Why it’s time to establish a legal right to adequate housing in Wales

Dawn Bowden. Picture by Welsh Labour

Dawn Bowden, Labour AM for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

In today’s Member Debate I will set out the case for establishing a legal right to adequate housing in Wales.

I will propose that the National Assembly should consider making a national commitment to the fundamental principle that every one of us should have a human right, underpinned by law, to access adequate housing.

In March of this year, I wrote a piece for the Welsh Fabians stating: “A safe warm home is key to personal wellbeing, and the lack of such security is damaging too many people in our communities”.

Establishing a legal right to adequate housing could – in my view – take us forwards on the journey to address this concern.

I thank those organisations who have recently brought this subject to the fore for discussion including:

  • Tai Pawb,
  • the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru,
  • Shelter Cymru, and
  • Dr Simon Hoffman of Swansea University.

The problem

I know that since my election to this Assembly in 2016 I have felt enormous frustration at the range and depth of housing problems in so many of our communities. In Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, I see the problems which arise from:

  • a lack of suitable housing opportunities,
  • the problems of homelessness, and the ways in which
  • too much housing is unaffordable for too many people.

In today’s debate, I will, of course, recognise many of the steps the Welsh Government has taken but I believe that the persistent, deep-rooted and erosive nature of our housing problems now requires us to consider a legal new framework for action.

A right to adequate housing

I believe that establishing a right to adequate housing is a way of overcoming the incremental and fragmented approach to the housing problems we face. It would provide a new underpinning of law that can drive the policy and the cultural changes we need to deliver more effective responses.

The authors of the recent feasibility report on “the right to adequate housing in Wales” frame a very persuasive argument – a social justice case – around the access to legal redress set in the context of the tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

Given what we are all now learning about the history of that tragedy, we can perhaps reflect that, if the residents had a right to adequate housing – and legal redress to their issues through a court process – then the situation may have been different.

Incorporation

I believe it is worth noting that, in both a policy and legislative context, in Wales we are already very familiar with a rights-based approach. Perhaps the most notable has been the work in respect of the rights of children and young persons. These were incorporated into Welsh law via the Child Rights Measure of 2011. Through this measure, we know that Welsh ministers have to pay due regard to the specific human rights of children and young people.

The report illustrates how this is an example of the indirect incorporation of human rights treaties, as government ministers are not fully bound by them, but must have “due regard” to these rights.

That differs in approach to direct incorporation which is the way the UK dealt with the Human Rights Act. In the case of direct incorporation, it often means an individual can use their human rights to seek justice in a British court.

The recent feasibility report also highlights sectoral incorporation, which means rights are incorporated in specific policy areas. Once again, Wales already has experience of this through the Social Services (Wales) Act 2013.

Incorporation is important because it brings these human rights into our national legal framework.

What is the right?

Well, it is set out in article 11 (1) of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and includes, and I quote (hence the gender-specific language):  the “right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing”.

The UN Committee has further defined this as a right to live in “peace, security and dignity”. This helps us to frame housing as being of fundamental importance to humanity.

There is an important point I should make at this point, and that is: incorporating this legal right does not require the government to provide housing for all.

As Ali Zalesinska of Tai Pawb wrote recently: “There is a popular misconception that the right to adequate housing means that the government has to build a home for every citizen. This, of course, is a myth, it is more about supporting social progress, with a specific focus on those most disadvantaged,” – what she describes as “progressive realisation”.

But a legal right would then require a clear enabling strategy that can progressively address housing problems.

Indeed, the sponsors of the recent feasibility report support the idea of taking a mixed approach to the incorporation of the right to adequate housing.

That is, they believe there should be both direct and indirect incorporation so that:

  • there is a strong proactive framework for a right to housing in policy making,
  • but also, the right to enforcement if the right is breached.

I would hope that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee might take evidence on these issues in advance of the 2021 Assembly elections. Such evidence could consider emerging international experience within the context of this debate. As I am not a lawyer, such evidence would also help to further improve my understanding of the range of implications of such a law.

Conclusion

After the debate, I will travel to my home in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. At the end of a long, busy day, that thought provides me with comfort. I return to familiar personal objects, to some security and safety. I will have warmth if required.

But I also recognise that in 2019 – in spite of all this nation’s wealth – this is not the case for all our fellow citizens in Wales. Which leads me to conclude that the time is now right to consider a statutory right to adequate housing.  To return to where I started:

I propose that this National Assembly should consider making a national commitment to the fundamental principle that every one of us should have a human right, underpinned by law, to access adequate housing.

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