So I think it is safe to say that as a sector we are losing the PR battle, badly, like Ukraine v Russia badly. How to Get a Council House has re-hit our screens like a bottle of warm liquid smacking your cranium in a crowd at a festival. It stinks, everyone else knows what it is, and you have to clean up the mess. At a time when public attitudes towards benefits are at a level akin to Gordon Brown’s popularity in the run up to the 2010 election. We, as a sector that works with/for the poor and vulnerable, who need social security, need to grow a pair. Fast. Here’s some figures for you to illustrate the point.
The general public thinks that 41% of the money we spend on benefits goes on the unemployed, the DWP says it is actually 3%.
The public thinks £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is lost on fraud, it is actual 70p.
Nearly a third believe we spend more money on JSA compared to pensions. It is actually the other way round, we spend £4.9bn on JSA v £74.2bn on pensions (NB no dates for what year this was).
If that wasn’t enough here’s a depressing graph about the hardening of social attitudes, you are a miserably tight lot.
It is these attitudes that we as a sector need to confront head-on. Because tied in with the notion that we pay out too much in benefits, or that all housing benefit claimants are unemployed, is that social housing should only be for the deserving poor. This is a dangerous train of thought, it harks back to a Dickensian age where a social security net was non-existent and it was taken as fact that there was the deserving and undeserving poor. Our job is to help those in need of it. Not decide which right type of poor person should get it.
It is often that attitudes, particularly negative ones, are formed by people who don’t truly know or understand a certain subject. As a sector we have too often let the politicians do the talking, at one and the same time pandering to and encouraging a viewpoint counter to the reality on the ground. We have not taken hold of the debate, not reached out enough to those who don’t know or understand what we do. People want to watch programmes like Benefits Street or How to Get a Council House because it reinforces their negative stereotypes of the sector and the people that live within it. It is the equivalent of going to Wales once and seeing that it is sunny and believing there is always glorious sunshine in Wales. As someone who has had mates live in both Swansea and Cardiff I can assure it is most definitely not. They Welsh traded good weather for a decent rugby team years ago.
The sector is waking up. The NHF is being a lot more vocal these days, various regions have set up pressure groups, the G15 for London, the Birmingham Social Housing Partnership for, er, Birmingham and the East 7, not to be confused with East 17 for the East of England. More is needed to be done. The use of the ‘other’ has long been deployed in political debates. We need to ensure social housing, and the people who live within it, isn’t referred to in these terms. More importantly, we need to make sure that the people who rely on our help, understanding and support are treated with the respect they deserve.
A final, slightly positive, thing to leave you with. Despite not having the slightest clue about the money we spend on benefits the general public isn’t a totally heartless beast. The British Social Attitudes Report showed a softening towards those on benefits. Now just over half people believe benefits are too generous (51%) compared to 62% in 2011. Opinions can be changed. You just need to educate people. Best get cracking.
My thanks to In Actual Fact for the heads up on the figures used.