Amendment 5

Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL] - Committee – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 6th September 2022.

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Baroness Pinnock:

Moved by Baroness Pinnock

5: Clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert—“(2) After subsection (3) insert—“(3A) In undertaking its objective under subsection (2)(b) the regulator must report to the Secretary of State at least every three years on whether the provision of social housing in England and Wales is sufficient to meet reasonable demands, and must make recommendations to the Secretary of State on how to ensure that the provision of social housing is so sufficient.” (3) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of any reports prepared by virtue of subsection (2) before Parliament.” Member's explanatory statementThis amendment would require the regulator to report to the Secretary of State on the adequacy of the stock of social housing.

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

My Lords, Amendment 5 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Thornhill. It requires the regulator to report to the Secretary of State on the adequacy of the stock of social housing. We have rightly spent a lot of time so far in the debate on this Bill thinking about the quality and standards provided by the social housing regulator, but we should also be thinking about the sufficiency of supply, hence this amendment.

The recent report of the Built Environment Committee of your Lordships’ House spelled out the stark statistics on this issue. In its report, the committee states that in March 2021 there were 1.2 million house- holds on local authority waiting lists. Many people are desperate to access social housing because the rents are within their means and the housing built to a decent standard.

The report from the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Building More Social Housing, concluded that the Government should introduce a large-scale social housing programme. That is exactly what our amendment is asking: for the regulator to report to the Secretary of State at least every three years on whether the provision of social housing is sufficient to meet reasonable demands. We want a focus not just on the numbers of social housing but on the types of housing needed. As far as numbers go, the Lords report estimated that 90,000 homes for social rent need to be built every year, whereas earlier the Minister reminded us that the Government have set out for 150,000 over a much longer period. Clearly, the Lords report is asking for a much larger-scale investment in building homes for social rent.

It is important to consider not only numbers but the types of housing built. The Lords committee report concluded that older people’s housing choices are very much constrained by the options available to them and that there will need to be more specialist housing for older people if the housing market is to be sustainable. This growing need for more specialist housing for older people, so that they can retain their independence, is vital. By 2032 it is estimated that there will be more than 5 million people in the UK who are over 80 years old. Building housing with extra care enables older people to live in a supported way and as independently as possible. This has a dual benefit of also reducing demand on social care.

Social rents are generally set at the local housing allowance, whereas families who want but are not able to access social housing often rent from the private sector, where rents invariably are higher than the local housing allowance. This results in those families who are dependent on benefits being even more impoverished, since they have to make up the rent to the landlord out of their benefits, over and above the LHA allowance that they get towards their rent. No wonder families end up going to food banks, when the rent that they are charged is more than the benefit they are provided with.

It is therefore not surprising that many families want to live in social housing where the rent is at the LHA level. The Government have stated in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill that they are committed to providing housing at rents that are within the means of households, so there is a general acceptance by them, mirrored in the House of Lords report, of the urgent need for more social housing. But what is missing is a distinct lack of action by the Government to meet that need. I have already drawn attention to the disparity between the aim set out in the House of Lords report for 90,000 houses for social renters and that of 150,000 over a much longer period.

That is why this amendment has been tabled. There is an opportunity to provide a focus if we accept this amendment on the sufficiency of supply, particularly for social housing, by asking that a report be presented to Parliament every three years. That will ensure a regular opportunity to check whether progress is being made to meet the unquestionable demand and desperate need for social housing.

Amendment 52, also in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Thornhill, tries to add to the Bill a simple review. I am surprised it is not included already, because a review of the impact of a regulatory Bill would surely be part and parcel of what is included. All the amendment asks is that, after a year, a review is carried out and an assessment made of whether the Act has achieved what it set out to do. If we never check that the legislation that we pass has the impact that we set out to achieve, then we continue to make mistakes. I hope that this very straightforward and simple amendment will be accepted by the Minister when she responds. With those comments, I beg to move Amendment 5 in my name, and look forward to the debate on other issues in this group.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Liberal Democrat 5:00 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, the various amendments in this grouping are largely about monitoring, reviewing and assessing. I am very supportive of all of them, particularly the requirement in the first amendment from my noble friend on the Front Bench that there be an assessment of the sufficiency or otherwise of social housing stock in this country. I place on record how much I agree with her about the way in which such properties are built. We should ensure that many of them are built in such a way that gives an opportunity for people to live longer in their homes. There are some very simple issues that could be taken on board, such as ensuring a reasonably thick wall going up staircases so that stairlifts can subsequently be attached to them, which is rarely done at present.

