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Housing Bodies: Accountability

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the accountability of housing bodies.

You and I have known each other for a long time, Mr Hollobone, and I am not sure whether this is the first debate I have been at that you have chaired, but nevertheless, it is welcome to see you in the Chair.

I want to examine a number of core issues in this debate before giving some recommendations to the Government. First, I want to look at the adequacy of the assessment that is currently in place to examine the quality of the design and build of new houses. I also want to consider the accountability of housing organisations when they have made mistakes or are mistreating customers, as it is my opinion that currently, they are not adequately held to account. Lastly, I want to address the way in which data regulations apply to Members of Parliament. That issue has arisen in relation to a housing organisation through my casework, and I know that many other Members have encountered similar problems in their own casework.

We have had numerous debates on the urgent need for more, and better-quality housing. I support efforts to increase the number of houses being built, and that should be happening at a faster rate. It is also vital that those homes are council-owned—I have always believed in that, and the privatisation of housing since 1980 has contributed to the issues that I will be addressing.

In Coventry, we have had several problems with housing organisations’ unhelpfulness when responding to their residents’ concerns. A quick search of our casework database has shown that dozens of constituents have contacted me this year about their housing situation. Housing organisations seem to be particularly unhelpful when responding to complaints, and the same names of problematic housing organisations keep coming up.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important debate before the House. Many of the concerns that he has cited, and those I am sure he will be citing later, have been represented to me by my constituents who face similar issues, especially Robert Taylor from the Camden Federation of Private Tenants. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is high time that a Select Committee inquiry takes place, examining the accountability of housing associations and their lack of oversight by both tenants and Members?

I could not agree more. Such a review is long overdue, as even the data protection people do not give us clear answers about what information we are entitled to. They seem to forget that at the end of the day, we are the last line of defence for tenants—and anybody else who has problems, for that matter.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the major problems is the transparency of housing associations? We had a notorious case in Orchard Village in South Hornchurch, which was raised in a debate in this place. One of the big problems was that housing associations were departing from their historical, ethical role of filling gaps in the market and becoming housing developers themselves, lacking oversight and transparency, and therefore no comeback was possible on behalf of our constituents.

My hon. Friend has highlighted another major problem: at times, housing organisations hide behind the Data Protection Act 1998 to obscure the fact that they are bad managers of housing estates. That suggests that there is a wider issue with competition in the market, allowing poorer customer service to go unchallenged. Like most parts of the country, Coventry has recently seen some new, small-scale housing developments, and issues have arisen in a significant number of those developments as a result of the quality of the build. One recent example in Coventry has been the Philmont Court development in Tile Hill. That development of 48 flats is actually in my neighbouring constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), who cannot be here today because he has other business.

My hon. Friend is making some powerful comments, and I thank him for securing the debate. Over the past few years, I have had considerable issues in my constituency, particularly with A2Dominion and FirstPort. Does he agree that the quality of build requires stronger regulation? I have had issues with letterboxes where mail can be taken from outside, and with residents saying that poor-quality materials are being used, particularly in areas where there is shared ownership rather than private ownership. All of that reduces confidence, particularly among first-time buyers, and those who are struggling and making ends meet in order to get on to the housing ladder and feel proud of the home they live in.

That is why I mentioned the Philmont estate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West. There, there has been bad workmanship—to say the least—and a bad build. Residents have been moved out of their houses for a period of about 40 weeks and cannot get any compensation. They have to rent privately to get accommodation; who is going to compensate them? My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) has highlighted similar problems to those we have in Coventry. The builders, Persimmon, have particularly let down residents by refusing to take any responsibility or pay compensation.

Of course, there are sometimes unforeseen issues with the quality of the design and building of a house. However, there seem to be widespread problems with new builds due to rushed building and substandard resources. I also hear from an increasing number of constituents about delays in moving into their new-build houses. I have one constituent who has had a seven-month delay in the building of her new home this year, which has made her and her children homeless: they are having to get by in a friend’s spare room. I am certain that that is the case across the country, as my hon. Friend touched on. I am also sure that there are many more people out there who are affected by delays, but who never contact us because they do not think they will get anywhere.

I would like the Government to review the checks that are currently in place regarding the design and build of houses. They should also look at the support offered to customers by housing organisations when issues arise. We must make sure that mistakes and errors are found early in the process, and that delays are lessened as much as possible.

