Monday, June 04, 2007

Hodge on Housing

I’m a bit slow off the mark with this one, but a couple of weeks ago Labour minister Margaret Hodge, whose constituency is in East London got rounded on by her colleagues for posing the question: "In exercising that choice as an economic migrant, should they [migrants] then presume to have automatic access immediately to public social housing?" She went on to say that there was an ‘essential unfairness’ in the housing system biased against families that had grown up in the UK. The tone of Margaret Hodge’s comments make me uneasy – for a start migrants don’t have automatic or immediate access to public housing – the length of time varies on where they come from – for the EU accession countries it is 2 years; and many of immigrants I’ve spoken to don’t presume to have access to social housing at all, but expect to pay their own way for some years and are rather surprised to have access to social housing at the stage they do. Using language like this is misleading and aggravates the ‘fear of the other’ and the often defensive mindset of different communities.

Although Margaret Hodge was cak-handed in her comments, for Alan Johnson to say as he did a few days later "There is no evidence whatsoever that immigrants are causing a problem with social housing" was akin to sweeping the issue under the carpet.

No, of course immigrants don't go to the front of the queue, but three things do happen.

1. Asylum seekers get dispersed around the country and then when they gain indefinite leave to remain return to the area where their own community is to receive support – often East London. They then live in overcrowded housing and consequently gain more points on housing registers or bidding systems and significantly add to the numbers on these lists.

2. Economic immigrants come to the country and stay in private rented accommodation for a couple of years until they pass the habitual residence test and are entitled to benefits/public support. They then join the Council housing register and add pressure to it.

3. Where there are children of refugees or economic immigrants (who have satisfied habitual residence) involved the whole family is likely to be classed as priority need and get housed straight away.

These three issues significantly exacerbate the chronic housing shortages in the London area. This means that someone who has been working all their lives and paying NI contributions and then loses their job or suffers a relationship breakdown and becomes homeless the local authority can do nothing to help apart from placing them on a housing register which will take 3-5 years to yield them a property. The first time in their lives that they need the safety net of the state it does not provide. The ‘contract’ at the heart of the welfare state has failed them

It’s true that the economy benefits from diverse economic immigration, but the social infrastructure takes years and years to catch up – the issues in public housing are repeated in health services in East London. I hate to see any attacks on people based on race and long for more dialogue and story telling at community level so different communities understand where each other are coming from, but it is true that if you are a person that has been working in the UK for decades that the significant increase in immigration levels significantly reduces the chances of you getting housed quickly. To attack anyone says that as racist is not helpful, because we can’t address this housing crisis with practical solutions until we’ve acknowledged it and what many people feel is the root cause of it. If we don’t do this then the BNP will continue to look like the only party that’s dealing with issue head on.

The bulk of this post first appeared in the comments section of this post by Paul Burgin.

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