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New Build Housing (Approved Inspectors)

Volume 598: debated on Monday 20 July 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)

Thank you for allowing this important debate, Mr Speaker.

Buying a new home, particularly a brand new house, should be an exciting experience. It is the biggest purchase that most of us ever make and the ads we see in our local papers justify the premium paid for purchasing a new house: the promise of gleaming new shiny kitchens, immaculate gardens and hassle-free living. For many people, the promise is kept, but for some it is not. That is what the debate is about today.

I am not talking about cosmetic or aesthetic problems with the finish of a property, such as chipped paint or cracks in the plaster work, although we should not underestimate the problems that some new homeowners encounter in rectifying even these straightforward issues. I am talking about new homes that have very significant defects indeed. These might include a staircase that is falling away from the wall, a central heating boiler that has not been properly checked by an approved engineer, or a damp-proof course below ground level. The list goes on. I am talking about whether some new build homes are properly checked and assessed as safe to live in before they are sold and occupied.

A number of my constituents have brought these matters to my attention, and I am talking about dozens of homeowners, not just one or two, and not just in one housing development. What those people have suffered and had to live with is unacceptable. I will not talk about their personal cases tonight, for reasons of privacy, but they know who they are and I hope that they are listening to the debate. Constituents are facing dreadful defects in expensive new homes that clearly do not comply with building regulations. Resolving some of the problems could require significant building works or even demolition of the original house. I know from colleagues, and from websites, that this is not just a problem in my constituency. Similar issues are being experienced around the country, but few people feel confident to speak out.

Let us be clear: a detailed framework is in place that sets out the standards that need to be complied with, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), will have gone through it in detail. There is also a statutory regime of inspection to be carried out by approved inspectors, who have a statutory role to check for compliance with building standards.

My right hon. Friend has raised some scary stories. Is she aware of the existence of regulation M, which requires buildings to be compliant with the laws on disabled access? Is she also aware that the people who give advice to builders on how to comply with the regulation are the self-same people who sign off the building as being compliant? That is clearly nonsense.

My hon. Friend raises a question that I know he has probed in some detail. He is an expert on that matter, and he is right to mention the issue of conflict of interest. He demonstrates the fact that the problem I have raised needs addressing. Something is clearly going wrong.

The builder or contractor of course carries ultimate responsibility for compliance with building regulations, and for the quality of the construction, but the building control inspector is there to safeguard the new homeowner and to ensure that technical and safety standards are met. It is clear that in some cases the inspection regime is falling short of what is required and that problems are not being dealt with during the building process, leaving the new homeowner to deal with the fallout, as I have described.

I welcome the Ankers report on strengthening the procedural competency of companies registered as approved inspectors, and the disciplinary processes relating to the regulation of the profession. I also welcome the suggestion that a duty of care should be established between approved inspectors and the homebuyer. That is long overdue. It would give the homebuyer more redress against inadequate statutory inspection.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the built environment, and I wonder whether she is aware that we are going to conduct an inquiry. I would very much welcome her involvement in that campaign.

My hon. Friend and I have had conversations about that, and I shall welcome the opportunity of carrying out a more detailed analysis.

The inspection regime remains opaque. Inspectors are required to compile and keep extensive reports on all new homes as they are built, but those records are then kept secret from new homeowners. Why? If the inspection regime is really to work in favour of the housebuyer, we need transparency about the work of approved inspectors. We also need more accountability, and we need to know that they are scrupulously independent and that there are no conflicts of interest such as the one my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) mentioned.

In Northern Ireland, there are many examples of what the right hon. Lady has described. One way of addressing the problems—perhaps it is the same here on the mainland—is through the National House Building Council, which many builders and construction companies in my constituency have signed up to. That gives the housebuyer a level of confidence. It also ensures that the house they are buying is covered by insurance. Is there a possibility of using that mechanism here?

The hon. Gentleman is right, and there are 10-year guarantees for new houses. The trouble is that in the first two years after construction, any problems are required to be rectified by the person who built the house. In those circumstances, I believe that the approved inspector should support new homeowners more thoroughly.

Is there any reason why the detailed records I have talked about that the approved inspector keeps for each house could not be made available to purchasers? I know they might be technical and perhaps a bit difficult to understand for the layperson, but most homebuyers will be interested in seeing them. Why are they secret? Would it not be better to demonstrate that the property concerned has been inspected? Why is there so much secrecy around these records? It would be extremely useful to make them more public.

