– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:15 pm on 16th September 1999.

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Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour 3:15 pm, 16th September 1999

We move on to the debate on motion S1M-154, in the name of Ms Wendy Alexander, on homelessness. There is also an amendment to the motion. Members who wish to speak in this debate may now press their request to speak buttons.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour 3:45 pm, 16th September 1999

Tackling homelessness is a fitting challenge for this Parliament. The most extreme form of homelessness—rough sleeping—is one of the most serious forms of social exclusion in Scotland. It is demeaning, damages self-esteem and blights life chances, sometimes forever. That is why, when the First Minister invited each of his Cabinet colleagues to choose their top priority for the programme of government, I chose to end the need for anyone to have to sleep rough by the end of this Parliament. That promise is not made as some moralistic gesture but as a concrete and hugely ambitious target by which I invite this Parliament to judge the Executive's efforts.

Let me anticipate some of the interventions. The target date is no longer December 2002, but May 2003. I will tell members why. It is because that change of date signals a change of direction.

Last week, in the programme for government debate, we listened to some cheap knockabout that I had hoped would be left in another place. "It's all about focus groups," said the Tories. "It's all about PR spin," said the SNP. I would like this debate to make Scotland feel better about its politicians.

The new direction on rough sleeping comes from what Jackie Baillie and I have seen and heard throughout Scotland this summer. Two years ago, within weeks of coming to power, Labour made its commitment to the rough sleepers initiative. There are already 138 hostel places and 100 new support workers; 1,364 rough sleepers have been helped, 200 of them directly from the streets.

Jackie and I wanted to know what was happening on the ground. We travelled around Scotland and saw what was happening at the sharp end. We visited the new Shelter family project in Edinburgh, the Simon Community safe houses in Glasgow and The Big Issue and its vendors. Next week we will go to Glasgow's lodging house mission. We were listening and learning; now we are acting. All the organisations had the same message; rooflessness is about more than housing.

During the past two years, the rough sleepers initiative has given people at the sharp end a chance to pause and undertake some serious survey work, often for the first time, on rough sleeping. We now know that 8,000 Scots probably spend at least one night a year sleeping rough. We are also learning what keeps people on the streets.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I am reassured to know that the minister spent the summer visiting hostels and the like. I recall that the minister's predecessors—Calum Macdonald and Malcolm Chisholm—made those same visits. Were they not listening? Did they not learn anything? They set the target of 2002, but the minister is now saying that the target is 2003. What great insights has the minister had in the past few months that her predecessors did not?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

That exact point was the basis for the report, undertaken as part of the rough sleepers initiative, that hit my desk 10 days ago.

Three quarters of the rough sleepers in Glasgow had used drugs in the last month; 60 per cent had mental health problems; few had medical support. Sixty per cent of rough sleepers are regular hostel dwellers and 65 per cent now have at least one failed tenancy behind them. Almost half of those who are sleeping rough in the streets of Glasgow have been in a hostel, but 70 per cent of them have been evicted and almost half of them have had some sort of accommodation ban for violent behaviour, drug or alcohol abuse or rent arrears.

The message is clear: rough sleeping is about more than homelessness. Yesterday I announced a 40 per cent increase in the budget—an extra £6 million for the next two years. Two million pounds will be available for local authorities that have not yet developed comprehensive rough sleeping strategies. Many of them are in rural areas, where the problems of rough sleeping are less obvious, but no less distressing for that. Two million pounds extra will be available for support services to help rough sleepers with the acute problems I have described so that they can be supported when they go into permanent accommodation and do not go back on to the streets.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I welcome the additional funding. As a member of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, I am still waiting to see a copy of the announcement that was made on Tuesday. That point needs to be raised.

There is concern that access to finance for rough sleepers initiatives across the country is through challenge funding. Bidding for funding means that there are winners and losers. Will the minister commit to ending the challenge funding aspect of the rough sleepers initiative?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I am happy to commit that, to meet the pledge, every area must have a comprehensive rough sleeping strategy. The challenge element, however, has allowed the people who put forward the best strategy to be the beneficiaries of the money. Sometimes the local authority has the best strategy, sometimes Shelter does. The important thing is that we have comprehensive anti-homelessness strategies throughout Scotland. The provider will not always be the same.

The rest of the money will go to prevent homelessness. I want to highlight the idea of rent deposit schemes. In last week's edition of The Big Issue, vendor after vendor talked about what the Aberdeen Cyrenians rent deposit scheme had done to help them re-establish homes. I want that sort of rent deposit scheme to operate across Scotland. A couple of years ago, I was invited to join a scheme to pool rent deposits for young people in my area who were facing homelessness. Other Scots need to have the same chance.

This is not just about new money for joined-up services; it is about joined-up action in government. It is about Susan Deacon, Jim Wallace and I working together to ensure that prisoners who are released from places such as Greenock do not fall into rough sleeping because they do not have the right support services when they enter the community. Special attention must be paid to the problem of young people leaving care. That problem, too, is highlighted extensively in last week's edition of The Big Issue. Sam Galbraith will make an announcement on that shortly.

This is not just about central government. Local government, housing, health, social work and the police services all need to do better. I raised this point with members of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the social affairs forum when I met them on Monday. They recognise the need for local authorities to develop comprehensive local homelessness strategies. As a first step, they agreed that I ask the homelessness task force today to consider the need to apply time limits to dealing with cases of rough sleepers. If the homelessness task force recommends time limits, we will include the necessary legislation in the homelessness bill. When it comes to rough sleeping, one extra night on the streets is one night too many.

Rough sleeping is in our sights as never before, but the broader issue of homelessness is the next challenge. Our homelessness legislation in Scotland is almost 20 years out of date. We measure the wrong things, in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons. We have acted swiftly, as Shelter—and other organisations—have requested. I draw Parliament's attention to Shelter's response to our green paper earlier this year. Shelter proposed "an initial six month period identifying and acting on urgent issues" and then a longer phase "of up to two years setting out a rolling programme of legislation and policy changes through to the second term of the Scottish Parliament."

I could not have put it better myself. In short, we need to take a long, hard look at the experiences and causes of homelessness and the remedies for it.

I say in all candour to the many committed campaigners in this chamber who would rush me to a solution—however well intended—that they risk, perhaps inadvertently, having neither the interests of the homeless nor of those who work on their behalf at heart. Good intentions are not enough in a Parliament. They can lead to ill-thought-through, piecemeal legislation. We need well-planned, effective legislation, fit for a new generation.

