Actions we will take 2: we will prevent homelessness from happening in the first place
The importance of prevention in the current climate
Prevention of homelessness remains at the heart of our updated action plan. Shifting the balance of services and response towards prevention is more important than ever given the current public health crisis and the rapidly developing economic crisis.
Social restrictions are necessary to reduce rates of new infections; however, social connections are important for our wellbeing. Losing these connections can have serious mental and physical impacts, which may increase the risk of homelessness. The impact of the social restrictions on those experiencing domestic abuse – known to be a driver of homelessness, particularly for women and children – has been shown to be severe, with abuse increasing in frequency and intensity.
Individuals and families across Scotland are facing financial insecurity and this may affect their ability to sustain their tenancies and remain in their homes. In June 2020, the Scottish Government published analysis of the economic impact of the labour market effects of COVID-19, highlighting that low earners, women, younger people, minority ethnic people, disabled people, those living in deprived areas and lone parents are at higher risk of being affected financially. As well as the coronavirus outbreak, the continuing impacts of UK Government welfare cuts combined with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union will increase pressures on many households.
We have taken action with partners to support people facing difficulty through a range of measures introduced since the start of the outbreak. These are covered in more detail later in this chapter, but include financial support and advice; access to food and fuel; and support for community anchor organisations through the £350 million communities funding package. As we plan for the next phase of the pandemic and the economic impacts, it is vital that partners across the housing sector take steps to prevent any increases in homelessness both among those already facing challenges and those who may be newly affected.
Causes of homelessness
Homelessness is caused by a range of challenges in people’s lives – which can be complex and interrelated – such as poverty, inequality, relationship breakdown, job loss, bereavement or as a result of domestic abuse. Other factors – the UK Government’s welfare cuts; rising housing costs; access to mental health services, physical health treatment and social care – play a role in whether or not a household reaches crisis point.
Homelessness has a financial cost but it also has a considerable human cost in the shape of increased isolation, barriers to employment and education, and risks to mental and physical health. When homelessness does happen, it is vital to act quickly to prevent the situation worsening and leading to a cycle of repeat homelessness.
Homelessness prevention in Scotland
We are building from a strong base. The Scottish Government published statutory guidance on the prevention of homelessness in 2009 and an updated code of guidance in 2019 to guide local authorities in their duties to assist people threatened with or experiencing homelessness. We know that good quality housing management services can have a positive impact on tenancy sustainment, particularly where policies and procedures reference homelessness prevention as an objective.
Local authorities continue to place great emphasis on prevention services. Over the last 10 years, far greater resources have been invested in prevention activity and the recently introduced rapid rehousing transition plans have prevention at their heart. Local authorities have been focusing on homelessness prevention through their work on housing options and intelligence is shared through the housing options hubs. This will have contributed to the decrease in the number of homeless households from a peak in 2009-10 (43,564 households) to 2015-16 (28,609). More recently, we have seen slight increases in the numbers of homeless households (see annex 1 for more information). This is a sharp reminder to all partners why prevention work must remain a priority.
We will continue to assess the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 and the economic recession on people’s housing stability and risks of becoming homeless, and develop appropriate measures, including legislation where appropriate, to prevent homelessness.
Gender and homelessness prevention
The biggest difference between men’s and women’s homelessness is the impact of domestic abuse, which is the most common reason for women making a homelessness application. Scottish Women’s Aid has reported an increase in enquiries to its domestic abuse helpline during the pandemic, and women’s aid members have heard from callers that restrictions on movement have created opportunities for abusers to exert greater control. We will continue to implement our Equally Safe strategy, to prevent and eradicate all forms of violence against women and girls. In April 2020, we launched a stakeholder toolkit to raise awareness of the support and assistance available to victims of domestic abuse, so that people know they do not need to wait to seek help during the current coronavirus situation.
We are taking action to prevent homelessness as a result of domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill is intended to improve the protections available for people who are at risk of domestic abuse, particularly where they are living with the perpetrator. The bill intends to provide the courts with a new power to make a Domestic Abuse Protection Order. This can remove a suspected perpetrator of domestic abuse from the home of a person at risk and prohibit them from contacting or otherwise abusing the person at risk, providing those at risk of domestic abuse with some certainty about their protection. In addition, the bill introduces the transfer of tenancy provisions for social housing tenancies, creating a new ground on which a social landlord can apply to the court to end a perpetrator’s interest in a tenancy or joint tenancy, thereby enabling the victim to remain in the family home where they wish to do so.
