Will New Labour MPs and ministers say and do anything in a bid to get re-elected, even if they sound like the far-right British National Party? The answer is an obvious "yes", judging by the notorious outburst by industry minister Margaret Hodge on immigrants and housing. She must have known that she was talking rubbish when she claimed that new arrivals were queue-jumping British citizens over council housing allocation. In fact, it is the New Labour government that actually changed the law to make sure that asylum seekers in particular have no legal rights to social housing, whatever their circumstances. Even those who finally manage to attain refugee status for themselves and their families have no special entitlements. Hodge is aware that local councils build no new homes, a policy which began under the Tories and continued by New Labour, while they continue to sell off their best family-sized homes. So when she says that "we should look at policies where the legitimate sense of entitlement felt by the indigenous family overrides the legitimate need demonstrated by the new migrants" she is fanning the flames of reaction rather than starting a "debate".
Thanks to her government, asylum seekers are not allowed to work for the first 12 months of their application. They are forced to rely on state support, which is set at just 70% of income support. Nevertheless, many do voluntary work while their asylum application is being processed. Any accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. It is nearly always "hard to let" properties, which other people do not want to live in. Studies have shown that most asylum seekers are living in poverty and experience poor health and hunger. So when Hodge claims that "a recently arrived family with four or five children living in a damp and overcrowded privately-rented flat with the children suffering from asthma will usually get priority over a family with less housing need who have lived in the area for three generations", she is talking arrant nonsense.
The real story is that New Labour has dispersed asylum seekers around the country, piling pressure on local authorities like Barking – Hodge’s own constituency, where the BNP has won seats - without providing the resources to match. The government has regularly demonised asylum seekers and refugees, providing fodder for reactionary papers like the Daily Mail. For example, a minister recently talked of "flushing out" those who work without legal entitlement and is introducing a draconian new borders policy. The provision of social housing has slumped. In 1996/7 the last full year of the Tory government, housing associations in England built 24,630 homes. By 2002/03 this total had slumped to just over 13,000. Last year, completions totalled over 18,000. But when you take off the numbers built for sale, the output for renting is probably nearer 12,000 – less than half the number that the Tories built! Yet there are over 62,000 households (150,000 people) in temporary accommodation in London alone. Abandoned by New Labour, and often the victims of the growing inequalities in Britain, many white working class areas are targeted by the BNP with their openly racist, reactionary propaganda. As Nancy Kelley, head of international and UK policy at the Refugee Council, said, in responding to Hodge: "The way to counter some of the views put forward by far-right parties is not to follow their lead."
Paul Feldman, communications editor