In a time when the shortage of social housing is at something of a crisis point, the housing minister has some thinking to share with us. Unfortunately, it is this. (Also BBC news page and the Guardian).
Let us make the rash assumption that this proposal to eject work-shy malingerers from their council tenancies is not an empty piece of vote catching cynicism, in fact let us go so far as to assume she might actually mean it. What we are then left with is something very silly indeed, lacking as it does both carrot and stick for those subject to this return of the un/deserving poor distinction.
The only carrot on display (apart from actually being allowed to have a council tenancy) is employment. That is not necessarily so attractive to those involved as it is to the government. Anyone earning above a very low threshold has to pay a large proportion,or all of their housing costs (rent, council tax), and of course there are the additional expenses of childcare, transport, tax credit overpayment deductions etc.. Tax credits don’t cover the difference, particularly for lowest paid.
Many of the people I see who have fallen into rent arrears have done so precisely because they have taken a job without having carried out the complex calculations on benefit eligibility, likely tax credit level etc. necessary to work out if they can afford to do so. It is unsurprising that they can’t do this, as it is apparently beyond the wit and capability of most government departments and benefit authorities. The tenant’s income then turns out to be lower than that needed to replace the removed benefits. In fact, in one of the ironies all too common at the benefit/low pay nexus, it is often being employed that results in Council tenants being evicted. Is the Minister proposing that the minimum wage should be flexible enough to include required housing costs? I thought not.
Sticks are also in short supply. Flint suggests the prospective tenant should sign up to an enforceable contract to seek work, which would result in eviction if they breach. Of course this would not apply for those ‘clearly’ [sic] incapable of seeking work. If you are vaguely or perhaps mistily incapable of seeking work, tough.
So, we can assume she proposes to re-write both Part VI and Part VII routes to tenancies – via housing list/bidding scheme and homeless application. Oh and remove the statutory duty on local authorities to provide accommodation to the eligible homeless. And then ensure that the DWP and the local authorities are integrated enough to properly decide on when someone has breached the contract. And then face down the inevitable human rights challenges to setting such a condition on access to housing and on a continued tenancy (particularly where no such condition applies to private sector tenancies).
Is this going to happen? No. Unsurprisingly, Downing Street seems to be backing away from the idea at speed, with the Voltaire manoeuvre – ‘I might not adopt this as a firm policy but it is a good issue to have a debate about’. Rather worryingly, Grant Shapps the shadow housing minister, shows such a firm grip on his brief that he appears to actually believe that:
“Ministers and local councils have a statutory duty to house homeless families with children and so they can’t boot them out of their houses without then providing alternative accommodation”.
Somebody please tell the shadow minister about intentional homelessness quick.
That is the practicality out of the way. I think it is safe to assume that this idiot proposal isn’t going to get off the ground. But that isn’t satisfying enough. Let me be clear that this party apparatchik, who displays a classic new labour route to becoming an MP of NUS officer, policy wonk, equal ops officer and union researcher, has come up with a foul and loathsome idea, one that surely a literature graduate should realise has been tried and failed repeatedly since the early 19th Century, that being separating the good poor and the bad poor.
Social housing, like the rest of the welfare state, is based upon the principle of need, not merit.(Good heavens, I’m having to remind a labour minister of the basic principles of the welfare state). It is supposedly there for those who, for whatever reason, find themselves in need.
It may be a deceptively simple ethics, but its genesis was complex and founded on long experience that attempting to distinguish between meritorious need and undeserving need was complex, inevitably unfair and unjust, at the mercy of politics and the whim of those who themselves had no call on welfare provision, and just plain unworkable.
The obvious comparison for Flint’s brain spasm is with the calls for the obese not to get NHS treatment for related illnesses, under the guise of encouraging people not to be obese.
There is a kernel of truth in there, of course. There are areas of a dramatic concentration of poverty and deprivation. These same areas are usually suffering from a lack of services, support, training etc.etc.. Flint should be aware of the difficulty of changing this, and some of the steps required as she has just come from being a junior Employment minister. But rather than actually deal with that, let’s blame the tenants.
Flint, again classically new labour, mistakes cause and effect. Having been ‘surprised’ to find that social housing, which is there for people with a low or no income, is occupied largely by people with a low or no income, she decides that clearly the problem is that these people have actually got access to housing.
Perhaps we should have a contract for ministers, to actively seek good policy ideas and not succumb to the temptation of Daily Mail ‘proposal’ farts. When they breach this contract, they have to leave their office. After all, it is the hard working decent people of this country who are paying for them to stay there. Why shouldn’t these ministers have to actually do some proper thinking rather than sitting around appearing on TV all day?
And I’ve just found Polly Toynbee agrees on all counts. This is a daft idea [mp3]. I’m not sure how delighted I am by that.
[Edit 6/02/08. William Flack picks this up and compares Flint to Edwina Curry. Miaow, but true.]