Housing is a human right. That isn’t just my opinion, but also that of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the declaration, concerning the right to an adequate standard of living, is clear on the matter:
‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’ (emphasis on housing is my own).
Not only does the above present housing as an integral part of an ‘adequate’ standard of living, it also highlights the need for security to be provided to those who have fallen upon hard times. The British benefit system is sometimes described as a ‘safety net’, designed to fulfil this role. In the case of housing, it is anything but. For those in British society who are most vulnerable – disabled people, the unemployed, single parents – the scuttled remains of the welfare state provide little help.
This is, of course, due to a disastrous piece of law: the Bedroom Tax. By reducing the housing benefit paid to those who have ‘too many’ bedrooms, the state is denying individuals part of their human rights and placing a financial squeeze upon the vulnerable. Just over a third of working-age housing benefit claimants are affected: approximately 660,000 people. While a yearly reduction of around £800 ($1,300) is just manageable for families where all the adults are working, it is disastrous for the more vulnerable.
People with disabilities are the most affected, with the Bedroom Tax not allowing for the adaptation and extra space many disabled people need to live comfortably. If, for example, your disability forces you to sleep in a separate bedroom from your partner, you will still endure a benefit cut. Families with more than one child are also singled out, with children under the age of 10 expected to share a room regardless of gender, and those under the age of 16 of the same sex are likewise expected to double up.
Education Secretary Michael Gove accidentally criticized this facet of the Bedroom Tax when he said in early September that: ‘There are children, poor children, who do not have rooms of their own in which to do their homework, in which to achieve their full potential.’ He is right, of course. The Bedroom Tax has resulted in more children being disadvantaged in this way.
Aside from these two groups, there is a wider issue: anyone receiving housing benefit payments is, by definition, in some way vulnerable and disadvantaged; otherwise they would not need support from the state. While certain groups can be singled out as being especially affected, the truth is that all those who have lost benefits have had their right to adequate housing infringed upon.
The Bedroom Tax is such an infringement that the UN sent Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik to Britain to investigate the law in relation to Article 25. While her full report is not due until next spring, the statement that she made at the end of her visit was damning. So damning that the government had to resort to a xenophobic, borderline sexist response delivered by ex-housing minister Grant Shapps to try to discredit her.
It doesn’t end with the Bedroom Tax. Housing is too complicated a field for a single policy, however unfair, to be the source of all the problems. There is a broader issue with housing in Britain, a legacy perhaps of the sale of council houses under the Thatcher government. Last year’s law criminalizing squatting, also has a part to play, making it even harder for people at risk of homelessness to find any housing at all.
In Britain we often flatter ourselves with how humane our society is. Why else do so many people come to settle here to escape oppression? However, at the edge of our vision, one of the most fundamental human rights, as important, even, as free speech, has been trampled upon. Is this right?
This blog is part of New Internationalist's series on human rights for Blog Action Day 2013.