Clause 2 - Advisory panel

Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 29 November 2022.

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Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:15, 29 November 2022

I beg to move amendment 14, in clause 2, page 1, line 18, at end insert—

“(2A) The Panel may provide information and advice to the Secretary of State about, or on matters connected with, the regulator’s functions and wider issues affecting the regulation of social housing (whether or not it is requested to do so by either the regulator or the Secretary of State).”

This amendment would enable the Panel to provide information and advice and to proactively raise issues affecting social housing regulation more generally directly to the Secretary of State.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 15, in clause 2, page 2, line 17, at end insert—

“(8) The Panel must be chaired by a tenant of social housing.

(9) The Chair is responsible for setting Panel meeting agendas.

(10) The majority of persons appointed to the panel must be tenants of social housing.”

This amendment would ensure that tenant representation on the advisory panel is mandatory and that tenants are able to influence effectively what information and advice is presented to the regulator in respect of issues affecting social housing regulation.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

For all its technical complexity, the Bill is ultimately about those who live in social housing and overhauling regulation to ensure that they are treated fairly by landlords who are well run, responsive, transparent and accountable. In considering the detail of the Bill, we must never forget that the impetus for it was the deaths of 72 men, women and children in the early hours of 14 June 2017. Those 72 human lives were ended in an inferno fuelled by the highly combustible cladding system installed on the outside of the tower block in which they lived, despite the fact that tenants had repeatedly sounded the alarm about the building’s safety defects and the fact that warnings were going unheeded.

I have met and spoken to Grenfell United, as I assume the Minister and many other Members have. I once again pay tribute to them and the wider Grenfell community. I know that what the survivors and the bereaved are determined to achieve is not only justice, but lasting change in how social housing is regulated and the power that tenants themselves can exercise. We firmly believe that the empowerment of tenants must be at the heart of the Bill, and we believe that a key test of its robustness is whether it establishes mechanisms that will enable tenants to influence in practice the regulator’s approach to regulating standards; to shape any future changes to regulatory standards and codes of practice; and to proactively raise wider issues affecting social housing regulation and policy, not just with the regulator but with Ministers.

The Government ostensibly agree that tenants are at the heart of the Bill, and Ministers have repeatedly assured us that one of its primary objectives is to give social housing tenants a voice and ensure that it is listened to. Yet when it comes to providing ways in which tenant representatives can exert a measure of control over the work of the regulator, shape the future direction of the regulatory arrangements that the Bill establishes and proactively influence national regulation and policy so as to shape the services that tenants receive from their landlords, we feel that the Bill is somewhat lacking in ambition.

Clause 2 provides for the establishment of the advisory panel. We very much welcome its establishment as a means of providing independent and unbiased information and advice to the regulator about matters relating to the regulator’s functions, and the fact that it can do so without the regulator making such a request. However, the advisory panel established by clause 2 is neither independent nor able to meaningfully influence the setting of national regulation and policy, because the Bill provides only for the panel to supply information and advice to the regulator—the same body that controls the panel’s membership and functioning.

Amendment 14 seeks to press the Government to reconsider whether the Bill should provide a means for the panel to provide information and advice directly to the Secretary of State in circumstances in which it feels that it is necessary to do so. An example of such circumstances would be where the panel had identified an issue or issues affecting social housing regulation that it believed warranted the Secretary of State considering further legislative or non-legislative change.

There is clear precedent when it comes to non-departmental public bodies having the ability to raise key sector issues and risks directly with Ministers. For example, as well as advising persons exercising functions or engaged in activities affecting children on how to act compatibly with the rights of children, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner can bring matters directly to the attention of the Secretary of State or either House of Parliament.

We believe that the change proposed by amendment 14 is proportionate and sensible. The occasions on which the advisory panel is likely to feel the need to issue information and advice directly to the Secretary of State are likely to be rare—no doubt extremely rare—but we believe that it is important that the option be available to the panel should it feel that such a course of action is warranted. By amending the Bill to provide that option, we would at least ensure that the panel was given a limited degree of autonomous action by providing it with the recourse to bring matters of concern directly to the attention of Ministers, despite the fact that it is ultimately controlled by the regulator. I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to this amendment.

