the human rights implications, especially for disabled people, have been the subject of judicial review.

“For persons with physical and mental disabilities, as well as for the chronically ill, adequate housing means living in homes that are adapted to specific needs; close to services, care and facilities allowing them to carry out their daily routines; and in the vicinity of friends, relatives or a community essential to leading lives in dignity and freedom,” the report explained. Many were now “facing rent arrears and eviction”, resulting in “anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts”.

The report does not only describe problems. It contains practical recommendations aimed at increasing equality, protecting the most vulnerable and tackling the shortage of affordable housing. For those who believe in universal human rights, it offers valuable insights into how a major social problem might be tackled. The government should be challenged on its unwillingness to respect the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

Read Raquel Rolnik's report here http://www.direitoamoradia.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/A_HRC_25_54_Ad...

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© Savitri Hensman, who is originally from Sri Lanka, is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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