Gordon MacRae: Do we risk diluting the rights of homeless people?

Shelter Scotland’s assistant director for communication & advocacy, Gordon MacRae, said last week’s report from the Homelessness Prevention Review Group will not necessarily safeguard and enhance existing homelessness rights and protections.

Gordon MacRae: Do we risk diluting the rights of homeless people?

Gordon MacRae

Last week’s publication of the report and recommendations from the Crisis-led Scotland Prevention Review Group (PRG) puts the need for every part of the public sector to take responsibility for stopping homelessness firmly on the agenda.

But not all the recommendations are to be welcomed. Some threaten Scotland’s unique rights framework and take us closer to the rest of the UK, where duties to prevent homelessness are often not delivered and appear weighted towards the interest of agencies and not the individuals.

As a member of the group, we have been pleased by the unanimity across agencies, people with lived experience, campaigners and third sector service providers that more can be done to plug the gap in the way in which people at risk of losing their home are supported, to avoid ending up trapped in our over-strained homelessness system.

The review is wide ranging and recommends many changes, which, if accepted by government, could bring deep and sustained positive changes to our homelessness system. We would therefore urge Ministers to move quickly to:

  • extend the definition of those threatened with homelessness from two to six months;
  • introduce the concept of suitability to permanent/final accommodation, and defining suitable accommodation as accommodation which is both affordable and accessible would strengthen the rights of homeless people;
  • introduce appeals to First Tier Tribunal to improve access to justice for homeless persons.

These are important changes and ones we wholeheartedly support. For us, the litmus test for delivering the aspiration shared by all members of the group must be that any changes will safeguard and enhance existing homelessness rights and protections.

Regrettably, in our opinion, some key aspects of the report do not pass that test. Indeed, we consider that they will significantly weaken the rights of individuals let down by the system and that they fail to learn the lessons of the prevention approaches in England and Wales in recent years.

The main areas where we oppose changing the legislation are:

  • Applying a ‘duty to prevent’ homelessness to people who already meet the definition of statutory homelessness. Scotland removed the priority needs test nearly a decade ago and there should be no need to place a further duty on local authorities to relieve homelessness that requires less than the current expectation that all people should conclude their experience of homelessness in a stable secure home. That prevention isn’t happening as we would hope should not be a reason to introduce any confusion over what is required from local authorities as this can have an unintended impact on existing rights.
  • Proposals to allow the downgrade of the current requirement for permanent accommodation with ‘stable’ accommodation. Allowing less secure outcomes such as occupancy agreements for those at risk of homelessness may be attractive in the short term for some, but they could exacerbate repeat homelessness that is at the heart of the Ending Homelessness Together endorsed by the third sector, Scottish Government and local agencies. We believe a human rights approach should seek to strengthen rather than limit the security of tenure.

Implementation and resourcing issues aside, Scotland has some of the most progressive homelessness legislation in the world and maintaining the strengths of these rights is paramount. Consequently, any proposed additional duties must be founded on evidence that they will build upon our existing rights-based framework and will not erode the hard-won rights of homeless households or place further burdens on local authorities.

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