Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Want a House? Then Get a Job.

Today's Guardian front page sees a huge piece of signal sending by the Government.

The story, from a pre arranged interview with housing minister Caroline Flint, has them talking tough again about people on benefits. This time its those who are also in social housing who need to be taken to task. The suggestion is that if you are a tenant in "council housing" you tenancy will be conditional on your actively seeking work.


Leaving aside the fact that if you are on Job Seekers Allowance the government tells you to actively seek work anyway, what does this mean?

As far as I can see it means the government is finding a way to send another signal about benefits and welfare to two groups - those for whom the decision about whether working makes them better off is a marginal one, and that great tranche of Daily Mail readers who love nothing better than to assume everyone on benefits is involved in a sort of con.

But let's think about what Ms Fint has said in a bit more detail. She must know that there is less and less actual council housing around because government rules means that many estates are being transferred to other housing providers - housing associations and the like. These are independent bodies, some charities some not, running social housing. Are they to become agents of the state and police whether their tenants are "actively seeking work"? The core business of a housing association is to provide decent housing, to manage the estate, to collect rent, to carry out repairs. Housing officers are not benefit enforcers and shouldn't be.

But let's think about the justification here. It may be that people feel that those in accomodation which is in effect subsidised by the state in one way or another, should have an obligation to seek work so that they are paying back part of that subsidy. I don't agree but its a workable argument. But we are not talking about those in the private rented sector are we? And housing benefit is a state subsidy too.

Caroline Flint, in my Guardian story, argues that estates in which few people work actually make it less likely that others will get jobs. It affects aspirations she says (and I suspect there is truth in that). But the other thing that affects aspirations, and the likelihood of getting work, is the stigmatisation of particular areas. If you talk as if people from x estate are less likely to get a job, that will become the reality. Postcode discrimination can and does happen and we shouldn't be feeding it with ill informed comment.

There is obviously nothing wrong in social housing providers showing a broader interest in the welfare of their tenants. And there is nothing wrong in suggesting that services like job centres should be made more local and more accessible. And of course people need the transport infrastructure to get to jobs.

But in my view the Guardian story was intended to send loud warning signals. Perhaps the government ought to concentrate on helping people into work rather than frightening them and talking tough.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would hazard a guess that she's talking of those Labour authorities who don't have the faintest idea how to lift an estate up so that those people on it can find work.

In Stockport we have done all we can to lift estates by effective liberalism with crime & disorder even when we have the lowest rsg of metropolitan boroughs and get this half of the rsg per person compared to Manchester.

Yet i'm sure under Labour there'll still be programmes about Wythenshawe Estate in ten years time.