Colour me, ah, still suspicious

A couple of months ago, my Crackers-sense was set all abuzz by a series of articles in the Daily Mail about tabloid bogeymen (ex-asylum seekers, a muslim single mother, brown people) being given very expensive accomodation by tory councils.  I was suspicious:

Why, it's almost as if someone spotted the story from last year and said, "Hey - that's a jolly good way of attacking Labour," and deliberately contrived a couple more cases of scary tabloid boogeymen being given ridiculously expensive new accommodation.
I said in 'Colour me suspicious'.

These are clearly stories that can run and run, as guaranteed as they are to hit the Mail enragement bone.  Since that post two months ago, the cases in it have featured again in 'Millionaires' Row 2009: How hundreds of families get luxury homes on benefits far beyond the means of most working people' and a new case has popped up, covered by the Mail in 'Single mother-of-six finds £2m mansion on the net... and then gets YOU to pay £7,000 a month rent' and given the Smellyface treatment in 'Why not give Essma a Harrods account as well as a £2m mansion?'

Of course, the new story comes from a tory council - Westminster again - and it's still mighty fishy that the paper keeps coming up with tabloid bogeymen in these stories.  This latest is about a single mother.  In a headscarf. 

The other Mail article includes details of two other families we've not heard of before - Irish travellers and another single mother with a sufficiently foreign sounding name to guarantee a bit of rage.  Both in another tory council area.  It also mentions 'five other London Boroughs including...' and names just two counils.  Both tory, natch.

Things get smellier when you check Rightmove and find out that there's currently a 5 bedroom property in Westminster available for rent for £700 a week:

That's less than half the figure in this latest case.  How long would Westminster have had to wait for that?  Are there rules stopping councils from putting people in temporary accommodation until an affordable property comes up? 

More importantly, how did the Mail - in these days of lazy churnalism and rewriting of MigrationWatch press releases - find out about this case?  The woman in the story hasn't even received her first payment yet, and she's already in the papers.  How did Smellyface get wind of it in time to file his own column, ready to print the day after the original story?  I called Kensington & Chelsea council last time I covered these stories, and they couldn't give me any information on the specific case because it was obviously confidential. 

As you'd expect, these stories are used in articles that stretch the truth to breaking point to scrape the last dregs of outrage from readers' vein-pulsing skulls. 

From 'Single mother-of-six finds £2m mansion on the net... and then gets YOU to pay £7,000 a month rent':
The four-storey house in Maida Vale has five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a double living room, large fitted kitchen-diner with French doors on to the landscaped garden and a state-of-the art buzzer entry system.
And from Smellyface:
Essma Marjam, 34, moved into the four-storey villa earlier this month.
Ooh - a 'four storey' place, either a 'villa' or a mansion'.  Here's a picture:

That would appear to be a two storey end of terrace with an attic.  Maybe it's got a basement, but as lovely as it is, describing it as four-storey is clearly pushing it.  And since when has a buzzer system been 'state of the art'?

Here's a bit of idle speculation.  It's different from tabloid idle speculation because I signposted it just there.  So ner.  But look at the picture again.  See the cardboard boxes and Argos bag in front of the door?

Now look at the Mail:
During the week, vans from Argos and other home stores dropped off large purchases.
And Smellyface:
That probably explains why vans from Argos and other big retailers were delivering to her address all last week.
I bet you eight million shackamolies that this is based on the big Argos bag and empty boxes in the picture, which could of course have been full of stuff from moving rather than deliveries of new stuff.  But 'Look, an Argos bag and some boxes' doesn't have the same ring of outrage about it as vans dropping off large purchases all week, plus it might make it difficult for Smellyface to make a shit analogy for the headline.  'She's got an Argos carrier bag with rubbish in outside?  Wuurgh!  Coodern mayk idd app.  Why not give her a Harrod's card?'  bit crap, that.  Sorry - bit more crap, that.

The figures used in 'Single mother-of-six finds £2m mansion...' and the Smellyface version of same story create different pictures.  'Single mother of six...' says: 
In total, 16 families are living in million-pound-plus London properties funded by the Local Housing Allowance.
And Smellyface says:
Westminster alone is forking out the thick end of £28 million a year to 800 families in similar circumstances.
Eh?  800 in Westminster or 16 in the whole of London?  Obviously, Smellyface is using a more elastic version of the word 'similar'.  The earlier ''Millionaires' Row 2009...' shows us how:
In fact, a staggering 800 households in the borough [Westminster] qualify for £500-a-week payments.
So, anything from less than a third of what the family in this story gets is counted as 'similar'.  Only in the tabloids does less than a third=similar.

