House of Lords
Tuesday 18 October 2022
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.
Oaths and Affirmations
Baroness Howarth of Breckland took the oath, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Several other noble Lords took the oath or made the solemn affirmation.
Nitrate-free Bacon and Ham
My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register.
Nitrates are approved additives for use in pork products. The Government consider that existing levels of nitrates in food products are sufficiently protective of consumers. We are keen to support innovation in the food industry. Where individual companies use authorised alternatives, it is ultimately a commercial decision. The Government’s position is that any intervention should be restricted to areas where there are potential health and safety concerns based on available evidence.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, but I ask him: will the Government consider a review of regulation surrounding the use of nitrites in food production, following action taken in the French National Assembly to bring in legislation to minimise the use of nitrites in cured meats? Given the association of nitrites with a heightened risk of bowel cancer and that risk-free alternatives are widely available, would the Minister support a ban on the use of these chemicals in food production? When he is next in Northern Ireland, will he visit and tour factories beside me in Downpatrick that use innovation to produce nitrite-free food?
I think the company to which the noble Baroness refers produces something called Better Naked, which is a very worthy product and has a lot of innovative approaches. However, we are following the evidence on this: while the IARC published a report that said that processed meats can be carcinogenic in some cases, it does not make a direct link between the consumption of nitrates and nitrites in processed meats and colorectal cancer. We must be very mindful of the fact that these products in meats inhibit the growth of conditions such as clostridium botulinum, which can of course be fatal.
My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the pig industry is suffering a crisis that is unprecedented in its history? Will he join me in regretting the closure of the Vale of Mowbray facility at Leeming Bar—a 100 year-old facility involved in world-famous pork pies—with the loss of 171 jobs? What future does he see for the pig industry in this country going forward?
We want a good future for the pig industry, which has struggled for many years. As a Government we have stepped in where we can: we introduced more visas for butchers, private storage aid and the slaughter incentive payment scheme. Over 760 tonnes of pigmeat was put into the Government’s freezer storage plan, and this has ended, to the greatest extent, the backlog of pigmeat that was on farms.
My Lords, nitrates are found in many foods and can be harmless, but when used to cure bacon, which is then cooked and ingested, they can result in cancers. Nitrate-free bacon represents only about 10% of current sales. We do not need chemicals to produce delicious bacon. Why are the Government not encouraging other nitrate-free methods of production? Why would the public choose something that will harm them over a non-toxic alternative?
The public are informed about what is in their food by the labelling. Any nitrates or nitrites that are in food do appear on the label, so the public can make an informed choice. But I repeat what I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, about the importance of getting a balanced view: there is not a clear scientific link between colorectal cancers and these additives. Of course, we must be mindful that these additives protect consumers from conditions such as clostridium botulinum, which, I repeat, can be fatal.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Is the Minister aware that the vast majority of large pig producers in East Anglia set the highest possible standards and have also done all they possibly can to reduce run-off into watercourses? Surely, the challenge now is to make sure that smaller producers also follow these very high standards?
My noble friend is absolutely right: we want to see improved animal welfare standards, productivity and growth across the agricultural sector. In East Anglia, where the majority of our larger pork enterprises exist, huge strides have been taken. As of yesterday, the pork price was about £1.98 per kilo, which is considerably up on where it was last February, when it was around £1.37. This is a massive improvement, but many pig producers are still finding that their costs of production exceed their income. The Government are doing all we can to make sure that they are a profitable part of our farming sector.
The noble Lord is a genius for how he wove that in. He is absolutely on the same page as the Government, who are doing all we can to help household income across the board. Compared with previous decades, food has been a relatively small element of household expenditure, but it is nevertheless significant and it has been affected by inflation. But just concentrating on food is not enough; we need to look at the whole area of household expenditure, which of course includes energy and other elements.
My Lords, while we must not cause alarm by overstating any risks posed by nitrates and nitrites in bacon and other cured meats, we cannot deny that a growing body of evidence links these chemicals to various illnesses. Although we may not have an appetite for a full ban, many other countries are taking clear steps to limit the use of nitrates and nitrites in pork products. So does the Minister see any future reputational risks for UK products if other countries move forward and adopt more stringent measures and we do not?
We work very closely with the European agency that does this. It is quite wrong for Ministers to make sweeping decisions on this; it has to be on the basis of evidence. The Food Standards Agency is the lead on this, and it has given Ministers clear information. The 2015 IARC report stated that how cancer risk is increased by processed meat consumption is “not yet fully understood”. How processed meat is cooked—for example, the temperature—and some natural components in the meat itself could be contributing factors. As the noble Baroness said, other foods naturally have large amounts of nitrates: chard and broccoli are but two.
Plurilingual and Intercultural Education
To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take in response to the recommendations of the Council of Europe of 2 February (CM/Rec(2022)1) on the importance of promoting plurilingual and intercultural education to support democratic culture.
My Lords, languages education is an important element in developing a democratic and socially just society. We are incredibly fortunate to have English as our lingua franca, but we also value familiarity with other languages and cultures. Highlighting the interconnectedness of languages and increasing the profile of community languages is part of our new language support offer from 2023. Revised GCSE content will make languages more accessible and improve uptake. New measures will increase the number of language teachers.
My Lords, I am pleased, of course, that as one of the 47 members of the Council of Europe, the UK signed up to this recommendation and I am encouraged by the positive words from the Minister. But the Government also decided to withdraw the UK’s membership of the council’s European Centre for Modern Languages. This means that our teachers no longer have access to a wide range of valuable professional development opportunities, which, at a time of MFL teacher shortage and under-recruitment, seems perverse. Will the Minister agree to reconsider UK membership of the ECML as one of the specific measures we could take to back up our in-principle support for this recommendation?
My understanding is that the decision to withdraw from the council’s European Centre for Modern Languages was taken over a decade ago and we have no plans to rejoin at this time. We currently fund teacher continuing professional development via the National Centre for Excellence for Language Pedagogy. To encourage recruitment for the academic year 2023-24, we have increased the language bursary to £25,000 and we are also offering a prestigious scholarship worth £27,000 for French, German and Spanish trainees.
My Lords, I congratulate the Prime Minister on attending in person the first meeting of the European Political Community, in Prague, which discussed security and energy. Will the Minister join me in encouraging the Prime Minister—whoever he or she may be, and from whichever party— to attend the Council of Europe summit to be held in Reykjavik in May next year?
My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the BBC World Service is a major promoter of democratic culture and the English language worldwide? Does she think that, at a time when courageous protesters in Iran, especially women, are seeking reform and change in that country—over 1 million of whom listen to BBC radio on the World Service—this is a good time to be cutting and removing those services for people who are so desperate to see the promotion of democracy?
My Lords, a knowledge of foreign languages opens doors, particularly for business. What encouragement, in the form of in-service training or financial help, is given to the private sector to work with government in order to ensure that we encourage UK plc to open doors through the use of language?
Obviously, the Government support continuing professional development for people in work—this includes our commitment to a lifelong loan entitlement—so that we as an economy and as workers within that economy can stay agile to the requirements, whether languages or more broadly.
I do not have a formal assessment of the impact of the lack of reciprocity, but I am very pleased to share with the House that around 38,000 young people will be funded to take part in the Turing scheme this year, going to 150 locations, and that 52% of those young people come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The noble Earl understands better than I do that you cannot make a direct comparison with the Erasmus scheme, but I remind the House that in its last year 17,000 young people took part.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the study of a foreign language provides unique opportunities to young people and to our country, given the growing isolation that has followed Brexit? Is she concerned that the lowest take-up of languages is in the poorest communities? What action will the Government take to ensure that young people in these communities receive their proper entitlement to such important educational opportunities and are not disfranchised from the international identity by recent Brexit developments?
The Government are concerned about the level of uptake of modern foreign languages in schools generally, and specifically in the communities to which the noble Baroness refers. That is why we announced in our schools White Paper that we are setting up a network of language hubs, introducing new continual professional development courses for language teachers at both primary and secondary level, and have undertaken a review of the modern foreign languages GCSE curriculum and syllabus, which we think will improve uptake.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords of my entries in the register. The Minister mentioned some facts and figures to do with the Turing scheme. Can she assure us that all students who spend a year abroad as part of their studies at university do not have to pay any extra and that their universities do not have to subsidise them in any way as a result of the change from Erasmus to the Turing scheme?
My Lords, languages unlock so many opportunities for young people, and a weight of research suggests that they positively affect all other subjects a child is studying. In light of this, we on these Benches propose after-school clubs for every child, which schools can choose to use—and often do use—for fun, accessible language provision. Will the Government consider adopting a similar measure, especially given the raging cost of living crisis?
As I mentioned, the Government’s focus is really on trying to improve the uptake of languages, particularly at GCSE level. That is why we have piloted the new curriculum. We are optimistic that it will be much more engaging for young people. That is in no way to diminish the value of after-school clubs, but the Government’s focus is on the former.
My Lords, the United Kingdom continues to engage closely and regularly with our NATO allies as a key part of our response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. The Secretary of State for Defence met his NATO counterparts on 12 October, where allies reiterated unequivocal support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We will continue to act alongside our NATO allies to counter Russian aggression.
My Lords, Ministers repeatedly blame the war for the economic crisis, and I agree. Can we have an assurance that with rampant inflation here at home, volatility in the international money markets and millions worldwide, including in the United Kingdom, facing deprivation, there are no circumstances whatever in which the UK would dispatch in isolation, or with others in NATO, combat military forces of any nature to engage in military action in Ukraine? We need to protect the international economy and seek to restrain Russian’s infrastructural bombing campaign before it is too late.
As the noble Lord will be aware, since the illegal invasion of Ukraine occurred the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of assisting the country in defending itself. We have been working closely in conjunction with our NATO partners and with our other bilateral partners and friends within the EU. That concerted effort is the best way, I think, to seek to reject President Putin’s illegal incursion; certainly the resolve of all countries to support the rule of law and respect the right of sovereignty is determined and resolute.
My Lords, will the Minister give us an update on Russia’s use of drones yesterday, which caused such devastation among civilian populations? Is there any way we can give additional support to Ukraine to shoot these down? Is it not time that we urgently seek an international treaty on the use of drones, for everybody’s sake?
I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the consequences of the drone attack on Kyiv have been devastating. I think that everyone has watched with horror as again civilians are targeted, people are killed and others are seriously injured. The right reverend Prelate will be aware that part of the United Kingdom’s support to Ukraine has been air defence systems. NATO, plus other bilateral states, with Ukraine, have been doing their best to support Ukraine in what it needs. We are cognisant of the danger presented by this form of attack by Russia. We are also aware that the equipment supplied to date has been greatly assisting Ukraine in seeing off this kind of threat.