Having said that, my Amendment 12 in this group concerns a somewhat niche but important issue relating to safety within social housing. It is an issue I have raised on a number of occasions, and I now have an opportunity to praise the Government for doing nearly everything that I want. My amendment seeks to persuade them to go that final bit further to achieve everything that I hoped to achieve.

During the passage of the then Building Safety Bill I drew attention to the large number of property fires caused by faulty electrical installations or appliances, some with devastating consequences. I pointed out that in the privately rented sector it is already mandatory to have safety checks on electrical installations every five years, but that there is currently no similar requirement in the socially rented sector, despite the social housing charter specifically stating:

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

I moved an amendment to that Bill to try to rectify this but, sadly, it was rejected 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, I am delighted that, in a very short space of time, there has been a welcome change of heart by the Government following their own working group concluding that five-yearly checks on installations in social housing should take place. That is reflected in Clause 10 of this Bill, which amends Section 122 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 to extend it to all landlords, thus including social landlords. It is a measure that I applaud. A consultation, which ended just a few days ago, has already taken place to consider the details of how such measures should be introduced. I welcome that.

The great thing is that the Government have even gone one stage further. They have clearly now decided that five-yearly checks will definitely go ahead in the socially rented sector, because paragraph 81 of the call for evidence of that consultation says:

“The government acknowledges the support of the Working Group for this proposal and agrees with the proposal to mandate five-yearly checks of electrical installations.”

It is now clear that the Government will go ahead and it is merely the details of how the scheme will work that have to be finalised.

Even at Second Reading I was pleased with all this, although the consultation had not taken place at that time, nor had we had that final statement that we would be going ahead. However, I pointed out that

“a careful study of Clause 10’s proposed way of achieving” the five-yearly checks

“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.”

I asked the then Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh —to give me 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”.—[Official Report,27/6/22; col. 459.]

Very sadly, although I was told that the Government

“would not be putting those powers in the Bill if we were not very serious in our intention to level up between private and public housing”, he nevertheless declined to accept my proposal to change “may” to “must” and said:

“I know that he, in exhorting me to move from ‘may’ to ‘must’, recognises that we do not want to pre-empt the consultation on electrical safety measures for social housing.”—[Official Report, 27/6/22; col. 468.]

The consultation has now made it clear that the Government will go ahead but will be guided on the details of how they do so as a result of the consultation. Therefore, I now have a new amendment, Amendment 12, to deal with concerns about pre-emption by saying that the Government would have one year after the consultation before they must bring forward the required regulations. It no longer pre-empts the consultation. It would enable the Government to develop regulations to cover the details around implementation over the coming year. At the same time, it would ensure that the legislation required the much-needed and, as I am sure the consultation responses already show, widely supported introduction of mandatory five-yearly checks on electrical installations to take place in the socially rented sector. We nearly got there; on this occasion, I hope that we will have the Minister’s support for this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

Very quickly, I will speak to Amendment 5, but I support others. I am a big fan of social housing. I grew up in a council house in the 1950s and 1960s and my parents thought they were the luckiest people alive to have a new council house. It was a very happy home. These days, social housing is in very short supply, partly as a result of all sorts of population changes but also because of the Government’s very badly thought through right-to-buy policies. Somehow, we have to mop this up.

The Green Party’s 2019 manifesto committed to fund councils to deliver more than 100,000 new social houses per year

“through sustainable construction, renovation and conversion”.

That is the scale of the solution needed to make local communities much more secure in their social housing. The Government have to remove the barriers that local authorities and social landlords face.

I will touch very briefly on freezing or limiting social rent increases. I very much feel that these rent increases need to be kept as low as possible—or frozen. The Government have to backfill the large gaps that this would leave in the funding for social housing. I also suggest a ban on evictions at the moment, because life is getting harder and harder. It seems downright unfair if the Government are going to pay energy companies £0.25 trillion to cap energy prices but, at the same time, pay nothing to social landlords to cap rents.

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)

My Lords, I will first make a few comments about the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. It is important that she has drawn attention to the issues we have around the huge demand that exists for social housing. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, talked about the short supply as well. That means we have incredibly lengthy waiting lists. People often cannot get a property because there are no suitable properties available for their needs.

