Plans to evict council tenants involved in last week’s rioting are based on a number of false arguments. The government is simply looking for a headline-catching ruse to give the impression that it is responding robustly
As kneejerk reactions go, David Cameron’s bid to evict rioters from council houses must count as one of the worst to have been provoked by recent events. Indeed, it is difficult to know where to start in analysing how bad a response it is.
To start with, given that only 8% of people in England now live in council houses, it is going to be a very selective punishment – even if the proportion among rioters is somewhat higher. Of course, the only thing that we know for sure about the connection between riots and tenure is that some of the disturbances happened in or near social housing estates.
It is difficult not to conclude that some politicians are already making the assumption that council tenants are more likely to be the sort of troublemakers who would loot shops.
Let’s assume for the moment that evicting people is an idea worth considering, however. On what basis would the eviction take place? Wandsworth council has served notice on a tenant whose son appeared in court, although he hasn’t yet been convicted of an offence.
This will certainly punish him, if the eviction goes ahead, but won’t he have already been punished by the court? After all, they seem to be in the mood for vindictive sentencing, having already sent a woman to prison for five months for accepting a pair of looted shorts.
Is rioting so bad that it warrants double punishment when other crimes do not? Furthermore, does the whole family deserve to be punished for one – perhaps very out-of-control – young person’s wrongdoing?
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is already planning new powers to evict. At the moment, if people trash their own estates they can be dealt with under anti-social behaviour rules applying under their tenancy and – if the court agrees – be evicted. The government appears to want to extend this to anyone convicted of rioting, regardless of where the crime occurs.
This is twisting the rules, because the whole purpose of the law on eviction is that it is to do with a tenant’s behaviour where he lives. The basis for this idea seems to be the coalition government’s attitude towards council housing, that it’s a subsidised welfare benefit in high demand and therefore should be rationed out only to those who deserve it.
While what Cameron said – that council housing comes at a discount from market rents – is of course true, it is only in this sense that it is ‘subsidised’, because it is currently making the Treasury a healthy surplus.
The suspicion is that the government is looking for a headline-catching ruse that resonates with those people who already share a jaundiced view of council housing. After all, it can’t be made to apply to any other tenure and will in any case be at the landlord’s discretion (although plenty of councils – of all political shades – seem happy to say they will do it).
Evicted tenants have to live somewhere, and indeed may cost more in housing benefit if they move to the private sector. Cameron says he’s in the business of breaking up criminal networks ‘that exist on some housing estates’. I’m sure tenants in such neighbourhoods would agree with this objective where it is relevant, but doesn’t the same apply in any tenure and isn’t taking part in a riot rather an approximate definition of belonging to a ‘criminal network’?
Fortunately, ministerial responses to the riots are already coming in for criticism, with leading Liberal Democrats clearly unhappy at the course of the debate. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also said that it is ‘simply not good enough to go in for old-fashioned thinking, saying these are problems confined to an underclass’.
Yet Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defended Cameron, saying that his point that ‘if you are getting some support from the community, you are going to have to show some loyalty to it, is a really, really important one’. Clegg has already come under fire from elsewhere in the blogging community, with one blogger asking whether the argument also applies (say) to Messrs Goldman Sachs?
The worst of the kneejerk reactions seem to be fired by the judgement that the riots are about criminality, full stop. As I argued last week, not only is this simplistic but ignores the very obvious fact that there seems to be one law for the rich who run rampant in other ways, and one for the poor who riot.
I’m not suggesting any conscious political motive on the part of the rioters, but if the law comes down doubly heavily on them while others who have damaged society go unpunished, are they less or more likely to feel vindicated?
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