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I welcome the opportunity to open on behalf of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee the debate on the committee’s report on progress towards the implementation of Scotland’s 2012 homelessness commitment. It has certainly been a day of contrast in the Scottish Parliament. It has probably not escaped members’ notice that, this morning, one of the world’s wealthiest and most high-profile businessmen gave evidence to one of our committees. This afternoon, we are in the chamber discussing how we ensure that we deliver on a commitment to improve the rights of one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.
The 2012 commitment, which was created under the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003, entitles all unintentionally homeless people to settled accommodation by the end of this year. Currently, local authorities have to secure settled accommodation only for those homeless applicants who have been assessed as being unintentionally homeless and in priority need. The act stipulates that the priority need distinction must be abolished by 31 December 2012. That means that, from the point of abolition, all unintentionally homeless households will be entitled to settled accommodation.
The 2003 act has been acknowledged as groundbreaking legislation by commentators elsewhere in the United Kingdom and around the world—we often beat ourselves up in this country, but many people have recognised that this is groundbreaking legislation. I do not consider it any exaggeration to say that it is one of the most important pieces of legislation that the Scottish Parliament has passed.
Given the importance of the homelessness legislation, I was delighted that the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee agreed to check on progress towards meeting the 2012 commitment and to identify any barriers to its delivery. I express the committee’s thanks to all the organisations and individuals that provided detailed and informative oral and written evidence to the committee during its inquiry. I also thank the clerks to the committee—especially Ruth McGill—and the Scottish Parliament information centre for all their help. The committee undertook a programme of informal visits to the Ayrshire and south housing options hub, Moray Council, Turning Point Scotland, Glasgow Housing Association, East Lothian Council and City of Edinburgh Council. We are grateful to all those who agreed to meet us and to provide an extremely valuable practical insight into the work that is being done on the ground to deliver the commitment.
I also thank those who attended a lunch-time event with the committee today, prior to the debate, some of whom have stayed and are in the public gallery. I offer particular thanks to Angela, a former user of Shelter Scotland services, who kindly agreed to speak to committee members about her experience of homelessness, the options that were available to her at the time and her experience of raising a family in temporary accommodation. We are very grateful to her for giving up her time to share her experience with us.
The committee acknowledges the varied progress among local authorities in Scotland towards meeting the 2012 commitment. However, we were encouraged by the fact that the majority either had already met the commitment or were close to doing so. The committee heard that the 2012 commitment has led to considerable improvements in the provision of services for homeless people in Scotland.
One of the most significant steps forward, which we highlighted in our report, has been the development of the housing options approach. That approach allows for better assessment of people’s individual circumstances and enables local authorities to pursue effective prevention work. Indeed, it may be responsible for the overall 20 per cent reduction in the number of homelessness applications shown in the Scottish Government statistics covering the period from April to September 2011. Although the housing options approach is at different stages of development across Scotland, there are good examples of positive results. It is encouraging that the minister has indicated that the Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities 2012 joint steering group remains supportive of the approach and the benefits that it brings through homelessness prevention and sustainable outcomes.
Another issue that the committee has highlighted is the importance of partnership working, which can result in early intervention to prevent homelessness. The committee heard how, in 2010, five housing options hubs were created to promote the housing options approach and to share best practice across all Scotland’s 32 local authorities. That initiative has met with considerable success, as the committee experienced when it visited the Ayrshire and south hub. The committee considers that that success should be built on and that, post 2012, the worthwhile work of the hubs should continue and be developed further. Therefore, we have recommended that the Scottish Government examine the potential for the provision of continued financial support to develop membership of the hubs. I welcome the minister’s indication, in his response to the report, that the Scottish Government is identifying additional resources to enable that work to continue and I look forward to hearing of the outcome of that exercise in due course.
We also heard that, although there have been considerable improvements in partnership working between, for example, housing, health and social services, further work could be done. Therefore, we have recommended that the 2012 Scottish Government-COSLA steering group investigate and report on methods of further developing and improving such partnership working.
The committee considers that it is not unreasonable to anticipate a link between achieving the commitment and an increased demand for temporary accommodation. We will continue to monitor the matter following the 2012 deadline to ensure that the commitment and other pressures that local authorities face do not lead to unacceptable levels of dependence on temporary accommodation.
The committee has also recommended that the Scottish Housing Regulator should report to the Government and Parliament on how it will ensure that temporary accommodation meets acceptable standards. The committee hopes to engage with the regulator over this parliamentary session to discuss that and similar matters.
Our report acknowledges that local authorities must juggle the requirements of building sustainable communities, serving people who are on waiting or transfer lists and ensuring that homeless people are allocated settled accommodation. We heard positive evidence about common housing registers, their importance to allocations policy and their importance to fostering partnership working in local authority areas.
In his response to the report, the minister has provided a helpful update on CHRs, which states that 16 are in operation, with a further four launching imminently and another three in 2013. I hope that the local authorities that do not yet have CHRs in place will be given every encouragement and support to introduce them.
Although progress towards achieving the 2012 commitment has been positive, the committee heard about potential barriers to progressing the homelessness agenda. One key issue is, of course, the supply of affordable housing. The committee will continue to monitor and assess the Scottish Government’s progress towards achieving its affordable housing targets and has made several recommendations on how supply might be improved across the tenure types. The role of housing in the private sector is particularly important to housing supply. I note that the Scottish Government, working in partnership with the Scottish private rented sector strategy group, published a consultative strategy for the private rented sector on 17 April, and I hope that the issues that the committee raised will be addressed as part of that consultation.
In response to evidence that disabled people are still reporting that insufficient accessible permanent and temporary accommodation is available, we asked the Scottish Government to provide information on the levels of available accessible accommodation and its plans to increase the supply of such accommodation. The committee welcomes the work that is being undertaken on an accessible housing register and the work by the Government’s adaptations working group. It will monitor those important developments.
Another potential barrier is, of course, the likely negative impact of the United Kingdom Welfare Reform Bill on the ability of local authorities to achieve the 2012 target. The main point of concern for the majority of the committee was the impact of the provisions that relate to underoccupancy, which could affect local authority applications policies—Alex Johnstone dissented on that, which was a surprise. Other points of concern were the general reduction in benefits, which could lead to increased arrears and evictions—again, Mr Johnstone dissented—and the change to providing universal credit, which will include a housing benefit component, to claimants monthly in arrears. The latter measure could cause problems for those who have difficulty with budgeting.
The committee has asked the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee to examine the full details of the regulations on those provisions.
That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations in the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s 2nd Report, 2012 (Session 4): Homelessness in Scotland: the 2012 Commitment (SP Paper 97).
I thank Maureen Watt for her opening remarks and the members of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee for the report. I welcome the report, which recognises the positive progress that has been made towards achieving the 2012 homelessness target.