I think one way of discouraging the use of these murderous drone weapons supplied by Iran is to make it clear to Iran that this could have very serious and disastrous consequences for Iran itself. I want to ask my noble friend whether she would encourage at any such meeting that is going to take place a very careful examination of the changing position of China and foreign policy experts in Beijing. Has she heard reports that China is becoming increasingly worried that its control and influence over Mr Putin is diminishing, and that it is very fearful that he is going to use tactical nuclear weapons? Will she make sure that we make full use of any change of opinion in China? Without China’s support, there really is a good chance that Moscow might change direction.
My noble friend makes a very important point. I reassure him that the UK continues to engage with China at all levels in Beijing, London and the United Nations to make clear that the world is watching what China chooses to say and do and whether its actions contribute to peace and stability or it chooses to fuel aggression. We expect China to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to uphold its commitment to the United Nations charter. It has an important role to play and we want to be sure, as a sovereign state, that we keep open the lines of communication so that we can convey the very relevant points to which my noble friend refers.
My Lords, as a once young naval soldier in Germany and a former Defence Minister, I fully support western Governments in providing arms to Ukraine. Since membership of NATO involves mutual obligations well beyond this, will the Government publish a paper spelling out the pros and cons if NATO membership is granted to Ukraine?
As the noble and learned Lord is aware, the United Kingdom is sympathetic to Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. We are supportive of that aspiration, in line with the 2008 Bucharest summit declaration. However, at the end of the day, any decision on membership is for NATO allies and for aspirant countries to take.
The right reverend Prelate mentioned the drone attacks yesterday. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on Ukraine of the loss of power—about 30% of power has been lost—and is the West able to support Ukraine to keep the lights on?
As the noble Baroness will be aware, the best that we can do, along with our allies and partners, is to support Ukraine in the defence of its territory in trying to see off the barbaric and illegal attacks to which it has been subjected by Russia. The principal concern has probably been the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, for understandable reasons. We welcome the efforts of the IAEA and United Nations staff to be on site, and we hope that will enable a robust inspection to be concluded. We are cognisant of the risk, and we will do everything that we can to continue to help Ukraine to see off the threat.
My Lords, the interest of the House in the progress of the military situation in Ukraine is entirely understandable, but can the Minister reassure the House that the Government recognise the two very separate objectives of conflict termination and conflict resolution, and that it is not in policy formulation that we aspire to resolve the conflict through military means alone?
It has been clear from the outset that our desire—or mission, if you like—was to support Ukraine in its attempts to defend itself against this illegal aggression and invasion of its sovereign territory. That is our role, as it is the role of NATO and other partners. As to the future, and whether the conflict can ever be resolved and negotiations embarked on, that is absolutely for Ukraine to determine.
Was it not one of the beliefs of Putin, following his illegal invasion of Ukraine, that the members of NATO would split and start arguing among themselves? Is not one of the Government’s prime objectives, supported by all of us, that we maintain NATO’s unity in the face of that aggression? Can the Government reassure us that, at every opportunity, they will reiterate that to all our NATO allies?
The noble Lord’s point is well made. He will realise, from the evidence available to us, that in the actions of NATO members—not only in their regular engagements but at the summit in Madrid and the consequent developments from that, whether it was the comprehensive assistance plan or the development of DIANA, the accelerator for the north Atlantic—there is an absolutely united resolve to support countries that find themselves the victims of illegal activity, illegal aggression and illegal invasion. There is no question that the resolve of the member states of NATO is absolutely steady and stable. We are standing shoulder to shoulder to ward off evil—because that is what we are talking about.
My Lords, will the Minister accept that there have been very staunch attacks on civilians and a great number of attacks on hospitals, as well as attacks on schools and stations? When these are all put together, is it not very difficult to try to imagine that these are anything other than crimes against humanity?
I have no hesitation in agreeing with my noble friend. We have all been appalled by the barbarism of Russia’s attacks in Ukraine, not least in Kyiv. It is quite clear that deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are war crimes, and those responsible will be held to account. The ICC, with support from countries such as the UK, is doing a remarkable job in ensuring that crimes are investigated, evidence is gathered and the basis is laid for successful prosecutions.
As I have observed to the noble Lord before, we continually manage and analyse our stocks of weapons and munitions against commitments and threats. We also review industrial capacity and supply chains, both domestically and internationally. These considerations have informed the numbers of munitions granted in kind to the armed forces of Ukraine and their avenues of supply.
My Lords, the menopause is a priority area in the women’s health strategy. The NHS has a programme to improve clinical menopause care in England and reduce disparities in access to treatment. It is also developing an education and training package on menopause for healthcare professionals. We have appointed Professor Dame Lesley Regan as the women’s health ambassador for England. Her role includes raising awareness of women’s health issues, including menopause.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Today is World Menopause Day. My Question is broader than those which concern only the medical response, so I would regard the Minister’s response as inadequate. Given the doubling of menopause-related discrimination claims in a year, showing that we are losing working women from the economy who are otherwise at the peak of their skills and experience, should the Minister not counter employer mismanagement of a transition that all women go through by requiring the HSE and the EHRC to publish advice on this urgently, as neither of them do so?
I thank the noble Baroness. I agree that it is fitting that we should be having this debate today, World Menopause Day. I completely agree with the importance of this subject for employers, productivity and the economy as a whole, as well as for women’s health.
As I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, 10% of people end up leaving their job during menopause. That is a real loss to business and those individuals. That is why, through our strategy, we are appointing an employee champion in this area. Their job will be to reach out to employers and work with them to make sure that this subject is very high up on their agenda. As an employer myself, in my personal entrepreneurial life, I agree that it is an area of utmost importance.
My Lords, women with post-menopausal symptoms are disadvantaged by not getting the treatment they need due to restrictions put on the treatments by local formularies. Does the Minister agree that we need a national formulary where all hormone replacement therapy treatments are available to women who need them, and that that national formulary should be made mandatory? If he does not agree, why not?
I agree that we want to make sure that there is national access. I understand that, whereas we had 30% take-up as long ago as the 1990s, with the incorrect scare around some of the causes since then, that rate is only about 15% today. There is clearly a need to increase awareness and the ability for people to receive treatment.
I am aware of the issue around formularies; I have heard that they believe that it can be resolved. I will take it away and write to the noble Lord to make sure that it is properly dealt with.
My Lords, in the initial Answer that he gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, the Minister said that access to support during the menopause is vital. Does he therefore agree that, for health and economic reasons, the menopause should be added to the quality and outcomes framework to encourage doctors to investigate and treat patients who present with symptoms associated with the menopause?
Yes. The noble Baroness will be aware that only 55% of women showing symptoms felt able to talk to GPs about it and another 30% felt that there were delays in diagnosis. Clearly, more work needs to be done. I know that it is part of the core curriculum—that is not the proper phrasing; please excuse me. The whole point of appointing a women’s health ambassador is to make sure that every avenue and channel is used to maximise access, whether at the level of GPs or as part of the education or formularies.
My Lords, what consideration has been given to allow women who need treatment for the menopause to have free prescriptions, as they do in Wales, for example, where no one has to pay for any prescriptions, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Only in England are there prescription fees. Free prescriptions would be a great help to women and would remove a financial barrier to accessing treatment.
With constraints on the public purse, I like many others believe that targeted support is probably the best form of support, and 60% of women receive it free. At the same time, as I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, to prevent it being a barrier to the others, next year we are introducing a fixed cap so that the costs should be a maximum of only £19 per year, which I believe will not act as a disincentive to the 40% who can afford to pay.
My Lords, I draw attention to my registered interests. The menopause is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes as a result of falling oestrogen levels. Despite this, women are consistently less well represented in cardiovascular clinical research than men. Is the Minister content that the ongoing publicly funded research effort in cardiovascular disease will be able adequately to address the challenge of postmenopausal heart disease?
I will not pretend to be able to give a detailed answer at this point. I am aware that part of the funding through the health and wellbeing fund is to make sure that women’s reproductive health is included in some of those research programmes, but I will look specifically at the cardiovascular point and respond in writing.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the report from the Fawcett Society which estimated that 900,000 women have left the workforce and countless others are reducing their hours and avoiding promotion because of their menopause symptoms? The Minister partially addressed this in response to the noble Baroness earlier, but what plans do the Government have, if any, to stem the flow of those experienced women leaving the workforce, which has an ongoing impact on equalities and the ability of women to pursue their careers in the way that men do?
I again agree with the point. Helpfully, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed me towards the excellent Fawcett Society report this morning, for which I am grateful. It makes for a very interesting read. As I mentioned earlier, the statistic that 10% of women during the menopause end up leaving employment is a telling one. That is what the appointment of health ambassador for the employers is all about. I hope that noble Lords will see the seriousness with which I take this subject, because it is vital not only to women but to the economy and business as a whole. This time next year—if I am still here—I commit to doing a stocktake report on the progress that we have made on this over the year, because I think it is vital.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the very serious tone of his response to this Question. I declare an interest which is not in the register but is self-evident from my date of birth, which is public information. Will he readdress that part of my noble friend’s question that was about the EHRC and whether that public body has a role in setting out guidance for employers? Will he, in the light of his commitment on this subject, suggest that the Equality Act needs to be at the very least enforced and possibly beefed up in this regard?
I apologise if I have not answered the point on the EHRC satisfactorily and it is best that I follow it up in writing to make sure that I do so.
On the Equality Act, as I am sure everyone is aware, menopause should be covered as a protected characteristic within the terms of discrimination, be it on grounds of sex or age, and I believe there are cases where it has been shown to be used correctly in that regard, so the capability is there. However, if there is not adequate reason for redress under the Equality Act, that would obviously need to be looked at in the future.
Energy Prices Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Arrangement of Business
It may be for the convenience of your Lordships if I say that the House will have an opportunity to debate the Energy Prices Bill at Second Reading tomorrow. The Committee and Report stages will take place on 24 October, with Third Reading on Tuesday 25 October. If noble Lords wish to table amendments to the Bill, they may do so from this afternoon, once the Bill is printed, until 4 pm on Thursday 20 October. As noble Lords will know, amendments are tabled with the Public Bill Office in the usual way, and a message will appear on the annunciator when tabling opens today.
Looking ahead, the deadline for amendments at Report stage will be 30 minutes after the conclusion of Committee on Monday 24 October. Third Reading amendments should be tabled on Monday evening for Third Reading the following day. As usual, the Government Whips’ Office and the Public Bill Office are available to assist noble Lords with any detailed questions.
