Clause 21 - Standards relating to competence and conduct

Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 29 November 2022.

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

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Persons engaged in the management of social housing to have relevant professional qualifications—

“After section 217 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 (accreditation) insert—

‘217A Professional qualifications and other requirements

(1) The Secretary of State may, by regulations, provide that a person may not engage in the management of social housing or in specified work in relation to the provision of social housing unless he or she—

(a) has appropriate professional qualifications, or

(b) satisfies specified requirements.

(2) Regulations specifying work for the purpose of subsection (1) may make provision by reference to—

(a) one or more specified activities, or

(b) the circumstances in which activities are carried out.

(3) Regulations made under this section may, in particular, require—

(a) the possession of a specified qualification or experience of a specified kind,

(b) participation in or completion of a specified programme or course of training, or

(c) compliance with a specified condition.

(4) Regulations may make provision for any of the following matters—

(a) the establishment and continuance of a regulatory body;

(b) the keeping of a register of qualified social housing practitioners;

(c) requirements relating to education and training before and after qualification;

(d) standards of conduct and performance;

(e) discipline and fitness to practise;

(f) removal or suspension from registration or the imposition of conditions on registration;

(g) investigation and enforcement by or on behalf of the regulatory body, and appeals against the decisions or actions of the regulatory body.”’

This new clause would require managers of social housing to have appropriate qualifications and expertise.

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

As I said on Second Reading, the Government are fully committed to driving up housing management standards by improving the professional behaviours, skills and capabilities of all staff in the sector. The Grenfell tragedy and our subsequent social housing Green Paper consultation highlighted the fact that many staff did not listen to or treat residents with respect, provide a high-quality service or deal appropriately with complaints. The circumstances surrounding the death of Awaab Ishak have once again shown the tragic consequences that can occur when staff lack empathy and when tenants are not listened to. That is why clause 21 makes provision to enable the Secretary of State to direct the regulator of social housing to set standards for the competence and conduct of social housing staff. Registered providers will be required to comply with specified rules concerning the knowledge, skills and experience of social housing staff. They will also be required to comply with specified rules concerning the conduct expected of such individuals when dealing with tenants. Those factors are crucial in determining the quality of services provided to tenants.

Our approach offers a holistic solution to the issue of professionalisation. It champions the value of skills, knowledge and experience, and maintains landlords’ flexibility in choosing the most appropriate training programmes and qualifications to equip their workforces. The standards set under this clause will ensure that social housing staff develop the core skillsets and behaviours required to treat tenants with the empathy and respect that they deserve. They will also empower staff to take appropriate action to support tenants.

New clause 4, tabled by the shadow Minister, takes a different approach to achieving professionalisation. It gives the Secretary of State the power to stipulate, through regulations, that a person

“may not engage in the management of social housing or in specified work in relation to the provision of social housing unless he or she—

(a) has appropriate professional qualifications, or

(b) satisfies specified requirements.”

As both myself and the Secretary of State set out on Second Reading, there is a real risk that mandating qualifications for all housing management staff would lead to the reclassification of housing associations to the public sector. The sector is close to the threshold for reclassification, and we saw that happen in 2015. Since then, a number of deregulatory measures have had to be taken before housing associations could be reclassified back to the private sector.

To make this point very clear, reclassification would bring around £90 billion of debt and all housing association annual spending on to the public ledger, and would likely reduce the ability of housing associations to improve the quality of their stock and build new homes. We have to be mindful of that risk and that outcome, which could be harmful to tenants.

However, we have listened carefully to the arguments made both in this House and the other place in support of mandatory qualifications. As I committed to do on Second Reading, I met with my right hon. Friend Mrs May to discuss this issue before the Bill reached Committee stage. We are continuing to look at whether there is any scope to include qualifications requirements in the competence and conduct standards without triggering reclassification. If we can identify a solution, then we will be able to bring that forward on Report.

