21 Apr 2021
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.
Gavin Smart is the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing.