From the new March-April 2014 issue of News & Letters:
London, England–The UN’s own rapporteur for housing, Raquel Rolnik, has denounced UK government policy as creating a housing crisis for its most vulnerable citizens. Her findings were dismissed as a “misleading Marxist diatribe” by cabinet ministers. In a report detailing her investigation into the British housing sector, Rolnik specifically targets the government’s now infamous “bedroom tax.” She described it for Al Jazeera as having “an enormous impact on [a citizen’s] right to housing and also on other human rights, like the right to food [and] the right to education.”
It’s not every day that the British conservatives mention Marxism. As a party that still celebrates the era of Thatcherism and the warm relations with cold warrior President Ronald Reagan, you can be sure the much hated and feared specter of Marx was only invoked due to particular irritation at Ms. Rolnik’s audacity. Less kind musings on her character were also uttered. Conservative Party MP Stuart Jackson referred to her as a “loopy Brazilian lefty,” insanity presumably being the hallmark of anyone who dares criticize the government.
PENALIZING THE POOREST
The bedroom tax is an increasingly unpopular measure brought in as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 2013. In reality an “under-occupation penalty,” the tax penalizes social housing tenants living in a property with an allegedly spare bedroom. The penalty consists of a reduction in their housing benefit, a 14% reduction for having a single unoccupied bedroom, with further penalties for additional unoccupied rooms.
The bedroom tax was initially criticized (see April 2013 N&L) as likely to prompt an exodus from existing accommodations as people attempted to “downsize” their living arrangements in the hope of retaining existing benefits. Since then the UN report cites increasingly numerous accounts of people struggling or completely failing to meet rent demands, with those suffering a reduction in much needed income left in “tremendous despair.”
Yet it’s not just criticism of the bedroom tax that has earned Ms. Rolnik the ire of her Conservative Party critics. Given their ongoing nostalgia for the days of Thatcherism, the UN report has offended the government by pointing to the erosion of welfare housing with the introduction of the Housing Act of 1980. What started as a seemingly benevolent offer to allow tenants to buy their homes soon transformed into a mass intrusion by the private sector into social housing. The end result was a gradual decline in the social housing sector and reckless profiteering of private landlords now firmly in possession of former welfare accommodations.
According to Rolnik, over a 15-year period median house prices across Britain rose over 200%, while full time earnings rose just 55%. With the onset of the 2007-2008 recession, tighter credit controls and the reticence of banks to lend to first-time mortgage customers led to a growing reliance on private housing. Coupled with subsequent rent increases (around 37% over the past five years) and an actual physical lack of new housing construction in the face of population growth, it’s no wonder the bedroom tax constitutes the final straw in what has been an ongoing exercise in callousness against some of Britain’s most vulnerable.
The UK remains a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and as such is legally obliged to implement such rights in conjunction with broader policy decisions. In association with the broader International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the right to adequate housing remains a hot topic across Europe and the UK. One could think that there is a general hostility to human rights law taking root within British politics. You’d be right to think that.
HUMAN RIGHTS DISPOSABLE
Despite bizarrely not having a codified constitution, Britain has still incorporated certain facets of European constitutional law into its domestic affairs. The Human Rights Act of 1998 is one such piece of legislation that attempts to graft the European Convention onto UK domestic jurisprudence–a move which has met with hostility from the current government as its policy decisions increasingly place it at odds with the ECHR. Home Secretary Theresa May has in fact attempted to spearhead moves to scrap the Human Rights Act and even withdraw from the ECHR, in the process dragging Britain outside the jurisdiction of the European Court.
Whereas the government would like to present such a move as somehow a reclamation of British sovereignty, ongoing state policy is increasingly being seen for what it is–an infringement on the welfare of its citizens. The Prime Minister has until recently felt comfortably isolated from the suffering of many ordinary voters, but the appearance of UN officials on their side is bound to create consternation. Attempting to dismiss the issue as a Marxist diatribe therefore highlights nothing but desperation.