Government’s race commission ignores housing issues

Gavin Smart Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing writes

The official Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, in its 258-page report, claims optimistically that Britain’s success in removing race-based disparity in fields such as education “should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries.” Had it looked more deeply at disparities in housing, it might have reached different conclusions.

A striking feature of the report is that barely more than a page is devoted to housing issues, and this focuses on the under-representation of some ethnic groups in homeownership. Even then it doesn’t explore why, for example, only just over one-third of white households are in rented accommodation compared with (say) two-thirds of Bangladeshi ones. 

It notes that ethnic minority households are more likely to be overcrowded but doesn’t look at why this might be the case – for example, the shortage of larger rented homes for extended families – nor does it note that this might be why ethnic minorities suffered worse outcomes from the Covid-19 pandemic. Homelessness is unmentioned, even though ethnic minority households are twice as likely to be homeless as white households and half of London rough sleepers are non-UK nationals.

The report recognises that ethnic minority households are more likely to be poor but then it implies controversially that individuals or families are to blame for the negative experiences and discrimination they face, rather than structural factors. Ethnic minorities are more likely to live in deprived areas, which the commission acknowledges, but without considering why this might be the case. There are brief references to residential segregation but the topic is not examined. 

Previous official reports on community cohesion and integration are ignored or only briefly referenced. Louise Casey’s 2016 report on integration is mentioned, in order to point out that it reveals “uncomfortable truths about behaviour and attitudes among some ethnic minority groups.” It seems extraordinary that an issue which in the recent past has been held to be the cause of riots, is no longer considered important.

Hate crime receives more attention in the report, but as on other issues the commission gives the impression that the problem is overstated, blaming better recording methods for the fact that reported hate crime has increased.

There are two mentions of the Windrush scandal as an example of ‘egregious discrimination’. One of them also points to the Grenfell Tower fire, saying that: “Outcomes such as these do not come about by design, and are certainly not deliberately targeted. But, when they do occur, every step needs to be taken to ensure that the reasons why they happened are understood fully, and the causes then acted on to ensure that they are not repeated.”

However, the commissioners go on to say that “incremental progress is being made as our report has shown beyond doubt. Through focusing on what matters now, rather than refighting the battles of the past, we want to build on that progress.” As a consequence they do not look in any detail at the Windrush experience, despite the fact that it recently led to the Home Office being warned officially that it had failed to comply with equality law.

While migrants and migration receive attention, there are no references to the asylum system or to refugees, or to the ways in which immigration and benefits rules leave 100,000s of migrants with ‘no recourse to public funds’. Given that the country’s worst housing conditions are to be found in the private rented sector, there is no discussion of the way that ethnic minorities in general and new migrants in particular are so dependant on it. A recent high court ruling said that the government’s “right to rent” checks, part of the hostile environment, are discriminatory. These are unmentioned in the report.

One recommendation that might have some relevance to the housing sector is to “undertake a review to investigate and take action to address the underlying issues facing families. This Commission has identified this as a significant contributing factor to the experience of disparities.” But housing isn’t mentioned when they go into detail, despite housing disparities being so important.

Much of the discussion of the commission’s work focuses on what has been seen as its dismissal of institutional racism. The Race Equality Foundation, for example, said that “it is poorly evidenced and suggests a general lack of understanding of what [institutional racism] is and how it is related to factors such as geography and poverty.” BMENational, representing BME housing associations, who say that they received the report with “disappointment and disbelief,” note that its downplaying of structural and institutional racism means the report is “incoherent and inconsistent.”

Not only did structural racism in housing receive little attention in the commission’s work, it has also been largely ignored in subsequent media discussion. This is concerning. The Chartered Institute of Housing and other sector bodies are well aware that racial disparities exist in housing, and we want to help to expose and tackle them. If a major government-sponsored report glosses over these issues, as this one does, it makes that task even more difficult.

We are hosting a discussion on the Sewell Report on 4th May – the link to book is here.

Housing Rights Newsletter April 2021

BMENational Statement on the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report

Our overall feeling on reading the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (or Sewell) Report is of disappointment and disbelief. The report is at heart incoherent and inconsistent.

Disappointment that it views racism through a particular political lens, and disappointment that it adds nothing to the debate about tackling racism, and takes a discredited and uninformed view of the problems in our society.

Disbelief as it cherry-picks data to suit an ideological narrative, and, dismisses the lived experience of many. At a time of a global pandemic which has disproportionately claimed the lives of thousands of people from minority backgrounds, it downplays and minimises the effect of structural and institutional racism which has already been acknowledged as having a significant negative impact in the previous Macpherson,  Lammy, Marmot, Williams reviews.

Although the report was commissioned following the Black Lives Matter Protests and the racial inequalities highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic it does not make any useful contribution to these issues.

The Sewell Report dismisses the racial inequalities highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests, doesn’t include the brutal evidence of the Covid-19 pandemic, and denies that the UK still has systems rigged against people from ethnic minoritiesThis is not the experience of BMENational and its members and indeed our mission is to improve the lives of our communities and tackle major housing inequalities including:

  • One in three homeless households are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared to one in seven from the general population;
  • 2% of White British households are overcrowded compared with 24% of Bangladeshi households; 18% of Pakistani households and 16% of Black African households;
  • Ethnic minority households are more likely to live in older and fuel poor accommodation, and in flats and terraced homes in the most deprived neighbourhoods and worst living environments, including lack of access to green space. 
  • The poverty rate for ethnic minorities groups is almost twice that for the White population and has been exacerbated by welfare reforms that penalise young people and larger households, through the use of benefit caps.

The report only touches on housing slightly and (as is usual) examines home ownership rather than looking at wider tenures of social and private rented sector housing where inequalities are also exacerbated. However, our view has always been that ethnic minority households are under-concentrated in home ownership generally, and outright home ownership specifically. This puts them at a disadvantage in terms of wealth and asset accumulation, in society where unprecedented house price growth has fuelled family wealth.

Of critical importance to us is what is missing. Nothing on building cohesive communities and breaking down concentrations of deprivation, nothing on the housing crisis and market failure, one mention of the Grenfell Tower tragedy (and nothing about the racial disparities highlighted there), inclusive leadership and governance is only mentioned in passing in terms of the education sector, and there is nothing there about organisations reflecting the communities that they serve. 

We believe that this report could have been a call to action to help tackle major racial injustices in a society that is ready for change. Instead it retreats into denial and is a missed opportunity.

We are hosting a webinar on the Sewell Report jointly with the Housing Diversity Network on 4th May at 2pm. Link to book is here.

Housing Rights Newsletter

How new immigration rules affect housing and benefits

The first newsletter of 2021 from the CIH and BMENational focuses on the immigration rule changes and how they affect housing and benefits, especially for European nationals in the UK. In the meantime, the countdown has begun for European nationals who still need to apply for settled status – our clock tells you how much time they have left.

The newsletter brings you articles and news items on:

  • How the new immigration rules affect social landlords
  • Will rough sleepers be penalised under the new immigration rules?
  • Risks loom for European nationals as the June 30th deadline approaches
  • “No recourse” is still in the news
  • More on Windrush and the hostile environment
  • Post-Brexit immigration rules – other key changes
  • Growing problems with asylum seeker accommodation
  • Other news.