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Social Housing Standards

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2022

Members throughout the House and people across the country will have been horrified to hear about the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Awaab Ishak. Awaab died in December 2020, just days after his second birthday, following prolonged exposure to mould in his parents’ one-bedroom flat in Rochdale. Awaab’s parents had repeatedly raised their concerns about the desperate state of their home with their landlord—the local housing association, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. Awaab’s father first articulated his concerns in 2017, and others, including health professionals, also raised the alarm, but the landlord failed to take any kind of meaningful action. Rochdale Boroughwide Housing’s repeated failure to heed Awaab’s family’s pleas to remove the mould in their damp-ridden property was a terrible dereliction of duty.

Worse still, the apparent attempts by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to attribute the existence of mould to the actions of Awaab’s parents was beyond insensitive and deeply unprofessional. As the housing ombudsman has made clear, damp and mould in rented housing is not a lifestyle issue, and we all have a duty to call out any behaviour rooted in ignorance or prejudice. The family’s lawyers have made it clear that in their view the inaction of the landlord was rooted in prejudice.

The coroner who investigated Awaab’s death, Joanne Kearsley, has performed a vital public service in laying out all the facts behind this tragedy. I wish, on behalf of the House, to record my gratitude to her. As she said, it is scarcely believable that a child could die from mould in 21st century Britain, or that his parents should have to fight tooth and nail, as they did in vain, to save him. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to Awaab’s family for their tireless fight for justice over the past two years. They deserved better and their son deserved better.

As so many have rightly concluded, Awaab’s case has thrown into sharp relief the need for renewed action to ensure that every landlord in the country makes certain that their tenants are housed in decent homes and are treated with dignity and fairness. That is why the Government are bringing forward further reforms. Last week, the House debated the Second Reading of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. The measures in that Bill were inspired by the experience of tenants that led to the terrible tragedy of the Grenfell fire. The way in which tenants’ voices were ignored and their interests neglected in the Grenfell tragedy is a constant spur to action for me in this role.

Before I say more on the substance of the wider reforms, let me first update the House on the immediate steps that my Department has been taking with regard to Awaab’s case. First, as the excellent public-service journalism of the Manchester Evening News shows, we are aware that Awaab’s family was not alone in raising serious issues with the condition of homes managed by the local housing association. I have already been in touch with the chair and the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to demand answers and that they explain to me why a tragedy such as Awaab’s case was ever allowed to happen, and to hear what steps they are now undertaking, immediately, to improve the living conditions of the tenants for whom they are responsible.

I have been in touch with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), both of whom are powerful champions for the people of Rochdale. I have discussed with them the finding of suitable accommodation for tenants in Rochdale who are still enduring unacceptable conditions. I also hope to meet Awaab’s family, and those who live in the Freehold estate, so that they know that the Government are there to support them.

It is right that the regulator of social housing is considering whether the landlord in this case has systematically failed to meet the standards of service it is required to provide for its tenants. The regulator has my full support for taking whatever action it deems necessary. The coroner has written to me, and I assure the House that I will act immediately on her recommendations.

Let me turn to the broader urgent issues raised by this tragedy. Let me be perfectly clear, as some landlords apparently still need to hear this from this House: every single person in this country, irrespective of where they are from, what they do or how much they earn, deserves to live in a home that is decent, safe and secure. That is the relentless focus of my Department and, I know, of everyone across this House.

Since the publication of our social housing White Paper, we have sought to raise the bar on the quality of social housing, while empowering tenants so that their voices are truly heard. We started by strengthening the housing ombudsman service so that all residents have somewhere to turn when they do not get the answers they need from their landlords. In addition, we have changed the law so that residents can now complain directly to the ombudsman, instead of having to wait eight weeks while their case is handled by a local MP or another “designated person”.

One of the principal roles of the housing ombudsman service is to ensure that robust complaint processes are put in place so that problems are resolved as soon as they are flagged. It can order landlords to pay compensation to residents and refer cases to the regulator of social housing, which will in future be able to issue unlimited fines to landlords that it finds to be at fault. Of course, all decisions made by the ombudsman are published so that the whole world can see which landlords are consistently letting tenants down.

It is clear from Awaab’s case, which sadly did not go before the ombudsman, that more needs to be done to ensure that this vital service is better promoted, and that it reaches those who really need it. We have already run the nationwide “Make Things Right” campaign to ensure that more social housing residents know how they can make complaints, but we are now planning—I think it is necessary—another targeted multi-year campaign so that everyone living in the social housing sector knows their rights, knows how to sound the alarm when their landlord is failing to make the grade, and knows how to seek redress without delay.

Where some providers have performed poorly in the past, they have now been given ample opportunity to change their ways and to start treating residents with the respect that they deserve. The time for empty promises of improvement is over, and my Department will now name and shame those who have been found by the regulator to have breached consumer standards, or who have been found by the ombudsman to have committed severe maladministration.

