Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, UN Human Rights Council, December 2013, pp. 21

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Raquel Rolnik, the Special Rapporteur on housing in the context of the right to an adequate standard of living, undertook an official visit to the UK from 29 August to 11 September 2013, visiting, among others, council house tenants in Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London.

The purpose of her visit was to examine the right to adequate housing in the UK in light of international human rights standards and she explored “the combination of housing, land and planning policies with housing benefits in the welfare system that have been central to the provision of adequate housing.”

Rolnik raised particular concerns about the erosion of the social housing system in recent years and its impact on vulnerable individuals and households, calling in particular for the suspension of the ‘bedroom tax’ (a welfare change introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in April 2013 to cut the amount of benefit that people receive if they are deemed to have a spare room in their council or housing association home). Housing charities had accurately predicted that this would result in higher levels of rent arrears and greater homelessness, and the rapporteur found that it had left many low-income and disabled people “facing hard choices between food, heating or paying the rent.”

The report says that: “Many felt targeted and forced to give up their neighbourhoods, their careers and their safety net. While in principle the policy does not force people to move, the reality of people’s experience, many of whom are working people with no income to spare, left no doubt in the Special Rapporteur’s mind that many have no other option, which has left them in tremendous despair.”

However, Rolnik’s well-founded and constructive criticism was not well-received in government circles, with housing minister Kris Hopkins dismissing the report as a “Marxist diatribe” and a spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions claiming that is was based on “anecdotal evidence” (i.e. Rolnik spoke directly to the working-class people directly effected by government policy).

This coordinated hyperbole continued when Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, accused Rolnik of undermining the impartiality of the UN with her “outrageous” call for the bedroom tax to be axed, and called on the UN secretary general to investigate the official’s conduct.

Finally, a racist dimension was introduced by Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, who described Rolnik as a “loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence masquerading as a serious UN official”, an angle enthusiastically taken up by the right-wing media which branded the UN rapporteur a “Brazil nut.” The report is available here (pdf).

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