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11 Sep, 2013 23:45

UK ‘shocking’ bedroom tax should be axed, says UN

UK ‘shocking’ bedroom tax should be axed, says UN

Social housing in the UK is deteriorating and “is almost a lottery” argues UN housing expert Raquel Rolnik. Her claims that the ‘shocking’ bedroom tax affects the most vulnerable citizens drew fire from the Tories who called her report ‘a disgrace’.

The United Nations special investigator on housing has called on the British government to scrap its unpopular bedroom tax, officially known as the spare room subsidy, after hearing “shocking” accounts of how the policy is affecting some of Britain’s most vulnerable people.

The bedroom tax was introduced by the coalition government last April in a bid to save money from the £24 billion a year housing benefit bill. It charges tenants extra for under occupying homes that are supposedly too large for them.

Raquel Rolnik, a former urban planning minster for Brazil, and now the UN’s rapporteur on adequate housing, said Britain’s previously good record of providing housing to poorer people in society is being eroded by successive government’s failure to provide sufficient and affordable social housing.

During her two week trip to the UK, Rolnik travelled to Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London where she visited council estates, food banks, homelessness centers and new housing association developments.
She said that Britain was in the middle of a housing crisis, with middle income people also hit hard by the cost of rent and mortgages, which was an equally urgent subject for investigation.

Image from Abolish Bedroom tax or prepare for"Peoples Revolution 2013" facebook page

Rolnik said that although in the 1970’s social housing was readily available and easy to access; it had now become stigmatized with just 17% of the population living in it.

She was also skeptical of what she called Britain’s “obsessive” approach to home ownership and the right to buy policy; where the government offers financial support for families who want to own their own home.  

Rolnik singled out the bedroom tax as affecting “the most vulnerable, the most fragile, the people who are on the fringes of coping with everyday life.” 

“I was very shocked to hear how people really feel abused in their human rights by this decision and why – being so vulnerable – they should pay for the cost of the economic downturn, which was brought about by the financial crisis. People in testimonies were crying, saying 'I have nowhere to go,' 'I will commit suicide,'"
she said in an interview with the Guardian of her findings.

Carol Robertson is a council tenant in Edinburgh where many older buildings owned by the council have two or more bedrooms. She has lost £13 a week because of the spare room subsidy and now has just 26 a week to live on. As the winter draws in she says she will save extra money by not turning the lights on.

“It sounds preposterous, but I think people will save on the electricity and use candles. I won’t put my lights on; I will just buy candles,” she told Rolnik, The Guardian reports.

Carol wanted to remain in the two-bedroom flat where she brought up her two children and so had to pay the spare room supplement designed to push people like her out of her flat, which is deemed too big for a person living on their own.

When central heating was being recently installed in the council block, Carol chose not be connected. “I knew I couldn’t afford it. If I get cold I just put on my jumper,” she said.  Her neighbor next door is even worse off, and after paying the supplement has just £4 a week to live on.

She says she can’t move because there are no smaller properties for her to move into in Edinburgh and she wouldn’t know anyone in a completely new area, so she has to pay the subsidy even though it leaves her with so little to live on.

Rolnik says in her assessment of the tax that the government “didn’t assess the impact on lives when it took its decision”. She explains that the discrepancy payment the government makes to local council to try and mitigate the costs of implementing the policy is just for a couple of months so councils cannot count on it on a permanent basis.

Image from Abolish Bedroom tax or prepare for"Peoples Revolution 2013" facebook page

In comments emailed to RT, the charity Shelter, which deals with homelessness and housing issues in the UK said: “With the shortage of social homes of the right size in the right places, we know that it will be very difficult for many families to downsize and none more so than the disabled and others with special needs.”

The UN expert was not sure whether her report, which will be presented in its entirety next spring, would impact the legal challenges already being made to the tax in the UK courts, but that she believed when somebody was forced to cut down on their heating and electricity it represents a violation of their human rights. She said that “judges should take that into account”.

Her report drew a blistering reaction from the Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, who questioned whether Rolnik, who is from Brazil, can criticize the UK when in her country there are 50 million people living in inadequate housing. He also said she had talked to no one in government who had implemented the policy.

“It is completely wrong and an abuse of the process for somebody to come over, to fail to meet with government minsters, to fail to meet with the department responsible,”
he told a BBC radio program Wednesday.

The department for Work and Pensions issued a more measured statement: "It is surprising to see these conclusions being drawn from anecdotal evidence and conversations after a handful of meetings, instead of actual hard research and data. Britain has a very strong housing safety net, and even after our necessary reforms we continue to pay over 80% of most claimants' rent if they are affected by the ending of the spare room subsidy."

Previously Rolnik as the UN’s special Rapporteur on housing has considered housing problems in Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Indonesia but says that Britain’s housing crisis is an equally urgent matter for investigation.