Written evidence submitted by Professor Fiona de Londras and Daniella Lock, COVID-19 Review Observatory, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham [IOC 342]

 

Executive Summary:

 

 

  1. Focus of Submission

This submission focuses on the following questions outlined by the Committee:

 

How effective has the support provided by the Government been in addressing the impact of COVID-19 on tenants, landlords, rough sleepers and the homeless? 

 

  1. Introduction

1.1              The United Kingdom is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.[1] Among other things, the Covenant protects the right to adequate housing.[2] The extent to which government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic work to protect individual rights, and particularly the rights of those in or at risk of homelessness or housing precarity, is a critical factor when considering the effectiveness of those responses. We draw the Committee’s attention to the statement of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to the effect that:

 

The pandemic has profoundly negative impacts on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights....States parties are under an obligation to take measures to prevent, or at least to mitigate, these impacts. Nevertheless, if States do not act within a human rights framework, there exists a clear risk that the measures taken might violate economic, social and cultural rights and increase the suffering of the most marginalized groups.[3]

1.2              We note the recommendations of the Committee in Protecting Rough Sleepers and Renters: Interim Report[4] and echo the Committee’s call for urgent consideration of and action on its recommendations. We note also the Government’s response to the interim report.[5] We recognise that the actions taken are significant contributions to protecting, respecting, and fulfilling individual rights. However, we note also that neither the Committee in its interim report, nor the Government in its response, frame and recognise actions addressing the impact of COVID-19 on tenants, landlords, rough sleepers and the homeless through the lens of human rights.[6] We respectfully submit that this is a valuable and important additional lens that allows for a more comprehensive consideration of the effects and effectiveness of government responses, and that a rights-based approach should inform future responses as the pandemic and its socio-economic and society effects develop further.

1.3              Taking the UK’s international human rights law obligations into account, effectiveness ought to be considered by this Committee as a matter of rights protection, as well as of social and economic policy and public health.

2. Homeless, Housing and Human Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic

2.1              The United Kingdom is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).[7] Among other things, the Covenant protects the right to adequate housing.[8] The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has made clear that “the right to housing should not be interpreted in a narrow or restrictive sense which equates it with, for example, the shelter provided by merely having a roof over one’s head or views shelter exclusively as a commodity. Rather it should be seen as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity”.[9] Furthermore, the right to adequate housing implicates other rights such as the right to equality and non-discrimination, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to association.[10]

2.2              Reflecting this, it is established that the right to adequate housing protects individuals from forced evictions, arbitrary interference with one’s home, and enshrines the right to choose one’s residence and determine where to live. The right also entitles all persons within the jurisdiction of the state to security of tenure,[11] and equal and non-discriminatory access to adequate housing. Housing is not adequate unless its occupants have access to safe and adequate services including sanitation, heating and energy.[12] Adequacy also entails affordability,[13] habitability,[14] accessibility,[15] appropriate location,[16] and cultural adequacy.[17] The right also protects people from homelessness.[18] The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Leilani Farha, writes that homelessness should be understood as encompassing the absence of a home (i.e. of minimally adequate housing and of the social aspect of a secure place to establish relationships and participate in community life), and as a form of systemic discrimination and social exclusion.[19] She has noted further that “Homelessness lies at the extreme end of the spectrum of violations of the right to adequate housing. As such, States should treat homelessness with the highest level of urgency”.[20]

2.3              In order to ensure that state responses to the pandemic address, account for, and do not exacerbate the pandemic’s negative effects on socio-economic rights, human rights considerations ought to be part of the design of all responsive interventions, and should be taken into account when reviewing the impacts and the in/effectiveness of such interventions. As made clear by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

 

States parties are under an obligation to devote their maximum available resources to the full realization of all economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to health. As this pandemic and the measures taken to combat it have had a disproportionately negative impact on the most marginalized groups, States must make every effort to mobilize the necessary resources to combat COVID-19 in the most equitable manner, in order to avoid imposing a further economic burden on these marginalized groups. Allocation of resources should prioritize the special needs of these groups.[21]

2.4              We note in particular the state’s international obligation to achieve progressively the realisation of rights protected by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[22] and the international prohibition on retrogression.[23] The combined effect of these doctrines is to obligate the state to ensure responses to the COVID-19 pandemic further the realisation of, and do not have the design or effect of reducing, the protection and enjoyment of socio-economic rights, including the right to adequate housing.