Turning to amendment 15, I mentioned a moment ago that the advisory panel provided for by clause 2 cannot in any way be considered independent. That is because it is the regulator that will establish the panel and choose which persons are appointed to it. Although proposed new section 96A(4) of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, inserted by clause 2 of the Bill, states that the regulator must appoint persons

“appearing to the regulator to represent the interests of” among others

“tenants of social housing”,

there is nothing in the Bill to guarantee that tenants themselves will form part of the panel’s membership, let alone be able to influence its work or shape future social housing regulation or policy. We believe that that is problematic and we want to see the Bill more effectively empower tenants.

The Opposition believe that in principle there is a strong case for establishing, as the last Labour Government did with the National Tenant Voice, a body to act as the authentic voice of social tenants, one that is independent of both Government and the regulator and that is truly representative of tenants across the country. Such a body would enable tenants to address the stigma and stereotyping—much of it based on ignorance—that they are so frequently subject to, rather than relying on benevolent others in positions of authority to do so for them, and it would allow tenants to speak for themselves, nationally, regionally and locally, on a more equal footing with other interests, not least when it comes to policy making and regulation.

The Government have established the social housing quality resident panel—I note the hon. Member for Walsall North’s involvement with that—which allows tenants to share their views about their landlord’s services, as well as the Government’s efforts to improve the quality of social housing, directly with Ministers, but the existence of that panel is time-limited and, in its composition, remit and functioning, it falls far short of the kind of independent body that would truly empower tenants and enable them to have their voice heard on issues outside the Government social housing quality programme.

We recognise that the establishment of the kind of body that I have outlined is absolutely outside the scope of the Bill. Its consideration will almost certainly await the election of the next Labour Government. However, that does not mean that we cannot strengthen the advisory panel to ensure that tenants are adequately represented on it and can influence effectively what advice and information is provided to the regulator. Amendment 15 seeks to do that, requiring the advisory panel at least to be chaired by a tenant, who would be given responsibility for setting panel meeting agendas, and that a majority of persons appointed to the panel be social tenants.

The response to the Green Paper made clear the support for stronger representation of resident tenants at a national level, with 71% of respondents supporting measures that would achieve that. By ensuring that tenants formed a majority of the panel’s membership and could play a significant role in determining what issues it should focus on at any given time, amendment 15 would enable social tenants to exert real influence on the regulator’s approach to regulating standards, future changes to regulatory standards and codes of practice, and wider issues affecting social housing regulation and policy.

The advisory panel will rightly also contain those representing the interests of resident providers, local housing authorities and other organisations listed in clause 2(4). But if the Government are truly committed to putting tenants at the heart of the Bill, we believe they should think again about how the advisory panel will be constituted and function, with a view to ensuring that tenants are at the centre of the national conversation about how we drive up standards in social housing. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view on the amendments.

Photo of Dehenna Davison Dehenna Davison Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 10:30, 29 November 2022

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for making his case for amendments 14 and 15. Amendment 14 seeks to enable the advisory panel to provide information and advice and to raise issues affecting social housing regulation directly with the Secretary of State. The social housing White Paper made it clear that the purpose of the advisory panel was to provide independent and unbiased advice specific to the regulator on matters connected to regulation. Clearly, the views of tenants are central to that objective.

As the hon. Gentleman outlined, in parallel we also established the social housing quality resident panel, which will provide an opportunity for us to hear from tenants. The aim of the resident panel is to enable tenants to share their views directly with Government and Ministers on their approach to improving the quality of social housing, and on whether the Government’s interventions will deliver the changes that they want to see.

The resident panel is made up of 250 social housing residents from across the country and from diverse backgrounds. They met for the first time last week on 26 November, and will meet approximately monthly over the coming year, with opportunities for the agenda to be shaped by panel members. At that meeting, residents told the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, that the most important issues to them were how repairs are dealt with, how landlords are held to account and how complaints are handled by their landlords and the housing ombudsman. The Department’s resident panel and the regulated advisory panel have a specific role and remit to ensure that tenants’ views are properly represented to both Ministers and the regulator.

Amendment 15 seeks to require a social housing tenant to chair the advisory panel and have responsibility for setting the agenda that the panel considers. It also seeks to ensure that social housing tenants comprise the majority of panel members. We share the notion that it is vital that tenants’ voices are heard, but it is important that the advisory panel considers the full range of regulatory issues that the regulator has to tackle. That means that we need to allow a diverse collection of voices to share their knowledge and opinions with the regulator.

