Scottish Government proposals for new laws to prevent homelessness could represent a serious loss of rights for 16 and 17 year olds, according to Clan Childlaw, the Scottish law centre for children and young people.

As outlined in the Preventing Homelessness in Scotland report, ministers plan to make it much harder for 16 and 17 year olds facing homelessness to apply to the local authority for emergency accommodation and their own tenancy.

At present, they have two possible routes to prevent homelessness: they can ask for accommodation from social work, if they agree to being looked after by the local authority, which might mean living with a foster carer, a kinship carer, or in residential care; or, if they do not need, or want, to be in a care placement, they can make a homelessness application, and the local authority must then provide them with suitable accommodation, which depending on their needs might be supported accommodation or their own tenancy.

Under the proposals, all under-18s would be diverted to a social work assessment, which would be a requirement before they were able to make a homeless application. 

While Clan Childlaw welcomes the intention to prevent homelessness through earlier interventions, it is concerned that this particular proposal has not given enough consideration to children’s existing rights, and fails to include measures to strengthen implementation of children’s existing rights, including their housing rights.

From its experience of regularly working with children who are facing homelessness, Clan knows that for many young people, being looked after and accommodated is a suitable way of preventing homelessness. However, many 16 and 17 year olds facing homelessness do not want or need to be taken into care. Clan believes there is a risk that such children might actively avoid seeking help in order to avoid social work assessment and the offer of a care placement instead of housing. Removing or delaying access to permanent accommodation would therefore represent a regression of rights protections for this age group and risk breaching the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). 

Clan Childlaw believes that existing legislation already provides children and young people in Scotland with strong housing and homelessness rights, as well as the right to be looked after and accommodated by social work if appropriate. The issue it sees is not the adequacy of current legislation and guidance, but a failure to implement the legal duties already owed to 16 and 17 year olds by local authorities. The focus should instead be on providing a comprehensive programme of support, training and resource to implement and uphold these young people's existing housing and social work rights.

Mary Claire Kelly, partner at Clan Childlaw, commented: "We recognise the positive intentions behind these proposed changes to homelessness legislation, and that the proposals are still at an early stage. However, as Scotland’s law centre for children and young people, Clan Childlaw has a duty to speak up when children’s rights come under threat. The proposed approach to legislation represents a serious loss of rights for 16 and 17 year olds which would remove legal interventions and remedies available to children experiencing homelessness."