 

2.5              Notwithstanding the progressively realisable nature of the right to adequate housing, some elements of the right are subject to an obligation of immediate fulfilment. These include the obligation to give due priority to social groups living in unfavourable conditions by giving them particular consideration and, as a result, to ensure that policies and legislation are not be designed to benefit already advantaged social groups at the expense of others.[24] In addition, states are obliged to engage in effective monitoring of the situation with respect to housing.[25] Indeed, this Committee’s work contributes to the fulfilment of this obligation, reiterating the importance of framing inquiries in a rights-based manner.

 

3. Conclusion: Effectiveness and Human Rights

 

3.1              The Committee has sought views on the effectiveness of the support provided by the Government addressing the impact of COVID-19 on tenants, landlords, rough sleepers and the homeless. Following from the preceding sections, we submit that full consideration of effectiveness requires engagement with questions of rights including the right to adequate housing. In particular, it requires a consideration of the extent to which the support provided by the Government has:

 

(a)    Been sufficient to protect people from becoming homeless or experiencing housing precarity;[26]

(b)   Had the design or effect of alleviating, exacerbating, or leaving unchanged pre-existing socio-economic inequalities relating to homelessness or housing inequality;[27]

(c)    Had the design or effect of producing homelessness or housing inequalities;

(d)   Given due priority to social groups living in unfavourable conditions by giving them particular consideration;[28]

(e)    Been adapted in response to rights-related gaps or shortcomings that have been identified by, inter alia, civil society, independent agencies, and parliamentary inquiries.

3.2              We urge the Committee to take account of the findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, although we note also that the Committee’s report on The Government’s Response to COVID-19: Human Rights Obligations did not engage with the full range of implications for socio-economic rights.[29] We stress that questions of rights-related impacts are not limited to the Joint Committee on Human Rights or other dedicated human rights-fora. Rather, they are relevant to the work of all of Government and, thus, to all parliamentary entities engaged in ensuring accountability for, effectiveness of, and legitimacy of Government action, including its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Reviews and inquiries that fail to take rights-implications into account risk missing an important part of the analysis of the in/effectiveness of pandemic responses, including those supports responding to the impact of COVID-19 on tenants, landlords, rough sleepers and the homeless.

 

3.3              We respectfully submit that the Committee ought to seek evidence on the rights-related impacts of Government responses to COVID-19 on housing and homelessness in order to make a comprehensive assessment of effectiveness. We especially note the importance of enabling full participation in such inquiries, particularly given the internationally protected right to equal participation in public affairs.[30] This ought to include ensuring the accessibility of its inquiries for persons with disabilities,[31] those for whom English is not a first language, and those less accustomed to engaging with formal processes of this kind. We note with appreciation the Committee’s invitation in the call for evidence for people who find it difficult to participate in the process to contact the Committee directly.

 

About Us

Fiona de Londras is Professor of Global Legal Studies at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham.

Daniella Lock is Research Fellow at the COVID-19 Review Observatory, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham.

 

The COVID-19 Review Observatory is a UKRI-funded research initiative located at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. It tracks, assesses, and engages with parliamentary reviews of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic with a view to ensuring effective consideration of rights protection, and to enhancing accountability and legitimacy by supporting parliamentary review. A key part of its work is participating in such reviews by, for example, submitting to committee inquiries.

 

November 2020


[1] The United Kingdom ratified the Covenant in 1976.

