Section 8 — Suitability of accommodation for homeless persons

Homelessness etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:30 pm on 5th March 2003.

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Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

Amendments 6 and 16 remove the original amendment that was lodged by Jackie Baillie at stage 2 and replace it with an extension to the duty that a local authority has to applicants in the period prior to its discharging its ultimate duty to provide final accommodation. I am well aware of Jackie Baillie's commitment in this area, especially to homeless families. Although I appreciate her concern and agree with her that local authorities should not use bed-and-breakfast accommodation regularly to accommodate homeless families, I suggest that there can be circumstances in which such accommodation is appropriate for homeless families. It should, therefore, be possible for local authorities to use that type of accommodation.

The Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 already ensures that any such accommodation must be reasonable for the applicant to occupy and that local authorities must have regard to the best interests of the children in securing that accommodation. The power that amendment 6 creates is capable of preventing the inappropriate use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families with children, but it allows exceptions when the use of such accommodation may be in the best interests of the family.

In addition, amendment 6 gives ministers the power to describe accommodation that cannot be used as interim accommodation. It is a very wide power, which enables any such description to be subject to "conditions or exceptions". That means that the power could be exercised in such a way as to describe the relevant accommodation; to describe the conditions in which the use of such accommodation is not appropriate; and to state exceptions to the general position.

It should be noted that the power would be capable both of preventing the inappropriate use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families with children and of making exceptions when bed-and-breakfast accommodation might be in the best interests of a family, but the power would not be restricted to that. The power could be used to disbar the use of any form of accommodation for any household type or in any circumstances and to state exemptions to that.

I believe that everyone in the chamber would agree that, wherever possible, bed-and-breakfast accommodation should not be used for families. However, I know from constituency experience that the use of such accommodation is sometimes the right solution, especially when families have school and family ties in communities and it is preferable that they remain within such communities. On that basis, I ask members to support amendments 6 and 16.

I move amendment 6.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

The SNP opposes amendments 6 and 16. As Jackie Baillie said eloquently at stage 2, there is an acute need to end the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families. The homelessness task force recommended that it be ended. Indeed, I was pleased to move Jackie Baillie's amendment at a Social Justice Committee meeting at which the amendment was passed.

One would sympathise with the case that Karen Whitefield put if regulations arising from the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 setting out minimum rights for hostel dwellers and people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation had been published. However, after almost two years, those regulations have not been published. As the bill stands, the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families will end, except in an emergency. Of course, figures for the use of such accommodation under the coalition are at an all-time high.

Bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless people is, of course, not like the accommodation in grannie's Heilan hame. Local authorities might try their best, but families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation often have no facilities for washing and drying clothes and the establishments might be damp, in poor repair, inadequately furnished and lacking basic cleanliness. Privacy and play opportunities are lacking because of overcrowded living space, and cooking and toilet facilities might have to be shared with strangers, some of whom might have alcohol, drug or psychiatric problems. Violence and theft can occasionally be associated with that situation, which can create feelings of fear and insecurity in families.

In the 21st century, the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families should be consigned to the history books. An announcement has been made in England of the United Kingdom Government's intention to abolish such use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, except in emergency circumstances. Consultation on the abolition has begun. If the bill that we are debating is to be the most progressive legislation in Europe for homeless people—as it is touted as being—we must oppose amendments 6 and 16.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I support amendment 6. As the member who introduced the amendment at stage 2 to which Kenny Gibson referred, I believe that the Social Justice Committee was clear about the need to prohibit the inappropriate use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families. We know the detrimental effect that such accommodation has on children. Whole families often share a room and there is a lack of privacy. Support mechanisms tend to break down and families can be in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for several months. It is not necessary to rehearse all the reasons why bed-and-breakfast accommodation is detrimental for families, because we know the potential impact of such accommodation.

I do not hesitate to support amendment 6, which reflects discussions in England on the issue, but I will make several points. First, I ask that the regulations that the Executive will introduce have the effect that amendment 6 intends, which is that the principle to end the post-assessment use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families remains intact. I would be grateful if the minister would confirm that that will be the case. I think that amendment 6 accepts that principle, but it also allows for flexibility that could take account not just of local circumstances such as rurality but of the particular individual circumstances of a homeless family. That is a sensible approach, particularly when it is reinforced by the other part of the amendment, which will allow for regulations to be produced that will specify accommodation that is suitable, unsuitable or of an insufficient standard.

I also ask the Executive to clarify when it intends to introduce the regulations. Delays should be avoided, where possible, so that we can move swiftly to a position where housing children in bed- and-breakfast accommodation is the exception rather than the norm.

Photo of Lyndsay McIntosh Lyndsay McIntosh Conservative

I was part of the group of members who voted with Kenny Gibson to support Jackie Baillie's amendment at stage 2. I was moved and impressed by the comments that were made then, which were particularly appropriate as it was around Christmas time, which is when people think about families who are in poor circumstances.