I have had a constructive discussion with the Association of Consultant Approved Inspectors, and I know that it shares my aim of ensuring that high professional standards are maintained and that a robust process is in place for dealing with inspectors who fail to meet these high standards, but at the moment some still fall short. The completion certificate is part of the information pack that purchasers of a new home receive, so why not include the approved inspectors’ records in there too? Could an amendment be made to the Building (Approved Inspectors etc.) Regulations 2010 to introduce this important new measure?

Knowing that the inspection records will be made available could also help with demonstrating the approved inspectors’ independence and prove that there is no conflict of interest, as was referred to earlier. It strikes some of us as odd, even questionable, that some companies, such as NHBC and Premier Guarantee, not only provide home warranties, but are registered as approved inspectors and sign properties off. Is there not a potential conflict of interest there? How do we know that all approved inspectors are doing their jobs to the highest professional standards? Exactly how independent are they? In the 30 years that approved inspectors have been in existence, how many have been struck off for poor performance or over questions of independence? I think we will find that the answer is absolutely none.

Urgent action is needed. I do not believe that homebuilders are covering themselves in glory when it comes to dealing with customers’ problems on a great many levels. The industry needs to tackle this and tackle it quickly, particularly if we are to build far more houses in this country, but the Government can make a contribution by ensuring that approved inspectors are more effective in what they do. That is in the Government’s gift and will make a huge difference. The great majority of approved inspectors do a highly professional job, but there is clearly room for improvement. We need greater transparency and accountability to ensure that all buyers have the confidence and reassurance they need, and I hope the Minister will agree to look at this again and use the housing Bill before us in the autumn specifically to address this issue and thereby help ensure that the new houses that I know the Government want to see built up and down the country are fit for purpose and safe for the people who purchase them.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this debate. It is an important issue, as evidenced by the number of colleagues who have commented and attended from the Government Benches. It is a shame to note that there are no colleagues on the Labour or SNP Benches, although I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his diligent interest in these debates, which I know are important to his constituents.

At its heart, this is a debate about the quality of new build housing and the role of the approved inspector in the system that the Government oversee to deliver the sort of housing that our constituents rightly expect. I recognise that things do not always go right when someone buys a new home. It can be time consuming, stressful and expensive to get things put right when things go wrong in a purchase that is often extremely important to the individuals and families concerned. It can be very stressful and difficult when serious problems arise.

Homeowners can legitimately expect their home to be built to high-quality standards. The builder or developer has primary responsibility for complying with the building regulations, which are the primary mechanisms through which we regulate the quality of building and ensure that homes are safe and meet the standards people expect. They protect the health and safety, energy efficiency and water efficiency of a new house, but quality issues beyond building regulations requirements are a matter for the builder and purchaser to resolve. My right hon. Friend concentrated her comments on the system of inspection, so I want first to explain how the system of approved inspectors works, talk a bit about the regulation of the sector and then answer some of her specific questions.

The approved inspector system is run by the Construction Industry Council Approved Inspector Register, which has been designated by the Secretary of State to carry out his executive and administrative functions in respect of the approval and re-approval of approved inspectors. CICAIR requires approved inspector applicants to provide information about their skills, knowledge and experience, and plans for their business, including the systems and process that they intend to introduce. After the relevant information has been provided and checked for completeness, applicants attend an interview and give a presentation to the approval panel. If everything is satisfactory, CICAIR will allow them to act as approved inspectors. Approved inspectors are audited by CICAIR at its premises at least once every five years, but more often if complaints justify that, or if it appears to be necessary to ensure that they are meeting the obligations and standards that we rightly expect of them. Approval status lasts for five years. On re-approval, they are required to submit another application, and CICAIR will consider previous performance before granting re-approval. It is not necessarily an automatic process.

Does the Minister know whether any spot checks on the quality of the approved inspectors’ work are carried out by an independent source?

As it is the duty of CICAIR to run the process, checks are most commonly carried out when complaints have been made. Ongoing checks are not necessarily undertaken, but when complaints are made, a process is undertaken to look at the quality of the work that inspectors are doing.

This is not the first occasion on which concern has been expressed about the working of the regime. In 2012, the Construction Industry Council commissioned a review to deal with issues of governance and concerns about processes in the industry. The Ankers report covers the findings of that review, and makes 15 recommendations for possible improvements. They include reviewing the criteria for approving inspectors so that more consideration is given to the way in which applicants run their businesses, developing an annual return to monitor an approved inspector’s performance over the previous 12 months, and setting new targets for dealing with complaints.

