Clause 137 - Housing complaints made to a housing ombudsman

Building Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 21st October 2021.

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Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:30 pm, 21st October 2021

I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 137, page 142, line 36, at end insert—

“(c) after sub-paragraph (1), insert—

‘(1A) He must as part of his investigation consult tenants or bodies representing the interest of tenants.’”

This amendment would ensure the Housing Ombudsman consults tenants as part of complaints made against social housing providers.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Minister has spoken before about his work on the upcoming social housing reforms. We are grateful to him for his hard work and to all those stakeholders currently involved, and I am glad to be able to add to the debate about reforming the social housing sector, with particular reference to this clause.

Clause 137 is a good clause, implementing something that was raised in the social housing Green Paper from 2018. Getting rid of the democratic filter for complaints from tenants to the housing ombudsman is a good thing, and I am pleased that the Government are using this opportunity to implement those parts of the social housing reforms that they have been saying they will make for some considerable time—since all the way back to Grenfell. We have tabled the amendment because we believe there is one other, related change that can be implemented now as part of the Bill.

The recent television series with ITV journalist Dan Hewitt has highlighted the unacceptable conditions in which some social housing tenants live. People are living in overcrowded, cold homes with mould, damp and holes in the ceiling, and some have considerable rodent problems—the kinds of issues that no Member present would tolerate for a single day. Thanks to the excellent investigation by Dan Hewitt and “ITV News”, we recently saw shocking examples of tenants not being listened to by housing providers. “Surviving Squalor” was an appalling reminder not only of the conditions in which some people are forced to live, but of the fact that such conditions continue because their pleas are ignored by social housing providers.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Planning)

I gave examples earlier of the two blocks built in the early 2000s in my then ward, which is now in my constituency. As a councillor, I received complaints from tenants and leaseholders about damp, repairs and so forth. They were dealt with, or not dealt with, individually by the housing managers. Tenants and leaseholders were not listened to, and they were treated as individual complaints. Had the residents been listened to—they were meeting collectively—it would have been picked up a lot earlier that the individual problems were caused by systemic building faults in those blocks of flats. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is exactly why a voice for tenants is absolutely essential?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I definitely agree with my hon. Friend—I wouldn’t dare not—and this cannot be allowed to continue.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

On Monday I met the National Housing Federation, and a point was made about tenant engagement. Sometimes the risk is that those who do not speak up have the most serious issues and are not being heard. As part of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, which is very interesting, how does he feel that, operationally, we can ensure that tenants who often do not make complaints are actually heard? Quite often it is the same people time and again, which is great, but those from whom we do not hear often have serious issues. How does he feel that we could do that?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I think it is about ensuring that the voice of tenants, residents and leaseholders is central to the new process—it is about bringing that to life. Throughout the Bill’s journey so far, Members from across the House have spoken eloquently about that, regardless of their political affiliation.

The programme that I refer to, and the issues it raises, brought shame on the country’s housing system and those involved in the neglect shown on ITV. It also highlights how the Government have defunded, diminished and undervalued social housing, and how little progress has been made since 2017 to bring in full social housing reform. The amendment brings us back to the reason the Bill was introduced: the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. Survivors of the fire at Grenfell are very clear that they were let down by the process. As tenants, they had no voice. They, more than anyone, support tenants having a voice and being heard.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. We are back to the point about a change of culture. The amendment would hardwire into the Bill a requirement to hear the voices of tenants. In the evidence sessions, we heard many examples of tenants feeling that their voice was not listened to. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth said, tragedies would have been averted if their voices had been listened to. The amendment hardwires into the Bill a change of culture, and fairness. It would ensure that everyone here strives to move forward. I would really like the Minister to consider it.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend and not-far neighbour for that powerful intervention. Many scenarios were highlighted this summer by ITV, following a segment on the failings of a large housing provider, Clarion, which has, over years, failed to listen to what tenants said about collapsed ceilings, damp, mould, and rats. An investigation was opened, but just as the housing associations have ignored tenants, so did the social housing watchdog. In its investigation, it did not speak to a single resident on the estate in question. In its defence, I suppose, it is not in the social housing regulator’s remit to seek out residents’ views on the housing provider. That is absolutely crazy. We need to strengthen the legislation, and the amendment would certainly help with that.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. In the health service, the patient’s voice is at the heart of everything. It is absolutely right that residents’ voices should be at the heart of housing issues.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and for reiterating the point about residents’ voices. Clarion was cleared, despite the fact that hundreds of repairs took place once the television segment was aired, which demonstrates the depth of the issues that developed in homes. People from across the Committee and beyond have seen that programme. On Clarion’s board is a former Housing Minister, so it does have insight at a senior level.

