Last Tuesday, word began to spread in Whitehall that the United Nations were set to release a highly critical report about the Under-Occupancy Charge, aka the ‘Bedroom Tax’ to everyone but the government. Downing Street wanted to ignore the report, yet when it emerged that the UN’s Special Rapporteur was lined up for Wednesday’s Today programme, a plan was drawn up to fight back. Grant Shapps was activated and he fired the starting gun on what would be one of the more bizarre media wars this government has got into.
Concern had been growing in the Department for Work and Pensions for several weeks about the behaviour of Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on housing, who was investigating the UK as a representative of the UN’s High Commission on Human Rights. Alarm bells began to ring when she was photographed with the Daily Record newspaper (pictured above), receiving a ‘dossier’ of ‘evidence’ about the policy. Yet she failed to meet with any Ministers responsible for its implementation.
The government’s worst fears were realised when Rolnik described the policy as the ‘Bedroom Tax’ — an inaccurate slogan coined by the Labour Party — throughout her report and Wednesday’s media blitz. Her report claimed that asking people in social housing to pay more in rent if they have a spare bedroom was a breach of human rights. ‘Bonkers’ was at the tamer end of the briefings put out in reaction.
Shapps did not hold his punches on Today, calling the report ‘a disgrace’ and the media went to town on Rolnik’s controversial background as washed up Marxist member of Brazil’s Workers’ Party, who count the Cuban Communist Party as their closest ally. It culminated with Thursday’s Daily Mail accusing the eccentric visitor of dabbling in witchcraft.
I can reveal that behind the scenes internationally, the UK’s representatives at the UN were, unforgivably to some, blind-sided by Rolnik and her report. Even after the intense media storm blew up, diplomacy came first and feathers had to be smoothed. Leaked internal communiques show the efforts the UK government went to try and avoid upsetting Rolnik:
‘Ms Rolnik apologized for her use of the term “bedroom tax”. She said she had also apologized on BBC and C4. She had not meant to be perceived as making a political point, which she accepted would be unacceptable in a UN SR. She claimed that she had shown her press statement in draft on 9 September to Whitehall officials, discussed it on 10 September and had changed some areas a result. It was clear she had been distressed by the personal comments of some of the press (and I made clear that we deplored these and that they did not stem from official briefings).’
Yet before she wrote the memo and claimed she deplored the negativity shown towards Rolnik, Karen Pierce, the UK’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, was just as furious as those in Westminster about what had happened. She emailed the Foreign Office, raging:
‘The reaction here from UN agency heads and otjers [sic] has been who is that strange woman; why is she talking about bedrooms and why on earth do we have a UN Housing Rapporteur. So to a certain extent this is beginning to speak for itself. Which is helpful.’
So what will the official reaction of the British government be to their bizarre hijacking by ‘that strange woman’? With typical diplomatic pussyfooting, Pierce concluded: ‘I will talk to her and point out the inadvisability for her credibility of entering political debate without being in possession of the facts’. A little bit late for that, one might argue.