Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:31 pm on 10th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Labour 6:31 pm, 10th December 2008

My Lords, I shall contribute to the debate on the housing proposals in the gracious Speech. In doing so, I register my interests as a trustee of Shelter, chair of the Circle 33 Housing Association and chair of the Surveyors Ombudsman Service.

This debate is taking place against the backdrop of the current housing crisis which, as the Minister rightly argued, requires exceptional measures for exceptional times. Undoubtedly, this context justifies the continuing radical reappraisal of our housing strategy that is now taking place. Key to that are measures that will give consumers more influence and control over where they live, the standards of accommodation provided and how that accommodation is funded.

First, therefore, I welcome the announcement of the homeowner mortgage support scheme which will provide considerable reassurance to hardworking families caught up in the consequences of the recession. It also sends a strong signal to the mortgage lenders that repossession should in future be the last resort, not the first. It is a common-sense policy that recognises that repossessions are a cost not just to the industry but to all of us who are left to fund the alternative accommodation when vulnerable families become homeless. Building on that initiative, I hope that the Government will now also take the opportunity to expand the mortgage-to-rent scheme announced in September, which has the capacity to provide longer-term security for those in financial difficulty who cannot maintain their mortgage payments.

Secondly, it is welcome that the Government are now taking action to give tenants in social housing a greater voice. I hope that that will develop into a broader expansion of rights and scrutiny so that council housing can become integrated into the new regulatory regime. As I know from my experience as chair of a housing association, the right level of scrutiny and accountability can be a real force for continuous service improvement and a drive for excellence. Given that we are now acutely aware of the failings of the free market in housing provision, though, I also hope I can persuade the Minister that the time is right to extend those rights universally across all housing providers, including the private rented sector. Currently that sector is failing to rise to the challenge of being an effective third arm of housing provision. It could be a major partner in meeting future housing need but it needs help in addressing its outdated business model, which results in squalid, overcrowded accommodation for too many of its tenants. These issues were comprehensively explored in the recently published Rugg report, and I welcome its contribution to this debate.

I acknowledge that there are groups for whom the private rented sector can be an ideal provider—namely, those for whom choice, flexibility and mobility are key factors. While some live in high quality accommodation, however, that is not the experience of the majority, with over 40 per cent living in non-decent homes. Dampness and disrepair remain a significant issue, particularly in the older housing stock. That has a significant impact on families with children, often living in overcrowded conditions, where health problems and lower educational achievement are rife.

In addition, rents in the private rented sector are not cheap. While potential owner-occupiers may find rent levels more affordable than mortgage payments, the situation for those who might otherwise have been offered accommodation in the social rented sector is very different. For example, in 2005 local authority rents were about 45 per cent of those in the private rented sector.

There is also considerable evidence that neither tenants nor many landlords know their rights and responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is usually the tenants who fare worse in that relationship. They find it difficult to hold the landlord to account for poor service and often feel unable to pursue a complaint, fearing that they could lose their tenancy. In these circumstances, I believe that the time is right to give private rented sector tenants similar rights and protections to those enjoyed by social housing tenants. That could help to improve the quality of the housing stock, which could in turn encourage greater flexibility and mobility between the different housing sectors.

A step towards that would be the creation of a national registration and accreditation scheme for all landlords and managing agents. Ideally, that would be complemented by a simplification of rental law and standardised tenancy agreements. But this will not achieve its goal unless we also take urgent measures to tackle the poor quality of housing and lack of repairs in parts of the rented sector. Part of the solution must be adequately to resource local authorities to enforce their powers under the Housing Act 2004, but there is also a role for independent inspection and scrutiny of the larger landlords in the sector. I hope the Government will feel able to address that proposal.

I turn to improved regulation and consumer redress across all housing transitions, including buying and selling. Like many colleagues, I welcomed the provisions in the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act that strengthened consumer rights in property buying and selling and required all estate agents to belong to a redress scheme. However, there is surely now a case to consider rolling out consumer protections across the housing industry as a whole. There is, for example, no logical reason why letting agents should not be subject to the same consumer redress requirements as estate agents.

Earlier this year, Sir Bryan Carsberg reported on his inquiry into the regulation of residential property. Not surprisingly, he found a worrying lack of awareness from consumers about the roles and qualifications of the different agencies involved. He recommended simple, transparent information for clients, proportionate control over the service provider and consistent enforcement and redress. His report was warmly received by the responsible players in the sector. The time is now right to take that package forward to provide renewed consumer confidence. While I welcome the OFT's recent announcement of its intention to conduct a market survey of this issue, I do hope that it will also take account of Sir Bryan's work. It makes sense to have the right structures and frameworks in place at the start of any market recovery.

A voluntary Property Standards Board has been established by a group of the professional organisations in the sector with the aim of setting out cross-industry codes to build on Sir Bryan's recommendations, but without the backing of legislation to make these standards binding there is a risk that the housing sector will splinter further into those committed to high standards of customer care and those who want to cut corners at the customer's expense. I therefore hope that the Minister will feel able to give some reassurance that the Carsberg recommendations for regulation and consumer protection can be properly assessed and implemented in the current legislative programme.

These are difficult times for the housing sector, but one thing we have learnt is that the market alone cannot be left to resolve the crisis. In many areas, the Government have rightly taken steps to intervene and protect consumers. The time is now right to extend those rights across all sectors on a comprehensive basis. I hope that the Government will now take the opportunity to join up their policies and usher in a new sense of confidence and empowerment for housing consumers.