The task force has got off to a flying start. I want an initial report within six months and new legislation. However, where it is possible to act now, we will do so. The law governing mortgage repossessions is one such area. With a short, focused piece of conveyancing legislation, we can assist up to 3,000 Scottish families at risk of repossession. Cathie Craigie will prepare a bill with support from the Law Society. That is a huge step forward in the new politics.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

The bill is not a tired gesture, like a Westminster 10-minute rule bill, but new back-bench legislation prepared in a new way for a new Parliament.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

No, I am sorry, I need to finish.

Let me conclude by linking homelessness to the Government's wider housing agenda. One third of Scotland's homeless applicants come from Glasgow. In the new future of community ownership that we are offering to Glasgow's tenants, we must also meet the aspirations of the homeless people in that city. They are the new tenants of tomorrow.

Shelter and others have legitimately raised concerns that the creation of community ownership could leave councils with statutory obligations towards the homeless but without the homes to keep that promise. I can offer reassurance, however. If tenants in Glasgow—or anywhere else in Scotland—opt for a new future, I am determined that we will do whatever it takes, be it nomination agreements or new rules for new landlords, to ensure that that city's homeless are housed.

I also take this opportunity to tell Parliament that I propose, with the city council's agreement, the establishment of a formal steering group to oversee the next phases of work to develop a transfer proposal. Such a steering group would include representatives of the Executive, the city council, Glasgow Alliance, Scottish Homes and the local housing association movement. However, at the end of the day, in Glasgow as elsewhere, the tenants alone will decide their future.

I have told the Parliament about the Executive's plans for tackling rough sleeping, for rethinking homelessness and for moving forward in Glasgow. New solutions are being put in place. Scotland deserves no less. That is what this Parliament and this Executive are all about.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Executive is fully committed to tackling the scourge of homelessness in Scotland by virtue of its pledge in the Programme for Government that it will ensure that no-one has to sleep rough by 2003; by providing new accommodation and better support services, and by the establishment of a Task Force to (a) review the causes and nature of homelessness in Scotland, (b) examine current practice in dealing with cases of homelessness, and (c) make recommendations on how homelessness in Scotland can be best prevented and, where it does occur, tackled effectively.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 3:58 pm, 16th September 1999

I welcome the minister's statement, as new resources in this area are always welcome. The Scottish National party is pleased to note that the Executive occasionally listens to the Opposition and that, to some small degree, the minister has listened to our call for an increase in public spending on housing. We are also happy to support the announcement made on Tuesday, which echoes the key manifesto pledges that we made in May, in particular on a rural rent deposit scheme that was mentioned.

In all sincerity, however, announcements such as the one made by the minister would be better made in this chamber at debates such as this. As a member of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, I have yet to receive a paper detailing where the extra money will be spent. Bearing in mind that the Scottish Executive's website has crashed, we cannot be expected to get information about such announcements there.

The Minister for Communities has identified her main priorities. Our amendment seeks to do two key things: to put the homelessness issue into the proper context and to ask members for their support in bringing forward the Executive's timetable for housing legislation. I will deal with each in turn.

The SNP is concerned that the debate on homelessness has centred around solely the issue of rooflessness. It is with some concern that we hear the minister talking about moving homelessness away from housing. Yes, we recognise that there is a social dimension to homelessness. However, we should be warned about the distinctive move that the Executive seems to be making on this issue; it is a move that we must view with deep concern.

The Scottish Executive's announcement of key schemes, such as the rent deposit scheme, is a small step on the way to recognising that there is more to homelessness than sleeping rough. The SNP is also pleased that the Executive is listening to the experts in the field and realising that more needs to be done on the causes of homelessness. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, evictions and exclusions from housing need are among the main causes of social exclusion. Yet the Scottish Executive does not keep any central record of exclusions for rent arrears or for anti-social behaviour. In England, Shelter estimates that local authorities are excluding around 200,000 people from council waiting lists and allocations, largely due to rent arrears.

The result is that we have no real statistical base from which to calculate the position or to identify where rises in homelessness occur. We have no way of tracking when large jumps in homelessness take place, or of finding out the causes of those jumps. For example, we know that from 1986 to 1987 in the Highlands 619 households applied to local authorities as homeless households. In the last 10 years, there has been a jump of 130 per cent. There is no statistical evidence by which we can measure whether, during that time, housing authorities in the Highlands and Islands had increased eviction levels. There are no centrally held statistics on the number of people who were excluded from applying to a particular authority in the Highlands and Islands. I am aware that the Executive plans to publish statistics on evictions from April 2000 and I welcome those plans. However, we require information on what has happened over the past 10 years.

Apart from the lack of information, there are further aspects of homelessness that we must consider. We have yet to have a comprehensive policy on homelessness that deals with issues of hidden homelessness. I understand that there is a review, but we will not receive the report of that review until spring next year. We must move swiftly on this issue. I recognise the points that the minister made earlier, but we must acknowledge that there is more to homelessness than the issue of rough sleeping. We must examine the backlog of house adaptations for people with disabilities. There are people who live with family or friends, and who are unable to move into their own home because of a lack of suitable accommodation. Such circumstances are part of recognising that housing is very much a part of homelessness. Hidden homelessness includes the thousands of older people who cannot move out of NHS hospitals, as there is no suitable accommodation for them. We heard earlier today that there is no commitment to look at resources for women who flee domestic violence, which is one of the most acute forms of housing need. We must address that issue. Every year, 24,000 children are made homeless in Scotland.

On the point about joined-up Government, we need housing legislation, but we need it sooner rather than later. It was with great disappointment that the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee heard about the Executive's commitment to introduce a bill in mid-2000, rather than in early 2000. That is not good enough. We need a housing bill during this millennium, not during the next millennium. We must ensure that, if the Executive is to move on stock transfer, we protect the rights of tenants. Contracts are all very well, but we need statutory instruments.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

With all due respect to Fiona, she must distinguish between her view of what happened at the committee meeting and the decisions that the committee made. It was not the unanimous view of the committee members that they were disappointed with the time scale of the housing legislation. She may have been disappointed, but the committee did not come to that decision.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I thank Margaret. I recognise that, as the committee's convener, she ensures that we hold collective discussions on this issue. I am sure that she would echo my earlier point, which she made very well during the committee meeting, that announcements such as the one that was made on Tuesday should be made first to the committee.

