Freedom of speech
Once tipped for Tory leadership, former minister Michael Portillo is now free to say the unsayable on immigration, Westminster - and security of tenure. Philippa Ward reports.
Source: Tim Foster
Michael Portillo gives a wry smile as he admits he would feel a twinge of regret if the Conservatives win the next election. ‘I might miss government a bit if the Tories get back in, but I don’t miss the House of Commons,’ he laughs. ‘I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer why not!’
Quite apart from what he calls the ‘pretty unremitting trivia’ of Westminster village life, he finds the ongoing expenses scandal ‘shameful’.
Mr Portillo was a high profile casualty of New Labour’s 1997 election landslide victory. He says he enjoyed his 11 years in government – losing his seat while defence secretary before regaining it, only to step following after a failed leadership attempt in 2005. Now he tells Inside Housing what he would be doing if still in power. And, if his party wins the next election as expected, he has little comfort to offer social landlords and their tenants.
A Tory government will have no choice but to make drastic funding cuts, he says as he sips camomile tea in his Westminster townhouse. ‘I think the country is in a parlous state. The need to rein back on public spending is tremendous. There needs to be a huge shift of policy and I can’t predict what the consequences are. I’m afraid I can’t be very reassuring about it.’
Nor does the need to adopt policies designed for a cash-strapped world allow for any sacred cows – security of tenure for social tenants may have had its day.
‘Changing tenure arrangements would not be easy,’ he begins. ‘But it should be clear that social housing, which is in short supply, is made available to meet social need, and where the need ceases to exist, the provision is no longer appropriate.’
The eloquent ex-politician is no more encouraging about other legacies of the past dozen years – unsurprisingly, given it’s been Labour’s reign. But neither political party escapes his censure for pandering to the property- owning classes, whose votes usually decide elections.
The losers, he argues, are social tenants. ‘The last [decade] has vastly increased the divide between haves and have-nots. Why did all this get ignored?’ he asks. ‘Politics is more and more about the middle classes.’
The economic boom, thinks Mr Portillo, allowed the underlying problems of those at the bottom of society to be ignored. ‘[Back then] the emerging underclass – the people who don’t have jobs, who aren’t in training, who aren’t in education and whose parents weren’t either – could be neglected as a political problem because the country was prosperous.’
‘We could afford to pay for their benefits, and immigrant labour was supplying the jobs at the bottom so we could do without their labour.’
Now that the money has stopped rolling in and some of the immigrants are rolling home, the government has been forced to think again. Indeed, ministers are understood to be on the brink of grasping the nettle of housing benefit reform.
Immigration is another hot topic his former colleagues tend to avoid where possible, but that Mr Portillo is happy talk about. He’s all for it, arguing that there will need to be a lot more immigration in coming years to support the UK’s ageing population, and that those numbers should be calculated and planned for. ‘The government must set out what rate of immigration they believe is necessary for our economy to thrive and explain that,’ he says.
His enthusiasm for immigrants doesn’t extend as far as guaranteeing them somewhere to live, however Not so long as there are local people in housing need, that is.
The son of a refugee who arrived from Spain in the 1930s, Mr Portillo would have no qualms in giving people with links to a local area priority in social housing. ‘When immigrants arrive in this country at first – there is a long history of it, it was true of my father – they come with quite low expectations of housing and of income. Then of course, when they are settled in a community, what they can achieve rises. I think there should be some priority [for local people],’ he says.
Part of the reason that he favours priority for locals is the community stability it promotes. It’s something he has experienced personally. In 2003 he was persuaded to swap places with a single mother in a television documentary called ‘When Michael Portillo became a single mum’.
The experience left him impressed by the strength of community feeling in his temporary home in the Wirral town of Wallasey. ‘All the kids were playing in the streets, all the mothers would sit on their doorsteps and look out for each other’s kids. People were in and out of each other’s houses,’ he remembers. ‘I was quite impressed, everyone mucked in.’
Mr Portillo described those experiences at last year’s Chartered Institute of Housing conference in Harrogate. He’s back for another taste of the social housing sector this year, hosting Inside Housing’s Housing Heroes awards on 10 June, honouring people who have made a difference in their local communities.
Support for the tenants in those communities is often absent, he says. The maxim that the majority of gripes voiced at MPs’ surgeries concern housing held true in his constituency office,’ he says. ‘Many of them came from social tenants.
‘Those are the cases you’re really powerless to do very much about – people who are subject to hooliganism, vandalism, burglary, bad neighbours. It is among the great poverties of society that people live in places that have become a nightmare for them. They have a sense of dependency, a terrible sense that they can’t do much about it themselves. It is horrible, really.’
Tackling that would be first on the agenda if he filmed the documentary ‘When Michael Portillo became a housing minister’.
‘I’d be really interested in knowing if there was any way you could help to reinvent community spirit,’ he explains. ‘I would look at how you can reinforce the natural networks, which at the moment we seem to be preventing from operating properly.’
That will have to wait for now: his next project involves a weekend away in Guantanamo Bay.
… says he was responsible for ‘administering, and then disinventing the poll tax’.
…is working on three television documentaries, one of which involves a mini-break in Guantanamo Bay.
…is about to jet off to the opera in Vienna.
… but says he does ‘work quite hard, actually. I like to fill every day with work of one kind or another’.
Notes on a scandal
Michael Portillo is unimpressed, but unsurprised, by the MPs’ expenses scandal riddling Westminster.
‘This was a disaster coming down the track,’ he says. ‘I feel that every MP is complicit, even those that haven’t taken advantage of it.
‘Everyone knew the system existed and didn’t blow the whistle on it. I think it has turned out to be shameful.’
‘I’m quite optimistic that it’s leading to a bit of a clear out, that it’s leading to the possibility of reform. It’s still [uncertain] whether the reform will make things better or worse.
‘A lot of what is said is that MPs aren’t living like ordinary people. I understand that. But if the result of this is to make MPs even more ordinary than they already are, that will be a failure because we do need a few exceptional people.’