Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:47 pm on 27th June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees 3:47 pm, 27th June 2022

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to be the first to compliment my noble friend on his maiden speech. He has entered the Benches on this side of the House the hard way. He had to compete against a substantial number of well-qualified candidates who applied for the vacancy, whereas the rest of us, such as me, simply had to catch the eye of the Prime Minister of the day. I see with him in the House some of his recent fellow successful candidates, all regular attenders, in collective defiance of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.

My noble friend has built his career independently of the publishing tradition with which his family is associated, and, as we have heard, brings to your Lordships’ House a range of highly relevant abilities and interests, ranging from the oil and pharmaceutical industries to issues of governance and corporate management, and he has developed them in all parts of the globe. One of his particular concerns is that people and organisations cannot fulfil their full potential because they are not productive, particularly those who are out of work. The biggest problem facing this country today is poor productivity, and I look forward to his contributions to that debate. I also particularly welcome him to the ranks of those on this side of the House who take an interest in housing, and agree with what he said about the need to invest more in housing and social housing. I know the whole House will join me in welcoming my noble friend, and we look forward to his future contributions.

Turning to the Bill, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the meeting he arranged to discuss it, which was attended by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and me. The noble Lord’s travel arrangements have precluded him attending due to disruption on LNER. I can tell my noble friend that, as a result of that meeting with him, I will not be causing him the distress that I know I did during the passage of the then Building Safety Bill.

I have three issues that I want to raise with my noble friend. The first concerns Clause 2 and the advisory panel. The Bill provides for a statutory advisory panel. I welcome the idea, but why does it have to be statutory if its role is simply to give advice? The Housing Ombudsman also has a panel of advisers created in 2018, but that is not statutory and seems to work perfectly well. There are many other instances of panels and advisory boards dotted around Whitehall which are informal. Making this one statutory could raise costs, make it subject to judicial review, make it less flexible and will require primary legislation if it were to be abolished. Is this a bit of gold-plating that we do not really need?

How does this panel relate to the one that was set up a year ago? In August last year, Minister Eddie Hughes announced a new expert panel to advise the Government on the delivery of the social housing White Paper. That was non-statutory, with 14 members to deliver on the reforms. Are these the same people who will form the panel in Clause 2, whose objectives seem to be exactly the same as the expert panel, or are we to have two panels with similar objectives, one statutory and one non-statutory? Perhaps my noble friend can shed some light on this.

My second issue concerns the relationship between the two bodies to whom social tenants can now complain. A social housing tenant can complain to the Housing Ombudsman, and now to the Regulator of Social Housing. I am all in favour of avenues through which tenants can seek redress, but there must be some risk of duplication here. It is clear from the Bill that the Regulator of Social Housing can have a direct line of communication with tenants. The social housing White Paper expects:

The Regulator of Social Housing to undertake specific, reactive investigations and/or inspections where appropriate. This could be when a serious potential compliance breach has been brought to its attention by tenants”.

The briefing notes that accompanied the Queen’s Speech also referred to the powers of the regulator to arrange emergency repairs to tenants’ homes following a survey, and to a guarantee that the regulator will be able to act more quickly where it has concerns about the decency of a home. Therefore, the regulator also has the means to rectify complaints itself, as contained in Clause 24.

These are not powers that the Housing Ombudsman has—his role is to resolve disputes. He can make awards and recommendations, but he cannot, for instance, enter premises to remedy specific failures. If I was a tenant, and particularly if there is a backlog of complaints to the Housing Ombudsman, I would head for the Regulator of Social Housing, since he has more powers. However, there is a further overlap where there is scope for confusion. The Housing Ombudsman does not just resolve complaints: he has broader objectives that seem to trespass on the territory of the regulator. For example, the Housing Ombudsman uses insight and data to identify trends in complaint types and carries out thematic investigations into issues affecting the sector, producing regular “spotlight reports”. He investigates systemic issues relating to individual landlords. He can share expertise, insight, experience and learning to influence the sector to drive a positive complaint-handling structure. These objectives are emphasised in the corporate plan for 2022-25.

However, those powers of the Housing Ombudsman are very similar to the powers given to the regulator in Clauses 17 and 21, and to the objectives set out by the Minister. Paragraph 1 of the Explanatory Notes tells us that:

“The intent of this Bill is to reform the regulatory regime to drive significant change in landlord behaviour to focus on the needs of their tenants and ensure landlords are held to account for their performance.”

However, that is just a shortened version of what I have just read out about the ombudsman.

This brings us to Clause 4. The Explanatory Notes refer in more diplomatic terms to the potential conflict I have just referred to:

“The regulator and the housing ombudsman both have a role in overseeing the performance of social housing landlords”.

But that is the problem. They then refer to the memorandum of understanding between the two. Officials kindly sent it to me, but it does not deal adequately with this overlap. It should be rewritten, with greater clarity about who does what, and to avoid duplication. It is not enough to say, as it does at the moment, that they should

“seek to promote understanding about their respective roles.”

I hope my noble friend can reassure me that this overlap will be addressed.

Finally, I turn to issues which will be raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She is commander-in-chief of Peers for the Planet and I am a humble spear-carrier, but there is a need to increase energy efficiency in the social housing stock if we are to achieve our climate change objectives. Although the Government set the objective of improving the efficiency of homes, no commitment has yet been made on social housing. Their Heat and Buildings Strategy states:

“We will also consider setting a long-term regulatory standard to improve social housing to EPC band C, with levers required to decarbonise the stock in line with Net Zero”,

but no consultation has yet been launched. The Committee on Climate Change recommended that all properties should reach EPC C by 2028.

Related to this, I refer the Minister to Clause 18, which enables the regulator to issue a code of practice on consumer standards. Will energy efficiency be included in this code, against the background of what I just said?

With those remarks, I end by assuring my noble friend that I welcome the Bill and hope it reaches the statute book soon.