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How 'queue-jumping' myth is reinforced

The report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that confirms that social housing allocation does not favour new arrivals to the country nails a myth, although it won’t stop it being repeated. Our question is, however, is who perpetrated this legend and why?

All the evidence points to the New Labour government and the right-wing press like the Daily Mail, which have been courted for their prejudiced middle-class, middle-England voters.

So when you ask how the neo-fascist British National Party is able to use lies about queue-jumping immigrants to stir up opinion, you need look no further than the governments led by Blair and Brown, as well as statements by former ministers like Margaret Hodge.

The figures and facts produced in the EHRC report have always been available. Many of them are held by the Office for National Statistics, others by local authorities.

Yet for more than a decade, the government decided to reinforce prejudice and myth rather than counter it. As the report itself points out, one of the early acts of the New Labour government was to change the rules on the housing entitlements of asylum-seekers.

In 2000, after the implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, all existing rights to housing and all types of benefits were removed, and a new housing and subsistence scheme for asylum-seekers based on dispersal and the use of private landlords, was created. The EHRC report says these policies “fuelled misconceptions” about “queue jumping”.

A notorious voucher scheme was introduced before being abandoned, while the courts eventually had to step in to declare that a refusal to give destitute refugees any help breached human rights law. This made sure that the story repeatedly made its way into the tabloid press.

The report also points the finger at urban renewal policy since 2001, where “community cohesion” has taken on new meanings that place “greater focus on migrants and minorities themselves, and less on all residents of a neighbourhood”. In other words, migrants are made the problem and not part of the solution. It is scapegoating in the name of “integration” and the acceptance of so-called British values, an approach that has marginalised sections of Muslim youth and driven some of them into the arms of sectarian Islamists.

These perceptions were highlighted in May 2007, when Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking and then a member of the government, suggested in The Observer that new migrants should have less right to social housing than “established British families”. Hodge had said the year before that eight out of ten of her Barking constituents might vote for the BNP because “no one is listening to them”. The BNP made huge gains in the following month’s council elections and sent Hodge a bunch of roses as thanks.

And so it goes on. Government proposals, published as a Green Paper in 2008, proposed amending migrants’ restricted entitlement to social housing even further. Settled status may in future be abolished and instead replaced with a status termed “probationary citizenship”, with no entitlement to social housing and most benefits.

Then last week, in a desperate bid to outdo the BNP, prime minister Brown announced that the government would "reform social housing allocation – enabling local authorities to give more priority to local people whose names have been on waiting lists for far too long". Or British homes for British people. No wonder gullible voters are led to believe that these are major problems in society, when the cause lies somewhere quite different.

Since it came to power in 1997, the number of new homes built for social rent has fallen dramatically, as the report points out, while council homes continue to be sold off. Public investment has been directed towards encouraging “shared ownership” schemes instead. There is an absolute shortage of social housing and this is entirely the responsibility of the government, as is the myth of queue-jumping.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
7 July 2009

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