Cameron's crackdown on immigrant housing is nothing to do with merit

We can't have immigrants "turning up" and "expecting" anything, can we?

David Cameron's crackdown on immigrants' access to social housing is to be announced, on Monday, with a lavish amount of inference and connotation. You won't hear the words "deserving" or "undeserving", but they'll be lurking round the edges all the same.

The new plan, he will say, will stop "any expectation" new migrants "can expect" the British taxpayer to "give them a home on arrival". It will stop someone "turning up" and "immediately gaining access" to social housing. Let's reorganise the system, he will apparently be saying, in terms of merit. But we are unlikely to hear him actually articulate the phrase, because this plan of his will do precisely the opposite.

The new proposals will make a social housing applicant from another country wait two to five years before going on a waiting list, regardless of how much they need it. In short, the plan is to take material need (the normal measure of whether or not someone deserves social housing) out of the equation.

That's why the announcement will rely so heavily on suggestion - a social housing process that is quick and easy - which you can "turn up" to - an immigrant who is "expecting" things (people who "expect" things always expect more than they deserve).

But getting social housing is always a long and difficult process, and often more so for immigrants. A Labour source told the Guardian that:

many councils already used existing powers to limit the access of immigrants to social housing.

The source said that 95% of immigrants lived in private rented accommodation, often of low quality. The greater problem was that employers often lured immigrants to this country by offering them places in low-grade houses, charging them extortionate rent, and then paying them unreasonably low wages that undercut the rate for local workers.

The plan will have an exception - Britons who have had to move for family or work reasons - but as Gaby Hisliff tweeted earlier today:

The Bishop of Dudley puts it best in today's Observer:

The tone of the current debate suggests that it is better for 10 people with a legitimate reason for coming to this country to be refused entry than for one person to get in who has no good cause. It is wholly disproportionate as a response. It is especially galling in Holy Week, when Christians are remembering how Jesus himself became the scapegoat in a political battle, to see politicians vying with each other in just such a process.

He adds:

Studies show that the vast majority of new arrivals to the UK enhance and enrich our society, both economically and culturally. The true threats to our national wellbeing lie not with those who come to visit or make their lives here but with the increasing gap between the rich and poor among us.

But the extra appeal almost misses the point. Our welfare system should not be there to provide only for those who we think will "enrich our society", but for those who deserve it - which simply means those who need it most.

Cameron will announce a change to social housing policy for immigrants. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.