It was in 2014 when the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Housing was called a “loopy Brazilian Leftie” by MP Stewart Jackson for what the then Work and Pensions Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, called an “utterly ridiculous” report criticising the UKs housing policies. No such accusations were made in March 2018, when under the same role, Leilani Farha visited Grenfell informally and expressed her concern that the treatment of residents and neglect of fire safety regulations could constitute a breach of human rights under international law. That change in response is no coincidence, it reflects a growing realisation in government that social housing is not providing the protection to recipients that we would expect it to. This shift in discourse was born on the night of the 14th of June 2017, when Grenfell Tower, a social housing block, was engulfed in flames.

The terms of reference for the inquiry announced by government into the fire contains no provision for considering social housing reform or human rights implications. This is because the government takes the view that questions revolving around housing rights are not suitable for a judge-led inquiry and that such a broad scope would delay the outcome of the investigation. Instead, the Prime Minister promised that the Housing Minister would separately build a comprehensive picture of some of the immediate issues facing social housing tenants in order to consider a change in national approach.

That promise manifested into the social housing green paper, published on the 14th August 2018. The paper sets out five core themes which, among others, endeavour to address stigma surrounding social housing, create an effective resolution of complaints and ensure homes are safe and decent. The paper provides an opportunity to submit views on proposals for the future of social housing until November this year.

Where do Human Rights come in?

The question to ask ourselves is what significant role human rights can play in the way we approach social housing in the UK. If the government is already trying to address some of the problems in our housing strategy, what else can a human rights based approach bring?

Firstly, a human rights approach can have a transformative affect. When we are trying to improve housing, introducing changes without consideration of human rights has the potential to stigmatise recipients. That’s because when people access services as beneficiaries, there is an implied debt of gratitude because the individual is unable to uphold the powerful norm of reciprocity. In this way, the giver gains status and power, while the receiver loses it. But when we receive those services as a matter of right, the same does not apply. Instead, a rights based approach acknowledges the beneficiaries equal status as citizens rather than their unequal status as dependents.

The green paper talks about residents raising the same concerns; that they are made to feel like “second class citizens”, “an underclass” and “benefit scroungers” rather than by the people they are, many of whom are in employment as nurses, carers, teachers and cleaners. A human rights based approach to housing reform would mean that this plague of negative feeling and association of those who access their social benefits would begin to be tackled. So that when services are being accessed, those in power are governed by a new norm. It makes a clear statement: those beneficiaries are not “scroungers”; they are human beings accessing their human rights and they must be treated with dignity, respect and without discrimination.

Secondly, human rights have value as hard-law standards, which a housing association, local authority or government can be held accountable for failing to respect, protect and fulfil. This means that when internal, local, or external complaints mechanisms are failing tenants or those in need of social housing, they are able to take their fight to court.

Currently, according to residents quoted in the Green paper, “The complaints process is opaque, inaccurate and chaotic with too many stages and little clarity on the roles and responsibilities of those involved.” The government wants to fix this by introducing a more effective and efficient route for complainants, by raising awareness about the procedure and better support for the housing ombudsman to deal with those disputes.

The government’s steps are positive, but will not achieve the same as a human rights approach. Through human rights, each of us are provided with the security of knowing that if we cannot secure our rights through a complaints procedure, we can go to court to enforce those rights. For instance, when our right to freedom of expression is threatened, if alternative routes fail we are able to access judicial recourse. In that way, we are empowered with the ability to make sure we are treated fairly, with equal dignity and respect. It also helps service providers deliver better services, because they know exactly what the law expects. 

Calls for Change

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have recognised the importance of a human rights assessment following Grenfell. They have promised to publish a report which makes recommendations, following this approach, to prevent the occurrence of another tragedy. While they are yet to publish any findings, we expect that a human rights approach to housing will be thoroughly engrained in their recommendations.

Finally, those who wish to submit proposals to the government for the future of social housing must consider calling for a human rights approach to housing. The opportunity lies before us, the deadline is the 6th of November. Let’s seize the opportunity with both hands to make change happen, together.

Written by, Khadijah Naeem

Take action, join in!

Did you know 2018 is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If you think human rights for all people is something to celebrate, show your support and sign our digital 70th birthday card for universal human rights here - it's a quick and simple way to have your voice heard and join others across the UK!