We continue to believe that the existing provisions in the Bill, which will enable us to direct the regulator to set standards for the competence and conduct of all staff, will be an effective means of professionalising the sector. Our approach has been informed by the findings of our professionalisation review, which we will publish in full early next year. There is no doubt that housing management qualifications are an important aspect of professional development for some staff. Our review heard no clear evidence that such qualifications in and of themselves lead to better staff behaviours or improved tenant experiences. Qualifications such as those offered by the Chartered Institute of Housing will be an important part of how landlords ensure their staff have the skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours they need to deliver professional services, as required by the competence and conduct standards. Qualifications will sit alongside external and in-house training and more informal developmental tools such as staff supervision, mentoring and reflective practice.

Our review findings echoed what we heard after the Grenfell tragedy and more recently in relation to the death of Awaab Ishak—that what tenants most want and need is for all of the staff they deal with, whether housing managers, officers, or contact centre staff, to treat them with respect and empathy, to listen carefully and take appropriate and timely actions in response to their issues and concerns. We heard that these behaviours, and the interpersonal skills and attitudes that underlie them, are more likely to be achieved through a combination of organisational culture change led by senior executives and boards, adoption of codes of ethics and values, delivery of bespoke on-the-job training and effective supervision by experienced staff, than they are necessarily by formal qualifications.

The review also highlighted how important flexibility is in designing staff development programmes, given the sector’s diverse structures, operating models, role types, and breadth of service provision. Mandating qualifications for all housing management staff could hinder landlords in delivering the right mix of qualifications, training and development for their staff. Through the review we also heard that mandating qualifications for all staff would likely add to the recruitment and retention challenges faced by many landlords. Recruiting staff who have the right attitudes and aptitudes is more important to building a caring and empathetic workforce than employing people who possess formal qualifications. So we are concerned about the recruitment issues in that regard.

The standards that we are bringing forward will drive a holistic and organisation-wide approach to professional development, and deliver the empathetic, forward-looking and professional housing services the sector deserves, with staff who treat tenants with respect and act swiftly to remedy issues.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The clause refers to the standards and competence that we expect to be achieved in this sector, and the amendment goes further and expands on them. However, it is silent on sanctions when they are not achieved. It is all very well having qualified people, but, if they do not perform properly, sanctions have to be available and directions by the Secretary of State should be possible. I wonder whether my hon. Friend will look at how we might strengthen the position when we get to Report stage.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will respond to him and then perhaps I will have answered the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North wanted to ask. It is right that the regulator must have the right powers in place to deal with breaches of its standards. With regard to competence and conduct, the Bill enables the regulator to require providers to produce and implement a performance improvement plan to be approved by the regulator. If a provider fails to implement a plan, the regulator can issue an enforcement notice and levy an unlimited fine if that notice is not complied with. So the regulator will have teeth to ensure the kind of conduct that we expect. I hope that that answers the question from one hon. Friend.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Anyone who has listened to the Grenfell Tower inquiry—especially the podcast, which provides a great summary of the challenges that were faced—will know that a number of tenants encountered members of staff who simply were not appropriately qualified to carry out their role. As a result, the tenants did not get the experience, support and help that they so rightly deserved. So, while I fully appreciate that it is appropriate to recruit for aptitude—this is a vocational area for many—it is incredibly appropriate to make sure that staff are trained for their role.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His expertise on this matter is welcome to all of us, and I thank him for all the work that he did as Minister on this really important body of work. He is right. That is why we have taken this away and are looking at what more we can do around professional qualifications, without that risk of reclassification. I hope that, following Committee stage, I will be able to report on what progress we have made before we reach Report stage.

It is important that we get this process right. We will continue the dialogue that we have already started with key stakeholders such as Grenfell United, Shelter and the CIH before we issue a statutory consultation on the direction itself. The regulator will then also consult on its draft standard before it comes into force. This Committee can be assured of our intent to take on board fully the views of both tenants and providers in developing the way forward. I have already spoken a little about compliance and sanctions if standards are not complied with, so I will leave that point there.

