I have worked in housing for almost 20 years, including some time in the US. The Government’s plans to remove security of tenure from council and housing association tenants are potentially disastrous.
A means test or earnings qualification will be counter-productive. A similar system operates in US public housing and has the effect of discouraging tenants from finding work because they would rather have a decent, secure, affordable home than an insecure low-paid job. This leads to communities where only poor people live, the opposite of Nye Bevan’s post-war vision for UK council housing.
This latest stage in a 30-year offensive against council housing will do nothing to address the underlying problem of the inadequate supply of affordable homes. Council tenants will resist this attack on their legal rights, but we should all be concerned about a threat to an intrinsic feature of our welfare state. The sub-prime mortgage crisis proved that the speculative private housing market is incapable of providing the homes our society needs.
David Cameron’s proposal to introduce fixed-term tenancies for social housing tenants will do nothing to resolve the housing crisis affecting most of Britain, it will simply increase the division in wealth and security between those that have property and those that have not.
A stream of people judged to be undeserving of a home at an affordable rent will be forced on to the private market. Private landlords will take advantage of the increase in demand by increasing still further the already unaffordable market rents. The inevitable flurry in residential property investment will result in a further increase in house prices.
This may make the middle-aged middle classes rub their hands with glee as they see their net worth spiral ever upwards without their
having to lift a finger, but what about their children, trying to find that route to social mobility but already straining under the burden of student debt and terrified by the prospect of sky-high rents or unmanageable mortgages?
Such people are increasingly looking to council provision as a solution, and why not? Don’t we have a moral obligation to provide everyone with the basic human right to shelter without making a profit in the process?
Horsham, West Sussex
I am a farm worker. I have a 97-year-old grandmother and a 70-year-old mother both living in public housing. People at my end of Cameron’s “big society” are to be moved out of their family home if it is a council house, just as if they have no rights to a long or happy life in a house they could think of as home.
Council tenants still have the vote next May. They must use it to say no to Tory councils up and down the land before George Osborne’s troops knock your door and move you out to a one-bedroom flat where you know not a soul.
Estates work best when they are mixed-income communities. It would be a recipe for disaster if everybody in council housing was poor, and had to move out if their lives improved.
The Government wants council tenants to be able to move around for economic reasons, but the real problem is a lack of housing supply. There are 1.8 million households on waiting lists for council housing. The Government should build more council houses, and leave our tenancy terms alone.
Judging age of an asylum-seeker
Your article (23 July) on the deportation of an Iraqi asylum-seeking boy judged to be 20 years old by social workers has triggered further media coverage.
Government has the challenge of deciding whether someone who claims to be a child really is, in the absence of documentary evidence of age. There is no scientific method that will determine with the required precision whether someone is above or below the age of 18. Looking at the person is unsatisfactory. some 16-year-olds will look as though they are 12, others 20. X-rays of bones or teeth are also inaccurate, and unethical in exposing a child to radiation without medical benefit purely for the administrative purpose of deporting adults.
Three years ago the previous government set up an Age Assessment Working Group, bringing together a wide range of experts to define the way forward. Their conclusions have never been published. Why? I call on the Coalition to do so forthwith.
I and others proposed a sensible way forward, namely to create two or possibly three independent Specialist Age Assessment Centres to deal with the small number of cases where age was disputed, led by highly trained social workers to interpret the narrative of the individual’s life, but bringing together a range of expert opinion from paediatricians, teachers and psychologists to reach a consensus view on the likely age.
Independence is key. In the present economic climate there must be a temptation for cash-starved local authorities to increase the numbers of cases judged to be adult in order to cut costs. This real possibility must be monitored by the UK Border Agency by publishing accurate data on the numbers and outcomes of age-disputed assessments.
Age assessment is not a challenge unique to the UK – it is a major problem for all European countries. It is time for our government to show leadership by defining a process that is fair, transparent and based on a holistic approach. Your article reveals the chaotic way in which such age assessments are carried out at present. This must cease.
