A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Immigration blame game is dangerous territory

Building Britain's Future is the government's draft legislative programme for 2009-2010. It claims "Britishness" throughout. The front cover has a union jack logo, while Gordon Brown's foreword speaks of "the best of British values." It sends shivers down the spine of those of us who regard values as universal. A small part of the programme, hyped up by Downing Street spin-doctors, is the proposal to change the allocation rules for council housing. The document doesn't say "British homes for British workers" but certainly implies it. Stating that "there is a perception that allocations policies for social housing are unfair, inflexible and act as a barrier to people being able to move when they need to," the government proposes to enable "local authorities to give more priority to local people and those who have spent a long time on a waiting list." Code for "too many foreigners are being given council houses." There may be that perception, but is it based on reality? The law governing the allocation of council and housing association properties forbids an allocation to most people "subject to immigration control" and other "persons from abroad." That means most immigrants are not entitled to social housing at all. Contrary to the "perception" that the government relies on, asylum-seekers cannot obtain social housing. No-one who is here unlawfully - because they came in under the radar or overstayed after their visas expired - is entitled. European Union nationals who don't - or can't - work aren't allowed to apply. Those on conditional visas - students, work permits, family members etc - can't apply although they pay taxes and national insurance. Only a small proportion of immigrants are even entitled to apply for social housing.

If you're not a British or European Union citizen, you need refugee status or unconditional indefinite leave to remain. British citizens returning to Britain after having lived abroad must pass a "habitual residence" test to show that they intend to remain here permanently. European Union workers may apply for social housing, but only if they remain here as workers or have been here working for at least five years. Anything less would be a breach of European Union obligations. Migrants who are entitled to apply for social housing have a harder job trying to apply than British citizens. The eligibility rules are extremely complex and so migrants who are entitled can be told (wrongly) that they are not. Those groups of recent arrivals who are entitled to apply are not in any privileged position. If they are entitled to apply, their need for social housing will be assessed just like everyone else's. Recent arrivals who don't have children and are able-bodied are as unlikely as any equivalent British citizen ever to be given a council or housing association property. Those who are assessed as eligible for social housing take their place in the queue. Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that most recent migrants tend to live in private rented accommodation, not in social housing. Their accommodation is more likely to be sub-standard than that occupied by British citizens. The second part of the promise "give more priority to ... those who have spent a long time on a waiting list" is already established law. By law, local authorities must recognise and give a "reasonable preference," otherwise known as a "reasonable headstart," to certain groups of people who have the greatest need for social housing - homeless people, those living in overcrowded or otherwise unsatisfactory housing, people who need to move for medical or welfare reasons.

Each local authority's policy must ensure that there is some recognition of those needs. In other words, someone who falls within one of those categories is given a certain number of points. But this emphasis on "need" doesn't mean that someone in one of those categories will always trump a person who has less need, but has been waiting longer. Last year an important legal case decided by the House of Lords confirmed that, provided local authorities ensured that there was some recognition of those groups specified by statute as entitled to a "reasonable preference," how local authorities then organised their allocation schemes and worked out the number of points that were given for various forms of need or for waiting time, was entirely up to each local authority. So local authorities have actually been giving points for waiting time. If the government is considering changing the law, it would have to junk the concept that those who have a greater need for social housing should have that need recognised. That would be a major policy change. Even the Tories, who legislated to implement Peter Lilley's "little list" of people such as single mothers who didn't deserve council homes, couldn't quite bring themselves to abolish preference for "need" altogether. Of course, the main point is that council and housing association homes are in desperately short supply - so people who have been waiting for years for a home find scapegoats. The recession has forced the government to acknowledge the shortage of social housing. Local authorities are finally going to be allowed to keep the receipts from council house sales, and put that capital money into building more houses. The government says that 3,000 additional council homes and 12,500 housing association homes will be built over the next two years.

That's a start. But what with five million households waiting for council or housing association properties, and the numbers set to increase as repossessions of owner-occupied homes increase, it is probably a drop in the ocean. The responsibility for scapegoating, however, lies with the government. As a local councillor in a hard-pressed local authority during the 1990s, I'm well aware that anyone waiting years for a new home looks at their neighbour and questions why he or she appears to have queue-jumped. But it's the job of politicians and the media to refute those myths, not propagate them. The slogan "local homes for local people" originates from the BNP, was taken up by Margaret Hodge and effectively now by the government. As I've demonstrated, it's simply not true that migrants unfairly queue-jump. It's wholly irresponsible of the government to legitimate that false perception. Rather than taking on the BNP, it's playing into their hands.

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