Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 29th November 2022.
I beg to move amendment 16, in clause 29, page 23, line 36, leave out lines 36 to 39 and insert—
“(a) the inspection of every registered provider within four years of the commencement of this Act,
(b) the inspection of every registered provider at intervals of no longer than four years thereafter, and”.
This amendment would ensure that the regulator is required to carry out regular inspections of every registered provider.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.
We strongly support the introduction of routine inspections of social landlords. We therefore welcome clause 29. I would like to take the opportunity once again to commend the efforts of Lord Best in the other place and the perseverance of Grenfell United, which ensured that the Bill was strengthened.
Routine inspections of social housing landlords must be central to the new consumer regulatory regime introduced by the Bill if tenants are to have confidence that landlords will be monitored appropriately and deterred from risking breaches that could undermine health and wellbeing. The welcome removal of the serious detriment test in its entirety through the provisions in clause 26 legally allows the regulator to adopt a proactive approach to monitoring and enforcing consumer standards.
In our view, such an approach should be premised on inspections that are at short notice, rigorous, thorough and that include direct engagement with tenants who can highlight issues of concern, thereby helping the regulator determine whether a given provider is meeting the enhanced consumer standards introduced by the Bill.
Clause 29 amends section 201 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, adding a new section 201A to require the regulator to make, and take appropriate steps to implement, a plan for carrying out inspections. The plan must be published, kept under review, and revised or replaced where appropriate. However, the nature of the plan and issues such as the types of RPs that should be subject to regular inspections, the frequency of those inspections, and the circumstances in which RPs should be subject to ad hoc inspections are not prescribed on the face of the Bill, instead being left to the regulator to determine in due course.
While we recognise the need for the regulator to have a significant degree of discretion when it comes to formulating the inspections plan, we believe that the Bill should be more prescriptive in two important respects. First, we believe it is essential that the Bill make clear that all RPs, large or small, will be subject to inspections by the regulator. Secondly, we believe it is essential that the Bill ensures that each RP will be subject to routine inspections.
Amendment 16 seeks to achieve both those objectives by specifying which landlords will be inspected and the maximum duration of time between each inspection they are subject to. It does so by replacing proposed new section 201A(1)(a) and (b) of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, as inserted by clause 29—for those following in the Bill, that is lines 36 to 39 on page 23—with a requirement that every RP must be inspected within four years of the commencement of the Act and then inspected at intervals of no longer than four years thereafter.
We believe it is entirely reasonable to detail in the Bill the minimum expectations for the regulator’s inspections plan. The policy paper published alongside the Bill in June made clear that it would enable Ofsted-style inspections of social housing providers by the regulator. The Education Act 2005 that introduced those inspections specified that every school in England would be subject to them and that they would be inspected on a routine basis at least once every three years. Amendment 16 takes that arrangement and applies it to RPs, subject to the enhanced consumer standards introduced by the Bill.
The amendment deliberately does not specify the precise frequency of inspections, merely requiring that they take place at least once every four years—the timeframe proposed by the Government in their 2020 White Paper in relation to the largest landlords. In doing so, the amendment would allow the regulator to determine the precise frequency and nature of individual inspections based on the size of the landlord and its risk profile as determined by means of desktop review.
We believe amendment 16 would preserve the regulator’s operational independence and flexibility when it comes to formulating and implementing the inspections plan now required by clause 29, while strengthening the clause to ensure that key minimum expectations are specified and that tenants can have real confidence in the new inspections regime as a result. I hope the Minister will consider accepting it.
Clause 29 commits the regulator to the delivery of regular inspections by providing it with a duty to publish, and take reasonable steps to implement, a plan for regular inspections. The clause will reinforce the regulator’s commitment to deliver the policy objective set by the social housing White Paper, while ensuring the regulator has the freedom to design the inspections regime following engagement with the sector.
As members of the Committee know, a key part of our efforts to drive consumer standards is the introduction of routine inspections by the regulator for the largest landlords. Inspections will help the regulator to hold landlords to account and intervene where necessary, ultimately driving up the quality of homes and services provided to tenants. That measure is integral to the success of the proactive consumer regime facilitated by the Bill.
However, I cannot accept amendment 16, which seeks to introduce a specific duty for the regulator to conduct inspections of all RPs every four years. As I have said, clause 29 puts the Government and the regulator’s shared commitment to inspections into legislation, through requiring the regulator to publish and take reasonable steps to implement an inspections plan. The clause also ensures that the regulator maintains a level of operational flexibility to allow it to respond on a risk basis to significant developments in the sector.
The regulator is committed to developing a robust approach to inspections, and continues to develop the details of how it will manage consumer inspections via a process of targeted engagement with the sector and social housing tenants. I do not feel that we should bind the regulator’s hands by putting into legislation detailed requirements about inspections that would pre-empt the work it is currently undertaking.
The system of inspections will be based on a risk profile to ensure that those landlords at greatest risk of failing, or where failure might have the greatest impact on tenants, are subject to greater oversight. As part of that provision, the regulator will aim to inspect landlords with more than 1,000 homes every four years. We will, of course, hold the regulator to account to deliver and implement its inspections plan, and the regulator continues to be accountable to Parliament for the delivery of its statutory objectives.
