On 11 September, the UN Special Rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik presented her preliminary findings following her investigation into the UK’s housing policies and programs. She recommended that the “so-called bedroom tax be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals.”
Since then, Rolnik and her investigation have been subject to attack from the government and from the press. The Tory Party chairman, Grant Shapps, has accused her of bias and said the report was “an absolute disgrace” and that he is complaining to the UN Secretary General. He dismissed Rolnik as “a woman from Brazil, a country that has 50 million people in inadequate housing”.
The Sun headlined a story “Copacabarney” and attacked Rolnik as a “Brazilian leftie”. The Express said she was a ““disgraceful” UN meddler.” The Times was less personal but declared that it was an abuse for the UN “to muddle themselves” in the issue at all (paywall. 12 September leader).
The Mail, on 11 September, used a quote from Tory MP Stewart Jackson in its headline to describe Rolnik as a “loopy Brazilian leftie”. The next day, its headline was stronger still and now read like a parody, “Raquel Rolnik: a dabbler in witchcraft who offered an animal sacrifice to Marx.”
Shapps and the papers all fail to consider whether Rolnik’s actual findings were true. As far as that is concerned the fact that she is Brazilian or from a centre-left party or from the UN is completely irrelevant.
What Rolnik has had to say is disturbing. “In only a few months of (the bedroom tax’s) implementation, the serious impacts on very vulnerable people have already been felt and the fear of future impacts are a source of great stress and anxiety. Of the many testimonies I have heard, let me say that I have been deeply touched by persons with physical and mental disabilities who have felt targeted instead of protected…of the many people who are increasingly having to choose between food and paying the penalty.” She has said that some people were crying when they spoke to her and saying “I have nowhere to go”, “I will commit suicide.”
Rolnik criticises the government for introducing thepolicy without first piloting it. “It’s so clear that the government didn’t really assess the impact on lives when it took the decision.” One major flaw in the policy is the shortage of available properties for those hit by the tax to downsize to.
There is plenty of evidence to support Rolnik’s account of the devastating effect of the bedroom tax on some of the most vulnerable in society.
Heléna Herklots Chief Executive of Carers UK has said: “This policy is having a shocking impact on families already struggling to care for seriously ill or disabled loved ones. Carers, whose contribution is often warmly praised by ministers, are being made to feel like they are being punished.
“These are carers who need an extra room just to get few hours of sleep as they care 24/7 for a disabled child, or who are unable to share with a partner because of serious illness.
“Our research exposes the devastating impact on those affected: carers being left unable to pay electricity bills and cutting back on meals to ensure the people they care for have enough to eat. Families coping with impact of conditions like cancer or a stroke, or caring for a severely disabled child, now face eviction.”
To borrow Shapps’ phrase, it is “an absolute disgrace” that the most vulnerable people in the sixth richest country in the world can be treated like this.
Rosnik is well qualified to pass judgement on a country’s housing policy. She is a professor who has written books on the issues and has decades of experience as an architect and urban planner. She was an urban planning minister and has been in her current role with the UN since 2008.
Rolnik, who will publish her final report in March 2014,was in the UK between 29 August and 11 September. She visited London,Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Manchester and met ministers, Whitehallofficials (including from DWP, DCLG, DoE and DEFRA), council officials, housingfederations and associations, lawyers and academics.
Rolnik also spoke to a range of people directly affected by the bedroom tax. If Shapps and the papers wanted to find out the truth about the impact of the bedroom tax on vulnerable people, then they should also speak to some of them. However, rather than do that, they try and destroy Rolnik’s message not by addressing directly what she says but by character assassination. In the words of Shapps again, it’s “an absolute disgrace.”