In February 2020, we held the first meeting of a group chaired by Scottish Women’s Aid and the Chartered Institute of Housing to prevent women and children experiencing domestic abuse from becoming homeless. The group agreed to develop recommendations on how we can work together across the public and housing sectors to improve the housing outcomes of women and children experiencing domestic abuse. The group is considering how to support women to stay in their home as the default approach and how to put Domestic abuse: a good practice guide for social landlords on a statutory footing. The work of this group was put on hold in the early stages of the crisis, but resumed with urgency in June 2020 due to concerns about increased levels of domestic abuse. The group’s recommendations in relation to social housing are expected later this year and will be followed by the publication of an implementation plan. The group will then develop recommendations for the private rented sector.
Scotland’s housing minister wrote to all local authorities in May 2020 to encourage them to develop local plans to ensure people experiencing or at risk of domestic abuse can immediately access housing advice, support and emergency accommodation if needed.
We know that housing support is important for women involved in prostitution. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on challenging men’s demand for prostitution, working to reduce the harms associated with prostitution and helping women to exit prostitution. As a result of COVID-19, women involved in prostitution have had greater concerns about paying rent and bills, in addition to the stigma they may experience. Housing and other partners across the Scottish Government will work together on the actions in this plan to ensure that our work is closely aligned.
In addition, there is joint work being undertaken by the Scottish Government and COSLA to develop and implement human rights-based accommodation pathways for women and children with no recourse to public funds who are experiencing domestic abuse.
Tenancy sustainment, money advice and income maximisation
Preventing people from losing their home remains a priority in our efforts to end homelessness and rough sleeping. An important way of doing this is ensuring the right tenancy sustainment support is available at the right time.
We know that it often makes more sense to redirect the money that landlords spend on pursuing rent arrears through the courts, tackling difficult behaviour and reallocating properties to activities that help people sustain tenancies. Measures to support tenancy sustainment include signposting tenants to income maximisation and debt management services. Housing officers in the social rented sector have an established track record of helping people to sustain tenancies with early action. To encourage adoption of effective early prevention approaches, we will share innovative and successful examples of early prevention and effective tenancy sustainment work, such as cross-sector ‘early warning systems’ for people in arrears to ensure they receive the support they need to sustain their accommodation. There are opportunities for partners, including Jobcentre Plus, health and housing providers and food bank providers, to work together to share information. This quickly alerts them to households at risk of homelessness, allowing effective prevention activity to be put in place.
Housing options guidance is clear about housing officers’ roles to consider affordability for each household’s housing options assessment, whether social or private rented accommodation is sought.
We have already made an extra £22 million available to enable local authorities to increase the financial support available through the Scottish Welfare Fund. People in Scotland who require help in a crisis or to establish or maintain their home can receive a community care grant through the Scottish Welfare Fund. These grants can help people set up or keep a settled home by covering the cost of floor coverings, beds and bedding and white goods.
In 2020/21, the Scottish Government is investing over £10 million in welfare and debt advice services. This funding covers projects such as the Money Talk Team, delivered by Citizens Advice Scotland, which offers advice on benefits and entitlements, dealing with debt and ways to reduce household bills. The £10 million investment also includes an extra £2.4 million for money advice services – announced in August 2020 – to enable more people to benefit from free debt advice. We and our partners will continue to ensure people have access to money advice to help them avoid arrears.
UK Government welfare reforms continue to frustrate our efforts to prevent and deal with homelessness. The five week wait for universal credit leaves people in low income households without enough money to cover the basics. This makes it harder for them to pay their rent. The local housing allowance rate cap limits accessibility to private rented accommodation in many areas of Scotland. The shared accommodation rate rules mean that younger claimants who want to live alone face difficult choices. The benefit cap sets a limit on the total amount of benefits that an individual can receive. The bedroom tax means housing benefit and the housing element of universal credit are limited for certain tenants.
While we have fully mitigated the bedroom tax in Scotland through discretionary housing payments, we continue to push the UK Government to abolish the bedroom tax at source. This year we have made almost £19 million available through discretionary housing payments to enable local authorities to support tenants affected by the local housing allowance rates that apply in the private sector (including the shared accommodation rate rules) and tenants whose award is reduced by the benefit cap.