To summarise, the Government’s ambition is to build an empathetic, qualified and skilled social housing workforce. We want to bring about a wholesale organisational and cultural change, which we all recognise is desperately needed. We remain firm in our belief that our approach and the clause will deliver the professionalisation of the social housing sector, but we will of course continue to explore options for qualification requirements that would not trigger reclassification and would deliver the right outcomes for tenants. I commend the clause to the Committee and, on the basis of what I have outlined, I ask the shadow Minister not to move his new clause.

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

We welcome the concession made by the Government in the other place on professional training and qualifications, and the resulting inclusion of the clause in the Bill. However, if we are to be certain that this legislation will expedite the professionalisation of the sector, we are absolutely convinced that the Government need to go still further.

As the Minister said, the clause amends section 194 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 by adding a proposed new section allowing the regulator to set regulatory standards on the competence and conduct of social housing managers, and making it clear that such standards may require providers to comply with specified rules relating to knowledge, skills and experience. However, the clause as drafted includes no requirement for those involved in the management of social housing to meet objective professional standards. We therefore agree with, among others, Grenfell United and Shelter, that it therefore risks introducing an insufficiently high bar for registered providers in respect of the professional training that they implement.

New clause 4 seeks to strengthen the Bill in relation to professionalisation by amending section 217 of the 2008 Act, concerning accreditation, to require managers of social housing to have appropriate objective qualifications and expertise.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

On professional qualifications, I completely understand that we need to have properly qualified people overseeing those in social housing and giving them support, but most professions—whether lawyers, accountants, firemen or police—have a professional body. What professional body does the hon. Gentleman propose should be behind social housing, because I do not think that there is one, is there?

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

I will touch on that. The Chartered Institute of Housing does a considerable amount of work in this area. For reasons I will come on to, however, the review that it is undertaking perhaps does not go as far as we need in the ways in which we think this legislation must be amended to drive professionalisation along the lines that many groups are calling for.

As I was saying, we think it is vital that those requirements should be put on the face of the Bill. As a result of the progressive residualisation of social housing over the past 40 years, it is now overwhelmingly let to those most in need. According to the latest English housing survey data, half of social renters are in the lowest income quintile, compared with 22% of private renters and 12% of owners; more than half of all households in such tenure have one or more members with a long-term illness or disability; and more than a quarter are 65 or over. We also know—this is certainly the case from my own post bag—that many social tenants find themselves facing intimidation by criminal gangs, domestic abuse and racial harassment, and that a minority are in desperate need of urgent moves to escape serious youth violence. We will return to that point when we debate new clause 1 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood.

As a result of frequently having little voice or power, and because there is a chronic shortage of social housing, tenants have few if any options to move if they receive an unprofessional service from their landlord. They face significant barriers when it comes to challenging poor conditions. We therefore must do more to ensure that those managing the homes of social tenants are properly qualified to do so and that they have undergone the necessary training, for example in anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice, to ensure that they are treating tenants fairly and providing them with the necessary support. We rightly expect those working in other frontline services, such as education and social care, to have the professional qualifications and training necessary to carry out their work effectively, and to undergo continuous professional development. We should expect no less for those managing social homes.

Of course, any requirements placed on social housing managers in relation to mandatory qualifications and expertise would have to be introduced carefully and sensitively so as not to exacerbate existing challenges in the sector, such as those the Minister mentioned already around recruitment, retention and diversity. It is entirely feasible for the Government to ensure that that would be the case by implementing the provisions of new clause 4 or a Government new clause introduced on Report over an extended period of time, in incremental phases depending on the nature of the particular roles in question, or by providing a range of pathways to accreditation, as is the case in teaching and other professions. Not only that, but professionalisation could itself help address the challenges the sector faces by increasing the attractiveness of working within it, and making it a more valued profession.

In resisting attempts to ensure that those carrying out direct housing management functions are required to maintain certain objective professional standards, at previous stages the Government have offered all manner of reasons why doing so is unnecessary and potentially harmful. The arguments have included: that there is no clear evidence that specified qualifications in and of themselves lead to more professionally delivered services; that there is no single qualification that adequately meets the sector’s diverse requirements; and that landlords need flexibility to determine the right mix of qualifications and training for their staff.