While there is no doubt that this property fell below the standard that we expect all social landlords to meet, Awaab’s death makes it painfully clear why we must do everything we can to better protect tenants. Our Social Housing (Regulation) Bill will bring in a rigorous new regime that holds landlords such as these to account for the decency of their homes. As I mentioned, the system has been too reliant on people fighting their own corner and we are determined to change that. The reforms that we are making will help to relieve the burden on tenants with an emboldened and more powerful regulator. The regulator will proactively inspect landlords and, of course, issue the unlimited fines that I have mentioned, and it will be able to intervene in cases where tenants’ lives are being put at risk. In the very worst cases, it will have the power to instruct that properties be brought under new management.

Landlords will also be judged against tenant satisfaction measures, which will allow tenants—indeed, all of us—to see transparently which landlords are failing to deliver what residents expect and deserve. It is the universal right of everyone to feel safe where they and their loved ones sleep at night, which is why our levelling up and private rented sector White Papers set out how we will legislate to introduce a new, stronger, legally binding decent homes standard in the private rented sector as well for the first time. We recently consulted on that decent homes standard and we are reviewing the responses so that we can move forward quickly. It is a key plank of our mission to ensure that the number of non-decent homes across all tenures is reduced by 2030, with the biggest improvements occurring in the lowest-performing areas.

The legislation that we are bringing forward is important. We hope that, as a result, no family ever have to suffer in the way that Awaab’s family have suffered. We hope that we can end the scandal of residents having to live in shoddy, substandard homes, such as some of those on the Freehold estate. We want to restore the right of everyone in this country, whatever their race or cultural background, to live somewhere warm, decent, safe and secure—a place that they can be proud to call home. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. I join him in sending our condolences to the family of Awaab Ishak. It is the worst thing that any family could possibly imagine. It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that, in 21st-century Britain, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a family could find their child dying at just two years old through completely and utterly avoidable circumstances that could, would and should have been prevented. I acknowledge that their only ask as a family is that, once and for all, the conditions for those in social housing are improved.

Today has to mark the start of a real step change in our level of urgency to improve the condition of our social housing stock and the rights of people in it. This is not just about social housing stock, however: as the housing ombudsman made absolutely clear, there are people in every form of tenure who are forced in 21st-century Britain to endure these appalling, unconscionable conditions.

The coroner said that the death of Awaab, who suffered prolonged exposure to mould,

“will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector”,

but it should also be a defining moment for us and a wake-up call to every single Member of the House who has, in whatever limited form and to whatever extent, the power and platform to make sure that this never, ever happens again. It should not take the death of a two-year-old boy in completely avoidable circumstances to get us together and act.

The truth is that although this is the most shocking outcome that anyone could imagine, this is not an unusual set of circumstances to come across the desk of any hon. Member or housing lawyer in the country. Our inboxes and constituency surgeries, in every part of the country, are overflowing with people in this position—people who have sounded the alarm over and over again, but who have simply been rendered invisible by decision makers who do not respond.

I know that the Secretary of State and I are wholly united on this issue and that he is sincere about getting a grip on it and doing something about it. Only a week ago, we stood across from each other at the Dispatch Box and talked about what we could do to strengthen the measures in the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill that is currently before Parliament to ensure that this House delivers the strongest possible legislation. If there is unity, however, there is no excuse for delay. It is time for urgency.

In that spirit, what further steps will the Secretary of State’s Department take? There is a systemic issue of housing unfit for human habitation in the social and private rented sectors. Too many families are living in overcrowded, damp, mouldy and squalid conditions, and they are disproportionately likely to be black, Asian and ethnic minority families in poverty. This has not just a heavy social cost; NHS England already spends £1.3 billion a year on treating preventable illnesses caused by cold and damp homes.

The consultation on the decent homes standard closed weeks ago, so can the Secretary of State give a timescale for that being brought into law without delay for the private and social rented sectors? We are 100% committed to decent homes standard 2, so we will work with the Government day and night to ensure that it is tough and fit for the 21st century, and that it is delivered quickly.

New regulation matters but, as the Secretary of State knows, there is a crisis for local authorities up and down the country. It would be wrong not to acknowledge that, for well-intentioned local authorities—the ones that are good landlords and are responsive to their tenants’ needs—there is still a huge, gaping hole in their finances. Will he ensure that he sits down and works through those problems with local authorities? Everybody understands that there is a major problem with the public finances, but we have to find creative ways to help local authorities now, including through longer-term funding settlements. Will he particularly ensure that any social rent cap is funded? Otherwise all we do is load more cuts on to local authorities that cannot afford them and ensure that that money is stripped out of our local housing stock at a time when, as he knows, the situation is already unconscionable.

Damp is more likely in homes that are excessively cold and expensive to heat. With energy bills going through the roof, a cold winter will lead to a spike in mould problems, as the Secretary of State will know. What is he doing to bring about the retrofitting and insulation of older social housing stock to make homes cheaper to heat? We have a housing crisis in this country, but we also have a growth crisis. There are a lot of people around the country who could use good jobs bringing those homes up to standard and literally saving lives this winter.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has called in the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to explain himself, but will the Secretary of State commit to a wider investigation of the case and what can be learned, including the housing association’s structure and governance and whether the lack of democratic representation on its board played a part in its lack of responsiveness?