I am pleased to say that all the report’s recommendations were accepted, and that CICAIR has already implemented some and is making good progress with others. For example, complaints are now being dealt with more quickly, and a programme of regular audits of approved inspectors is in place. My officials have regular discussions with CICAIR about the way in which it discharges its functions, including its progress in implementing the recommendations of the Ankers report. The systems governing approved inspectors are improving continually as a result of implementation of the Ankers recommendations, and the feedback received by CICAIR about its handling of the processes that it undertakes. Of course further improvements are always possible, and I recognise that my right hon. Friend has raised legitimate concerns on behalf of her constituents. I will take away those concerns tonight, and will consider, and discuss with my officials, whether further action is appropriate and necessary.

Approved inspectors have a duty to take such steps as are reasonable to enable them to be satisfied, within the limits of professional skill and care, that the relevant requirements of the building regulations have been complied with. They fulfil that duty by checking plans, conducting site inspections, checking the validity of energy and water efficiency calculations, and looking at other relevant documents. They can also question the evidence provided in certificates and other documents, and do not have to accept them as evidence of compliance. When necessary, approved inspectors may carry out their own tests and take samples to check compliance, and can go further. They have a range of powers and abilities to satisfy themselves that things are being done properly, although I suspect from what my right hon. Friend has said that her concern lies not with diligent inspectors, but with a small number who are not diligent.

Approved inspectors are required, as one of the conditions of their approval, to abide by the building control performance standards. Those standards help to ensure that building control standards are not driven down, which would put the health and safety of building users at risk. The building control performance advisory group, which is a sub-committee of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, keeps the standards under continual review. Following a review in 2013, revised standards were published last year, which take account of the current expectations of the building control sector as well as those of customers. In particular, standard 6 covers site inspections. It requires records of each inspection to be maintained, and details of non- compliant work to be communicated promptly and clearly to the responsible person.

My right hon. Friend asked about the records and how they are dealt with in the current system. I should say that they are not necessarily detailed records; we do not prescribe a detailed format that they must take. Instead, they are records that the inspector keeps for their own use and often the content of them would not be of great use to individuals looking in from the outside to understand the processes undertaken.

However, approved inspectors are not clerks of work, nor are they responsible for quality issues beyond what is required by building regulations. They provide advice and guidance on how to bring work up to compliance standards. In most cases this is sufficient to ensure compliance with the building regulations. If unsuccessful, the approved inspector can cancel the initial notice and the work then reverts back to the local authority for enforcement action.

Homeowners who have been let down by the system and seek redress have a number of avenues to follow. First, they should complain directly to the builder or developer. In many cases this solves the problems, but of course not in all. If a warranty is in place, the homeowner can contact the warranty provider. Most warranties last for 10 years from completion of the building work.

In the first two years from completion of the building work, the builder is responsible for putting right defects caused by breaches of the technical requirements covered by the warranty. Where a defect is found and the builder refuses to carry out remedial work, a free resolution service is offered by the warranty provider.

The warranty provider will try to get the builder to carry out any necessary work, or in some cases arrange for the work to be carried out themselves. In years three to 10 from completion of the building work, the warranty provides insurance cover against the cost of repairing defined sorts of defects covered by the scheme. Warranties are not compulsory for new homes but the Department is aware that most new homes are covered by a warranty such as the NHBC Buildmark.

The Minister is describing the system very well, but he is talking about defects in the quality of the building. The system has a number of faults, however, in respect of regulation M and compliance with disability access. People have no redress to the local authority or the builder if they are non-compliant, because there does not seem to be a system that can prove that there is non-compliance, apart from the one the Minister described, where the inspector is the person who gave the advice in the first place and who will therefore, because of that conflict of interest, be unlikely to rule against themselves. Can he unravel that Gordian knot?

At its heart, that is perhaps a debate about the role of the approved inspectors. They are there to give advice, and that advice usually results in compliance. Their role throughout the building process is to advise and ensure standards are met. While I recognise the concerns my hon. Friend raises and I am happy to have further discussions with him about any specific cases, the role of the inspector is to ensure that throughout the process the building is compliant, not just to assess and approve—or not—at the end of the process.

