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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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