Housing Association Tenants: Complaints Mechanisms

– in the House of Commons at 8:02 pm on 23rd January 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Nigel Huddleston.)

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education) 8:03 pm, 23rd January 2023

I am extremely grateful to have been granted this debate.

I hope that it is fairly uncontroversial to state that everyone, regardless of their tenure, has the right to live in a decent, good-quality home. In recent weeks we have seen a litany of damning stories about the quality of housing provision in this country. No doubt there is poor-quality housing in every type of tenure, but social housing appears to be at the brunt end of this crisis of quality, although I might also mention one or two other areas. One in eight homes in the social housing sector fails the decent homes standard, which the Government website describes as

“setting the minimum standards that social homes are required to meet”.

Even by that lowest of bars, a combination of housing associations, successive Governments and construction companies are failing social tenants. It is a damning indictment of the state of the UK’s current social housing stock, and, unfortunately, the situation hardly looks likely to improve. Compared with 17% of tenants in the private rental market, 26% of social tenants report being dissatisfied with the way in which their landlords carry out repairs and maintenance. I think the House will agree that those are striking statistics.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this issue. Does he agree that Government housing benefit funds are going to companies which are not taking care of their tenants, and that that is a problem not only for the tenants but for the Minister and the House, given that accountability is essential and the complaints procedures must be fit for purpose before any housing benefit is granted?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is right. The trouble is that there is almost a vacuum at present. I am sure that what I am pressing for would carry a great deal of weight throughout the House were it better populated at this time of night.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ own English Housing Survey reveals that 43% of tenants—just under half the total—choose not to make a complaint because of the hassle and time involved, and 63% are then unhappy with the response. I apologise to Jim Shannon for not having the statistics relating to Northern Ireland, but perhaps he can look into that and share them with me at some point.

Many of the cases that I want to highlight this evening stem from the deep dissatisfaction felt by many social tenants. They are all constituents of mine, but I have no doubt that the issues raised this evening will resonate with many beyond the borders of my constituency.

Last Friday I met a constituent from a development operated through Stonewater housing association who finds himself bearing the brunt of a completely inadequate complaints mechanism. Eight years after my constituent moved in, no work had been carried out to address several persistent structural issues in the property. Eventually, Stonewater carried out improvements which cost £330,000 and charged 24 properties in the building for the work, equating to just under £14,000 each. Stonewater has given each resident until the next financial year to pay the full amount, despite much of the work being substandard or unfinished. Disappointingly, Stonewater has not yet responded to complaints about its remedial work, and my constituent is left with a substandard set of repairs and an enormous, looming bill.

In another—particularly worrying—case, a 95-year-old constituent was living in a property managed by Orbit Housing Association. It was covered in damp. The walls were so wet that my constituent’s grandson claimed that the support bars she used to get on and off the toilet could have given way. Partly owing to significant damp arising from a leak upstairs, one evening the bathroom cabinet fell off the wall and narrowly missed hitting my constituent. Orbit had previously visited the property and added some new paint and sealant, but had not addressed the underlying problem of the damp.

When I visited the property myself, a month on, the issues remained. Seeing the nature of my constituent’s accommodation—including the bathroom in which this 95-year-old was having to survive—I was in a state of shock. Short of refitting the whole bathroom, the repairs were simply a sticking plaster, leaving my constituent in a home totally unfit for a frail 95-year-old woman.

I could go on, because the issues identified in those two developments are not strictly limited to social housing tenants. I have heard from residents in affordable housing, new-build developments and right-to-buy properties, all of whom are suffering similar problems with raising complaints.

Unfortunately, the issues I have just highlighted seem to represent yet more consequences of a failed housing market and permanent underinvestment. Over the past decade, money has been directed away from secure, affordable social homes to unaffordable homeownership products. Investment in social housing has dropped from £13.7 billion in 1979-80 to £5.1 billion last year, based on today’s prices, with 79% of spending up to 2020-21 reserved for the private sector. Is it any wonder, therefore, that housing developers are making record profits, with limited mechanisms to hold them to account?

I understand that the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill currently going through the House provides one potential avenue through which the social housing sector can be reformed. Many of the changes proposed in the Bill are broadly welcome, if not long overdue. I am pleased that the Government recognised the need for a professionalised social housing sector in their social housing White Paper in 2020. A professionalised housing sector, with managers undergoing continuous professional development, will likely improve services, allowing residents to be treated with the care and respect they deserve when lodging complaints. I also understand that in the Lords the Government tabled a new clause to the Bill on professional standards, and that they are considering further changes on Report.

If the Department is working on this, what specific steps is the Minister taking to improve the complaints mechanisms available to social housing tenants, either in further amendments to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill or otherwise? Likewise, what progress, if any, has the Minister made on reversing the 63% dissatisfaction rate with the complaints process identified in her own Department’s English housing survey? Will the Minister meet me to discuss the difficulties that my constituents are facing and to allow them to feed in their suggestions for how the process can be improved?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate and am grateful to him for doing so, because I share his concerns. L&Q runs the development on the old dog track in my constituency of Chingford. The service charges are astronomical; they are higher than the costs faced by people who have managed to get the capital together for a mortgage. This is a good illustration of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The housing association took three years to acknowledge people’s complaints about the terrible problems, including windows that did not fit the building and issues with heating, so they feel that they are not being represented. Councillor Catherine Saumarez has been raising this issue with me and the authorities for some time. Where do people go when they cannot get redress and are spending money without getting the sort of place or standards that they expected?

