UN’s housing expert ‘shocked’ by bedroom tax

The coalition government's 'bedroom tax' policy could infringe its victims' human rights, a United Nations investigator has warned.

Raquel Rolnik, the UN investigator on housing who developed her reputation working on improving Brazilian slums, has told ministers to reverse the policy after spending a fortnight probing the issue.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is dismissing her findings as having only been based on "anecdotal evidence… instead of actual hard research and data".

But Rolnik's human rights warning will damage the UK's international standing and give fuel to Labour's opposition to the policy the government calls the 'spare room subsidy'.

"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," Rolnik told the Guardian newspaper.

"People in testimonies were crying, saying 'I have nowhere to go', 'I will commit suicide'."

She said it was clear ministers had not assessed the impact of the policy on lives when it took the decision to cut housing benefit for those living in properties which have spare rooms.

One empty bedroom results in 25% of the housing benefit payout being lost, while a second vacant bedroom means 50% of the payout is cut.

"The mechanism that they have in place to mitigate it – the discretionary payment that they provide the councils with – it doesn't solve anything," Rolnik added.

"It's for just a couple of months, and the councils cannot count on that on a permanent basis, they don't know if it's going to be available next year, so it's useless."

The DWP insisted Britain has a "very strong housing safety net", however.

"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," a spokesperson said.

Over three million more people have been pushed into poverty by their housing costs, howeer.

"We are very concerned about the points the UN rapporteur raises on the ending of the spare room subsidy, and are currently funding our own research on it," the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's housing research manager Kathleen Kelly said.

"It is crucial that we protect the comparatively good record of the UK on housing; our strong social housing system is currently under severe strain and our research shows that vulnerable people will be increasingly living in a not fit for purpose private rented sector."