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Social Housing: Housing Ombudsman

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021

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

Housing is by some distance the overwhelming issue brought to me by my constituents. Every Friday at my weekly advice surgery, I meet family after family on the 10,000-strong housing waiting list in Merton. I struggle to offer them any hope that they will soon have a place to call home, given that the demand is so high and the supply so small.

I meet countless hard-working families who are evicted by their private landlords simply because someone else will pay more rent. I meet families on the council’s transfer list—families with two, three and even four children in one-bedroom flats who will never, ever get to move to a larger home and whose children will never have the opportunity of a space to do their homework or to bring their friends to.

Far, far too regularly, I meet social housing tenants living in complete disrepair at the end of their tether with the endless hurdles that they face to fix even the smallest problems—residents such as Kwajo Tweneboa. The Minister may be familiar with his case already. In June, Kwajo bravely partnered with “ITV News”, which reported on the simply appalling conditions in which he and his neighbours are living, shining a light on the issue in every MP’s postbag.

I make clear right away my gratitude to Kwajo, to Daniel Hewitt and “ITV News”, and to Ann Baldwin and Debra Fryer from the Eastfields Residents Association for their collective commitment and determination in fighting not just their corner, but in support of their neighbours and—perhaps unknowingly—in support of social housing tenants right across our country.

I would like to start by directly addressing the disrepair at the estate as outlined in the report, before highlighting that it is by no means an isolated case. I will then detail the completely ineffective and bureaucratic system of tenants’ complaints procedures and so-called regulation, before concluding with the obvious steps that must be urgently taken by the Minister and his Government.

But first, Eastfields: a Clarion-owned housing estate in Mitcham in complete disrepair. My inbox is bursting with Clarion cases to the point that a weekly meeting now takes place between my office and Clarion’s to monitor the progress on each individually. But it should never have reached that point. A weekly meeting is no solace for Kwajo. He lives in a property overtaken by mice, cockroaches, damp and mould. Tragically, his father passed away last year from cancer. Kwajo says that he asked for help before he died and nobody listened. The problems have since continued:

“Nobody should have to live needing to heat water in a pot to bathe with because their water doesn’t work and their landlord won’t fix it. Nobody should be having their kitchen sink and washing machine fill with sewage water. Nobody should watch a ceiling collapse right next to their son, studying during lockdown, after already complaining countless times asking for it to be fixed. This is our reality.”

The problem in Merton is that a significant amount of Clarion’s stock is at the end of its life. Some of it is on the waiting list to be redeveloped, but a solution years down the line is no excuse for letting paying residents wait and live in squalor. Everyone agrees that Eastfields needs to be regenerated and demolished, but that does not solve the disrepair across the other estates that so desperately also need to be redeveloped.

Kwajo’s case is no anomaly. Take Ms P of the Phipps Bridge estate. For over 18 months my office has been badgering Clarion about an external leak into her property resulting in damp and mould, damaging her floor and decoration, and causing all manner of electrical concerns. Clarion has been unable to stop the water supply to her block and to her flat. Her flat is so small that she sleeps on the sofa so that her teenage son can have the only bedroom. However, when the damp took over the bedroom, both mum and 17-year-old son were forced to share the living room. She has been forced to take days off work without pay so that the repairs can be done, only to be frustrated when contractors do not turn up or do not complete the job.

Or take Ms N. I contacted Clarion on 11 May to report water pouring from the property above and through her fuse box and electrics—a huge health and safety concern that surely needed an urgent resolution, particularly when the water was leaking further to the flat below. It took a team of surveyors and contractors to discover that the source of the leak was a bath fitted by United Living in the flat above which had not been sealed by mastic. How on earth did this take six weeks to solve? If there is a leak in my house, I phone a plumber and he comes around that day, but if he does not come around, I get another plumber and the problem is solved.

