Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

Conservative attitudes to the UN (part 1 of many: Housing)

Today we have seen lots of bluster from the Conservatives – particularly their cheer-leader-in-chief, Grant Shapps because they don’t like some criticism from a UN envoy who had dared to criticise the bedroom tax (a.k.a the spare bedroom subsidy). It actually tells us a lot about the Conservatives.

Probably when they heard that a UN human rights official was coming to look at housing, they took a dismissive attitude – I suspect that to the likes of Grant Shapps the combination of “UN” and “human rights” will not create any respect.

Ad hominem attack on the blessed Grant! Yes, I know – not my usual style but this is retaliation. He claimed that this UN official was “not qualified to talk about housing” because she came from Brazil. Where an official representing an international organisation comes from is irrelevant. Either we respect the UN or we get out of it.

Looking at the BBC report of this little tiff (BBC News Website 11 September 2013 Conservatives protest to UN over ‘bedroom tax’ report) we see:

He [Shapps] claimed the UN official Raquel Rolnik failed to meet any ministers or officials, was biased and had wrongly called the “spare room subsidy” policy “the bedroom tax”.

Mr Shapps, responding to her comments on Today, said that she had not been invited by ministers and “she has clearly come with an agenda”.


Ms Rolnik, who is producing a report on adequate housing around the world for the UN human rights council, says she was in the UK for two weeks at the government’s invitation.

she [Rolnik] did apologise for referring to the policy as the bedroom tax, telling the BBC she had done so because that was “what everyone has been calling it since I got here”.

The Department for Work and Pensions later confirmed that Ms Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur on housing “had one meeting with a senior official at the DWP”.

On Tuesday there was a further meeting “at which the findings were presented by the rapporteur”. A spokesman said that at the start Communities Secretary Eric Pickles “popped in – it would be pushing it to call it a meeting”.

I suspect that the problem is our ministers couldn’t be bothered to meet her. Evidence? None – but my suspicion is consistent with this government’s attitude to any foreigner commenting on UK matters. (Remember there are British “officials” at the UN (and EU) who go into other countries and make comments).

The bedroom tax “as everyone calls it” is a very blunt instrument and yet this government has charged at it either not consulting or not listening to groups like: the disabled, military families, “broken homes”, student families, carers etc. We have seen the policy tweaked and twisted and it still has rough edges which catch on the most vulnerable. And yet Shapps has the audacity to (incorrectly) criticise this UN official for “not consulting the government”!

In her press conference (standard practice at the end of such missions) she said,

the measure seemed to have been designed “without the human component in mind”.

She said her recommendation was “that it should be suspended” to allow time to better assess the human rights implications, and so it could be redesigned.

Shapps is upset that she presented this rather obvious “conclusion”

even though the report is not due out until next spring

The report would appear to be the total world-wide report. It is interesting that this government thinks a delay of six months between field-work and report should be imposed when the evidence and the conclusions to be drawn is fairly obvious – at least to everyone other than this government. Obviously Shapps believes in delay as an instrument of government.

The one place where I would take issue with Ms Rolnik is the possible over-playing of “human rights”. Not only is this guaranteed to act like a cattle prod up the backside of any conservative (why is their reflex reaction to “human rights” negative especially when mouthed by a foreigner?), but it dilutes the more serious “human rights” agenda.

Proper housing is an accepted human right, as is a family life. I doubt even Mr Shapps would say that we should not have proper housing or a family life, but the human right not to be gassed has to be orders of magnitude greater than the human right of a separated father to be able to accommodate his children when they visit for the week-end.  However, we do not have to give up the one to achieve the other.

In some countries, we criticise the government for not caring whether their citizens get bombed or gassed. In other more wealthy countries, it would seem reasonable to criticise governments that seem to be heartlessly cruel and introduce blunt policies that have people being penalised for having a “spare room” – particularly when there is often no suitable housing stock into which such people can be cleared.


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2 thoughts on “Conservative attitudes to the UN (part 1 of many: Housing)

  1. Quotes from Zoe Williams article in the Guardian 11 September 2013: Bedroom tax? It’s not a policy but the product of a Bad Bullingdon Weekend

    A person on housing benefit would be deducted 14% of it for one extra room and 25% of it for two. Since, by dint of being on housing benefit, this group was pretty safely identified as not having 14% of anything to spare in their budget, the choice was not a choice in the traditional sense: it wasn’t move, or pay extra. It was move, or get into catastrophic debt and end up being evicted.

    Fine, move then – except that the smaller properties for people to move into didn’t exist (at one point there was an estimated 19:1 demand ratio for one-bedroomed properties). So now the choice was to move into a non-existent property or pay more of your non-existent money.

    Sure, some people have managed to move, and the start of the school year has, I’m sure, thrown up for anyone who ever hangs around a school the spectre of the children who have moved into cheaper boroughs. No doubt they’ll be fine, and there are good schools everywhere, but there is something eerie about letting them disappear, shrugging your shoulders and telling yourself they left their outstanding primary school in the middle of their education because they chose to do so.

    Anyway, I digress. Some people have moved but most haven’t, and those people will eventually find their debts unmanageable and become homeless. This cannot come as news to the devisers of the policy, and if it is not news to them then it must be part of their plan.

    We don’t need the UN to just sort out bad housing policy, we need them to sort out bad governance!

  2. BBC News Website 18 September 2013 End of spare room subsidy ‘puts thousands in arrears’ reports:

    Tens of thousands of people affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy have fallen behind with their rent, according to the National Housing Federation (NHF).

    The NHF said half of those affected by the so-called bedroom tax went into arrears between April and June.

    a spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) … added that the removal of the spare room subsidy was “a necessary reform to return fairness to housing benefit”.

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