I am grateful that the Secretary of State repeatedly acknowledged during his statement that Awaab’s family have said that, in their view, it is beyond doubt that racism played a role in their treatment and the handling of their concerns. Beyond an acknowledgement, I would like to see some action to deal with that. Nobody should be subjected to personal and intrusive questions about their private lives, lifestyle and bathing habits in their own home. I was glad that the coroner recognised that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing now knows that that was completely unacceptable, but how on earth was it allowed to conclude that lifestyle and bathing habits contributed to the majority of the mould?

Further to that, an important part of the system is providing legitimate migrants and refugees with safe and secure housing. Will the Secretary of State commit to a wider review of how housing is provided and maintained for refugees in this country? I am convinced that Awaab’s family are right that the imbalance of power posed an acute problem for those who are unfamiliar with the system. I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who is in his place, and to the Manchester Evening News. They are a powerful voice for people who do not understand the system. However, there is a problem here, and it needs to be addressed. Will the Secretary of State look at the over-representation of BAME people in poor-quality housing?

Finally—I will come to a close, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that there is huge interest in this across the House—we stood in this place five years ago, after the shocking events of Grenfell, and said, “Never again.” Never again has to mean something. It has to mean a legacy for the people who have lost loved ones as a consequence of the shocking imbalance of power in the housing system. Will the Secretary of State commit to working with us in the Opposition to deliver a housing system fit for the 21st century?

I thank the hon. Lady for the points she made and the questions she asked, and for the very open and constructive approach she is taking to making sure that we can all work together to learn the appropriate lessons from this tragedy.

The hon. Lady is right, of course, that the circumstances were utterly avoidable. She was also right to say that we require a step change in levels of urgency in dealing with these problems. She is right, too, that the problems identified by the coroner and held up to the light exist in every form in tenure across England. Damp and mould are not an unusual set of circumstances, but a problem that afflicts constituents all of us know of and all of us represent, and they should not be a problem with which people have to live. The impact on individuals’ health and their quality of life can be profound, and action needs to be taken across the country, by all of us, to ensure that this scandal ends.

The hon. Lady is right to say that poor housing quality, while it exists across England, is particularly concentrated in certain communities, and it disproportionately affects families from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This is part of a broader pattern of unequal outcomes that we do need to address. It requires sensitivity in handling, but she is also right that it requires urgency and focus on the part of all of us in investigating the factors that lie behind it.

The hon. Lady asked particularly about the decent homes standard and when we will bring forward new regulations in response to the consultation. We hope to do so as early as possible. It may not be until the beginning of the new year, but we will do so, I hope, in a way that ensures we can legislate effectively either in this Session or in the next.

The hon. Lady makes a fair point about local authority funding. Every part of the public sector and public realm faces funding challenges at the moment. I have been talking to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this, and he is very sensitive to these concerns. In the autumn statement tomorrow, he will be saying more about what can be done, including with reference to the social rent cap. As we all know, it is important to balance the additional sums that individuals may be required to pay at a time of inflation in order to ensure that housing associations are appropriately funded for the work that they need to do. There is a difficult balance to strike, but I have talked to Kate Henderson and others in the housing association sector, and I believe that the way forward that we have found is one that will be considered to be fair, in admittedly tough circumstances.

The hon. Lady asked about a wider investigation into the governance of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. I had the opportunity to talk briefly to the chief executive earlier this afternoon. In the course of that conversation, it became even more clear to me that there are systemic problems in the governance and leadership of that organisation. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and the two Members of Parliament covering the metropolitan borough to address that.

The hon. Lady also made a point about the campaigning work of not just local MPs, but of the Manchester Evening News. As I referenced briefly in my statement, I am grateful to the Manchester Evening News, which is an exemplar when it comes to a local newspaper that speaks for its communities and campaigns effectively.

The hon. Lady’s final point about safe and secure housing for all, including refugees, is one that I absolutely take on board. We do need to ensure that people fleeing persecution and being welcomed into the country know that this country is a safe home for them and that they have a safe home within this country. I would only say that it is our responsibility and our duty to ensure that every citizen of the United Kingdom believes that everyone in this House is on their side in ensuring that they have somewhere safe, decent and secure to live.

A significant proportion of social housing homes are below standard—we think significantly more than 10%—but the proportion of homes that are below standard in the private rented sector is even higher.

There is no doubt that the death of Awaab was tragic, but it was also preventable and unforgivable. I endorse the exchange between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), in which some very important points were raised. I have limited time today, Madam Deputy Speaker, but perhaps I can make a few points.

At the national level, the Secretary of State rightly says we need the new definition of decent homes. Does that include classifying mould as a category 1 hazard, for example, because that would be an important step in providing protection? Will he also guarantee this important matter? There is a debate about the funding of local authorities, but there needs to be specific recognition that if we are to prevent this kind of tragedy, we must have enforcement and we must have structures that have the resources to enforce, such as local authority housing ombudsmen.

At the local level, the Secretary of State made reference to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing. I have to say that I have very little faith in the senior management of that body. There were so many ways in which this tragedy could have been prevented, so it is unforgivable that it has happened. Exemplary fines will not necessarily do the trick, however, because this simply penalises those who pay rents and penalises the taxpayer. There needs to be some personal responsibility in this, and the capacity for those at a senior level to face the consequences either legally, or in any case of losing their job. I would welcome an investigation into Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, and I hope this can now be done, because there are serious issues. I really do think that the chief executive, and perhaps some of those on other executive bodies, need to question their own role and whether they should be there any longer.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for the points he makes. Again, I express my sympathy to his constituents who have had to deal with some of the defects that Rochdale Boroughwide Housing has exhibited for some years now, and I know that he has consistently questioned the service they have received.

