Was Raquel Rolnik right to speak out?

Raquel Rolnik is Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of San Paolo. In her role as a “special rapporteur” for the UN, she has been in the UK, at the invitation of our Government, to assess whether the UK’s housing policies accord with international human rights standards.

Professor Mark Stephens
Professor Mark Stephens

She is also, according to the Daily Mail, “a dabbler in witchcraft who offered an animal sacrifice to Marx.”

As befits a man who once aspired to hold the office of Prime Minister, Iain Duncan Smith was more measured in his assessment: the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions merely dismissed Rolnik as “a loopy Brazilian Leftie.”

Revealing an admirable ability to move on from the expenses scandal, and apparently unaware that Rolnik’s position is unpaid, other Conservative MPs denounced her as “an international trougher” – a reference to the “£300-a-night” hotel in which she stayed in London where “[a] white burgundy can set a diner back more than £100, while a fine claret, Chateua Petrus 2000 costs £2,460.”

According to Grant Shapps, the Conservative Party Chairman, Rolnik had committed an “abuse of process.” She had, he said, failed to meet with government ministers, the responsible department and – horror of horrors – had called the “spare room subsidy” the “bedroom tax.”

With truly exquisite lack of judgment, Shapps announced to the nation, “I am writing to the [UN] secretary general today to ask for an apology as to how this came about.” This on a day when Ban Ki Moon was embroiled in the tragedy that is Syria.

Later, it transpired that Rolnik had in fact met with ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government and with a senior policy official at the Department of Work and Pensions.

She also met many other people, and appears to have been shocked by the testimonies of some of those people who had been affected by welfare reform.

Of course what the Government and its supporters could not bear was Rolnik’s trenchant criticism of the “bedroom tax” and her recommendation that it “be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in the light of its impacts.”

This was the first of three recommendations contained in a 3,000 word press statement. It is a thoughtful document in which Rolnik observes that the UK “has much to be proud of in the provision of affordable housing.” However, she notes the worsening of housing deprivation in recent years, and expresses concerns about the wider welfare reform agenda, whilst also providing an interesting analysis of the planning system, land and property taxes.

Did Professor Rolnik act unwisely by highlighting the “bedroom tax”?

As the newspapers have not tired of telling us, she is a former Minister and member of the Brazilian Workers’ Party.

She is no political innocent abroad and must have known that her press statement and subsequent interviews would cause a row.

But if we are honest, we know the report that Rolnik and her team will publish in the spring will have little impact by itself.

The “bedroom tax” is one of the few elements of welfare reform to have been met with anything approaching popular protest, and Ministers’ sensitivity over its “correct” name echoes the fatal damage inflicted on the “community charge” when it became known commonly as the “poll tax”.

Generally welfare reform enjoys public support, driven in part by widespread misconceptions that are promoted by sections of the media, and most politicians fear to challenge.

But by using the bedroom tax in this way, Rodnik has done something to disrupt the prevailing hostile “narrative” towards poor and vulnerable households.

She has given them a voice.

Mark Stephens was one of a number of Scottish academics to meet Raquel Rolnik during her mission to the UK. He has served on UN missions to Armenia and Serbia.