If you have ever wondered what an ‘ad hominem’ attack is, then the Tory and right-wing media broadside against the UN special investigator on housing, Raquel Rolnik, is a very good example of it. (Ad hominem means rejecting an argument by referring to some irrelevant fact about the person presenting the argument).
In Ms Rolnik’s case, her gender, her nationality, her religion, and some gross assumptions about her personal politics have all been used to undermine the fact that she has written an exceptionally good report on housing in the UK.
Raquel Rolnik is the United Nations’ special rapporteur on housing. She operates under a UN treaty that the UK has signed up to. She is one of 30 rapporteurs who visit UN member states and comment on various aspects of policy. Adequate housing is an element of the ‘right to an adequate standard of living’ and the ‘right to non-discrimination.’ Rolnik’s record is impeccable: she has commented on many countries around the world without fear or favour, including Serbia, Cambodia, Israel, Italy, Panama, Portugal, Nigeria, Colombia, Egypt, France, Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Russia, India and Nepal. Her reports are all available on her excellent website. She has also produced a number of thematic reports, including one on security of tenure across the world. It is her duty to report when she finds that a country is not compliant with the international human rights standards that it has voluntarily signed up to.
Ms Rolnik visited the UK in August/September last year at the invitation of the British Government, and spoke to many people, ranging from community organisations to Government Ministers, about housing conditions in the UK.
Both her initial report and her final report are extremely critical of housing policy in Britain, recording decades of underinvestment but highlighting the ‘despair’ created by welfare reform and the bedroom tax.
Rather than try to deal with the content of her report, the Tories have gone into full attack mode about Ms Rolnik’s background and lifestyle. When her initial report was published, Grant Shapps dismissed her as a ‘a woman from Brazil’. Tory MP Stewart Jackson called her ‘a loopy Brazilian Leftie’. The Daily Mail managed the headline ‘Raquel Rolnik: A dabbler in witchcraft who offered an animal sacrifice to Marx’. On her final report, Housing Minister Kris Hopkins called it a ‘misleading Marxist diatribe’. This time the Daily Mail surpassed itself by describing her as a ‘Brazil nut’. Why we should want to be so offensive about Brazil is beyond me.
Her final report on the UK is a wide-ranging document. No-one in their right mind would consider it to be anything other than a well-researched and evidenced document that looks into the history of housing policy as well as current policy. As Patrick Butler on the Guardian put it: ‘Sometimes you just have to sigh and lower your eyes in embarrassment. There is nothing in this well-mannered report that would be out of place in any mainstream political, policy and academic discussion of housing in the UK. Of course it is uncomfortable for ministers: the truth hurts.’
You can read her full report here. Below are her key conclusions and recommendations, so you can make your own judgement as to their relevance. I defy anyone to find a trace of ‘Marxism’ or even of eccentricity. It is close to the mainstream of opinion across the political spectrum in the UK. Is it a fair and objective assessment or ’partisan’ according to Kris Hopkins or based merely on ‘anecdotal evidence’ according to that reliable user of statistics, Iain Duncan Smith?
The Special Rapporteur regrets that some policies and practices which have resulted in the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing are being eroded, and that the structural shape of the housing sector has changed to the detriment of the most vulnerable. She expresses her concern that recent measures are contributing also to an increased vulnerability of those who, until a few years ago, were protected.
In light of these conclusions, the Special Rapporteur wishes to make the following recommendations to the central Government and devolved administrations, as applicable:
(a) Assess and evaluate the impact of the welfare reform in relation to the right to adequate housing of the most vulnerable individuals and groups, in light of existing data and evidence; consider whether particular measures are having a disproportionate impact on specific groups; assess whether the overall costs of the implementation of some reforms might outweigh the savings intended, thereby violating the State’s obligation to use the maximum of available resources; and consider alternative avenues to achieve similar objectives without affecting the poorest or most vulnerable;
(b) In particular, the removal of the spare-room subsidy should be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its negative impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals and households;
(c) Extend and expand grants and subsidies for social housing (for local councils and housing associations), as these have been essential in responding to the housing need of the most vulnerable. More resources and allocations are needed in this area to ensure that new developments address the specific needs of those individuals and households, and that a variety of tenure forms are encouraged, promoted and protected. Special attention must be given to the situation of low- income people and households, especially children;
(d) Ensure that current measures to release public land to tackle lack of availability of housing favour social and affordable housing, including through local councils, housing associations, cooperatives and community land trusts;
(e) Consider the inclusion in planning and land management systems of strict conditions for immediate development of land with planning permits, “build-or- lose” safeguards and priority for affordable housing;
(f) Put in place targeted measures to increase the supply of housing in the private market for those individuals and households who face unaffordable alternatives, especially the young and those in the middle and lower ends of the spectrum;
(g) Increase regulation and enhance information and accountability in relation to the private rented sector; adopt regulatory tenancy protections, including minimum length of contracts, restraints on rent increases and strict limits on eviction; encourage the use of standardized human rights-compliant rental contracts; enhance mechanisms of registration of landlords and letting agents, and establish clear accountability mechanisms to eliminate discrimination in the private rented sector;
(h) Strengthen efforts to address stigma and discrimination for the Gypsy and Traveller communities in relation to the wider spectrum of rights, starting with the recognition that cultural adequacy in housing is a pillar for inclusion, and that legislation and policy are not enough to overcome local obstacles;
(i) Put in place additional efforts to address challenges to overcome persistent inequalities in housing in North Belfast. For this purpose, active, free and meaningful participation of all in decisions made about housing should be promoted, including in relation to the collection of official data, that should be disaggregated, open and accessible to all;
(j) Promote and protect the right to adequate housing without discrimination on any grounds; in particular, refrain from establishing mechanisms that can result in indirect discrimination against migrants or Roma in access to adequate housing.