Following the introduction of the bedroom tax in April 2013, the United Kingdom Government invited an official of the United Nations, Raquel Rolnik, to examine the implications of the policy. She has advised that the spare room subsidy may be in breach of human rights and should be reconsidered. This briefing paper looks at her report and the reactions to it in the United Kingdom.
Conservative ministers have called the intervention by United Nations rapporteur Raquel Rolnik, ‘disgraceful’ and demanded an apology. Interestingly, they have chosen to attack her credibility rather than to engage with an argument with her about welfare reform and human rights. Similarly, many newspapers have focused on the housing problems of Brazil – Ms. Rolnik’s home country – that are undoubtedly serious but apparently irrelevant to the current issue.
But the Brazilian, who is the United Nation's Special Investigator on Housing and a former politician, remained defiant at a news conference in London. She claimed the change to housing benefit was causing ‘great stress and anxiety’ to ‘very vulnerable’ people, some of whom could barely afford to eat. And after earlier saying the reform should be abolished, she suggested it should be ‘suspended immediately and fully re-evaluated’ in the light of her findings.
Ms. Rolnik, who monitors and reports on adequate housing worldwide for the United Nations Human Rights Council, insisted she was invited to the United Kingdom by the Government despite Tory chairman Grant Shapps insisting that no invitation was ever issued. Surely this is a matter of fact that could be established. However, even if Ms. Rolnik was not invited would this invalidate her conclusions?
The report from the United Nations represents an interesting contribution to the debate about the under-occupation penalty. The arguments that it contains are sensible and its recommendations are worthy of serious consideration. It is disappointing that the government has chosen to attack the credibility of the United Nations rapporteur rather than to engage constructively with the points that she has made. Constructive debate involving all informed contributions would be more likely to lead to good public policy formation.
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