Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
6 February 2008

Workhouse social policy

Shelter's Adam Sampson responds to Housing Minister Caroline Flint and her call to tie social housin

By Adam Sampson

I, like many, woke up on Tuesday morning to hear new housing minister Caroline Flint’s proposal to tie access to social housing to employment.

Although rumours about such a move had been circulating ever since last year’s publication of the Hills report on social housing, no-one expected her to act just ten days into her tenure. Shelter responded by accusing her of signaling a return to workhouse social policy.

In truth, the link was made more for reasons of rhetoric than confidence in its historical accuracy; With the Poor Law in mind and with time to reflect, what is being proposed has much in common with the models of 400 years ago.

The introduction of the workhouse was one of Elizabeth I’s last acts, refining and codifying the medieval systems of poor relief. It was based on two assumptions: the availability of work for everyone, and that the poor would be forced to take it up. Work linked to housing via the workhouse, provided for the relief of the employable poor, with those who could not work – “the Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind” – taking refuge in the poorhouse or almshouses.

The following centuries saw further refinements and the creation of huge bureaucracies devoted to assessing a person’s eligibility for food and housing. But the assumptions behind the system remained. At its root was a desire to separate the deserving from the undeserving. There was no general duty to help people because they were humans or citizens: rights were something to be earned, not things which were intrinsic.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Four centuries later, the same thinking is now being paraded as modern public service reform. Social housing, a resource rendered scarce by the failure of successive governments to invest in replacing stock sold off under right to buy, is now to be reserved for the deserving rather than the undeserving.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

No matter that our remaining stock of social housing is largely in monotenure, sink estates with poor services, poor transport and little access to viable work, social housing residents are blamed for their lack of aspiration.

The remedy is a shock of the market: those who refuse, or fail, to convince administrators about their seriousness to find work, will be denied entry or evicted; those who succeed too well may be told they no longer need subsidised housing and are capable of fending for themselves in private renting. Only “the Lame, Impotent, Old, Blind” will enjoy an unconditional guarantee of housing.

The flaws in this system are palpable. All the research from the UK and beyond indicates that the traditional lifetime guarantee of housing is one of the keys to combating poverty and helping the most vulnerable build their lives.

The difficulties in 21st century England have not arisen because of any increase in the fecklessness and laziness of social tenants. The issue is the residualisation of the social housing stock and the concentration of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society in discrete geographical areas. There is a real problem in social housing, but it is not of the tenants’ making. The 400 year tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty is not one to which a truly modernizing Government should give house-room.