Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Why 'bedroom tax' should cause us sleepless nights

UN special rapporteur says housing welfare reforms may breach human rights law. MLAs would do well to listen to her, write Michael O'Flaherty and Grainia Long

Grainia Long
Michael O'Flaherty

The United Nations' top expert on housing and human rights, Raquel Rolnik, was in Belfast last week. She has now issued hard-hitting findings on the housing situation across the United Kingdom.

"The so-called 'bedroom tax' has already had impacts on some of the most vulnerable members of society," she said.

"During these days of my visit, the dramatic testimonies of people with disabilities, grandmothers who are carers for their families and others affected by this policy, clearly point to a measure that appears to have been taken without the human component in mind."

Be in no doubt, the statement from the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing is deeply significant.

By their nature, UN special rapporteurs choose their words carefully. Ms Rolnik knows her assessment could be taken into account by the court in Strasbourg, or indeed by courts across the UK, in considering cases regarding the right to housing.

The right to an adequate standard of living is intended to be progressive. In other words, the standard of housing provision is meant to steadily improve. Backward steps should be avoided. The UK has committed to this in an international treaty as long ago as 1976. Any process which takes people's homes away, or reduces access to housing, cannot be seen as progress.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission agrees with Ms Rolnik's assessment of the crisis in our housing system. The Government needs to think again.

This policy will penalise some of our poorest and most vulnerable people, who have no option but to cut expenditure on things like food and fuel to keep a roof over their heads.

It will hit particularly hard in Northern Ireland, where the social housing stock is almost entirely allocated along sectarian lines, which greatly reduces the pool of housing units available for those who need to re-locate under the welfare reform provisions.

Ms Rolnik had more to say about Northern Ireland.

Referring to plans to devolve planning powers to local councils, she expressed concern "at the potential that this decentralisation may have for increased sectarianism and discrimination".

And she was of the view that population groups, such as Catholics in north Belfast, have yet to achieve full equality rights in terms of access to social housing.

The protections afforded to households under international human rights law are intended to ensure that an adequate standard of living is a right for everyone.

We are deeply concerned that Ms Rolnik has concluded that this right is at risk of not being realised in the UK.

Life is getting harder still for those on low incomes. Access to decent and affordable housing could be the single factor that enables those households to find and keep work and ensure an element of stability.

The commission has persistently pointed to the expected impacts of the significant reforms to the welfare system – producing reduced levels of entitlement and limiting the total value of benefit payments to households.

We are concerned about rising levels of household debt and the potential for increases in repossessions as borrowing rates increase.

Public policy on housing requires a focus on housing as a basic human right.

Realising those rights is fundamental to the enjoyment of other rights and, most importantly, is central to ensuring an adequate standard of living for all.

Human rights frameworks can be an important and effective lever for ensuring decent housing for all. We must never forget that.

Few people are better placed than Raquel Rolnik to draw conclusions on the impact of the housing crisis.

The Northern Ireland Executive – mindful of its obligations under human rights treaties – would do well to heed her advice.

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