30 September 2004 Edition
Housing report highlights sectarian intimidation
BY LAURA FRIEL
1,245 people were intimidated out of their homes in the last financial year, according to the latest figures released by the Housing Executive. The majority of those forced to flee came from the Greater Belfast area, Larne, Antrim and North Down. Sectarianism and unionist paramilitary feuding account for the vast majority of intimidation cases dealt with by the Housing Executive. Thirty incidents involved racist attacks.
According to the annual Housing Executive report the cost of emergency rehousing has dramatically increased within the last four years. In 2000, the Executive spent around £6 million relocating people forced to flee from their homes. In 2001 the figure rose by a further £500,000 after several hundred families fled the Shankill during feuding between unionist paramilitaries. In 2002 the cost was £11 million, with the latest figure reaching an unprecedented £45 million.
The report offers no reason for the spiralling costs. The number of households made homeless by intimidation is down from last year but increasing home ownership means a greater reliance upon SPED. The Special Purchase for Evacuated Dwellings scheme allows the Housing Executive to buy, at market price, privately owned properties from families intimidated out of their homes.
The cost of supporting SPED has spiralled by over 700% since 2000. The vast increase is believed to be due to the re location of hundreds of Special Branch and other Crown force personnel following fears that their details had been compromised. It has certainly not been spent on cushioning the trauma of sectarian intimidation of ordinary Catholic families fleeing unionist paramilitaries who make up the vast majority of those who came under attack.
But while the report highlights the impact of sectarian intimidation, it is more reticent in highlighting the less obvious but equally unacceptable sectarian discrimination in housing allocation. The number of people on the Housing Waiting list in March 2004 was 27,656 and of these 14,247 were in housing stress. The number has only marginally increased since 2003 with a waiting list of 26,700 and 13,237 in stress. What the report fails to make clear is that Catholics are disproportionately in housing need. There are more Catholics on the housing waiting list for longer periods with Catholic areas suffering the worst overcrowding.
There is one example cited by the report, in North Belfast 82% of the waiting list is from the Catholic community. This is despite the launching of an investment plan of £133 million in October 2000. In West Belfast the waiting list has increased from 2,104 to 2,279 although, unlike North Belfast, the West has a low rate of housing unfitness. The level of poverty in the North is illustrated by the high levels of Housing Benefit, which continues to be paid, according to the report, in excess of £359 million a year.
Confirmation of continuing sectarian and racist intimidation by the Housing Executive comes as new legislation that recognises 'hate crime' comes into force this week and gives the courts greater powers in sentencing where hostility is proven. Announcing the legislation, NIO minister John Spellar said racism, sectarianism or hostility based on sexual orientation will no longer be tolerated.
The British Government believes that these new laws will send out the message that these offences are totally unacceptable, said Spellar.
The Equality Commission's chief executive, Evelyn Collins, said that legislation had an important role to play in bringing home to people the unacceptability of all crimes based on prejudice and hostility.