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UK Politics

Anger at 'find work' ultimatum for tenants

A minister was today accused of risking a "return to the workhouse" after saying the unemployed should have to seek work or lose their council homes.

Housing minister Caroline Flint said there was clear evidence that there are many long-term unemployed in social housing who may be able to find employment with the right support.

And she suggested that new council tenants who can work could have to sign "commitment contracts", agreeing to actively seek employment.

Housing charities criticised the idea.

Shelter chief executive Adam Sampson said: "The Government wants to return Britain's unemployed to the workhouse by throwing them onto the streets.

"What is being proposed would destroy families and communities and add to the thousands who are already homeless.

"We accept there's a problem with some unemployed people shying away from work, but the Government must find other ways to tackle the issue like revamping the housing benefit system."

Alan Walter, chairman of the Defend Council Housing pressure group, said: "This is obviously part of a long-running strategy to try and stigmatise council housing as housing of last resort.

"It runs alongside continuing blackmail on tenants and councils to privatise council homes, asset stripping public land for private development and forcing people into the private market."

Leslie Morphy, chief executive at Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, said: "Social housing now contains some of the most vulnerable people in society.

"Our experience at Crisis shows that encouragement and enablement - and not threats - are the way to help homeless and vulnerable people to build independent lives."

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, which represents England's housing associations, said: "Such a policy would be unfair and impossible to enforce.

"Many of the jobs open to people, especially at the lower skills end, are insecure or temporary. Also, people with health problems, such as mental health issues, may find there are periods when they cannot keep up their job.

"Instead of taking a punitive approach, the Government should build upon the successful employment schemes already being run by housing associations around the country."

In her speech to the Fabian Society in London, Ms Flint said: "Council and social housing must continue to support the most vulnerable in society, but it should also be a springboard to opportunity, not just a safety net."

Ms Flint called for a national debate on breaking the link between social housing and unemployment following a dramatic fall in the number of council tenants in work over the past 25 years.

She also set out proposals to build more affordable homes for first-time buyers and families and for council tenants to be given the right to claim compensation when services fall short.

The jobseeking contracts could be extended to existing tenants in a move which would affect up to a million people.

As well as actively searching for work, the documents would require signatories to undertake skills checks to ensure that they are equipping themselves for potential jobs.

The suggestion comes as statistics reveal the number of unemployed council tenants has risen by 20 per cent to 55 per cent since 1981.

Ms Flint will said: "The link between social housing and worklessness is stark. I am concerned about what has been called a collapse in the number of people in council housing in work over the past 25 years.

"Council housing was originally somewhere which brought together people from different social backgrounds and professions but this has declined. We need to think radically and start a national debate about whether we can reverse this trend, and have strong, diverse estates with a mix of people."

She went on: "We all agree that social housing is about more than bricks and mortar - more than handing over the keys and leaving tenants to get on with it for the next thirty years. And it isn't so many years ago that a council house was something to prize.

"I believe that we can recapture that sense of pride, creating a culture within social housing that promotes opportunity and social mobility, inspiring people to take control of their own lives.

"We are winning the argument but I want to try to establish a national consensus that building more homes - including more social and affordable housing - is absolutely the right thing to do. That will remain my first priority, and I intend to make sure that the momentum continues to build over the coming months."

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "The right to a home is a fundamental right that should not be linked to employment status.

"A family already struggling on a low income should not face added insecurity and stress over their home because of unemployment.

"The Government would do better to give proper resources to the tried and tested methods of getting people into work rather than seeking unproven and harmful shortcuts."

Respect MP George Galloway said the minister's statement amounted to a "despicable attack" on the poorest and most vulnerable.

"It is for the Department for Work and Pensions to determine whether or not someone can work. Caroline Flint is threatening to throw people out on to the streets. This will do nothing to solve the housing crisis in my constituency and across Britain."