Homelessness Reduction Bill (Second Reading) – 28th October 2016


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I should like to thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing this important private Member’s Bill to the House and for the work that he has done with Crisis, St Mungo’s and others. I am also grateful for his generosity in allowing me to put my name to the Bill as a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee. Judging by last Friday’s shenanigans, this might be the only opportunity for a Scottish National party Member to get their name on a Bill during this Parliament, so I am grateful for that.

We have heard a lot about the evidence from Wales and elsewhere, and I want to mention some of the work that has been done in Scotland over the past 10 years or so. We decided to abolish priority need and worked with local councils to make that happen. It has had a positive effect on the levels of homelessness in Scotland, in contrast to the rising figures in England. From 2014-15 to 2015-16, homelessness applications in Scotland decreased by 4% and homelessness assessments decreased by 5%. Overall, from 2008 to 2016, there has been a 40% reduction in homelessness applications and a 41% reduction in homelessness assessments. Those are significant figures, particularly when we consider the rises in England. There is a real contrast between what is happening here and what we are doing in Scotland.​

The evidence that the Select Committee heard in its recent inquiry was shocking and compelling. The impact of homelessness and the lack of a safe roof over your head can be absolutely devastating. As a former local government councillor in Glasgow, I know how many organisations and their staff are working hard every single day to try to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place and ensure that they are helped at that point of need.

There are still too many people sleeping homeless on the streets of Glasgow. Despite initiatives such as the Night Shelter, more needs to be done. We currently have homelessness rights hubs, which are a partnership between the council, Govan Law Centre, Glasgow City Mission and The Marie Trust. Importantly, of the people who have engaged with the hubs, 90% have been accommodated and more than 250 have seen an increased income. For homeless Scots who find themselves in London, as some do—I spoke to one such young man a few weeks ago—there are organisations such as ScotCare and Borderline, which work hard to ensure that people in London who have come from Scotland are looked after.

The Bill contains significant improvements to English homelessness legislation. I am particularly glad to see the stress put on prevention and relief duties, as well the strengthening of duties on advice and information. I hope that the Government’s stated support for the Bill will extend to fully funding such initiatives. Will the Minister confirm whether there would be Barnett consequentials to such funding? We could use the money well in Scotland.

I wish to touch briefly on some of the issues that must still be addressed before homelessness can truly be seen to be reduced. The Bill makes a valuable and worthy contribution to the debate, and builds on the evidence from Wales, but we still need action on one of the fundamental causes of homelessness: the lack of affordable housing. The hon. Member for Harrow East acknowledged that we need to increase supply, which is important.

In Scotland, we have been able to deal with the change to the duty on priority need because we are building affordable homes. Between 2011 and 2016, we have built 33,490 affordable homes, including many for social rent, and in the years up to 2021 we hope to build 50,000 more houses, both for sale and for social rent. We have abolished the right to buy, which means that those new houses are kept within local authorities’ pools, where they are available to people. Private lets are just too expensive for so many people, and that is driving homelessness.

In its submission on the Bill, Shelter said that

“the mismatch between the theory and practice of homelessness law will only deepen if this legislative change is not accompanied by significant changes to councils’ availability of suitable accommodation—if this is not addressed, we will be setting this Bill up to fail”.

I am sure that no one present wants to see that.

The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), mentioned the evidence given by young people who had experienced homelessness. All three of the young people who bravely and forthrightly gave evidence to the Select Committee—Mateasa Grant, Daisy-May Hudson and Ross Symonds—said that the priority should be to build more council housing and make private lets more affordable. ​The Government have not done nearly enough to regulate private lets, which are so expensive and are the real burden on the benefits budget.

We need to look at the structural drivers of homelessness, which relate to the end of a tenancy and the affordability of social and private rents. As Scotland has done very successfully, we must look again at the right to buy. Shelter is stressing its effect in high-value areas, which are a real pinch point for housing need. I call for the end to the cap on housing benefit at local housing allowance rates—another thing that Shelter has asked the Government to look at. This morning, Mary Taylor, the head of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, said that the LHA cap has the potential to be even more significant for housing than the bedroom tax.

Will the Government learn from what the Scottish Government are doing? Many Members have mentioned the impact of homelessness on young people, which is exacerbated by the policy to remove housing benefit completely for 18 to 21-year-olds. The Scottish Government are reversing that policy, because we have the option to do so. I call on the Government in Westminster to do that as well, because it is clear that young people are being unfairly left out and disproportionately affected.

Like other Members, I call on the Government to ensure that supported accommodation continues to be available and does not lose out from the proposals on the LHA cap.

The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) mentioned Emmaus, which I also visited last week. A lot of these organisations, including ARCH in my constituency, and Blue Triangle, which works with young people, are making an intervention that can prevent people from becoming homeless. Again, they can get people back on their feet and will ensure that they work for them as long as is necessary, and that will end that cycle of homelessness.

We need to look at services for women, particularly those who are coming out of prison and those facing domestic violence. Our Committee heard evidence that women are putting themselves at risk to avoid being on the streets—sharing accommodation with people or getting into relationships where it is unsafe for them to do so. We need to consider that very carefully. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) mentioned Home Office policy and forced destitution, and we also need to consider that, because many of the people sleeping rough on the streets have nowhere else to go, because they have no access to public funds. That is a real danger for them and they are reliant on volunteers from organisations such as Positive Action in Housing in Glasgow. I shall finish there, merely adding that the Bill is a great start but a lot more needs to be done and considered by the Government.