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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.

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

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.