The right to adequate housing: the UK and the spare room subsidy

Last month there was great controversy when the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing commented on the spare-room subsidy. Raquel Rolnik caused a furore by daring to criticise the UK for human rights violations rather than focusing her efforts on graver situations elsewhere in the world. She commented on the coalition’s policy that is designed to charge council house tenants for supposedly under-occupying homes based on numbers of residents and bedrooms. Ms Rolnik claims that the policy could violate the right to adequate housing, not least owing to the shortage of one and two bedroom council housing. She also noted that the subsidy may impact the realisation of other rights, particularly where people were forced to choose between housing, food and heating.


The UN Special Rapporteur used a human rights lens to view the spare room subsidy. She did not say anything that has not already been discussed in the UK media. Yet Ms Rolnik’s comments hit a raw nerve with the government. Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman, sent a letter of complaint to the United Nations, demanding an apology and an explanation for her comments. He accused Ms Rolnik of bias and political motives. He questioned why she had visited the UK, accusing her of conducting her fact-finding mission without permission.

In fact, Mr Shapps appears to have been badly briefed or perhaps not briefed at all. UN Special Rapporteurs cannot visit a country without permission. The UK has issued a standing invitation to all UN Special Rapporteurs. Even then, if one wants to visit s/he must liaise with the government before arriving on these shores. Any visit requires a great deal of coordination with the country’s government in order to set up meetings with ministers and opposition party members, national human rights institutions, citizens, and any other actors. It is never the case that a Special Rapporteur just turns up unannounced. Ample opportunities exist for a country either tacitly or expressly to block a visit. Indeed, many countries have blocked visits. Some have simply ignored requests to coordinate visits; others have refused to issue visas; while some states have failed to comply Special Rapporteurs’ terms by blocking access to state and non-state actors.

Ms Rolnik’s visit to the UK, then, was not an intrusion. It was a carefully planned and coordinated visit to which the UK government had consented. So, why was there such uproar?

UN independent experts on human rights are part of a broader mechanism called Special Procedures. The system is crucial for fact-finding, information-sharing, monitoring, reporting and providing recommendations on human rights. Individuals are appointed for fixed terms and given a mandate to examine a specific human rights issue. Mandate holders are independent experts, usually academics or former human rights activists. They undertake their duties part time and are not paid by the UN. They are independent from both the Organisation and its member states.

Some mandates focus on all human rights within one specific country. Others focus on one specific right across the world. Each mandate holder chooses where to conduct visits, of course depending on the consent of the countries concerned. Those visits then lead to reports and recommendations for that country. Mandate holders also produce reports that outline broader issues, best practices, and provide general recommendations. They provide countries with guidance, assistance and concrete steps to follow when implementing human rights.

The UN Secretary-General has described Special Procedures as ‘the crown jewel’ of the UN human rights machinery. Because Special Rapporteurs are independent and expert their reports carry significant weight and are afforded a great deal of respect. Little wonder, then, that a country like the UK would be up-in-arms when criticised by a Special Rapporteur.

The UK is not the first country from the Global North to criticise a Special Rapporteur for reporting on human rights issues within its territory. Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, suggested that the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food had wasted UN money by visiting his country in 2012. The US accused the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty of bias and political motives for visiting that country in 2005. Those other Global North states, have voiced concerns about why they have received visits when the experts could have gone to other countries with far more acute problems. On the face of it, that argument has some merit, but scratch below the surface and it does not stand up to scrutiny.

At the heart of international human rights is their universal nature. Rights apply to all individuals regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality or any other characteristic. All countries can improve their human rights records. From Sweden to Somalia, from Norway to North Korea, there is a need to protect and promote human rights. If the UN only focused on states with the most acute problems, then individuals in more developed countries would be afforded no protection. And, crucially, if the UN only focused on some states or regions then the legitimacy of the Special Procedures system – based on its universality – would wholly be undermined.

Of course no country likes to be criticised publicly or to have information shared about violations on its soil. But the UK, which has been at the fore of international human rights since its creation, would have done well to remember its obligations and commitments when Ms Rolnik visited its territory.

Follow Rosa Freedman on Twitter: @GoonerDr 

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