How embarrassing that some members of the government appear to have behaved in the manner of uncouth thugs – and towards someone representing the UN, which dared to question the bedroom tax.
Brazilian UN investigator Raquel Rolnik says she has never faced such an aggressive, hostile reaction from a country. Conservative chairman Grant Shapps, seemingly incandescent, has written a complaint to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, insisting that Rolnik withdraw her report as it is politically biased and she had not met relevant ministers or officials to discuss the policy. Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, agreed, saying that Rolnik had undermined the impartial reputation of the UN.
Another Tory MP, Stewart Jackson, called Rolnik a “loopy Brazilian leftie with no evidence masquerading as a serious UN official”. Sections of the media dubbed Rolnik a “Brazil nut”, who once dabbled in voodoo, offering animal sacrifices to Karl Marx. There were other suggestions that Rolnik might want to sort out Brazil before she came meddling in British housing – ahem, kind of missing the point of the UN there, folks!
What provoked such a reaction? Is Rolnik really a “Brazil nut” or a UN special rapporteur, with five years’ experience of carrying out housing investigations in countries such as the US, Croatia, Argentina, Israel, Rwanda, Palestine, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Israel and Algeria? During her visit to Britain to investigate social housing (organised, she claims, by the UK government in order to demonstrate that it was fulfilling its obligations to the UN Convention on Human Rights), Rolnik visited various British cities (Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh). She met council officials and media outlets, and set up meetings with Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, under secretary Don Foster and other officials, all, she says, listed in her report.
The trouble started when Rolnik observed that the bedroom tax (where people must pay for “spare” rooms through a deduction in their housing benefit) is causing great hardship and distress to the most vulnerable. Some people she spoke to were in tears; some said they even contemplated suicide, because they had nowhere to downsize to – owing to a shortage of smaller housing. Rolnik said that the bedroom tax could represent a violation of human rights and that Britain, which formerly held a good record on social housing, could face “going backwards in the protection and promotion of the human right to housing”.
After she’d been attacked, Rolnik commented: “It was the first time a government has been so aggressive. When I was in the US, I had a constructive conversation with them, accepting some things and arguing with others. They did not react like this”.
Oh dear. Welcome to 21st-century Britain, Ms Rolnik. This is where the embarrassment sets in. Rolnik makes it quite clear that she is fine with debate and also dissent. It is the hostility and aggression that she is astounded by. During her visit to the US, they had a discussion and came to considered conclusions, like… what are they called again?… grown-ups! In Britain, Rolnik was denounced, smeared, name-called, basically bullied and all but dunked into a pond to check if she was a witch.
Don’t politicians have a duty to exercise a modicum of self-control? However upset they were by criticisms of the bedroom tax, it’s the way they reacted to criticism that is key here. It would be nice if our representatives could be trusted to be statesmanlike, at least professional and dignified. Even nicer, if someone from the UN didn’t go back with the news that members of the British government were the most aggressive and hostile she’d ever encountered. As I said, embarrassing.
This was the behaviour of small-minded bullies who prefer to go about their grubby business under the cover of national darkness and who don’t appreciate someone coming in from the outside world and turning all the lights on.