Section 2 — Abolition of priority need test

Homelessness etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:32 pm on 5th March 2003.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

Amendment 8 seeks to ensure that progress in abolishing the priority need test does not move at the speed of the slowest local authority or is held up entirely by the most recalcitrant local authority. I am worried that the date for the abolition of the priority need test might end up depending on the local authority that is making the least progress towards that goal.

Although I understand that it would be unfair to place a legal obligation on a local authority that it cannot fulfil, it would be equally unreasonable for one local authority to stand in the way of the abolition of the priority need test. The minister must be in control of the process, as amendment 8 would allow. The amendment would also allow protection to be extended to those who are in need as quickly as possible, where possible.

I will not speak to amendment 9 because I suspect that my colleague, Kenny Gibson, is well able to do that for himself.

I move amendment 8.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

The Scottish National Party welcomes the eventual removal of the priority need test. The reason behind amendment 9 is that pursuing the measures to remove the priority need test might have unforeseen consequences for the available supply of social housing.

There are widespread concerns about the adequate supply of affordable social rented housing of good quality. The minister will recall the concerns raised by the Finance Committee and the Social Justice Committee. There are also worries about the possible impact on non-homeless households who are on waiting lists and might find it more difficult to access social rented housing if there is a significant increase in the number of homeless households eligible for housing but no corresponding increase in availability.

Without such an increase, local authorities might of necessity place homeless households into areas of low-demand housing. Any statement on progress towards abolishing the priority need test should reasonably be expected to provide estimates of additional housing requirements generated as a result of changes to priority need.

Unfortunately, there is no clear commitment in the bill to monitor the impact of the changes to priority need that will be introduced by section 1, or proposals for future changes made possible by section 2(1). Amendment 9 seeks to secure that commitment, by seeking to ensure that the Scottish ministers' statement on the abolition of the priority need test, as set out in section 3, assesses the impact of changes to priority need on housing availability, the number of homes required and the type of housing used to accommodate homeless people.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

Projections in my local authority have given rise to concerns over the impact of the bill on mainstream housing applicants. I would appreciate an assurance from the minister that the assessments of housing need and supply will provide the fundamental basis for removing the priority need test. I would also appreciate a further assurance that an adequate supply of affordable housing will be of paramount consideration in avoiding any disadvantage to mainstream applicants.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

It is probably not appropriate to agree to amendments 8 and 9 today, although I have some sympathy with where they are coming from.

The issues raised in amendment 9 are dealt with under section 3(5), which requires the Scottish ministers to have regard to the

"local housing strategies prepared by local authorities".

That appears to be the broader context.

The bill amends a lot of other bills. We must remember that we passed the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001, which set out a broader housing framework. We must also remember that, in dealing with homelessness, we have to balance the urgent requirements of people who have become homeless—many of whom are ordinary people who have fallen on hard times—with the need to reinforce communities and not add to the fracturing problems that come about through unsuitable allocations. That seems to be what lies behind amendments 8 and 9 and behind Tom McCabe's contribution.

The bill's framework provides for that balance, which must be dealt with through the guidance that the Scottish ministers will have power to put in place under the bill. Rather than dot every i and cross every t in the bill, that is a far better way to proceed.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour 2:45 pm, 5th March 2003

I should like to make a brief point about something that Linda Fabiani said. I think that she used the word "recalcitrant" to describe the work of local authorities. If we go into this process, I would be concerned if we were to work on the assumption that we must beat a stick over the backs of local authorities. The process will work if it is done in partnership. If local authorities have problems, we must listen seriously to what they tell us. We must listen equally seriously to those who may have problems getting support from local authorities.

Recalcitrance implies reluctance, and the use of such a term is inappropriate to describe the delivery of such an important local service. That service will work only if there is a genuine partnership with and commitment to local authorities; it will not work in the hostile environment suggested by a word such as "recalcitrant".

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I agree with Johann Lamont's comments. It must be emphasised in the way in which we look at the bill and its subsequent implementation that, clearly, we can achieve, in practical terms, what we set out to do only with the co-operation of local government. Local government is central to that partnership, and we must emphasise its importance.

On amendment 8, we have always been clear that the phasing out of priority need should not proceed on an authority-by-authority basis. That does not mean that we move at the slowest pace; we must be ready to address any issues and problems that hold up the process and which are identified through local authorities' homelessness and housing strategies.

