Housing associations pioneered work against discrimination and must resist the latest cynical attempt to grab votes, says HACT's Chair Tom Murtha.
When I started my career in the 1970s, one of my first jobs was to visit an elderly African-Caribbean couple who were living in squalid accommodation in one room with no facilities. The property was owned by an infamous landlord who exploited hundreds of similar immigrant families. The couple had applied to go on the council waiting list but were refused help because they failed the residential requirement. I knew that housing associations helped people in similar circumstances and I managed to find them a two-bedroom flat with all internal amenities and central heating. The ability of housing providers to help newcomers and migrants in the future is now under attack.
I wrote recently that after the UK Independence Party vote in Eastleigh the anti-immigration rhetoric from all parties would increase. In recent weeks we have witnessed the unseemly spectacle of all three party leaders trying to outdo each other in what has been called an ‘arms race’ of hard line anti-immigration rhetoric. Now we have the prime minister going even further by proposing to impose a residential qualification on social housing allocation policies for migrants and possibly others. This attempt to outflank UKIP and appease his backbenchers is the only basis for interfering with recognised good practice. Such political posturing should not be allowed to change procedures which have been developed over many years.
I agree with the comments of my predecessor as chair of [housing association charity] HACT, the Bishop of Dudley, when he says that the politicians’ response to immigration is wholly disproportionate. There is no evidence upon which to base this proposal. In fact the evidence that exists suggest that we are not doing enough to help newcomers, the majority of whom often live in unsatisfactory conditions in the private sector.
Housing associations have a proud history of helping those in the greatest need and championing good practice in fair allocation policies. In my career I have helped to introduce many of these procedures. Many now forget that a number of housing associations were established in the 1950s and 1960s to help migrants who then as now were living in the worst housing conditions. Housing associations pioneered anti discriminatory policies in the 1980s by removing residential criteria where it existed. This even became part of recommended good practice from the regulator. It will be interesting to see if there will be legal challenges to this proposal.
For these reasons I believe that we should resist this attempt to govern by dictat in such a sensitive area. Politically motivated proposals of this type almost always lead to bad policy. If the prime minister was really interested in increasing the supply of social homes to let and reducing waiting lists he would increase investment in social housing. He had an opportunity to do this in the Budget and failed to take it. The true motivation behind these proposals is clear for all to see.
A few months after I had helped to rehouse the elderly couple, the husband died. When I visited his widow to pay my respects she gave me an old toolbox. She said that her husband had left it to me to thank me for enabling him to die with dignity. I still have that toolbox. It reminds me of why we are here, it reminds me of what we do, and it reminds me of our values and roots. All of which are once again under attack from this cynical attempt to buy votes at the expense of those who are often in the greatest need. Freedom to support people in the most difficult circumstances and the ability to help people find hope and dignity is at the heart of what we do. We must resist attempts to interfere with this for short term political gain.