Despite these mitigation measures, there are still areas of concern that only the UK Government can fix, including the initial five week wait for universal credit payments, which can put new claimants immediately in debt.
The Scottish Government has given people the option to participate in Universal Credit (Scottish Choices). This means people can choose to have their universal credit paid twice monthly instead of monthly and to have their universal credit housing element paid directly to their landlords. This can reduce the potential for rent arrears.
The Scottish Government is currently considering how best to deliver split payments of universal credit in Scotland. This will offer couples the choice to split their household’s payment of universal credit into individual payments to reflect the needs and responsibilities of each person. These measures can reduce the potential for rent arrears, but cannot fix all the problems with universal credit. We followed this with a new £10 million tenant hardship loan fund to support people struggling to pay their rent as a result of the pandemic. The fund will offer interest-free loans to those unable to access other forms of support for their housing costs.
Discretionary housing payments, the Scottish Welfare Fund and the tenant hardship loan fund will remain available for tenants who need help to pay their rent and living expenses, including where they have accrued arrears for reasons related to the pandemic. We know that compared to the legacy housing benefit system, the universal credit system makes it harder for local authorities to target households who could benefit from discretionary housing payments. The Scottish Government and local government will work together to improve access to, and awareness of, financial assistance for tenants.
To encourage greater uptake of discretionary housing payments, the Scottish Government will work with COSLA and local authorities to introduce shared and more streamlined application processes.
The Scottish Government will also use information sharing powers to help local authorities target people who are most in need of support, and encourage them to apply for discretionary housing payments.
The homelessness prevention fund
The Scottish Government’s homelessness prevention fund, administered by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, was launched in August 2020. It will provide up to £1.5 million over three years to Scottish housing associations, social landlords and cooperatives to support development of programmes to prevent homelessness. Proposals are expected to target households most at risk of poverty and support delivery of the recommendations from the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group. We will make the first awards from this fund later in 2020.
We will support the social housing sector to identify and support households at risk of homelessness before they reach crisis point, including through the homelessness prevention fund.
Protection for tenants in the social and private rented sectors
Tenants across the social and private rented sectors need time to find solutions to pressures they may be facing as a result of COVID-19. We have therefore introduced a range of protections specifically for tenants. These include temporary measures around protections from eviction; new pre-action protocols for private rented sector landlords; protections against evictions for tenants with agreed arrears repayment plans; and discretionary powers over eviction for the First-tier Tribunal.
Through the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, the Scottish Government increased the notice period across all eviction grounds in the private and social rented sector for up to six months. By extending the notice periods landlords must give, the Scottish Government has ensured that tenants have time to access available support and can plan for the longer term. The legislation was initially in place until 30 September and the extended notice periods and discretion for the First-Tier Tribunal in repossession cases will now be extended for six months, expiring on 31 March 2021. The extension of the eviction notice period underlines our commitment to do all we can to support people at risk of becoming homeless.
We recognise that serious antisocial behaviour has a severe impact on neighbours and communities and affects the everyday lives of those who are subject to it. We want to ensure that where landlords have clear evidence of antisocial or criminal behaviour that cannot be resolved by other means, they are able to take action to end a tenancy. To enable landlords to do this, the notice periods for initiating eviction action for antisocial or criminal behaviour are being reduced from three months to the pre-coronavirus period of 28 days.
We will set up a cross-sector project to establish mechanisms for avoiding evictions into homelessness from the private and social rented sectors and take forward the necessary actions.
The Scottish Government has created two dedicated web pages with information on tenants’ rights:
The Scottish Government recently launched a social media campaign on financial support and tenancy rights. The campaign was organised jointly with Citizens Advice Scotland and signposts people to a range of advice and support. This followed a tenancy rights awareness raising campaign that took place when the emergency legislation protecting renters first came into force in April 2020. We are currently planning further awareness raising activity in this area.
Section 11 of the Homelessness etc (Scotland) Act 2003 requires social and private sector landlords to give notice to the local authority of their intention to seek repossession of a home, in order to give the authority warning of the need to provide information and support to the tenant at risk of homelessness. In 2019, a project was conducted to explore whether enhanced practices relating to section 11 could help prevent evictions and homelessness. The project, funded by the North and Islands homelessness and housing options hub, resulted in the publication of process guidance to support improvements to the section 11 process in the social rented sector. The the learning from this is also relevant across the private rented sector.
