Amendment 3

Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Committee – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 6th September 2022.

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Baroness Wilcox of Newport:

Moved by Baroness Wilcox of Newport

3: Clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert—“(d) after paragraph (d) insert—“(e) to make recommendations to the Secretary of State in relation to compensation for tenants of social housing.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would allow the regulator to make recommendations about compensation for tenants.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I draw the Committee’s attention to my interest in the register as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. This group of amendments relates to monitoring and enforcement of what will become this Act, with three of the four amendments tabled by the Labour Front Bench.

Amendment 3, in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock, would allow the regulator to make recommendations about compensation for tenants. I would like to ask the Minister about government guidance on compensation and how the Government view the future relationship between the regulator and compensation working in practice.

Amendment 28, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, relates to the powers for the regulator to arrange surveys of the condition of social housing properties. The amendment notes that tenants must be given only 24 hours’ notice, whereas providers are given 48 hours’ notice. This amendment rightly draws attention to the need for social housing tenants to feel safe and secure in their homes—the basis of that hierarchy of needs that so many of us learned about at university. It seems completely unnecessary that they are given such short notice, so, again, I ask the Minister about the discrepancies in this area.

Amendment 32, in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock, would mean that emergency remedial action “must” take place, rather than “may”, if those conditions are met. Words are powerful things, and the implications behind “must” and “may” are equally important. The intention is to highlight the importance of emergency action to fix problems in social housing and to raise areas of concern about poor housing conditions. Emergency remedial action removes the risk of serious harm. As I know only too well, a local authority has an immediate right of access if it decides to take emergency action. If this happens, the tenant and landlord are served with a notice, and the local authority can claim back the cost of any work from the landlord. Unfortunately, unscrupulous landlords have used such actions to evict tenants, as those with limited security of tenure can be evicted fairly easily. Some landlords may choose to evict a tenant following a complaint from that tenant about the condition of the property, rather than carrying out the necessary work. This amendment would go some way to further support the rights of tenants to live in decent homes.

Amendment 48, also in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock, would mean that the Secretary of State must publish an annual statement to include the number of successful and unsuccessful appeals in any given year.

This amendment seeks more information about the appeal procedure and urges the Government to be transparent about its operation. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I want to speak to Amendment 28 in my name. Clause 22(3) sets out the powers to carry out a survey of a property without a warrant. The authorised person, who would be named by the regulator, is given these powers by this clause, as long as the registered provider has been given 48 hours’ notice. This seems fair enough to me. By the same clause, the tenant is given only 24 hours’ notice. The reason for the difference in the timings of the statutory notice is not clear to me. The purpose of Amendment 28 is to probe the thinking behind this difference. In lieu of any explanation, I propose that the notice period for both provider and tenant should be 48 hours.

The changes made by Clause 22(3) move the responsibility for giving notice to enter a property from the registered provider to the authorised person. Therefore, there is no practical reason—as there was originally in the Housing Act—for the difference in the notice period. This is especially true as, to quote from the Bill, the notice can be fixed to a

“conspicuous part of the premises.”

When the Minister responds, will she also help me by explaining the addition to the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 of new Section 218B? I apologise; I noticed this only when I was reading the Bill more carefully yesterday. The tenant is provided with a copy of the performance improvement plan—which is drawn up where a registered provider has failed to reach a statutory standard for properties under their responsibility —only if they make a “written request” for one. This seems unreasonable and not to fulfil the other parts of the Bill which are for greater transparency. In my view, the registered provider or the regulator should have a duty to inform the tenants affected by the performance improvement plan as a matter of course. Tenants who are directly impacted by poor quality of provision will want to be in a position to ensure that the plan is fulfilled. They are best placed to call the registered provider to account. I apologise for raising this issue at the last minute in the debate. If the Minister cannot give me a reply, I should be happy to receive a written response.

The amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, make excellent sense and we support them. I beg to move my amendment.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I remind Members of the Committee that only the first amendment in a group is moved until such time as it is reached on the Marshalled List.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Baronesses for tabling amendments on these important issues. This group of amendments primarily relates to the Regulator of Social Housing’s monitoring and enforcement powers.

Amendment 3 relates to compensation. I begin by stating that registered providers of social housing should always seek to rectify problems relating to the housing they provide. In certain circumstances, where they do not do so and continue to fail their tenants, it is right that tenants are compensated for the suffering caused as a result of these failings. However, I must reject this amendment.