On housing legislation, we must examine seriously the Executive's radical changes, such as the decision to conduct a mass sell-off of council houses without offering people the protection that is required in law for the homeless. Local councils are best placed to deal with the social aspects that the minister mentioned. They are in the lead position to look after our housing interests. The Scottish Executive, and the Minister for Communities in particular, should require the homeless review to be completed by Christmas, and the Executive should introduce legislation in the next three months, rather than in the next nine months. Let the draft bill be published for consideration within that time scale. Let us have a firm commitment.

I seek support for this amendment for two reasons. First, we must recognise that homelessness is not just about rough sleeping, regardless of what the Executive says, although rough sleeping is an important problem that must be addressed and the resources are welcome. Secondly, we need housing legislation. If there is one issue on which the people who elected us to this place want us to take action, it is housing. It is a disgrace that we will have to wait until the next millennium for legislation.

I move, as an amendment to motion S1M-154, in the name of Ms Wendy Alexander, to leave out from "the Scottish" to end and insert

"tackling homelessness is one of the major challenges facing it, that it supports the Rough Sleepers Initiative and welcomes the Scottish Executive's continuing support for it, and that it recognises that rough sleeping is only one aspect of homelessness and that any initiative designed to tackle it can only deal with the reality of rough sleeping not the causes behind it; calls upon the Scottish Executive to make the newly established Homelessness Taskforce a priority and to bring forward early measures to deal with the causes of homelessness, new regulations to help homeless people and new legislative proposals to bring homelessness legislation up to date; believes that Executive time is required for early legislation to deal with homelessness and housing in general, and calls upon the Scottish Executive to bring forward the proposed publishing date of a draft housing bill to the end of 1999."

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 4:05 pm, 16th September 1999

This is an important debate, and one that extends well beyond the confines of this Parliament. That is a good thing. We should involve as many people as possible in the decisions that must be made. I hope, however, that the debate will not go on for too long. There are important issues to be decided, and urgent issues that must be addressed.

It would be churlish of me to accuse the minister and her colleagues of complacency. They have, after all, held their present remits for only four months. They are, however, members of the Labour party which in the general election of 1997 pledged to tackle the scourge of homelessness. The net effect of their efforts has been pitiful, frankly, and there has been a heartbreaking increase in the number of homeless persons.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

There are 32,400 new homeless people, representing a 6 per cent increase. That is the fact, and Labour members must live with that. I will give way.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

Does Mr Aitken agree that there is lot of evidence to suggest a direct link between deprivation, unemployment and homelessness? It took the Tories 18 years to create the crisis in homelessness, and you have the audacity to stand there and say that it has taken us two years to address the problem. I am amazed that I can even find the words to condemn you for saying such a thing. I hope that you will support the measures that have been proposed and perhaps will make some positive suggestions about how they can be moved forward.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Ah, I hear what the lady has to say. Is it not the case that the commonwealth ceased to exist on 7 April 1979 and began again on 1 May 1997? For how much longer do she and her colleagues think that they will get away with blaming the Labour Government—the Conservative Government? [Laughter.] It was John Major. It was Margaret Thatcher. Are we to go back to the days of Stanley Baldwin? Benjamin Disraeli? The fact of the matter is that there has been a Labour Government in power for almost two-and-a-half years and nothing has happened on the issue of homelessness, to the extent that there has been a substantial and dramatic increase in the number of people suffering. That is the blunt truth. The sooner that she and her colleagues accept it, the sooner we will be able to progress the situation.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Now, with respect, I will continue in a more constructive vein. The task force will face a number of issues, but we already know the answers to some of the questions that the task force will ask. We know that there is a lack of liaison between different agencies, housing and social work being the most evident. We know that the existing system of discharge from prisons, hospitals and other institutions results in a lot of people going straight into rough sleeping. We know that that is the situation and that we are required to address it. What should we be doing about it? There was not much in what the minister said that convinced me that we have an answer to that particular problem yet.

I suggest closer liaison with local authorities. The leaders of councils should be invited here to discuss the matter. They are the people at the sharp end of this issue, and we could then move it forward. We should also consult with building societies and other mortgage lenders. Repossession should be the very last option that they should consider. I am disappointed that the minister did not put her full weight behind the proposals that sheriffs in Scotland should have similar powers to county court judges in England and be able to stay repossession orders. That would have been a helpful gesture. I welcome Cathy Craigie's member's bill on that, but I would have looked for it to have been boosted by the Executive. I am sad that that was not included in the SNP amendment.

One of the major problems facing us is support for those holding first-time tenancies. It is all very well throwing money at rough sleeping initiatives and it is all very well putting people into houses, but if they cannot cope with living in houses we will be back at square one very quickly. We must examine the fact that many of those whom we take off the streets to put into houses lead disoriented and disordered lives. They should really have much more support than is given to them. I look forward to the minister or the deputy minister coming forward in due course with clear and concise ideas as to how this problem will be addressed.

Joined-up seems to be one of the buzzwords around here, but I am sure that we all agree that one of the saddest things that happens is that many of the major issues that this Parliament is required to address are impinged upon by the problem of drugs. The task force has already come up with the self-evident fact that the profile of those who are sleeping rough is completely different to the profile of those sleeping rough a generation ago. The average age is now much younger. Of course, drugs have caused that. We will have that problem until the Executive comes forward with concise and clear views on what it will do regarding the drugs menace generally.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I agree with Mr Aitken that the age of those sleeping rough on the streets has fallen, but will he accept that there are young people on the streets as a direct result of changes in housing benefit and other benefits for 16 to 18-year-olds, which were brought in by the Conservative Government in the late 1980s?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

The working of those regulations may have given some cause for concern, but the basic problem cannot be denied. That problem is drugs and the increase in addiction to drugs.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Does not Mr Aitken agree that the Government's botched community care legislation, which put so many mentally handicapped people on to the streets, has also had a major effect on homelessness over the few years?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

Mr Gibson will be aware that statistics do not bear out that opinion.

Frankly, there is much in the ministerial statement that is to be welcomed, but it is sadly short on detail. I accept that that is inevitable at this stage, but we must examine the problem.

Labour cannot lock itself away from the fact that it has been in power for two and a half years and nothing has happened.