On the first point about damp and mould, it is already the case under the legislation introduced by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck)—the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018—that damp and mould is a No. 1 concern when it comes to whether a house is fit for human habitation. However, the hon. Member is quite right to say that, when it comes to identifying a category 1 hazard, reviewing that in the context of the decent homes standard is something we do have to do. I think that, under any circumstance or under any standard, the conditions in which Awaab’s family were living were simply not decent and would have failed the decent homes standard, but he is quite right that we need to keep these under constant review.

The hon. Member is also right to stress that, when it comes to appropriate support for people in all types of tenure, we need to make sure that local authorities are appropriately resourced to ensure that they can be the champions of those whom they are elected to represent.

When I think about this case I vacillate between profound sadness and white-hot anger. This is not an isolated incident. Just this week, I was sent photographs of a house in Middleton with its walls caked in black mould and rising damp. That is an RBH property, and my constituent sent me a copy of her doctor’s note saying that she and her children are now severely ill because of these conditions. RBH are modern-day slumlords. Can I encourage my right hon. Friend, and I thank him for all his engagement thus far, to take up the suggestion of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) to conduct a full root-and-branch investigation into the workings of RBH? Does he agree with me that, when the director is claiming £157,000 in earnings, he must bear full responsibility for what has happened?

Again, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his work. I know that he has been extraordinarily diligent in following up the cases of poor housing that have been brought to his attention. He is absolutely right that the leadership of RBH has presided over a terrible situation in his constituency. Action does need to be taken. He is absolutely right that we need to make sure that all of the tools at our disposal are used to investigate what went on and to hold those responsible to account. He is also right to say that individuals who earn well in excess of what our Prime Minister earns and who have responsibility for 12,500 homes should take the consequences of those actions.

May I associate myself with the aims that the Secretary of State has set out in his statement? I think they will be supported across the House.

I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the Select Committee’s report, “The Regulation of Social Housing”, published in July—I gently remind him that the Department has not yet replied to it. In the report, we identified some social housing that was unfit for human habitation, and causing the sorts of health problems that tragically have been seen in this case. We identified problems with repair reporting, complaints handling, and a lack of proactive inspection of properties by housing providers and the social housing regulator. We put that in context and said

“some blame must attach to successive Governments for not investing enough in new homes, which has increased the sector’s reliance on outdated stock, and for not providing funding specifically for regeneration.”

Some of those are not individual repairs; there are failures of whole blocks and whole estates. I say to the Secretary of State: let us share the common objectives, and let us work together to get the money to ensure that those objectives can be realised.

Of course, when the hon. Gentleman and his Committee published their report, I think I had just beforehand left office, and only relatively recently have I returned to office. But it is a powerful report, and the points he makes are fair and necessary. The concerns he raised about the state of repair and complaints handling have been articulated for many years, and the report brings very much to the front of mind the need to tackle those concerns urgently. His broader point about the need for investment in our housing stock, and our social housing stock overall, is very much a mission of my Department, not least in ensuring that Homes England, and others, can work with registered social landlords to ensure the regeneration of estates—including in Sheffield—that have been neglected for too long.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and strong response, and I join colleagues across the House in our heartbreak for Awaab and his family. Sadly, the conditions that have been brought to light are replicated across the country. Indeed, a good deal of my casework, from when I was elected in December 2019 right through to today, is about poor housing conditions. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will take action to improve housing quality for private as well as social tenants?

Absolutely, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for raising that issue. Although Guildford is an absolutely beautiful city, there are some parts that she represents where the state of housing, in both the social and private rented sectors, is simply not good enough. We have discussed that in private in the past, and she is right. We will be bringing forward measures to ensure that her constituents get the support they deserve.

I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s sincerity, but I suspect from my own caseload that this problem is far more widespread than has hitherto been acknowledged. What guarantee can he give today that there will be concerted action, and that we will not see a flurry of activity from landlords and housing associations, rushing round to properties, slapping on a bit of anti-mould paint, and leaving parents in the same predicament as Awaab’s parents, of worrying for their children’s future because nothing is really being done to address the problem?

The hon. Gentleman articulates a fair concern, and it is striking that Awaab’s parents were told that paint in itself would be an answer to the mould problem. In some circumstances anti-mould paint can help to alleviate the problem, but it does not tackle it at root. On the broader issue of whether we will see a flurry of performative activity rather than fundamental change, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why the new powers for the regulator are so important, and why it is my commitment to ensure that we review those powers, review the decent homes standard and, if for any reason there is backsliding, take further action.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making a statement so quickly after the tragic events that took place. Awaab’s death was preventable and a tragedy, but I am afraid that the advice given to his parents is the normal advice given up and down the country when people inspect damp and mould: “It’s your lifestyle, not the condition of the building.” Will my right hon. Friend look closely at appropriate amendments to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill, and consider what we can do to strengthen it and ensure that this tragedy leads to a sea change, so that we do not see it repeated time and again up and down the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—few people in this House have done more to shine a light on poor housing conditions and introduce legislation to improve the conditions of tenants. He is absolutely right: the housing ombudsman made clear in its October 2021 report that damp and mould could never be considered a lifestyle issue. That is both an abdication of responsibility on the part of landlords and, as we have heard, sometimes a mask for prejudice, which we need to call out. He is also right that we need to look at our legislation to ensure that appropriate lessons are learned. I look forward to working with him and other colleagues to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose in every respect.