For clarity, I remind everyone what the target is, because it is often misquoted. It is that
“by end December 2012, local authorities will provide all unintentionally homeless applicant households with settled accommodation as of right”.
As Maureen Watt said, the target has been internationally acclaimed. That is to the credit of previous Administrations and Oppositions, as well as the current Administration and Opposition groups, because there has been a general consensus on the benefits of the target.
We concede that the target is a challenging one to meet in difficult economic times but, despite that, we are committed to supporting local authorities to achieve it. We will introduce the necessary secondary legislation to the Parliament before the end of the year.
It is important to note that much of what we will do this year to reach the target will be a precursor to what will have to happen when the target has been achieved. At that time, we will start another process and embark on the important task of maintaining quality services for homeless people and, of course, preventing homelessness wherever possible.
I have already written to the committee convener with the Scottish Government’s response to the committee’s 24 recommendations. They were all made in a positive spirit and there were some constructive suggestions.
As the convener mentioned, positive updated homelessness statistics were published in February for the period April to September 2011. They record a reduction of about 20 per cent in homelessness applications and assessments, which is the biggest ever fall. The Guardian has quoted the corresponding figure in England as being a 14 per cent increase. We should recognise the efforts of our partners, particularly in local government, towards meeting the target.
As we have heard, in 90 per cent of homelessness assessments in Scotland, those concerned are regarded as being in priority need and so are entitled to settled accommodation. Nine local authorities are fully meeting the 2012 target and 11 are within 10 per cent of achieving it. However, even more local authorities have met the target since the statistics were reported. The new statistics will be published in June 2012, and we hope to see further progress in future.
The Scottish Government and COSLA joint 2012 steering group was established in 2009. I first attended the group in November last year and I know that there is a focused effort to ensure that we do not take our eyes off the ball. At the most recent meeting of the group that I attended, I suggested that as soon as the local elections have passed—just in case anyone is in doubt, I remind members that there are some local elections next week—we, or COSLA, should have an early meeting with the newly appointed housing conveners to reinforce the need to make further progress and achieve the target.
The priority areas for the group have been the prevention of homelessness, which has required substantial joint working and corporate buy-in; investment in the appropriate areas; and the opening up of access to all housing tenures. Chief among those priorities has been prevention. In that area, the work that Alex Neil led previously led to the establishment of the five regional, local authority-led housing options hubs across Scotland. They focus on the individual and the range of needs that they might have, and the action plans that the hubs have come up with are being implemented with positive results. A culture change has begun that has seen the refocusing of homelessness services for the better, and it has been an important, innovative public service reform.
The convener mentioned the committee’s desire for the Scottish Government to allocate further resources to the hubs. I can announce today that we will provide another £150,000 of on-going funding to support the hubs throughout 2012-13. We will discuss the disbursement of that funding with COSLA, and an independent evaluation of the hubs approach will be published shortly.
We can see the beneficial impact of good prevention work, but the other side of the issue, which I am sure members will mention, is the supply of new housing, which remains a priority for us. We have committed to the delivery of 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years, at least 20,000 of which will be social rented homes. We also want access to the private rented sector to be made easier to assist homeless households, and we are working with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, through its membership of the 2012 group, and individual registered social landlords to enable greater access to that sector.
The convener made an important point about the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms on housing benefit, and we are apparently in the midst of a second recession, which also makes the work extremely difficult.
The welfare reforms will have a major impact and risk effect on the underoccupancy provisions and the way in which we can configure new housing stock. That is happening during a recession—until yesterday, we could have said that it was a recovery, but we are now into a second recession. We should acknowledge the achievements of local authorities in particular in making progress towards the target at what has been an extremely difficult time for them. They deserve credit for that. They are working hard to stay on track to achieve the target and a strong foundation is being built for what comes after 2012. I am confident that, if we keep an eye on the ball, between us, our partners and local government we can achieve the target despite challenging conditions such as welfare reform and the economic situation.
I am delighted to have seen the committee’s report. I will continue to work with the committee and will report back to it to ensure that we achieve what we all want, which is to meet the 2012 target by the end of this year.
I, too, congratulate the committee on its report on the important issue of progress towards the 2012 homelessness target. As others have said, Parliament set national and local government a challenging target when the Housing (Scotland) Act 2003 was passed, and it is encouraging to learn that local authorities are making such good progress towards the elimination of consideration of priority need and, indeed, that nine councils have already achieved 100 per cent assessments without consideration of priority need.
As others have said, too, at the heart of the issue is an affordable housing supply. Since the passing of the 2003 act, the supply of social rented housing has not increased in the way that it probably needed to for the implementation of the homelessness target to be meaningful. For example, the Scottish Government’s statistics show that the number of social rented homes in Scotland fell by 2 per cent between 2007 and 2011.
As has been mentioned, the Government has committed itself to the construction of 6,000 affordable homes annually, with 4,000 of those being social rented homes. That commitment was in place when the draft budget and spending review were published last autumn. I would be interested to learn how many more affordable homes ministers expect to be constructed, given the addition of £10 million for affordable housing in the spring revision of the 2011-12 budget and the additional £87 million for the period of the spending review. I hope that those will mean that even more properties can be constructed.
Due to the housing shortage, many families who become homeless have to rely on temporary accommodation as there is no suitable property available for them in their time of need. That is clearly less than satisfactory, especially for families with children. I recently visited the Shelter offices in Dumfries, where I saw the results of a project that works with children affected by homelessness, which included drawings that they had done to try to express what losing their home meant to them.
The impact on homeless children can include separation from the family pet, because the family cannot take the cat or dog with them when they go into other accommodation. That might seem unimportant to some adults—although it would seem important to me—but it can be extremely traumatic for children, on top of having to change school, leave friends behind and know about the stigma that applies to their situation. Shelter reckoned that almost 6,000 children in Scotland spent last Christmas in temporary flats or bed-and-breakfast accommodation, although thankfully the incidence of children being in B and Bs has diminished to around a fifth of its 2004 level since the adoption of the Unsuitable Accommodation (Scotland) Order 2004.
Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing believe that there ought to be a temporary accommodation standard, particularly where children are involved, which would include physical, location and service standards and which could be applied by the regulator when assessing local authorities’ performance on homelessness. Shelter also points out that the Welsh Assembly Government has had a temporary accommodation standard in legislation for over three years. I invite ministers to consider whether similar provision would be appropriate in Scotland.
As others have said, meeting the homelessness target in any meaningful way will require the involvement of the private sector. I know that that is accepted by Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing as well as by the Scottish Government. Local authorities are permitted to discharge their duties through private sector lets so long as those are assured tenancies of at least 12 months. The committee report notes that that power has not been used to the extent that had been expected. That solution is perhaps less appropriate for families with children, where permanence of residence is important to maintain attendance at the same school for example, but the private sector could be an avenue for single homeless people. It would be useful to understand why that avenue has not been used to the extent that had been anticipated. I know that there is a consultation at the moment on a number of aspects of private sector rentals. It will be interesting to see what lessons can be learned through that.