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his extremely valid and pertinent point, and I appreciate him highlighting to me that he wished to come in on it. The real challenge is that so many people feel completely disempowered by what were the friendly societies of yesteryear—they expect better from these housing associations. They believed that they would be easier to deal with than the private rental sector and that the service they received would be better protected, but the opposite seems to be the case.

I am driving at the fact that the Bill gives the Government an opportunity to legislate to ensure that developments and organisations such as L&Q put in place a structure such that tenants have recourse to come back on these issues. The scale of the problem, as I said in my opening remarks with the percentages I mentioned, is staggering, and people are living in absolute misery as a result.

It is not just housing association developments that suffer from a lack of clear dispute mechanisms. I want to give a particular example of a shared ownership development in Leamington. I will keep its name anonymous. Apartments were being offered, claiming to be built to the “highest standards”, but in reality, the tenants were faced with an absolute litany of issues. I was first contacted by residents who were concerned about the poor construction back in November 2020. I went there last November to see for myself some of the problems that they suffered, which are legion. Some of those residents have now had to move out and are being housed in alternative accommodation.

As those issues came to light, the residents complained. They wrote to Clarion, the housing association, which passed them on to the management company, now named HML, and the construction company, Engie. A great many of the tenants are really frustrated with those companies’ failure to provide a clear process for the owners to move through in order to progress a complaint. These are significant structural issues that they have been struggling with and have been let down by, with each company blaming the others, therefore making it so difficult for a layperson to understand who should be responsible and who is accountable for those problems. It has taken two years to get to this stage—really, tenants should not be required to engage their local MP in a two-year campaign in order to have their issues addressed. I hope that we are now beginning to make progress, but these people have been living in absolute misery. I cannot go into the details of some of the problems they have faced.

It is a cruel irony that the 4 million households in the social housing sector are comprised of those most in need of safe, good housing. Over half of all households in the social rented sector, 55%, had one or more household members with a long-term illness or disability—that is a striking statistic—and half of all social rented households, 50%, are within the lowest income quintile. Just today, Warwickshire County Council’s director of public health acknowledged the link between poor health and housing in the council’s annual report, recommending that its housing, planning and health leads work together to prevent ill health caused by poor housing and living conditions. If I may say so—it is a sad point to make—the 95-year-old whose property I went to visit died fairly soon afterwards.

The first step on the road to preventing ill health is to ensure that poor social housing conditions are eradicated by establishing open, accessible and simple avenues of complaint that have to be underwritten by legislation, and certainly by some form of regulator. There is no reason why the Government should not be in listening mode on this issue, and I hope the Minister is prepared to work constructively for the good of housing association tenants, ensuring that every person benefits from a secure, safe place to call home.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 8:18 pm, 23rd January 2023

It is a privilege to serve under you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is an incredibly important issue: social housing is certainly very important for me. I have a lot of housing associations in my constituency of Kensington, and of course I also have Grenfell Tower in my constituency, so I want to work very collaboratively with Matt Western, whom I congratulate on securing the debate. I also thank the other Members who have stayed late for the Adjournment.

I want to work collaboratively, because there is no question that we want all tenants to be living in safe and decent homes, and to be treated with dignity and fairness. I am grateful for the chance to talk about what we are doing to support the many thousands of housing association tenants in this country. The fire at Grenfell highlighted major failures, and in the aftermath of that fire we empowered tenants, helping them to make their voices heard. However, the tragic death last year of Awaab Ishak as a consequence of the untreated mould in his home showed that we needed to go further and faster to make sure that residents in social rented housing are safe in their homes, and know where to go to complain when they do not get the answers that they need from their landlord.

I shall go through what we are doing. The Social Housing (Regulation) Bill is clearly important. We introduced this landmark legislation to drive up standards and reform the regulation of social housing through tougher consumer powers, greater enforcement tools to tackle failing landlords, and new responsibilities for social landlords. The Bill will give powers to the regulator so that it can issue unlimited fines to failing landlords, enter properties with only 48 hours’ notice, and make emergency repairs where there is a serious risk to tenants. The Bill includes improvements to the housing ombudsman service, helping residents to know and exercise their rights. It will ensure that the ombudsman has the legal power to issue a code of practice on complaint handling, and that it will consult on that code, then monitor the compliance of member landlords with the code. The Bill also strengthens the ombudsman’s power to issue orders to landlords to review their policy in relation to a complaint.