Can we please note that the things that are wrong with these houses are not simply minor issues? I spoke to a woman on Saturday whose staircase had twice collapsed. Another constituent had the roof of their new home collapse. These problems are really serious; they are not just little things that need to be put right after someone has moved in.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Given local government cuts, trading standards officers cannot police this sector any more—it is as simple as that. That is one reason why these housing organisations are getting away with it, but the law should be tightened up as well.

Does my hon. Friend agree that poor-quality materials can have other impacts, not just on the benefit of the asset if it is in shared ownership, but by creating situations where the quality of the ceilings or the walls results in greater noise going through from one property to another—people being able to hear each other’s toilets flush, for example? That impacts on neighbourly relations and puts residents in a difficult position. Finally, regarding the architecture of how blocks are built, there have been cases where bin storage areas have been built on the ground floor of flats. That has resulted in rats running riot through those properties, causing tremendous damage and requiring expense on the part of residents to put it right.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We are building up health problems among future generations, particularly the young children who are growing up in these properties. We had thought we had moved away from the type of housing that people used to experience in the 1930s.

I now want to discuss the accountability that Members offer when we work on behalf of constituents through our casework.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is making some very good points, but on the wider issue of accountability, rather than accountability just to Members, we are talking about a comprehensive public service that is offered to residents, including those with disabilities, older residents and people recovering from illness. Do we not need more oversight and more joined-up thinking between housing providers and other parts of the public sector? The current lack of oversight and lack of integration with the housing associations makes things very difficult. We end up further marginalising some very vulnerable people as a result.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I would add that we need the resources, too. We cannot have joined-up thinking without providing them. We have to provide the resources for resolution of the problems, even if we have joined-up thinking. I do not necessarily disagree with him, but it is a question of resources.

I recently had a piece of casework where a constituent had an issue with his housing association, Orbit Housing, in Coventry. Without going into too much detail, the constituent had a concern that Orbit Housing was not adequately dealing with. I wrote to Orbit Housing, and we had the usual initial exchange of correspondence before it investigated the matter further. However, the correspondence I was receiving soon stopped, and I had to chase it for what was an undetailed response. We have all had experiences of delayed and undetailed responses to casework correspondence—I would like to see an improvement in the speed and helpfulness of responses—but that is not the main issue arising from this case. When I eventually received a final letter from Orbit Housing, it was highly unsatisfactory after such a delay.

Orbit Housing said that it could not tell me what steps it was taking because of data regulations. I make it clear that I do not want to know what people have in their bank account or when they got married. We do not want that information; we want to know that the issues we are raising are being pursued, and we want to know the details of how they are being pursued.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making an important point about how public bodies are using the General Data Protection Regulation to obstruct Members of Parliament seeking to represent their constituents. On a housing-related issue involving someone with disabilities, I had to table some written parliamentary questions, and I asked the Ministry of Justice to establish an MP hotline for the tribunals service due to the difficulties I have been experiencing in getting satisfactory answers. I have had to get in the habit of copying tribunal inquiries directly to the Minister in order to obtain a response. Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government should issue guidance to public bodies, explaining what implicit consent means and stopping them obstructing Members of Parliament in carrying out their duties on behalf of constituents?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. In fact, on occasions when we have been dealing with constituency correspondence with outside organisations, we have also asked the constituent to sign a form giving us permission. We should not have to go to those lengths. When we talk about trust in politicians, that is a good example of where we are not being trusted. Our constituents trust us because we are the last line of defence. Where do they go after us, whatever the problem might be?

I have had the problem of organisations refusing to give me information on a constituent’s case many times. It used to happen a lot after the passing of the Data Protection Act 1998, before being somewhat dealt with by the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) (Elected Representatives) Order 2002. However, it seems that more and more organisations are using the new data regulations to avoid responding to casework. I am clear that I do not consider the case closed with Orbit Housing, and today is a good chance for us all to recognise that we need to be bloody difficult people on behalf of our constituents to get results.

As I have already said, the problem I had with Orbit Housing is not unique. I have asked other Members whether they have had similar problems in conducting their constituency casework. Members have made clear through their interventions today that they have, as have many Members who cannot be here today. The vast majority of Members who replied to me said that they had faced some form of obstruction. That ranged from delays to a complete refusal to share information with Members due to the data regulations—at least, that was the excuse. After receiving the response from Orbit Housing, I started looking at how data regulations apply to Members. I also wrote to the Information Commissioner and the Leader of the House to request clarification.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 are our core data regulations. According to the legislation, we are data processers when we are handling a constituent’s casework. Data processors have to make sure they have a specific reason to process someone’s information. We are covered in our casework by two of the reasons outlined in the legislation: consent and public task. When a constituent writes asking for us to take action on an issue, it constitutes them giving us consent to discuss their personal data with a third party. Some organisations, however, do not always accept a letter from a constituent. That is the whole point.

