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Homelessness

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th June 2018.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by the busy minister, Kevin Stewart, on ending homelessness together: actions recommended by the homelessness and rough sleeping action group. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, thank you for the opportunity to set out our ambitious plans for ending homelessness in Scotland, following the work of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group.

Everyone needs a safe, warm and settled place that they can call home. Home is more than a physical place to live in; it is where we have roots and a sense of belonging. Home gives us our sense of wellbeing. It is the starting point for how we interact with our community and the wider world.

In a country such as Scotland, it is not acceptable for people to be rough sleeping or spending extended periods of time in temporary accommodation. We know that the effect of homelessness on people is devastating. That fact was brought home with the publication last week of a study into the links between health and homelessness, which showed poorer outcomes across the board for people who had experienced homelessness. That is why the First Minister established the homelessness and rough sleeping action group, in September last year, to recommend the actions and solutions needed to eradicate rough sleeping, transform the use of temporary accommodation and end homelessness in Scotland for good.

Everybody who is found to be homeless in Scotland is entitled to settled housing, and most people are provided with it. There has been a 39 per cent fall in the number of homelessness applications since 2008-09, largely due to the innovative and person-centred approach to prevention that is being taken at the local level. However, too many people still struggle to access the accommodation and services that they need.

We need to change how we, as a nation, look at homelessness. Homelessness is not about fault. Individuals do not choose to become homeless. That is why we must do more to ensure that our system works for those who are most vulnerable, recognising the importance of tackling homelessness as a core part of doing right by everyone in our society.

I believe that we can end homelessness in Scotland. There will always be those who require emergency housing and support as life’s events throw challenges at them, but I want to see a homelessness system that makes that experience as brief and as simple as possible. The system should provide a safety net for people when they need it in their lives, in times of hardship and crisis, but it should also support them to move on and thrive as quickly as possible.

The homelessness and rough sleeping action group rose to the challenge that we set it. In November, we received its first set of recommendations on addressing rough sleeping over the winter. Those were implemented with £328,000 of investment by the Scottish Government and action group members, which enabled targeted support for people who were sleeping rough and helped to get them off the streets and keep them safe during challenging times over one of our coldest winters ever.

That was followed in March by the action group’s recommendations on how to end rough sleeping for good. Recommendations on the transformation of temporary accommodation were submitted in May, and today saw the publication of the fourth and final set of recommendations, which set out how to end homelessness altogether.

The group has worked at remarkable pace while still involving and engaging many others, in addition to holding its regular meetings and doing significant amounts of work. In just nine months, it has produced four reports covering 70 recommendations that focus relentlessly on making improvements for people who are threatened with or are experiencing homelessness.

We have accepted, in principle, all the recommendations relating to areas that are in the direct control of the Scottish Government. In those areas in which there are actions for others—for example, councils or the United Kingdom Government—we will urge them to act and match our commitments. In particular, the six financial recommendations that were made on the funding of temporary accommodation will be developed further, in partnership with local authorities.

In addition, through the Glasgow homelessness network’s “Aye we can” programme, the action group engaged with people who have first-hand experience of homelessness. They know what it is like to navigate the homelessness system and can, therefore, see where the barriers are. I cannot emphasise enough how important I regard that work to be.

I express my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Jon Sparkes, the chair of the group, and to every member of the group for their commitment, dedication and hard work. Some members of HARSAG are in the public gallery today. It is clear that the shared vision of each member of the group to end homelessness and their commitment to social justice—which is very much shared by the Scottish Government—were crucial to their ability to work with such pace and clarity.

The context for the 70 detailed recommendations is a vision of a whole-system approach whereby prevention of homelessness is paramount and the responsibility lies not just with local authorities but with all parts of the public sector. When homelessness occurs, rapid rehousing should be the default position, as that will avoid the need for time in temporary accommodation. Recognising that some people need more than just a house and have multiple complex needs that must be addressed alongside their homelessness, the action group has made it clear that the housing first model of intensive support should be available.

For people who require the emergency safety net of temporary accommodation, their time there should be as short as possible. It should be spent in accommodation that is of a high standard and in a location that minimises disruption to their daily lives.