I would also like to reflect on the bedroom tax, which caused all sorts of problems with the availability of inappropriate social housing for people who had been asked to move. It is something we have to address. I was pleased that the noble Baroness talked about the importance of ensuring that, when investment is made, it is made in the type of housing that is needed, which also needs to be built to appropriate standards. Again, this is something that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, mentioned around sustainability.

When I was a Member in the other place, local residents brought up the lack of appropriate social housing time and again. It was one of the major unsolvable problems, to be honest, that we had to deal with all the time. So I hope that the Minister takes this away and that we can look at having a proper programme of decent, sustainable, appropriate social housing development.

On the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Foster, we supported him on the safety concerns and protections that he raised during the passage of the Building Safety Bill and join him in welcoming Clause 10 on electrical standards, as clearly it is important. Once again, we support his comments on the consultation and his amendment in this area.

I have a number of amendments in this group concerning the impact, the timing and the transparency of decision-making in the Bill. My Amendment 24 to Clause 19 would mean:

“Any direction under subsection (2A) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament.”

This is to ensure that there is proper oversight and transparency of any standards and objectives set by the Secretary of State.

My Amendment 27 to Clause 21 would ensure that performance is monitored routinely rather than ad hoc by requiring the Secretary of State to publish regular timetables for the purposes of performance monitoring. It is important that the Bill brings in stronger enforcement powers for the regulator to tackle poor performance and we support these tougher enforcement powers. However, we also believe that they should be used in conjunction with a tough, regular inspection regime. Shelter has made it clear that it believes routine inspections are needed to make good practice and good behaviour the norm. However, I am aware that we shall be discussing this aspect of the Bill later today in group 6, so I shall move on.

My Amendment 53 to Clause 31 on the Housing Ombudsman scheme would mean that within 30 days of the Act being passed, the Secretary of State must publish an assessment of the impact of its timing. The Government have spoken for years about regulating social housing, but it has taken until now for the proposed legislation to be brought forward—that is, over five years since the Grenfell fire. Why has it taken so long? The purpose of my amendment is to try to understand why this was not looked at with more urgency. Can the Minister tell us why has it taken so long for the Bill to be introduced? Can she also confirm what the expected timetable will be for the remaining stages, and when the Government expect the Act to be fully implemented? We do not want it to get stuck in the doldrums, as seems to have happened with a number of different pieces of legislation more recently.

This leads me to my Amendment 65, which would mean that all sections come into force on the day that the Act is passed. As I have said before, this is an important Bill, but it has been too slow to appear. Once it has passed through Parliament, there must be no more dither and delay, which is why my amendment allows the Minister to confirm that all sections will come into force on the day that the Act is passed.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 5:15 pm, 6th September 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for tabling these amendments, which all relate to the implementation and review of the Bill. Before I start, I will respond to the issue raised about social housing rents by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, as it does not really fit in to this debate. I would just say that we are consulting on setting a ceiling on rent increases in 2023-24. The consultation sets out several options for the ceiling; responses will be considered once the consultation closes, which we expect to be in a short time rather than a long time.

I will begin with Amendment 5 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. The noble Baroness is right to highlight the importance of social housing supply, but also that it is not just about any houses; it is now very much about specific housing—housing for older people and families as well as for disabled people and vulnerable people. The Government are committed to increasing the amount of social housing but also to looking at the prioritisation of specific housing for specific groups.

Housing will be provided through our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme and I think it entirely appropriate that the regulator should have an objective to support the provision of social housing. However, I do not accept the noble Baroness’s request that it should be the regulator’s role to assess the need to increase the provision of social housing or to make recommendations as to how that might be achieved. There are many other organisations, such as the Chartered Institute of Housing, Savills and Shelter, which publish reports on these important issues at regular intervals.

I am concerned that asking the regulator to fulfil this role would not only be unnecessary but divert resources and attention from its important responsibilities, such as registering providers, setting standards in social housing, assessing risks across the sector, conducting financial checks of providers and carrying out enforcement action where needed. Instead, I believe that the regulator should continue to support the provision of social housing through its work to ensure that private registered providers are financially viable, efficient and well-governed. This in turn helps to ensure that the private registered providers can obtain funding to enable them to deliver more social housing.

Amendment 12, in the name of Lord Foster of Bath—who has already given part of my response—concerns the electrical safety consultation. As the House has already heard, we fulfilled our commitment to consult on electrical safety in social housing and the consultation closed only last week. In my opinion, it would not be right to pre-empt its outcome before carefully reviewing the responses we received. However, the Committee may note that the Electrical Safety Working Group, which included representation from across the social sector, was supportive of mandatory electrical safety checks, and I would not be surprised if the outcome of the consultation chimed with those views. However, it is only fair and reasonable that we do not pre-empt the final consultation.