Sir Al Aynsley-Green,
Professor Emeritus of Child Health,
University College London, and former Children's Commissioner for England,
Cultural barriers must come down
We have read with increasing interest both Christina Patterson’s well - argued pieces about living among a religious minority and the correspondence which they have generated. We do indeed need to talk, urgently, about the issue of properly integrating these communities into the mainstream life of the United Kingdom.
We are sure that people of different faiths and cultures have much to teach us, but this isn’t going to happen if they hide behind barriers of exclusivity , regarding us “mainstreamers” with suspicion. However painful it may be, these barriers must come down.
It has to be understood by everyone that cultural traditions of dress or behaviour, dietary customs and our differing views of the world must be open to discussion and challenge in a modern democracy. The cost of failing to talk to each other or reach a civilised understanding based on mutual respect could be fatal to future social harmony. Well done Christina Patterson for identifying the “elephant in the room”.
Christina Patterson’s hostile postbag shows how almost impossible it is for genuine liberals to attempt to open up a debate about the anti-social effects of religious intolerance without being accused of being racist.
This important issue has wide implications for social cohesion. Uncompromising elements within many religious traditions are implicated in creating sometimes unbridgeable social barriers. But lobbing grenades at each other across the divides doesn’t help, when what is needed is a more open debate. Accusations of anti-semitism and islamophobia are just another way of closing that debate down.
I might have used a different starting point from Ms Patterson, and perhaps slightly less colourful language. But I believe the vast majority of our citizens would like to find ways of recovering some common social values in a society now so divided by religious and cultural difference.
While there is still a lot of deplorable racial prejudice, this is not a racial issue; it is about closed religious minds despising other people's traditions and managing to set too many of the agendas because governments are now too nervous of intervening.
But who else but the Government can take a lead in developing more integrated educational systems so that tomorrow’s citizens may have a better chance of mutual understanding and respect?
The angry, predictable letters attacking Christina Patterson’s articles mostly miss the point.
Groups like Hasidic Jews and the Amish cut themselves off from modern life, even seeing normal things like television and cinema as being against their faith. I find this offensive, as it seems to be an irrational attack on our culture. How do you have a conversation with someone who believes this? All Christina was saying is that if we make allowances for them, which we do, they have to reciprocate.
Global answer to global warming
“Stay local to beat global warming” (Julian Hunt, 5 August) is not a wholly convincing proposition. This approach could prevent global warming only if the local actions were both effective and happening in most places, worldwide.
Without international agreements to tackle emissions and rein back climate change, the danger is that actions in the places which perceive themselves to be at risk will be overwhelmed by the uncontrolled use of fossil fuel in other countries such as the USA, India and China. At present it appears likely that a few more nuclear power stations, plus greater use of renewable energy sources, will not stop the worldwide rush to use up all the oil and coal that can be extracted profitably.
If that happens, the only local actions that may succeed in “beating” global warming will be in a few rich communities that can afford to take mitigating steps. London, for example, might be able to rebuild its flood defences against sea-level rise, and beat droughts in south-east England by desalination or by piping in supplies from wetter parts of Britain. But most places are less prosperous. And all of us will be at risk if climate change produces massive crop failures.
So, local action is a worthwhile start; but we also need to make sure the right action is co-ordinated globally. An essential step is to persuade politicians and the media to recognise and act on the scientific facts, and ignore the rubbish put out by sceptics.
East Horsley, Surrey
Marquess is no twerp
Terence Blacker appends two paragraphs of scorn of the Marquess of Bath to his column of 3 August (“Why is such a twerp taken to be interesting?”). Blacker devotes several paragraphs to the Grateful Dead, whose late lead-guitarist, Jerry Garcia, shares with the marquess status as an icon spawned out of the exuberance of the 1960s.