The all-party group on excellence in the built environment is going to conduct an inquiry into this. Once we have done so and written our report, will the Minister meet us to discuss our findings?

My hon. Friend pre-empts some of my later comments recognising the good work done by the all-party group of which he is a member. I will be very happy to meet him and his colleagues on that group to discuss their report and findings, and to see if there are lessons to learn. There is an ongoing process of review; we are always looking at what we can do better and where we can make improvements, and I have no doubt that the work that group undertakes will be very helpful and informative.

Builders are required to be registered with the warranty provider to be able to purchase their warranty products; complaints are often about products. A homeowner may also be protected by the consumer code for homebuilders, an industry-led scheme that aims to give protection and rights to purchasers of new homes.

The code applies to all homebuyers who reserve to buy a new, or newly converted, home on or after 1 April 2010 built by a homebuilder registered with one of the supporting warranty bodies such as NHBC. Between 2010 and 2013 57 cases were referred to the code’s independent dispute resolution scheme, of which 21 succeeded in part and two succeeded in full. In the last resort the homeowner may make a civil claim against a builder. Redress against the approved inspector is an issue that then becomes relevant to tonight’s debate. If an approved inspector is negligent or does not carry out such steps that are reasonable to enable them to be satisfied that the relevant requirements of the building regulations have been met, such as failing to visit the site often enough, a complaint can be made to CICAIR. If a complaint is upheld, CICAIR can take disciplinary action against the approved inspector and, as a last resort, remove their approval.

My hon. Friend refers to the fact that it is important that approved inspectors visit sites regularly. If their records are not made available, however, future home purchasers will not know that they have not visited regularly. Surely he will join me in acknowledging that transparency in the process will help shed more light on poor practice.

I acknowledge my right hon. Friend’s determination to pursue the point of the records, but the format they take will be of less use than she might hope. When a complaint is made to CICAIR, those records will be disclosed as part of the complaints process. A more thorough process then takes place once a complaint has been registered, but we do not prescribe the format that records must take, because it would be difficult to do so given the complexity of the different environments that inspectors inspect, so that may not provide the answers she is looking for. Acknowledging her point, I would, however, be happy to look again at the issue, to discuss it with my officials, to write to her more formally and, if appropriate, if we do not reach a conclusion with which she is satisfied, to meet her to discuss the implications of what she is saying, the reasons why the position is at it is today and whether we can sensibly look to change it. I am always happy to take those representations and to have those discussions with Members who have significant and important points to raise on behalf of their constituents. I recognise the veracity with which she makes that particular one and the concern that she has.

Homeowners may also seek legal redress against approved inspectors for negligence. All approved inspectors are required to have insurance cover, so there is money available to cover claims if they are found liable in the civil courts. I recognise, however, that it can be a difficult process for homeowners, because when something has gone wrong and in a difficult time after a significant purchase, they often do not have their expectations met. Taking civil legal action for negligence may not necessarily be a route they want to go down.

The Department continues to keep the approved inspector system and the building control system more generally under review. We have heard that it is necessary to do so. Clearly, constituents’ concerns have been brought to Members, and they have quite rightly reflected those during this evening’s debate. I hear the comments that Members have made, and I recognise from the number of written questions that Members present have tabled that there is concern and it should rightly be taken very seriously indeed. I do not necessarily accept that the current system is as flawed as some might like to portray it. There are misunderstandings in some quarters about the roles of the current system and of inspectors, but it is clear from this evening’s debate that that is not the case in the House, and that Members are well informed about the concerns that constituents have brought to them and are effectively advocating on their behalf to find an appropriate resolution.

As the Government embark upon a programme of building much-needed new houses, I recognise the importance of the role played by the Department, the Government and me as a Minister—having encountered my own challenges on behalf of constituents—in ensuring that the houses are of the quality that people expect and that buying them is as straightforward and stress-free as we all hope it ought to be.

Members have made clear points this evening, and I have made a number of offers to look into matters and to meet right hon. and hon. Friends to discuss them further. Those are offers that I know my officials will have made diligent note of, and which I look forward to being held to in future. I look forward also to being able, I hope, to find a suitable resolution to some of the concerns that have been raised. I cannot promise to meet all the demands that Members have put before the House, but I can promise to make my very best efforts to improve the system and always to endeavour to find improvements to provide a better experience to all new homebuyers, because it is such an important stage in anybody’s life. It is important that our constituents are able to have confidence in the system—an importance reflected by the comments this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.