Homeless Action Scotland: The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill 2020

With emergency legislation being passed in the Scottish Parliament this week, Homeless Action Scotland’s policy manager takes a quick look at what this means for the sector and some of the challenges services might face in the future.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill complements and supplements the Coronavirus Act 2020 (“the 2020 Act”), passed by the UK Parliament on 25 March 2020, and to which the Scottish Parliament gave its consent on 24 March 2020. The Bill will put in place necessary and urgent measures in order to address the threats posed by the coronavirus outbreak in Scotland. The Bill is to last initially until the 30th September 2020, with the power to extend by a further 6 months at a time until 30th September 2021 if parliament agrees.

The temporary measures included in the Bill are deemed essential to respond to this current emergency. Key measures relevant to housing and homelessness include ensuring renters are protected while confined to their homes by preventing evictions in the social and private sector for up to 6 months; extending the moratorium on debt relief beyond 6 weeks; relaxing timescales for Scottish social security applications, re-determination and appeal requests and relax age limits for Best Start Grant and Young Carer Grant assistance: and emergency release for prisoners consistent with ensuring public safety.

As this is emergency legislation no public consultation has taken place.

Private and Social Rented Sector – protection from eviction

More tenants in both the private and social rented sectors are finding themselves in financial difficulty due to the current outbreak and are unable to meet their obligations under their tenancy agreement. Under current housing legislation, this places them at risk of having their home repossessed by their landlord at a time when housing, health and other public services are under acute and ongoing pressure. More broadly, there is also a need to prevent the unnecessary movement of tenants during this unprecedented situation to support measures to inhibit the progress of the virus. These provisions will ensure that tenants are protected from eviction for a period of up to 6 months.

Debt relief

Individuals facing unsustainable debt will be reassured that they have full protection from creditor action whilst they consider how best to deal with their debt.

Social Security

These measures relax the timescales for clients to seek a redetermination of assistance for Social Security Scotland to make a decision on such a request and for clients to seek an appeal to the Social Security Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland about a decision made by Social Security Scotland. This will provide additional time for both clients and Social Security Scotland given the likely reduction in staff capacity and the implications this will have on the Agency’s ability to make a decision in the original timescales. The provisions also require Social Security Scotland to make redeterminations as soon as reasonably practicable.

There are also provisions to allow for late applications across all forms of assistance where the lateness is due to COVID-19. This ensures that Social Security Scotland clients are not disadvantaged and are able to claim assistance to which they are entitled to and which they may have missed out on if late applications were not allowed. These provisions should help mitigate the potential impact of COVID-19 on social security clients including those from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, such as young carers.

Emergency Release for Prisoners

Emergency release for prisoners may be considered where there is a likelihood of significant impact due to coronavirus on safety of prisoners and staff. There is a possibility of increased workload for organisations linked to the delivery and oversight of community orders post-crisis, in particular third sector bodies. Third sector bodies are also likely to be put under pressure to support prisoners released early. Every short sentence prisoner has the right to seek support from their local authority after their release, to provide assistance for their reintegration after release from prison, for up to 12 months after their release. A rapid increase in individuals leaving prison may create a surge in the number of individuals eligible to seek throughcare support from their local authority.

Broadly, these measures are sensible and reflect the unprecedented pressures on Scotland’s key services due to the spread of coronavirus. Although protections to tenants are welcomed, those living as lodgers or with occupancy agreements are not covered by the protections in this bill. Looking further ahead, there is an increased likelihood of a slew of evictions, rent increases and benefit delays that will impact people once the current public health-led restrictions are lifted.

Beyond Emergency

Once these temporary measures are lifted we are faced with both a challenge and an opportunity: what can we learn from how we have worked during a time of crisis to change things more effectively, efficiently and enduringly for those most vulnerable to or experiencing homelessness?

Across the country, people who have previously avoided engagement with services are coming forward looking for help; creative solutions to rooflessness are being found using the additional resourcing from government; there is a greater awareness of the importance of the vital role those working in the service and social care industries play in maintaining the essential structures of society; communities are coming together to support each other. There is a risk that when the temporary measures are lifted we go back to the “same old” system: people return to sleeping rough; avoidable evictions increase; flexible solutions are abandoned; and, crucially, additional financial support is withdrawn.

In order to make the best use of this opportunity to effect lasting change, at the very least, there needs to be a period of transition in order for new, flexible systems to be bedded in. Additional financial support must be found to support and strengthen the commitment to end homelessness. We cannot fall back into old ways of working. We must continue to work collaboratively and creatively to make homelessness a thing of the past.

  • Read all of our articles relating to COVID-19 here.
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