The statistics that I quoted are damning. Much of Scotland's youth is suffering. They would not have suffered under the housing policy of the Conservative Government, which—under the caring and imaginative leadership of my friend Lord James Douglas-Hamilton—ensured that nothing of this magnitude happened to people in this country.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

We now move to the open part of the debate. Members will restrict their remarks to four minutes. Many members wish to take part in what is obviously an important debate, so it will be helpful if members try to abide by the time limit.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:14 pm, 16th September 1999

I welcome many aspects of the minister's statement. I will, in passing, mention a statistic from the period between 1979 and 1996—the last Conservative regime. In that time around 500,000 mortgage holders were repossessed in the United Kingdom as a whole. That puts in perspective what we are talking about today and the challenge that we must face.

Homelessness is a multi-faceted problem both in its causes and consequences. Marital household break-up, lack of suitable housing, moving out of care and out of institutions—which has been touched on—and drug and alcohol problems have all played their part in the creation of the crisis. The raw figures are horrific. In 1986-87, 25,189 households in Scotland presented themselves to councils as homeless, or as potentially so. Last year, the figure was 43,051. In rural areas, as was touched on before, the problem is smaller in terms of numbers, but bigger in proportion. The figures that Fiona Hyslop mentioned, which were, I think, originally obtained by Fergus Ewing, referred to a rise of 130 per cent in the Highlands and Islands.

In sheer numbers and size, the problem in Glasgow dominates the national picture: the 1986-87 figure of 5,705 applicants rose to 12,665 last year, four times the number for our nearest rival—if rival is the right word in this context. There are strange oddities in the statistics. Why, for example, do little more than a quarter of Glasgow applicants get assessed as being in priority need, compared with two thirds in Edinburgh and the Scottish average of around a third?

A sevenfold increase in the presentation of priority cases in a 10-year period under the category of mental illness is notable. It does not seem to be particularly linked to the introduction of care in the community. A fourfold statistical increase in "other special reasons" also merits attention.

The reasons given for homelessness are equally interesting. A doubling of priority cases arising from violent disputes with spouses echoes the debate that we had on 2 September on domestic violence. The large increase in cases involving people who have been discharged from institutions or resulting from actions by landlords—because, for example, of rent arrears—is also worthy of major consideration. It is odd that rent arrears evictions are relatively small compared with other actions by landlords. That contradicts the experience of courts that rent arrears are by far the commonest cause of court actions for repossession, and suggests that people do not wait for court action, but anticipate it, and are therefore moonlighters.

There is a strong, growing sense of purpose and dedication among the Executive and in this Parliament in getting to grips with this matter—it is important that that is the case. We should not, in that context, understate the importance of the commitment of the partnership Executive to the objective that no one should have to sleep rough by 2003, or the commitment to housing legislation next year. The existing law, largely contained in the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 and the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988, inherited a long tail of past regimes and complicated terminology. It is extremely specialised, and I doubt that the draftsmen will be heavily challenged in modernising it, particularly if the single social tenancy concept is to be pursued.

The Minister for Communities will not, therefore, be surprised to hear that I think that the Scottish Executive has perhaps lost the opportunity to support my proposed member's bill on the prevention of homelessness and to secure legislation on measures that have broad agreement—echoing what Bill Aitken said before—a full year in advance of the main bill.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does Robert Brown agree that the introduction of suspended repossession orders could easily be done as part of the feudal bill, as presented by the Executive, to amend the Conveyancing and Feudal Reform (Scotland) Act 1970, and that we do not need a member's bill, which takes up this Parliament's time, when the Executive can achieve the same thing in its own time?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I accept that concept, but it is a broader matter. Similar issues apply to how we deal with evictions from tenancy cases, and a series of reforms concerning the need for permanent accommodation, the reversal of earlier judgments, the new social tenancies and so on is long overdue.

I do not want to hold up the chamber on this matter, but I think that there is broad support among all parties for proceeding, as Shelter and other organisations have asked us to do, with a range of reforms that can be dealt with now, and which will allow the homelessness task force to concentrate on the more central issues, including the rough sleepers initiative. I hope that the Executive and the Parliament will still give a fair wind to my member's bill when it goes forward—it has been lodged.

The Liberal Democrats have a long track record on homelessness. The original Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was a private member's bill from the Liberal MP, Stephen Ross. It passed into law as part of the original Lib-Lab pact. We have long argued for a number of the things that we have heard about today on the need to reduce the level of unnecessarily empty houses, rent deposit schemes and the like.

It is important for the Executive not to take a possessive attitude towards legislation through this Parliament and for there to be a reasonable balance between the rights of the Executive to pursue its legislation and the rights of committees and back benchers to examine the details of the proposed legislation and put forward their own ideas. We need a unified effort on this matter, and it is unfortunate that the Executive has not taken on board the opportunity to introduce some complementary measures, which would assist its whole programme. Against that background and with those comments, I support the motion.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour 4:20 pm, 16th September 1999

This is an important debate and the number of people who want to speak indicates that—but that is not to say that Bill Aitken's levity was not welcome.

It is unfortunate, however, that some of the Scottish National party's old attitudes are still evident in the amendment that we are considering. In tackling homelessness, we should be moving forward on a broader base, and no party has a monopoly on hand wringing and concern. To suggest that the Scottish National party has answers that the coalition parties do not have is, quite frankly, wrong.

I regret the fact that the amendment ends by calling on the Executive

"to bring forward the proposed publishing date of a draft housing bill to the end of 1999."

Can that amendment have been lodged by the same Scottish National party that, two weeks ago, accused the coalition of acting too quickly on mental health legislation, saying that more consideration was needed and that, if we legislate at haste, we will repent at leisure?

The timetable for the homelessness task force and the housing green paper is set out. We have said so half a dozen times in the past few months, and I do not know how many times we need to say it again before it gets through to Fiona Hyslop, but that is why there is no housing bill in the legislative programme at the moment.

The same is true of the mass sell-off of council houses. I do not deny that the transfer of housing stock has implications for homeless people. Of course it has. At yesterday morning's meeting of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, Fiona Hyslop, Alex Neil and Lloyd Quinan were all there when the minister spoke about housing stock transfer.

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

She could not have been more explicit in telling people what was involved, but we still get the same old arguments.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Does Mr Watson acknowledge that the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee agreed yesterday that ministerial statements that directly affect the committee are unacceptable if they are not delivered in front of the committee, and that the committee was unanimous in that agreement?

