Housing Associations — [Albert Owen in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 3:59 pm, 12th June 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the accountability and role of housing associations.

I am pleased to see you presiding, Mr Owen, and to see the Minister in his place. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I thank the National Housing Federation; Grenfell United; the Deputy Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Councillor Rachel Blake; the House of Commons Library; the Charity Commission; the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership; and Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association for their briefings ahead of the debate, as well as Jenny Symmons in my office for pulling them all together.

I do not believe that what I will say today is at all controversial, which might reassure the Minister. There are more than 1,400 providers of social housing in the UK, and roughly one sixth of our households live in a housing association or council property. There is clearly agreement that the status quo on oversight needs changing.

On Monday, the Minister and I attended an event at Speaker’s House to mark the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire. A speaker for the group, Ed Daffarn, made the point that the regulator had let them down. We all know that disastrous decisions were made in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that led to the tragedy, and Ed identified that a key issue was the lack of regulation.

In the wake of Grenfell, the Government’s Green Paper on social housing, released last year, promised to create “safe and decent” homes,

“empowering residents and ensuring their voices are heard so that landlords are held to account” and

“improving and speeding up how complaints are resolved”.

Those commitments were very welcome; however, we are yet to see the fruits. One of the biggest areas that needs tackling in the sector is the lack of clear regulation and accountability for housing associations. Solving that problem would surely lead to the delivery of safer homes, empowered residents and an effective complaints procedure.

I often find it confusing what the exact roles of the social housing regulator and the ombudsman are. Where are the lines of responsibility? It is unclear what the demarcations are in the roles of the two bodies, which causes serious problems not only for residents who need to report concerns, but for me. Currently, the social housing regulator seems to oversee financial regulation and value for money, and in extreme cases consumer standards, but does not handle routine customer service oversight. That lands in the jurisdiction of the local government ombudsman.

However, residents can turn to the ombudsman only if their complaint is rejected by the housing association in the first instance. Even then, many residents do not know that they have that option. I have been informed that even if a resident does know that they can escalate their complaint to the local government ombudsman, it can take at least a year for their case to be dealt with due to the huge remit covered and the high volume of complaints.

There is also the issue that two ombudsmen cover housing. The local government ombudsman technically covers social housing, but the housing ombudsman supposedly covers all housing. That leads to confusion about which body to turn to, and sometimes residents turn to both, which is a waste of time and resources. Labour’s Green Paper, “Housing for the Many”, makes it clear that the way forward is to have a single housing ombudsman who takes responsibility for the regulation of all housing, and who completely covers customer service and complaints handling. That dedicated service could deal with complaints in a shorter timescale, and would cut out confusion and restore authority to residents.