Scotland and England's Homeless Legislation Comparison

Modified: 1st Jun 2023
Wordcount: 2931 words

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Housing in Context


This report has been prepared at the request of Stevenage Haven board members. It will outline the changes within Homelessness legislation whilst also charting the comparisons with Scotland’s legislation.

This report will:

  • Capture an overview of the historical development in Homelessness
  • Explain why a comparative approach is essential for this report
  • Summarise the social and cultural background development of Homelessness legislation
  • Analyse the economic and political drivers behind the policy
  • Make comparisons of Homelessness legislation and the underlying law between England and Scotland respectively
  • Identify lessons learnt for future trends in housing
  • Suggest recommendations for further policy development whilst taking the comparative study into consideration

Homeless Person’s Act 1977

Housing Act 1996

Homelessness Act 2002

Homelessness Reduction Act


Others, albeit working on much larger international projects, have identified that homelessness is defined and measured in various ways by different countries.  This has resulted in difficulties for international comparisons (Fitzpatrick 2009).

What the above has successfully highlighted however, is that the English definition of homelessness (and the UK as a whole) “is very wide” when compared to most other countries (Fitzpatrick, 2009, pg.158).

Since 1977 a variety of legislation has conferred on different groups of people/s different priorities and therefore differing responses to their homelessness.  Despite these various legislations however the basic foundation and divide of the statutory and non statutory homeless has remained (bold added for emphasis):

Statutory Homeless – those entitled by legal right to both temporary accommodation and then more settled accommodation to resolve their homelessness e.g. families with dependent children or a pregnancy.

Non Statutory Homeless – those entitled to advice and assistance to resolve their homelessness but not accommodation e.g. childless couples and single people with no relevant health issues.  This group can also include those who were accommodated temporarily, as above, but on further investigation were deemed to be intentionally homeless or not vulnerable (in priority need). 

(Fitzpatrick, et al., 2009).

In relation to these different legislations and related policies there are some important points of note.

Unlike other non UK countries, excepting France (Fitzpatrick and Stephens, 2007), the legally enforceable right to settled or more permanent accommodation for the English statutory homeless could be viewed as an impressive stance.

Importantly also is that officially, homelessness is defined as much wider than “rooflessness”.   In effect you can be homeless for various reasons if still in accommodation e.g. you will be homeless within 28 days (e.g. after a notice) or you have accommodation that is deemed unsuitable (e.g. overcrowding).

Additionally, the settled or more permanent accommodation provided to the statutory homeless has historically usually been social housing, this has led to debates about “perverse incentives” (Lund, 2006, pg.132).  Recent legislation in England (Localism Act 2011) has however enabled one off private rented tenancy offers, of sufficient duration, to represent settled or more permanent housing.

Possibly one of the most important English social policies in recent years has been the move to a more preventative approach to homelessness (Pawson 2009).  Following on from successes in reducing rough sleeping the prevention of homelessness was promoted heavily by the previous government (Pawson, Netto and Jones 2006) and is also supported by current government (DCLG 2012).

The concept of prevention has attracted criticism (Pawson 2009), although prior to the current economic crisis official homelessness numbers had decreased substantially and this in the light of rising house prices.  Controversy aside, prevention appears to have played a role in a large pre-recession reversal of official homeless figures (Pawson 2007).

Whilst homelessness prevention, according to good practice, is supposed to bridge the statutory divide (Pawson, Netto and Jones 2006), there is research to suggest that this may not always be the actual case (Crisis 2009).

Homelessness provision in England is offered across a wide range of bodies.  Local authorities are responsible for ensuring the main provision of homelessness services. Many other agencies are involved though, often working in partnership with local authorities.


Pre its 1999 devolution, Scotland’s homelessness provision largely mirrored that of England.

However, the first devolved coalition Scottish government set its homelessness provision on a “radically” divergent “rights based” course which attracted much international acclaim (Anderson, 2009, pg.107).

Following the setting up of a Homelessness Task Force (HTF) the Homelessness Etc. (Scotland) Act 2003 came into effect.  This act mirrored policy in England on some issues e.g. expansion of priority need groups but radically diverged on others, especially the target to abolish priority need by 2012. 

This in effect would remove a large part of the homelessness legislation inherited from and still in operation in England and would mean that all homeless households in Scotland, apart from the intentionally homeless, could legally expect both temporary and permanent or more settled accommodation offers.

In 2007 The Scottish National Party gained power.  It’s important to highlight that this change led to some watering down of the original HTF’s aims:

  • Settled replaced permanent, meaning that, as in England, private rented tenancies could be used to more permanently accommodate the homeless (The Scottish Government 2012).
  • In convergence with England homelessness prevention was adopted and appears to have resulted in falling official homelessness figures, even during a deep current recession and with the phasing out of non priority homelessness.  This appears quite remarkable (Fitzpatrick, et al., 2012).
  • The original aims to abolish local connection criteria and also offer fixed term yearly tenancies to the intentionally homeless (Anderson, 2009, pg.109) did not in fact take effect (Shelter 2013).

Anderson’s (2007 and 2009) fears that such a long term policy implementation (2003 to 2012) risked Scotland’s ambitious homelessness plans appear, at least in part, to have materialised.

However, and compared to England quite remarkably, the start of 2013 has witnessed all Scottish homeless peoples, barring the intentionally homeless, being provided with a legal entitlement to temporary and settled accommodation. 

Described as a historic” “law to end homelessness”, one prominent MP has hailed Scottish homelessness legislation as the "most progressive" in Europe (BBC 2012).  It would be difficult to contest this not only in regards to Europe but also the wider world. The effects of this legislation will undoubtedly unfold over the next few years but if successful will other European countries, including England, come under pressure to follow suit?

Scottish homelessness provision can be seen then as convergent with England in terms of the central role of municipalities, the growing role of prevention practice and the use of the private sector but absolutely divergent in terms of actual rights for homelessness applicants. 

Lessons and Conclusion

This paper suggests that there are definite possibilities to be considered when thinking about lessons England might learn from our comparative countries.

Scotland’s ambition and implementation of an almost complete safety net must be applauded.  Whilst results are yet to be definitively known this paper suggests this practice be keenly observed by English policy makers.  That does however not downplay the huge issue of where people, in large numbers in England, would be accommodated under such a brave policy and indeed, how Scotland will cope.

Whilst a unitary rental system in England may represent progress and offer a much more attractive and secure rental system, politically, it is difficult to picture this happening in such a liberal regime.

Looking at the apparent success of preventative practices this paper strongly recommends that this type of approach always represents at least one arm of official English homelessness policy.

In conclusion however, this paper predicts that future English homelessness approaches will actually be dictated by party politics and ideology.  A look at the homelessness related legislations since 1977 offers strong evidence for this viewpoint.  Therefore, in one sense, the English electorate will get the homelessness system it votes for, whether knowingly or not.

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