Earlier today, I confirmed the Government’s acceptance of the final set of recommendations, which set out actions to end homelessness altogether and address the wider risk factors for homelessness, including poverty, social security and migration policy.

This morning, I announced a significant allocation of £21 million from the £50 million ending homelessness together fund to support the transition to rapid rehousing and the housing first model. That includes a £1.5m contribution over two years from the health funding that was made available this year for addiction services, which demonstrates our commitment to joint working at a strategic level and to working across portfolios.

I am pleased that we have already begun the work that is required to take forward the recommendations of the action group. The homelessness prevention and strategy group, which I co-chair with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities spokesperson, Councillor Elena Whitham, will oversee the development of the implementation plan, which will look at not only the action group’s recommendations but those from the Local Government and Communities Committee’s report on homelessness.

Local authorities are carrying out some excellent work across Scotland to prevent and tackle homelessness. We, along with local government, the third sector and wider public sector partners, have been working hard over many years to prevent homelessness in Scotland, and I pass on my sincere thanks to everyone for their work.

All of that work is being done in the face of the UK Government’s programme of welfare changes, which is making life harder for many people across our country. By the end of the decade, an annual £4 billion in benefits will be cut from Scotland, which will push people into debt and rent arrears. The use of food banks will increase and many more folk will be pushed into crisis. Although we are spending a record £125 million this year on welfare mitigation to protect people on low incomes, much of which is being spent on mitigating the awful bedroom tax, we need to be vigilant. Reports from the National Audit Office and Crisis—to name just two organisations—have pointed to the devastating impact of welfare cuts, which is leading to more homelessness. It is predicted that the level of homelessness will rise despite our efforts to mitigate the impact of such cuts. It is vital, therefore, that we continue to work in partnership with all local authorities and continue our engagement with the housing options hubs, because that has been key to embedding a preventative approach to homelessness.

Can we end homelessness in Scotland? Aye we can. However, it is important that we get it right and that we bed in change and improvement for the long term. We need to make the most of the current opportunity and ensure that all parts of the public and third sectors are aligned in their aims and activities. We need to develop a system that helps people who need it most, wherever they are.

I am proud to say that, when homelessness occurs, Scotland already has some of the strongest housing rights for homeless people in the world. We have strong foundations and, thanks to the action group, a compelling and positive vision for the future. I look forward to working towards ending homelessness and rough sleeping in our country for good.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I thank the minister for advance sight of what turned out to be a particularly woolly statement. I also congratulate him on keeping his job.

The minister has committed to accepting the recommendations of the action group “in principle”, but he has given little detail of what he means by that. There was nothing concrete in his statement—no bricks and mortar to help the homeless.

I agree with the minister that we can end homelessness, but we need more than warm words. I will ask some specific questions. HARSAG has spoken in the past about the housing first model. The phrase did not appear in today’s recommendations, so I assume that rapid rehousing is the same thing. Can the minister say, in detail, how he plans to roll out the housing first model across Scotland? Where will it be rolled out? How many units will there be? What will be the cost?

Recommendation 6 relates to the groups that constitute the highest proportion of people who get into rough sleeping. The report talks about people who are leaving public institutions and those with previous experience of institutions such as prison, mental health services and the armed forces. The last is particularly important given that the number of homeless applicants in Scotland who were formerly in the armed services increased by 11 per cent in the past year. Does the minister have any specific announcements that would help those most vulnerable people?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

A 10-minute statement to Parliament does not give the opportunity to respond to all 70 of the recommendations that HARSAG has made.

Mr Simpson should recognise that, today, I am announcing £21 million of funding to allow rapid rehousing and housing first to be rolled out, first in specific areas and then across the country. Beyond that, we have brought together funding from other portfolios to make sure that folk who have addiction problems are dealt with in an appropriate manner and that funding follows the person.

As Mr Simpson is well aware, I have had numerous meetings with colleagues right across the Government and with stakeholders right across the country in order that we get our approach absolutely right. That means getting service provision aligned. He talked about folk who are leaving public institutions. As he will know, the care review is on-going, and I want to make sure that everyone who leaves care is given the appropriate opportunity to access housing. We are all corporate parents and have a duty—as we do to our own children, nephews and nieces—to get this right.