The committee heard positive evidence about the use of common housing registers and about their importance to allocation policies and to fostering partnership working. It is therefore disappointing that eight local authorities still do not operate common housing registers and have not even set a launch date for them, particularly as the previous Scottish Executive made £3 million available across Scotland for that purpose between 2004 and 2006.
I am sorry to say that the offenders include my council, Dumfries and Galloway Council, but I understand that additional funding from the council and RSLs has now been allocated to appoint a responsible officer and to look at information technology issues, which seem to be one of the major barriers. If half of Scotland’s local authorities have implemented common housing registers, surely examples of good practice are out there, which other councils could take on board and which could help to bring them forward.
I commend the committee’s focus on preventing homelessness, as prevention is always better than cure. I look forward to hearing more about what can be learned from the committee’s report as we go forward towards the end of 2012.
I congratulate Elaine Murray on getting an eight-minute speech into five minutes—that was quite an achievement, which I do not intend to match.
All of us in the Parliament should—rightly—be proud of the commitment to the homelessness target. I and some of my Conservative predecessors have very different views from others on some aspects of home building and housing in the long term, but our fundamental commitment to the 2012 target has been unwavering.
I am delighted that the report has thrown up the fact that many of our local authorities are well on the way to achieving the target. I hope that that good practice, which has been demonstrated by a number of local authorities around Scotland—including Angus Council on my home ground and Dundee City Council—will be used to ensure that we can achieve the best objectives around Scotland by the time that this year is out.
The production of the report considerably benefited me because, when I joined the committee, it allowed me to go on to a steep learning curve on a policy that had not been my responsibility, although like other committee members and members, I have experience of dealing with people who face homelessness or who find themselves in temporary accommodation. We all need to work hard to avoid that problem.
In the longer term, our objectives must be achieved by working together at every level. I repeat the comments that a number of members have made about common housing registers. Achieving the objective of having common housing registers across Scotland will ensure that we grasp as early as we can the opportunity to ensure that all social housing providers that receive funding from the public purse play their full part in ending homelessness. We should take no pride in the fact that some appear to avoid doing that. Social housing providers must work together with local authorities.
On the availability of housing, it is hard to escape in the report the point that we need more houses. I have criticised the Government for cutting its funding for the construction of social housing—the budget for which has dropped in recent years—and for its failure to broaden its attitude on including other funding. The minister suggested that we are back in recession. The figures appear to indicate that, but does not that give us the opportunity to offer institutional investors and others in the private sector a safe and secure investment? They can invest in bricks and mortar when riskier investments might not be so available.
I do not ask the following question to try to score points. Given that we have gone back into recession and that the construction industry provides one of the best and quickest ways of getting us out of recession, does the member think that the UK Government should consider allocating additional funding for capital spending, particularly on housing and construction?
I understand why the cabinet secretary says that and I might agree on some aspects, but does not the fact that we are talking about a physical resource that retains its value over time, and can in some circumstances increase its value, provide an opportunity to use investment from other places than simply the public purse to deal with some of the housing problems that we have?
The final issue that I will address is my dissent on certain aspects of the report relating to welfare reform. I am fully aware of the problems that must be addressed in Scotland as a result of the welfare reform process that the Westminster Government has triggered, but I will not dissent from the line that I have taken in the past, which is that too many people in Scotland have been left better off on benefits and that, consequently, we have a dependency culture.
I want to do whatever I can to get people away from that dependency culture. Finding new ways to inspire individuals to help themselves, wherever possible, and giving assistance through local government and the Scottish Government to achieve that objective are worthy aims. Therefore, I will continue to take the approach that I have taken throughout the process and to support the commitment of the Government and the committee to monitor the process beyond the 2012 deadline.
I thank my fellow committee members and the clerks for their work on the report. As a relatively new member of the committee, I was not involved in the preparation of the report or the evidence sessions, but I am pleased that I will be involved in the committee’s future work in monitoring the implementation of Scotland’s 2012 homelessness commitment after this year’s deadline.
As we consider the committee’s report into meeting the commitment to have all unintentionally homeless people settled by the end of this year, let us remember why the legislation was introduced in 2003. As we all know, homelessness can have a variety of causes, including, among many others, eviction, instances of domestic violence and abuse, and discharge from hospital or prison—and we should not forget people living in overcrowded or temporary accommodation.
Recent figures from February show that 23,796 homeless applications were made between April and September 2011. Although I appreciate that the figure represents a 20 per cent decrease on the previous year, I am sure that we all agree that it presents a challenge for all local authorities. The committee’s report goes some way towards identifying where work can be improved but also where things are being done well.
One obvious example of a positive impact being made is the implementation of the housing options approach, which Maureen Watt mentioned. I fully support the committee’s calls for that approach to be implemented consistently throughout Scotland. Few would take issue with the proposition that preventing homelessness in the first instance can play a major part in ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people in our communities do not fall victim to a range of other problems that are directly associated with homelessness. Evidence presented to the Christie commission also pointed to those connections. I would therefore go slightly further and suggest that membership of the hubs and the way in which they operate could be standardised to ensure consistency throughout Scotland and so that best practice is shared and rolled out across the country to maximise the results.
I welcome the minister’s announcement today of £150,000 of on-going funding to support the hubs. Such partnership working was a key feature of the committee’s recommendations. Having met representatives of various housing associations in my own region, such as Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership, I am well aware of the benefits of good communication between the different agencies involved in dealing with homelessness cases. In fact, DGHP’s involvement at a strategic level with the council on homelessness policy is held in high regard as an example of positive and productive partnership working.
I share the concerns that some witnesses raised about the potential implications of the UK Government’s welfare reforms for homelessness. It has been estimated that the number of people classed as priority homeless as a direct result of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 could reach 3,000. If that figure is accurate, Scotland’s local authorities have said that they will struggle to provide enough permanent homes and that there is a real challenge.
Furthermore, the housing benefit changes with regard to underoccupancy have the potential to force people out of accommodation and increase homelessness, especially among the 25 to 35 age group. The changes will therefore impact on a group in society that is already highly vulnerable in employment terms as a result of the UK Government’s austerity policy. The figure of £100 million has been estimated as the cost to the economy of the changes and I am concerned about where that shortfall will be met from.
Although it is clear that the Scottish Government is making good progress in working with local authorities and housing associations to meet the 2012 homelessness commitment and that the committee’s report contains many good ideas on how to produce even better results, we cannot ignore the significant challenges that are on the horizon as a direct consequence of the UK Government’s misguided policies.