Replacement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 17 October.
“The Prime Minister has taken the decision to appoint my right honourable friend the Member for South West Surrey, Jeremy Hunt, one of the longest-serving and most experienced parliamentarians, as her Chancellor. Their overriding priority is to restore financial stability in the face of volatile global conditions. We will take whatever tough decisions are necessary, and have made changes to the growth plan, which the Chancellor is waiting to update the House on as soon as this Urgent Question finishes.”
My Lords, I think this was originally a Question asked of the Prime Minister. There has not been a Prime Minister in your Lordships’ House since 1963. I am not travelling in hope.
I will venture to make a comment on the matter. It is a central responsibility for any Government to do what is necessary for economic stability and the Prime Minister took the decision to appoint my right honourable friend Mr Jeremy Hunt, who is one of the longest-serving and most experienced parliamentarians and, I think, widely respected on all sides of your Lordships’ House, as her Chancellor. His overriding priority is to restore financial stability in the face of volatile global conditions.
My Lords, the Minister gave a much shorter answer than the one given in the House of Commons. I entirely agree with the first paragraph of his full Answer, which may surprise noble Lords. He said that,
“it is a central responsibility of any Government to do what is necessary for economic stability”.
Yet in the last few weeks this Government announced the biggest tax cuts since 1972 and then, within a matter of weeks, the biggest tax increases since 1993—hardly stability. The answer to this fiasco is apparently to have the fourth Chancellor of the Exchequer in under a year, with a threat of—and I quote the Chancellor—“eye-watering” further tax rises and public service cuts. Given that mortgage rates are higher today than they were yesterday, what does the noble Lord say to those who, because of the instability largely created by the Government, now face monthly mortgage increases of hundreds of pounds?
My Lords, on the question of mortgages, everyone will be sensible to the position of those seeking to buy—I have a son seeking a mortgage at the moment—in conditions where interest rates are rising, which they are internationally. On the more general question, the Chancellor is clear that the Government will need to take some very difficult decisions on spending and tax to place the public finances on a sustainable footing. Sound public finances are the bedrock on which future economic growth will be built. There is no trade-off here; the mini-Budget moved further and faster than the market expected, but this Government remain committed to growth and supporting families and the most vulnerable in society. We will continue to seek to perform that duty.
My Lords, the change of Chancellor may have mollified the financial markets slightly and temporarily but ordinary people, frankly, are on the verge of being utterly distraught. In addition to soaring food prices, mortgages and rents, they have no idea at all what their energy costs will be after April next year. When will people know what the cost of energy will be after next spring, because they have to plan and think it through? It is also crucial for businesses to know as they sign contracts. Also, how much will the typical individual be paying in bills and additional public service cuts to cover the costs of the permanent scarring and damage that the Government’s appalling handling of the last few weeks has caused to the UK economy?
My Lords, apart from the rhetoric, the main part of the noble Baroness’s question was on energy prices. I hope that your Lordships have heard with delight that a Bill, for which I expect the support of both parties opposite, has been presented to the House on which we will debate these matters in some detail.
On the specifics, I say that continuing with the planned level of support between now and 2023 will remain a landmark policy. It will support millions of people through a difficult winter and means that they will not have to face bills as high as they would have been. A Treasury-led review has been announced into how we support energy bills beyond April next year; its objective is to design a new approach that will cost the taxpayer significantly less than planned while ensuring enough support for those in need, which I think all noble Lords would like to see. Equally, any support for businesses will be targeted to those most affected. This new approach will better incentivise energy efficiency. However, it is important to underline that the support with energy bills that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister so swiftly announced is going ahead, and what is being provided between now and next April will not change.
My Lords, does my noble friend not think that this is a moment for Members of Parliament to pull together? We are facing a global crisis caused by living on printed money on an immense scale—£450 billion—to deal with Covid. Frankly, it does not matter which Benches are in power; interest rates will go up very considerably as a result. Therefore, it is necessary for us to focus on the policy changes needed to protect those who will be unable to pay their bills. Playing politics with this does no credit to Parliament and nothing to help those who will be affected.
My Lords, my noble friend, with his enormous and widely respected knowledge as a former chairman of your Lordships’ Economic Affairs Committee, makes a very strong point about the international situation. However, His Majesty’s Government must deal with what they can do here at home. In offering protection, as we have discussed, we will also continue to seek to promote growth. We will launch investment zones—I hope that they will be widely supported by your Lordships—and shortly introduce minimum service levels for transport services in Great Britain, ensuring that militant strike action cannot derail economic growth and union bosses cannot hold working people to ransom.
My Lords, I welcome the new Chancellor, many of the measures announced yesterday, and the increased prospect of greater stability. I noticed that in his Statement yesterday he used the phrase “compassionate conservatism” several times. I wonder if the Minister would unpack that phrase a little, particularly on how the Chancellor will navigate to privilege the needs of the very poorest in society, perhaps especially in the outworking of the increase in benefits in line with price inflation, and in looking to see a decrease in the use of foodbanks in the coming years, which has escalated in major ways in the last decade.
I welcome the opportunity to follow the right reverend Prelate on that point. As I tried to say in my earlier answers, the position of those in need will be at the forefront of the Government’s consideration. We know that people across the United Kingdom are worried about the cost of living; that is why the Government have announced £37 billion of support for the cost of living this financial year. In addition, the energy price guarantee and energy bill relief scheme are supporting households and businesses. We are also supporting millions of the most vulnerable households with £1,200 of on-off support. So far as specific decisions on benefits are concerned, they will have to wait for my right honourable friend’s Statement.
No. A number of very important steps have been taken by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to which your Lordships are invited to assent. Yesterday, for example, I was very grateful for your Lordships’ support for the Bill that was passed that concerned reversing the national insurance levy, and I am hoping for equal support for my right honourable friend’s initiative in relation to the Energy Prices Bill.
My Lords, I realise the economic stable from which the noble Lord came, but the central responsibility for any Government is to do what is necessary for economic stability, and that means that there will need to be reflection on levels of both spending and taxation. As my right honourable friend has made clear, there will be difficult decisions, there will need to be spending restraint, and departments will need to find further efficiencies, but more details will be set out in the medium-term fiscal plan, as I said earlier.
Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [HL]
Clause 1: Fundamental objectives
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, after “safe” insert “, energy efficient”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment would require the fundamental objectives to include reference to energy efficiency.
I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a local councillor. I start by reaffirming what I have said throughout our deliberations on the Bill: the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome and support the Bill’s purpose. However, there is always room for improvement, as the tabling of 31 government amendments clearly illustrates.
The purpose of Amendment 1 in my name is to ensure that the principle—and thus importance—of energy efficiency is one of the stated priorities and objectives of the regulator. In Committee, the Minister was not convinced by my argument, saying that energy efficiency is being addressed as part of a separate refurbishment programme. I am pleased to see a positive change of heart and a willingness to accept the argument, as demonstrated by the fact that the Minister has added her name to my amendment.
Adding energy efficiency as a key objective enables the regulator to influence those providers who have so far failed to bring their properties up to a C rating. One-third of social houses are in this bracket, and homes in the UK are among the worst insulated in the whole of Europe. Soaring energy prices mean that, even with the Government’s support until next April, homes will have energy bills that are on average two times higher than last winter’s. That will put a huge strain on household finances.
Now that the Government have pulled the universal support for bills after April and support will be more focused, apparently, average bills will be around £4,000 and completely unaffordable for those on lower incomes. An urgent programme to improve energy efficiency in all homes is urgently needed, but more so in homes in the social housing sector. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has a detailed amendment to this effect, Amendment 14, which has been co-signed by my noble friend Lord Foster of Bath. We wholeheartedly agree with it. Will the Minister commit to an urgent programme of improving the energy efficiency of homes in the social housing sector? After all, this will contribute to the Government’s growth agenda in a positive way, and it could save each household around £800 a year.
Amendment 2 in my name relates to the ongoing scandal of fire and building safety remediation. This amendment proposes that the remediation programme in the sector should be monitored by the regulator. In her reply to the same amendment in Committee, the Minister said:
“The department is currently examining options for monitoring and reporting remediation progress in future, including cladding remediation. We strongly believe that decisions in this area should be based on thorough analysis of available options; this will ensure that the function is undertaken by those with the correct skills, expertise and capacity.”—[Official Report, 6/9/22; col. 114.]
Right. Can the Minister provide information on the progress of this proposed monitoring? What reassurance can she provide to those in shared equity arrangements, some of whom are contacting me with grave concerns that they will have a significant liability as a consequence of the arrangements that have been made?
This group includes Amendment 31 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, which seeks to put more accountability into the hands of tenants. Obviously, these Benches completely support that amendment.
Finally, I return to the important need for substantial energy-efficiency improvements in the homes of those least able to meet the enormous hike in energy prices. Both the amendment in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, propose practical solutions. I look forward to the debate on this group and the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register and also note that a member of my family has recently undertaken some work in this field. I thank the Minister; she has been very approachable between Committee and Report and has given a lot of time to this. I am grateful for her attempts to come to some sort of positive conclusion on this.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, with this group of amendments, we return to the need, which was supported around the House at all earlier stages of the Bill, for a concerted effort to improve energy efficiency in social housing and bring social housing tenants the benefits achieved in terms of warmer, safer, better-insulated and healthier homes and, of course, reduced cost. That cost reduction extends to the Government and taxpayers, who are currently spending eye-watering amounts of money to reduce bills this year, with no benefit for years to come.
I have Amendment 14 in this group, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Bourne, Lord Foster and Lord Whitty, who added their names to this amendment, demonstrating that cross-party support. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is still unwell and is unable to be with us.
Before focusing on my own amendment, I will say a few words about Amendment 1. I am delighted that the Minister is supporting the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. It is always helpful to have the importance of energy efficiency made explicit in statute and I welcome that. But I have to say that even if such an addition to the duties of the regulator is technically necessary—and, of course, the Minister argued in Committee that it was not and would be only “symbolic”—it is certainly not sufficient to ensure that we make progress. I am afraid that the history of the last five years suggests that without a firm and specific legislative mandate, we will not make the step change that is necessary.
The Government first promised a consultation on improving energy-efficiency standards for social housing as part of the clean growth strategy in 2017. No such consultation emerged in the following four years, then in last year’s heat and buildings strategy, the Government diluted their commitment to one of “considering” setting a long-term regulatory standard and consulting before bringing any such standard forward. Nothing more has happened, so we are back to where we were in 2017, and social housing tenants and the taxpayer have become increasingly exposed to the costs of much higher energy bills, some of which are not down to global factors but to domestic inaction on energy efficiency.