Blacker fails to credit Bath for colour, happiness and interest he has brought into the lives of thousands of simple West Country folk. His marketing of Longleat has helped make it into a joyful, inexpensive haven, a fact which Blacker ignores in favour of classist jibes.
Bath’s paintings are by no means all “rude”. As to the books he has written, they have sufficient attraction that I, who published one (The New World Order of Alexander Thynn), have watched as queues of old people, children and others have snaked through Longleat’s Great Hall to get his pleasant smile, friendly comment and signature on them.
He is a popular figure, whose generosity and geniality merit better than the epithet “twerp”.
Delights of a poisonous plant
With reference to the article on Poison Arrow Plant (7 August) I have been growing Datura stramonium for years in my garden as an ornamental.
The seeds were given to me about 20 years ago by a botanist friend. They appear randomly in the garden most years, after having passed through my compost bin. If they are not in the way I let them grow or transplant to a more suitable area. The white flowers are delightful and I don’t worry in the least about their poisonous reputation.
A small amount of the toxin from the plant will interfere with the autonomic nervous system, causing dryness of the mouth and difficulty forming saliva. It will also affect the eyes, causing difficulty in focusing and dilatation of the pupils.
Wade Davis, in his 1986 book The Serpent and the Rainbow tells us that in Haiti the plant is known as the Zombie Cucumber, and gives details of other uses of Datura, including one from West Africa where women breed beetles fed on the plant and then use the resultant faeces to poison their unfaithful lovers.
Safety on the internet
In reply to Ann van Staveren (letter, 5 August), a move towards compulsory internet filtering software is unfeasible. It would involve a complete overhaul of the way computers are constructed, to include additional physical components to prevent this software being removed. Even measures as strong as these are likely to be circumvented because of the relatively open nature of internet protocols and the availability of alternative hardware.
Illegal content is currently monitored by the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK, using information supplied by both the police and the general public. The IWF provides a frequently updated list of web pages to internet service providers, who apply this “block list” to their networks, preventing any access by their customers. This is a far more effective method than the highly restrictive one currently reserved for convicted sex offenders.
Should those of us who work in education assume that the record number of medals won by British athletes at the European Championships in Barcelona simply means that the games are getting easier, and that standards are falling?
As a student of economics, I found Hamish McRae’s article “Just think what the City has done for us” (4 August) informative and useful. I look forward to his follow-up piece, “What the City has done to us.”
Perspectives on the Coalition
Straight white men in charge
I can’t see anything wrong with a government of “straight, white, privately educated men” (report, 7 August). What matters is whether they have the stomach to push through direly needed reform to bring this country back to economic health. We’ve had enough of inverted snobbery and political correctness that leaves us in a financial mess.
Poor outlook for state education
It is hard to imagine how a Government of straight, white, privately educated men could possibly devise a state education system suitable for everyone.
The private sector of education has a huge advantage since the aims are clear. Private schools set out their philosophy, aims and objectives in their prospectuses. The choice is wide, ranging from the rigours of Gordonstoun to the easy-going ways of Summerhill. Parents are free to choose the type of education they want for their child. A “good” private school is one which delivers on its promises.
The problem for the state sector is far more challenging. Moderate, well-founded aims and objectives have to be found which not only meet the needs of the nation but also those of the child and the parents. It is not a sufficient objective to regard state education as merely a diluted version of private education. We require much more than the view that my school (private) was “good” and therefore, we should replicate it across the nation. Far more rigorous thinking is needed.
I am not hopeful that, given their limited educational background, the Government and the Civil Service can come up with principles, aims and objectives for state education which really place it on a more secure and equal footing.
Get a proper job
If 93 per cent of all pupils nationally go to state secondary schools, as your report says, then I would like the same proportion of MPs to be state educated; and 50 per cent should be women and 10 to 12 per cent “ethnic minority”. I would also like a firm rule that all parliamentary candidates must have at least five years’ experience of work outside the political arena prior to their candidature.
Senior Research Fellow,
Institute of Commonwealth Studies,
University of London
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