It is therefore imperative that parliamentarians, third sector agencies, housing associations, local government and national Government work together to ensure that the good work that is being done in Scotland to tackle homelessness is not blown off course by the ill-judged measures that are being legislated for by the London Government, which are directed against the interests of some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland. I support the motion.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate and I welcome the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s report on the 2012 commitment on homelessness in Scotland.
I will focus on Glasgow, which is the area that I represent. Glasgow City Council pointed out in its submission to the committee’s inquiry that in 2010-11 the city received 19 per cent of the total number of homelessness applications, although the area’s share of the population is only 11 per cent.
Although the council has made good progress towards meeting the 2012 target, one of the main barriers that remains is the shortage of quality social housing. It is important that the 10,000 new homes that housing associations promised at the time of the Glasgow stock transfer are delivered. The city council is working in partnership with Glasgow Housing Association and other registered social landlords and charities to secure a greater number of lets for homeless households.
The council’s job has been made more difficult by the UK Government’s changes to housing benefit funding, which have forced the council to make savings from its homelessness services budget, including through staff reductions. I therefore warmly welcome paragraphs 44 and 47 of the report and the recommendation that the Scottish Government include
“money advice and debt counselling as an integral part of the housing support to be made available to persons who are homeless or threatened with homelessness”.
I commend the work of the prevention of homelessness partnership, which is led by Govan Law Centre. The partnership has done a particularly good job.
The 2012 commitment has already improved the lot of homeless families in Glasgow and beyond, but I concur with the committee’s conclusion that challenges remain and that councils will need support from the Scottish Government if they are to meet those challenges and resolve the issues.
Housing associations are under pressure in relation to property sales, but the resource from sales does not go back into associations’ coffers. That is stunting opportunities for housing growth in Scotland. I suggest that the money from sales should go back to the housing associations, with a view to it being spent on the construction of new homes. That would contribute to the Scottish Government’s commitment to have more houses on the ground.
I am a member of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee and I welcome the committee’s report on homelessness in Scotland. As part of the evidence gathering for the report, Malcolm Chisholm and I made an informal visit to the City of Edinburgh Council, where we had the opportunity to discuss with senior housing officials the problems that are faced by expanding cities such as Edinburgh.
Paragraph 85 of the report refers to National Records of Scotland figures that highlight that in 2010 there were fewer than 2.4 million households, compared with nearly 2.5 million dwellings. The figures suggest that Scotland has 130,000 more homes than it requires, but that can be explained by the 87,000 homes that lie empty for short periods as tenancies change, ownership transfers or repairs are carried out. Included in that number are 25,000 homes that have lain empty for six months or more. I welcome the Scottish Government’s Local Government Finance (Unoccupied Properties etc) (Scotland) Bill, which is intended to tackle the issue. In addition, more than 30,000 holiday homes in Scotland are only seasonally occupied.
Of course, the places in which there are empty homes might not be those in which demand lies. That is the case in Edinburgh. It has been projected that Edinburgh will be the fastest-growing Scottish city, and the number of households in it is expected to increase by 35 per cent in the period from 2008 to 2033. That is the context for the statement in paragraph 6 of the report that Edinburgh has
“assessed between 80% and 90% of homeless cases as having a priority need”.
The City of Edinburgh Council launched the 21st century homes programme in order to move towards meeting its obligation to abolish the priority need distinction by 31 December. The first new council homes in a generation have been built, and eventually 1,400 new homes will be built across the city, including 320 in north Sighthill in my constituency.
The council and, as part of its commitment to build 30,000 affordable homes, the Scottish Government are continuing to work with housing associations throughout Edinburgh to redevelop brownfield sites. That will result in the completion of nearly 600 affordable homes this year and a further 225 homes in the first five months of 2013. In addition, the council has worked in partnership with the private sector to introduce rent deposit guarantee schemes, as detailed in paragraph 73 of the report. That work has helped hundreds of tenants to secure tenancies in the private rented sector and thereby ease the pressure on council waiting lists.
Local authorities across Scotland have made great strides towards meeting the commitment that is contained in the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003, despite the changed circumstances since it was introduced. The recession has increased the number of evictions and repossessions, house builders have reduced the number of private homes that are being built from around 20,000 to 11,000 per year, banks are demanding higher deposits and more people have been driven into the rented sector. The UK Government changes in entitlement to housing benefit, incapacity benefit and disability living allowance will make it harder for people to retain their tenancies. Paragraph 86 of the report refers to COSLA’s written submission, which states:
“Welfare Reform alone could lead to up to an additional 3000 homeless presentations in Scotland”.
Against that background of difficult circumstances, the report scrutinises the work of Scotland’s 32 local authorities in meeting their 2012 obligations.
I support the motion.
Like other members, I congratulate the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee on its report “Homelessness in Scotland: the 2012 Commitment”, and I welcome the committee’s recognition of the progress that local authorities have made towards meeting the commitment.
From my experience in the advice sector, there has been a seismic change over the past 10 years in local councils’ attitudes and approaches to homelessness. There is now a far better understanding of the reasons for homelessness, and councils have a genuine desire to work collaboratively with other agencies to prevent homelessness and to support vulnerable people in sustaining tenancies to try to redress the problem of repeat homelessness.
That was not the situation 10 years ago. Then, there was almost a stand-off between local authorities and the advice sector. Neither the local authorities nor the advice sector really trusted the motives of the other, and each did their own thing, which was to no one’s advantage. We now know that collaborative working produces results, and there has been a welcome reduction in homelessness throughout the country. Like Shelter, I believe that those changes are due to the 2003 legislation, which all parties in the Parliament supported. It made everyone put their heads together and recognise that there was a real problem that had to be addressed.
The reasons for homelessness are numerous and complex, as are the solutions, and we have heard about many of them today. Councils should be congratulated on their progress but, as has been said, there are still potential barriers ahead that could impact on their meeting their targets. Those barriers include welfare reform, which a number of members have mentioned, and the housing benefit changes, the single occupancy rules and the downsizing of houses, which will perhaps result in local authorities facing a lack of housing of the correct size. There are more mortgage repossessions due to the economic conditions, and we should not forget that poverty produces homelessness—particularly repeat homelessness. I acknowledge the Scottish Government’s approach in trying to get everyone into employment and to produce the sustainable growth in the country that will help to alleviate poverty. We will never eradicate homelessness unless we eradicate poverty.
There is also a lack of funding for advice. Advice is a method of preventing homelessness, and I am encouraged that the issue was covered in the report and that the report recognised and recommended that advice should be part of the statutory procedure.
Members will not be surprised that I want to talk about the key role that independent advice can play in preventing homelessness. The value of good money advice cannot be overestimated. Many people have been prevented from losing their home simply by getting good money advice on mortgage and rent arrears, by being put on to debt arrangement schemes, or by being assisted with mortgage-to-rent schemes. All that sometimes happens without the local authority knowing about the situation. Homelessness is being prevented by advisers doing their job, but sometimes the statistics do not reach local authorities’ books.