We have a significant lack of social housing, and as we have heard so tragically today, where houses are available the conditions are often inadequate. One elderly couple in my constituency have been dealing with mould for over two years. What support will be given to local councils that want to do the right thing to address the availability and quality of social housing?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that point, and we will be working with local authorities, registered social landlords and the wider housing sector to ensure that we continue to provide resource for the upgrading of existing stock and the provision of new stock.

I should say—I did not respond fully to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) earlier—that one other important pressure on registered social landlords is ensuring that we deal with effective energy efficiency and insulation measures. We must make those resources available, even at a time of straitened circumstances.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I pass on my condolences to the family concerned.

The standard of housing in the social housing sector, run by both housing associations and local authorities, has been shown to suffer from ongoing issues across the UK, including inefficient repairs and maintenance contracts and services. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of whether the regulatory enforcement framework needs improving urgently, including the inspections regime? Does the ombudsman need to be given more resources, so that tenants can expect a full and quick resolution to their complaints?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned on these questions for some time. He is right: we must ensure that the ombudsman and regulator are appropriately resourced, and we will keep both under review. It may be that we need to provide additional resource to the ombudsman, given that we actively want to promote more tenants using that service in order to secure redress.

I join those paying tribute to the Manchester Evening News for its excellent reporting and the campaign it is starting on this matter. The Secretary of State has called this case “unacceptable”, but what is so tragic, as we are hearing across the House, is that the experience of Awaab’s family in having their concerns ignored is shared by so many across the country, including in my constituency. My office receives upwards of 40 cases a year from constituents who are worried sick about persistent mould and damp in their social housing. Many children and babies are living in those damp and mouldy homes, often for years, which affects their health badly. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there is sufficient investment in enforcement, and sufficient legal help available, to hold housing providers to account?

The consistent theme from Members across the House is the need to ensure that appropriate resources are there, and one commitment I give to the House is that I will seek to ensure that appropriate resource is in place for the ombudsman, registered social landlords and local authorities. The hon. Lady’s question gives me the opportunity to add that the housing ombudsman’s report, which I mentioned earlier, also contains examples of very good practice among the many excellent RSLs, because as well as focusing on failure, it is also important to look at where good practice exists and ensure that the resource is there to ensure that that becomes more widespread.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his statement. It is shocking that a two-year-old child should lose his life from lung and heart failure due to mould and damp conditions in his flat. Unfortunately, we know that the default position from landlords has often been that that is about lifestyle. Will the Secretary of State send a clear message that that should no longer be the default position when such issues arise? It is clear that this is not just rogue landlords; this goes across the sector. Will he ensure that any measures he brings forward will address the issue across all sectors?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Again, this is a subject that we have discussed outside the House in the past. The existence of damp and mould is a persistent and avoidable issue. It is in no way due to the lifestyle of tenants. As the housing ombudsman’s report makes crystal clear, there should not be any sense of fatalism on the part of registered social landlords or others in dealing with the issue. It is avoidable, it can be dealt with, and it is urgent that we do so.

According to the English housing survey, 839,000 homes across the country have damp problems, including 409,000 private rented properties and 198,000 social housing properties. However, across the House, we all know that the figures are far higher. For every constituent who contacts me in Vauxhall or any other Member of the House, there are so many other constituents suffering in silence, not knowing who to turn to, living in poor conditions that are affecting their health. I welcome the Secretary of State saying that resources will be available, but the sad truth is that cuts over the last 12 years to our local councils have borne human consequences. This boy’s sad death should not have happened. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Government have an urgent duty to do better so that more tragedies such as this do not happen?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who on the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and elsewhere has been a clear and consistent voice calling for the better treatment of tenants in a variety of different tenures. The cases that she has brought to my attention and others’ make a compelling case for change. She is right that we in government must ensure that we provide an appropriate level of resource. I do believe that ensuring that more people are aware of how to contact the ombudsman and ensuring that the regulator has additional teeth will contribute to change. But, of course, all of us need to ensure that we keep the situation under review. Her question gives me the opportunity again to praise the work of Dan Hewitt of ITN and, of course, Kwajo Tweneboa, the housing campaigner, who have worked with her to highlight the problems that we both want to see resolved.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his compassionate and thorough statement. Does he agree that if we are to prevent another death such as Awaab’s and ensure that people have the right to decent, damp-free homes, the responsibility must stop with the chief executives of housing providers? Does he also agree that the only way in which they will remain accountable and responsible for the housing they provide is by ensuring that they can be fined or even face legal cases and that, in acute cases such as this, corporate manslaughter charges may be considered?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend who, in her previous role as leader of an outstanding local authority, did an enormous amount to champion the rights of tenants. I cannot comment further than I have on this case, but, yes, she is right that all of us have to take responsibility for improving the situation.