Karen Whitefield's argument about bed-and-breakfast accommodation being a last resort is important. We cannot allow families to continue to be corralled into one room with little privacy and little opportunity to do the normal things that we might all take for granted. We support the amendment, provided that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is used only as a last resort.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

When this matter was dealt with at stage 2, I felt that our outlawing of the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families represented a major step forward in relation to homelessness and I cannot see why the position should change now.

Will the minister make a commitment that the regulations that are likely to be passed today will amount to the outlawing of the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families and that the regulations will come into play within weeks and will not be delayed?

Given that the Minister for Social Justice came to the committee and admitted that the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has not been falling and that it was a lack of resources that prevented the ending of a situation in which families had to live in such inappropriate circumstances, I cannot see why we cannot pass legislation today that states that no more families will be made to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation except in dire and unavoidable emergencies. The situation is simple and we must commit the necessary resources.

I urge members to vote against the changes to what was agreed at stage 2 and force the Executive to commit the resources to end this abomination.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

I have spoken to some housing officials in rural areas who regarded the amendment that was passed at stage 2 as extremely urban focused.

There is an issue to do with the quality of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. We know that far too many people in some of our cities have awful experiences of being placed in entirely inappropriate circumstances, but I have also been told of families, particularly in rural areas, choosing to stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in the village or area in which they live rather than having to go elsewhere. I would imagine that the appropriate test would relate to what is best for individual families rather than to a prescription that comes out of a particular experience in urban areas. Nobody in the chamber wants to corral anybody into inappropriate bed-and-breakfast accommodation and I do not know any housing official who wants to do so either.

There is an underlying assumption that there are people who work in housing in our local authorities who do not share our concern for the needs of families and what will happen to young people at school and in the rest of their lives. We need to support legislation that allows flexibility and puts faith in local authorities to act in the best interests of the vulnerable families whom they are dealing with. There is no monopoly of concern on this matter. We have to have rigorous regulations that allow people to work to the best standards.

The way in which Linda Fabiani, in particular, has attempted to characterise this debate is unhelpful. The existence of the bill alone speaks volumes about our commitment to supporting vulnerable families.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

My direct knowledge of councils' work in relation to homeless people is somewhat rusty as I have been away from local government for almost seven years. However, when I first became a councillor, I encountered a steady stream of homeless presentations to the local authority from Troon, which was the town that I represented. Unfortunately, the policies of Kyle and Carrick District Council meant that there was no suitable accommodation whatever for homeless families in Troon.

Over time, I was involved—indeed, in some respects, I was instrumental—in securing funding for a homeless hostel to provide temporary accommodation and in cutting housing stock from mainstream provision to provide temporary accommodation for people undergoing assessment and for those in the period between their acceptance as homeless and the allocation of a house. Throughout that time, however, there were always people who wanted to be housed in Troon and did not want to be shipped to Ayr, where there was a better standard of bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The local authority engaged in work with local providers to try to bring property up to the necessary standards and to provide management rules that would provide decent accommodation for those who chose to stay in the area in which they had lived, where they expected to be housed, where their doctors and support systems were and where their kids went to school.

My local authority was keen to eliminate the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation and moved very fast towards that. I agree that, for families with children in particular, such accommodation is not appropriate and is certainly far from ideal. That we should do everything that we can to eliminate its use is appropriate. However, what does a local authority do that does not have access to accommodation in every area in which it would wish to have it and finds itself facing not dire emergencies, but sudden surges in demand when it has more presentations that empty units to allocate temporarily? The sensible way is to proceed gradually—but clear in our objective of abolishing the use of bed-and-breakfast establishments for temporary accommodation—and to provide minimum standards for such facilities as must be used. Amendment 6 meets those objectives and brings us towards a humane way of dealing with what is undoubtedly a scourge on our society.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 3:45 pm, 5th March 2003

I am not sure how I will follow Murray Tosh's speech on amendment 6, because I was going to say the same kinds of things. I will make the core commitment, which is central and unifies the Parliament. We want to eliminate the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation. However, we want to leave ourselves some flexibility at the margins where it might be in the best interests of a family to use bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a short period of time. That would happen within the framework of the principle that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not in the best interests of families.

We have been trying to find better, more extensive, different forms of temporary accommodation for all kinds of homeless people. The amount of investment that has gone into that is substantial. Murray Tosh is right that the route forward is a strategic approach that gets the provision in place and pushes local authorities as quickly as possible towards the fullest possible range of provision to meet current need.

We made clear in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 our intention that local authorities should have regard to children's best interests when considering solutions to homelessness and the bill reiterates that. We are also updating the code of guidance on homelessness during the course of the year to reflect those concerns. However, we need to ensure that what is in legislation is deliverable and takes account of the need to respond flexibly to the full range of circumstances that might arise. I reiterate that we want all homeless people to be housed properly and we recognise the devastating effects that homelessness can have on children, particularly if there is an inadequate response, as there used to be.