When the Government have taken action and instituted programmes, it has been done in a piecemeal way that requires landlords repeatedly to bid for successive pots of match funding. Even if the latest wave of funding committed from the social housing decarbonisation fund achieved improvements to 100,000 homes, it would address less than 10% of the 1.4 million social homes that are rated below EPC band C. At that rate, we would not complete the job until 2075.
My amendment seeks to address the problem that, to date, there have been too many generalisations and not enough specifics; there have been too many disparate, short-term schemes and no long-term consistent strategy. We now need to move on from the Government’s restated ambition that homes reach the standard of EPC band C and towards a detailed plan to achieve this. I accept the Minister’s point, which she made in Committee, about the importance of consultation and of having an impact assessment, and I have now included both of those in the amendment before us today. But that consultation needs predominantly to consider how to address the specific challenges of meeting the ambitions which the Government have embraced.
My amendment includes suggested timetables for achieving low-carbon heat in social housing by 2035 and an energy efficiency target of EPC band C by 2030, and those are dates that the Government have proposed in their own strategies. It is, of course, up to the Government to set out a current strategy with all the targets and dates and a costed plan of how to get there, but my amendment aims to address the need for consistent leadership from government and for clarity of direction. This is absolutely essential to give confidence in the way ahead, both for social housing providers and for the private sector so that we can build reliable supply chains, the absence of which has been so damaging to past initiatives and continues to be a problem today.
Social housing is not, I recognise, the sector with the absolute worst energy efficiency, but it still has 1.4 million properties that fall below EPC band C and it has the highest proportion of tenants living in fuel poverty. Taking action in this sector will not only help those tenants but also help to scale up the market for a wider role for energy efficiency improvement and low-carbon heating; it will build up the skills base and provide employment and make a significant dent in the liability created by the energy price guarantee that we will be debating tomorrow. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, referred to the need for a holistic approach to energy efficiency; this amendment is our attempt to bring that holistic strategic approach in the context of social housing, and I hope that the Minister, even at this late stage, may feel able to accept it.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and in doing so declare my interest as on the register and that I am a member of Peers for the Planet. As the noble Baroness said, the amendment has also been signed by the noble Lords, Lord Foster of Bath and Lord Whitty, and I am sure that I send the best wishes of the whole House to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for a speedy recovery.
Let me say something first about energy efficiency before moving specifically to the amendment. In the area of energy efficiency, we are presented with a sweet spot where we can do a considerable amount for so many different areas of activity. First, on energy security, which is clearly a problem for many countries, including our own, we can ensure that we garner and use our supplies sensibly. Therefore, ensuring that energy is sensibly used seems to me to be of paramount importance.
In addition, particularly in this area of activity, by ensuring that energy is conserved we are helping those who are least able to pay for it. That has become more important since the action of the new Chancellor. I applaud the action he has taken in general, but of course it will present a potential headache in six months’ time for people who are unable to pay their energy bills. This is a way of helping in that regard.
In addition, by promoting energy efficiency we are providing jobs for people, which seems a sensible thing to do. Therefore I am unable to understand why the Government do not move to do something constructive in this area. It could be done with very little cost and would show a commitment to tackling climate change, which of course is the most important global area we are looking at.
The Government profess that they are supportive of action to combat climate change. Indeed, they are supportive of the Climate Change Committee and so on. But words are cheap. When it comes to action, we very often find the Government wanting and not providing leadership. I have the utmost respect for my noble friend the Minister. I know her well. I like her. I think she is a good Minister. But the Government are dragging their feet in this area and the lack of strategy is worrying. We have seen where a lack of strategy has led on the economy, and the same will happen in this area if we are not careful. Leadership has been left to Back-Benchers. There has been no leadership from the Government. They have not come up with their own proposals in relation to the amendment we are putting forward for a strategy. Have the Government proposed their own strategy? No. Are they against having a strategy in this area? It would seem so. I will happily give way to the Minister if she is able, at this stage, to say that she will bring forward a strategy at Third Reading —or later today, perhaps. But there is no strategy from the Government. There is a void here and that really is appalling.
We heard the Government say previously that there needed to be consultation, and this is one reason why noble Lords are being invited to vote against the amendment. The amendment provides for consultation. If the Government think it insufficient, let them say that the consultation should be carried out in a different way. But there is a practical, sensible provision for consultation here that I think has the support of the House. If it were not a whipped vote, it would probably go through nem con. I cannot understand why the Government are opposing this. It makes total sense. It is practical, pragmatic and sensible. If the Government do not like parts of the amendment, they should say what they are. As the noble Baroness said, this consultation has been on the stocks for five years. That is an awfully long time in terms of climate change. In another five years, we shall have lost Tuvalu to the world. If we sit back and do nothing, we are signing up to that.
So it is for the Government now to come forward with some leadership in this area. So far, there has been a void and it looks like that will continue. I strongly support this amendment. I invite the Government, even at this 11th hour, to say that they will support it, or come forward with an amendment of their own to ensure that we are able to do something constructive in this area. It is easy to say that you are signed up against climate change, but it is action that is needed, not just warm words.
My Lords, it is good to see this important Bill continuing its progression through this House. I begin by declaring my specific interests as the Church of England’s lead bishop for housing and as a beneficiary of the Church Commissioners.
I add my support to Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. As the energy crisis unfolds, it is surely wise to address the issue of energy efficiency in the social housing sector in a systematic way, by including it as a fundamental objective. Many who live in social homes are among those with the lowest incomes, so they are already struggling to meet their energy bills right now. In addition to immediate relief and support, we also need to address energy efficiency to ensure true affordability in the long term.
Amendment 2, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, would secure continued accountability on progress to remove dangerous cladding and the remediation of fire safety work—an important part of ensuring that a tragedy such as the Grenfell tower fire cannot happen again. As the Archbishops’ commission on housing, church and community rights states in its Coming Home report:
“The Grenfell victims and bereaved families deserve a profound change of culture in the housing sector to make the safety of residential housing stock an absolute priority.”
I also support Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. A government strategy setting out a plan of energy demand reduction for social housing will be a significant step towards reducing energy bill costs and meeting our net-zero targets. Our national commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will be achieved only if we are intentional about building to high thermal efficiency standards.
I very much look forward to the Government’s response on these important amendments, and to working with noble Lords across all Benches to address this nation’s housing crisis. Clearly, there is consensus across the House on the importance of addressing the major problems we now face in our social housing sector.
My Lords, I too am delighted to support Amendments 1 and 14, and the others in this group.
As we have heard from other speakers, we are in an energy crisis. Despite the welcome government support —we will be debating that in more detail tomorrow—it is the least well-off who will be hit hardest, many of whom live in social housing. As the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, has pointed out, one of the best ways of helping such people is by reducing their demand for energy in the first place, not least by improving the energy efficiency of their homes, reducing bills, reducing excess winter deaths, improving the quality of life and, as the noble Lord pointed out, increasing the number of jobs.
The Building Back Britain Commission argues that energy bills can be reduced by at least £200 every year by improving a home’s energy performance from level D to C. Many homes start at an even lower level, so the savings would be even greater. Improving the energy efficiency of social housing makes sense, so I am delighted that the Minister has agreed to support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Pinnock, which makes it a fundamental objective of the regulator to include reference to energy efficiency.
However, by itself, that does not go far enough. Amendment 14 fills the gaps, not least by requiring the Government to publish a strategy on reducing energy demand for social housing properties within 12 months of the Bill being passed, with appropriate consultation; requiring a programme to support social housing providers to encourage energy demand reduction; and, crucially, establishing in law a target which ensures that all social housing properties achieve EPC level C by 2030.
I have spoken many times in your Lordships’ House about the need to establish the Government’s own energy efficiency targets in law. I have argued that the retrofit industry that will deliver the Government’s energy efficiency targets, but which has been let down by numerous failed schemes, has lost confidence. The industry has shrunk and energy efficiency work has fallen dramatically. It is the industry itself that argues that to be persuaded to invest in research, training and equipment, it needs the confidence that putting targets into legislation would give.
Mr Andrew Warren, the chair of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, the body set up by the Government to keep them informed of the industry’s views, said:
“On far too many occasions the energy efficiency industry has been made promises by Governments, only to see them withdrawn.”
This has continued, despite commitments by the Government. It has resulted not just in continued uncertainty but
“the laying off of staff, the loss of investment and the closure of factories”.
Legally binding targets are absolutely vital to enable this industry to feel confident enough to invest.
Surprisingly, having legally binding targets to drive forward action and make it more likely that future Governments will keep the action going has in fact been advocated by numerous Conservative Ministers, past and present. I have a list of over 60 such statements by the Government as to the value of legally binding targets. I refer to just one, from Mr Kwasi Kwarteng MP, when he was the Business Secretary, two posts ago. He said two years ago:
“Legislation has really shaped everyone’s approach to decarbonisation given that without that legislative structure it will be very difficult to have any forward investment. I think that targets and legislation are really important in driving policy and actions.”
This was backed up by a recent Defra document, which states:
“A legally binding long-term target gives a clear signal to industry of the direction of future government policy. This will increase investor confidence and encourage industry to invest in infrastructure and research that will”
drive innovation and
“improve the circularity of the economy.”
Amendment 14, with its legally binding target of ensuring that all social housing properties achieve EPC C by 2030, would achieve what appears to be the view of Conservative Ministers as to what is needed. Yet, to date, all efforts to enshrine the Government’s own energy performance targets in law have been rejected without any clear reason being given. Indeed, during an Oral Question on 9 June this year, I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, why the Government rejected my proposals, and she replied:
“I cannot answer that specific point”.—[Official Report, 9/6/22; col. 1243.]
I hope that the Minister will explain today why the Government reject this approach or, better still, support Amendment 14.
My Lords, we believe that this is a very important Bill and broadly, it has our support. Today, we are discussing areas where we think it could be improved. I thank the Minister and her officials for the attention they have provided to our amendments and for the discussions we have had; they have been extremely helpful and we very much appreciate that.
My Amendment 3 would ensure that the panel is chaired by a tenant, and my Amendment 31 would ensure that the Secretary of State introduces “tenant satisfaction measures”. I have tabled these amendments because we believe it is vital that tenants are at the centre of any changes being brought forward through this Bill, that they are consistently listened to and that their concerns taken seriously and acted upon when that needs to happen.
