The problem of Britons First policy-making

Yesterday, The Times (paywall) reported that the government are drawing up plans to make Britons a priority on council housing lists. They report that ‘The government is discussing legislation for inclusion in the King’s Speech this autumn that will require councils to push British citizens and permanent residents higher up waiting lists and stop others “jumping the queue”.’

The issue here is severalfold. “Prioritising Britons” is a tacit admission by the government that they have not built enough council housing to meet demand. Whilst the 1980s Thatcherite policy of selling off council houses gave a certain group of people the ability to own their own home, it inevitably came at the cost of making another group of people unable to access an affordable place to live altogether. The failure of successive governments to replace sold-off council housing stock, and to build more to increase availability, have led to the situation today whereby there simply is not enough to house those who need it. But 40 years ago, the dream of owning your own home was given priority over the necessity of having anywhere to live at all.

However, we are where we are now. It is all well and good blaming a 40-year-old policy from yesteryear, but we now need policies to address the situation as it is. Certainly, having failed to build more social housing stock is a major issue. Nevertheless, a plan to build enough – even if committed to today – would take time. The pressing question is, how do we allocate the limited social housing stock we have available today?

The answer the government are offering is to “prioritise Britons”. The problems with doing this are plethora. For one, despite the Brexit rhetoric of some, it is government policy for credible and legitimate economic reasons to keep immigration at a level some consider too high. It has been government policy for decades – because it is evidentially the case – that our economy now relies on significant numbers of immigrant labour. Whilst there are discussions to be had about that, it is a well-established political consensus that – though it is not without its problems – on a macro-economic level, the benefits of immigration to the UK have been extremely positive.

It is worth pointing out as an aside – as one who voted to leave the EU – the increase in immigration we have seen is something I both predicted and was very happy to see (see here, here and here for example). Our open-handedness to Afghan, Ukrainian and Hong Kong refugees were a result of the freedom that came from Brexit. As I previously argued, our policies on asylum seekers have long been limited by uncontrollable levels of EU migration. That is to say, asylum policy is an area of migration we could control whereas EU migration was not and so successive governments attempted to control the areas of immigration they could do so. This also impacted our approach to non-EU migration by the same token. Of course, if you voted to leave the EU to reduce immigration – not only, as I argued at the time, was that a profoundly foolish view and deeply unlikely to happen – it has proven to be an unmitigated disaster for you. We have received a greater number of migrants since Brexit than ever before, mainly due to receiving Afghans, Ukrainians and Hong Kongers. If, however, you voted leave because you wished to be more even and open handed to the rest of the world – allowing EU migration where required but equally opening ourselves up to worldwide immigration where most helpful too, and prioritising refugees over economic migrants – Brexit delivered exactly what we had hoped on this front.

What has any of that got to do with social housing stock? Simply this: if we have created an economic policy the relies on migrant labour and increased avenues for (at least certain) refugees to come, it is morally incumbent on us to ensure they have proper access to housing. Of course, there are various ways this might be achieved. For example, insisting on migrant labour being paid enough that they are not entitled to social housing would be one way. It should be the case that migrant nurses coming to work in the NHS are paid enough that they are not eligible for social housing, for example. It bears remembering, however, that the current government are currently fighting tooth and nail not to give such workers pay rises. But across the board, a simple way to stop migrant labour requiring social housing is to pay them salaries that would make them ineligible for it and, therefore, capable of paying market value for private rentals.

Of course, this might have the other knock-on benefit of paying wages that Britons are willing to accept too, thus leading to employment of more Brits and taking them out needing social housing themselves and (potentially) reducing our reliance on foreign labour. Again, one of the constant refrains over recent decades is that Britons don’t want to do certain jobs. What has become apparent is that they are perfectly willing to do certain jobs, just not for the low-levels of pay and poor conditions we happily offer to migrant labour instead. But even if such pay and conditions are raised and these jobs go to Britons, they should be sufficient to take them out of needing social housing, making more available for those who need it.

