Reflections on homelessness and welfare reform in Scotland

Last week, I had the great pleasure of speaking at Homeless Action Scotland’s 14th National Conference. Speaking alongside some the architects of Scotland’s now globally renowned homelessness legislation[i] and facing an audience of 130 practitioners was both a privilege and a foreboding task, but it was an incredibly rewarding day, some of the key themes from which I wanted to share with you here.

MeI presented my doctoral research comparing homelessness policy in Scotland and Ireland. The study was prompted by a recognition that whilst Scotland’s legal rights based approach to homelessness has been held up as an international exemplar, there has in fact been little robust comparative evidence demonstrating that such approaches achieve better outcomes than alternative  approaches in practice. There is something gratifying about undermining orthodoxies or arguing against a consensus, but my analysis of the contrasting ‘legal rights based’ and ‘social partnership’ models pursued in Scotland and Ireland respectively didn’t offer me that opportunity. Instead, my findings threw into impressively sharp relief the benefits of founding homelessness policy on a set of legally enforceable and clearly stated rights.

The Scottish statutory framework – according to which all unintentionally homeless households are entitled to settled accommodation – constrains the discretion of service providers, enforcing a focus on meeting homeless people’s need for settled housing. In Ireland by contrast, where providers have overriding discretion in deciding whether, when and how homeless men gain access to settled housing, multiple considerations were brought to bear: is he ‘housing ready’ or not yet wanting to ‘settle down’? Is he ‘deserving’ of rehousing, or does he have a criminal record or addiction issues he doesn’t yet seem prepared to address? What is the ‘social mix’ like in the area he might be rehoused in and how would local residents react if he was rehoused on their doorstep?

Perhaps the Irish approach offers a more balanced pursuit of competing policy objectives, but in reality, these considerations and the lack of clear legal rights lead to inertia in homelessness services, placing numerous barriers in the path of homeless men seeking to move on from temporary accommodation. These findings are supported by other available (though limited) evidence in Ireland highlighting the small proportion of local authority social housing lets allocated to those who are homeless and the very long periods many homeless people spend in temporary accommodation in Dublin. This evidence stands in stark contrast to the figures available in Scotland, which show that in the last year 41% of social housing lets have been allocated to homeless households and that in the most recent quarter, 76% of unintentionally homeless households secured a local authority, housing association or private let as an outcome. I argued not only that the Scottish approach appears to better meet the needs of homeless households, but also that it does so whilst ameliorating the stigma of homelessness and empowering homeless households, by according them the status of entitled rights-holders, rather than grateful, lucky and relieved recipients of charity or state benevolence. This is not of course to claim that the Scottish approach is invulnerable to critique, or indeed that its effects are for every group and in every local authority so positive (see below and here).

Much of the rest of the day was understandably rather less positive. The major theme was of course the impact of the UK Coalition Government’s welfare reforms and their impacts on homelessness. Tom McInnes talked through some of the trends in welfare reform, arguing that more attention needs to be paid to the combined impact of multiple welfare reforms on particular households and that Scotland’s decision to resist Council Tax Benefit reforms pursued elsewhere mark an important new disjuncture between the welfare safety-net offered north and south of the border.

We heard astounding figures from David Webster on the recent and dramatic increased use of sanctions (including over 1000 claimants of ESA or JSA now subject to the full 3 year sanction), a high proportion of which he argues are “unreasonable, unlawful & certainly pointless”, a conclusion supported by the increased success rates for benefit sanction appeals from 17% to 42% since 2012 (though few people choose to appeal decisions). Echoing messages coming from elsewhere, during the day we heard endless anecdotes from advice and support workers about the questionable manner in which sanctions are applied.

Robert Aldridge commented further that sanctions are one of the most concerning trends we face because they are imposed through the discretionary judgement of relatively junior staff, their application therefore being unpredictable and inconsistent. Indeed, several practitioners on the day commented that sanctions appear to be being applied more heavy handedly to young people than older people, something particularly concerning given that other welfare reforms specifically target younger generations (e.g. the Shared Accommodation Rate) with the threat of more wide ranging cuts to come. There was an overwhelming consensus in the room that the gamut of welfare reforms, and particularly the sanctioning regime are likely to have significant impacts on homelessness – risking driving vulnerable households into homelessness and making life for those already experiencing homelessness even more difficult (see HomelessWatch’s recent report).

How do we reconcile these conflicting messages then? Positivity about Scotland’s achievements in homelessness and a deep concern about the future are of course both justified. It is undoubtedly true that the Scottish legal safety net is a considerable achievement and has helped numerous households access settled housing and move past the ‘limbo’ of homelessness and temporary accommodation. But while the comparison I offered with Ireland makes clear the positive outcomes associated with the Scottish approach, as Jackie Baillie (MSP and Shadow Minister for Social Justice, Equalities and Welfare) and Robert Aldridge (Chief Executive of Homeless Action Scotland) both commented “Homelessness is not a job done” in Scotland. Conference attendees raised a series of questions in response to my presentation – what about migrants in Scotland who are homeless and have no access to public funds? What about those found intentionally homeless who are not entitled to settled housing? Legal rights offer fewer advantages to these ‘outsiders’, and it is interesting to note that the absolute number and proportion of applicants found intentionally homeless has been gradually rising recently[ii].

Baillie posed further important questions : why are 9 households with children living in bed and breakfast accommodation, rather than more suitable temporary accommodation? And what happens to the 24% of unintentionally homeless households who do not secure a local authority, housing association or private let as an outcome? Acknowledging the remaining issues, Baillie called for the introduction of temporary accommodation standards and for the reintroduction of rough sleeper counts. Aldridge called for a ten year plan for the next phase of homelessness policy in Scotland that will help push forward to end all preventable homelessness and achieve sustainable solutions. While the Scottish approach to homelessness offers a clear example of how to help ensure that vulnerable people can secure decent accommodation, within Scotland this remains a time of great anxiety and concern as the strengths of the expanded statutory homelessness framework must be weighed against the impacts of a package of UK reforms that radically reshape the wider welfare safety-net.

[i] Jackie Baillie (MSP and Shadow Minister for Social Justice, Equalities and Welfare) was chair and Robert Aldridge (Chief Executive of Homeless Action Scotland, formerly Scottish Council for Single Homeless) a member of the Homelessness Task Force, whose reports informed reforms to Scottish Homelessness policy in the early 2000s.