Hey, why don’t we requisition the Royal Hospital Chelsea for productive workers?

Some telegraphery from Iain Duncan Smith here. In short, IDS thinks we need to physically move people of working age on benefits to where employers want them; to make space, we need to relocate pensioners in council houses to smaller homes.

It looks as though the guy has swallowed his own rhetoric about the state sector constituting some sort of ‘command economy’: we need to shrink it, all right – he seems to be saying – but as long as it exists there’s going to be some god damn commanding going on. Is it that he was in the army once? It used to be that ‘the command economy’ meant putting vital-to-the-nation industries into the regions (like building submarines in Barrow); now we look to be working up a policy of putting the regions into the industry; specifically, that of west London and Bristol, the two places IDS seems to have on his radar.

Whatever. I think he’s basically incoherent on this one. To put things in the simplest terms, either recipients of benefits have agency – which implies that while some will ‘get on their bikes and look for work’ (or relocate, or whatever), some won’t – or they don’t have agency, in which case you can’t expect them to exercise it. If it’s the former, then benefits should come with few strings attached, should not be excessively and repeatedly assessed, conditions of receipt should not be changed at short notice, etc. In essence, benefits – within the obvious and accepted-by-everyone constraint of affordability – should be a matter of entitlement rather than grant. And it might be that one of the things IDS is missing here is a recognition that it’s not only the current recipients of benefits who take notice of what the benefit terms and conditions are, it’s just about everybody; that is, the whole of the private sector as well. We – the everybody – make our life plans accordingly. If we think that the safety net is going to be a certain way rather than another way, we plan for that. And if you – Iain Duncan Smith – relocate pensioners without warning, you’re in effect sticking two fingers up at whatever choices they’ve made in the past. How do you know they haven’t planned responsibly? Perhaps they chose to do a lower paid but socially useful job, trusting that there’d be a certain minimal support in retirement. Perhaps, if they’d thought they might risk getting booted out of their home in retirement, they might instead have chosen a less socially useful but better paid line of work. These are the sorts of counterfactuals relevant to this sort of policy-making. (You may want to question ‘socially useful’, but I’d bet that IDS himself recognises at least some occupations as socially useful. What’s more, the comparable ‘key worker’ category is one recognised in current housing policy.)

Bear in mind that IDS is no longer just some harmless former Tory leader: he’s Work And Pensions Secretary. It’s only been what – a month – but he looks to have had a full on Blunkett-style ‘machine gun the bastards’ moment.

8 thoughts on “Hey, why don’t we requisition the Royal Hospital Chelsea for productive workers?

  1. Perhaps I’ve not been following this properly….but from what I’ve seen so far the suggestion is only that if you’ve got social housing in an area and you want to move to somewhere where you can get a job, your “right” to social housing should move with you to the new area.

    Clearly this would aid in labour force mobility….and yes, labour force immobility does lead to higher unemployment rates. We know this from studies of house ownership….and social housing, because of the per council are way that it is allocated creates even more immobility than ownership.

  2. Well, as I see it, everyone in the UK already has a right to social housing anywhere: the problem is scarcity and waiting lists. There’s a triage system: the younger, fitter men and women of working age with no dependents tend not to get first priority. Of course, you can make your way to the front of a council’s housing list eventually and get housed. If there were a way to make it so that moving from one council’s patch to another council’s patch didn’t get you put to the back of the queue then yes, labour mobility might be enhanced. It wouldn’t be cost-free though, and that, I think, is why IDS is talking about pensioners needing to be relocated. He’s thought about the costs, and decided who – in principle – should pay. It’s not going to be us, through coming up with the necessary so that more council houses can be built.

  3. “If there were a way to make it so that moving from one council’s patch to another council’s patch didn’t get you put to the back of the queue then yes, labour mobility might be enhanced.”

    As far as I’ve seen (and note above, I’m not sure I’ve seen all) that is what he’s trying to say.

    So we agree, this would be, if this is actually what he’s saying, a good idea?

  4. He’s saying two things, though. It’s actually the Telegraph journalists who’ve connected them explicitly. Those two things are:

    (1) “We have to look at how we get that portability, so that people can be more flexible, can look for work, can take the risk to do it.”

    (2) “We have tons of elderly people living in houses which they cannot run.”

    I’d add that this is being said against a background of proposed reductions in housing benefit, something which in itself seems to me to work against ‘portability’.

  5. Regarding (2) he is talking about public housing, not private homes, isn’t he? So he says that some people not occupy housing others have direr need for?

  6. Of course, you already can exchange your council tenancy in one part of the UK with one in another, people do it all the time, and it is remarkable that IDS doesn’t know this or pretends not to know this, seeing as he spent 2004-2010 in a thinktank dedicated to welfare issues.

    There is every reason to think that this process should be facilitated if at all possible – for example, there is no national list of tenants who want to move – but then, if IDS wanted to solve that he could just tear off a small grant for MySociety to build a nice website. Which might also have the useful feature of demonstrating how much more council housing is needed in the areas that are meant to be net gainers.

    Of course, the real purpose of his remarks is to get the idea of ending security of tenure out there.

  7. Is that bad? If a public resource is misallocated to you, should you not be made relinquish it?

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