Specific support for tenants in the private rented sector
The private rented sector plays an important role in Scotland’s housing market, offering choice and flexibility. However, affordability remains a concern for some tenants, especially those on lower incomes. We know that people from non-white backgrounds are more likely than people from white backgrounds to live in the private rented sector. There is evidence too from the Office for National Statistics that renting households are less likely than homeowners to have enough savings to cope with a fall in employment income. A survey commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in June 2020 showed that in the private rented sector in Scotland, almost half of tenants (45%) had seen a drop in their incomes since March 2020.
The Scottish Government introduced a range of significant reforms through the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 to improve the private rented sector. The act introduced the most significant change in private renting in 30 years, giving tenants a range of new rights and greater security, stability and predictability in their rents as well as introducing measures to tackle increasing rents. This included the new private residential tenancy from 1 December 2017, which limits rent increases to once in 12 months, with three months’ notice required; enables tenants to challenge unfair rent increases for adjudication by a rent officer; and provides local authorities with discretionary powers to designate an area as a rent pressure zone.
The Scottish Government is conducting a review of rent pressure zone legislation to examine how it can be made more workable. To support this work, we are considering how to improve data collection in the private rented sector. We also expect the Social Renewal Advisory Board to provide a view on the role of rent control or rent capping in its recommendations.
We will look further at affordability in the private rented sector, building on the work to set up and review rent pressure zones.
More recently, we have introduced private landlord pre-action protocols – similar to those already in place in the social housing sector. Private landlords who wish to end a tenancy due to rent arrears that have occurred as result of the pandemic will be required to comply these protocols. This will ensure that, before seeking repossession of a property on the grounds of rent arrears, landlords make reasonable efforts to work with tenants to manage arrears.
We will assess the impact of temporary pre-action protocols in the private rented sector, including exploration of any unintended consequences, to inform the development of permanent pre-action protocols. This will require primary legislation.
The provisions to ensure that all cases going before the First-tier Tribunal are discretionary have now been extended to March 2021 and can be extended again, should the Scottish Parliament agree, to September 2021.
We will support the First Tier Tribunal to improve transparency around outcomes for tenants through better use of data.
A range of support and advice is available for people living in the private rented sector during the pandemic:
In August 2020, the Scottish Government published a resource for private rented sector tenants which provides information about support and advice for those living in the private rented sector during the COVID-19 pandemic: Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for private tenants, hard copies of which were sent by post to private rented properties across Scotland. The toolkit is a collaboration between Public Health Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland, Shelter Scotland and Scottish Government.
To help facilitate dialogue between tenants and landlords around rent difficulties, SafeDeposits Scotland has launched a free resolution service.
We will also work with the Everyone Home Collective and partners to support development of the third Everyone Home Collective route map, which will be focused on creating more housing capacity, better conditions and improved security within the private rented sector. We expect this route map to be published by the end of 2020.
Social housing sector rent setting
Individual social landlords determine their own rent setting policies and rent levels and have a legal requirement to consult with their tenants and tenant organisations on rent levels. The Scottish Social Housing Charter sets out the standards and outcomes that all social landlords should achieve and requires them to consider rent affordability. Social landlords are expected to strike a balance between the level of services provided, the cost of the services, and how far current and prospective tenants and service users can afford them. The Scottish Housing Regulator monitors performance against the charter and ensures social landlords consider affordability in their business planning. We will review the Scottish Social Housing Charter during 2021.
The monthly reports from the Scottish Housing Regulator on the impact of the virus on social landlords suggest that rent arrears are beginning to increase. This trend is likely to continue as the full economic impact of the pandemic is felt. The data collected by the social housing sector is building our understanding of the difficult situations households are facing and continues to inform development of solutions. We will continue to work with the regulator to monitor and respond to any increases.
We have heard from those with experience of homelessness that, to be effective, prevention must take account of life transitions (e.g. leaving care, hospital, prison or the military). We need to support people to maintain a tenancy when they face particular risks (e.g. women and children experiencing domestic abuse) or when challenges arise (e.g. rent arrears or antisocial behaviour). We need to improve housing outcomes for those in the most difficult circumstances, and help sustain these positive outcomes, preventing homelessness and repeat homelessness.
We will continue to work with partners and appropriate public institutions to develop and implement gender-sensitive and targeted preventative pathways for the groups at particular risk of homelessness and rough sleeping.
