Tuesday 5 February 2008

Caroline Flint shows her mettle

Much of the commentary around Gordon Brown's mini-reshuffle surrounded the deserved promotions for James Purnell and Andy Burnham to Work and Pensions and DCMS respectively. Less well noticed was Caroline Flint's promotion to the job of housing minister, replacing Yvette Cooper, and giving her a non-voting seat at the Cabinet table. In her first interview with the Guardian today, the minister who effectively steered the successful anti-smoking legislation through government and parliament, in spite of considerable opposition to the total ban from some in cabinet, has once again shown her mettle. By linking the housing agenda to a much clearer sense of social responsibility, she has not only outflanked the opposition, but has brought forward a genuinely radical proposal that will appeal to millions of hard-working Labour voters. With Johnson versus the BMA yesterday, and Flint on housing today, this government is rediscovering its radical nerve; all it needs now is to get public attention beyond snoopers and sleaze.


donpaskini said...

But the problem with Flint's latest (unlike the smoking ban or getting GPs to work in the evenings), is that it is undeliverable and shows a total ignorance of the social housing sector. Picking fights which lead to actual change is one thing, but there is no way that requiring new social housing tenants to work or lose their homes is going to achieve what she thinks it is.

Where are these jobs for people with drug and alcohol addictions or very young children going to come from? Is it really going to be the case that when people can't find work, that they are going to be evicted and either sleep on the streets or end up in unsuitable private sector accommodation (at greater cost to the public purse because of higher housing benefit costs)?

The point about a smoking ban or evening opening for GPs' surgeries is that whether or not you support it, the effects are very visible, and it is possible to see how the government has made a difference. This proposal offers up the opposite, where the government makes a big statement, but the people who think it is a good idea don't see anything change and continue to believe that all social housing tenants are living a life of luxury with Sky TV and all the rest of it.

Conor Ryan said...

What Caroline is saying is that for new tenants, there should be new expectations. And if you want to recreate mixed communities - as social or council housing used to have - then it makes sense to link them to work, rather than building 'Shameless' estates. As she points out in her TV interviews, such links are already made in some youth projects. If people break other terms of their tenancy through anti-social behaviour, they can be moved; what could be worse for young people than to grow up on workless estates? I agree with you that it should be carried through, but disagree with the sneering defeatism of Grant Shapps, apparently the Tory spokesman on these issues, who thinks it is 'unworkable' - if the law needs changing, then the law should be changed.

donpaskini said...

By 'changing the law', do you mean that people who are evicted because they don't look for work are denied access to social housing in the future? If no, then presumably they just go back to the council and get housed somewhere else (possibly after a stay in some temporary accommodation at much greater cost to the taxpayer). I don't see our hard-working majority of Labour voters being that impressed with that outcome. The alternative, if you do mean eviction and no access to social housing, is having children sleeping on the streets or taken into care, and the return of Cardboard City where young drug addicts sleep rough a la Maggie Thatcher.

If you want to create mixed communities (and I do), then what is absolutely essential to build a lot of new social housing, so that a wider range of people have the opportunity to rent off the council or housing association. Grant Shapps and his rich Tory mates in the countryside are against this, Labour is for it (though delivery has been slower than it needs to be), it is a great dividing issue which we should be making as much noise about this as possible.

But at the moment, most people who are allocated social housing (and particularly those who are new social housing tenants and out of work) are those in priority need, mostly people with mental health or addiction problems or with very young children.

So the policy question is whether threatening people in this situation with eviction if they don't look for work is a sensible idea. We've already decided, for example, that people with kids under 7 shouldn't be forced to look for work by cutting their benefits if they don't, it isn't exactly joined up government to turn round and threaten them with losing their home.

I'm all for investing in projects which help people in areas of high unemployment into work, and it would be possible to make a massive difference by, for example, making childcare affordable and accessible and working with employers so that they are prepared to hire people who have additional needs. The new welfare reform agenda is mixed, but it does include greater personalisation of services to help people who have been out of work for a while find jobs. We know quite a lot about what works and what doesn't.

But the problem is that when, as in this case, a government minister makes a high profile announcement of a new policy and doesn't understand the implications of it, then the consequences aren't very good.

Conor Ryan said...

The question is just as much whether accepting workless estates is a good idea? And that is what the system increasingly does. Aside from a few schemes for key workers, social housing has come to be just what you described. To deal with what happens to those who can't work first - and I would leave mums with small children, who are able to manage, out of the equation until their kids are at school full-time - there is an excellent scheme in Dundee which provides the sort of support for those who have problems getting back into the workforce or genuinely find it difficult to live independent lives, providing them with joined-up services at considerably less than the tens of thousands of pounds spent through myriad schemes on each one of the most difficult families, and with much more success. Those who do not have these problems or extra needs should be required to seek work if they expect benefits, including housing, from the state. But Caroline is starting a serious debate on two wider issues: first, should our services be only for the very poorest, or should working people on modest incomes benefit too; and, second, how do we end the spiral of poverty if we don't create an environment for growing children where work isn't an exotic exception. Achieving both those objectives are what the hard-working majority of Labour voters would welcome; and all the evidence suggests it would be the best outcome for the children and their parents too. But I do agree that people need to see change after high-profile statements. I hope No 10 gives Caroline the backing to make sure they do.

donpaskini said...

If she'd talked about the good local schemes like the one you mention in Dundee, and making sure that there are good local projects up and running in every estate where there are high levels of worklessness, then that would have been great. Even better if she had linked it to increasing childcare, bringing in new employers and building more houses. That would have been politically smart, drawing a clear dividing line between us and the Tories. It would help to cut poverty and restate our commitment to increasing social housing so that it is for working people on modest incomes and not just the poorest. (Admittedly, it wouldn't have got as much media attention, but ho hum).

But instead this stunt about threatening people with eviction overshadows that message, would be a bad idea even if it could be implemented. Again, in practice as opposed to DCLG theory it is either about shuffling people around from one house to another at higher cost to the taxpayer or taking children into care and leaving drug addicts sleeping rough on the streets, or about proving the Tories right that it is all Labour spin and can't be done because of European law.

We agree on the end goals, it's just that this particular stunt is actively counter productive because a minister has not taken the time to properly master her brief before sounding off. Which is deeply frustrating and not praise-worthy.

Anonymous said...

Flint's remarks were a really low moment for a government that's been full of them. Should it come to pass what does she propose she do with the individuals and families she makes homeless? Wouldn't they be an even greater strain on the state, then?