Clause 29 - Guidance for scheme administrator and local housing authority

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 28 November 2023.

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Amendment made: 66, in clause 29, page 39, line 4, leave out “in England”.—(Jacob Young.)

This amendment leaves out words which have no legal effect because a “local housing authority” as defined by clause 57(1) could not be situated outside of England.

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

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

Clause 29 allows the Secretary of State to issue or approve guidance on effective working between local councils and the ombudsman, who will run the only approved or designated landlord redress scheme. Both must have regard to any guidance published under provisions in this clause. We have designed the guidance alongside local councils and the ombudsman. Local councils and the ombudsman will have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in the private rented sector. We intend for the guidance to provide clarity on a range of situations where communication and co-operation between councils and the ombudsman would be advantageous or necessary. We also want it to set out roles and responsibilities for when a tenant complains about a problem that both the ombudsman and local councils can help to resolve.

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

We agree that the new or expanded ombudsman, with responsibility for dealing with complaints from tenants in the private rented sector, will have to work effectively with local authorities given the latter’s enforcement role. When the new ombudsman has been established, a complaint from a tenant concerning the breach of a regulatory threshold will be able to be made either directly to the ombudsman or to the local authority that would have the power to take enforcement action to bring the landlord in question into compliance with the said regulations, and if they fail to do so, to sanction them. There is therefore a clear risk not only that the role of the ombudsman vis-à-vis local authorities is not clearly delineated, but that tenants themselves will be confused about which body it is appropriate to approach in any given circumstance.

This issue was raised during the progress of the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 because there is a general issue about how the ombudsman relates to local authorities. Given the Minister’s indication that the Government’s preferred approach is to have that ombudsman take on a responsibility for the private rented sector, I think—if anything—this point becomes more pertinent. The Government acknowledge, as is clearly stated in the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill, that the new ombudsman and local authorities must have “complementary but separate roles.” I put this point to the housing ombudsman, Richard Blakeway, in one of our evidence sessions two weeks ago. He replied that

“that is a really important point, because there is a risk of duplication between the role of a council and the role of an ombudsman. Again, there is a lack of clarity for residents—tenants—about which route to take. An ombudsman does not operate in isolation—it will not operate in a bubble—so the relationship between the ombudsman and the courts will be critical, as well as the ombudsman discharging its own functions.”––[Official Report, Renters (Reform) Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2023; c. 28, Q28.]

It is crucial that guidance on how local authorities and the ombudsman will work together to resolve complaints, including how they share information and how each signpost to the other where appropriate, is fit for purpose. The clause allows for such guidance to be published, and I would be grateful if the Minister, either now or in writing, could perhaps give us a little more insight into how the Government will ensure that the roles of the two are separate but complementary, as the Government have indicated they must be.

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

Redress and enforcement achieve different but complementary outcomes. Local councils enforce regulatory standards. Ombudsman schemes are not enforcement or regulatory bodies but instead protect consumer rights by providing redress, in this case where a landlord has failed to adequately deal with a legitimate complaint. Where the complaint from a tenant concerns the breach of a regulatory threshold, local councils may take enforcement actions to bring the landlord or property into compliance with the regulations and use their discretion to sanction landlords. In such circumstances, tenants will be able to complain to both the council and the ombudsman. The local council will address the regulatory breach and the ombudsman will provide redress for the tenant. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29, as amended, accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.