Garry Burns: Further housing protections required for survivors in Domestic Abuse Bill
With Homeless Action Scotland invited to submit evidence at stage one of the Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill, communications and engagement manager Garry Burns outlines the charity’s concerns in relation to the housing and homelessness element of the legislation.
The Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament is a piece of legislation which Homeless Action Scotland are generally in support of. We submitted evidence to the parliament and were invited to give oral evidence by the Justice Committee on the 23/12/20. Although we are generally in support of the bill and the policy intentions behind the bill, we feel that there are certain safeguards which are required in order to ensure that the bill protects those it is trying to protect.
The stated intention of the Bill is thus “… an Act of the Scottish Parliament to make provision for domestic abuse protection notices and orders for the purpose of protecting a person from abusive behaviour by the person’s partner or ex-partner; and to make provision for the termination of Scottish secure tenancies in cases involving behaviour by a tenant which is abusive of the tenant’s partner or ex-partner.”
The Bill in essence has been created in order to provide much needed protection to people in social housing who experience domestic abuse. It enables landlords to apply to the court to end the tenancy rights of someone who has been abusive to their partner or ex-partner. Landlords can only do this if the person who has been abused wishes to continue living in the house.
In 2019/20 there were 4832 victims of domestic abuse who presented for homeless accommodation in Scotland. It is the 3rd highest cause of homelessness in Scotland.
Homeless Action Scotland have concerns that within the bill there is not a duty on a social landlord to create a tenancy for the survivor of domestic abuse. The bill as it currently stands makes it possible for a social landlord to evict the perpetrator of domestic abuse and not offer a tenancy to the survivor. This then allows for local housing policies or practices to decide whether or not the victim is entitled to a tenancy. If the intention of the bill is to protect the housing rights of victims of domestic abuse and end the practice of survivors having to present as homeless, then the legislation has to be strengthened. If it were changed to a right of the survivor to obtain the tenancy, rather than a choice of the social landlord, this would give survivors the protection that is intended with this bill.
DAPN’s should only be issued by police as they are orders which can effectively bring about criminal charges, if they are breached. We have concerns that a housing officer will in effect become judge, jury and executioner on a person’s housing rights. If a housing officer has suspicions, concerns or evidence of domestic abuse, this should be submitted to the police. Our society has a long history in investigations and judgements being carried out independently of one another and for a good reason. Giving the power to a housing official to investigate, pass judgment and then sentence someone, in our view, creates a conflict of interest and in actual fact may be vulnerable to legal challenges at a higher court.
Should someone be issued with a DAPO/DAPN then it essentially bars them from returning to their home while the order is in place. In line with other civil orders of this type, there is no necessity for the social landlord to provide advice and assistance. Although it is not explicit within the homelessness legislation, anyone who is issued with one of the above orders would be entitled to present to a local authority where they have a local connection, for homelessness assistance. The Scottish Government has committed to making some changes to the Homeless Guidance which dictated how most local authorities exercise their homeless duties. We hope that should this legislation become law that the Homeless Guidance is changed to reflect this. However distasteful we might find the actions of an individual. Human rights are universal and need to extend to all.
Right to Move
We also believe that should the victim of the domestic abuse wish to move to another part of the area they live and the landlord has stock, then the legislation provides that they are moved. Victims of domestic abuse often feel fearful of the place where the abuse takes place. If we are trying to support victims with this legislation then not only should we be giving victims the control over their current tenancy, we should be moving them to another property that their current landlord owns if this is their preference. There may be local policies which dictate that this may be able to happen but it is our experience without it being part of the statutory legislation, victims of domestic abuse have been let down by their landlords time and again. If we are serious about protecting the vulnerable we must ensure that being given a move to another property once the victim has the SST is part of this legislation. It is not Homeless Action Scotland’s intention for this addition to the legislation to replace the eviction of the perpetrator of domestic abuse. We want it to supplement the bill by giving the victim more rights than the Bill currently offers.
The timescale that is in the legislation states that a person who is a victim of domestic abuse, only qualifies for the creation of a new tenancy after 6 months. This figure seems to be rather arbitrary believe that time is not a factor which is taken into consideration in order to be given the protections this legislation offers. In our view, a person’s rights under this legislation should be when the home in questions becomes the persons “only or principle home”. The figure of 6 months as a timescale with which to qualify for a right under domestic abuse legislation does not seem to fit with any professional understanding of how domestic abuse works. We believe that this element may be misunderstood and would hope that when the bill moves forward the arbitrary figure of 6 months is dropped from the bill.
We believe that this legislation is important in order to safeguard people from domestic abuse. However with regards to housing we believe, along with many other organisations that there must be similar legislation created which will offer similar protections to those living in the private rented sector or those who own their own home. We appreciate there are different legislative frameworks around these types of tenures, but if we can legislate to protect people in RSL and council properties, we can legislate to protect people that are home owners or renting privately.
Homeless Action Scotland believe that as there is a large component of this legislation that involves housing and homelessness that it needs to be discussed at the Local Government and Communities Committee. Throughout the various aspects of the 1st stage of this bill the vast majority of the conversations and discussions centred around the policing, enforcing and legalities around this Bill. From our perspective, we believe that it is vital that the housing and homeless element within this bill is discussed and explored.
We were invited to give oral evidence where we discussed various parts of the above argument under scrutiny from the Justice Committee, the transcript is available on this link. As a follow up to this we submitted a follow-up document which goes into a bit more detail regarding the moving of a survivor of domestic abuse which is available here.