This is an awfully tragic case, but I think we all agree that it is not an isolated one. Numerous constituents of all tenures—council, housing association and private rented—have been told that they have mould in their property because of lifestyle reasons. Will the Secretary of State commit to a timetable to bring forward the work in the Green Paper on the private rented sector and tell us the timescale for it? In that work, will there be a basic standard for ventilation? One of the big problems is that there is no national standard for what we expect of ventilation in properties, and that is causing much of the condensation problem.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of ventilation, which was a particular factor that the coroner raised in this tragic case. More broadly, his point about the need to expedite legislation to improve conditions in the private rented sector is right, and we will make an announcement shortly about the timetable for legislation.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments, his statement and the compassion with which he is dealing with this very sad case. All the steps being taken on social housing providers and, where appropriate, councils can only be a good thing as a reminder to us all. What does my right hon. Friend think could be done on private rented accommodation? In my constituency quite a large number of people rent from private providers, and they may not be at all aware of what their rights are and what the standards should be.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is important to stress that the overwhelming majority of landlords in the private rented sector provide a high-quality service, care for their tenants and want their properties to be kept up to the highest standards. However, a small minority, which often includes individuals or organisations based overseas who own property here, neglect the appropriate standards to which the property should be kept. The legislation that we will bring forward in due course will help to tackle those abuses.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and send my deepest condolences to Awaab’s loved ones. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that an overall chronic shortage of social housing is contributing to the problem of tenants living in dangerous or unsuitable conditions because there are no other options available? A less serious case, but an example from my constituency, is that of a family of six living in a two-bedroom property, whose son is falling behind at school because he cannot sleep at night. Will the Secretary of State commit to allowing councils and housing associations to keep 100% of the proceeds of homes sold under the right to buy scheme so that, at the very least, they can hope to maintain their current level of social housing stock?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point about ensuring that we do everything possible to support local authorities to increase social housing stock. Of course, we do need to keep that under review and, again, we will be saying more about that in due course.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who is no longer in his place, spoke for all of us when he described how our constituents are often told that they are somehow to blame for damp, condensation and mould. I very much welcome the clear statement the Secretary of State just made that that will no longer be acceptable from any landlord. Given that he has said that, we can tell our tenants that from today. Will he consider putting a time limit on the period in which the housing provider must fix a problem from when it is first raised? I do believe that that would concentrate the mind. In many cases—we will all be familiar with this—the problem goes back and forth and still does not get sorted out.

I very much take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s point. One thing that I will look at and discuss with the regulator and the ombudsman is how we can ensure that there is a best practice timescale for responses to complaints so that we do not have the back and forth that he described.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the family first raised the issue a year before their little boy died. That, in my view, points to the extreme culpability of the Rochdale Boroughwide housing association. It is my view not that its head should be fined but that, if he had any conscience, he would resign. Tens of thousands of people up and down the country are in properties that are riddled with damp and mould. I have the issue myself in Hackney, and one estate, Evelyn Court, is campaigning to try to get its landlord to do something about it. It is difficult to imagine anything sadder than watching your child literally cough to death because people who were supposed to act did not. The family are of the opinion that they were treated in this way because they were migrants and because they were black. We all know all sorts of tenants have this issue, but does the Secretary of State agree that some of us believe these tenants were treated like this because they were black?

I am really grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that question and for the way in which she raised it. It does seem to me, on the basis of the facts as we know them, that this family were victims of prejudice, whether unwitting or otherwise. There are other examples, and there have been other examples, of individuals in both the private rented sector and the social rented sector who have been treated with significantly less respect than they deserve because of attitudes that are rooted in prejudice. We all have a responsibility across this House to call that out when it occurs and to ensure that people, whatever their background, are treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings.

Let this be the point where no one is ever told again, “Open your windows and the problem will be solved.” May I caution the Secretary of State against relying solely on the housing ombudsman as the best mechanism for our constituents to seek redress? RSLs such as Clarion and London and Quadrant have, when doing repairs, left residents in hotels miles away from where they live. Residents are getting heavily into debt and languishing because the RSLs are not doing the repairs properly. Residents do not have the weeks and months it takes to secure redress. The companies will use their insurance policies to cover the cost of doing the repairs on those properties. Will he give tenants a right to access that money, so we can concentrate the minds of those social landlords to treat those people with the dignity they deserve?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is certainly the case that the two RSLs she mentions have failed tenants in the past and she is right to call that out. Her broader point on whether we can give tenants the additional rights she mentions is an interesting one. I commit to working with her to see what more can be done.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement on this awful tragedy and for the way he made it. I hope this will lead to a step change in attitudes and policy towards the housing needs of people across the whole country. I totally agree with him when he says that everyone should have a decent, safe, secure, dry, warm place to live in—absolutely right. It is not happening in my constituency, or in many others, where I come across people living in overcrowded accommodation with damp and all the other issues that go with it. In the now very large private rented sector, tenants are often afraid to complain—they fear eviction if they complain—they have no certainty of a long-term residence. We need tough legislation on the private rented sector, we need more council housing built and we need an attitude from public health inspectors that goes down like a tonne of bricks on any landlord, whoever they are, who fails in their duties to maintain a safe, dry, warm and clean environment.