Photo of Mike Watson Mike Watson Labour

I agree with that decision, but that was not what I thought Lloyd Quinan would ask about. If I had known that that was his point, I would not have given way. He should try to follow the debate more closely.

It is crucial to establish one thing about this issue. I may have misheard Fiona Hyslop, and I am sure that she will tell me if I did, but I think that she said that she did not want the debate to move away from being centred on housing. The minister's opening remarks were perfectly clear, and Fiona Hyslop and her party seem to be going against the grain of what Shelter—probably the most respected organisation in the field—has to say. In its response to the housing green paper, Shelter has said that there is no doubt that it is not just a question of housing, and that social policy, welfare policy and economic policy are also involved. Unless all those things are wrapped up and put together to form a response to the problem, the debate cannot advance and we will not be able to help homeless people. Homeless people and those whom the agencies in the field are trying to help will not be grateful to us for squabbling across the chamber while they want the debate to progress.

It is unfortunate that all members cannot recognise the fact that the homelessness task force has been established. The amendment calls on the Executive to make the homelessness task force a priority. It is a priority. It has been established and has had its first meeting. Just look at the people who are involved. There are representatives from Shelter, The Big Issue, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, as well as academics and local authorities. What more does Fiona Hyslop want?

Those people must be given time to consider the issue in its widest form. The papers from the first meeting have been circulated to all members, so SNP members know the ground that is being covered. Why should we try to rush out the bill by the end of the year? What would be the virtue in that? There is a lot of meat to get into and a lot of work to be done before the recommendations are published. Together with a response to the green paper on housing, those recommendations will inform the debate.

We know about the rough sleepers initiative, the grants to voluntary bodies, the empty homes initiative and the hostel revenue grants. People should recognise that all those things are being done to tackle homelessness. The fact that the timing of the programme is the only objection that the SNP can trot out signifies that there is not much more that could be done and that it is simply a question of timing. The people who suffer homelessness in its various forms deserve a response from this Parliament that will have support across the parties and does not degenerate into a debate about how fast things are being done.

There will be a housing bill. There will be legislation in this chamber at the first available opportunity after the green paper and the homelessness task force have been fully considered. That is the way forward and all parties should unite in responding to the problem, so that what eventually emerges from the Parliament has the support of all parties. That way we can seriously tackle the blight of homelessness in this country.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party 4:25 pm, 16th September 1999

I would like to express my support for the rough sleepers initiative and I welcome the minister's announcement yesterday that she will find a further £6 million to fund it. It is not surprising that I would say that—when I worked for Shelter, I campaigned for a rough sleepers initiative. The initiative was first introduced in 1989 in London, but it was not until winter 1996 that Michael Forsyth agreed that we needed a rough sleepers initiative in Scotland. That was because of the shaming spectacle of people dying on our streets, which I think shocked even Michael Forsyth into action.

I share Fiona Hyslop's concern that the Executive is trying to redefine homelessness. Rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness, but it is not the only form. Wendy Alexander was reported in the press today as saying that rough sleeping was not a housing problem. If the press report was accurate and that is what she thinks, she does not understand how homelessness occurs.

Of course rough sleeping is a housing problem. It is also a poverty issue. Government policies are responsible for the increase in rough sleeping in Scotland. The most recent statistics indicate that around 1,000 people sleep rough on the streets of Scotland every night of the year. Ten years ago we rarely saw people sleeping rough, except for a hard core—usually old men with an alcohol problem. The increase in rough sleeping in Scotland in the late 1980s can be traced back to three factors: the removal of benefits for 16 to 18-year-olds; the reduction in the amount of money for council housing; and care in the community, which was underfunded and left vulnerable people without the support needed to sustain their tenancies. Every one of those three factors was a Tory policy; every one of them was opposed by Labour in opposition; every one of them is embraced by new Labour in government.

We need a commitment from the Executive to tackle not only rough sleeping, but homelessness in its wider sense. That means money to build new homes and to improve damp homes and houses that are lying empty because councils do not have the money—

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Does Tricia Marwick acknowledge that youth unemployment has halved in Scotland in the past two years, which shows that one of the problems that she cites is being dealt with? Given the need for new investment, does she support our plans for community ownership in Glasgow, which would bring investment of around £1,000 million to the city?

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I accept that young people are being put on to new deal programmes, but I am sure that the minister would agree that there are still 16 and 18-year-olds who are excluded from all benefits and who are destitute. On Glasgow, if the minister genuinely wants to ensure that all our people are housed, she must ensure that there is Government money as well as private finance. In the first three years of the Labour Government, less has been spent on housing than the Tories spent in their final three years—there is no point in the minister shaking her head at that.

We have record levels of homelessness, record housing waiting lists and the lowest amount of money spent on council housing in Scotland since the war. That is a disgrace. If the Executive is serious about tackling homelessness, it must find the money for housing. It is not enough to help people who are on the streets. We must ensure that people do not end up on the streets in the first place and we need to make sure that they have long-term or permanent homes.

Much good work has been done in the voluntary sector but much more needs to be done. As Wendy said, some local authorities still do not have a rough sleeping strategy and it is only fairly recently that some councils have even acknowledged that they have rough sleepers in their area. The rough sleepers initiative will not succeed without a commitment to a wider housing policy and a social security system that does not leave young people destitute.

Those points must be taken on board if we really want nobody to be sleeping rough on our streets by 2003. We must look at the wider issues if we are to make representation for the young people who have no money to live on.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 4:30 pm, 16th September 1999

It has been raining for most of the day. When I walked up to Parliament this morning, I passed a bench on which a young man, huddled up in old dirty clothes, was fast asleep in the rain. The bench was not far away from the Department of Social Security office. No doubt he will be appearing there today to try to get some benefit and support to help him to eke out what is obviously a miserable existence. We should try to be conscious of young men such as him when we have this debate.

When Wendy Alexander was asked to give her top priority as a minister, I was delighted that she picked helping young men like that. I am less than delighted about the way in which this debate has developed into the kind of party political knockabout that is so reminiscent of Westminster.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour

I am sorry. I do not have time. A lot of people want to speak.