Clearly, the amendment is only part of the reform needed to ensure that our social housing sector provides safe housing and listens to the needs of tenants. To reaffirm what the hon. Member for West Bromwich West said, tenants must be heard at all times, not just when issues develop to such an extent that tenants complain. There should be engagement over a period of time—and not just with, let us say, the usual suspects.

We have an opportunity to make a difference today. I urge the Government to strengthen the laws and support the amendment.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

It is unfortunate that my prescribed speech starts with the statement, “The Government are not able to accept the amendment.” However, context is important. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government had defunded and diminished social housing, and said that gave rise to the problems. However, in the same speech he also pointed out that one of the housing providers that was shown to be at fault during the programme that he referred to manages approximately 140,000 houses. This is an organisation with substantial resources—millions and millions of pounds in the bank—so clearly defunding was not the problem at play. There was a structural problem with regard to the organisation and its ability to communicate appropriately with residents.

That leads us on to another very unfortunate point: sometimes people either do not know how to complain, or do not feel that anything will happen if they do. We need to work collectively to ensure that both those points are addressed. The Government have launched an advertising campaign through social media and other platforms to try to ensure that residents understand how to complain. The most valuable thing that they can do is raise their complaint, particularly if they are not alone and complaints are coming in from several directions to add weight to their concerns and ensure that their collective voice is heard. Also through the review that the hon. Gentleman referred to, with regard to the social housing White Paper, we are seeking to ensure that the tenant’s voice is at the heart of everything that registered providers do in future. During the summer, I had the opportunity to visit some social housing providers and, through the power of Teams, take part in discussions that they were having with tenants’ panels that they had set up to improve communication.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken previously of the complexity with regard to the accountable person, the principal accountable person and so on. To a degree, we might have that problem sometimes with the number of regulators and what their roles are. He referred to the regulator of social housing not speaking to residents. That is not the job of the regulator of social housing; its job is to manage, monitor and scrutinise the providers themselves.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:45 pm, 21st October 2021

Surely, going forward, if complaints from tenants are going to the new regulator of social housing, and a systemic problem is picked up—as with, for example, Clarion housing and that particular estate—it is just common sense that engagement with tenants will be part of the remit.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I have heard it often said that one of the problems with common sense is that it is neither common nor sensible sometimes, and so it proves to be in this case, because a different organisation is meant to take that duty: the housing ombudsman. Through this process, the removal of the democratic filter will mean that people who want to complain do not have to go to a councillor or their local MP; they will be able to escalate the complaint themselves directly.

We are trying to ensure that residents know how to complain and that the system is fair, easily navigated and, hopefully, brings clarity to the situation. Although I have seen the programme that the hon. Gentleman refers to, and I completely sympathise with his intentions, I do not believe that the amendment is appropriate. I must point out our concern about the unintended effect that it would have. I assume that the amendment seeks to ensure that wider issues arising from or relating to an individual complaint, and which may affect multiple tenants, are picked up and addressed. However, the approach to which the amendment would give effect raises issues of privacy and data protection. Under the amendment, a resident making a complaint about their landlord would face the prospect of having information that they submitted to an ombudsman—personal and perhaps highly sensitive information—disclosed to third parties.

It would not be appropriate to require the housing ombudsman to consult unrelated third parties as part of its investigation into an individual’s personal issue. Cases that enter the housing ombudsman’s formal remit may be resolved through early resolution. The housing ombudsman works with complainants and landlords to try to agree a negotiated solution, within a time limit. The housing ombudsman’s approach to investigations into individual complaints is inquisitorial; evidence is sought from both the resident and landlord. There is engagement with the resident at different stages of the process to determine the scope of the complaint, the outcome being sought and the evidence. This engagement is with the individual resident and their landlord and should not be fettered through consultation with unrelated third parties.

Regarding engagement with residents, landlords and other organisations, the housing ombudsman service regularly engages with and consults residents and landlords on a range of activities relating to the service in a range of ways. Activities include consulting on their three-year strategic plan, their annual business plan, and revisions to the housing ombudsman scheme. The scheme enables residents, and others, to have complaints about members investigated by the housing ombudsman. It sets out, for example, how the service investigates complaints, membership terms and conditions, who may use the scheme, which complaints the housing ombudsman service may or may not investigate, how it will investigate and its powers and functions.

Consultations are open to individual residents and representative bodies and groups, and the housing ombudsman engages proactively with both. The housing ombudsman service has a resident panel that is open to all social housing tenants, and has a membership of over 600 residents. It provides an opportunity for residents to be involved in the development of the housing ombudsman’s service as well as giving direct feedback on their experience of the service, and to engage with many different aspects of the housing ombudsman’s work—for example, providing views on its investigations into sector-wide issues such as damp and mould.

