The belief that those who have lived in a community longest should have housing priority isn't racistby Julian Baggini / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
When the Labour minister Margaret Hodge said that long-term British residents should be given higher priority for social housing than recent immigrants, she knew that she was entering dangerous territory. “In our open, tolerant country, there are… few issues that remain taboo,” she began her Observer article. “But, motivated by the fear of both legitimising racism and encouraging the extreme right, migration is one.”
The response to the piece proved that she was right. Shelter’s chief executive Adam Sampson said, “These comments perpetuate the myth that social homes are given to new immigrants coming to the UK at the expense of the indigenous population.” Ken Livingstone weighed in, saying, “Hodge’s suggestion that housing allocation should be based not on need but factors like length of residence would be catastrophic for community relations.”
The recurring theme of the criticisms was that Hodge’s words were fuelling racism and creating social tensions. However, in all the uproar, there was little clarity about the issue of principle Hodge was raising: should public services be delivered solely according to need, or should entitlement be based at least partly on how much one has contributed to the society providing those services? Call the latter view the “priority principle.”
The argument that Hodge was “perpetuating a myth” fudges the issue of whether the priority principle is sound. The housing experts, like Sampson, acknowledged that the priority principle is operating, but failed to say whether they thought it was a good thing or not. Livingstone, by contrast, rejected the principle and hence implicitly criticised Barking and Dagenham council, which apparently does take length of residence into account in allocating social housing.
Whether or not Hodge is right to say there is a problem with housing policy, it is surprising that the centre and left failed to give explicit support to the priority principle, since it is accepted by most people, across all demographic groups. I discovered this recently when I served as a commissioner on an inquiry by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust into destitution among asylum seekers. Although asylum is a very different issue from immigration, in our focus groups, people subscribed to basic matters of principle that apply in both cases. For instance, on the issue of benefits, one participant said, “I don’t think the government could cope with giving equal benefits to all; that’s why you have to wait five years.” Another said, “The government should look after their own first,” while a third added, “We were born here, we are more patriotic, we think ‘look at them getting everything.'”
All these comments were made by members of a Bangladeshi women’s group in Leeds. They echo comments made by student nurses, sixth-form students and an all-white, all-male, working-class angling club.
The basic instinct that underlies these opinions is not based on prejudice, but a conviction that nations are a bit like clubs that confer more benefits on long-term members who have paid their dues than those who have only recently signed up. That doesn’t imply that new or non-members are not our moral equals as human beings, merely that there are memberships other than that of the human race—such as to family or national community—that affect our responsibilities and rights. If you accept this, then the priority principle sounds like little more than common sense.
There clearly is an argument that the priority principle is just wrong, and that access to services should depend solely on need. But that case needs to be made—to assume it is the only respectable position is arrogant.
So what has stopped people from taking the priority principle seriously? The real reason was identified by Hodge herself in the opening words of her article: “the fear of legitimising racism.”
But the claim that the principle is racist doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Hodge said, “A lot of black and Asian British people feel as strongly as some white families do—that there is an essential unfairness in the system. They feel they’ve grown up in the borough and they’re entitled to a home.”
In so far as Hodge gives credence to horror stories about queue-jumping foreigners, the objection to her comments is a fair one. But the hostility goes wider than this, and accusations of racism can have dangerous consequences. If people are made to feel they are racists when they know they are not, what happens when a party comes along that has also been labelled racist, but insists that all it does is share the same legitimate concerns that the mainstream political parties dismiss? The answer is obvious, and has been given loudly in Barking and Dagenham—which has a horrifying 12 BNP councillors out of 51.
The case against the priority principle has to be made by those who disagree with it, without muddying the waters with spurious slurs about its supposed racism. The real prejudice in this debate is against the many law-abiding citizens whose disagreement with liberal orthodoxy is misinterpreted as bigotry.