Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 29th November 2022.
‘(1) Section 193 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)—
(a) after paragraph (d) insert—
“(da) major repair or improvement works,
(db) estate regeneration,
(dc) service charges,”
(b) after paragraph (ga) insert—
“(gb) advice and assistance in relation to the prevention of homelessness,”
(c) after paragraph (h) insert—
“(ha) provision for urgent transfer of tenancies in relation to tenants affected by domestic abuse or other violence”’.—(Matthew Pennycook.)
This new clause would allow the regulator to set standards in relation to major repair or improvement works, estate regeneration, service charges, homelessness prevention, and urgent moves for residents at risk of violence.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
In rising to speak to the final new clause, I thank hon. Members for their indulgence. They have listened to me a lot today.
We finish with an important new clause. It relates to what comes under the rubric of consumer standards as defined by the Bill. Since its initial publication in June, the Bill has been improved in several important respects. Today we have urged the Government to go further in relation to some areas and we will continue to do so, but we welcome the introduction of the consumer standards in relation to safety, transparency, competence and conduct.
However, there are other matters of real importance to social tenants that the Bill, as drafted, does not extend new consumer standards to. They include major repairs or improvement works, estate regeneration, service charges, advice and assistance in relation to the prevention of homelessness and urgent moves resulting from the risk of domestic abuse or serious violence.
New clause 6 simply seeks to ensure that the regulator has the freedom to set standards for registered providers in respect of each of those areas of housing management by amending section 193 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 to include them within the scope of what is considered a consumer matter.
There is arguably a need for the regulator to carry out a thorough consultation about consumer standards to better understand what housing management issues currently matter most to tenants. However, we know both from organisations providing housing support, guidance and expert advice services and, I would argue, from our own postbags, that the issues covered by new clause 6 are important to tenants. There is an arguable case for placing them in the Bill to at least allow the regulator, which has probably consulted and developed them, to set consumer standards in relation to some of these issues at a later date. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
As the shadow Minister outlined, the new clause seeks to amend the Regulator of Social Housing’s powers to set consumer standards in a number of ways. All the issues that he raised are important. Although I cannot accept the amendment, I will seek to address the issues raised in turn.
On major repairs and improvements, all social housing landlords should be delivering decent social housing and prioritising repairs and improvements that need to be made to ensure that housing is up to standard. The regulator is already able to set standards relating to the nature, extent and quality of accommodation, and the facilities and services, provided. That can include specified rules about maintenance, which would cover major repairs.
The regulator’s current homes standard already requires registered providers to provide a repairs and maintenance service that meets the needs of tenants, with the objective of getting repairs and improvements right the first time. The regulator will consult on and revise the standards following the passage of legislation and the issuance of Government directions.
On estate regeneration, let me be clear that I agree that landlords should be adequately planning for major regeneration projects and delivering planned maintenance. However, including that area as part of the regulator’s standard-setting remit is not necessary. As I have noted before, the regulator already has the powers required to set standards required relating to maintenance and repairs. Those standards apply to all homes, regardless of whether they are part of a regeneration project.
Existing legislation also enables the regulator to set standards relating to the contribution of landlords to the environmental, social and economic wellbeing of the areas in which their property is situated, which relates closely to the intended outcomes of regeneration projects. The regulator already sets expectations about neighbourhood management in its consumer standards and will be consulting on revised expectations under the proposed new standards, once the Bill has been passed.
It remains the responsibility of landlords to effectively manage their stock and deliver decent housing for their residents. We believe that a specific standard-setting power for regeneration is unnecessary. Effective asset management is already a focus of the in-depth assessments that the regulator conducts, which mean that landlords have to demonstrate to the regulator that they are able to maintain adequate levels of investment in the homes that they are responsible for.
I turn to service charges. The Government’s policy statement on rents for social housing encourages registered providers of social housing to keep any service charge increases within the consumer prices index plus 1% per year—the current limit on annual increases in social housing rents—in order to help ensure that charges stay affordable. Following our recent consultation on social housing rent increases, the Chancellor announced as part of his autumn statement that the Government will cap the increase in social rents at a maximum of 7% in 2023-24. In line with the proposal set out in our consultation, we will amend the policy statement to encourage providers to apply the 7% limit to any service charge increases in 2023-24.
Our policy statement also states that tenants should be supplied with clear information on how service charges are set; in the case of social rent properties, providers are expected to identify service charges separately from the rent charge. The new clause is not necessary to facilitate the regulator’s requiring that transparency from providers.
