Silly UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. Her report on Britain’s bedroom tax is based on three fundamental errors:
• A belief in progress;
• A belief that progress is universally equated with protecting the vulnerable and enhancing human rights;
• A belief that Britain is willing to abide by all its international treaties and obligations.
Raquel Rolnik did her survey of UK housing policy guided, she says, by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, articles 2 and 11 (see below). This was signed by Britain in 1968 and ratified in 1976. The aim of the covenant is to support the UN Charter in seeking to achieve various inalienable human right, one of which is “adequate housing” – no more than that, but coupled with a “continuous improvement of living conditions”. (CESCR General comment 4)
Article 2 says signatories will proceed “with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant” (emphasis added).
Progressive means always going forward. Going forward means enhancing “freedom from fear and want”, not increasing fear and want. So Rolnik says: “Progressive realization represents a strong presumption against retrogressive measures in the protection and promotion of human rights.”
The Government is accused of going backward, with policy showing: “signs of retrogression in the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing”.
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize 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 – UN Covenant
Rolnik has been criticised for being Brazilian, in part because Brazil is where the nuts come from – hence it’s a handy cheap jibe, but in part because Brazil has shanty housing. Rolnik was in fact working for the UN, not the Brazilian Government, and one can assume when it comes to shanty towns, she’s agin’ them. The UN does not take a simplistic view on “adequate housing”: it does not demand that every country have the same standard of housing. It acknowledges “adequacy is determined in part by social, economic, cultural, climatic, ecological and other factors” (General comment 4, para 8).
There is no one template, though there are some fundamental requirements and one overriding principle: that of progress, as outlined above. Brazil should be making progress in improving housing and Britain should continue making progress along the lines that, Rolnik accepts, it already has. “The UK has much to be proud of in the provision of affordable housing,” she says in her statement on her report.
Among the fundamental requirements, the UN says it should be “possible to identify certain aspects of the right [to adequate housing] that must be taken into account for this purpose [to establish whether housing is adequate] in any particular context”. These include security of tenure and affordability.
It is here that the UK Government has got itself into a terrible bind – in effect charging people money (whether a “tax” or a cut in benefit – the effect is the same) with the intent to make their accommodation unaffordable to them in the hope they will get up and go. The people affected have security of tenure – they have assured tenancies granted by housing associations and registered social landlords. These are their homes, which many have lived in for years, so they cannot legally be removed.
First, and foremost, I would suggest 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 – Rolnik recommendation
As a result the idea of forcing them out by charging them for the “extra” rooms was arrived at specifically to force people out. This, interestingly, is exactly how the Daily Mail spun the bedroom tax in 2010 when details were given to the paper: “Council house tenants living in properties that are bigger than they need are to be forced to move into smaller accommodation”, it says (28 July 2010; emphasis added).
It adds: “The Work and Pensions department is now drawing up plans to slash housing benefit payments to those tenants who live in houses that are too big for them – meaning many will have to move into smaller properties. If they could afford to pay the difference themselves to stay where they are it will raise questions about their eligibility for housing benefit in the first place.”
So this is the nasty Morton’s fork thinking behind the bedroom tax – we will charge you extra so you will be forced out of your home. If you can pay the extra, it will prove you don’t need housing benefit in the first place.
Arrears, of course, are one of the few grounds on which assured tenants can be evicted (Housing Act 1988) – and some housing associations are preparing to evict because of the benefit changes (as explained here). A government move to force people into arrears to force them out of their homes would clearly seem retrogressive to most people. By making certain people’s homes unaffordable and making their tenure less secure it would seem to be clearly in breach of the Government’s treaty obligations under the Convention. That is why the Government is blustering and fuming over Raquel Rolnik’s report – rather than engaging with the issues.
See also: Bedroom tax, Iain Duncan Smith and Ground 8 eviction
News on Scottish challenges to bedroom tax on Nearly Legal
From Rolnik’s statement 11 September 2013
State parties cannot move backward without offering a strict, evidence-based justification of the need to take such measures and without having weighted various alternatives. Most importantly, Governments must put in place effective safeguards to protect the most vulnerable sectors of society if such decisions are made.
Some of my main preliminary findings indicate signs of retrogression in the enjoyment of the right to adequate housing. It is not clear that every effort has been made to protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of retrogression, indeed much of the testimony I heard suggests they are bearing the brunt. Housing deprivation is worsening in the United Kingdom. Increasingly, people appear to be facing difficulties to accessing adequate, affordable, well located and secure housing. The numbers of people on waiting lists for social housing have risen, with reports indicating waits of several years to obtain a suitable house. …
Especially worrisome in this package is the so-called “bedroom tax”, or the spare bedroom under occupancy penalty. It came into force on 1 April 2013, without having been previously piloted. It essentially means a reduction in the amount of benefit paid to claimants if the property they are renting from the social housing sector is considered under occupied. The Government has argued that this policy reduces dependency and will make available a stock of under occupied homes.
First, and foremost, I would suggest 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.
Secondly, I would recommend that the Government puts in place a system of regulation for the private rent sector, including clear criteria about affordability, access to information and security of tenure.
Thirdly, I would encourage a renewal of the Government’s commitment to significantly increasing the social housing stock and a more balanced public funding for the stimulation of supply of social and affordable housing which responds to the needs.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Entry into force 3 January 1976, in accordance with article 27
The States Parties to the present Covenant,
• Considering that, in accordance with the principles proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
• Recognizing that these rights derive from the inherent dignity of the human person,
• Recognizing that, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights,
• Considering the obligation of States under the Charter of the United Nations to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and freedoms,
• Realizing that the individual, having duties to other individuals and to the community to which he belongs, is under a responsibility to strive for the promotion and observance of the rights recognized in the present Covenant,
Agree upon the following articles:
1. Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
2. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to guarantee that the rights enunciated in the present Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
3. Developing countries, with due regard to human rights and their national economy, may determine to what extent they would guarantee the economic rights recognized in the present Covenant to non-nationals.
1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize 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. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.
2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:
(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;
(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.
The bedroom tax provisions are set out in the Housing Benefit Amendment Regulations 2012 (Statutory Instrument 2012/3040) Section 5 (7). This introduces an amendment (B13) to the 2006 Housing Benefit Regulations.
B13(2)(b): Where the number of bedrooms in the dwelling exceeds the number of bedrooms to which the claimant is entitled in accordance with paragraph (5), reducing that amount by the appropriate percentage set out in paragraph (3);
(3) The appropriate percentage is—
(a) 14% where the number of bedrooms in the dwelling exceeds by one the number of bedrooms to which the claimant is entitled; and
(b) 25% where the number of bedrooms in the dwelling exceeds by two or more the number of bedrooms to which the claimant is entitled.
(5) The claimant is entitled to one bedroom for each of the following categories of person whom the relevant authority is satisfied occupies the claimant’s dwelling as their home (and each person shall come within the first category only which is applicable)—
(a) a couple (within the meaning of Part 7 of the Act);
(b) a person who is not a child;
(c) two children of the same sex;
(d) two children who are less than 10 years old;
(e) a child,
and one additional bedroom in any case where the claimant or the claimant’s partner is a person who requires overnight care (or in any case where each of them is).