The right hon. Gentleman and I have disagreed on many things in this House, but I have to say that I agree with every single word he just said.

Our thoughts are absolutely with the family. May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to social housing providers? In my constituency, one has raised concerns about the 14% rise in maintenance costs in the last year, a cost that has not been recognised in the Government’s consultation on rent caps. I think he might have alluded to some future compromise, but could he give us some assurance that the Government will consider the rise in maintenance costs at this time when they are looking at future rents?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. We have a number of very different things that are operating in tension and that we need to review. First, we need to ensure, at a time of rising prices everywhere, that tenants in social housing are not faced with increases in rents that further add to the difficulties they face. At the same time, however, registered social landlords and housing associations need money to provide new stock, to pay for repairs when materials are costing more, and to undertake some of the work on insulation and energy efficiency alluded to earlier, as well as, in some cases, the building safety work required in the wake of Grenfell. I appreciate the pressures under which they are operating and my commitment is to work with them constructively to try to ensure we can support them.

Like every other Member here, I get weekly concerns from constituents about mould in properties. Sometimes we are able to help them and we get there. It takes a long time and unfortunately problems often come back. Sometimes people come to see me who I helped when I was a councillor almost a decade ago and the problems have re-emerged, so there is something far deeper going on here—it is not just about trying to put these things right. The issue is across the whole sector. Every housing association in my constituency has these problems. There are issues of capacity, funding and accountability. I do not think these associations are accountable to the communities they represent. Can the Secretary of State say something about what he can do about that?

The hon. Member raises at least three very important questions. First, in fairness to everyone, many RSLs have inherited housing stock—particularly that built in the ’60s and ’70s—that was simply not fit for purpose when it was constructed and is well beyond its natural life span as anything approaching decent accommodation. He is absolutely right that they have inherited significant problems. Secondly, we need to make sure that housing associations and RSLs are more accountable generally. One thing that our reforms seek to do is to ensure that the tenant voice is louder and more clearly heard. However, there can be an open debate into the future about how we improve stock overall and ensure better democratic accountability.

The death of Awaab Ishak was a tragedy that shone a light on the issues in the sector. A family in my constituency contacted me as they had been living in temporary accommodation for more than four years. The property was absolutely full of mould; when it was inspected, it was so bad that there were mushrooms growing in the bathroom. It was ridiculous. The Government’s consultation on the decent homes standard has closed. Will the Secretary of State commit to bringing in new legally enforceable standards to ensure that everyone has a decent place to live? How will that be monitored?

I know that the hon. Lady, with her background as an NHS professional, will have come across the consequences of poor housing throughout a lifetime dedicated to public service. She is right: we need to make sure that there is effective monitoring of improvements by RSLs. That is what the new regulator is supposed to ensure and achieve. If, for any reason, we need to provide it with more teeth or do more, I look forward to working with her in that regard.

Last month, a 52-year-old gentleman contacted me, crying down the phone. He said that, in his previous accommodation, he had developed breathing problems due to the damp, rot and mould in that home, that there was no heating in his present home and that he was worried and scared. What will the Secretary of State’s Department do to invest in social housing, enforce capacity and provide legal aid to help to end this scandal once and for all?

I am very sorry to hear about that individual case. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady let me and my office know about that and the landlord responsible, and we will seek to follow it up. On her broader point, I hope that the regulator and the ombudsman together can help to ensure that individuals like her constituent have their concerns addressed. However, if more needs to be done, my Department will do what we can to review that.

When the Government backed my Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, I knew that the law would not be enough. That will prove to be the case again. We have heard about enforcement against social landlords and against private landlords—who are twice as bad—as well as commissioned temporary accommodation and exempt accommodation, which is often the worst. We know that we need more enforcement capacity. Will the Minister and the Government commission a study of local authorities’ enforcement capacity—particularly the use of environmental health officers—to enable councils to identify the problems in accommodation? Will he also commission a study of the use of the legal powers already available to local authorities, which varies so much between providers? Will that inform the urgent introduction of further legislation to protect renters?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The Bill that she introduced became an Act in 2018, and it is landmark legislation. She is right to say, as she warned at the time, that legislation on its own is not enough and enforcement is required. The number of people who have used her legislation for the purpose for which it was intended has been fewer than any of us would have wanted, given the scale of the problem. I commit to looking at the recommendations that she just made to see whether that is genuinely the best way, and I hope that we can come to an appropriate conclusion to ensure that appropriate enforcement is in place.

Like many hon. Members, I find that by far the biggest issue that constituents raise with me is housing, including the appalling standards that we have all seen in social housing and, critically, in the private rented sector. I would like to press the Secretary of State a bit more on what his plans are for the private rented sector. Leicester City Council, like many councils, is introducing a licensing scheme in parts of the city to crack down on rogue landlords and improve standards. We know what the problems are: we have to find the landlords in the first place, and if we can find them, we do not have the powers we need to make changes. Promises are given, but it all takes too long. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, we need timescales. May I press the Secretary of State on what he will do on those issues specifically: finding the landlords, having the right powers and implementing those powers swiftly?

