‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning’. In 1980 Margaret Thatcher refused to change her economic policies which saw jobs and communites sacrificed for a free market mirage. The 1980 recession hurt a lot of families in Britain and many communities still bear the scars. Three decades on and we have another recession and another lady who was not for turning.
Over the last year the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing has consistently denied there was any need for additional legal protection for homeowners in Scotland. When campaigners claimed repossession was all too often a first resort against Scottish households unable to access the Mortgage Rights Act they were ignored or dismissed.
When a pre-action protocol for repossession actions in England and Wales was announced last October not only did Nicola Sturgeon dismiss it, she claimed Scots were already better protected than homeowners in England.
Today, the Cabinet Secretary has announced the Scottish Government’s intention to ‘quickly’ introduce a Scottish pre-action protocol for repossession cases with additional legal safeguards for households facing repossession in Scotland. It’s a victory for common sense that the Scottish Government have accepted some of the recommendations from the Repossession Sub-Group report.
My only regret is that it has taken eight months of denial to get to where we are; and many Scots will have lost homes which could have been saved. But here we are and I am grateful to Cathy Jamieson, Ross Finnie, Patrick Harvie, and Margo McDonald for their cross-party campaigning for urgent change. There is no doubt that without their intervention there would have been no Repossession Sub-Group, and no policy U-turn.
Yet there is much work to do. The Scottish Government must bring forward their law reform as an Emrgency Bill under standing order 9.21. Such a Bill can be progressed extremely quickly and there must be no further delay in protecting households in Scotland from needless homelessness.
While the report of the Repossession Sub-Group is very welcome it would be a mistake to think that requiring repossession cases to call before a sheriff will of itself protect vulnerable homeowners. For example, in the first four months of this year 500 repossession cases were raised at Glasgow Sheriff Court and decrees were granted in absence in 75% of those cases. Whether they call in court or not, people will not engage for a variety of reasons.
Repossession actions are the tip of an ice-berg; beneath them will often lie a complex series of multiple debts, fuelled by unfair default charges, other payment litigation and diligence, family and personal relationships under great strain, mental and physical health problems, and a whole host of other social issues.
What people need is a package of free legal representation and advice, with money advice and care services, tailored to meet their individual circumstances. With section 11 of the Homelessness Act now in force we could offer this service to every household in Scotland threatened with repossession or eviction.
The Scottish Government is not proposing that; nor is it proposing to address the problems with civil legal aid in repossession cases, the ability of lenders to off-load unrestricted legal costs onto debtors’ mortgages, and the fact that the Mortgage to Rent Scheme has been rendered unworkable from rules introduced by them in March 2009.
Scotland has an opportunity to get this right; the prize would be the best prevention of homelessness service in the World.