The Government have already committed to introducing a set of tenant satisfaction measures. We know that all stock-holding local authorities will need to be adequately funded by the Government to deliver this new statutory requirement to collect housing-related data, in line with the new burdens doctrine. I thank the Local Government Association for its support for my Amendment 31, on tenant satisfaction. Can the Minister and the Government look at these areas again as we move through the Bill?
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, opened our debate, and we support her Amendment 2. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said, talking about the continued importance of the removal of cladding and remediation around fire safety continues to keep that accountability on the face of everything that we are doing. We must not forget why we are here with the Bill in the first place.
I am pleased that the Government support Amendment 1 from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, but, as other noble Lords have said, the energy demand and efficiency matters raised by various amendments in Committee and on Report are critical, and we believe that the Government need to give further consideration to them. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, I do not really understand the Government’s reluctance to act on this issue. We know that it can make a real difference not just to climate change and reducing energy use but to the cost of living crisis that we are facing. Given the recent warnings from the national grid about the prospect of power cuts this winter, the Government need to take this more seriously than they have.
I draw particular attention to Amendment 14, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. As we have heard, it requires the Secretary of State to publish the social housing energy demand strategy, which she introduced extremely thoroughly. She went into some detail about how this can be achieved, why we need it and the importance of this amendment, and other noble Lords have stressed that they strongly agree with the noble Baroness. So again I urge the Minister to take this away and think about whether it is something the Government could do more on.
Like other noble Lords, we are pleased that the Minister has been able to accept Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, but it simply is not sufficient. I completely agreed with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, when she said that we need a long-term strategy, a detailed plan and—as the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, also said—leadership. That is what we need to drive this forward.
I will not go into any more detail—we discussed this a lot in Committee and we have heard from noble Lords today—but, if the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, wishes to test the opinion of the House on this matter, she will have our full support.
My Lords, I apologise for missing my cue and interrupting the wind-ups. I will speak briefly to Amendments 2 and 14. On Amendment 2, veterans from the Building Safety Bill will recall that much of the debate focused on the impact on social housing of the costs of remediating the defects. This amendment would give the regulator a role in ensuring that this remediation was concluded satisfactorily.
Some of the information asked for in the noble Baroness’s amendment is already available. Figures from the building safety programme published last week showed that all 180 high-rise social housing buildings, bar one, have had the dangerous materials removed. Remediation has started on the final building, but the cladding has yet to be removed. The Government initially expected remediation to be completed by June 2020, so, after a slow start, it seems that real progress has been made, which is welcome. But 37 privately owned blocks still have Grenfell-style cladding five years after the fire.
Turning to funding, can my noble friend confirm that the social sector ACM cladding remediation fund has enough resources to compensate the social housing sector for the costs incurred and that there will be no impact on its development programme or rents as a result of the remediation? It appears that 17 of its buildings will not receive any money from the fund; is there a reason for this? Is it because the remediation was funded by the developers? Are the Government planning to recoup any of the costs to the fund from those responsible? In that context, can my noble friend update the House on the ongoing discussions with the private sector to get it to accept its responsibility for this debacle, with its tragic consequences?
The noble Baroness’s amendment, however, goes further than the removal of unsafe cladding and refers to
“the remediation of other fire safety defects in social housing.”
Will my noble friend say what progress has been made on that front, and in particular how much that will cost and how it will be funded without impacting on rents or development? Presumably the work was undertaken at the same time as the cladding removal, so this information is available.
While the amendment has provided a useful peg for a debate, I am not sure we need it in the Bill. The removal of cladding and fire safety defects are clearly needed to make a building safe—covered in Clause 1 —and the regulator already produces an annual report and accounts, which could include the information in the amendment, but it would be helpful to have some information about funding and the impact on the social housing sector.
Finally, turning to Amendment 14, I, along with others, am a planetary Peer—although flying at a much lower orbit than that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. As the noble Lord, Lord Foster, said, the amendment requires targets and the targets are important, but they require funding. Ideally, the funding to pay for these energy conservation measures should not be at the cost to the new build programme—which brings me to the social housing decarbonisation fund, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, which was set up to improve the energy performance of social homes in England, including local authority stock.
I know that that fund is the responsibility of BEIS and not of my noble friend’s department, but it is directly relevant to the debate on energy efficiency in social housing. There was a manifesto commitment in 2019 of £3.8 billion to this fund over a 10-year period. Will my noble friend confirm that that is still the case and that the sum has not been eroded in the meantime? What has been the take-up and evaluation of that programme and what assessment has been made of the number of homes that the sum could improve the energy conservation of? If my noble friend cannot answer now, perhaps she will reply in writing.
Finally, I understand that the amendment may be unacceptable to my noble friend, but I wonder whether she can show a little bit of ankle in her reply and indicate that this is not the Government’s final word on this and that as the Bill proceeds downstream in another place there might be the opportunity for further discussion and improvement.
My Lords, before I turn to the amendments, I will say a few words about the Bill more generally to frame the debate for the rest of today. It is now over five years since 72 people tragically lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. The situation in which the residents of Grenfell Tower were placed was unforgivable. The Bill we are debating is a key step in the department’s response to this tragedy, ensuring that social housing tenants are safe, have decent homes and receive a good service from their landlord.
I must also pay tribute to the work of Grenfell United, which has championed the Bill from the very beginning. The Bill appears before noble Lords today because of the commitment of Grenfell United to these critical issues, which affect millions of tenants up and down the country. It is right that we recognise specifically the leading role that Grenfell United has played.
I will begin with Amendments 1 and 14, and Amendments 33 and 36 in my name, which all relate to energy efficiency. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have heard from many noble Lords about the importance of energy efficiency in social housing, and I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Hayman, for their amendments. I turn first to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, which advocates including energy efficiency in the Regulator of Social Housing’s fundamental objectives. Having listened to the powerful speeches made in Committee, I have added my name to her amendment and offer two further amendments—Amendments 33 and 36—which we think are necessary as consequential amendments to this.
As an aspect of housing quality, energy efficiency is already implicitly covered by the regulator’s fundamental objectives. The regulator’s home standard requires registered providers to comply with the Government’s decent home standards, which include requirements on energy efficiency. However, having considered further, we believe that these amendments would send a very strong signal to social housing providers and reinforce the broader importance of improving the energy efficiency of homes, to the benefit of communities, this country and the planet.
With the regulator having a specific objective to ensure that social housing maintains an appropriate level of energy efficiency, it will be important that government provides clarity on what standards of energy efficiency are expected of registered providers. That is why I am pleased to announce today that, following on from our 2021 Heat and Buildings Strategy—I say to my noble friend Lord Bourne that we do have a strategy—the Government will consult on energy efficiency in social housing within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. I hope that answers a couple of questions from my noble friend Lord Bourne and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that as long as I am a Minister in the department, I will make sure that this time we deliver within the timescale we set out today—because my name is on this.
This will allow us to put forward proposals and enable social housing providers to give their views before the content of new standards is decided. It is important that we listen before we act. I believe that this consultation is in the same spirit as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, proposes in Amendment 14. However, her amendment also sets out a number of specific targets that the strategy would need to deliver. I am afraid that these mean I cannot accept her amendment.
Social landlords must balance many competing pressures to ensure that tenants live in safe, decent and well-maintained homes. It is of the utmost importance that the standards we set are agreed through consultation with that sector. Although the noble Baroness’s amendment contains a requirement to consult, this is not on the standards themselves. Imposing overly burdensome standards may risk resources being diverted from other areas, such as cladding remediation or even, as my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham said, the supply of new housing stock.
I am not aware that there is a target. I will look to see whether there is one and come back to the noble Lord. As we have heard in this debate, the social housing sector is in fact better than any other sector at getting to EPC level C.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and my noble friend Lord Young asked whether we have an energy-efficiency programme and what we are doing about it. We do have an energy-efficiency programme—my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham mentioned it: the social housing decarbonisation fund. In the 2019 manifesto the Government committed £3.8 billion to this over a 10-year period. This will upgrade a significant proportion of the stock that at the moment is below EPC level C up to that standard. The latest funding round was launched in September this year, so it is continuing and ongoing. There is £3.8 billion to do just that.
I now turn to Amendment 2, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, regarding cladding remediation. Nothing is more important than keeping people safe in their homes. The department continues to work closely with registered providers to facilitate the remediation of unsafe cladding and other fire safety defects. However, we are not persuaded that the type of monitoring suggested by the noble Baroness’s amendment is necessarily appropriate for the Regulator of Social Housing. The regulator is not a specialist building safety body, nor does it collect data on hazards, safety breaches or associated remedial works. As I believe I said in Committee, the department is examining options relating to the monitoring of fire defects, including unsafe cladding. I know we are always saying this, but we will set out our plans in due course and I will keep the noble Baroness updated on those plans. As I said, I will personally keep an eye on them now that I am in the department.
The noble Baroness also asked what progress had been made on the monitoring of cladding for social homes and about shared equity. The Secretary of State made it clear that no leaseholder living in a building of above 11 metres will ever face any costs for fixing dangerous cladding, and that applies to shared ownership too. The Government will provide grant funding for the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding in buildings that are over 11 metres. We have also introduced a new model for shared ownership which will include a period during which the landlord will provide support for the cost of repairs in new-build homes as well. I hope that answers the noble Baroness’s question—I know that I am also answering a further question that she asked earlier in the week on a similar issue.
My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham asked for some details. I think I will need to write to him because he wanted quite a lot of detail. We recognise that some social landlords face significant building safety costs and that they are having to balance their existing budgets to support this. The Government committed over £400 million to fully fund the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM cladding systems on buildings over 18 metres that are owned by registered providers of social housing. The Government have also committed to meeting the costs of removing other types of unsafe cladding on social sector buildings over 18 metres where the financial viability of a registered provider would otherwise be threatened. We are working on it. My noble friend asked me a lot of other questions and I will make sure that we answer those in writing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, has tabled two amendments relating to tenant engagement. I thank her for these because that is what the Bill is all about—tenants. I begin with Amendment 3, which seeks to require a social housing tenant to chair and set the agenda for the advisory panel. As I said in Committee, tenants are at the heart of the Bill. It is vital that we empower tenants and ensure that their voices are heard. I reiterate that the advisory panel is intended to allow a diverse range of individuals to share their knowledge and opinions with the regulator. The views of tenants are absolutely central to this objective.