No one can overestimate the effect that the threat of losing a home has on an individual. I will share with members one of the first cases that I saw when I was an adviser, which is well beyond 10 years ago. A woman approached the citizens advice bureau the day that her house had been repossessed. She had been put out of her house that morning. Her children were at school, and they had not been told. I will never forget that story or the stress in that woman. She totally broke down; she could not cope with the situation, which she had kept from everyone. Her children were at school, but they did not know that they were coming home to a house that had been repossessed and was boarded up.
Such situations can no longer happen. The mortgage lender would have to tell the local authority that there was a possible repossession action, and the local authority and the other agencies could step in and prevent that from happening. We must therefore appreciate the improvements that we have made. We may think that there has been no improvement in homelessness, but enormous improvements have been made, and those must continue.
I am sorry—I just had to share that story, because I will never forget it.
We still need to move forward on homelessness, but we are going in the right direction. I certainly support the recommendations in the report and the actions that the Scottish Government is taking to improve the homelessness situation in this country.
As the convener reminded us at the start of the debate, the homelessness legislation—in particular the 2012 commitment—is one of the most important pieces of legislation that this Parliament has ever passed. It is also perhaps the most internationally recognised Scottish legislation, as I discovered when I spoke at a homelessness conference in Brussels in 2005 and realised that the whole of Europe was looking at Scotland’s approach to homelessness legislation.
We should pay tribute once again to the various organisations that made important contributions to the preparation of that legislation, particularly those in the homelessness task force. Many of those organisations have continued to contribute to our discussions, including our committee deliberations and the stakeholder event that we held at lunch time today.
Like the convener, I thank Angela, the service user, with whom I spoke at lunch time. Nothing is more important for MSPs than to talk to those who are experiencing or have experienced the problems of homelessness.
We all know that homelessness is about more than bricks and mortar, although those are clearly vital, as I will discuss further in a moment. Prevention has always been central to the homelessness agenda. I agree with Margaret Burgess that there have been great improvements in the past 10 years, and many witnesses who gave evidence to the committee spoke about the change in culture that had come about through the housing options approach and in other ways.
The committee makes two recommendations in that regard: first, that there should be measures to ensure consistency in the housing options approach; and, secondly, that there should be a measurement tool for homelessness prevention work.
Various members have mentioned the 20 per cent reduction in applications in one year. I do not wish to rubbish that figure, but members ought to note the recent article by the director of Shelter, which asked probing questions about that. We must be very careful to ensure that the housing options approach is implemented in the most effective way, which is why measures to ensure consistency are particularly important.
On prevention, there is a new duty to provide support, which arises from the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010. A consultation on that has just concluded. The committee recommends that that support should include money advice and debt counselling. At lunch time, I became aware that a debate is going on about whether regulations or guidance should be provided in relation to that duty. It was interesting that most of the stakeholders to whom I spoke at lunch time thought that guidance would be preferable.
We do not have time to speak at great length on the supply of affordable housing, but the committee clearly believes that it is strongly relevant to the issue of homelessness. I have spoken on many occasions over the past few months about the importance of investment in affordable housing, and I repeat my view that it should be the number 1 priority for capital expenditure, although I recognise the late improvements that were made in the budget process to increase the amount of money that goes into that area.
The private sector is important, too. The committee looked in considerable detail at the sector’s role and recommended that the Government should look at the possibility of a new tenancy regime for the private sector to make that sector more attractive for people who are homeless. It is clear that the housing benefit changes could have a negative impact on that. Time is running out, so I cannot make the obvious points that I made in the recent debate on housing benefit about the general negative effect that those changes will have on our homelessness commitment.
Temporary accommodation will have to be used even more from the end of this year, but the committee cautions against unacceptable levels of temporary accommodation and recommends that there should be standards for temporary accommodation, on which the Scottish Housing Regulator should report.
My time is up. We should recognise the progress that has been made, but we should certainly not be complacent.
I thank the minister for reminding me that, in eight days’ time, I will demit office as a councillor. For the past 36 years, I have been at the coalface of housing. I have dealt with homelessness, housing and evictions. I got my first case the day after I was elected, on 6 October 1976. Over the years, I have helped more than 5,000 people to get a house. However, I know that it is time to go when a constituent comes to me and says, “You got my mother a house many years ago. Can you get me one?”
I welcome the debate and note that there was a drop of more than 20 per cent in the total number of homelessness applications between 2010 and 2011, with the number of applications decreasing in 28 of the 32 council areas. The homelessness application figures are the lowest in a decade. Nine councils now meet the 2012 commitment, whereby 100 per cent of homeless applicants are assessed as being in priority need. Six more councils meet the commitment than in 2010. The SNP Government has provided £500,000 for the development of housing hubs, which support training and the sharing of best practice, and I welcome the announcement that a further £150,000 will be provided.
I am content that the SNP is committed to its target of providing 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years, at least two thirds of which will be homes for social rent, including 5,000 council houses. I say to Alex Johnstone that neither the Tories nor Labour built a single council house between 1970 and 2003. Labour and the Lib Dems built only six council houses after that. That is the problem that we faced—not a single council house was built over those decades. The SNP Government has picked up that burden and is doing its best to address the situation. I record my appreciation for the two best housing ministers: the cabinet secretary, Alex Neil, and his friend and sidekick, Keith Brown, who are the Batman and Robin of housing.
Working with COSLA, we have already filled the gap that the Tory-Lib Dem cuts to council tax benefit gave rise to, which could have badly affected the 558,000 people in Scotland on low incomes who receive the benefit. If members want to know about homelessness, I invite them to cast their minds back to “Cathy Come Home”, which was shown on television back in the 70s—perhaps they can pick it up somewhere—because it showed what homelessness is like.
The Welfare Reform Act 2012 will reduce housing benefit for those who live in social rented housing that is larger than they require. The Scottish Council for Single Homeless reported to the committee that at least 75 per cent of social housing in Scotland comprises two to three-bedroomed accommodation, with the majority of housing for homeless people in Scotland having a single bedroom. The change will make the 2012 commitment more difficult to meet.
I note that the Scottish Government is working with COSLA, local authorities, the SCSH, Shelter and the Housing Regulator to develop a measurement tool for homelessness.
The Tory-Liberal Democrat Government plans to reduce housing benefit for those living in homes that are bigger than they require, as I said. The Scottish Government has undertaken an impact analysis of the measure and has identified more than 95,000 social tenants who will lose between £27 and £65 a month. That will remove £50 million a year from the Scottish economy.
Last night on television, we saw what is facing people in Newham, but that is for another day—I have run out of time.