I was disappointed by the cheap point scoring. We told the homeless, "Wait until we get a Scottish Parliament. It will be different then." Judging by the SNP contributions this afternoon, people may think that it is not different. I see the same cheap party political point scoring that went on at Westminster and which does nothing for the homeless.

The SNP is right in some ways. The young man who was lying on that bench is the visible tip of a big iceberg. He is the rough sleeper on the streets. The rough sleepers initiative will, I hope, get people off the streets by the Executive's target date, but of course the larger part of the iceberg is out of sight. It comprises the hidden homeless who are not on the streets: the people who are living in rooms in what used to be hotels but which have, in effect, now become refugee camps funded by the DSS; the people who move from house to house and sleep on their friends' floors and couches because they do not have a house of their own; the families who are living in quiet desperation in cramped conditions with their relatives because they have no access to housing.

The Scottish Executive recognises those problems. That is why it established the homelessness task force. What I like about the homelessness task force is that, in setting it up, the Scottish Executive has implicitly admitted that it does not have all the answers, unlike some of the parties that have contributed to this debate and think that they do. The Scottish Executive recognises that there are people who know more than it does; people from Shelter, The Big Issue, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and others who are on the homelessness task force.

The Shelter submission to the task force recognises that even the experts do not know all the answers. Shelter wants the task force to consult widely, particularly among the homeless themselves, before it returns to the Executive with its recommendations. That is exactly the right way in which to proceed. The SNP amendment is exactly the wrong way in which to proceed, and all the professionals tell us that. Of course, there are issues that as politicians we can identify, but as party politicians and civil servants we know nothing about homelessness, so we should listen to those who do.

I appeal to all those who will vote on this motion to unite behind the Executive, because it is correct on this matter. It is listening to and acting in liaison with the housing lobby and is talking to the homeless to try to get this package right. Wendy was correct when she said that rough sleeping was not just about being homeless and that being homeless was not just about not having a house; there are a hundred other reasons why people are homeless. We must examine all of them and join them up with solutions that will be practical, will work and will help the homeless; we must not indulge in the sort of cheap political point scoring that we have heard this afternoon.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative 4:34 pm, 16th September 1999

I welcome the fact that the minister has made homelessness a priority commitment and that the Executive has put it firmly on the agenda. It is particularly pleasing to see that, as Tricia Marwick pointed out, the Executive intends to continue to use the rough sleepers initiative and other policies that were introduced by the Conservative Government.

We are a little disappointed that the target date to resolve rough sleeping has been extended. Rough sleeping is only one aspect of the problem. I note that a task force is to be set up to examine the causes and nature of homelessness, but trust that that will not delay the problem being addressed at an early date.

Homelessness is a complex problem brought about by circumstances in an individual's life, so there is no one solution to it. Many rough sleepers have a complex set of problems to resolve—drink, drugs, violence or family breakdown. They require medium-term support after accessing help through a hostel or other service gateway.

Conservatives believe that the Labour Government has missed the opportunity to use the most recent rounds of rough sleepers initiative money to provide extra supported accommodation to help those moving from hostels into longer-term accommodation. Without such support, many homeless people are unable to cope in mainstream housing and return to the streets or to hostels. The inability to cope without support causes them to suffer further and may cause other problems in the estates in which they are housed—they may behave in a challenging manner that their neighbours deem anti-social, or they may fall into debt through difficulties in paying their rent or other bills.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative

I would normally give way, but I have got only three minutes.

Short-term support, help with furniture and long-term advice are required if we are to end the misery of homelessness and the problems faced by neighbourhoods in peripheral housing estates, where some homeless people find themselves dumped without the help or resources to make a home.

I trust that the Executive will consider setting targets for local authorities to reduce homelessness, and in so doing identify and introduce best practice throughout Scotland in a determined effort to resolve this increasing problem. Conservatives are serious about the issue; we want to be constructive and will work with all parties to address the problem. On this occasion, we will support the SNP amendment, as we believe that it gives the necessary urgency to this Parliament's approach to housing issues.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 4:37 pm, 16th September 1999

The new politics must be with us, as the Tories are supporting the SNP and dare to lecture us about homelessness. I have heard it all now.

I must express some disappointment. As Convener of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, I have gone out of my way to make clear to members of that committee that we do not regard any one party as having a monopoly on good intentions and commitment on this issue. I am disappointed that that has not been echoed throughout the chamber.

We wish that the minister would come to the committee with her announcements, not least because I think that she has something substantial to say, which should be brought to the committee. However, that is hardly the most profound criticism of a Government that I have heard.

It is important that we welcome the establishment of the task force on homelessness and the Executive's explicit commitments on the rough sleepers initiative. It is vital that we give credit to ministerial commitment to action—rather than sloganising and good will—that will monitored and measured by outcome. That is a welcome development in government, not just on homelessness but across the board. Some of us have argued for some time that we must deal with the complexities of homelessness, as its impact and causes are varied in relation to individuals, families and communities. The indications are that the task force will recognise that and consider the different responses and strategies that are required to meet those different needs.

From the minister's paperwork, I see that she is examining recent research and the variety of supported accommodation projects. We need a variety of accommodation to meet the variety of needs.

As Convener of the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee, I welcome the fact that the minister has made it clear that rooflessness is not the only problem and that the problems that we face are interconnected. We cannot separate measures to deal with homelessness from strategies on drug addiction, violence and family breakdown.

I make one plea about family breakdown. We often hear simplistic debate about it, because too often it is discussed as though young people leave their families because they are weak and incapable of managing the situation in which they find themselves. Many young people leave their families for logical reasons. If members examine statistics and stories about child abuse and sexual abuse, they will understand how many vulnerable young people find themselves in such situations. I welcome the fact that the task force will examine that issue in depth.

I have recently heard compelling evidence from young people, their families and professionals about the problems that are faced. There is a continuum of experience—some of the homeless population can be supported into a framework of stability and progress. However, I hope that this Parliament will give particular attention to young people with significant problems. I welcome the minister's comments on young people who experience difficulty on leaving care. They may have had profoundly traumatic experiences and may find it very difficult to sustain a tenancy. We need a substantial package of intervention to deal with that problem. I hope that the committee's work on the drugs issue and the inquiry that we intend to hold will make a contribution to the homelessness debate.

The Parliament should give some attention to the need for a comprehensive youth strategy that considers all young people's needs. I make a plea for those who are most marginalised and most disengaged—they must command our attention.