Or take a second Ms P, of Sadler Close. I first raised her case with Clarion in 2014—yes, 2014. There was a catalogue of problems: water pressure, constant leaks, rodent infestation, damp, mould. Her property is in complete disrepair. Ultimately, I contacted the ombudsman in February 2020. I understand that it has been quite a year, but it did not formerly consider her case until April 2021. For the past year and a half, she has been batted between the ombudsman and Clarion and is still waiting for a resolution.

I now turn to the Clarion complaints process. To make a complaint and see it through to its conclusion at Clarion requires the patience of a saint, the tenacity of a five-star general, an endless amount of phone data, a laptop to email, and a post-graduate degree in bureaucracy. The complainant starts by dealing with a call centre where nobody knows their name or where they live, where nobody is responsible for their complaint, and where the call handlers do not have access to the records of the contractors that do the work, such as ENGIE, United Living and ARK

If people do not get the repairs done, their only option is to go through a two-stage written complaints process. If they ever mention the threat of legal action, they can expect their case to be shut down immediately. Mentioning legal action is a polite way to express the frustration that many people must feel.

Sometimes I feel like I work for Clarion. Prior to lockdown, my process was to complain about a case twice in writing and then I would book a site meeting if it remained unresolved. I intend to go back to that approach when restrictions are lifted. I do not care if it takes hours and hours of my week; I am going to pursue every case, and I am going to run them as ragged as they run some of my constituents.

I commend the hon. Lady for her tenacity and strength of character, and for delivering on behalf of her constituents. None of us fails to be impressed by her commitment to them. She is absolutely right to say that it is important to rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants. If the ombudsman cannot make that happen, I believe that the Minister has to be the person to crack the whip.

There is a solution at hand. The Minister knows about it, but it has as yet not been introduced.

I understand the dilemma for housing associations. I have the greatest of respect for them. Before entering the House, when I had a proper job, I worked for Battersea Churches Housing Trust, an organisation that, like so many housing associations, came out of its community in response to the horrors of “Cathy Come Home”. It was led by people of faith who did not always get everything right, but who knew their tenants and their properties. Everything that made housing associations great was undermined by the incoming coalition Government slashing the social housing budget by 50% overnight, reducing it from £9.5 billion to £4.2 billion, slashing capital grants and attempting to make up the difference through the introduction of an unaffordable “affordable” rent, where tenants were to pay a rent of 80% market value.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

I was just waxing lyrical about the financing structures introduced by the coalition Government, slashing the grants to build houses and trying to make up the difference by introducing an “affordable” rent of 80% market value—attempting to shore up the system on the backs of some of poorest people in the country.

The whole system relied on those housing associations having ever larger borrowing power and equity in their stock, which in turn forced mergers, taking them further away from their community and their tenants. That is an invidious position to say the least. The choice is to either stop providing houses for those in most need in order to retain their integrity and their local commitment, or to grapple with the new funding regime to continue to do the best they could to provide those homes. The coalition Government battered our social housing system from pillar to post. They even completely abolished the Audit Commission and the Housing Inspectorate under the bonfire of the quangos, so that we now need to talk about reinventing the wheel a decade on. The evidence could not be clearer that their belief in self-regulation in reality means no regulation. I will pursue Clarion, but I also pledge to badger the Government because that is where the ultimate blame lies.

On the problem with the housing ombudsman, with my remaining time I would like to consider the options available for Kwajo, or indeed any resident in his shoes, to complain about the performance of his housing association. First, the ombudsman is an authority that looks at the process, not the disrepair. To make a complaint in the first place you have to go through Clarion’s previously described multi-stage complaints process. When you finally get through the system, and if you have the patience and tenacity left, then you start the ombudsman process from scratch only to find that you need a signed form from a designated person such as an MP or a councillor, or to wait eight whole weeks if you do not—more hurdles, more bureaucracy. And when you eventually reach the burdensome finishing line, the ombudsman is looking not at whether your leak has been fixed, but at whether the process to fix your leak is correct. Oh, and you have to hope that your complaint falls on the right day of the week because they do not take phone calls on a Tuesday or a Thursday. Can the Minister honestly tell me that if he had water dripping through his ceiling electrics that that is a process he would have the patience to follow? I cannot.