However, I do not believe that requiring a social housing tenant to chair the advisory panel and set the agenda is necessary to ensure the views of tenants are heard. In line with the White Paper commitments, the panel will listen to, and balance the interests of, the full range of stakeholders, including tenants. We want all members of the advisory panel, along with the regulator, to shape its agenda and how it operates, and decide who is the best person to chair it at any one time; that might mean different chairs for different debates. The panel will provide an essential platform to give tenants a voice, which will be listened to and considered, alongside the opinions of other stakeholders. Tenants will continue to be central to the regulator’s work; it is already enabling tenants to influence the design and implementation of the new regulatory regime through a number of tenant engagement events.
I now move to Amendment 31 from the noble Baroness, which proposes that the Secretary of State introduces tenant satisfaction measures—TSMs—within 30 days of the Bill passing. The regulator has already consulted on and issued a standard for TSMs, which comes into force on 1 April 2023, alongside technical guidance to promote compliance. Tenants will be able to scrutinise the first full set of survey results in 2024 to evaluate the performance of their landlord.
The regulator developed the TSMs regime through a detailed consultation process, gathering over 1,000 responses from stakeholders, including tenants, landlords and trade bodies. Given this detailed process, and the progress that the regulator has already made in implementing TSMs, there is no need for an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to introduce them. In the light of the commitments and points I have made, I hope that noble Lords are reassured and will not press their amendments.
My Lords, I thank everyone around the House for a good debate on the issues, particularly those of energy efficiency and the affordability of energy for heating homes. I add my thanks to the Minister for being so open about having a discussion and trying to resolve some of the issues that we have raised. She has been very generous with her time, especially when she has had this Bill put in her lap at the last minute, so to speak. I thank her for the support for Amendment 1 in my name.
On Amendment 2, it is still unclear to me why, if one of the fundamental objectives of the regulator is safety, monitoring the remediation of cladding cannot be included—but there we are. I am pursuing this issue elsewhere, as the Minister well knows, and I shall do so.
The key issue is how very disappointing it is that the Government are apparently unable to support Amendment 14 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. We need a strategy that will work, and clearly we do not have one, otherwise one-third of houses in the social housing sector would not still be well below the EPC level C rating. I am fed up with all this bidding for money at the centre; it is very ineffective. We need a proper strategy to get this done, as Kirklees Council did when I was leader, with the Kirklees warm homes scheme.
With those final comments, I beg to move the amendment.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendment 2 not moved.
Clause 2: Advisory panel
Amendment 3 not moved.
Clause 7: Registration criteria
4: Clause 7, page 5, line 36, after “194” insert “, 194ZA”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister’s name to insert a new clause before clause 19 inserting a new section 194ZA into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.
My Lords, there was an extremely important debate in Committee on the professionalisation of the social housing sector. As a Government Whip at that stage, I committed to speak to the new Minister once in post to let them know the strong views of the House on this issue. The noble Baroness will be reassured to hear that the conversation went well, even if it was a little one-sided.
Let me be clear: the Government support the professionalisation of the sector. We strongly agree that there is a need to improve the behaviours, skills and capabilities of staff in the sector. The Grenfell tragedy and our subsequent social housing Green Paper consultation highlighted that many staff did not listen to or treat residents with respect, provide a high-quality service, or deal appropriately with complaints. That is why we have brought forward Amendments 18 to 39, which address these issues. The amendments give the Secretary of State a power to direct the regulator to set regulatory standards on the competence and conduct of all staff delivering services in connection with the management of social housing. A competence and conduct standard will require landlords to ensure that their staff have the skills, knowledge, experience and behaviours they need to deliver professional services. Qualifications such as those offered by the Chartered Institute of Housing will be one part of how landlords could achieve this, as part of a holistic approach to staff training and development.
As noble Lords will be aware, we committed in the social housing White Paper to review arrangements relating to the training and development of the sector’s workforce. The review has involved engagement and consultation with tenant groups, including Grenfell United and Shelter, as well as landlords, trade and professional bodies, and academic experts. The review’s findings will be published shortly.
Our review has led us to conclude that directing the Regulator of Social Housing to set regulatory standards on staff competence and conduct is the best way to professionalise the sector. Our amendments offer a way forward which will drive up professional standards while maintaining landlords’ flexibility to determine the right mix of qualifications, training and development for their staff. Throughout our review we have heard how important flexibility is, given the wide range of organisational structures, operating models and role types which exist in the sector. Landlords need to be able to tailor their staff development to meet the particular needs of their tenants, staff and operational circumstances.
It is important to note that regulatory standards will apply to employees at all levels of seniority. This will ensure that changes happen across organisations and that professionalism is embedded into organisational cultures from top to bottom. That is the real prize here.
It is imperative that the Government and the regulator get the details of their approach to the new requirements right. We will continue to work with interested stakeholders to ensure that we do so. The amendments pave the way for a statutory consultation on the Government’s draft direction to the regulator about the contents of the standard and specified objectives that the regulator must have regard to when setting it. The regulator will in turn be required to consult on its draft standard before it comes into force, as it does now for its existing standards. This means that the passage of this Bill will by no means spell the end of our conversations on this important point.
Once our standards are in force, the regulator will proactively seek assurance that providers are meeting them. It has already set out how it plans to seek assurance that its consumer standards are being met, using a range of tools from planned inspections and reactive engagement to assessment of performance information and other data returns. We anticipate that these tools will also underpin its approach to assurance here.
The regulator already has a strong track record in regulating the sector’s financial viability. It will be able to use its expertise to ensure landlords take effective action on professionalisation. Previously, the regulator has not proactively regulated consumer issues, but under its new consumer regime it will be relentless in ensuring that providers meet the standards required. If the regulator finds evidence of a breach of its competence and conduct standards, it will be able to require the provider to produce and implement a performance improvement plan. Failure by the landlord to implement an improvement plan would result in an enforcement notice, which, if breached, would be sanctionable by an unlimited fine.
What we have heard during our review supports the approach we are bringing forward and does not support the introduction of mandatory qualifications for specified roles—the approach to which the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, lends itself. During our review, we found no clear evidence that specified qualifications in and of themselves lead to more professionally delivered services, or that they are the key to delivering the outcomes that matter to tenants: being treated with dignity and respect, being listened to, and having issues dealt with effectively and efficiently. We have heard from professional development experts that although formal housing management qualifications can be important for some staff, there is no single qualification which adequately meets the sector’s diverse requirements, and that a prescriptive approach would hinder landlords’ flexibility to determine the right mix of qualifications and training for their staff. I must stress the importance of that point.
Review participants also told us that continuing professional development is key to ensuring that knowledge and skills are current and that staff reflect on their behaviours and practices. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in what constitutes effective CPD for the sector or how it should be delivered.
Significant concern was raised by review participants that mandatory qualifications and registration requirements would be likely to exacerbate providers’ difficulties in recruiting staff. Attracting individuals with the right attitudes and behaviours is critical to this sector. Mandating qualifications carries a real risk that individuals who are well suited to working in the sector would be prevented or deterred from doing so. There is also a significant risk that mandating qualifications could lead to the reclassification of housing associations as public sector bodies, bringing up to £90 billion of debt on to the public ledger. Reclassification of the sector could also have an impact on housing associations’ ability to invest in the supply of new affordable homes and improve the quality of their existing stock and services. The Bill must be about helping tenants; we cannot risk a scenario where they are disadvantaged as a result of this.
I wish to be completely clear that the risk of reclassification is not hypothetical. The ONS deems that government control over housing associations is significantly closer to the threshold for reclassification than for other comparable sectors. Indeed, the sector was reclassified to the public sector in 2015 and was reclassified again only once legislative steps were taken to remove government controls. The last thing any of us wants is for this legislation to be derailed by classification issues. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall introduce my Amendment 23. I thank the Minister for her introduction of her amendments, for listening to the debate on this in Committee and for bringing the amendments forward today. The government amendments really address competence and skills and, to my mind, the industry should already have competence and skills as part of its training and how it operates. The question I ask myself is: is this sufficient or is professionalisation needed?
We know that the Government recognised the need for a professionalised social housing sector in the White Paper back in 2020, but we all need to consider the fact that the Grenfell Tower fire back in 2017 is a stark example of exactly what can happen when we have an underregulated, unprofessional management in social housing. This is why Grenfell United and others believe that professional qualifications in part of the sector is so important. We believe there should be clear recognition of this and that the Government should be driving towards a properly trained professional sector that has ethics and values underpinning it. We know that Grenfell United has made it very clear that the bereaved and the survivors of the fire want this to be their legacy.
We know that poorly managed and maintained social housing can cause serious harm to renters’ health and well-being, yet there are no requirements to be properly qualified or to undergo professional development. As a result, too many tenants are not given a good service or treated with the care and respect they need and deserve. This is not to undermine the many good social housing operators, but unfortunately not everybody is as good. How do we professionalise the sector? This is what my amendment seeks to achieve. We believe that professional development should be mandatory for senior managers working in social housing. Other social professions have this requirement and rules for registration; they have continuous professional development as part of the way they operate while someone is a manager within their sector.
We believe that qualifications and training should aim to provide housing management staff with the skills and knowledge needed to do the job—and to do the job well—as well as instilling the right values to underpin it. If over time you have a better qualified, more professional sector, you will increase the perception of housing management as a valued profession, one that will attract dedicated individuals to a rewarding, if challenging, career.
A concern has been expressed that my amendment will mean that everybody working in social housing will have to be qualified, and that this will be too onerous for the sector to cope with. That is not what my amendment seeks to do. It is deliberately non-prescriptive, to allow for the flexibility needed in a sector where you have diverse businesses, from small almshouses to very large housing businesses. The Minister talked about the importance of flexibility and, if she looks at proposed new subsection (1), she will see that it states that:
“Regulations may provide that a person may not engage in the management of social housing … unless he or she … has appropriate professional qualifications … or satisfies specified requirements”.
Proposed new subsection (3) states:
“A requirement of regulations … may … relate to … the possession of a specified qualification or experience”
“participation in or completion of a specified programme or course of training, or … compliance with a specified condition”.
I am trying not to be prescriptive or make life difficult for housing associations and social housing provider but to provide a certainty that managers know what they are doing. It is as simple as that.
We think this should apply at first only to senior management because we believe that having senior staff with the appropriate skills and qualifications will ensure that the teams underneath them, those working in offices and other junior staff, would then be professionally run and deliver a quality service for residents. We believe this would not create barriers to housing associations and councils finding enough staff because the amendment requires regulations to define what types of work require qualifications. Flexibility in the amendment will lead to important change but without being overprescriptive and onerous for housing associations.
We know that housing management is no more complex than other professions that have legal requirements for training and development: for example, social work, healthcare, education—so why not include social housing? The secondary legislation regulations that guide mandatory qualifications in those fields are extensive and there are many different routes to being qualified, with many different expectations depending on the service being delivered. Why not have the same for social housing?