The hon. Lady raises a number of important issues. First, local authorities such as Leicester can use selective licensing, which can be a powerful tool. Local authority leaders were recently in front of the Select Committee to discuss the appropriateness of using selective licensing; some regard it as a useful tool and others do not, but I believe it has an important role to play.

The hon. Lady’s second point is about tracking down the ultimate owner, which is a big problem. On coming into the Department, I was surprised by the way in which ultimate owners of property hide behind myriad opaque structures. Through the Land Registry and elsewhere, we need to find means of determining the ultimate beneficial owners of property so that we can take appropriate enforcement action. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady on the issue.

The Government spend more on housing benefit and its equivalents than on policing and transport combined. How much of that £20 billion of public money is paying for substandard, mould-ridden private rented accommodation? Will the Secretary of State accept the invitation from the housing ombudsman to extend its remit to the private rented sector?

We know that there are at least 2.3 million homes that fail the decent homes standard, broadly. We know that a higher proportion of homes fail it in the private rented sector than in the social rented sector. I am always open to all proposals that can ensure that tenants live in decent homes, irrespective of tenure. I will consider that proposal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and others have mentioned supported exempt accommodation, and on Friday the House will debate the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I am afraid that I am no stranger to deaths because of poor housing. In Birmingham, to the best of my knowledge, there have been three or four deaths—some violent, some because of the terrible conditions for people living in dreadful and unregulated supported exempt accommodation. Will the Secretary of State agree to put some regulation in place? Will he follow every recommendation of the Select Committee’s report on the matter? The taxpayer is currently spending billions, but people are being put in danger.

The hon. Lady makes an important point; I am grateful for her support for my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and his legislation. There is a big problem in supported housing. As she knows, additional funds are provided to landlords to ensure that they provide the additional support required by individuals who are living with a variety of challenges. There is a subset of landlords who pocket the cash in those circumstances and then leave vulnerable individuals in conditions that put them at risk and lead to problems for their neighbours. We need to deal with this scam; legislation is part of that, although not all of it. I look forward to working with her to tackle it.

While we are waiting for the improvements that the Secretary of State has promised in the regulation and resourcing of social landlords, many tenants are relying on legal aid solicitors and law centres to pursue disrepair claims. Thanks to legal aid cuts, they are already a vanishing part of the legal system, but from next year, housing claims will be subject to fixed recoverable costs, which will make it unaffordable for small firms and not-for-profits to take on housing cases. Will the Secretary of State talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about how representation can be maintained for victims of the neglect, incompetence and discrimination so tragically highlighted in Awaab’s case?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that case. The housing and planning Minister, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), is a former Justice Minister; I know that she and the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), appreciate the importance of the issue. I hope that we will be able to make progress.

This must be a moment of epiphany. The scale of the problem—damp, cold, overcrowded housing or no housing at all for my constituents and constituents across the country— needs to be addressed by an action plan from every housing provider with a timeline for when the necessary reparation will be made, but there also needs to be a deep dive into the skills available to perform this reparation, because that too is a challenge.

The hon. Lady has made an important point, which gives me the opportunity to say two things. First, we do need professionalism within the sector overall, and that is one of the matters that will be considered in the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill. Secondly, as the hon. Lady rightly said and as so many other Members have pointed out, this individual tragedy is reflective of a broader set of problems in the housing sector. Those problems, as we have discussed, have been exacerbated by the nature of the housing stock that we have in this country—its age and its condition—but that is no excuse for not taking action.

I think—and I hope this reflects the mood of the House—that we have reached a point at which we all recognise that, thanks to this tragedy and thanks to the campaigning of Members on both sides of the House, as well as the campaigning of individuals outside such as Kwajo Tweneboa, Daniel Hewitt and Vicky Spratt, we now know that we need to tackle these questions with a greater degree of urgency than ever before.

I send my deepest condolences to Awaab’s family. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who has been campaigning on the issue of decent homes for many years and is a powerful voice for his constituents.

I want to raise an issue raised earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Awaab’s family believe that racism played a significant part in the way they were treated and the way their complaint was handled. May I ask the Secretary of State whether he is taking that point seriously, and whether he will commit himself to an investigation?

As I mentioned briefly earlier, it does seem to me on the basis of the facts as they stand—and this has certainly been articulated very effectively by Awaab’s family’s solicitor—that the family were on the receiving end of prejudice. Whether it was unwitting or not, I cannot judge. Linked to that, as the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington mentioned, there is a significant problem with people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds not being treated, as they should be, with respect, and we do need to take that issue seriously. I am reassured that those who lead the social housing sector completely understand the need for the highest professional standards in this area.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for responding to questions for over an hour.

Bills Presented

Planning Application Fees Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Daisy Cooper, supported by Helen Morgan, presented a Bill to amend the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to enable local authorities [in England] to determine the fees to be paid in respect of applications and deemed applications for planning permission; to require local authorities to set the scale of fees with a view to ensuring that the costs of determining applications can be wholly funded by application fees; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March 2023, and to be printed (Bill 193).

Trade (Australia and New Zealand) (Parliamentary Approval) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Sarah Green presented a Bill to provide for the implementation of the United Kingdom’s free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand to be subject to approval by resolution by each House of Parliament; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November, and to be printed (Bill 194).