I am particularly concerned about the increasing number of young people who are being taken into care in Glasgow, which goes against the national trend. Clearly, that is related to issues of exclusion and disadvantage, particularly drug misuse. To echo a point that John McAllion made in committee, the cities of Scotland bear a particularly heavy burden in this respect. For example, the Glasgow drug crisis centre costs the city council and the health board £1 million a year to run, but the latest figures indicate that more than 10 per cent of the people who use the service come from outwith Glasgow. We have to consider the distribution of support to the cities and recognise that cities, especially Glasgow, are at the sharp end of these problems. That should be reflected in the financial support that they receive.

I do not doubt that there is a desire throughout this chamber to deal with homelessness. We must realise that it is time to create a constructive dialogue and to engage with workers on the ground and those who experience the problem. I believe that the task force is the first step in that direction. The agencies have a palpable sense of hope that we are beginning to move on this issue. They do not offer us uncritical support, nor should they; we, for our part, will not be uncritical of the services that young people are offered. However, it is time for the Parliament to make its presence felt and to begin to concentrate on what it can do, rather than on what it cannot. There is a sense that we can bring about real change. I hope that we will support the Executive when it is doing good work.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 4:42 pm, 16th September 1999

I am surprised that the likes of John, Margaret and Mike have a problem with our amendment, which welcomes the rough sleepers initiative, the establishment of a task force and the fact that this matter will be a priority. The amendment also expresses concerns that have been expressed by people outside this chamber who are living rough and by others who are homeless but not living rough. They have seen committees come and go; they are fed up with committees taking minutes and wasting years. Our concern is that the establishment of a task force and of another committee for Glasgow should not become an excuse for a lack of early action to deal with the problem of rough sleepers and homelessness.

There is a general consensus in this chamber that this is a complex issue. The causes of homelessness and rooflessness are complex—they include drugs, the breakdown of homes, poverty and unemployment. We will probably not solve the problem of homelessness until we have tackled all those problems as well. However, there is a fundamental issue at stake here—that there are certain actions within the remit of both the Scottish Executive and the UK Government that can be taken to alleviate the situation.

Let me deal with the issue of benefits, which is directly related to poverty. I can quote speeches that Mike and John made in the House of Commons, in which they said that one of the root causes of poverty among young people—of young people being forced to live in cardboard city in London—was the Tories' withdrawal about 10 years ago of benefit to 16 and 17-year-olds. Surely, one of the things that this Parliament and this Executive can do is to put pressure on what is supposed to be a Labour Government in London to restore that benefit, as we agree that that is one of the main reasons for young people sleeping rough.

Consider some of the other changes that have been made, such as the one to housing benefit as it relates to single-room rent. That change affected 80 per cent of the young people in Scotland and forced many of them on to the street. The purpose of that change, which was made by the Tories and which was criticised by John McAllion and every other Labour politician, was to save £65 million a year, £6 million of which was being spent in Scotland. It is ironic that the £6 million that was saved equals the £6 million that has been announced for the rough sleepers initiative. There is no point in giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

With all due respect to John, he was talking rubbish when he said that we do not know anything about the problem. Of course we do. Nobody has the solution, but we should all be agreed that the one way of tackling homelessness at its root is to give back to young people the benefits that they have been robbed of. Why is righting the wrongs of the Tories not part of the Executive's agenda as well as taking the necessary action to address homelessness in Scotland?

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 4:47 pm, 16th September 1999

Tackling homelessness is one of the most important challenges for the millennium. We have heard many good speeches on the subject this afternoon. I particularly welcome Wendy Alexander's commitment to support the bill that will deal with repossession. We see that bill as a major step forward.

I would like to correct a statement that appeared in The Herald of 16 September. Paul Brown, of the Scottish Association of Law Centres, said:

"I don't think that Wendy Alexander really understands the issue."

If I may say so, she has put that right this afternoon.

As Margaret Curran said, the causes of homelessness are complex. They are also many and diverse. Some years ago, when I was housing minister, I learned that a large number of young Scots who were sleeping on the streets of London had been taken into a hostel in Soho. The location of the hostel—which was professionally run—did not put me off visiting it and I am glad to report that the civil servants whom I took with me showed no untoward interest in the surroundings. I met a young boy from Edinburgh who said that he had been treated extremely unkindly by his stepfather, which was why he had been sleeping rough in London.

The causes of homelessness include harassment, mental illness, eviction—which Fiona Hyslop spoke about—alcohol and drug problems, and an inability to cope on release from prison. About two thirds of those who are classed as homeless give as their reason for being homeless a dispute with their partner or the unwillingness of friends or family to accommodate them.

How effectively a nation deals with its homeless is a measure of its civilisation. Homelessness must be a national priority, so I welcome the creation of the task force, but the Executive must not forget to give it a budget. I also invite the minister to confirm that stock transfers will take account of homelessness issues.

There is a vital need for a package of measures, which is why Margaret Curran called for a comprehensive youth strategy, for example. It is not enough to have special allocations for local authorities that submit bids for good projects through the rough sleepers initiative, whether those projects are to create more hostels, to bring empty houses back into use or to create more move-on accommodation—although, as Tricia Marwick said, it is vital that we have permanent housing for people to move into. Homelessness needs a comprehensive approach.

I welcome the support given by the minister to voluntary organisations such as Shelter, the Churches and charities. I know that, because the charity Borderline received grant funding of £72,300 this year, it was able to make 230 placements in hostels. It also issued 317 travel warrants and 396 birth certificates to enable people to prove their identities to obtain hostel beds, although it is a sad state of affairs when people have to establish their identity through birth certificates.

Mike Watson mentioned the role of Shelter. I am proud to have been able to give it a grant of more than £90,000 to help to set up a homeless persons legal advisory service, which I am sure is doing an extremely good job.

In conclusion, I invite the Minister for Communities to introduce the rough sleepers initiative throughout Scotland as soon as possible. We see that as a top priority.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 4:50 pm, 16th September 1999

I welcome the Executive's contribution to dealing with the problem of homelessness. The extra money is wonderful. It represents a commitment to dealing with something that is not so much a scourge on our streets as—now that we are entering the 21 st century—a disgrace. I grew up in Edinburgh; in the 1960s, people chose to sleep in the streets. They no longer choose to; they are forced to. I welcome without equivocation the contribution of the Minister for Communities.