However, consent is not necessarily always required, as we have a good second legitimate reason. Public task is when data processing is necessary to perform a task in the public interest or for official functions. The 2018 Act outlines that that covers elected representatives fulfilling their parliamentary functions. Conducting casework is one of our core functions and therefore falls under public task. We are therefore usually covered by two clear reasons when discussing a constituent’s information with a third party. That is the case regardless of whether we are discussing someone’s name or email, or a special category of protected data such as health or sexual orientation data.

Ultimately, the legislation is clear that we can discuss a constituent’s details with third parties. However, the issue I encountered comes from how the legislation applies to the third party in the casework. When we write to an organisation, we expect them to respond saying how they will fix the issue, but the data regulations add a layer of complication. As the organisation is itself a data controller, it needs to judge whether it can give a constituent’s information to us. Despite the fact that Members of Parliament are completely entitled to act on their constituent’s behalf, the organisation in question can still decide that it cannot give us the information we need. The constituent’s case is then forced shut, with no room to challenge the decision. That is exactly what happened to me with Orbit Housing, and it has happened to many other Members.

In this instance, data legislation is actually weakening our constituents’ rights and empowering the organisations that hold their data. Members cannot solve every issue, but we should be able to advance a case more than a constituent could alone. If third-party organisations can refuse to share information on a constituent’s case with us, our constituents suffer and we are left failing them due to legislation.

In summary, I would like to see several things from the Government as a result of this debate. First, they should assess the effectiveness of the current methods used to judge whether a building has been designed and built adequately. The Government started to look at that in the aftermath of the tragedy of Grenfell. I implore them to renew their efforts, considering their stated aim of radically increasing the number of homes being built each year. It is important that their rush to build does not lead to substandard homes being built, as Members have mentioned and as has happened too many times recently.

Secondly, the Government should conduct a review of the accountability of organisations, especially large house builders and housing associations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) mentioned. The Government’s stated aim to soon increase the number of homes being built will mean hugely increased business for the larger housing companies in the UK. It is right that they are held to account if they build inferior housing or ignore customers. Just last month, the chief executive of Persimmon Homes ignored questions about his record bonus of £75 million—quite a salary. It is wrong that in an industry where so much money is made by those at the top there is little accountability when customers or residents are let down.

Lastly, I ask that the Government consult Members to evaluate whether we are stifled by data regulations in our ability to conduct casework effectively. It is my opinion that the regulations give organisations a loophole to ignore accountability. Some organisations might do it innocently, but there are definitely organisations out there using that loophole inappropriately. That represents a serious threat to our ability to progress casework and to hold organisations to account. The law must be tightened up to empower us and, in turn, to empower our constituents.

It is a pleasure to appear once again before your wise and well-tempered supervision, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate on a number of housing issues, which I will seek to address.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman and other Members for assisting their constituents with numerous housing issues. I know from my own experience that housing can form a large part of an MP’s postbag, and I am grateful for the liaison with landlords and the resolution that is brought about by the actions of Members when something has gone wrong and when a service has not been as expected.

Let me start with complaints. A good complaints process must start with landlords. The regulator of social housing expects all registered providers of social housing to have in place a complaints process that is clear, simple and accessible. Landlords are also expected to publish their performance against those standards through an annual report. The regulator does not proactively enforce standards on complaint handling. The onus is on individual landlords, working with residents, to set their approach and timescales for handling residents’ complaints. However, the regulator considers every referral made to it, signposting those not within its remit to other organisations, including the housing ombudsman service.

I stress that if any hon. Member acting on a constituent’s behalf is unhappy with the response provided by a registered provider of social housing, once the landlord’s complaints process has been exhausted, that hon. Member may take the matter further. Social housing residents can approach the housing ombudsman service at any time to seek advice. However, currently they must pass the democratic filter, either referring a complaint to a designated person—a local councillor, Member of Parliament or tenant panel—or waiting eight weeks after their landlord’s investigation has concluded before a complaint can be formally investigated by the housing ombudsman.