Alongside the low-level truth stretching there are the usual tabloid rhetorical devices to steer the reader towards and outraged conclusion.  Notice the headline says the 'single mother' gets the money in articles about them, as if it's not for the whole family.  In other articles 'Afghan' and 'ex-asylum seekers' get a headline mention .  They're the obvious Pavlov's bell that get the readers frothing and lets everyone else know that the problem the paper has here is not just that people are getting expensive accommodation on the state, but that undesirables are.

People were sacked for the mistake of assinging one of these families the home they ended up with.  That doesn't get mentioned in any later story.

The 'Millionnaire's row..' story talks about properties in Barnet and Edgware.  But Edgware is in Barnet.  We're talking about the same tory council here.

You've also got the standard Daily Mail 'round up every number' tactic, so that £6,400 becomes £7,000 and £27.3 million becomes £28 million.  This makes proper calculaions impossible - how many is 'around 100'?  In the Mail, this could mean anything from 70 up to 100 - anything above 100 is likely to be labelled 'more than 100'.

You've also got the focusing on the value of the property rather than the amount of housing benefit paid.  We're not paying £2 million for the mansion terraced house in this latest story, but that's what gets mentioned in the headline.  It would take more than 26 years to pay for this house at this rate.  Plus - although we've been told how long leases last in previous stories, we're not in this one.

None of these figures are put into context.  In 2009, there were 4,412,990 Housing Benefit recipients in the UK.  16 of them were in houses worth more than £1 million.  Or 0.0004%.  I've rounded that up.  0.002% get more than £1,000 a week.  The average amount per week is £85.64.

All these cases are unusual, anomalies, and the Mail is pretending they're common.  They spring from unusually high rents and property prices in London - and I can't help but laugh at councils that sold off all their local authority housing moaning that they don't have affordable housing for poorer tenants now.  Pointing and laughing and slapping my thighs.  How's that 'homes for votes' deal going?

'Millionaires' Row 2009...' says:
Is there anyone - apart from the staff of The Guardian - who doesn't think this is a scandal; a two-fingered salute, metaphorically speaking, to every family in Britain which isn't milking the benefits system?
Yeah.  Me. 

If these families are in genuine need of accommodation and can't afford any themselves, and councils can't shunt people into substandard living space or off to a poorer borough anymore, tough luck on the tory councils involved for selling off housing stock.  Ha bloody ha.

If the councils have deliberately put people into expensive accommodation for political purposes - they're the peope sending the two-fingered salute.


Tofu said...

This is fucking brilliant.

The depressing thing is that there seems to be no way to stop thousands of people believing Littlejohn's shite, and no way to stop the Mail doing this again in another couple of months.

Peter said...

I've bookmarked this article ready to send to my mum next time she dares read that rag of a paper.

One thing you did miss however is the curious question of exactly how they sometimes also get the evil ex-asylum seekers to pose for photos and mention how silly the government are.

I mean its not as if the wonderful mail would give these evil foreigners a big bag of cash in exhange for photos and a mild slagging is it?

MacGuffin said...

A typically excellent post.

Thank you.

jungle said...

Hang on another minute... this article is far worse than that! LHA is a fixed sum. It isn't tailored to a specific property. That's partly why they introduced it to replace Housing Benefit - to avoid this type of tabloid bonanza.

So how is this story possible? What's the Mail's ruse? Simple. The LHA isn't paying the whole rent. It's paying part of it. The official LHA direct website says that the maximum rate for LHA (if you have a family needing 5+ bedrooms) in Maida Vale is £1,800/month. That's £450/week. (Given tabloid rounding, by the way, that would nicely fit the 800 households claiming £500/week - that's how she's 'similar' to them)

Now, if she's getting the maximum of £450/week, and eligible for LHA in the first place (i.e. means tested as unable to pay), there's only one realistic possibility here: she's not renting all of that 'villa'. Maybe it's a flat, maybe (if the Mail's description is half-accurate) it's just bedrooms with shared facilities. I know from working in housing that this wouldn't be unusual. LHA tenancies in London are often very overcrowded. It could also explain the 'state-of-the-art' doorphone. I may be being too cynical even for the Mail, here - but could it not also explain why the woman let them in and had her photo taken? He was reporting on the terrible overcrowding, wasn't he?

Also, I wouldn't trust the Mail's description of the location or value of the house as far as I could throw James Slack.

Keep up the good work, anyway!

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Thanks for all the compliaments, people.

I've been looking into this a bit more (more about this stuff may follow) and I have to point to this:

How much you qualify for on the Local Housing Allowance depends on where you are and how big the place is. A 5 bedroom place in Westminster qualilfies for £1,800 a month. It's not fishy that people would get these rents at all, it's just these particular people at this time - and their details apprearing in the press I'm worried about.

Local Housing Allowance site.