Amendment 24, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, relates to directions issued by the Secretary of State to the Regulator of Social Housing. The amendment would require the direction relating to information and transparency to be laid before both Houses. There is already an established process for issuing directions to the regulator, set out in Section 197 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. The process requires that any direction be published in draft and subject to consultation ahead of being formally issued. This provides an opportunity for stakeholders, including parliamentarians in both Houses, as well as members of the public, to have a say on the drafted direction before it comes into force. In our opinion, this already provides sufficient opportunity for scrutiny of the information and transparency directions before they come into effect.

Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, relates to timetables for performance monitoring of registered providers. Clause 21 of the Bill enables the regulator to deliver tenant satisfaction measures, including setting dates for the publication of such data and the period it covers. As the body granted legal powers through Clause 21, it is right that the regulator, not the Secretary of State, decide matters relating to timing of performance information. The regulator has already consulted on these matters and will respond in due course.

Amendment 52, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, concerns scrutiny of the impact of the Bill. The Government recognise the importance of appropriately reviewing the impact of legislation. We will work with the regulator, and the Housing Ombudsman where appropriate, to conduct a full review at the end of one regulatory cycle to determine the impact of the measures introduced. This will be after four years of the new regulatory regime being in place. We committed to that in our regulatory impact assessment, and I am happy to commit to it again today.

The commitment to a review after a four-year cycle is important for two reasons. First, following the passage of this legislation, a number of steps will need to take place before the proactive consumer regime is implemented in full. These include the Secretary of State issuing directions to the regulator and the regulator subsequently consulting on the revised consumer standards. A review after one year would not allow sufficient time for those changes to take effect. Secondly, it is right that we wait for a four-year regulatory cycle, at which point the measures will have had time to take effect and have had full impact on the sector.

Amendments 53 and 65 have been tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. The former would mean that the entirety of the Act came into force on the day it was passed, and the latter would require an assessment of the impact of this legislation’s timing. The noble Baroness asked me one very important question: why has the Bill taken so long to be introduced? We spent time listening to residents, hearing first hand about their experiences and how they wanted to see change. Over 8,000 residents contributed to these discussions. We published our social housing White Paper in November 2020. This is a complex process and programme, and we want to make sure we get it right, so it will take time for us to fully implement it.

The legislation will have a significant impact on the lives of social housing tenants across the country, and the measures will be implemented at the earliest appropriate opportunity. The majority of the provisions in this Bill will come into force on such a day or days as the Secretary of State may appoint by regulations. The timing of commencement is directly linked to the overall implementation of the strengthened consumer regulation regime, and we need to allow time for the sector to prepare.

The Regulator of Social Housing has already begun its work to develop this new regime. It plans to commence its statutory consultation on the regulatory standards following Royal Assent and the issuance of directions from the Government, with a view to full implementation in 2024. However, the message to registered providers is clear: do not wait for regulation to make changes—act now. I hope that noble lords are satisfied with the responses I have given to the amendments, and I ask that the noble Baroness withdraw her amendment.

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

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed response. I note that my noble friend Lord Foster of Bath is probably the only person this afternoon who is receiving a positive “thumbs-up” response, to his determined campaign for electrical safety. That is one win for my noble friend, and some “maybes” for the rest of us.

I have listened carefully to the answers the Minister gave to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. I will check because some of them sounded acceptable, but I am not sure about leaving the regulator to determine the timing of the impact. I will read Hansard to see whether those issues should be pursued further.

That brings me to Amendment 5, on the sufficiency of housing, which is fundamental to any debate on social housing provision. I am sorry to say that I had a bit of difficulty with the response. It is all very well saying that other organisations provide statistics and scrutinise social housing provision numbers, quality, decency and so on, but we need in our legislation a regulator or the ombudsman to be able to state the facts and comment to the Government—and to have the stature to do so.

I will read what the Minister said carefully, but the essence of the argument seems to be, “There are other people who do it, so why should the Government?” The regulator should be concerned with housing numbers because it is required to think about and has a responsibility for the safety, provision and quality of social housing. Adding “sufficiency” to its list of responsibilities would be a positive move. However, I accept the Minister’s supportive words on not only the number of houses but their suitability. With those comments, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 5 withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2: Advisory panel