Back to the workhouse

In a virulent attack on the poorest sections of the working class, housing minister Caroline Flint suggested that unemployed people in council housing could risk losing their homes if they don’t prove that they are looking for work. In a Guardian interview on 5 February Flint claimed she was ‘surprised’ to learn the statistics about unemployment among social tenants. She said that the government wanted to tackle the culture of ‘no one works round here’, arguing that unemployment is ‘a form of peer pressure’ within the community itself: ‘If you are in a family, an estate or a neighbourhood where nobody works that impacts on your own aspiration.’

Both in the interview and in a speech the next day to the Fabian Society, she stated that housing should be seen as a privilege: new council tenants should have to sign ‘commitment contracts’ agreeing to look for work in order to be eligible. If they failed to show their commitment to find a job and to the principle of ‘something for something’, they could lose their council homes. This could be extended in future to include existing tenants. Unemployed tenants would also be made to do skills ‘audits’, giving the state more power to force people into low paid, temporary and insecure jobs.

The housing minister’s comments were met with criticism, even from sections of the ruling class. David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, which represents housing associations in England, said: ‘Such a policy would be unfair and impossible to enforce. Many of the jobs open to people, especially at the lower skills end, are insecure or temporary. Also, people with health problems, such as mental health issues, may find there are periods when they cannot keep up their job.’ Flint was not to be deterred, reiterating on 21 March: ‘The debate that I started a few weeks ago will continue over the coming months,’ and adding for good measure that landlords should be given a role in making sure tenants find work. The government’s plans would mark a return to the infamous Poor Laws of the 19th century which forced workers out of their homes into the workhouse if they were deemed to be eligible for any relief.

Yet the reason the unemployed and poor live in council houses is precisely because of past government policy. Between 1981 and 1997 1.4 million council tenants bought their homes; since then, under the Labour government, they have been joined by half a million more whilst a further million council homes have been transferred to housing associations or arm’s length organisations. There are now only just over 2 million council homes left. Hardly any are being built: in 2006 there were just 277 new council houses built nationally – with only four in London. Under Labour, council housing is being systematically abolished. No wonder the numbers on the council house waiting list have soared to 1.6 million, up 60% since Labour came to office.

In January Flint’s predecessor Yvette Cooper boasted there would be 30,000 new social homes built this year, a figure that will rise to 45,000 by 2010: but this is less than a fifth of all housing needed in that time. As it is, social housing plans face a £2.5bn shortfall in funding: planned output has risen 52% and funding only by 36%, with £10.5 billion needed and £8 billion allocated. Overall the number of social housing households has fallen by nearly half a million since 1997, more than 10%.

The decline in social and in particular council housing affects the poorest sections of the population: in 2005/06 the annual gross income for social tenants was £12,200 compared to £28,850 for households across all tenures. More than half of social housing tenants have an annual income of less than £10,000. Other figures show that:

•           55% of council tenants are unemployed – 20% more than in 1981;
•           There are 4 million people living in social housing in the UK. 2.6 million are of working age, with   about 1.4 million out of work. Nearly 75% of social tenants under 25 are unemployed;
•           Nearly a third of social tenants are aged over 65;
•           Over 25% of all ethnic minority householders are social tenants;
•           46% of lone parents live in social housing, making up 18% of all social housing tenants;
•           40% of all households needing specially adapted accommodation are in the social sector. One in seven social houses are involved.

Caroline Flint’s attack on council and social housing tenants is therefore a calculated attack on the poor, the elderly, the disabled and black people. As mortgage rates rise with the credit crisis and people lose their jobs, so those who bought their council house will more and more default on their repayments: they are the ones with the British equivalent of sub-prime mortgages. Repossessions, up 21% in 2007 from 2006, will increase rapidly, adding further to the pressure on social housing. At the time of writing MPs are trying desperately to prevent a freedom of information application detailing the huge amounts of money they claim for second homes. Such are the priorities of our parliamentary representatives: they do not care a jot for the poor.

Louis Brehony
FRFI 202 April / May 2008


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