UN tells government to abolish 'shocking' bedroom tax

The United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has told the Tory-led coalition that it should abolish its controversial bedroom tax.

Raquel Rolnik spoke to social housing tenants across the country during a two-week visit and heard "shocking" accounts from those hit by the under-occupancy policy.

In an interview for the Guardian, Ms Rolnik said: "I was very shocked to hear how people really feel abused in their human rights by this decision and why – being so vulnerable – they should pay for the cost of the economic downturn, which was brought about by the financial crisis. People in testimonies were crying, saying 'I have nowhere to go', 'I will commit suicide'."

The UN specialist noted that the local authorities she spoke to were finding it hard to cope with the policy, with a lack of smaller properties for affected tenants to downsize to proving a major difficulty.

Ms Rolnik is to present her conclusions on the bedroom tax to the UN Human Rights Council next year.

A Department for Works and Pensions spokesperson said: "It is surprising to see these conclusions being drawn from anecdotal evidence and conversations after a handful of meetings - instead of actual hard research and data.

"Britain has a very strong housing safety net and even after our necessary reforms we continue to pay over 80% of most claimants' rent if they are affected by the ending of the spare room subsidy.

"These changes will help us get to grips with the housing benefit bill which has grown to £24 billion this year, and make better use of our housing stock. We've given councils £190 million to support vulnerable residents who may need extra help."

Grainia Long, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Housing, which gave evidence to Ms Rolnik’s investigation, said: “We agree with Ms Rolnik’s damning assessment of the crisis in the UK’s housing system.  The bedroom tax doesn’t work, it isn’t fair and the government needs to think again. This policy penalises some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country who have no option but to cut spending on essentials Iike food and fuel to keep a roof over their heads.

“The protections afforded to households under international human rights law are intended to ensure that an adequate standard of living is a right to be enjoyed by everyone. We are concerned that Ms Rolnik has concluded that this right is at risk of not being realised.

“Few people are better placed than Ms Rolnik to draw conclusions on the impact of the housing crisis in the UK. This is a significant statement from the UN special rapporteur and we strongly urge the government to heed her advice.”

Scottish housing minister Margaret Burgess, who met Ms Rolnik during her time in the UK, said: “It is significant to see that the UN special rapporteur has come to the same conclusion as the Scottish government on the UK government’s bedroom tax, describing it as a detrimental measure which has serious impacts on the most vulnerable of our society.

“Unlike the UK government we understand that housing policy is not just about numbers, it is about helping individuals and communities across Scotland live decent dignified lives, with access to good quality, affordable accommodation."