Consumer matters are rightly at the forefront of the Bill but, equally, working to resolve some of the economic issues should not be diminished. Legislating for a tenant to chair and set the agenda and requiring the majority of the panel members to be tenants would not support what we are trying to achieve with the advisory panel. I am concerned that being too prescriptive in legislation about how the advisory panel must operate may prevent the panel from having the flexibility to decide how it best operates. In practice, I expect that all members of the advisory panel, along with the regulator, will shape how it works and what it considers.

We are committed to ensuring that tenants can effectively engage with the Department and the regulator, and that tenant voices are at the heart of social housing regulation and policy, but we do not feel that amendments 14 and 15 are necessary to achieve that so I ask the shadow Minister to withdraw them.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank the Minister for that helpful response, and I take on board the concerns she raised about the amendments.

I am slightly concerned about the lack of what we would consider to be true tenant empowerment. The quality resident panel is important, but it only lasts a year, so how will we get ongoing tenant engagement with the work of the regulator to inform how it operates, to shape future regulation, which is part of its remit, and to raise future issues of concern to tenants nationally, in terms of social housing regulation and policy? We do not think the Bill allows for that, and in all honesty I cannot understand the Government’s objection to allowing the advisory panel to notify Ministers directly, rather than the regulator, in certain rare circumstances. As the Minister said, the panel is at present constituted by the regulator, which appoints its membership, and it can only provide views directly to the regulator. We think there are some circumstances in which it may need to do otherwise. I hope the Minister takes away those points.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Although there might be some deliberation about this mechanism, there are several mechanisms through which resident organisations are able to engage with Ministers and the regulator. I am delighted to see representatives of Grenfell United in the Public Gallery. There is a regular opportunity to meet Ministers, although it is not prescriptive and perhaps not as frequent as many would like, but the Government are certainly determined to build on it.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We recognise that Ministers meet tenants and tenant representatives frequently. My concern is that if tenants on the advisory panel have an issue that they feel is sufficiently serious that they need to bring it to the attention of Ministers, rather than the regulator, they should not have to rely on attempting to get a meeting with Ministers. There should be a mechanism through which they can put serious issues on the desk of the Secretary of State or the Minister if they feel that they, as well as the regulator, need to know about them. That is the point we are trying to address with amendment 14.

On amendment 15, I understand the Minister’s concerns about being too prescriptive, but I urge the Government to go away and think again about the membership of the advisory panel. I appreciate fully the need to have a diverse panel, but as I read clause 2(4), there is nothing on the face of the Bill to prevent the Government from putting one tenant or tenant representative on the panel and leaving it at that. There is no minimum quota for tenants, and we want tenant voices to be properly represented.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The shadow Minister is making a good point. We want to empower tenants, but his proposal could have an unintended consequence. Supposing tenant representatives on the board cannot agree among themselves who will be the chair, the panel could meet, but obviously that would be a difficult situation. There may potentially be social tenants from various parts of the country, representing different organisations. It is therefore not appropriate to prescribe a chair on the face of the Bill; that would defeat the objective. It might well be that we could find some suitable wording about the number of representatives, but I do not think we should force the panel to have a particular individual or representative as the chair.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The point about obvious issues around tenant representation and selection is well made, although those issues exist for the quality residents panel and the 250 members it selects. They have existed every time we have tried to create a body that gives voice to residents, so I do not think they are insurmountable. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman thinks a minimum level of tenant representation on the panel is a good thing, and I urge the Government to think again about that.

We ultimately want to achieve tenant empowerment on the advisory panel so that tenants can be confident that, when the advisory panel gives information and advice to the regulator about the new system of regulatory standards, its voice is properly heard and it can bring issues to the attention of Ministers if required. I hope the Government will take away the points we have made about the amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

Clause 2 makes it a requirement that the regulator will engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including tenants and landlords. It also sets out expectations about who should be represented on that panel. It is not just about the regulator asking a group of people for views once it has already made up its mind about what it wants to do. The panel is designed to be used to test and shape the regulator’s thinking. For example, we expect the regulator to engage the panel on the design and implementation of new consumer standards. The clause also empowers the panel to raise issues directly with the regulator that its members consider important. I hope the Committee will support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.