With regard to public institutions, Mr Simpson will be aware that the sustainable housing on release for everyone—SHORE—standards were put in place in the Scottish Prison Service in November 2017, if I remember rightly, to get it right for those who are leaving prison.

Mr Simpson talks of the need for more bricks and mortar. This Government is investing £3 billion to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, 35,000 of which will be for social rent, during this session of Parliament. That is the biggest housing programme for decades and certainly the biggest housing programme since devolution. If Mr Simpson wants to persuade his colleagues at the Treasury to release the purse strings to allow more capital spend in Scotland, I am sure that I can oblige him by spending a little bit more.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

On behalf of Labour, I would like to thank the working group chaired by Jon Sparkes for its incredible work on tackling homelessness.

Homelessness is a real crisis in our society, as witnessed every day on the streets of Scotland. The minister mentioned that this is the fourth year in a row that the number of children who live in temporary accommodation has risen by 9 per cent—those families spent an average of 204 days there. I would like the minister’s assurance that those children and families will be a priority, given that the Government has had a decade so far to deal with that.

Rough sleeping on our streets is on the rise, people are dying on our streets and homelessness becomes a matter for someone every 18 minutes. In fact, homeless applications are up 1 per cent, contrary to what the minister outlined in his statement.

Does the minister agree that tackling homelessness must be an integral part of the poverty agenda and that it must become a priority for public health? The significant rise in those with mental health issues losing their tenancies tells us that it is about more than bricks and mortar. Will the minister tell me today to what extent he plans to have discussions with the new Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to ensure that those views are represented at the Cabinet table?

Finally, recent Unison research showed that 69 per cent of council workers identified that the lack of front-line staff is a key issue in bringing those services together. Will the minister outline exactly what resources he will ensure that local government services have to deliver homelessness services? The £21 million is welcome, but how will—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must conclude; you are well out of time.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

—he ensure that the rest of the recommendations are delivered?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

The number of homeless applications fell by 39 per cent in the past decade, and it is unfortunate that there has recently been a 1 per cent rise. I share Pauline McNeill’s belief that no children should be sleeping in unsuitable temporary accommodation, which is one reason why I have already reduced the amount of time that families and pregnant women can spend in such accommodation from 14 days to seven days. I do not want anyone to be in unsuitable temporary accommodation. We must remember, however, that 80 per cent of families with children are in mainstream housing as temporary accommodation, although I want to drive that percentage much higher. Obviously, I will have to co-operate with local authority partners to ensure that we make real differences on that. It is fair to say that many local authorities are doing very well in that regard and that one or two need to do a huge amount more.

On the intertwining of homelessness services with other services, homelessness is not just about housing, so it is absolutely vital that services are aligned to ensure that people are supported in their homes. That is why I have discussed with ministerial colleagues from across portfolios, including public health and mental health, which Ms McNeill mentioned, their commitment to driving forward the change that is required. Ms McNeill can be reassured that I will continue to do that with my new ministerial colleagues.

Ms McNeill asked about the £21 million. It is for transformational change and to allow the investment needed to move to the rapid rehousing and housing first approach in a number of areas. She asked about the future. The analysis by Crisis of the housing first pilot in Liverpool said that, after a point, the use of housing first actually becomes cost neutral. We could do more to learn about other examples of that approach. I am sure that Ms McNeill would be happy if I sent her further detail on it. During the summer, I intend to go elsewhere to see what has been done in other places and to test some of the things that have been said.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

When the front-bench members ask questions, we have longer questions and answers, but I now have 10 minutes and 11 questioners, so members can do the arithmetic. I want to get through everybody, so I ask for short questions and answers, please.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I welcome the substantial recommendations in the report on reforming the funding system for temporary accommodation, which is often high cost and low quality. The recommendations include the devolution of housing benefit and greater support for those who are homeless. How will the Scottish Government map out with COSLA how that will work in practice and when does the Scottish Government intend to make representations to the United Kingdom Government on that?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I want to ensure that we understand fully the overall impact of the six recommendations on temporary accommodation and the finances for it. I have agreed to work in partnership with COSLA to gather robust financial data from local authorities, and officials will be working during the summer to gather the intelligence that will allow us to make an informed decision about the consequences of funding being devolved. I assure members that I will keep them up to date on all that. I thank COSLA very much for its full co-operation as we move forward.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