The Government’s social housing Green Paper consultation, “A new deal for social housing”, which closed on 6 November, sought views on how to improve the system for seeking redress for social housing residents. We engaged extensively with residents to inform and shape the Green Paper. We heard that residents want redress quickly when things go wrong, and want processes to be clearer and simpler. We want to ensure that residents receive the help that they need to put things right when they have a housing problem. The Green Paper asked a range of questions on how we could deliver that, including questions about the future of the democratic filter, which can delay the complaints process.

Alongside those questions, the Green Paper set out proposals better to hold landlords to account. We consider that stronger action is required against landlords who consistently fail their residents. Part of the solution is to enable residents to understand and compare the performance of landlords. We have proposed a limited number of key performance indicators to achieve that, including a potential indicator on the effective handling of complaints.

Following publication of the Green Paper, we continued our face-to-face engagement with landlords and residents across the country. We wanted to give them an opportunity to input into and influence the consultation outcome. I assure hon. Members that they had some strong views about the handling of complaints, both positive and negative, which I heard myself, having visited six such events across the country. We are currently analysing the findings of those events alongside the other consultation responses, and we aim to publish our response in the spring.

As Members will know, the General Data Protection Regulation, also known as GDPR, imposes new rules on controlling and processing personally identifiable information. In addition, the regulator of social housing is clear that registered providers of social housing should accept complaints made by advocates, including Members of Parliament authorised to act on behalf of a social housing resident. I am not aware of the specific circumstances that the hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned, but I reassure him and other Members that nothing in GDPR or in the Data Protection Act 2018 prevents us from acting on behalf of our constituents in discussions with a registered provider of social housing.

It would be helpful if the Minister circulated that advice on data protection to all concerned, so that the situation is perfectly clear. We often get conflicting views about it.

That is a good suggestion. I have to stress that the hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members who wish to act on their constituents’ behalf, must be instructed by the constituent before they can do so. That is no different from the arrangements that existed before the GDPR was introduced. In requesting assistance from their Member of Parliament, any resident is effectively giving consent for that MP to process their personal data. A housing association should normally accept a Member of Parliament’s word. However, I appreciate that a housing association or local authority landlord might, if the case is particularly sensitive or other individuals are involved, double-check with the tenant. I stress that that should not be used as a delaying or obstructive mechanism; it is merely an extra protection for the tenant in specific circumstances.

Of course, if the constituent or their MP considers that the processing of the concerned resident’s data goes beyond what the resident might have expected, they should be consulted first. Let me make it crystal clear to all landlords that they should co-operate and engage constructively with Members of Parliament when they act as advocates, within the constraints of data protection. I am pleased that the Information Commissioner has issued the following guidance:

“Consent can be implied from a relevant action, in this case the raising of the matter by a constituent with the Member in the expectation that his or her personal data will be further processed by the Member and relevant third party organisations.”

I can circulate the commissioner’s guidance after the debate.

Finally, I will talk about checks on the quality of building and design—an important issue, given the scale of house building that we are experiencing, and hopefully will in increased numbers in the years to come. As a Department, we are focusing on the quality of build and design as a critical issue for the future expansion of house building. I hope that the hon. Member for Coventry South accepts, though, that when it comes to a new building, the person carrying out the building work is responsible for complying with the requirements of the building regulations. That person remains legally liable for non-compliance.

All new buildings are subject to building control supervision, either by the local authority or an approved inspector. Both are required by law to take all reasonable steps to check on the compliance of building work. Where work is found not to comply, the building control body will require it to be put right before giving a compliance certificate. We are sending a clear message that if something goes wrong with a newly built home, house builders and warranty providers, including the National House Building Council, should fulfil their obligations to put things right.

In addition, on 1 October, the Government announced a new homes ombudsman to champion the rights of homebuyers and to hold developers to account. Once a building is occupied, social housing landlords are required to comply with the regulator’s home standard, which sets two clear outcomes. First, homes must be of good quality through meeting the decent homes standard. Secondly, landlords must provide a cost-effective service to homes and communal areas that responds to the needs of, and offers choice to tenants, and aims to complete repairs and improvements first time.

Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this valuable debate. I hope that he and other Members will continue to support all residents, including those living in social housing, in dealing with housing complaints. We are committed to ensuring that social housing residents can seek timely and effective solutions when they have a housing problem. I also hope that in future all landlords ensure that issues such as those raised today do not hinder or delay their residents’ seeking effective and efficient redress.

Question put and agreed to.