The alternative is to take your complaint to the social housing regulator. However, it states:

“By law, our remit does not include proactive monitoring of how a registered provider performs or complies with our consumer standards…By law, we can only take action against a landlord when it has made significant, systemic failure that breaches the standards we have set.”

and that

“Although our role is not to resolve individual disputes between tenants and landlords we signpost tenants, or their representatives, who have individual complaints, to the Housing Ombudsman Service.”

Back to square one. While the regulator is required to proactively regulate economic standards of housing associations, it can only take action on consumer standards reactively when it finds evidence of “serious detriment” to tenants—hardly helpful. It is no wonder that the regulator concluded that no regulatory action was needed when inspecting Clarion on the back of endless complaints from Tower Hamlets councillors five years ago. It said:

“From the information we considered, we could see there were individual incidents of service failures, including in relation to Clarion’s handling of some complaints, but we have not seen evidence of systemic failings by Clarion which would necessitate regulatory action.”

However, the regulator did not meet directly with a single tenant or leaseholder as part of the investigation.

To recap, if I was Kwajo, living in disrepair at Eastfields and waiting endlessly for the regeneration to begin, and I had water pouring through my ceiling, the bureaucratic hurdles in my path would include a multi-stage complaints process with my landlord, the securing of the backing of an MP or councillor or an eight-week wait for an ombudsman to analyse whether due process had been followed and a regulator that would signpost me back to the ombudsman. Is it any wonder he is crying out for help? We are asking people to go through a process that I personally would not have the patience to deal with, and we are then surprised at the anger and frustration that pours out.

The Minister will be delighted to hear that the solution is in his hands. I draw to his attention the Government’s social housing White Paper, which envisages a thorough strengthening of the regulator’s role in consumer issues, of the type abolished by the Government before last. The regulator would be proactive. It would monitor and drive landlords’ compliance with improved consumer standards. It would introduce routine inspections for the largest landlords every four years. It would give the regulator a power to publish a code of practice on consumer standards. It would strengthen the regulator’s enforcement power, and it would introduce a new power to arrange emergency repairs if needed, where a survey uncovers evidence of systemic landlord failure. It sounds like a huge step in the right direction, does it not, so what is the problem? Not a single word was given in the Queen’s Speech to enacting those solutions into law.

If the legislation is not introduced in this parliamentary Session, Kwajo and his neighbours will wait in excess of five years to get anything done and for the regulatory system to be improved. Are this Government asking them to wait in squalor until that time?

I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to use his authority and call for this legislation to receive the Government time and priority it so obviously needs. While I am certain that a strengthened regulator would be a positive step in the right direction, I am under no illusion that it does not build a single new socially rented home. In Merton alone, there are 9,485 households on the housing waiting list, but just 74 two-beds, 32 three-beds and three four-beds have been available in the past year. It is a national problem. We now have 1.15 million households on social housing waiting lists across the country, but just 6,566 new social homes were built last year, one of the lowest numbers on record. At that rate, it will take 175 years to give everyone on the waiting list a social rented home. Where is the ambition? Where is the political will?

I finish with the words of Ann, who chairs the Eastfields residents association. She said:

“It angers me that it had to take a report by an ITV news journalist to highlight the disgraceful conditions that Clarion are happy for their tenants to live in. These residents had been living in these circumstances for years, having to pay rent to live in substandard housing. The Government need to tighten up regulations, bringing in a similar idea to Ofsted to hold housing associations to account. Because nobody living in the 21st Century should be expected to live this way.”

If only there were a White Paper waiting for Government time.

I congratulate and thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate before the House. I know how important the provision of safe and decent social housing is to her. She has spoken passionately on behalf of Kwajo and so many of her constituents who want to see progress in the area, so I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss this important agenda and set out what we are doing to try to improve the lives of social housing tenants.