However, there are many concerns. Some of them have been articulated by my colleagues this afternoon, some by organisations in the voluntary sector and some by homeless and roofless people themselves. The first concern relates to a statement attributed to the Minister for Communities in today's edition of The Herald. She is reported as saying that homelessness

"is not a problem about housing; this is not a problem about bricks and mortar".

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

Not at the moment, Wendy.

There is concern at Ms Alexander's suggestion that the assessment of homeless people in Glasgow had turned up a number of statistics on drug and alcohol abuse. Which is the chicken and which is the egg? She might be making a judgment on that a little too early.

Some of the other concerns relate to how core Government policy will impact on homelessness, especially when policies superficially seem to be related to the Immigration and Asylum Bill, the sex offenders register and the review of supported accommodation costs via housing benefit. I am sure that Ms Alexander will understand what I am saying, as it relates to her presentation to the Social Inclusion, Housing and Voluntary Sector Committee yesterday. A strategic view has to be taken and—as my colleague Mr Neil suggested—central Government has to be consulted. The dis-United Kingdom Government could be very useful in that area.

I entirely accept Ms Alexander's commitment to consider provision, but we are concerned about it, whichever form—stock transfer or community ownership—it takes over the years. However, I suggest that the offer from Shelter in the proposal for the consultation programme be accepted. It may be useful to use such a body to organise things and to give a sense of a bridge between the Executive and the people. Shelter is the most experienced body in its field. It has been suggested that the consultation process should be designed to ensure that people feel able to raise issues that lie well outside the traditional confines of housing policy. It is vital that Ms Alexander takes that advice.

To reiterate what my colleagues have said, we are a little sad that there is no housing bill and we are slightly concerned that the Executive might make use of members' bills to pass legislation. However, that is a separate issue.

I was incredibly struck by one thing that Ms Alexander said. I am not trying to top John McAllion, but this morning I deliberately walked here from the top of Easter Road—near the bottom of the Royal Mile—and went in and out some of the closes on the way. I came across 19 people sleeping rough. If one walks down Advocate's Close on the way to Waverley station, one will see the most perfectly worked out little bedsit in an arch at the side of a building.

Wendy said that one night of rough sleeping is one night too many. If she fully believes that, I suggest that instead of waiting for the task force to report in six months, she should take emergency action now. It can be done. The Executive must take people off the streets now—while the consultation is going on and while the task force is at work—so that they are not sleeping on the streets during the winter. I commend the amendment to the chamber.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 4:55 pm, 16th September 1999

This debate has highlighted the problems of homelessness in Scotland, from homelessness that we do not see—families sharing houses, friends sleeping on floors—to the most obvious and extreme example of people sleeping in doorways and parks in the cold and the wet, as Lloyd Quinan has described. If this Government is successfully to address the problems of those who are excluded from society, it must address the most extreme form of exclusion, which is exclusion from a home.

I recognise Tricia Marwick's deep personal commitment to this issue. I assure her that we recognise that homelessness is much more than rough sleeping.

Homelessness is a top priority for this Government. We have set ourselves a tough target: to ensure that, by the end of this parliamentary session, no one has to sleep rough. However, we believe that that is achievable and we are taking action to ensure that it is achieved.

That is why we have earmarked £30 million to fund this initiative, and why Wendy Alexander announced yesterday an additional £6 million over the next two years. I welcome the broad support from the SNP for that measure.

We are focusing resources on the problems of this most socially excluded group. We are ensuring that all those who are involved with the homeless target their resources in a co-ordinated way and use them to best effect.

Rough sleeping is at one end of the spectrum of homelessness. We have set up the homelessness task force to take a comprehensive look at the problem. The task force represents a wide range of experience of tackling the causes and the effects of homelessness. It is important that we not only understand the problems and identify practical measures to address them, but listen to homeless people, as, frankly, they are the real experts. The task force will consider the causes of homelessness, examine current practice and make recommendations for action. We made it abundantly clear that setting up a homelessness task force is not an excuse for inaction.

The Government is determined not only to tackle the problem of homelessness, but to do so in a way that is practical, sustainable and, above all, deliverable. It is essential to have input if we are to identify solutions that work and will continue to work.

As a number of speakers have said, it will be important to take local authorities with us in all that we do, because local authorities are best placed to address the problem at a community level. A number of local authorities are putting in place strategies to achieve local co-ordination of social work services, housing, and education policy, as well as effective liaison with health services and close collaboration with the voluntary sector.

In our broader homelessness strategies, we are drawing on the lessons that have been learned from rough sleeping initiatives.

It has been made abundantly clear that we are considering legislative change. Much of the legislation that we have is 20 years old. A number of organisations have already made proposals to the task force for changes.

I reiterate my welcome for the SNP's broad support for the Executive on this issue, but I believe that, in its amendment, it has got a number of things wrong. The Government is committed to publishing a draft bill and is committed to bringing forward housing legislation. I say to Fiona Hyslop that it would be foolish to rush to publish a draft bill by the end of the year, as the substance of such a bill is too important to get wrong through insufficient preparation. Let us make sure that we get this right. Homelessness cannot simply be solved by passing legislation. We can ensure that the legislative framework gives homelessness the priority and urgency that it merits, but, please, let us not do so in a piecemeal way; let us tackle this problem comprehensively.

In its response to the green paper, Shelter said that it wanted

"an initial six month period identifying and acting on urgent issues, and then a longer phase of up to two years setting out a rolling programme of legislation".

The work of the homelessness task force and the announcement by Wendy Alexander will do just that.

I have been told to wind up, so I will use my time effectively. I agree with the Conservatives that the statistics are damning, but those statistics were the result of Conservative policy, as they relate to the period in which the Conservative party was in office. Too much of Scotland had the wrong houses, of the wrong quality and in the wrong places. There were high levels of unemployment and high levels of family breakdown. I am confident that our actions will reduce the incidence of homelessness. However, we are not complacent.

In conclusion, our commitment to the prevention of homelessness is absolute. We will assist the member's bill to help people facing house repossession. We have provided additional funding to tackle the root causes of homelessness. Much remains to be done, but there is no doubt that our pledge that no one will need to sleep rough in Scotland by the end of the parliamentary session is a challenging one. We mean to deliver: for the vendors of The Big Issue, whom I have met, for the Edinburgh Cyrenians and for all the homeless people of Scotland.