Further engagement work takes place through regular meetings with resident bodies, and quarterly “Meet the ombudsman” events across the country. Issues discussed at these events have included the housing ombudsman’s role in providing advice and assistance while complaints are within the landlord’s process, as well as how it formally investigates once the landlord’s process is complete; the housing ombudsman’s expectation that all landlords should adopt a positive complaint-handling culture and what this means in practice; and how the housing ombudsman works with the regulator of social housing. Another issue discussed has been the learning reports that the housing ombudsman produces for landlords, which are focused on different categories of complaint. These reports identify failings and make recommendations for improvement.

The housing ombudsman service publishes a range of other information to inform and support residents, including all of its determinations on individual cases, anonymised so that residents’ names are not used; annual landlord performance reports; guidance on making and progressing complaints; and insight reports that look at complaints data, individual cases and wider learning points, and that share knowledge and learning from its casework. The housing ombudsman service has agreed a memorandum of understanding with the local government and social care ombudsman and the regulator of social housing, which commits it to sharing information on issues which affect multiple residents.

Earlier this year, the housing ombudsman published a new systemic framework, which set out how it will look beyond individual disputes to identify key issues that affect multiple residents and signal wider issues with landlord services. Again, learning is shared across the sector to promote good practice and support a positive complaint-handling culture. I hope that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale will withdraw the amendment.

Turning to clause 137, removing the democratic filter is one of a range of measures the Government are committed to in “The Charter for Social Housing Residents”—the social housing White Paper referred to earlier. It will ensure that landlords provide good services and engage positively with residents, treating them with courtesy and respect, and being accountable and transparent in how they operate. The charter sets out that this includes:

“To have your complaints dealt with promptly and fairly, with access to a strong Ombudsman who will give you swift and fair redress when needed.”

The housing ombudsman service, created in 1996, delivers an independent and impartial service to ensure that disputes are resolved and residents receive redress where appropriate. We are clear that residents should be able to raise concerns without fear, and get swift and effective resolution when they do. Currently, however, social housing residents who wish to seek redress because they believe they have received unsatisfactory service from their landlord have to refer their complaint to a designated person. This can be an MP, councillor or recognised tenant panel. Alternatively, residents have to wait eight weeks from the time that their complaint has exhausted the landlord’s complaints process before they can formally refer their complaint to the housing ombudsman. That is known as the democratic filter.

Clause 137 relates to the removal of the democratic filter stage—a requirement that was introduced by the Localism Act 2011. This gave a role to a designated person in dealing with disputes between social landlords and their tenants or leaseholders. The democratic filter was intended to strengthen the accountability of social landlords, enable housing complaints to be resolved using local knowledge, and help reduce the number of formal investigations by the housing ombudsman. In practice, it has resulted in social housing residents having less direct access to redress rather than consumers accessing other redress schemes.

The Green Paper consultation in 2018 identified this as an issue, which we then tested at consultation. We asked whether we should reduce the eight-week waiting period to four weeks or remove the requirement for the democratic filter stage altogether. Some 5% supported no change, 38% supported the option to reduce the waiting time, but 47% supported the option to remove the democratic filter stage.

Separate consultation undertaken by the housing ombudsman also established that although some designated persons’ arrangements work well, in many cases they do not operate effectively. It also emerged that in some areas tenant panels either do not exist or are not used. During 2019-20, only 6.9% of the cases entering the housing ombudsman’s formal remit were referred by a designated person. Removal of the democratic filter received support from the majority of respondents when the housing ombudsman service consulted on its 2019-22 corporate plan and 2019-20 business pan, with low support for the designated person role.

We all know how important our homes are to us. When things go wrong with our homes, we should expect to be listened to, have repairs carried out quickly, faults rectified, and maintenance work carried out to prevent faults from recurring. We want to know that our homes are safe for us to live in, safe for our families, and fit for purpose. When repairs are required, they should be carried out speedily and efficiently. When we are not listened to, landlords need to rectify issues. It is stressful, worrying and frustrating. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Neither clause 137 nor the explanatory notes mention the voice of residents, tenants or leaseholders. The Minister correctly referred to the current structure of the housing ombudsman and the recommended changes, including the democratic filter. Labour Members agree with that. It is very sensible to speed up the process. I speak regularly to representatives of Grenfell United —I know that Ministers and departmental officials do, too—and their view is crystal clear. They are dissatisfied with the measure because it does not capture or build on the principle of active engagement with residents, tenants and leaseholders. We will not, therefore, withdraw the amendment; we wish to press it to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 1 Building Safety Bill — Clause 137 - Housing complaints made to a housing ombudsman

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 137 ordered to stand part of the Bill.