For anyone looking at whether housing should be considered to be a human right, a blinding light shines on the obviousness of the question. If housing is not a fundamental right, then what is the point of human rights campaigns?
A new publication jointly produced by Labour Housing Group and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights brings together a number of voices showing how this fundamental change could transform people’s lives. At a time of severe housing pressure in this country, fully implementing the UN’s right to adequate housing makes absolute sense.
The publication follows the adoption of the call for housing as a human right into UK laws by the Labour Party at its Annual Conference 2021.
A number of major Labour figures have called on the right to housing to be recognised and treated as a human right. In his leadership campaign, Keir Starmer said “We have to start treating housing as a fundamental human right”. Others including Andy Burnham have stated their support to the principle, and at Labour’s Annual Conference in 2021, the then Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Lucy Powell, also spoke powerfully about housing as a human right being “at the heart of our New Settlement”.
What may now be different is that the Labour Party could be poised to go beyond just using the rhetoric of human rights, and instead use it as basis to orient our future housing policies and ensure that everyone, everywhere, can access a safe, decent and affordable home.
But what does this really mean, and why is it so exciting?
First, taking a human rights approach to housing starts by recognising that homelessness, unaffordable rents and unsafe housing are not just social ills, but serious human rights violations impacting millions of people. The flip side of this is to recognise that housing policy is not just about choices a government may or may not make, but about obligations they must fulfil. Legitimate political debate then begins to focus on how to end homelessness, not whether to do so.
Second, a human right to housing provides a framework in which progressive policy can de designed. According to international treaties ratified by the UK – and hopefully in the future incorporated into domestic law – governments must outline how they are acting to ensure housing is available, affordable, safe, decent and provides security of tenure. They must ensure this for everyone, and must take proactive measures to ensure equal provision for groups who may otherwise face discrimination or experience inequalities, whether they be women, minorities or people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, or face extra difficulties because of disabilities. Ambitious concrete policies will be needed to achieve all of these things, from mass council house building and abolition of Section 21 evictions, to ending the cladding scandal, getting rid of discriminatory “right to rent” checks, and providing adequate traveller sites.
Third, a human right to housing should ensure that change is not just driven from the top, but also by empowering residents, tenants and leaseholders to drive change from below. In part this means providing ways in which people can be meaningfully involved in developing policies and also have their complaints heard. One of the many human rights violated in the run up to the Grenfell fire was residents’ right to be heard, with safety complaints dismissed with fatal results. It also means identifying ways in which people can hold authorities accountable for their actions, and seek remedy when rights have been violated. In many cases this may mean effective complaints mechanisms, backed by clear information and support to individuals, in others it may mean recourse to courts with the support of adequate legal aid.
“Housing is a human right: how Labour can make it a reality” sets out the agenda for tackling the implementation of the right into English law, recognising that there is already a move to do so in both Wales and Scotland, and following the examples from elsewhere in the world. Experts including academics, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, and specialist housing lawyers focus on what the right would mean, how it has been adopted elsewhere in the world, and how it could be enforced.
Labour politicians from around the country have looked at how to guarantee the right to an affordable rent, already being worked on in London and Scotland, to good conditions for all tenants, and to access to a home.
Examples from elsewhere in the world show how progress has been made towards implementing the intention set out in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in Article 11 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) for housing to be included as a right for all nations. As Leilani Farha, former special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has illustrated, enshrining the right in the laws of any country is not simple or speedy. Canada’s National Housing Strategy (2017) committed the state to progressively implementing the right of every Canadian to access adequate housing. A feasibility study recently published in Wales concludes that the UN expects governments to make progress toward the “fullest possible realisation of the right through the application of resources as they become available”.
So the question about whether we can afford to give our citizens this right – a question that comes up pretty soon in any conversation about this issue – can be answered: once we start to make financial decisions based on this right, then we will find that we can not only afford to do it, but it also makes economic sense to do it. And as the Canada Government has found, implementing this right influences a whole raft of other decisions, financial and otherwise.
The UN’s declaration sets out the principle that this should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity, one that the war in Ukraine has highlighted only too painfully in recent weeks.
By recognising that housing is a human right, and committing to incorporate the right to adequate housing into UK law, the Labour Party has taken an important step in framing a progressive and transformative housing policy. There is much more work to do, but together we can do it. It is to be hoped that many others will join with Labour Housing Group and the Labour Campaign for Human Rights to work on how this right can be achieved here in our country.
This article was co-authored by the Labour Campaign for Human Rights and the Labour Housing Group.