UK & World News
Axe 'Bedroom Tax', Says UN Investigator
The Government has been told to scrap its so-called "bedroom tax" policy by the United Nations' Special Investigator on Housing.
Brazilian Raquel Rolnik spoke to council house tenants on visits to various cities including Belfast, Manchester and Glasgow.
Anecdotal evidence on the fact-finding mission had raised concerns about the happiness of those affected by the controversial welfare reform, she said.
The former left-wing workers' party politician claimed some tenants were contemplating suicide, and also suggested the policy could breach human rights laws.
"My immediate recommendation is that the bedroom tax is abolished," Ms Rolnik told The Guardian.
"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."
Tory chairman Grant Shapps was furious at the intervention, calling it "disgraceful" and claiming Ms Rolnik had clearly "come over with an agenda".
He vowed to write to UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon demanding an apology and an investigation.
"It is completely wrong and an abuse of the process for somebody to come over, to fail to meet with Government ministers, to fail to meet with the department responsible, to produce a press release two weeks after coming, even though the report is not due out until next spring, and even to fail to refer to the policy properly throughout the report," he said.
The policy, which is officially called the Spare Room Subsidy, is designed to reduce the number of social tenants under-occupying their accommodation.
Introduced in April, it sees people in council houses who are considered to have more bedrooms than they need receive less housing benefit.
Ministers insist it is unfair for taxpayers to subsidise the spare rooms and that the change will save around £500m each year.
But it has sparked protests, with critics claiming it is forcing families into poverty and will increase the benefit bill by pushing people into the private sector.
Ms Rolnik is an independent expert who monitors and reports on adequate housing worldwide for the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Her visit to Britain was unprecedented and was thought to follow a Government invitation, although Mr Shapps denied she was invited by ministers.
She suggested there is a shortage of single room properties, which means many council tenants have no choice but to pay the extra cost of living in a larger property.
She also said the UK was going backwards and eroding its reputation for affordable housing because there was not enough available.
The Government has dismissed her assessment, which will be presented to the UN in March next year.
The Department of Work and Pensions expressed surprise that the report was based on anecdotal evidence and "conversations" rather than hard figures.
A spokesman said: "Britain has a 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 £24bn this year, and make better use of our housing stock. We've given councils £190m to support vulnerable residents who may need extra help."
However, the criticism is bound to be pounced on by the Labour Party, which opposes the reform and came up with the name "bedroom tax".