Leading Article: Rough justice for homeless families

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THE overwhelming impression conveyed by yesterday's government announcement on council housing is of desperate competition among the needy for insufficient accommodation. Families without a roof over their heads are, it is said, being housed in the few available council properties ahead of others on the waiting list.

Sir George Young, the housing minister, yesterday announced new rules for this struggle among the worst-off. In future, homeless families with children can expect only temporary private accommodation, funded if necessary from housing benefit. They will have to take their turn with others for permanent, cheaper council housing.

Fair play among the impoverished is Sir George's theme. Everyone must queue in turn. He has a point. Why should one family with children receive permanent housing ahead of another family just because the parents cannot put a roof over their heads?

But this narrow focus on who is being given priority obscures a far greater inadequacy in government housing policy: that thousands of children are living in often sub-standard homes on short leases from which they can expect to be evicted within months. Some will lose continuity in their schooling and all are likely to suffer the frequent disruption of moving home. This accommodation is usually more expensive than council property. This may not matter to the tenants, providing it is funded by housing benefit, but the rent may make it uneconomic for them to work, because their wages would not make up for lost benefit. Conditions are usually even worse for families living in bed and breakfast hostels that often lack cooking and laundry facilities and do not offer the privacy of a family home.

The misery engendered by all this cannot be compared with injustices that may occur through queue-jumping. Sir George's announcement tackled none of these fundamental problems. It offered no extra money to improve the prospects for homeless families, many of them victims of factors beyond their control. The announcement means, rather, that such families can expect only years of life on the move.

So it is hard to applaud the Government for making those queueing for council homes stay in line. Yesterday's commitment to justice rings hollow, not least because ministers have ignored Westminster council's 'homes for Tory voters' policy since it was first made public five years ago. Sir George has made a crusade of tacking a real but relatively minor injustice. Alas, he has turned a blind eye to the miseries that public housing policy has neglected for far too long.