Homelessness etc (Scotland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 4:14 pm on 5th March 2003.

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Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 4:14 pm, 5th March 2003

I confess that I listened with perplexity to what I can only describe as a rather schizophrenic speech from Lyndsay McIntosh. I am bewildered by the Conservative party's position on homelessness and its solutions to the difficulties. Having sat through the Social Justice Committee's consideration of the bill with Lyndsay McIntosh, I thought that she was broadly sympathetic to what we were trying to do. I do not know where we stand now.

I think that there are only three survivors from the original members of what is now the Social Justice Committee, but Cathie Craigie can confirm that. Those of us who have served all that time feel that the passage of the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Bill today means that three significant pieces of housing legislation will have been placed on the statute book. That will fulfil one of the pledges that I gave on behalf of the Liberal Democrats at the election—it was also made by Jim Wallace—that housing would be higher up the agenda than had recently been the case.

The legislative progress has been matched by the groundbreaking central heating investment scheme, the linked warm deal and the somewhat thorny but vital progress that has been made towards community empowerment and regeneration and long-term investment planning, which culminated in Margaret Curran's welcome announcement today that the Glasgow housing stock transfer project has been approved. I say to the critics of the Scottish Parliament that that housing agenda alone would justify the existence of the Parliament even if the Parliament had done nothing else.

The Homelessness etc (Scotland) Bill is primarily framework legislation, as in many respects was the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001. It sets the framework for tackling the tragic curse of homelessness in Scotland. I hope that members will forgive me for mentioning that the bill builds on the pioneering work that was done at the time of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, which was introduced by my Liberal Democrat colleague Stephen Ross MP and given Government support under the Lib-Lab pact of the time. Times move on and the demands of homelessness have got worse, not least as a result of some of the activities of Lyndsay McIntosh's party when it was in government. The time has come to widen the strategy in the way that the bill does.

It is important that the homelessness strategy should fit into the general fabric of housing provision in such a way as to strengthen the stability of local communities and not to undermine them. Most homeless people lack a house as a result of marital or relationship break-ups, natural disasters such as fires or flood or inability to pay the mortgage. Although those people need a house and a bit of time, the majority do not need formal support of any kind. However, a minority of people are too young or immature to sustain tenancies. They may have annoyed the neighbours or have alcohol, drug or mental health problems and some of them need support beyond the provision of a house.

I entirely accept the ethos behind the measures to set in place a programme to assess need through local homelessness strategies, to widen the categories of need and to eliminate the concept of priority need over a period of time. Central to the success of the strategy, however, is the need greatly to improve support facilities, to put in resources and to encourage best practice in the identification and assessment of those with support needs. I am thinking of the provision that has been set up successfully at the Hamish Allen Centre in Glasgow.

I am glad that the minister gave such a helpful response to my amendments on support needs. I am also glad that the Parliament will be able to look at the issue again once local strategies are in place and reviewed. By then, we will know the scale of the requirement rather more precisely than we do at present.

I rather think that the Parliament will need to legislate again at that point. Members will recall the dissatisfaction with the advisory nature of the earlier homelessness guidance and the constant calls to make the guidance statutory. All the bureaucracies—whether the Department for Work and Pensions, social work services or the council—struggle to deliver speedy, good-quality and personal responses to need and to recognise individual rights in the process. Although I entirely accept the need to work in partnership with local authorities, sometimes a statutory framework is necessary to stimulate the process and to encourage councils through it.

During the passage of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001, I was struck by the fact that we were able to include a reference to the needs of children, which found its way into the relevant subordinate legislation. I want to thank the clerks—