Furthermore, service charges are already governed by legislation in the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, which states that service charges can be charged only to the extent that they are reasonably incurred and that enforcement of that is via the courts. Consequently, it is not appropriate or necessary to add to the Bill a specific standard-setting power relating to service charges.
I move on to the issue of homelessness. Let me be crystal clear: the Government are committed to preventing homelessness, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North on the incredible work he did on that as a Minister. Since the introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, more than half a million households have been supported into secure accommodation. We are investing £2 billion over the next three years into addressing homelessness and rough sleeping, and in September we published our bold new strategy “Ending rough sleeping for good”. We have also provided £316 million this year for the homelessness prevention grant, which local authorities can use flexibly to meet their homelessness objectives—including to work with providers to prevent evictions.
I am not in a position to accept the new clause, as I believe the existing legislation is sufficient to achieve the outcome that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is seeking. The regulator’s existing tenancy standard already requires social landlords to develop and provide services that will support tenants to maintain their tenancy and prevent unnecessary evictions. The regulator’s standards will be consulted on and updated following the passage of legislation and the issuance of Government directions. Consequently, homelessness prevention is already a priority for providers; the regulator plays a vital role in support.
I move on to the urgent transfer of tenancies in cases of domestic abuse and violence. Again, to be absolutely clear we do not expect anyone who is threatened with violence to feel that they cannot move to safety for fear of losing their security of tenure. A range of measures are therefore already in place to protect people at risk of violence and in need of urgent rehousing, some of which I have already outlined that in earlier contributions.
Chapter 4 of the statutory guidance encourages additional preference to be given to those fleeing violence, including people fleeing domestic violence, and private registered providers have a role in housing such people through their duties to co-operate, as I outlined earlier.
I will not rehash any more of the arguments that I made in response to the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood and her new clause 1. However, I should add that in schedule 5 to the Bill, we are already amending the regulator’s standard-setting powers to include policies and procedures in connection with behaviour that amounts to domestic abuse within the meaning of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021.
For all the reasons I stated, I do not believe that the amendments to the regulator’s standard-setting powers are necessary. I ask the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to withdraw his new clause.
I thank the Minister for that response. I am somewhat reassured by it, to the extent that she has laid out—in considerable detail, in some cases—the ways in which some of the issues of concern flagged in the new clause are appropriately covered by the standards, guidance, policies and procedures. My reservation is about whether those existing processes have the effect that would be achieved by allowing the regulator itself to set standards and consumer standards.
Given how complex an issue this is, I will take away the Minister’s response and look at it in more detail, but I reserve the right to come back to the issue on Report. We think it is important that some of these real issues of concern to tenants be given due consideration when it comes to whether they are brought within the new regulatory regime to be established by the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
I have my Oscars-style speech of thanks to give before we finish today. First, a huge thank you to you, Sir Edward, for chairing the Committee so successfully and professionally, and for keeping us all in check. We are MPs; we always need someone to keep a good gaze over us to ensure that we are behaving.
I thank all members of the Committee for a constructive debate. One of the most reassuring things has been that there is such cross-party consensus in recognising that the Bill is absolutely needed and that we can all very much get behind its aims.
I thank the Clerks for their stellar work and my officials, who have been brilliant at speedily giving me all the information that I need. I thank the fabulous Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford, again for keeping us in check on the Government Benches.
I also say a huge thank you to Grenfell United, Shelter and others for their engagement on this important legislation. As the Minister, I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to take the Bill through Committee. I look forward to its coming back on Report; as I said, I will engage with Members before that point.
In my final breath, I say a massive good luck to both teams tonight. I am sure most people know which one I am supporting.
Briefly, Sir Edward, I thank you for your chairmanship of the Committee and the Clerks for all their work to prepare us. I thank the Minister for the constructive tone in which she approached the debate, and all hon. Members for the considerable amount of expertise and insight put forward in our debates. I, too, thank all the organisations, not least Grenfell United, that sent us their views and engaged with us on what they see as important in how the Bill could be strengthened.
As I said at the start, the Bill is uncontroversial and we welcome the vast majority of measures. We want to see it strengthened and we have made the case for that today. We will continue to make the case on Report for those areas of the Bill where we want to see further improvement, but I am glad that it can make swift progress to its next stage.
I thank you for being so expeditious. My fellow Chair, who is a Scot Nat, has had an easy ride.