Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:46 am on 18th November 2022.

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Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 9:46 am, 18th November 2022

We are seeking to have a number of permissive clauses in the Bill, so that if the things that have to be done are done and they work, and we drive the rogue providers out of the market, we will not need to initiate the other measures. However, I was keen to make sure we got the hooks in the primary legislation whereby the Secretary of State could then enhance with what is needed, so that we get to the point of controlling the supported housing providers in the way that we would envisage. It has been a matter of discussion between myself and Ministers and officials to get to this point; in the original draft we were seeking to do that immediately, but we took the spirit of compromise. I am looking forward to our reaching that position, and one provision in the Bill is that if after a year no regulations are published, the Secretary of State must release a progress report and report to the House.

I also welcome the Minister’s commitment in the House this morning to deliver a licensing scheme within 18 months of commencement, and I trust that she will confirm that commitment when she responds to the debate. Regulations must include provisions giving councils the power to set up licensing accordingly. That may include a further provision that requires local authorities to set up a scheme if provisions in the regulations are met.

The regulations mentioned up to this point must have the approval, by a resolution, of both Houses. I am clear that we do not wish to impose a requirement on every local authority to set up a licensing scheme, as that may not be required immediately everywhere. The Bill therefore allows for a further provision about refusal of licences should the applicant not pass a fit and proper person test. The licensees will not be subject to other forms of licensing under the 2004 Act, and the housing benefit regulations—this picks up on the intervention from Sarah Jones—can be amended to remove or restrict entitlement. It further allows for licensing regulations to amend, repeal or revoke any enactment, should it be necessary. I make it clear that the expectation is that if providers fail to reach the standards required, their ability to change enhanced housing benefit will be withdrawn.

Let me move on to the consultation clause of the Bill, which stipulates that the Secretary of State must consult a list of statutory consultees about matters raised in regard to licensing. He or she may wish to ask for views on:

“whether the proposed regulations are likely to be an effective means of securing that National Supported Housing Standards are met, and

(b) any additional mechanisms for securing compliance”.

The current statutory consultees include the Local Government Association, the National Housing Federation and the Regulator for Social Housing. Local authorities have an obligation to have regard to the national standards and the advice or guidance issued by the Secretary of State whenever they carry out their duties regarding supported housing matters.

Let me turn to planning matters, where the Secretary of State must review the licensing regulations and, in the light of the review, consider the case for specifying exempt accommodation as a separate use class, referencing the Town And Country Planning Act 1990. In my view, there should be a requirement that providers need planning permission for a change of use, as per the Select Committee report recommendations. However, I have accepted the position that we will allow the Secretary of State to determine whether that is necessary going forward.

During the drafting phase of the Bill, the intentionality clause—this is about those who would be classified as “intentionally homeless”—caused much discussion. I was keen, having seen things at first hand with the Select Committee on the visits we made to Birmingham, that if someone is in inadequate accommodation and they take the brave leap to leave the often dangerous and compromised situation they find themselves in, they should not be found intentionally homeless. Therefore, section 191 of the Housing Act 1996 is amended so that should the departed accommodation or support be below the national standards, no intentional homelessness will be caused. Many authorities are already looking at trying to make that change, because of the scandal of these rogue landlords.

Finally the Bill addresses the sharing of information and consequent use of specified information. It enables the Secretary of State to make regulations regarding data sharing between local authorities, registered providers, regulators of social housing and the Secretary of State. Further, it allows for local authorities to use information obtained under the housing benefit or council tax functions for the exercise of its functions under the Act. This is a particularly difficult area. For example, victims of domestic abuse need their whereabouts to be kept confidential, especially from historically abusive partners. This is a particularly difficult area, but victims of domestic abuse need their whereabouts to be kept confidential, especially from historically abusive partners. Others in vulnerable positions also need confidentiality to be maintained.

Although I have briefly touched on some of these issues, I intend to cover a few possible objections to the Bill and refute them—it is always good to anticipate what people may think of raising. Understandably, the concern that good providers, particularly those of a much smaller size, will face a considerable burden and be forced out of the field was prevalent in discussions on the Bill. The worry was that, through the implementation of further regulation, the financial cost would be so great that it would not be viable for them to continue practising. Another worry was that they may have to restructure their entire business model to suffice the new regulations again, creating costs and a considerable amount of restructuring work.

