Scotland acts

Scotland acts

Scotland acts

First Published 01 May 2000

An inclusive approach to tackling homelessness is paying off in Scotland, says Mel Young, but people expect the Scottish executive to deliver quickly and effectively

As figures for the number of homeless continue to rise in Scotland, the pressure on the new Scottish Parliament to come up with practical solutions increases. The arrival of the new parliament gave the Scottish people something they wanted -a chance to come up with a localised social inclusion strategy which tackled the core reasons behind poverty and ended homelessness once and for all.

Scotland, a politicised nation, has always wanted a comprehensive social policy to root out inequality and the Scottish Parliament seemed to be the perfect vehicle.

As expected Labour came to power in the first parliamentary election, forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to run the country. A raft of policy objectives and promises to improve the social landscape of Scotland followed. One of the first was a promise to end rough sleeping by 2002 and the establishment of a homeless task force headed up by a government minister, Jackie Baillie, to review current policy, look at the causes and make recommendations about how homelessness can be prevented.

The task force, which was made up of a wide cross-section of people from the local authorities, health services, the voluntary sector, and the Scottish Executive along with representatives from HHSE, Glasgow University and The Big Issue in Scotland swung into action in August 1999.

The whole Scottish approach differs greatly from the one taken in England and Wales, where a civil servant, Louise Casey, has been appointed to a post known as ‘the homeless tsar’ to oversee policy implementation. Almost immediately she became embroiled in controversy when she claimed the voluntary sector was exacerbating the problem of rough sleeping rather than curing it. Without going into Louise Casey’s arguments for or against, this situation could not have arisen in Scotland because the task force takes a much more inclusive approach to its work by involving all sections of the community.

Although this can be quite painstaking at times, and indeed the recent discussions on proposals to amend housing legislation in Scotland have been very time-consuming, it means that decisions have been thoroughly examined and hopefully proper solutions have been found. Because everyone is on board from the off it means that, when it comes to policy implementation on the ground, everyone is likely to be embrace the plans fully.

Apart from an inclusive approach, another big advantage of the Scottish set-up is the speed of potential legislative change. Previously, new housing legislation might appear once during a parliamentary term of five years and aspects covering homelessness might only be included through sheer luck rather clear political thinking.

The Scottish Parliament, however, presents the realistic opportunity to come up with new housing legislation every year if necessary. With a government minister actually chairing a task force to tackle homelessness, the chance of getting relevant homeless legislation, particularly concerning prevention, on to the statute books is greatly increased.

Legislative proposals on homelessness for this year’s homeless bill include:

  • a statutory obligation on local authorities to draw up homeless strategies
  • an improvement in housing advice
  • rights for homeless people particularly those housed in temporary hostels
  • a change in the emphasis on intentionally
  • closing of loopholes created by housing stock transfers to protect homeless people and the implementation of a new monitoring role for Scottish Homes.

This is a very positive move, but much more needs to be done, particularly if the situation on the streets is to alter considerably.

The task force has set up a sub-group, the Glasgow review team, to examine the particular problems in Scotland’s biggest city. Despite making real progress economically, the city has been beset with problems associated with poverty due to industrial decline and the lack of resources to deal with them. Homelessness is a large and growing issue in the city, but proposals to bring about real change are firmly on the agenda. The city council is seriously examining long-term proposals to de-commission all the hostels in the city with a view to moving people into mainstream accommodation backed up with the necessary support.

These proposals form the bedrock of really tackling the core of homelessness in the city.

Homeless people loathe the hostels, and critics

claim they create an air of dependency, lack of motivation to move and can actually make matters worse for rough sleepers who come in off the streets. Serious shifts in policy like these and their effective application can bring about the changes which is demanded by both the public and the homeless themselves.

The challenge now for the task force is to glue together all the different strands of work and come up with a coherent strategy together with the right funding which begins to reverse the upward trend in homelessness.

The public does not have a lot of patience and the Scottish Executive needs to come up with proposals quickly if it is to keep the Scottish people behind it. A flexible legislative system, an inclusive approach, a strong political will and the necessary operating structures are in place to bring about the changes that everyone desires. If it can deliver quickly and effectively then Scotland could find itself as a world leader in terms of coming up with and implementing a social policy which defeats homelessness.

Mel Young is co-director of The Big Issue in Scotland