Hearing the hon. Lady’s remarks, and seeing the news reports over recent weeks, has highlighted the plight of some residents of social housing who are struggling with unacceptable conditions and landlord services. These cases have raised critical questions for many people involved in social housing, which is why the White Paper—I will come on to that—is such an important step in addressing some of those questions.

Of the 23 million households in this country, 17% are in the social rented sector, with 2.5 million people renting from a housing association, and 1.6 million people renting from a local authority. People in social housing must be treated with dignity and respect, and have their complaints handled effectively. The recent cases we have heard about today highlight the fact that some residents are simply not receiving a quality service from their landlord. We heard about the terrible conditions in a Croydon council housing block, and the council has commissioned ARK Consultancy to carry out an independent investigation. ARK’s report assesses what went wrong, and sets out the steps that Croydon Council must take to address those failings.

The Regulator of Social Housing has concluded its investigation into the issues in Croydon, and found the council to be in breach of its consumer standards. The regulator is working with the council to ensure that it takes the necessary action to remedy those issues. It is also considering information received from Clarion Housing Association about the Eastfields estate, which we have heard so much about. It will form a view on whether there is evidence of systemic failure that would indicate a breach of regulatory standards.

The Government were appalled to hear and learn about the conditions on the Eastfields estate. Social homes must be safe and decent, and provide security and dignity for residents, who should be treated with respect. If things go wrong, there should be swift redress. In this shocking case those expectations were not met. I understand Ann’s anger, and I thank her for the work she is doing on behalf of residents.

A review of decent homes standards has begun, as has work to improve fire and electrical safety, and address harm from carbon monoxide. I understand that Croydon has accepted its failings in full, and the regulator is considering future progress. The Housing Ombudsman has an important role in improving residents’ experience of social housing. It experienced a big drop in the number of inquiries and complaints last spring, in 2020, due to the impact of the pandemic, but in recent months the number of complaints has significantly increased. Just over 6,000 complaints and inquiries were made between January and March this year, which is a 73% increase compared with the same quarter last year. Although some of those issues may have been deferred during the pandemic and stored up to be raised now, we cannot accept that this is a new normal. The increase underlines the need of landlords to adhere to the good practice set out in the complaint handling code. It is clear that some landlords have significant work to do to improve the standard of their homes, and the service they provide to their residents.

Croydon has highlighted issues of damp and mould in the Eastfields case, and the ombudsman recently issued a call for evidence to support investigation into that. That was in response to data that suggested a high rate of maladministration in those cases, and the significant impact that had on the lives of so many residents. The investigation will enable the ombudsman to make recommendations to help landlords improve their services. Despite the shocking cases highlighted in Croydon and Eastfields, there are positive signs of broader improvement in standards.

How would the Minister resolve problems of damp and mould growth in a one-bedroom flat where there is a mum and four or five children? I do not think any landlord in the country could do that. We are desperate for Eastfields to be regenerated, and we completely support Clarion in its efforts to do that. That is the only way people on that estate will get to live in houses of the size they need. For those not at Eastfields, there is not the same way out.

I thank the hon. Lady again for that point. I am always happy to discuss that in detail with her, including outside this debate, and I am happy to hear more about the individual cases she has raised that are so shocking and so worrying.

I think, however, that we are seeing some signs of broader improvements. If we look back to 2019, we see that 12% of dwellings in the social rented sector failed to meet the decent homes standard. That is down from 20% in 2010. This is lower than the proportion of the private rented sector and owner-occupied homes that fail the standard, but it is still not good enough. That is why we are reviewing the decent homes standard as a key plank of our “The charter for social housing residents: social housing white paper”, which we published in November 2020.

The charter for social housing residents states that every social housing resident in England should be able to expect to be safe in their home, should know that their landlord is performing, should have their complaints dealt with properly and fairly, should be treated with respect, should have their voice heard, should have a good-quality home and neighbourhood to live in, and should be supported to take their first step to ownership. The reforms set out in the White Paper, which underpins the charter, will drive change throughout the social housing sector, as the hon. Lady said, ensuring that everyone working in the sector listens to residents and treats them with courtesy and respect.