Further to this, it bears noting much migrant labour already comes with the proviso of ‘no access to public funds’, which is to say they are not entitled to benefits and often not eligible for social housing at any rate. Without a specific job, their visa expires. The policy being proposed will not ultimately address the fundamental issue that, of the 1.2 million people waiting for social housing, only one in 10 goes to non-UK nationals. Which is to say, Britons are clearly already prioritised because 90% of social housing stock already gets allocated to them.

But perhaps the worst aspect of this policy is the impact it will have on refugees. I think there is a legitimate case to be made for prioritising British nationals over economic migrants when it comes to social housing. That is, particularly if the above points are taken into account and we pay them enough to make private rentals a credible option for them. But what is indefensible is the impact a Britons First policy will have on asylum seekers.

The government insist they do not want to have a negative impact on people who have come via official schemes such, that is to say Afghans and Ukrainians primarily. But what about those Iranians, Eritreans, Sudanese and others who have been given the right to remain because of danger to their lives but who have no official government scheme to support them? This policy will, to all intents and purposes, make them homeless. Not only that, but it is evident where this policy will lead next. For, if they insist that Britons get social housing priority over refugees necessarily, where will refugees be housed? If current policy is anything to go by, the answer is in hotels. This solution is terrible all round. It is not a home for refugees, they are not conducive to any sort of family life, they do not allow you to cook for yourself, you are constantly surrounded by and sharing with strangers along with a whole bunch of other issues for those placed in them. From a government perspective, they are extremely expensive and – as we know – there is a PR problem people have with refugees being “put up” in hotels. Of course, anyone who has ever set foot in Oldham knows there is no Ritz or Dorchester here, but it doesn’t change the fact that many view it as a frivolous luxury. So, what will happen to refugees? They will be denied social housing because of the Briton First policy, they will be placed longer term in hotels, and the next call will be for the government to do something about the exorbitant cost of housing refugees in luxury hotels whilst poor Britons have to slum it in social housing!

Not only is that where this policy will inevitable end up, it is morally indefensible to welcome people fleeing danger and give them the right to remain here whilst, at the same time, permanently rendering them homeless. This simply will not do. The fundamental issue is a lack of social housing stock and more must be built. In the meantime, the government must prioritise based on need. It is not “queue jumping” when you have waited years to have your asylum case heard and, the moment you are granted leave to remain, are thrown out of your NASS housing and made immediately homeless. We recognise the need of residency and welcome them by kicking them out of a house and rendering them homeless, at least for a time, before they can get a bank account and benefits or a job. My concern with this policy is the inevitable knock-on effect it will have on the most vulnerable in society, those we have recognised as vulnerable and to whom we have granted residency on this basis, and yet who we will then turn around and say they are on the streets because Brits have rights they don’t.

I think it legitimate to prioritise Britons over economic migrants, provided we pay such migrants enough to allow them access to the private rental market. But I do not think it fair, right or reasonable to prioritise Britons necessarily over refugees. Whilst we might consider using rent controls or forcing private landlords to accept people on benefits, these sort of policies do not come without their issues either. Amongst them, landlords deciding it is not worth remaining in the rental sector and selling their homes and reducing private rental stocks. Another being the private rental market, simply due to demand, is a landlord’s market – they are in a position to choose their tenants and there is little can be done to stop it. Other solutions may present themselves, but what we must not do is allow a Britons First policy to end up meaning that refugees – who are vulnerable, have often waited many years even for their case to be heard, and who are now recognised legally as requiring asylum and given the right to remain – to be made homeless because it is politically expedient to be seen to prioritise Brits among a certain section of the voting public, many of whom are not the ones who even need the houses themselves.

The ultimate answer, of course, is to build more social housing and not sell it off. But necessary long term solutions don’t resolve the pressing problems of today immediately. As alluring as Britons First might sound to some, it will necessarily be inequitable unless a strong package of other reforms come into play to offset the obvious issues this will cause to both economic migrants and refugees. If the government are adamant that economic migrants are needed for our economy, and rightly offer asylum to those in need, they cannot throw such people under the bus because it is politically good PR to do so.