A further such concern, which was highlighted throughout the research meeting for the Bill, was raised by local authorities. They were concerned that, while the scheme would be beneficial and necessary for districts where there are many providers in operation, it would be cost-ineffective for local authorities where the district contains, for example, only a single provider, which may be operating with very good intentions and providing an appropriate and respectful service. Building on that, there were discussions that the scheme would be costly for local authorities regardless of the number of providers. These costs would cover implementation, the establishment of regulation, administration recourses, and procedural measures for providers that do not comply with licensing standards as set out by the Secretary of State.

Additionally, a threat to the Bill was that, if appropriate personnel from relevant bodies could not be persuaded to join the newly established supported housing advisory panel, it would lack invested advice and appropriate scrutiny. The Secretary of State is, undoubtedly, incredibly experienced and well versed in matters within his Department. However, as much as we would like it, we do not have all the answers to everything. If a full board could not be established, it would risk losing the breadth of expertise on every potential implication of the topic.

Finally, another objection was the timeframe in which the Bill is to be enacted by the Government. There is no stipulation of a threshold in which the Government must enact the panel and release their regulations for supported housing licences. This could allow the Government to prolong the process—I am sure they would not do such a thing—allowing many rogue providers to continue abusing the system, taking high levels of housing benefit in return for providing poor quality care and accommodation to residents. The premises used for such rogue institutions are so poorly constructed that they would take minimal time to set up, allowing new entrants to the market to rinse the system before regulation is introduced in a somewhat distance future, effectively making the Bill redundant for some while.

After much consultation on the objections raised in my previous comments, along with two incredibly useful pre-legislative scrutiny sessions, which the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee held recently, we have addressed those issues and I am satisfied that, as a consequence, they will cease to exist. First, it is essential that the Bill does not harm or penalise good providers for their good work. Although I have extensively focused on the providers that are not up to par with their care provision, many, as I have said, are doing a really good job, earning the entire housing benefit they receive, going above and beyond in supporting individuals rebuilding their lives and gaining independence. In this regard, as I mentioned when outlining the Bill, some good providers will be allowed to exempt themselves from licensing schemes so as not to compromise their provision, particularly those from smaller, more intimate, not-for-profit providers. What these exemptions look like will be decided following consultation with these good providers, so that their voice and good work is front and centre of the provisions.

The objection that the licensing scheme set up by local authorities would be pointless when they have only a single organisation in their district that this would affect has also been addressed by measures in the Bill. These are that the national supported housing standards created by the Secretary of State can be adopted by local authorities directly. There are then opportunities for councils to team up with neighbouring local authorities to ensure that their resources are not being wasted. That also prevents rogue providers from jumping from one local authority to another.

To refute the third objection, that sufficient board members for the supported housing advisory panel would not be in place, having had copious discussions with boards and representatives of organisations such as Women’s Aid, the National Housing Federation, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner and many others, it was abundantly clear that there is no shortage of volunteers to serve on the board. It is in the best interests of members to have their views represented, and thus I do not deem that a problem likely to arise for the sector.

Finally, there is the objection of the lack of time constraints on the Government throughout the Bill. Admittedly, this was an area where we went back and forth with the Department several times, to ensure that the Government were efficient in providing the licensing minimum standards and to prevent the barbaric activities of poor providers from continuing any longer. I understand that today the Minister will make a number of commitments at the Dispatch Box, for which I am grateful, that these measures will be enacted within the previously agreed 18 months from the commencement of the Act. That will reassure the thousands of residents currently suffering in below-par housing.

I am pleased that that builds on the further Government commitment to give 22 councils a further £13.5 million to help them to clamp down on rogue landlords who exploit the supported housing system and fail vulnerable residents. The measure comes on top of the £6 million distributed in August to five separate council areas to build on previous pilot schemes. The new funding will help councils to step up inspections, carry out better scrutiny of housing benefit claims to ensure they are reasonable and ensure the quality of accommodation and support to residents. Along with my Bill, that will ensure that together we crack down on all malpractice in the sector.

In the last few years, with the war in Ukraine and the covid-19 pandemic, we have become more aware than ever before that circumstances and environments can change with the flip of a coin. I was therefore keen to incorporate measures that would enable the Secretary of State to appropriately update aspects of the Bill should that be needed in future. Those powers include the ability for the Secretary of State to publish amendments or replacements to the national supported housing standards, as well as to withdraw such standards should he deem it necessary.

