Flint on council house row

The housing minister's comments making a link between getting council accommodation and seeking work

Last week, I asked a question that has sparked an impassioned debate and inspired many column inches.

That question was whether social housing can be more than a vital safety net for the most vulnerable, but also be a springboard to opportunity. Most controversially, I asked whether it would be right to ask new tenants who can work to sign ‘commitment contracts’ when getting a tenancy, agreeing to engage with job seeking or training in return for better support?

Let’s get something straight. I’m a Labour Minister, intent on building 3 million homes by 2020, and 45,000 new social housing units each year as part of that. I want to see full employment, poverty eradicated; and with £8 billion investment in social housing, our ambition is for every neighbourhood to be a place people want to live; not a place they can’t wait to get out of.

Having been brought up in private rented and council housing, I make no apologies for starting this difficult debate. The level of worklessness on some estates is a stark problem.

The response to my speech has been vocal and varied; from the sneering defeatism of the Conservatives, to the apocalyptic predictions of Crisis and Shelter. But others have contacted my office to say that they agreed that there was more that some of their neighbours could do to help themselves, given the right support.

Contrary to how some opponents have portrayed the debate, I made clear I was talking about expectations for new tenants who can work, not the vulnerable like the elderly, carers or those with disabilities who can’t.

I, for one, am not prepared to accept that there is no more we can do to unlock the talent in these communities.

Today, more than half of working age social tenants aren’t working – more than double the national rate. Among young people, the situation is even worse. The problem is so bad that an independent review described it as a collapse in employment rates among social tenants.

Despite the success we have had in recent years in moving a million people off benefits there are still too many children growing up in Britain today without ever seeing an adult get up and go to work in the morning. This is a major contributor to inter-generational poverty. But it wasn’t always like this.

I have been accused this week of stigmatising council tenants. I couldn’t disagree more. Council housing used to bring people together, giving security to hard working families, living in strong neighbourhoods. Today, many council tenants have the same values: hard-working, supporting their neighbours and families. But there are also estates that are marginalised and overlooked, workless, usually unpopular.

Unless we are honest enough to recognise the stigma that is already attached to some of our most difficult estates, we will never make a difference. And we will fail to give a second chance and a better offer to those residents.

Social housing will always have a strong role in supporting the most vulnerable. I don't underestimate for one minute the challenges that some people face in their lives, or the levels of support they will need to help them into work. But there are also many who are currently unemployed who could find work with the right training and support. With childcare, in-work credits, transitional grants, and personal advisers, there is more help than ever before. It is not social justice to stand by and watch young people getting left behind as the rest of us share in our country’s rising prosperity.

What I want us to consider is whether we can offer new tenants a complete package of incentives and opportunities along with the keys to their new home. In return, is it unreasonable that those who can work, should be actively looking to do so?

A package which might include skills audits, training opportunities and advice on seeking work. In this way, we can make sure that social housing is more than a roof over your head – crucial as that is – but that it helps people gain more control over their own lives.

And for existing tenants, greater prioritiy for those who need to move for work; expanding existing schemes to offer tenants who cannot afford to buy outright, the opportunity to buy a share; how do we give them a stronger voice to drive up standards of local services; and how do we improve links between housing and employment services at neighbourhood level?

Many working in the sector are already deeply concerned about unemployment and are already taking practical steps to tackle it. Like the Notting Hill Housing Trust, which is going to trial a form of “commitment contracts” through their Moving Forward project. New tenants will make a genuine commitment to improve their skills and look for work.

Or like the Foyer Federation Network, which helps ten thousand young people each year. They ask young people to sign a learning agreement in return for a roof over their head. The results are inspiring.

Many social tenants have a real appetite for change and self-improvement. Most say they'd like to own their own home. If we don't support their aspirations, then we are failing to live up to our responsibilities.

Caroline Flint is Minister for Housing

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.