I support the motion, and thank the two gentlemen on the front bench, who are doing such a good job.
I think that Richard Lyle is looking for a job.
I commend the committee members and the clerks for their work in producing the report, as well as those who submitted evidence to the committee. Although I am not a member of the committee, I recognise the importance of ensuring that Scotland’s homelessness commitment is achieved.
The Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s report on the 2012 homelessness commitment contains some important insights and recommendations. The insights include those into the success of the housing options approach to facilitate early intervention in cases that, in the past, would almost certainly have led to a presentation of homelessness by the individual or family. I associate myself with the committee’s call for the Government to undertake a review of the tenancy regime in the social rented sector to establish whether it has the required flexibility to adapt to future needs, and for more debt counselling and money advice to be included as an important part of the housing advice that is offered to those who are threatened with homelessness.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats were proud to have been part of the Government that legislated for the 2012 commitment—I think that we should recognise Malcolm Chisholm’s involvement in pushing that through at the time. The commitment has rightly received international acclaim. However, it is only fair to highlight that the target was always going to be challenging, particularly in a climate that could not have been foreseen nine years ago.
The report states:
“The Committee acknowledges the strong relevance of affordable housing supply to the homelessness issue.”
It is correct to state that housing supply is critical to the homelessness issue, but it is homes for social rent and not simply affordable homes that are required. Members should note that some affordable homes require an element of purchase that is simply out of the question for the majority of those presenting as homeless. Therefore, I regret the committee’s failure to highlight the Government’s reneging on its commitment to build 30,000 homes for social rent over this parliamentary session.
I am sorry; I do not have time.
The Government now intends to build 10,000 fewer homes for social rent over this session. On that point, I correct Mr Lyle and remind him that more than 40,000 houses in the social rented sector were built in the eight years of the Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition, mainly housing association homes.
It is absolutely vital that the Government ensures that there is not an explosion in the use of temporary accommodation and in the duration of stay in such dwellings. A number of stakeholders highlighted that in their evidence. Highland Council stated:
“Meeting the 2012 target will place additional pressure on temporary accommodation and will almost certainly increase the average length of stay.”
It is widely acknowledged that stays in temporary accommodation can be particularly damaging for children’s life opportunities, and prolonged stays even more so. At the end of last year, responses to freedom of information requests that I sent to all local authorities revealed that more than 2,000 families with children in Scotland were residing in temporary accommodation in October, with almost 800 of them having done so for more than six months. My fear is that that figure could be significantly higher in 18 months’ time, once the Government has—we hope—achieved the 2012 commitment.
It is no good our focusing to so great a degree on the eradication of priority need assessments in homelessness only to exacerbate existing problems with the use of temporary accommodation, much of which falls below a comfortable standard of living. I therefore welcome the commitment in the report to monitor the situation. We can all agree that we do not want a dependence on temporary accommodation to become an unintended consequence of a well-intended piece of legislation.
I, too, echo the committee’s praise of the progress that Scotland’s local authorities are making towards meeting the 2012 commitment. I thought that the report itself was very constructive and contained some very practical suggestions on how we might move forward and ensure that all our local authorities achieve the 100 per cent target. Of course, the problem with being the last member to speak in the open debate is that all my best lines have been stolen. Nevertheless, I want to focus on what I think are the most vulnerable groups to be threatened with homelessness in our society.
On Saturday, I attended a demonstration to oppose the real threat of homelessness that is faced by up to 100 asylum seekers in Glasgow. Although those people’s appeals for asylum have been rejected, the UK Government is unable to send them back to their countries of origin because they have been deemed unsafe conflict zones. Under that policy, individuals who have had their application rejected lose their right to accommodation and any other support after 21 days, and those asylum seekers now face the very real threat of homelessness and destitution. However, such an option is still preferable to returning to their home countries, where they might face persecution or conflict.
Ypeople, the current accommodation provider for asylum seekers in Glasgow, has allowed these individuals to stay in their properties for longer than the prescribed 21 days; however, it recently lost its contract to a private company and, as I have said, the asylum seekers are now facing real destitution. Some of them have even been served with notice of eviction. As many of them come from oppressive regimes such as Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea, it would be a complete injustice to return them to those unsettled conflict zones. With no recourse to public funds—a horrible phrase that is straight out of a Dickens novel—and no ability to return to their home countries, they are caught in complete limbo and undoubtedly face homelessness. It makes a mockery of any target that we have put in place. Instead of punishing such individuals, we should be providing help and support to protect those who are most at risk of homelessness and real poverty.
Continuing the theme of those who are most at risk of homelessness, I recently met in Glasgow representatives of the Wise Group—an organisation known to many in the chamber—who told me about its routes out of prison project with ex-offenders. We need to remember that ex-offenders might have done the crime, but they have also done the time and should be treated no differently from anyone else who is looking for a roof over their head. I was told that these individuals are often released on a Friday and therefore cannot secure a bed in a hostel; they are forced on to the streets for three nights over the weekend; and those who get into the habit of sleeping rough do not find any settled accommodation thereafter.
I heard real-life case studies of housing associations that did not have the capacity to offer accommodation to ex-offenders advising them to go to a police station and ask for a cell to sleep in. It is quite unbelievable. One man even stole a carpet from a police station entrance so that he could be arrested and spend the night off the streets. Unfortunately such stories are all too common. The homelessness of ex-offenders is very much a matter of concern, because it traps people further in the cycle of reoffending and does nothing at all for our society.
One motto familiar to all of us—it has been mentioned many times in the chamber—is that a nation’s greatness is measured not by its military might or by its economic strength, but by how it chooses to treat the most vulnerable in our society. The test for us all and for Scotland is to strive to be the greatest nation that we can be. We are making significant steps in the right direction, but much more can and must be done.
That said, I thought that the report was excellent and very constructive and I thank the committee members and the clerks for producing it.
In what has been a good debate, we have broadly drawn together around the objectives of the 2012 housing commitment. I will address one or two key contributions that highlighted the issues that we face.
Margaret Burgess spoke at length of her experience of giving advice to homeless people, and emphasised the need for good advice. I have spoken to Citizens Advice Scotland on the ground, where it is already giving advice. It expressed to me its concern that it might not be able to meet demand, which is likely to increase, unless it has adequate resources. That difficult situation needs to be highlighted today.
The critical importance of advice does not apply only to homelessness. It applies, of course, to the welfare reform process, which we are going through. Malcolm Chisholm pointed out that the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 imposes a duty to provide advice on homelessness. It is important that we ensure that that advice is provided, and Margaret Burgess did well to highlight that situation.
