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May 26, 2022



Commentary: Czech Human Rights Minister wakes up on homelessness - better late than later?

20.6.2015 0:04
Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier (PHOTO: Repro ČT 24)
Czech Minister for Human Rights, Equal Opportunities and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier (PHOTO: Repro ČT 24)

The crisis around the implementation of the amendment to the law on aid to those in material distress, which could result in forcing thousands, including families with children, onto the streets, is a testament to the horrible chaos and lack of conceptual clarity in Czech politics. Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier warned yesterday that as many as 17 000 people could lose their "homes" in residential hotels as a result of the legislation.

Dienstbier also called the amendment "ill-conceived, not thought through, and unsystematic". It is a shame that the minister, who is responsible for human rights, legislation, Romani integration and combating excluded localities, did not notice this earlier.

At the voting session of the Czech Senate on 22 October 2014, Dienstbier did not vote for the amendment in his capacity as Senator - he abstained from voting. He also did not convince any other Senator (not even from his own club, the Czech Social Democratic Party) of the harmfulness of the amendment - and everyone from that party who was present voted in favor of it.

Do legislators even know what they are voting for?

The history of the amendment is tragicomic. The passage that is causing the current crisis was inserted into the Government's bill by Czech MP Zbyněk Stanjura (Civic Democratic Party - ODS) as an addition.

According to the addition, municipalities are now the entity to decide whether housing benefits should be disbursed to those living in residential hotels. All of the MPs from the governing coalition parties voted in favor of Stanjura's addition even though he is in the opposition.  

Those who voted against it were three MPS from the center-right TOP 09 party, one ODS MP, and nine MPs from the ultra-right "Dawn of Direct Democracy" (Úsvit) party. It is doubtful whether the Úsvit MPs were bothered by the possibility that the law would be used against the impoverished people, most of them Romani, in the residential hotels.

To summarize:  MPs from the governing coalition, who recently adopted the Romani Integration Strategy and are planning to draw on billions of crowns from EU funds to combat social exclusion, approved an amendment giving municipalities an instrument for getting rid of the residential hotels - or rather, their occupants. It is now evident that some municipalities are making use of this tool in dramatic fashion, with gusto.  

It's clear that MPs specialize in various areas and do not have a detailed overview of every nuance of the laws they vote on. However, they should have the relevant ministers, "specialist-MPs", advisers and experts in the field, to counsel them.

Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksová says she was against this bill, but unable to vote against it because she is not an MP. Why, however, was she unsuccessful in convincing her cabinet colleagues who are also MPs (but excused from voting) to focus the necessary attention on this amendment?

Why didn't Marksová discuss this amendment with her party colleagues who are MPs? Did she even try?

Do the MPs not take the Labor and Social Affairs Minister seriously? Do her cabinet colleagues not take her seriously?

Is the Prime Minister taking her seriously when he now says the amendment must be changed? After all, it was voted on in the lower house on 24 September 2014.

What about Jiří Dienstbier?

As I said above, Dienstbier did not vote against the amendment in the Czech Senate, and he did not convince his colleagues to vote against it either. The same questions apply to him as apply to his fellow minister Marksová:  Did he even try to convince them?

Do his colleagues even take him seriously? Was it really so difficult for him to realize, when he first read the proposed amendment, that it was "ill-conceived, not thought through, and unsystematic"?

What's more, several experts warned everyone of this. The first was probably the former director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion, Martin Šimáček, who at the end of last year warned the viewers of Czech Television that people from the residential hotels might "have nowhere to go".  

Šimáček is evidently among those who noticed the risks of the amendment in time (or least earlier than others). Dienstbier dismissed him in April.

It would, nevertheless, be very depressing if more such people were to stop communicating with the ministers and MPs. What about the larger issue of social housing?

Will that now be swept under the carpet once more? The amendment that has caused all these problems is also an absurd experiment because it was adopted at a time when there is no law on social housing here - that law, in principle, is supposed to solve the problems of the disadvantaged and most impoverished with respect to housing.  

The design of that law has been discussed for years now, and this Government has finally begun to draft it, but it will not take effect until January 2017. What's more, it is far from certain to be adopted.

Recently, doubts have arisen as to whether the Government will meet its deadline for completing the legislation and whether it even intends to submit it to the lower house during this electoral period. Also, a basic problem is evidently arising with the original concept of the law, which was drafted by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, due to pressure from the Union of Cities and Municipalities (UCM) in particular, which has objected to some of its essential theses from the beginning.

The situation is even more tense because Marksová now wants to negotiate with the UCM about changes to the unsustainable amendment on municipal control over housing benefits. If she is backing down on the question of social housing with them, though, is it likely she will be able to push through what she seeks on the question of housing benefits for those in the residential hotels?  

In any event, this all just looks absurd for now. It also seems hopeless.

The Government is being led by Social Democrats. They have approved a Romani Integration Strategy.

The human rights and labor/social affairs agendas are being led by Dienstbier and Marksová, politicians from whom we anticipated a genuinely "left-wing" politics - and mainly, a politics that would get to the bottom of things and be well-conceived. The impoverished people in the residential hotels, most of whom are Romani, are now evidently heading for their deepest crisis in years.  

Thousands of people, including children, are about to become homeless. There is, however, no well-conceived solution on the horizon.

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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