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One strike and you’re out?

Are we moving towards a more punitive approach to social housing policy in Scotland?

In last year’s Housing (Scotland) Bill – now the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 – the Scottish Government legislated to remove the test of ‘reasonableness’ where a tenant has committed a criminal offence in the past twelve months. While not yet in force, this essentially allows a social landlord to pursue an ‘automatic eviction’ where a tenant commits a criminal offence.

Recent case law has shown the importance of considering reasonableness in eviction actions. In Glasgow Housing Association vs Mark Stuart an eviction action was successfully defended after a tenant was convicted for an isolated drugs offence. Sheriff Reid considered eviction to be unreasonable in the circumstances, concluding that:

“While there is a public interest in taking a firm approach to drug-related offences, there is also a public interest in not evicting a tenant whose contractual breach and misconduct may properly be regarded as isolated, comparatively minor, and unlikely to be repeated; whose personal circumstances indicate that the individual is otherwise able and willing to adhere to the terms of the tenancy agreement and to make a positive contribution to society; and for whom, viewed in the round, the sanction and consequences of eviction are disproportionate to the gravity of the misconduct upon which the proceedings are based”.

Sheriff Reid’s analysis of this issue sounds like a pretty sensible approach. Punishing someone twice for one instance of criminality by evicting them – and making them homeless – does not make reasonable, progressive, housing policy. Someone already punished by Scotland’s justice system is punished again by Scotland’s housing system.

But this is exactly what the Housing (Scotland) Act 2014 allows for. While we understand and agree that strong action needs to be taken in relation to criminal and antisocial behaviour in Scotland’s communities, these responses should always be effective. Should our response to a criminal offence be to evict, and make a person homeless, without taking into account whether that action is reasonable?

This is an ineffective solution to antisocial behaviour in Scotland’s communities and fails to tackle the root cause of individuals’ problems. Rehabilitation is made more difficult by putting people at risk of further crisis by making them homelessness, working against the Scottish Government’s emphasis on homelessness prevention through Housing Options.

This direction of travel is worrying. At a very minimum forthcoming Scottish Government guidance should encourage social landlords to pursue rehabilitative approaches to offending and strongly dissuade the use of ‘auto evictions’ for isolated offences. The use of ‘auto evictions’ should also be closely monitored – to ensure Scotland doesn’t slip into a ‘one strike and you’re out’ blanket policy on offending and social housing.

And finally, we should think carefully about whether this increasingly punitive approach to social housing is a direction of travel we wish to follow.