Clearly, the providers with the most complaints against them to the regulator will be placed most at risk. In my view, some could be subject to an annual inspection, while providers that are doing a really good job and do not warrant an inspection could be left, although, clearly, if there were complaints, the inspection could be brought forward. Is that my hon. Friend’s understanding of how this will work? Obviously, the regulator will have limited resources to ensure that standards are improved.
Absolutely—this is all about driving up standards. The plan is that the regulator will aim to inspect landlords with over 1,000 homes at least every four years, and those at highest risk could be subject to more frequent inspections. As I say, the regulator is doing detailed work to see how best to implement the measure, and it is important that we let it get on with that work before putting anything into the Bill. On that basis, I hope that the shadow Minister will withdraw the amendment.
I rise to support amendment 16 on the basis of 17 years’ experience of Ofsted. We know that unless a school knows that Ofsted is coming, problems begin. A substantial proportion of outstanding schools that were not inspected for five years have recently been graded as needing improvement. Organisations need to know that somebody is coming, and coming in a reasonable time.
I simply do not understand why we would oppose registered providers being inspected once every four years, or why we would choose to inspect large housing associations but not smaller ones. Are housing associations with 1,000 tenants or fewer not just as susceptible to poor standards, and are those residents not entitled to live under the same inspection regime?
If regulation just requires looking at the paperwork, things can be made to look brilliant. Who here has not been told by their housing provider that it does not have a problem because 80% of tenants say that its repairs system is fantastic? When we dig into the detail, we appreciate how few people respond to customer service requests and just how hard some of our constituents find it to complain or get themselves heard. We need a clear and strong inspection regime.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. That is why we will do customer satisfaction surveys that have been agreed with the regulator. The format has been agreed. We will be able to compare housing associations and their relative performance in order to drill down and improve that performance. I understand her point, but the Government are making significant strides with the regulator to try to drive up customer and tenant engagement to ensure that we are genuinely getting the opinion of the majority, rather than a minority.
That is not possible. We cannot construct a customer survey as emphatic or successful as that, because we have a broad span of residents and tenants, with different lives that determine whether they fill in forms. We as politicians, and people who deliver leaflets and get others to do so on our behalf, know that some people will always respond and others never will, even if, objectively speaking, they need to do so.
Surely, if a tenant is aggrieved with the process, they are likely to fill in the survey response.
I have been an MP for 25 years and a member of the Labour party for 42 years. I am really interested in political communication and getting people to respond. I have to tell the hon. Member that a substantial number of people will never respond, and it is often those who live in the most dire circumstances. If we are serious about improving standards, we need the most structured inspection system that we can afford—I appreciate that it is public money.
I do not deny that anything done in the Bill is a step forward and an improvement, but if we are going to spend public money on behalf of some of our most vulnerable constituents, we want to make it the best-spent money that we can. Let us get it right. We are not starting with a clean piece of paper; we are starting with 17 years of experience with Ofsted and years of experience with the Care Quality Commission. We know a great deal about how inspection regimes work.
On the point about making sure we get the system right, the hon. Lady mentioned public funds, which is clearly a crucial issue. That is precisely why the regime is being designed so that those who are most at risk will be inspected more frequently. That includes not just larger landlords but smaller landlords where there is a clear indication of issues that have been found previously. Inspections can also be done on a more reactive basis. If a report goes to the regulator to suggest that there is a specific issue with a smaller landlord, the risk profile will be there and the landlord could be inspected much more frequently.
I am glad that there will be reactive inspections. I am not suggesting that there should not be. What I am saying is that, along with reactive inspections, there should be a regular and rigid routine of inspections. That way, everybody knows that they will have an inspection once during a four-year period. That does not seem to me to be over-regulation, certainly given recent events in social housing stock.
I have to say that I am slightly disappointed with the Minister’s speech. I am not convinced by her arguments. There is clearly a debate here about how prescriptive we should be in the Bill as to the regulator’s functions. I am convinced that we need to be slightly more prescriptive. I say that for a couple of reasons.
First, my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden made a good point on the size of providers. It has certainly been my experience that some of the smaller providers are the most egregious when it comes to standards, partly because they do not face the reputational risk, or the extent of investigations by Members of Parliament or others into their activities, that some of the larger providers do. I do not think the size of providers should play a part in who is inspected.
We think it is important that all providers are inspected within the four-year period. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: it is not enough to base a reactive inspections regime, to the extent that that is a part of the process provided by the clause, on surveys or desktop studies alone. We do not leave schools out of the Ofsted inspections process because we are not getting complaints about them. We inspected all schools routinely within a certain period.
Secondly, to the extent that the amendment is prescriptive, I do not think that it is particularly onerous on the regulator. All we are asking for is an inspection within four years of the Bill receiving Royal Assent and every four years thereafter. That four-year timeframe was proposed by the Government in their White Paper; we did not pluck it out of thin air. I think it is entirely reasonable to ask for an inspections regime to take place on that basis. If the regulator needs the resources to carry out those inspections, let us ensure that it has them. However, I struggle to understand why the Government do not feel they can add an element of prescription to the inspections plan in the way that amendment 16 proposes. We will therefore press the amendment to a Division.