The minister said in his statement that he accepts in principle all the recommendations and will take forward any that are in his power. On recommendation 3, although many organisations that I have met agree in principle with it—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, but please just get to the question.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

This is the question. Those organisations have expressed concerns about how recommendation 3 will be delivered financially and in terms of housing stock. Does the minister have any costings for that recommendation and does he have concerns about meeting the challenge?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can I have a short answer, please?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I do not have recommendation 3 at my fingertips, but I can say to Ms Ballantyne that we will continue to talk to stakeholders to ensure that we can implement the recommendations. Some of that work will not be easy, but our partners in local government, housing associations, the third sector and right across the stakeholder group are up for it. Now is the time to take the action to achieve our ambition of ending rough sleeping and homelessness in Scotland, and we will report back to Parliament as we make progress. The Local Government and Communities Committee will undoubtedly carry out further scrutiny of our work in this area, and I look forward to that.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I welcome the statement. What specific focus will the Scottish Government give to women who have been made homeless as a result of domestic violence?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

That issue is among those that have affected me most. I met a group of women from Fife who had put together an immensely powerful report on the situations that they faced, whereby they, rather than the perpetrators of the crimes against them, were punished. We need to look at the legislation that is in place with a view to making improvements, because some of the things that are happening are unacceptable.

The homelessness prevention and strategy group, which I co-chair, will look at all the recommendations of the action group and will drive forward the action plan. A number of the folk around that table will look closely at the situation that women and families who suffer domestic abuse have faced and how we can improve their situation in the future.

Photo of Kezia Dugdale Kezia Dugdale Labour

There are 560 more children in temporary accommodation than there were last year, and I have a constituent with an 18-month-old baby who is living in the most horrendous circumstances.

Given that 70 per cent of all unsuitable accommodation breaches were in Edinburgh, what direct conversations has the minister had with the leadership of the City of Edinburgh Council to address that scandal in our capital city?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I regularly meet councillors from across the country, and I met the City of Edinburgh Council’s housing convener just this morning at the launch of the most recent set of recommendations.

I have made it quite clear to local authorities that it is unacceptable to breach the time limits on unsuitable accommodation, and I will continue to drive home that message. I know that the City of Edinburgh Council has its own action group, which has cross-party support. Significantly, a number of the members of that group are the leaders of their groups on the council. I hope that, with their help, real change can be brought about in Edinburgh.

We are investing heavily in housing here in Edinburgh, but we also need to look at allocation. Although the council’s allocation policy is right, in the sense that 73 per cent of allocations go to homeless people, housing associations in the capital could do better in that regard. I know that, in the very near future, Councillor Campbell will ask them for additional support and help, and she has support from me.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I welcome the minister’s statement. Given that tenants can be evicted via schedule 3 of the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 if their landlord or creditor intends to sells the property, or if their landlord wishes to use the property for a purpose other than providing someone with a home, such as renting it out on a short-term let, does the minister agree that private rented sector tenants need greater security than they currently have?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

As Mr Wightman knows, since I took office we have provided greater security for private sector tenants, and I will continue to look at the situation in the private rented sector to identify what more we can do. I am always willing to talk to Mr Wightman about such issues, and if he wants to discuss the matter further, I am happy to meet him.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

Recommendation 5 covers provision for emergency accommodation for the migrant homeless population that has no recourse to public funds. Does the minister recognise that that population includes a particular group: women with insecure immigration status who are fleeing domestic abuse, often with children? Such women are supported in our nation’s capital by groups such as Shakti Women’s Aid. Does the minister accept that generic provision of emergency accommodation for those women might be unsuitable? Will he look to provide a bespoke solution for them?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

There would be some difficulties around my giving a commitment in that regard today, because of the nonsense of the legislation on no recourse to public funds. It would be much better if members of this Parliament joined together to say that the UK Government’s policies on no recourse to public funds are unacceptable and should be removed.