A good complaints system starts with the response of landlords. Any resident who is not satisfied with the services of their landlord should, in the first instance, raise a complaint with them. All landlords have a responsibility to deliver a quality service to their residents. They are obliged to have complaints processes that are easy to use, fair, and designed to put things right. If, after the landlord’s complaints process has been completed, the complaint has not been resolved or the tenant is not satisfied with the response, that resident can escalate their complaint to the housing ombudsman, which will investigate and make a determination. The housing ombudsman may issue orders or make recommendations, and publish to say that the landlord has not complied with its determination if it considers it appropriate to do so.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

That sounds good, but the truth is that it does not happen. Instead, landlords are relentless in putting up service charges without much explanation, while tenants are concerned because their windows do not fit, or, if there is a unitary boiler, it does not work properly, or they have mould in their rooms. It takes forever to get that done, but if they miss their service charge date, the landlord is on to them like a shot. This needs to be connected somehow so that landlords do not impose service charges if service does not happen.

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

There is no question but that enforcement is very important when it comes to housing. The purpose of the Bill is to tie things together. What we want to see is practical change on the ground, and I am happy to talk to my right hon. Friend about his suggestions. We need to ensure that we not only talk a good game but get the right delivery.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Shadow Minister (Education)

I echo the point made by the  right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). How does the Minister envisage this will work on the ground? What role will local authorities and fire and rescue services have in establishing that these properties are safe and fit?

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

We are beefing up the powers of the ombudsman and the regulator. We will have very close interaction between the ombudsman and the regulator, and we are encouraging an environment in which unacceptable behaviour towards tenants will not be tolerated. We are about to embark upon a large marketing campaign—we have already run awareness campaigns—so that tenants are aware of their rights and of where to go.

The housing ombudsman’s complaint handling code was introduced in July 2020 to enable landlords quickly to resolve complaints raised by their residents, and to apply the learnings from those complaints to help to deliver improvements. Any failure to act on a complaint handling failure order could result in the ombudsman taking further action, such as a referral to the landlord’s governing body, or the regulator of social housing ordering the landlord to publish details of its failure to comply and/or publishing a special report on the landlord’s non-compliance.

The housing ombudsman scheme was revised in September 2020 to enable further investigation of systemic issues for the first time. The ombudsman is now able to look beyond individual disputes to the wider and deeper issues responsible for generating complaints so that we can, in turn, seek to address these issues. It is vital that the ombudsman is as efficient as possible, and it has delivered better service for social housing residents year on year, even though the number of complaints has been rising, partly because of our information and awareness campaigns.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

On the process for making the complaint and the referral to the ombudsman for her or his determination, what is the timescale? Many people may want things to be done quickly. Is it possible to have a timescale?

Photo of Felicity Buchan Felicity Buchan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I could not agree more. We would like as many cases as possible to be resolved between the resident and the landlord, but I have the numbers. The ombudsman’s average handling time in 2020-21 had gone down to 5.2 months. Obviously, we want resolution with the landlord, but the ombudsman can be called and can give advice all the way through the process. One does not have to wait until the ombudsman’s ultimate determination.

We have also simplified things when it comes to accessing the ombudsman. From 1 October 2022, social housing residents with unresolved complaints have been able to access the housing ombudsman directly without having to go through a designated person, such as a Member of Parliament.

I am conscious that we do not have much time, but I want to talk about a few particular things. First, in March 2022, we set out a new policy of naming and shaming substandard social landlords, with the Government exposing those landlords that have either been found guilty by the ombudsman of severe maladministration or have been adjudged to have breached consumer standards. To date, 18 landlords have been named in this way.

In the case of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, which was responsible for the home in which Awaab Ishak lived, the Government have clearly gone further and withheld funding allocated under the affordable homes programme until the landlord can prove its housing is fit for purpose.

On Awaab’s law, we are considering how to make further changes to regulation. The Government strongly back the spirit of the proposals in Awaab’s law, for which Awaab Ishak’s family, the Manchester Evening News and Shelter are petitioning. It aims to make sure that landlords respond to complaints about damp and mould quickly and with proper regard to the risk to health. We are working through the specific recommendations to consider how changes could be made as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington touched on professionalisation. We are improving the way that landlords treat their residents. The professionalisation review, which launched in January 2022, will drive up standards by ensuring that social housing staff are better equipped to support residents, deal effectively with complaints, and make sure that homes are of good quality.

Awareness campaigns are important. Social housing tenants need to know what tools are available to them so that they can make complaints and, most importantly, have their properties remediated. We are now planning another targeted £1 million campaign that will include a media campaign, as well as upskilling third parties who interact with tenants. That will help to ensure that everyone living in the social housing sector knows their rights, knows how to sound the alarm when their landlord is failing to make the grade, and knows how to seek redress without delay.

Taken together, we are putting in place a robust and effective regime where complaints are treated with seriousness and tenants feel empowered to act. Given the stories that we have heard this evening, however, it is clear that we have further to go. The Government recognise that, which is why we are introducing the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill and are determined to get it right.

The changes that we have made are beginning to have an impact, and each step moves us closer to the situation where social housing residents are living in the homes that they deserve to live in. Let us be in no doubt that the Government are committed to improving the situation of tenants. As I have said, everyone deserves a decent and safe home, and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.