- Women and children experiencing domestic abuse
- People leaving prison
- People leaving care (published in 2019)
- Young people
- People leaving hospital
- People leaving asylum support
The prevention pathway work for veterans will start later in 2020 and the pathway work for people leaving hospitals and asylum support will start in 2021.
As part of this work, we will also develop rapid protocols with public institutions (including prisons and healthcare settings) so that people are not discharged without a managed housing pathway in place. In addition, we will explore how Housing First can help support smooth transitions from institutions when people have more complex needs.
We will test, learn from and improve the homelessness prevention approaches recommended in the pathways, as we provide this targeted support to the groups at particular risk of experiencing homelessness. To increase impact, we will create partnerships across the public sector to put in place the joint actions needed.
People leaving prison
We will continue to work with people with lived experience and with the Scottish Prison Service to support the delivery of the Sustainable Housing on Release for Everyone (SHORE) standards. We initiated a review of the implementation of the SHORE standards early in 2020. This was paused due to COVID-19, but we now intend to pick up this work and learn from the experiences of early prisoner release over recent months, through local authorities, Scottish prisons, criminal justice and the third sector.
The work on improving housing outcomes for women and children experiencing domestic abuse began in February 2020 and we expect to receive recommendations relating to social housing by the end of this year (see gender and homelessness prevention section above).
Improving housing pathways for young people
The ‘A Way Home Scotland’ coalition published the completed Youth Homelessness Prevention Pathway: Improving Care Leavers’ Housing Pathways in November 2019, setting out a number of recommendations for actions to help prevent homelessness among care leavers and improve their housing outcomes. The Scottish Government is now working with a partners to take forward the recommendations in the pathway, to align with plans for implementation of The Promise.
The coalition is currently developing a housing pathway for young people. This includes consideration of a range of affordable housing options and housing pathways for young people, such as flat sharing, community hosting and other non-institutional accommodation. We know that a number of local authorities already have young person pathways included in their rapid rehousing transition plans. The coalition will build on existing good work and consider the development of youth housing protocols and access to mediation. Recommendations will be submitted later in 2020.
Prevention Review Group
We want the prevention of homelessness to become the business of all relevant public bodies.
We have already committed to developing a new duty on local authorities, public bodies and delivery partners for the prevention of homelessness. In October 2019, a review group was established to make recommendations for the development and implementation of a new prevention duty on local authorities and wider public bodies.
The group, convened by Crisis and chaired by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick of Heriot-Watt University, has been engaging extensively with stakeholders, and the views of the Prevention Commission (providing lived and frontline experience) have been essential in shaping the proposals. Areas the group has looked at include health and social care, community justice, children’s services and multiple and complex needs. The group is exploring changes to legislation that allow for more flexible and wide-ranging support and assistance being provided to people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. This includes a greater emphasis on choice for individuals and families.
As part of its work the group is considering strategic planning within local authorities and across relevant public bodies to ensure that duties to prevent homelessness are supported by other public services. In addition, the group will explore ways to ensure households are no longer evicted from social or private rented accommodation into homelessness – including through regulation. We will share best practice among landlords on the most effective ways to achieve this.
We expect to receive the recommendations from the review group in November 2020 and we will respond and set out our next steps in 2021. This will include evidence of likely impact and an assessment of the regulatory framework that a prevention duty would sit within.
Action for the UK Government
A properly functioning welfare safety net is crucial in preventing homelessness. The Scottish Government will continue to challenge the UK Government to reform its fragmented welfare system.
We have urged the UK Government to strengthen the social security system in light of the COVID-19 emergency. In particular, we have asked the UK Government to increase local housing allowance rates; suspend the benefit cap; end the five week wait for benefits to start; scrap the bedroom tax; suspend the shared accommodation rate; enable the three-month rule when claiming universal credit; and extend the current suspension of direct deductions from benefit to repay third party debts. We are also asking the UK Government to maintain the temporary £20 a week increase in universal credit and extend it to legacy benefits.
We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to extend the furlough scheme to prevent thousands of people in Scotland from losing their jobs. We have also asked the UK Government to implement an extension to provide help for the sectors that have been most heavily affected. Unlike the Scottish Government, the UK Government has the borrowing powers necessary to fund the extension of the job retention scheme – vital to protect jobs and livelihoods. Scottish Government analysis shows that extending the scheme by eight months could save 61,000 jobs in Scotland.