The Minister has repeated some of those arguments today. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead persuasively argued on Second Reading, those arguments are “extraordinary” and ones that we would rightly dismiss if they were applied to any other frontline social profession.

Arguably the most prominent objection advanced by Ministers has been that giving the Secretary of State the ability to set mandatory qualifications in social housing management would lead to the automatic reclassification of housing associations as public bodies by the Office for National Statistics, thereby bringing up to £90 billion of debt on to the public ledger, as the Minister said. While we do not in any way dismiss the risk, no hard evidence has been presented as to why the Government are certain that mandatory qualifications for specified social housing management roles would lead to reclassification. We have certainly seen no correspondence between the Department and the ONS or the Treasury to corroborate the assertion. If it exists, why do the Government not publish the information, and we can move on to a different discussion about professional qualifications and training?

We are far from convinced by the arguments that have been advanced by Ministers to date—not this Minister; other Ministers—in resisting the incorporation of a requirement for mandatory, objective qualifications and expertise into the Bill. Moreover, even if we received confirmation from the ONS that the inclusion of a requirement for mandatory qualifications for certain direct housing management functions would lead to the reclassification of housing associations, there would still be a case for strengthening clause 21 in terms of setting clearer expectations for what the regulator’s standard on conduct and competence should include—for example, registration with professional bodies, such as the one I mentioned earlier, and continuous professional development.

As the Chartered Institute of Housing, the UK’s main training and accreditation body for housing professionals, has argued that

“in relation to direct housing management functions, including resident involvement and anti-social behaviour work, there is a case for setting certain expectations of skills, knowledge and behaviour to ensure that staff provide good services and work well with and in response to residents.”

We appreciate fully that the Government did initiate a review of qualifications and professional training with a view to ensuring that social housing staff are better equipped to support tenants, deal effectively with complaints and make sure homes are of good quality, but that review in and of itself is not enough. The issues in question need to be properly addressed in the Bill. That is our view, the view of Grenfell United and the view of senior Members on the Government Benches.

The reason we are even debating this matter today, and why we feel so strongly that the Government must give serious consideration to strengthening clause 21, is that we know that far too many social housing tenants feel like they are not listened to or treated with respect, and a minority feels that they are actively discriminated against by the staff who oversee the services they are provided with. One need only look at the circumstances—the Minister has rightly made reference to this—surrounding the death of Awaab Ishak from respiratory arrest as a result of prolonged exposure to mould to recognise that poorly managed and maintained social housing can literally kill.

The Government did the right thing in inserting clause 21 into the Bill, but they must go further. The Minister says the Government are in listening mode. I suspect that Ministers are minded to push much further on this matter. We look forward to seeing what they bring back.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 2:15, 29 November 2022

The shadow Minister is applying quite a long list of prescriptions, and I think Members on both sides of the Committee would probably agree with much of what he is saying. One of the problems with putting such provisions into the Bill is that they are very difficult to amend at a future time. I accept that what he is proposing now is that regulations “may” be made; I wonder whether a better approach might be for a Government amendment to set out that regulations may be made. The prescription he has put in his new clause could then be made under regulation and, therefore, be easier to amend in the event that matters change. Otherwise, we would have to introduce primary legislation.

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

I do not want to engage the hon. Member in a prolonged discussion about “may” and “must”—we had enough of that with his private Member’s Bill. We are open to a discussion about how to proceed, but what we need at this stage is a commitment from the Minister that the Government are going to move on objective professional qualifications and training, rather than leaving the Bill as is. If that requires regulations to be moved in due course, we would be open to that, but let us see what the Government bring back on Report.

We will press our new clause to a vote at the appropriate moment to underscore how strongly we feel that this is one of the areas on which the Government must move by Report stage, to ensure that the legislation is as robust as it can possibly be.

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

I will keep this brief. I am grateful to the shadow Minister for outlining his concerns, which were mentioned on Second Reading. The commitment I can give is that we are seriously looking at the issue and seeing how far we can go without that risk of reclassification. I appreciate his reasoning behind wanting to push the new clause to a vote; I hope in the meantime that he will be inclined to change his mind before we get to that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.