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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:19 pm on 27th June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Liberal Democrat 4:19 pm, 27th June 2022

My Lords, as others have said, the Bill is in part a response to the Grenfell Tower fire. I reiterate my condolences to the family and friends of those who died in that tragedy.

On these Benches, we welcome the Bill, although we wish it had been brought before us much earlier. After all, it stems from the Green Paper, A New Deal for Social Housing, which was published almost four years ago. Personally, I particularly welcome the removal of the serious detriment test. I also hope that the regulator and the ombudsman will have sufficient resources to carry out their enhanced responsibilities once the conflicts between their respective roles, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, have been resolved.

I want to raise just three issues. The first two relate to electrical safety, which I raised during the passage of the then Building Safety Bill when I drew attention to the large number of property fires caused by faulty electrical installations or appliances, some with devastating consequences. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, in the privately rented sector, it is already a mandatory requirement to have safety checks on electrical installations every five years but there is currently no similar requirement in the social rented sector despite the social housing charter specifically stating this:

“Safety measures in the social sector should be in line with the legal protections afforded to private sector tenants.”

I moved an amendment to the Building Safety Bill to try to rectify this. Sadly, it was rejected at that time by the Government on the grounds that it would lead to an added burden on the new safety regulator and would

“distract it and hinder its success”.—[Official Report, 29/3/22; col. 1403.]

However, in a remarkably short space of time, there has been a welcome change of heart, following the Government’s own working group concluding that five-yearly checks on electrical installations in social housing should take place. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, pointed out, consultation is already under way on the details of introducing such a measure.

So, with just one reservation, I warmly welcome Clause 10, which provides powers to the Secretary of State to do so by way of regulation. However, a careful study of Clause 10’s proposed way of achieving this—by amending Section 122 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016—reveals that the Secretary of State does not have to make any changes; merely that he may do so. Will the Minister give an assurance that, following the consultation, the Government will commit to ensuring that “may” becomes “must” so that the pledge to ensure the parity of social tenants with private tenants is honoured?

While faulty electrical installations can cause fires, so, too, can faulty electrical appliances, as was tragically the case in the Grenfell Tower fire. I have previously drawn attention to regulatory deficiencies regarding the safety of electrical appliances. For example, shopkeepers are responsible for the safety of electrical products they sell whereas, under current legislation, online marketplaces are not responsible for the safety of products sold by third parties on their platforms. Again, unfortunately, my amendment to the then Building Safety Bill to rectify this did not find government favour. Yet, with more and more electrical appliances being bought online and evidence that, in London at least, a disproportionate number of electrical fires happen in social homes, the Bill could be a vehicle to address this issue. Will the Minister have another change of heart and consider doing so?

I recognise that some progress is being made. The Government state in paragraph 89 of the consultation paper, previously referred to, that there should be at least a legal requirement for the regular testing of those electrical appliances that are provided by social landlords. Given the clear intention of the Government to do that, can the Minister explain why there is no enabling clause in the Bill? Will he agree to bring forward an appropriate amendment to ensure that there is?

Finally, as many other noble Lords have done, I turn to energy efficiency, so powerfully referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, just now. Not least in the current energy crisis, one of the most important ways of improving social housing is by improving the energy efficiency of such properties, thus reducing energy bills and excess winter deaths, and improving the quality of life for residents. As the Minister knows, I have frequently raised the issue of the need for a coherent national plan for energy efficiency in all forms of tenure; this is supported by many organisations. As we know, the Building Back Britain Commission has argued that energy bills could be reduced by £200 every single year just by improving a home’s energy performance certificate rating from D up to C.

As others have done, we recognise that the retrofit industry is needed to deliver this and the Government’s oft-repeated target of getting all fuel-poor homes to EPC band C by 2030, and all others there by 2035. Having been let down so many times, the industry says that it would be much more likely to invest in equipment and training with the certainty provided by putting those targets into legislation. Yet the Government have repeatedly refused to do this; frankly, I still fail to understand why.

More specifically, as we have heard in relation to social housing, in the Heat and Buildings Strategy published last October, the Government said:

“We will … 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”.

As others have pointed out, the strategy continues:

“We will consult the sector before setting any regulatory standard”.

I join others in expressing real concern that that consultation has not yet started. I hope that the Minister will be able when he winds up to explain why not and tell us when it will commence.

Can he also explain what the legislative process will be to introduce the necessary new regulatory standards once agreement on them has been reached? Surely this Bill is an ideal vehicle for doing so, and an amendment to achieve that would be very welcome. While welcoming this overdue Bill, I believe that there are several missed opportunities, which I hope will be rectified during its passage through your Lordships’ House. I look forward to the Minister’s response.