Additionally, the Secretary of State may by regulation make provision under which a person having control of or managing supported accommodation that is located in a district designated for the purposes of the regulations and that is not categorised in the Bill’s defining features of supported housing accommodation must also obtain and comply with a licence. To ensure the appropriate use of the provision, the Secretary of State must consult the statutory consultees before enacting the aforementioned powers.

As I reach the conclusion of my speech on Second Reading, it is only right that I mention the people who have made it possible to get to this stage. It has been a long and sometimes uphill challenge, but one that has enabled me to work with some incredible people, coming together with one main goal. Firstly, the entire team at Crisis have provided invaluable support and guidance throughout the entire process. Most notably, Jasmine Basran and Sarah Rowe have both worked tirelessly on policy and logistical aspects of the Bill, providing briefings, advice and counsel, and been part of the multitudinous meetings that have taken place over the last six months. Emily Batchelor, Beth Exworth and Martine Martin have also been enormous support in arranging press releases and MP briefings on the Bill.

Justin Bates from Landmark Chambers has been instrumental in drafting the Bill with his expertise on housing, property and local government law. Having edited the erudite “Encyclopaedia of Housing Law and Practice”, there is not much about this topic that Justin is not learned on, and he has been a tremendous addition to the team working on this Bill. I also had the support of Joe Thomas from Landmark Chambers at the beginning of the process to advise on planning laws.

Throughout this process, we have had the pleasure of working with three separate Ministers with the portfolio for housing and homelessness. My hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, my right hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson and the current Minister, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan, have all been influential in getting the Bill to this point. Their advice and flexibility throughout the last six months are greatly appreciated by me and by the whole team. I have no doubt that those who have been afflicted with homelessness can trust that their views will continue to be represented passionately and devotedly by the Minister in her new role. The Officials from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities have also been a great help in drafting the Bill and agreeing the various clauses. They have engaged in countless meetings and conversations with my team, supporting and advising the Ministers effectively and efficiently on all the aspects on which we have needed to agree.

I have had the pleasure of meeting several direct witnesses of supported housing. Many of my colleagues in the Chamber today will have listened to Wayne and Ian, both from Crisis Skylight Birmingham, at the Regulate the Rogues briefing. Both of them displayed bravery and raw honesty when describing their experiences of living in supported housing. I am sure we can all agree that sharing experiences of such tough times—stories of sheer exploitation—is never easy, and I send them copious thanks for their invaluable contributions in spreading awareness of rogue landlords.

I am pleased to see that some Members from Birmingham constituencies are present, and I appreciate their giving up their time on a Friday to support the Bill. Birmingham City Council has provided much useful evidence, as well as the invitation to the Select Committee that I mentioned earlier; I also mentioned the conference that it held, sparking much constructive discussion of this issue. I particularly thank Councillor Sharon Thompson, who has done brilliant work in this area.

The Committee has been very supportive of the Bill. The publication of its report has highlighted the corruption in the sector, and has opened many eyes to the need for regulation. I thank all its members not only for their work on the report, but for the two sessions of pre-legislative scrutiny. The contributions of colleagues helped to shape the Bill and ensure that it targeted the areas I had originally hoped it would.

Let me also express my gratitude to the housing providers and interested bodies that have met me over the last few months to discuss the Bill and offer their thoughts. This has helped me to ensure that there is support from across the sector, and that their worries are addressed to prevent any unwarranted consequences that might have potentially arisen. Specifically, I thank Sapphire Independent Housing and Livingstone House for allowing me to walk around their properties, see the services they are providing, and meet many of their clients.

Finally, I thank my team in the office for their continued support—particularly Hattie Shoosmith, who joined me only in February, and who has attended virtually every meeting and been involved in virtually every aspect of this process. No doubt she did not expect that when she came to work for me.

I am sure that, after the best part of an hour—[Hon. Members: “More!”]—I have exhausted all things related to the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill, and I now look forward to hearing the comments of other Members. Let me end by saying, once again, how grateful I am to those who have offered support, and to all right hon. and hon. Members who are present today. I very much hope that the Bill will have continued support from the Government and from all parties. The message we have to send today is “Rogue landlords, your time is up”, and I commend the Bill to the House.