I turn now to some of the Minister’s arguments. Will this make housing associations into public bodies? I understand what she said about this, but I do not believe we have seen concrete evidence to suggest that my amendment on professional qualifications would bring the Government’s role in housing association business over the threshold. She referred to the review, but we have not seen that, so will this make housing association businesses technically public bodies? I am yet to be convinced of this and would like to see more evidence. We know that the economic standards in social housing have been proactively and extensively regulated for some time. Where is the tipping point? Why are the Government so concerned about this?
Finally, I come back to Grenfell. Grenfell United and Shelter, which has supported it throughout the process and the different legislation that has come through, are simply not satisfied with this. They have made it crystal clear—I have a note from them here—that it does not meet their reasonable expectations in this area. They believe that:
“Clear requirements are needed to bring social housing management on a par with other socially important professions, properly safeguard the wellbeing of tenants, and attract dedicated individuals to a meaningful, challenging career.”
It is appropriate to leave those last words to Grenfell United. I urge the Minister to revisit this at some point. However, because I think this is such an important issue for tenants and the survivors and bereaved of Grenfell Tower, I will seriously consider testing the opinion of the House on this matter.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Government’s response to our debate in Committee in tabling government Amendment 4, which is a very welcome step forward. It honours the undertaking my noble friend gave in Committee to
“talk to the Minister personally, whoever that may be, to reflect the views of the Committee on this important issue.”—[Official Report, 6/9/22; col. 139.]
That dialogue turned out to be a monologue.
Before coming to the substance, I will say a quick word about reclassification, mentioned by my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. It has clearly acted as a brake on the Government’s proposals. I entirely agree that we do not want to see the sector’s borrowing classified as “public sector”, with all the restraint that would follow. However, without getting into the complex theology of what is and what is not public borrowing, instead of this cat-and-mouse game with the ONS, with the Government never quite sure how far they can go before the elastic snaps, why can there not be a civilised dialogue with the ONS in advance? That would give the Government some certainty on how far they could go, instead of having to wait for a retrospective judgment, which is what happened last time. It seems to me a far more sensible approach to engage in dialogue in advance.
Turning to the substance, I agree with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has said. While I believe the general standard of management in the social housing sector is high and the movement is conscious of the need for improvement, we need a framework of professional training such as that proposed in the amendment, which exists for other professions such as education and social care.
For example, a recent article in Inside Housing said that the department had published a list of 18 social landlords against which the Housing Ombudsman had made findings of severe maladministration since September 2021. We have also read of the recent tragic case of a social housing tenant of one of the most reputable housing associations lying dead in her home for two years before she was discovered. An independent report concluded:
“What may have been designed as a service centred on the customer failed to work. Instead, the focus became the processes themselves … The culture of the organisation needs to change.”
That was said about what I believe to be a well-run body. It underlines the need for higher standards and a more professional approach.
Report is not the place to repeat the powerful arguments made in Committee, but it is worth reminding the House that, unlike private tenants, social tenants have few options to move to an alternative landlord if they do not get the service that they are entitled to.
My noble friend referred to the White Paper and the commitment to:
“Review professional training and development to ensure residents receive a high standard of customer service.”
My noble friend said in response to the debate in Committee that her department had set up a working group to review professional standards. Might we know how they are progressing, when the report will be completed, whether it will be made public and how that will feed into the work of the regulator, as proposed in the Government’s amendment? It would also be good to have confirmation that the CIH and the NHF will be involved with the regulator in drawing up standards. Finally, as the department has clearly been in dialogue with the regulator on this matter, can my noble friend in winding up give some indication of the timescale the regulator might adopt in taking this issue forward?
I rise to express very briefly my support for Amendment 23, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. I welcome the Government’s restating at the Bill’s Committee stage their commitment to review professionalisation. However, I want to urge them to accept this amendment, which would help to ensure that appropriate professional qualifications, training and registration are upheld. The challenges we face in the social housing sector require high standards of management which, sadly, we do not always see, and this amendment will help to ensure those.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister and the Secretary of State for the time and effort they have put into this and other issues; they should be given credit for what they have done. I declare my interest as a community adviser on Grenfell. The Minister has worked with the community in a previous role, and I know she always has their best interests at heart, as well as those of other social housing tenants across the country. However, while I appreciate that the Government’s amendment improves on the current situation, I am afraid that the lack of any professional qualification structure leaves something of a hole—a cavity, if you like—in their plan.
In essence, the Government’s proposal says that requiring the regulator to set a professional standard will drive up knowledge, skills and experience in the sector. It argues that while they are not mandatory, qualifications may be one element of how landlords could achieve this, as part of a wider approach to training and development. I agree: qualifications are not the only way to improve skills and standards, but I am struggling to see how we do it without them, particularly in an area where the need to drive out stigma is so necessary and overwhelming. In any other sector, be it social work or education, qualifications are integral—fundamental, even—to increasing knowledge and, most importantly, to providing a career path. If we want to encourage people into social housing, to take pride in that career, we must give them a way to progress. Without that infrastructure it will be so much harder to bring about meaningful change. Would it not also be a useful indicator of compliance? It is hard to see how the regulator will accurately measure competence across the sector. I welcome the checks and balances provided for in this amendment, but it is unclear on what grounds the regulator will be able to apply sanctions where necessary.
I realise that some of these questions will be for the proposed consultation, but at the moment it all feels a bit woolly. There is constant talk of driving up skills and knowledge, but not enough in practical terms on how to achieve this goal. To that end, as the Bill progresses will the Government consider including a specific request to the regulator to consult experts such as the Chartered Institute of Housing on a suitable qualifications framework?
I am pretty sure that the Minister will say to me that doing so could lead to a reclassification by the ONS. I fully understand the risks involved, as have been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and I appreciate that the Government have no control over the ONS’s decisions. However, at the moment we are still talking about a risk, not a certainty, so, as my noble friend Lord Young suggested, is it not possible to consult the ONS on this? Otherwise, we are in a world of “what ifs” and “maybes”, which seems absurd given what is at stake. For as it stands, we seem to be saying that tenants in social housing can expect to send their child to a school where the teacher must be qualified, and to send their parents to a care home where there must be suitably qualified staff, but that the people responsible for running their homes do not need any qualifications at all.
The Government argue that they are not ruling out qualifications, but that providers must be allowed to determine the right mix. I am sure the Minister will understand why there is nervousness about leaving this to landlords’ discretion. Do we really expect them to introduce qualifications voluntarily? This is not just about Grenfell. As I mentioned in Committee, one look at Kwajo Tweneboa’s Twitter account and the neglect and misery it chronicles will tell you all you need to know about the attitude and aptitude of some providers. They are the worst examples, but surely the least likely to equip their staff with qualifications.
Finally, I repeat one more point I made in Committee: what happens if the Grenfell Tower inquiry recommends mandatory professionalisation? Will all the same arguments apply, or will we have to find a way around this later down the line, when we should be doing it now? To that end, while I reiterate my thanks to the Minister and the Secretary of State—I understand that it is a difficult area—I cannot help feeling that on this issue, the department may need to provide us with some more answers.
My Lords, this has been a very powerful debate on something that is pretty esoteric: the qualifications of those providing social housing. However, it seems vital for the safety of social housing tenants that the people responsible for the management of their properties know what they are doing. This group of amendments includes alternative ways forward in relation to the importance of raising standards of management and the need for professional qualifications.
On the one hand, the Minister is arguing for a light-touch approach, as set out in her Amendment 10, arguing that there is a risk of reclassification of the sector if the strategy laid out by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, in her Amendment 23 is followed. But two things come to mind. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, explained that the approach she has laid out is flexible and combines that with an ambition for higher standards in the sector. Her amendment uses “may” throughout, so it is not a mandatory approach. It is trying to say, “Here is a way forward to raise standards—follow it, sector, and raise standards”. What an ambition that would be.
On the other hand, we have the Minister arguing that there is a risk of reclassification. I have to say that if there is a barrier to raising standards in the management of social housing, it needs to go. We have to find a way around it. We have heard two examples from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and the noble Baroness. They have both explained how we can get around this—so let us get around it.
Shelter has highlighted in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy that social housing tenants were concerned not only with safety but with maintenance, repairs and poor living conditions. Social landlords and managers are the first port of call for tenants to raise concerns about standards, so ensuring that senior managers are qualified and have the requisite knowledge and experience will have a trickle-down effect—something I am sure the Minister will approve of. So, let us professionalise the workforce.
In Committee, my noble friend Lady Thornhill—who is unfortunately unable to be here today as she is not well—made comparisons between the workforce of the health and care sector and that of the social housing sector. That comparison rightly reflects the important role of social housing in the well-being of the nation, but, like the health sector, housing and construction are facing shortages of both people and resources. Amendment 23 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, would ensure that the Government were able to prescribe mandatory qualifications—but, as I have said, in a flexible way. That would protect tenants and make sure that their homes were safe and fit for habitation, and that tenants’ voices were heard. As has already been said, one of the findings of the Grenfell inquiry was that tenants’ voices were ignored.
The Government have listened to the debate in Committee and the calls from groups such as Grenfell United and Shelter, reflected on their own commitment and brought forward a number of amendments in this group with the aim of raising standards for registered providers and social housing managers. Of course, I welcome this, but the Government’s argument that a balance needs to be struck between safety and workforce supply is, in my view, a false one. Ultimately, the safety of social housing tenants has to be paramount. We need to make sure that the situation is not made worse for tenants by exacerbating problems in the training and retention of staff, but in the end, the quality of managers is what keeps tenants safe.
We know that the Government are reviewing professional training and development, but what are they doing to review workforce problems in the housing sector more widely and the impact of these shortages on the safety of social housing tenants? We welcome what the Government have said so far. However, it is not enough and if the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, decides to test the opinion of the House on this issue, we feel so strongly about it that we will support her.
My Lords, the speeches from across the House today are a tribute to the role that real scrutiny of legislation can play. I personally thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Pinnock, my noble friend Lady Sanderson and the noble Lord, Lord Best, among others, with whom I have had extremely constructive conversations on this critical issue over recent days. I also met Grenfell United and told them what I have to do and why I have to do it.
I will start by answering a couple of questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, said that her amendment is permissive not prescriptive. Unfortunately, the existence of a power in legislation for the Government to in effect control hiring and firing decisions would still be deemed a government control by the ONS, even if it is permissive and flexible.