We need an approach that allows some flexibility and that ensures that local authorities and other providers take account of the need for change, are fully signed up to it and are able to deliver what is best for homeless families and children. That is crucial. Amendment 6 offers us a sensible way forward. It offers us a flexible power that can be used to define as unsuitable not only bed-and-breakfast accommodation but other types of accommodation as necessary. It also allows exceptions to be defined, as well as the circumstances in which those exceptions should apply. It allows proper consultation to be undertaken to ensure that everything that is enshrined in legislation is effective and deliverable. I assure members that consultation will take place. I say to Linda Fabiani that it is not realistic to expect full implementation within weeks of everything that we want to do or can do, but we will proceed as early as possible with consultation on the matter and try to put the arrangements in place.

The point that Karen Whitefield made about standards is crucial. Kenny Gibson mentioned the unacceptable standards of the past, when people were put in entirely unsuitable bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The proposals in amendment 6 give us the capacity to deal with that situation and ensure that that does not happen.

What we have arrived at is a flexible structure framed in the principle of attempting to end the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation while recognising that we always need to offer what is best within that framework for families, and particularly for families with children.

Photo of Karen Whitefield Karen Whitefield Labour

We have had a good debate and I urge members to support amendment 6. If I thought for one minute that the amendment would create a situation that would force families into bed and breakfasts of the type that Kenny Gibson described, I would not be supporting it. However, amendment 6 addresses any such problems, because it will ensure standards in bed and breakfasts.

The amendment will also address the concerns of constituents who came to see me recently. Their home had been affected by a fire and they needed temporary accommodation. The local authority wanted to move the family to temporary accommodation in a nearby town. The family did not want to go there, however. They wanted to stay in the village where they had grown up, where the children went to school and where they had jobs. It was right that they were allowed to stay there. It is right that local authorities should have the flexibility to respond to the needs of families such as that one.

If we do not pass amendment 6, we will be giving local authorities no flexibility and we will most certainly not be putting the interests of families and children first.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The question is, that amendment 6 be agreed to. Are we all agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 9

For: Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, Fraser, Murdo, Gallie, Phil, Godman, Trish, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Gorrie, Donald, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Harding, Mr Keith, Harper, Robin, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Johnstone, Alex, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Macdonald, Lewis, MacDonald, Margo, 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, Monteith, Mr Brian, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Mundell, David, Munro, John Farquhar, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Scott, John, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Iain, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Tosh, Mr Murray, Wallace, Mr Jim, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan, Young, John
Against: Adam, Brian, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Cunningham, Roseanna, Ewing, Dr Winnie, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Fabiani, Linda, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Grahame, Christine, Hyslop, Fiona, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, Matheson, Michael, McGugan, Irene, McLeod, Fiona, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Sheridan, Tommy, Stevenson, Stewart, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The result of the division is: For 76, Against 25, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 6 agreed to.

Amendment 16 moved—[Karen Whitefield].

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The question is, that amendment 16 be agreed to. Are we all agreed?

Members:

No.

Division number 10

For: Aitken, Bill, Alexander, Ms Wendy, Baillie, Jackie, Brankin, Rhona, Brown, Robert, Butler, Bill, Chisholm, Malcolm, Craigie, Cathie, Curran, Ms Margaret, Deacon, Susan, Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James, Eadie, Helen, Ferguson, Patricia, Finnie, Ross, Fraser, Murdo, Gallie, Phil, Godman, Trish, Goldie, Miss Annabel, Gorrie, Donald, Grant, Rhoda, Gray, Iain, Harding, Mr Keith, Harper, Robin, Henry, Hugh, Home Robertson, Mr John, Hughes, Janis, Jackson, Dr Sylvia, Jackson, Gordon, Jamieson, Margaret, Jenkins, Ian, Johnstone, Alex, Lamont, Johann, Livingstone, Marilyn, Lyon, George, Macdonald, Lewis, MacDonald, Margo, 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, Monteith, Mr Brian, Morrison, Mr Alasdair, Muldoon, Bristow, Mulligan, Mrs Mary, Mundell, David, Munro, John Farquhar, Murray, Dr Elaine, Oldfather, Irene, Peacock, Peter, Peattie, Cathy, Radcliffe, Nora, Raffan, Mr Keith, Robson, Euan, Rumbles, Mr Mike, Scott, John, Scott, Tavish, Simpson, Dr Richard, Smith, Elaine, Smith, Iain, Smith, Mrs Margaret, Stone, Mr Jamie, Thomson, Elaine, Tosh, Mr Murray, Wallace, Mr Jim, Whitefield, Karen, Wilson, Allan, Young, John
Against: Adam, Brian, Campbell, Colin, Canavan, Dennis, Cunningham, Roseanna, Ewing, Dr Winnie, Ewing, Mrs Margaret, Fabiani, Linda, Gibson, Mr Kenneth, Grahame, Christine, Hyslop, Fiona, Lochhead, Richard, MacAskill, Mr Kenny, Matheson, Michael, McGugan, Irene, McLeod, Fiona, Neil, Alex, Paterson, Mr Gil, Robison, Shona, Russell, Michael, Sheridan, Tommy, Stevenson, Stewart, Swinney, Mr John, Ullrich, Kay, Welsh, Mr Andrew, White, Ms Sandra

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The result of the division is: For 77, Against 25, Abstentions 0.

Amendment 16 agreed to.