Housing Associations — [Albert Owen in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:14 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:14 pm, 12th June 2019

It is a pleasure to appear under your wise gaze, Mr Owen. I congratulate Jim Fitzpatrick on securing this important debate. He has been a consistent and persistent voice on housing issues, particularly the safety and welfare of residents, not just in his constituency but nationally. I understand his concerns about the accountability and role of housing associations, and particularly about the situations that some of his constituents face. I acknowledge the continuing role that hon. Members across the House play, as I know from my own experience, in resolving issues raised by tenants with their housing associations and other types of landlords; they rightly spend significant amounts of time trying to resolve problems when something has gone wrong.

Everyone has the right to be and feel safe in their home, and to expect their complaints to be dealt with effectively. The Government have taken recent steps to make sure that that happens. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we published the social housing Green Paper last year. We engaged extensively with residents to inform and shape it. After its publication, I held roadshows across the country with hundreds of residents in social housing and listened to them to understand their experience at first hand.

The Green Paper contains proposals to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords, setting out the level of service that residents should expect and clarifying how to hold landlords to account when they are not delivering. We heard that residents want redress quickly when things go wrong, and that they want processes to be clearer and simpler. The Green Paper asks how we can ensure clear and effective redress for residents, including a question about the future of the democratic filter, which can delay the complaints process. I confess that when I was first elected to the London Assembly in City Hall, it came as a surprise that people came to ask for permission to go forward, through the democratic filter, to the ombudsman, which injected a significant amount of delay. We are grateful for the input of residents, landlords and other stakeholders through the process. We are assessing the consultation responses and finalising our response to the Green Paper, and I hope that we will publish that response shortly.

Alongside the Green Paper, we launched a review of the regulation for social housing to make sure that regulation maintains standards for residents while ensuring that landlords remain well run and financially robust. We asked whether social housing regulation focuses on the right things and whether the regulator should be able to take action more swiftly where landlords are not fulfilling their responsibilities. We are analysing what we have heard and will publish the outcome of the review of regulation in due course.

Registered providers of social housing must comply with the outcome-based regulatory standards set by the independent regulator of social housing. It has three standards covering economic regulation and four standards covering consumer regulation. The regulator takes a proactive, risk-based approach to enforcing the economic standards for private registered providers. It monitors landlord performance against those standards and, for larger associations such as Clarion, carries out in-depth assessments and publishes ratings for financial viability and governance.

All local authority landlords and housing associations must comply with the regulator’s consumer standards, which seek to ensure that homes are safe and of good quality, and that landlords deliver the right services. The regulator may take action where a breach of those standards has caused, or may cause, serious harm to tenants. Again, we asked questions in the Green Paper about whether that is the right threshold for intervention by the regulator.

Providers have principal responsibility for effectively identifying and resolving problems, and they are accountable for complaints about their service. The first step for residents with a complaint is to report the problem to their landlord. The regulator expects registered providers to have a complaints process that deals with issues promptly, politely and fairly. The onus is on individual landlords, working with residents, to set their approach and timescales for handling complaints. I stress that if any hon. Member, acting on a constituent’s behalf, is unhappy with a registered provider’s response once their internal complaints process has been exhausted, they may take the matter further.

Social housing residents can also approach the housing ombudsman service at any time to seek advice, but for a complaint to be formally referred, it must pass through the democratic filter. Should the ombudsman determine that a complaint falls within its jurisdiction, it will investigate the complaint to determine whether there has been maladministration by the landlord. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the ombudsman can then issue a determination letter, which may include orders and recommendations to resolve the dispute. The landlord is expected to follow any orders within a specific timeframe.

All housing associations must be a member of the housing ombudsman service—a free, independent and impartial complaints resolution service. It is primarily the role of the housing ombudsman to investigate individual complaints from tenants. For example, it can consider complaints about how a landlord has responded to reports of a problem. The regulator meets and communicates regularly with the housing ombudsman, in line with the memorandum of understanding that has been agreed between the two organisations. This includes sharing data on providers, such as evidence of potential systemic issues with registered providers, and on other issues. The regulator will intervene should it find that a landlord’s failure to meet a standard has caused, or may cause, serious harm to tenants, and it is for the regulator to decide on the appropriate level of action to take.

The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting point on the plethora of ombudspersons. It is certainly the case that we will add to that number—as he will know, we have already pledged to introduce a new homes ombudsman. He raises an interesting question on whether there should be a general aspiration to agglomerate these ombudsmen into a single housing ombudsman, which is something that the Department has been thinking about. However, there is an argument about specialism and responsiveness in a particular area that needs to be addressed before we move to that stage.