The regulator can already require private registered providers to pay compensation to tenants. Sections 236 to 245 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 allow the regulator to award compensation to the victims of failings by these providers. In cases where there is a dispute between landlords and their tenants on an individual issue being considered by the Housing Ombudsman, the ombudsman can also require providers to pay compensation to tenants. The regulator will determine the appropriate sanction depending on the circumstances and apply the enforcement powers most likely to bring providers back into compliance with the standards.

I think the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about local authorities’ requirements to pay compensation. The regulator can require only private registered providers to pay compensation to their tenants. However, the regulator has a range of other enforcement powers it can use to ensure that local authority landlords provide a good service to their tenants. Through this legislation, we will be extending the regulator’s powers to issue fines to local authorities. The amount providers can be fined will be unlimited.

Amendment 28 relates to notice periods for the regulator carrying out surveys. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for bringing this up. We do not expect the Regulator of Social Housing to adopt the minimum period of notice given to tenants and registered providers before a survey takes place as the default position in all circumstances. The mandatory minimum notice periods are there to offer authorised persons clarity in urgent cases. In the vast majority of cases, we would expect the regulator to give both parties as much notice as possible.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised an important question relating to the difference in notice periods for tenants and providers. It is important that any decision on this issue is based on thorough consideration, and, as such, I reassure the noble Baroness that while I will not accept this amendment today, I will take away this issue, my officials and I will have further discussions, and I will come back to her.

Amendment 32 relates to emergency repairs. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, brought this up, and media reports have highlighted the awful conditions that some tenants are living in. The Regulator of Social Housing found Croydon Council to be in breach of its consumer standards and continues to work with Croydon to ensure that it takes action to remedy these issues. The emergency repair power will be exercised only following a survey where the regulator has identified a failure which poses a risk of serious harm.

The regulator’s powers will ensure that it can step in and take appropriate action where there is a serious risk to the health and safety of tenants. While local authorities also have the power to conduct emergency remedial action in specified circumstances, it is right that the regulator can also take action where needed to protect tenants from harm. The emergency repair power is an important new tool in the regulator’s set of enforcement powers. It allows the regulator to conduct emergency repairs to remedy failures that cause an imminent health and safety risk to tenants. In such cases, the regulator should first seek to use other enforcement powers to encourage the provider to put things right. It is the providers’ responsibility in the first instance to act, and the regulator would do everything possible to ensure that they meet their responsibilities.

The amendment would ensure that the regulator “must” take emergency remedial action where the relevant conditions are met. I cannot accept this amendment, as it is essential that the regulator keeps the flexibility to determine where it is appropriate to use these powers. In determining which of its enforcement powers to use, the regulator will always consider what is in the best interest of tenants. It would be wrong for us to bind the hands of the regulator and commit it to taking one course of action, regardless of what it believes appropriate in the circumstances.

I will say that landlords must ensure they provide safe homes for their tenants. The changes we are making to strengthen the regulator’s powers will ensure that where landlords do not do so, the regulator can take swift and effective action.

Amendment 48 is the final amendment in the group and relates to appeals against decisions made by the regulator, including the decision to take enforcement action. I begin by making clear that we recognise the importance of mechanisms that help to inform, engage and empower social housing tenants. That is why we are introducing measures to increase transparency, such as tenants’ satisfaction measures and the access to information scheme. We are, however, unable to accept the amendment.

If an appeal is taken to the High Court, this is already published by the courts system. The information published includes whether appeals were successful or unsuccessful. As there is already a public authority with responsibility for this, it is unnecessary to duplicate this work by asking the Secretary of State to perform the same function. Noble Lords should also bear in mind that we do not anticipate appeals being launched regularly. As such, it would be simple for an interested party to access the relevant information from the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary record of High Court judgments.

On the basis of the assurances provided for each amendment, I ask the noble Baronesses kindly not to move their amendments.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 4:45 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, which seems both eminently sensible and fair, will be taken away by the Minister for further discussion—a very positive outcome—and that the Minister agrees that these are very important issues and that registered providers of social housing should always seek to remediate properties. Again, I thank the Minister for reminding us of the facts surrounding compensation. On emergency repairs, the regulator can step in for appropriate emergency action. I am glad that this new tool exists.

Clearly, I am disappointed that the Minister cannot accept the change of emphasis from “may” to “must”, but I am glad she recognises the importance of the appeal mechanism and I accept the notion of duality, which she explained clearly. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendment 4 not moved.