Inquiry to address racial tensions over housing

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An urgent inquiry has been ordered into claims that immigrants are jumping ahead of white Britons on council house waiting lists.

MPs have repeatedly warned that hostility to newcomers in some white working-class areas is fuelled by suspicions that newcomers get preferable treatment. The fears have been successfully exploited by the British National Party in east London, West Yorkshire and Lancashire.

The inquiry was ordered by town hall chiefs and the new equality watchdog. Trevor Phillips, head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, which has replaced the Commission for Racial Equality, acknowledged that some communities felt unfairly treated.

He said people were realistic and accepted they had to share public services with new immigrants. But he added: "What, however, does drive tension and hostility is a widespread public perception that new migrants too often get unfair advantages to which they aren't entitled.

"One area where this idea of unfairness is most frequently alleged is in housing allocation, specifically that white families are cheated out of their right to social housing by newly arrived migrants."

He said he had seen no reliable evidence to support the claim and much ill-feeling was driven by "careless media and racist parties". But he said it was not good enough just to dismiss the suggestion and said an independent inquiry should be held. "If there is evidence it is, then we have the powers and mandate to stop the abuse and we will do so," he said in a speech in Birmingham. "If there is no evidence, then we can properly say this insinuation should play no part in next year's elections.

"Rather than appearing to suppress the debate, we really need to inform it with robust independent evidence. We will never combat prejudice with silence."

The inquiry will be conducted on behalf of the commission and the Local Government Association, which has called for councils to receive another £250m a year to cope with the recent influx of migrants.

Mr Phillips praised the Tory leader, David Cameron, for wanting to "deracialise the issue of immigration" and said it could be a turning-point in politics. But the real test of political leaders' commitment to taking the poison out of the subject was how their followers behaved, he said.