Malcolm's thoughts on tackling homelessness
Housing Strategy Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
One of the most worrying housing statistics that I have seen recently is that the number of people in temporary accommodation has risen to almost 11,000, which is an 8 per cent increase on last year.

As 2012 approaches, I have a great concern that more and more people might be spending longer and longer in temporary accommodation. It says in the "Code of Guidance on Homelessness" that

"Homeless people should not be placed in temporary accommodation unnecessarily, and their time there should be as short as possible",

but there is nothing in our historic homelessness legislation that says that an offer of permanent accommodation must be made within a specified period.

Our 2012 homelessness objective has been internationally acclaimed and we must not make a mockery of it by letting temporary accommodation take the strain. It should be a matter of national pride to deliver on the 2012 objective that everyone who is unintentionally homeless should be made an offer of permanent accommodation.

I urge the minister to use the imminence of that historic target to argue the case and fight for housing in the coming weeks. That means that we have to make hard choices, because we all know that budget cuts are on the way. In the debate on the independent budget review last week, I said that housing must be our number 1 priority for capital expenditure. It is obvious that that means that other things have to be regulated, so I say quite openly that, yes, housing has to have precedence over transport and other capital budgets in the next year or two.

Other sources of funding must be explored, of course, and I welcome what the minister said, particularly in relation to pension funds. The approach is certainly worth exploring, but it will not deliver in the short term.

I caution the minister against reducing HAG further. I had a conversation recently with representatives of Port of Leith Housing Association, who pointed out that if they have to borrow more and more to make up for HAG reductions, it means that the other work that they want to do, for example on mid-market rent, which is crucial in Edinburgh, will simply not be possible.

That reference takes me to Leith and Edinburgh, where every Saturday morning, at my surgeries, I hear one or more people complaining about their difficulty in obtaining a social rented house. In Edinburgh, 150 people or more apply for every house that becomes available, yet the number of new builds, which was 460 last year, is down to 300 this year, at a time when we need 800 a year. Distribution is especially crucial as we approach 2012. I urge the minister to direct whatever resources he can obtain, particularly over the next two years, towards councils with the greatest supply shortages.

It is not just supply that is important as we approach 2012. The homelessness task force emphasised the prevention of homelessness. A great deal of work from 2003 onwards was carried out on prevention. Councils tend to think, in the first instance, of crisis-driven reactive work, but it is also important to engage in longer-term proactive work. I discussed that recently with representatives of Move On, an organisation that is based in my constituency but which also operates in Glasgow and elsewhere. It has become increasingly aware of the importance of proactive work and is doing excellent work in that field, such as a housing education project in schools, visitor support services and homelessness and employability activity.

Over the years, supporting people money has also been important for prevention work. I have expressed concerns previously about the ending of the ring fencing of that money. Over and above that, the Government has failed to put in place a means of recording how housing support is being implemented across Scotland. It was recommended in the 2007 evaluation of homelessness prevention activity in Scotland that there should be more recording of prevention work by councils throughout Scotland. I would welcome any information that the minister has about how those recommendations have been implemented since then.

The minister referred to another statutory housing obligation, the fuel poverty target, which is the abolition of fuel poverty by 2016. I accept it when the minister says that he does not possess all the levers to deliver that objective, but I point out that slashing the energy assistance package budget by 10 per cent last year took us in absolutely the wrong direction. I hope that the minister will use the fuel poverty target in his arguments with the finance secretary over the coming weeks. In fact, as I listened to the minister's speech, I thought that it was, to some extent, addressed to the finance secretary. I am therefore confident that the minister will fight for housing. I urge him again to use all our statutory targets relating to housing to argue the case for housing over the next few weeks.

Action on housing supply and fuel poverty would show a willingness to protect the vulnerable at this time of cuts. We must follow that underlying principle as we make difficult spending decisions over the next few months. If we act to protect the vulnerable, we will be acting in exactly the opposite way from the UK Government. It is something that we should be determined to do.

I do not have time to refer to the housing benefit cutsó

The Deputy Presiding Officer:
You can if you wish.

Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
I could speak at great length about the fact that the UK Government is cutting too far and too fast, but I will stick to housing benefit because that will have implications for the subject that we are discussing today. Like our Westminster colleagues, we must take up those arguments. The many different effects of those cuts have not really sunk in. However, one that was mentioned to me by an official in Edinburgh this week is that, although most of what is available for single people in Edinburgh is two-bedroom accommodation, under the new housing benefit rules rent for a single person will be paid only for one-bedroom accommodation. That is one of many changes that will have a devastating effect on the supply of housing. We need to fight on housing, and against the scale of the cuts, at the Westminster front. In Scotland, however, I urge the minister once again to fight for housing and argue that housing should be the number 1 priority for capital expenditure.
September 16th 2010, (Column 28607-10)