Who's living in my social housing?

The rise of the British National Party has been attributed in part to claims that immigants are getting favourable access to social housing. The Equality and Human Rights Commission set out to investigate the claims, and concluded that they are a myth.

Less than 2 per cent of the occupants of council houses or housing association homes arrived in Britain in the past five years. New immigrants are far more likely to be found in privately-rented accommodation.

But not all the newspapers chose to read the commission's report that way. The Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Star went for a different angle. "One in 10 Council Homes to Migrants" huffed the Star. The Mail took the same line. Nowhere in either story was the Commisson's "top line" - that only 1.8 per cent of social housing had gone to immigrants who arived in the UK in the past five years. Here's how the Mail headlined the story:


The Daily Telegraph, Independent, and Daily Mirror might have been reading a different report. "Immigrants 'don't jump homes list'" said the Mirror, the quotes in the headline indicating that this was a claim made by somebody else. The Telegraph also resorted to quotes in its headline, around the word myth. However, all these three papers did focus on the top line finding of the study, carried out for the commission by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Here's how the Telegraph reported it:

So who's right? Both these points are made in the report, so nobody's actually lying. But the claim the Mail, Express and Star chose to focus on is fairly irrelevant to the debate. It is that 10 per cent of social housing is occupied by people who were not born in the UK. There are four million social homes, so the papers explained that meant 400,000 (a nice big number) were occupied by people not born in the UK - immigrants, in other words.

Except that many of these immigrants have been here for decades. They include elderly people of Asian or Caribbean origin who have lived here since the 1950s and 60s, worked hard, paid their taxes and are absolutely entitled to social housing. They were immigrants when they arrived but are such no longer. By implying that recent immigrants were occupying 400,000 homes the Mail, Star and Express misrepresented the findings.

So why do so many people believe what the report characterises as a myth? Partly it's because even a report showing that it is a myth can be reported in a way to suggest it is true. But partly it is also a matter of geography and of misperception. There are places, especially in London, where there are concentrations of recent immigrants in social housing. There are also quite a lot occupying homes that were council houses or flats, but were bought by their tenants and have subsequently become privately-rented accommodation. These homes are often misperceived by local residents as "social housing" which they ceased to be some time ago.  

The Home Office has also contributed by housing asylum seekers in empty social housing around the country, the report acknowledges.

So if it is a myth, why has the Government announced plans to allow local authorities to give priority to local people? They seem already to be doing so, if the commission and the IPPR are right. It sounds as if the Government also believes the myth, or hasn't bothered to establish the facts first. No surprise there, then.