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Another day, another housing minister

The new housing minister, Rachel Maclean, is the 15th person in the job since the Tories came to power, and the sixth in this year alone. We deserve better, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee

Since 2010 there have been 21 managers of Watford FC. There have been 15 housing ministers in Westminster during the same period, with the newest announced last week. Watford have, for a long time, been a byword for short-termism and knee-jerk reaction in high-level football. However, the current man in the Watford job, Slaven Bilic, has been there since September. Which is longer than number 14, Lucy Frazer, was in her government post.

It’s gotten to the stage where it feels like being housing minister is part of some performative art project, that in a number of years we will see an installation in the Tate Modern with messages on how we’ve ALL actually been part of this and that, no, of course there wasn’t REALLY a housing minister, but rather a collection of names, an exploration into the sense that somebody could be both there and not there at the same time, that something could be done, yet not done, on how to be present and absent, a Schrodinger’s ministry, and that it’s also being filmed for an Amazon Prime documentary series on how we live now.

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Clearly, there are sexier briefs in Westminster. But, come on. Frequently in The Big Issue we do ask the government to take seriously the housing crisis, to think long term, to genuinely consider where housing, or lack of it, and poverty intersect, to come up with something that looks like a plan. By rotating housing minister appointments that don’t last as long as it takes to have an official photograph framed doesn’t instil confidence.

The one positive element is that into the vacuum, smart young advocates who see things that are broken in the housing system have acted to bring positive change. Kwajo Tweneboa has become a household name since he began campaigning a couple of years ago against the terrible conditions in which some tenants in social housing were left, ignored and minimised by housing associations in their degrading homes. Now, when he shows up, things get fixed. He was speaking in Parliament last week about the changes that need to be made. A Big Issue Changemaker, he became involved because he and his family were in similar atrocious conditions in social housing. Thank god for people like Kwajo. But, if something were in place at a more senior level, he wouldn’t be needed. And great as he is, he can’t get to everybody.

Last November a London schoolboy called Angus Lusty noticed that, as the cost of living gripped, there was a huge rise in forced installations of prepayment meters in peoples’ homes. This was a double whammy – prepayment cards are more expensive than other means of utility payments, so the poorest get punished. And then there is the issue of forced installation. This is a story that had been bubbling for a while. At Big Issue we reported it. Angus realised the frequency of magistrate sign-off for the meters was shockingly high and wanted to do a story for his school paper. He put in an FOI request to the Ministry of Justice asking just how many forced installations were OK’d by magistrates courts in England and Wales. He discovered that magistrates were sometimes signing off 300 every 15 minutes. That’s lives turned over to bailiffs in seconds, without consideration of the reasons or implications.

We’re all more aware of this because last week a senior judge, Lord Justice Edis, instructed magistrates to cease the practice of signing off on warrants allowing energy companies to send bailiffs muscling into homes and forcing these high-cost meters to be placed inside. A GCSE student helped make the change happen. 

So, while housing ministers might not be there long enough to fix the plight of those in poverty in their homes, at least young campaigners like Angus and Kwajo are among us. Maybe they could have a spin at the housing brief. It wouldn’t take them long.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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