Hanzala Malik’s contribution interested me. He spoke about houses that were being sold off and the need to replace them. Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with Hanzala Malik. I argue, and will continue to argue, that the opportunity for tenants to become owners of their property is very important—although I understand that the member did not say that. He said that it is important to replace houses that have been sold to their tenants. We need to address that challenge, rather than prevent the right to buy; we need to ensure that we build new houses to replace those that are sold.
Richard Lyle’s contribution was spirited and very supportive of ministers on the front bench. However, if he were to look back in history he would see that there were record levels of council house building in Scotland between 1951 and 1964, under a Conservative Government. In 1979, an 18-year period of Conservative Government began, and a few council houses were built—but not many. However, during that period housing associations came into existence. They were a massive step forward and are today one of the most important tools in the armoury of any Government that wants to provide new housing.
However, it was never illegal for councils to build houses. In fact, many councils used the proceeds of sales to improve their stock and left the building of new houses to the active housing associations that existed.
Unfortunately, I need to come to a close soon.
It is important to acknowledge that there are councils that are building houses today, in some circumstances in spite of Government policy, not because of it.
Finally, I want to address an issue that I did not have time to cover in my opening speech—a key issue that the minister must be prepared to face in the near future. A problem on the horizon is that our armed forces are about to enter the process of disengagement in Afghanistan. As our soldiers arrive home, many will come home to Scotland. Many of them will not have a future in our armed services. The difficulty of not having a proper, established home, which is one of the consequences of the military action that we have been involved in in recent years, means that there will be a particular problem for those who are leaving military service.
I acknowledge that efforts are being made, but the housing professionals to whom I spoke expressed concern that the measures taken will not be enough and that our veterans deserve better—in fact, they deserve the best.
Scottish Labour is proud of the 2012 commitment on homelessness made by the previous Scottish Executive. It was a bold commitment that set the course for ensuring that no one and no families in Scotland needlessly suffer the trauma of homelessness.
As Shelter said ahead of the debate, the target has given local authorities the impetus to substantially improve homelessness services in a way that otherwise would not have happened. Of course, this Parliament’s pledge on homelessness is shared across the parties and there is a broad recognition of the importance of making good on the commitment. I welcome the committee’s report and the chance to debate it.
Although progress has been made, it is clear that there is still a varying picture across the country in terms of how close local authorities are to meeting the target—Elaine Murray referred to that. Further action will be required from the Scottish Government and I welcome the committee’s stated intention to monitor progress throughout the year. Indeed, I hope that we will return to discuss this subject at greater length as we approach the time for the commitment to be fulfilled.
In the short time that I have available, I will emphasise key issues that other members raised during the debate and which will need to be addressed if we are to get a successful outcome at the end of the year.
A number of members referred to the UK Government’s changes to housing benefit and how they represent an obstacle for a number of reasons that are outlined in the committee’s report. We and the ministers share those concerns, and the committee is right to call for ministers to make a detailed plan of mitigation measures. I know that ministers have such plans in mind, and I urge them to bring them before the Parliament when they have been fully developed.
Further obstacles to meeting the target have been created by the Scottish Government. Difficulties for local authority housing departments have resulted from the poor funding settlement for councils. A 30 per cent cut to the housing budget will only hinder the work of tackling homelessness.
I have only four minutes. The minister will be able to reply to my points during his summing-up speech.
Such a cut will affect the provision of the social housing that is badly needed in Scotland. The ministers gave evidence to the committee that they intend to provide 30,000 affordable homes during the current parliamentary session, including 20,000 socially rented homes. However, as Jim Hume pointed out, that falls short of the Scottish National Party’s manifesto pledge to build 6,000 socially rented homes in each year of the parliamentary session. Has that manifesto commitment been jettisoned?
The report is right to focus on how we ensure that we avoid cycles of homelessness. Too often, in cases in Aberdeen city, I have seen homeless people being provided with a tenancy but not with the support that they need to sustain that tenancy and deal with the problems that caused their homelessness in the first place.
I have only a minute left.
That creates further problems for those homeless people and, too often, for others. When people with such problems are given a tenancy, that should not be seen as the end of the job. The support must also be provided. Shelter Scotland is therefore right to raise the concern that the new support duty for homeless households, which was brought in by the 2010 act, has still not been implemented, 17 months after the legislation was passed. Malcolm Chisholm was right to highlight that point. I hope that the ministers will be able to tell us when that duty will be implemented, and I hope that it will indeed be in the near future.
As the report highlights, much has been done; we recognise that, but there is much more to do on the way to meeting the homelessness target. We welcome the ministers’ reaffirming of their commitment to meeting the target, and it will be for the committee and the Parliament to hold them to that. We can be proud that Scotland is leading the way in tackling homelessness and, in doing so, creating a better society for us all.
I thank all members who have spoken for their contributions. I will try to address some of their points and give the Government’s point of view.
Elaine Murray, Jim Hume and others mentioned the temporary accommodation situation. It is worth noting that there was a 4 per cent reduction in the number of households in temporary accommodation to December 2010; a reduction of 13 per cent in the number of households with children in temporary accommodation; and a reduction of 18 per cent in the number of children in temporary accommodation. We are now down to only 15 households with children or pregnant women in bed-and-breakfast accommodation; that is also a key indicator. Substantial progress is being made. We have not taken our eye off the ball as we make progress towards the 2012 target.
A number of members made a crucial point on the supply of affordable housing. Richard Baker is quite right to mention the difficulties that the housing benefit reforms and the general economic situation have caused. However, the impact on achieving the target of the 33 per cent cut to the Government’s capital resource was not mentioned by the Labour Party, the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. The capital budget has been cut by about one third—that has to be recognised and none of the speeches that have been made so far has recognised it. That cut has had a huge impact on our budgets.
On the other side of the equation, Richard Baker mentioned cuts to local authorities. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that we give a bigger proportion of our budget to local authorities than the previous Administration did. If the previous Administration had carried on doing what it was doing before, it would have given less to local authorities than what it criticises us for giving. We have done well by local authorities and protected their share of public resources.
Hanzala Malik made a point about the return of proceeds from sales. We often do that, but the housing association is required to ask us and make a case to us. If, for example, we have given a grant to allow houses to be developed in the first place, the public moneys have to be protected. We work on a case-by-case basis, but we take a pragmatic approach and try to help wherever we can.
It is worth reasserting that recent statistics indicate the lowest figures for a decade on homelessness applications and assessments. I should also point out the current success of prevention measures. As I said, the Scottish Government will continue to support local authorities to drive the housing options approach. About £70,000 has been made available to the hubs to help them to consider how to mitigate the effects of the housing benefit changes. Initially, £500,000 was given to establish the hubs and, as I mentioned, there is the subsequent award of £150,000, which was announced today. We are providing support. We will learn from the independent evaluation of the hubs approach, which will be published shortly.
It is easy to say this, but it is absolutely crucial that we continue to have cross-sector partnership working. At present, things seem to be working well, with joint responses across sectors and services.
