Ministers claim the updated rules will reduce both exploitation and illegal immigration, but it seems unlikely they will have much effect on either.
To judge whether the measures in the Queen’s Speech that limit migrants’ access to housing will make any difference, it’s helpful to ask two questions: will they affect migrants’ housing options, and if so, how? And, even if they reduce access to social housing, will people who think migrants are jumping the queue be persuaded that this has been stopped?
In answering either question we start with the problem of agreeing who ‘migrants’ are. When David Cameron said in March that “new migrants should not expect to be given a home on arrival.” It was logical to assume that he used the term in the accepted sense of people who have been here up to five years. However, in arguing that migrants shouldn’t get taxpayer-subsidised housing, the communities department refers to anyone who is a foreign national, which of course can include people who have been here many years
The only reliable evidence produced by housing associations and most local authorities makes no distinction between long-term and new migrants. A fair assumption is that very few of those given social lettings have been in the UK under five years, because it would be very difficult for them both to become legally eligible and to get an allocation in such a short time.
But let’s look at the effects of the measures themselves. First, there is to be new statutory guidance about housing allocations, requiring access to be limited to those with an established local residency and local connections. This supposes that all or some of those migrants currently given lettings would fail a local residency test.
Unless the test is excessive (and potentially violates equality laws) many migrants would pass it. Councils will want to carefully assess criteria such as “having family living in the local area” in case they discriminate unfairly. In any case, migrants who are eligible for housing can present as homeless, and would have to be considered for housing albeit that councils can now discharge their duty through the private sector. The overall effect is therefore likely to be small.
The second element is a new requirement on private landlords to check tenants‘ immigration status. There are no details of how this is to be done, possibly because it is fraught with problems. The complex eligibility rules are far from easy to understand. If respectable landlords are put off from letting to anyone who might be a migrant, it could drive migrants further into the worst parts of the private sector. After all, rogue landlords already violating other regulations are hardly likely to comply with this one. Also, depending on the precise rules, charities that help undocumented migrants stay off the streets might have to stop doing so, again making migrants’ conditions worse.
The effects on migrants’ housing options could be very significant. This isn’t – as suggested by the government – because there will be much change in their access to social housing, it’s because 95% of new migrants use the private sector, many already in poor or expensive accommodation, and now their options might be even worse. While ministers claim the rules will reduce both exploitation and illegal immigration, it seems unlikely they will have much effect on either, especially since enforcement is likely to fall on already hard-pressed and under-resourced environmental health officers.
The other question is about the effects on public attitudes. Will people think that migrants are no longer being given excessive priority for social housing? The problem here is that people’s perceptions probably have little to do with the issues the government is addressing. Presumably, some people think migrants jump the queue because they see foreigners moving into social housing, but in fact have little idea (or may not care) if they are recent arrivals or long-term residents. While what constitutes social housing in people’s minds is complicated by the hundreds of thousands of former council houses that are now owned by private landlords as a result of the right to buy.
Other people may blame the length of waiting lists on migrants rather than on the lack of homes. Yet numbers of new social lettings are likely to decline anyway, given both the fall in new construction and the enormous pressures to re-accommodate existing tenants affected by welfare reforms.
Because the foreign-born population continues to grow, many people born abroad will continue to get social lettings, no matter what steps the government takes. The danger for the government is that it exaggerates a problem because that accords with the perceptions of a significant part of the electorate, but then despite its promised action the problem only appears to get worse.
Original post and comments: Guardian Housing Network