We know that many landlords are passionate about putting their residents first and we want to see that approach replicated throughout the sector. That is why our reform package will transform social housing redress and consumer regulation. It will improve the quality and safety of social homes and rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants. The regulator of social housing will be given stronger powers to proactively monitor and drive compliance with consumer standards, with regular inspections of the largest landlords and new tenant satisfaction measures to help assess landlord performance on issues such as repairs and complaints handling. The White Paper emphasises the importance of the ombudsman service in ensuring that residents can access swift and fair redress when things go wrong. It sets out the range of measures to increase the ombudsman’s impact in driving up standards, including through closer working with the regulator of social housing.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Housing Ombudsman Service, which is compulsory for social landlords, and its membership consists of over 2,300 landlords representing over 4.5 million individual households. The White Paper has set out how we have already acted to enable the ombudsman to take decisions more quickly. If we look at the ombudsman’s average determination rate for formal investigations in 2019-20, we see that it was below its six-month target at 5.8 months. It is the first time that that target has been achieved, so it is positive news that the performance is better than it has been, and we are trying to speed up access to the ombudsman by removing the democratic filter that the hon. Lady talked about through the building safety Bill. That will allow residents with unresolved complaints to have direct access to the ombudsman rather than having to wait eight weeks or approach an MP, a councillor or a tenant panel for a referral. That is an important point that she and many others have raised many times before.

We have strengthened the ombudsman’s powers so that it can take stronger action against landlords and better support residents when things go wrong. There is a very high level of compliance by landlords with compliance orders: 95% within three months and 99% within six months. Landlords were ordered to pay compensation to residents totalling £412,000 across the year, and last year three quarters of residents who sought support with an informal resolution of complaints said that the ombudsman had helped them.

Since the White Paper was published, the Housing Ombudsman, Richard Blakeway, has made further progress in responding to the White Paper agenda, including establishing a 600-strong resident panel that will involve residents in the development of the ombudsman service, in publishing a framework that sets out how the ombudsman will look beyond individual disputes to identify problems that need to be addressed across the sector, and launching that investigation into damp and mould—an issue, again, that I know is very important to many of the hon. Lady’s constituents—as well as by publishing determinations in individual cases and the landlord performance data, and issuing complaint handling failure orders when landlords fall short of the standards set out in the complaints handling code that we published last summer.

We know, however, that many of the most egregious complaints never reach the ombudsman, meaning that some residents miss out on the support that could be offered to them. That is why the White Paper sets out plans for a communication campaign to ensure that social housing residents know how to complain when things go wrong and that they have confidence in the process. Earlier this year, we ran a five-week campaign on social media with the slogan “Make Things Right”. That campaign has helped to improve awareness of the ability to raise these issues and has raised confidence in the process. We are absolutely committed to implementing the reforms that were laid out in our charter for social housing residents. They will deliver transformational change for social residents. We continue to develop our proposals on social housing regulations and want to legislate as soon as is practicable.

Unfortunately, I cannot give the hon. Lady a date at this point, but we want to do it as soon as we are possibly able to, and when the proposals are right and ready. We share her urgency and passion to get this done, but we want to develop our reforms and get them in the right place. We will legislate as soon as we can, but of course we understand the urgency of the issues that she has raised. I know how important this is to the hon. Lady and her constituents, and that there are so many issues that could be addressed. Perhaps I could meet her to talk about some of them in more detail in the coming days and weeks, so that we can hear more about her constituents’ concerns. I am very grateful to her.

We want to ensure that the system for handling social housing residents’ complaints is fit for purpose and accessible, and that it drives improvements for individual complainants and for the benefit of all the residents in a community. That is why we are taking action to ensure that the social housing sector is better regulated, that residents have better and faster access to redress, and fundamentally to rebalance the relationship between landlords and residents.

The charter for social housing residents sets out what every social housing resident should be able to expect. The measures set out in the White Paper will ensure that those expectations become a reality for all residents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.