Alex Johnstone raised a point about ex-services personnel. The important thing is to ensure that those people do not suffer a disadvantage. It is more difficult to provide them with an advantage, but they should not suffer a disadvantage, for example by not being allowed to be on a waiting list when they are in service or by not being able to establish a local connection because they are on duty. Several authorities, particularly Aberdeen City Council, take that issue very seriously. We are keen to roll out best practice to other authorities. There are questions for the UK Government, not just about the fact that it is making some of those people redundant, but about ensuring that people are as well prepared as possible for civvy street.
Several members have mentioned the supported accommodation implementation group. The group reports in November, which will be an important step in improving services for homeless people and those who are at risk of homelessness. Humza Yousaf gave good examples of people who are in that category. We also have a consultation on our strategy for the private rented sector, which was published last week. A higher-quality private rented sector can make a great contribution to dealing with homelessness.
We share the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s view that it is vital that the 2012 commitment is met across Scotland. We know that work is required with the councils that still report challenges in meeting the commitment. Members, particularly those who are members of the committee, will know exactly which councils those are. It is important that those councils achieve the target. We have made that point strongly to them, while telling them to let us know what more we can do if there are particular circumstances in their areas.
One thing that is not in doubt is the record of strong support for the 2012 commitment among wider stakeholders. That underlines the fact that Scotland is a progressive nation. That is evidenced by the general consensus on the issue and, as I have said, by the fact that the commitment has been subscribed to by successive Governments and Oppositions. The Parliament has a good record. However, it is perhaps easy for the Parliament to say that we want to achieve something when we know that delivering it is largely up to other people. I was on the other side of that debate back in 2003 when, as a council leader, I signed the accord. By and large, councils and others will deliver the commitment, so they will deserve the credit for doing that if they can achieve it by the end of the year, although that is not to say that the Scottish Government does not have obligations, too. It will be a proud achievement if we can do it.
Even at this stage, we can rightly be proud of the progress that has been made. We bandy about numbers and percentages, but we are talking about people’s lives. We heard telling stories, particularly from Margaret Burgess. If people are now avoiding that kind of experience, that is a massive achievement, even at this stage. We will continue to build on the hard work of local authorities and their partners to achieve sustainable outcomes for all homeless people beyond 2012. I am grateful to the members and convener of the committee for their support in that process.
I am pleased to wind up a constructive debate on behalf of the committee. It is clear that there is and has been cross-party support for the 2012 commitment in several parliamentary sessions and under different Administrations. It is one policy on which the whole Parliament can take pride in its implementation. As Shelter has pointed out, in 90 per cent or so of council areas, we are there or thereabouts in meeting the commitment. That is an achievement worthy of celebration, not least because it will bring long-term benefits and social wellbeing in the communities that we represent.
As Maureen Watt and others have highlighted, the housing options approach that has been adopted by local authorities appears to have been very successful and has led to significant improvements in the provision of services for homeless people. In essence, there is now a recognition by local authorities that homelessness is not just a housing issue but requires a corporate approach from local authorities. An holistic approach is required to meet people’s needs; therefore, staff now consider the person’s immediate needs, their personal circumstances and their short and long-term housing aspirations to work out what the best options are.
Nevertheless, the committee is aware of variation in service provision across the country and wants to see best practice established everywhere. Aileen McLeod suggested that standardising the hub approach could have a beneficial impact. We were particularly keen to see the preventative focus of the housing options approach being made subject to quality measurement; Malcolm Chisholm alluded to that.
An overall reduction of 20 per cent in the number of homelessness applications for the latest period over the previous year is, on the face of it, very encouraging. Authorities such as North Ayrshire Council are to be commended for reducing the number of homelessness applications by 50 per cent over a five-year period. However, some concern has been expressed that that could be interpreted as evidence of gatekeeping, with homelessness applications not being accepted and people being sent down different routes, preventing them from getting access to their rights. We have been reassured that that is not such an issue here as it is in England, but we recommend that the Scottish Government and the Housing Regulator monitor the area carefully.
The particular importance of partnership working in tackling homelessness has been raised by several members and it was made clear throughout the oral, written and informal evidence that the committee received. That means partnership between housing, health and social services in dealing with problems associated with issues such as mental health, substance misuse and family break-ups, preferably through early rather than crisis intervention.
Margaret Burgess made a telling contribution on the importance of money advice and debt counselling with local authorities and advice organisations working hand in glove. Hanzala Malik and Malcolm Chisholm also mentioned that.
Does the member recognise that credit unions have an important role to play in that? Sometimes, people have money stashed away in a credit union and it is not taken into account when they are given advice in this dire situation, as we learned from the cross-party group on credit unions last week.
The member makes a very good point, with which I agree.
Partnership is also about local authorities, housing associations, voluntary organisations and private landlords working together to make the best possible use of the available housing supply. The committee believes that the five housing options hubs are well placed to take forward that agenda and we have called on the Scottish Government to continue to provide financial support for the hubs and to encourage them to develop further. We are, therefore, all delighted with the minister’s announcement this afternoon of an additional £150,000. I know from personal experience the outstanding work of the Ayrshire and south hub, particularly in preventing homelessness among young people, and consider it well worthy of continuing support.
That said, despite all the good work that has been progressed, meeting the 2012 commitment will be challenging—as will sustaining that commitment. The majority of witnesses to the committee emphasised the importance of improving the supply of affordable housing in all tenures. Although the committee welcomes the Government’s commitment to provide more affordable housing, we agreed that that commitment must be closely monitored, and we intend to assess progress over the coming parliamentary session.
Work must be undertaken to determine what can be done to encourage private sector landlords to make more housing available to those who are at risk of homelessness. Although a secure council tenancy may be the preference of many, feedback from the hubs has been that people are more willing than was expected to consider private sector options, particularly when they help to maintain links to their communities, their place of work or their children’s schools.
Improvements have already been made in legislation on secure tenancies emanating from the Housing (Scotland) Act 2010, but the committee has called on the Government to undertake a thorough review of the tenancy regime, not only to provide greater security of tenure within the private sector but to accommodate the shared tenancies that are envisaged under welfare reform.
Much evidence was presented to the committee on the negative implications of the UK Government’s welfare reform. We heard many speeches on that in the debate. COSLA considers that welfare reform alone could lead to up to an additional 3,000 homelessness presentations in Scotland, and it is clear that the Scottish Government will need a detailed plan of mitigation measures. The committee has called on the Government to provide the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee with such a plan.
We all acknowledge that the 2012 commitment represents a landmark in extended rights for homeless people, but we have more work to do. As other committee members said, the committee intends to continue to scrutinise the implementation of the commitment beyond the deadline. It is one of the most progressive policy interventions that the Parliament has made, and we must do all that we can to ensure its success.