As members know, we are also taking powers under the bill to suspend local connection. If we were to phase out priority need in one area but not another, normal application trends could be distorted. Someone might well decide that permanent accommodation in one authority is preferable to temporary accommodation in a neighbouring authority. Therefore, an imbalance would be created in the system.

If we were to take the power proposed in amendment 8, we would send the wrong signal and an inconsistent message to authorities about how we intend to proceed. Priority need will be phased out over the next decade. That will be a challenge for all authorities; it is not a race to see who can get there first. We want all authorities to deal properly and consistently with the issues that we must tackle, in a way that can be achieved through partnership. We must plan a sensible, achievable and realistic process that will benefit all homeless people.

Amendment 9, in the name of Kenny Gibson, is unnecessary and undesirable. It is unnecessary—as I think Robert Brown pointed out—because the bill already requires that the statement on the abolition of the priority need test must set out measures that have been taken, are under way or are planned for the future. If that has been done, local authorities can carry out their homelessness duties without having to distinguish between priority and non-priority households.

I reassure Tom McCabe that the bill requires ministers to consult on and to make a statement about abolition of priority need. That statement must have regard to homelessness strategies and local housing strategies. I assure the member that those strategies will be balanced and that account will be kept of them.

In the past we have made it clear that in solving one problem—homelessness—we do not intend to cause a new set of difficulties. Of course the needs of mainstream applicants are important. However, we must stop thinking of homeless people as an entirely separate category of people. The circumstances of mainstream applicants and homeless people may be different, but they often require the same housing or accommodation support.

Homelessness strategies will provide local assessments of need, whereas housing strategies will identify how those needs will be met by accommodation provision, taking full account of the needs of all those who are seeking housing.

Amendment 9 tries to ensure that assessments of the impact of the wider availability of social housing are made before priority need is abolished. It is an integral part of the process to strike a balance between those two issues. However, that needs to be done at a local level, through the homelessness and housing strategies.

I have said before that we will work in an open and transparent way, making clear the basis for change and ensuring that stakeholders are fully involved in the process. The homelessness monitoring group, local authorities and other registered social landlords will continue to have a role. However, assessments should not be written into legislation in a rigid way that causes local authorities unnecessary work and does not reflect the fact that our intention is to initiate a process that will take place over an extended period.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

Like everyone else in the chamber, I wish that all housing providers and all public service providers were wonderful, but we live in the real world, and they are not, have not been and are unlikely to become perfect. However, that is not always because of circumstances that are within the providers' control; it can be caused by events outwith their control. During the stage 1 debate and again today, Tom McCabe talked about the need to balance the need for and supply of housing. A lack of that balance could force a local authority into recalcitrance.

The Executive should push to ensure that all local authorities become progressive on such matters, because it should be the Government's instinct to drive the agenda forward. Amendment 8 would help to achieve that. The homelessness task force suggested that the mechanism for managing the expansion of priority need at a pace that matches improvements in the supply and quality of housing should be made more explicit. That would help with achievement of the objective. I press amendment 8.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The question is, that amendment 8 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 2

For: Adam, Brian, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Crawford, Bruce, Cunningham, Roseanna, Fabiani, Linda, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Grahame, Christine, Harper, Robin, Hyslop, Fiona, Lochhead, Richard, MacDonald, Margo, Matheson, Michael, McLeod, Fiona, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Robison, Shona, Sheridan, Tommy, Stevenson, Stewart, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra
Against: Aitken, Bill, Baillie, Jackie, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Curran, Ms Margaret, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, Fraser, Murdo, Gillon, Karen, Godman, Trish, Gorrie, Donald, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Harding, Mr Keith, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Cathy, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Johnstone, Alex, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, Macintosh, Mr Kenneth, MacKay, Angus, Maclean, Kate, Macmillan, Maureen, Martin, Paul, McAllion, Mr John, McAveety, Mr Frank, McCabe, Mr Tom, McIntosh, Mrs Lyndsay, McLeish, Henry, McMahon, Michael, McNeil, Mr Duncan, McNeill, Pauline, McNulty, Des, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Munro, John Farquhar, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Iain, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Tosh, Mr Murray, Wallace, Mr Jim, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan, Young, John

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The result of the division is: For 23, Against 68, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 8 disagreed to.