Grant Shapps dismisses UN housing expert as "a woman from Brazil"

The Conservative chairman brands Raquel Rolnik an "absolute disgrace" after she warns that the bedroom tax is having a "shocking" effect on the vulnerable.

After the United Nations' special investigator on housing, Raquel Rolnik, visited the UK and warned that the bedroom tax was having a "shocking" effect on the vulnerable and should be abolished, one might hope that the government would engage with her concerns. 

Rolnik, a former urban planning minister in Brazil, said of the measure, which reduces housing benefit by 14% for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25% for those with two or more, "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'."

She added on the Today programme this morning that "there was a danger of retrogression in the right to affordable housing in the UK. 

But rather than addressing these points, Grant Shapps, the Conservative chairman, chose to launch a crude rant against Rolnik. The former housing minister told Today that her comments were "an absolute disgrace" and questioned why "a woman from Brazil" - "a country that has 50 million people in inadequate housing" - was lecturing British ministers. The answer, of course, is that she is representing the UN, not the Brazilian government, and that the coalition has imposed a policy that is causing untold harm to the poorest and most vulnerable families. Shapps added that he was writing to the UN Secretary General to "ask for an apolology and an investigation into how this came about". 

On Today, Rolnik rightly singled out the effect the policy is having on the disabled. For many of these families, this additional space is not a luxury but a necessity. A disabled person who suffers from disrupted sleep may be unable to share a room with their partner, likewise a disabled child with their brothers and sisters. The same applies to those recovering from an illness or an operation. After months of pressure from campaigners, the government announced that families with severely disabled children would be exempt but the majority of the 670,000 tenants due to be affected will still lose out, including hundreds of thousands of disabled families.

Ministers have defended the measure on the basis that it will encourage families to downsize to more "appropriately sized" accommodation but in doing so they have ignored the lack of one bedroom houses available. In England, for instance, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two-bedroom houses but fewer than 70,000 one-bedroom social houses to move to. Housing experts have warned that the £490m the government hopes to recoup could be reduced or even wiped out as families are forced into the private sector, where rents are higher, leading to even greater pressure on the housing benefit budget.

The question for Labour remains: will you scrap it? At PMQs last week, fixing his glare at the party's frontbench, David Cameron scornfully remarked: "You have ranted and raved about the spare room subsidy. Are you going to reverse it? Just nod. Are you going to reverse it? Yes or no? Absolutely nothing to say, and weak with it."

But as I've previously reported, the party will almost certainly pledge to scrap it in advance of the general election, with an announcement possibly coming at next month's conference. The UN's warnings provide Miliband with the political cover he needs to act. 

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.