I have talked to the UK housing and homelessness minister about the issues. Ms Wheeler has said that she is determined to eradicate homelessness south of the border. However, one of the greatest challenges that we have in eradicating rough sleeping and homelessness here in Scotland is the no-recourse-to-public-funds situation.

My officials have had discussions with COSLA and we are working our way through the situation, to see exactly what we can and cannot do. I expect my officials to report back soon on the issues.

Beyond that, my colleagues in Government have written to numerous UK ministers to ask them to get rid of the policy, which is having an impact on many people whom we welcomed here and whom we should continue to support.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

How can the work of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group, alongside the Government’s pre-existing work with local authorities, help to highlight and tackle rural homelessness?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Although there is always a huge focus on urban areas, I want to ensure that all areas of our country benefit from our strong homelessness rights, so that people in rural areas have the same opportunities as those who live in cities.

Each local authority, rightly, works to its own local context, as the action group recognised. The focus should be on the prevention of homelessness, through person-centred housing options approaches. All 32 local authorities are involved in the housing options hubs, which promote and develop best practice, to improve services.

If there are specific problems in Caithness and Sutherland, I will be keen to hear from Ms Ross about them, because although we have heard some voices from rural Scotland, we could do with hearing a few more.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

There are four more questioners, whom I would like to bring in. We must have crisp questions and short answers, so that everyone gets their shot. Mr Balfour, you set the bar.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Social Bite, in Edinburgh, has committed to developing 800 homes for the housing first model. Supporting the individuals will cost a minimum of £6 million a year. Will the minister ensure that the Scottish Government underwrites local authorities’ commitments to house and support recipients of housing support services, for as long as they need it?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Local authorities are responsible for dealing with homelessness and spending their homelessness budgets. In Glasgow, for example, the homelessness budget is some £70 million a year. We are ensuring that we put in place moneys that can transform services. It is vital that we do that.

As I said, there is evidence that the housing first model is cost neutral, after implementation. We will support not just local authorities but Social Bite and others, to ensure that we get this right. I expect local authorities to use their current budgets in the best way that they can, to ensure that we move away from spending on unsuitable temporary accommodation—we spend a lot on that in certain cities, such as Edinburgh—and focus on delivering for people in their own tenancies.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Will the minister provide further detail on how the £21 million will be used to ensure that change is implemented both quickly and at scale?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

As Ms Maguire said, we are making available up to £21 million of the ending homelessness together fund to help councils and partners to develop housing first locally. We will work closely with them to ensure that the funding leads to necessary change, and to understand more about how we can ensure that housing first programmes are sustainable alongside the wider work of housing services in every local authority in Scotland. We will also work with local authorities as they develop their rapid rehousing transition plans by the end of the year.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Labour provided £36 million to end rough sleeping in the first session of Parliament. The Scottish Government has so far provided £328,000. How much more will be allocated specifically to tackle rough sleeping and what action will the minister take to improve the measurement of rough sleeping?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

We have put £50 million into the ending homelessness together fund. This winter, we provided £328,000 to tackle rough sleeping, as Ms Baillie knows. However, it is not all about money; wrapped up in that £328,000 was personal budgeting, which gave folk on the front line the flexibility to provide for the needs of people whom they came across in the streets. That budget was £50,000—£25,000 each for Edinburgh and Glasgow. In fact, they only spent £17,000, but that made a huge difference to rough sleepers in both of those cities.

We will continue to look at such changes in delivery, many of which have worked. There will be full published analysis of that spend in the near future, which I am sure that members will want to look at very closely.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

What is the minister’s view on the action group’s key recommendations, which could mark a step change in eradicating rough sleeping and reducing homelessness?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

The key to all this is to get housing first absolutely right by ensuring not only that we give people houses, but that we give each individual the support that they require. There is commitment from officials and local government partners, from across the third sector and from all this Government, to make that work. Together, we can realise our ambition to end rough sleeping and homelessness in our country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you. I am sorry to rush you, but I had to overrun by eight minutes to fit you all in. We really must have crisp questions and answers, because that cannot always happen. I will allow a slight break while members on the front bench change over for the next debate, but it will be very brief.

There is no time for wee pleasantries, as we are moving on. You can say hello to your friends—or your foes--later.