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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 27th June 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:40 pm, 27th June 2022

My Lords, this has been a fairly short but excellent debate on this Bill, enhanced by the really good speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Camrose. I warmly welcome him to this House and look forward to his future contributions.

As my noble friend Lady Wilcox said in her introduction, we welcome this Bill, which, as we have heard, introduces long-overdue changes to social housing regulation some five years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, where safety concerns raised by residents had been ignored by their landlord. I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford in praising the Grenfell campaigners for continuing to press for these much-needed changes to the law.

It is worth noting that, since 2010, the Government have reduced tenant representation, abolishing the Tenant Services Authority, abolishing National Tenant Voice, and removing national funding through the decent homes programme. The Bill today represents a crucial opportunity to put this right. However, while the Bill is very welcome, we also feel it is disappointing that it does not go far enough in putting tenants at the heart of regulation and governance. We believe it needs to focus more on tenant empowerment and representation.

My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe talked about the important role that housing associations play in providing support to people in need. While many provide good and excellent service, unfortunately that is not the case for all. There needs to be a proactive inspection regime for the Regulator of Social Housing that monitors all providers and not just those it suspects might not be compliant with consumer standards. We believe that the regime announced by the Government falls short of this.

We welcome the key focus of the Bill to enhance the regulator’s consumer standards regulatory regime. Again, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, we also welcome the removal of the “serious detriment” test, which other noble Lords have mentioned. This is a long-awaited change and will give the regulator more power over consumer standards and broaden the monitoring and enforcement powers.

The Bill enables the RSH to issue a code of practice, as we have heard, for its consumer standards. That will match the approach taken for economic standards. This will help providers have a better idea of what is expected of them and tenants to have a better idea of what to expect from their landlords. However, we believe it should also establish a grading system for these consumer standards, in line with what currently exists for economic standards.

We have heard about the introduction of tenant satisfaction measures. Again, we welcome this, but there must be transparency and accountability throughout the regulatory process, especially since social housing tenants have limited ability to have any choice in their landlord.

We have heard that the Bill enables the RSH to deregister a private registered provider for failing to meet a regulatory standard. We believe this sends an important message to providers but does not offer any additional security or compensation for the tenants of deregistered providers. I ask the Minister: will the Government look at this?

It is important to note that, to raise standards in social housing, new legislation must be properly resourced for the regulator to be truly proactive and to deliver a decent homes standard fit for the future and robust requirements for strong tenant representation within the regulatory system.

We have heard much about tenant representation in today’s debate. The Bill has a greater focus on transparency and making information available to tenants, but transparency alone, although important, is not enough to drive the kind of change that we need to see. The only provision in the Bill that is directly related to tenant representation is the requirement to set up the advisory panel. As my noble friend Lady Wilcox and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, mentioned, we need more than this. I would be interested to know the Minister’s response to the suggestion from the Mayor of London on the creation of a commissioner for social housing to address underrepresentation across the sector and across government. What does the Minister think about that suggestion and whether it would help?

My noble friend Lady Warwick of Undercliffe welcomed the work that housing associations are already carrying out to drive up standards. We absolutely support those housing associations that are doing important work on that aspect. We are also pleased to see that the Bill introduces performance improvement plans and states that tenants can make a written request for a copy of their provider’s performance improvement plan. The Government need to establish a clear communication channel between tenants and the RSH so that tenants can share information about whether and how their landlord has been taking action. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, said, we need to know where there are failings and why.

We have also heard that the Bill removes the cap on fines and about the Secretary of State’s power to amend the value of fines. This flexibility is welcome, especially as it allows penalties appropriate for the serious harm that tenants may endure as a result of poor standards. However, we also believe that the different thresholds need to be clearly stated so that there can be full, public accountability for any enforcement action. The noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, asked about costs. Enforcement and inspections will of course need significant resources, so I am interested in the Minister’s response to his questions.

We welcome the Bill’s strong focus on transparency and access to information. Because measures relating to transparency and information are important, keeping tenants informed about landlord performance and governance should be matched with robust requirements for tenants to be able to discuss this with their landlords. We believe that we should have a goal for landlords and tenants to work together to reduce the likelihood of things going wrong in the first place, rather than just retrospective accountability for poor performance.

There has been much discussion about the Housing Ombudsman scheme and the relationship between the ombudsman and the RSH. We know that the Bill puts into law the ombudsman’s code of practice. The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins, asked a number of important questions about resources in this regard and the nature of safety checks and assessments. I look forward to the Minister’s response to her questions.

Confidence in the complaints system is as important as the robustness of the system itself. Complaints handling is itself the second most common complaint to the ombudsman after property condition. Improving the system must be a priority and the ombudsman will need to be properly resourced to deliver this, especially as it has had a significant increase in casework, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill. I am also particularly interested in the Minister’s response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, about the power of the regulator regarding complaints, how that will operate alongside the ombudsman and the potential for any confusion.

We welcome the requirement for registered providers to designate a person to act as lead on the provider’s compliance with its health and safety obligations towards tenants. This is very important.

Finally, a number of noble Lords talked about electrical safety standards, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, who I know has an interest in this. We welcome the proposal in the Bill to impose electrical safety duties on registered providers to ensure that safety standards are met when premises are occupied under a tenancy. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, highlighted the importance of pushing for energy efficiency in social housing. This is increasingly essential; as she said, social housing often has very poor ratings for energy efficiency and, as we look at the increased costs of energy and the increase in fuel poverty, we really need to tackle this, both to support people who are struggling to make ends meet at the moment but also as a crucial step to achieve net zero. As the noble Lord, Lord Young, asked, will energy efficiency therefore be included in the code of practice? This is very important and I think would have support from right across the House. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to working with him and other noble Lords to improve the Bill as it progresses through your Lordships’ House.