[2] Article 11(1), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”.

[3] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, “Statement on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and economic, social and cultural rights”, UN Doc. E/C.12/2020/1, para. 2.

[4] House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Protecting Rough Sleepers and Renters: Interim Report. First Report of Session 2019-21. HC 309 (2020).

[5] Government Response to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee Report on Protecting Rough Sleepers and Renters. CP 248 (2020).

[6] The Government response makes no reference to human rights. The Committee report refers only to the property rights of landlords under Article 1, Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (HC 309 (2020), para. 33).

[7] The United Kingdom ratified the Covenant in 1976.

[8] Article 11(1), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: States parties “recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”.

[9] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 7.

[10] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 9.

[11] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(a).

[12] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(b).

[13] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(c).

[14] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(d).

[15] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(e).

[16] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(f): “Adequate housing must be in a location which allows access to employment options, healthcare services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities. This is true both in large cities and in rural areas where the temporal and financial costs of getting to and from the place of work can place excessive demands upon the budgets of poor households. Similarly, housing should not be built on polluted sites nor in immediate proximity to pollution sources that threaten the right to health of the inhabitants”.

[17] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 8(g).

[18] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 3: The Nature of States Parties’ Obligations (Art. 2, Para. 1 of the Covenant) (1990). UN Doc. E/1991/23, para. 10: “a State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary health care, of basic shelter and housing, or of the most basic forms of education is, prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant”.

[19] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context (2015). UN Doc. A/HRC/31/54, para. 17.

[20] Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and on the right to non-discrimination in this context (2015). UN Doc. A/HRC/31/54, para. 48.

[21] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, “Statement on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and economic, social and cultural rights”, UN Doc. E/C.12/2020/1, para. 14.

[22] Article 2(1), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

[23] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No 3: The Nature of States Parties Obligations, 14 December 1990, at para 9; Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No 13: The Right to Education, 8 December 1999, at para 45.

[24] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 11.

[25] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 13.

[26] In September the NGO Shelter reported that over 300,000 individuals in the UK reported they have fallen behind on their rent during the pandemic, putting them at risk of eviction and homelessness. See Shelter, Renters at risk: Getting through the coronavirus crisis (September 2020) (https://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1939510/2020-09-21_-_Renters_at_risk_Final.pdf).

[27] The Health Foundation has argued that there is emerging evidence that COVID-19’s impact on health and health inequalities is linked to housing, where the health of those suffering from housing insecurity are more adversely affected by the pandemic. See The Health Foundation, Emerging evidence on COVID-19’s impact on health and health inequalities linked to housing (14 August 2020) (https://www.health.org.uk/news-and-comment/blogs/emerging-evidence-on-covid-19s-impact-on-health-and-health-inequalities).

[28] For example, in October, Crisis and seventeen leading health and homelessness organisations wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister warning that the double threat of coronavirus and the cold weather could leave people forced to sleep rough experiencing a significant risk to life. The organisations highlighted that a recent study found that among a sample of people facing homelessness in London found that their levels of frailty were comparable to 89-year-olds in the general population. See Crisis and others, Re: Charities and health bodies warn of ‘risk to life’ to people facing homelessness and Covid-19 this winter (8 October 2020).

[29] Joint Committee on Human Rights, The Government’s Response to COVID-19: Human Rights Implications, 7th Report of Session 2019-21. HC 265. The report engages extensively with civil and political rights, the right to health (Chapter 4), and the right to education (Chapter 7), but less so with socio-economic well-being, poverty, and the right to an adequate standard of living.

[30] Article 25, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights has noted in particular that “full enjoyment of other rights…such as…the right to participate in public decision making…is indispensable if the right to adequate housing is to be realized and maintained by all groups in society” (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural, Rights, General Comment No. 4: The Right to Adequate Housing (1991). UN Doc. E/1992/23, para. 9).

[31] Article 29, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.