A number of noble Lords asked why we cannot ask the ONS about its decision before we make any further decisions—it is a question that I asked too. The ONS is the independent body statutorily responsible for making classification decisions, which includes determining whether bodies are part of the public sector. The ONS will make a formal assessment only once a new policy or regulation has been implemented; it does not classify the impact of policies still under development, so we cannot go to it until the decision is made.
It will not engage, as far as I understand. His Majesty’s Treasury would deal with this and it has advised that we cannot do that, as that is not what the ONS does. The ONS publishes its assessments and its decision cannot be challenged. It will review its decision only in very limited stated circumstances, including when new legislation, policy proposals or machinery of government changes impact the operations of an organisation or, in this case, a sector.
I go back to the point that, in 2015, following further legislation on the social housing sector that had tipped it over, the ONS changed the classification and we had to introduce new legislation again. We do not want to be in that position—that would not be what anybody would want—and the time involved in doing all that would be extensive.
My noble friend Lord Young asked whether the review of professionalisation would feed through to the development of standard. Yes, it will: the review will inform the Secretary of State’s direction to the regulator about the context and objectives for the standard, so it will be used in that way.
My noble friend Lady Sanderson asked whether the Secretary of State could direct the regulator to include qualifications in the standard. Again, directing the regulator to require qualifications would also risk reclassification. However, in setting standards for the competence of their staff, landlords would have to provide assurance that their staff had the requisite capabilities, and I suggest that ensuring that their staff have appropriate qualifications would be a key way of achieving that aim.
My Lords, having looked at the classification process on the ONS website, I see that it states:
“HM Treasury may … submit policy proposals for classification advice from the Economic Statistics Classification Committee … either on its own behalf if it is the policy lead, or on behalf of another department”.
It looks to me like the issue could have been put to the ONS for advice ahead of the position that we find ourselves in.
I am more than happy to provide that.
I think that I have answered all the questions. As I have said once already and as I said in Committee—although it perhaps bears repeating—the Government believe in professionalising the social housing sector. As was mentioned, we sent out an all-Peers briefing on Friday setting out the full rationale for what we are doing, why we are doing it and why we are unable to accept the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. The qualifications, training and development needed to professionalise social housing cannot be a one-size-fits-all; we must protect landlords’ ability to determine the most appropriate qualifications and training for their staff. The regulator has deep sector expertise and a strong track record of regulating the sector for financial liability, on which it would be able to draw, to ensure that landlords raise professional standards. The introduction of tough sanctions for landlords failing to comply with the new standard will ensure that consistently high standards are achieved across the sector.
To push back against what the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, said, I say that this is not light touch, given the enforcement powers and unlimited fines and the fact that the regulator will be looking at tenant satisfaction levels in great detail. If tenants are unsatisfied with their housing provider, they will say so, and at that point the regulator can move in—and the regulator has teeth to ensure the enforcement of specially trained staff, and has unlimited fines if the provider does not comply. There are tough sanctions for failing to comply with the new standards, and I believe that the provisions will ensure that consistently high standards are achieved across the sector.
Finally, the risk of reclassification of the social housing sector is substantial. The proposal to mandate qualifications for staff risks adding £90 billion to the public balance sheet. Reclassification could limit landlords’ ability to invest in new homes and in improving the quality of existing stock and service provision. This would clearly disadvantage tenants and undermine our objective of increasing professionalism in the sector. It is likely that we would want to introduce deregulatory measures to address that. It would weaken the regulatory framework that the Bill creates, and we cannot allow that to happen.
The Government are not trying to hide on this issue. It simply comes down to how we accomplish the outcomes for which we are all looking. I believe that the Government’s approach is the right one. I hope that noble Lords have been persuaded by my arguments.
Amendment 4 agreed.
Clause 15: Notification requirements: expansion to profit-making organisations
5: Clause 15, page 13, line 18, leave out subsection (3)
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister’s name to insert a new clause after clause 15.
My Lords, this set of government amendments delivers technical changes which will ensure that measures in the Bill operate effectively and consistently.
Amendments 19, 20 and 21 to Clause 24 will ensure that both registered providers and the occupiers of premises will receive the same 48-hour notice period before the Regulator of Social Housing conducts a survey. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised the discrepancy in notice periods in Committee. We agree that there should have been no difference between the notice periods that the tenant and landlord receive. I hope that she will welcome these amendments which address this problem.
I turn to the other amendments in this group. Amendments 26 to 30 are a series of changes to Clause 26. These will enable a regulator to carry out emergency remedial action more effectively. Given the urgent nature of these remedial works, these changes are highly important. Ahead of carrying out emergency remedial action, a person authorised by the regulator is required to notify all parties.
Amendment 28 allows all parties to consent to early entry before the minimum advance notice period has elapsed. This ensures that, where all parties are content, there will be no barrier to preventing urgent works starting immediately. Amendment 28 also allows the occupier to consent to a person authorised by the regulator conducting emergency remedial works in advance of the date specified on their pre-entry notice. Amendment 27 is consequential on this change.
Amendment 29 offers greater flexibility to the regulator by making it clear that the person authorised by the regulator to notify parties that emergency remedial works are due does not have to be the same person who carries out the works. Amendment 26 clarifies that, when emergency remedial works affecting common parts are due to take place, a notice is required to be given only in respect of occupied dwellings that have use of the common parts. Amendment 30 is a minor amendment to improve the drafting.
Amendment 6 would remove the requirements for the regulator to decide on the eligibility of registration of a registered provider that has recently converted from a company to a registered society. In such an event, the registered provider’s existing registration remains in place. Amendment 5 is consequential on this change.
Amendment 7 proposes a new clause in relation to the restructuring of a registered provider that is a registered society. It removes a duty on the regulator to make a registration decision where a registered society converts into a company or transfers undertakings to another society that is also a registered provider. Registration decisions are not needed in these circumstances. In the case of a conversion, the provider’s existing registration continues. In the case of a transfer, the transferee is already registered. Where a registered society amalgamates with another or transfers its undertakings to a society that is not also a registered provider, proposed new Section 163ZA provides that the successor body should be treated as registered and designated as a non-profit organisation pending the registration decision. Amendments 8 and 9 are consequential on this change.
These amendments are largely technical in nature. Many of them will support the regulator to deliver effectively on its economic and consumer regulation objectives, while others will ensure greater clarity and consistency in the legislation. I hope that noble Lords will support their addition to the Bill. I beg to move.
Amendment 5 agreed.
6: Clause 15, page 13, line 24, leave out subsection (4)
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister’s name to insert a new clause before clause 16.
Amendment 6 agreed.
Amendments 7 and 8
7: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—
“Conversion of company into registered society: continuation of registrationIn section 161 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 (company: conversion into registered society) omit subsections (4) to (7).”Member's explanatory statement
If a registered provider which is a company becomes a registered society the body’s registration as registered provider continues. This amendment removes the provisions requiring the regulator to decide whether the registered society is eligible for registration as a registered provider.
8: Before Clause 16, insert the following new Clause—
“Restructuring of registered societies(1) The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 is amended as follows.(2) In section 163 (registered society: restructuring) omit subsections (5) to (8).(3) After section 163 insert— “163ZA Restructuring of registered societies: registration of successor bodies(1) This section applies where —(a) a registered provider notifies the regulator of a resolution passed by the provider for the purposes of section 109 of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 (amalgamation of societies);(b) a registered provider notifies the regulator of a resolution passed by the provider for the purposes of section 112(1)(b) of that Act (amalgamation of society and company);(c) a registered provider notifies the regulator of a resolution passed by the provider for the purposes of section 110 of that Act (transfer of engagements between societies) and the society to which engagements are transferred is not a registered provider;(d) a registered provider notifies the regulator of a resolution passed by the provider for the purposes of section 112(1)(c) of that Act (transfer of engagements between society and company) and the company to which engagements are transferred is not a registered provider.(2) When the resolution mentioned in subsection (1) (“the relevant resolution”) takes effect, the regulator must decide whether the successor body is eligible for registration under section 112.(3) “The successor body” means—(a) if the relevant resolution is a resolution described in paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (1), the body created by virtue of that resolution or by virtue of that resolution and other resolutions described in that paragraph, and(b) if the relevant resolution is a resolution described in paragraph (c) or (d) of subsection (1), the body to which engagements are transferred by virtue of the resolution.(4) If the successor body is eligible for registration, the regulator must register it and notify it that it has done so.(5) If the successor body is not eligible for registration, the regulator must notify it of that fact.(6) Pending registration, or notification that it is not eligible for registration, the successor body is to be treated as if it were registered and designated as a non-profit organisation.””Member's explanatory statement
Where a restructuring of a registered provider which is a registered society results in the creation of a new body or in the transfer of the engagements to a body which is not a registered provider, these amendments provide that the regulator must decide whether or not to register the body and describe how the body should be treated pending that decision.
Amendments 7 and 8 agreed.
Clause 16: Receipt of transfers of engagements from a registered society
9: Clause 16, page 14, line 1, leave out “section 163” and insert “section 163ZA (inserted by section (Restructuring of registered societies))”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister’s name to insert a new clause before clause 16.
Amendment 9 agreed.
10: Before Clause 19, insert the following new Clause—
“Standards relating to competence and conductAfter section 194 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 insert—“194ZA Standards relating to competence and conduct(1) The regulator may set standards for registered providers in matters relating to the competence and conduct of individuals involved in the provision of services in connection with the management of social housing.(2) Standards under subsection (1) may, in particular, require registered providers to comply with specified rules about—(a) the knowledge, skills and experience to be required of individuals involved in the provision of services in connection with the management of social housing, and(b) the conduct to be expected of such individuals in their dealings with tenants.””Member's explanatory statement
This gives the regulator power to set a standard requiring registered providers to ensure that individuals who provide services in connection with the management of social housing have the knowledge, skills and experience to do so and to set out expectations as to how the individuals conduct themselves in relation to tenants. See also the amendment to Schedule 5, page 49, line 32 in the Minister’s name.
Amendment 10 agreed.
Clause 19: Standards relating to information and transparency
Amendments 11 to 13
11: Clause 19, page 16, line 18, leave out “section 194” and insert “section 194ZA (inserted by section (Standards relating to competence and conduct))”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister’s name to insert a new clause before clause 19 inserting a new section 194ZA into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.
12: Clause 19, page 16, line 29, leave out “and 194” and insert “, 194 and 194ZA”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment in the Minister’s name to insert a new clause before clause 19 inserting a new section 194ZA into the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008.
13: Clause 19, page 17, leave out lines 1 to 3
Member's explanatory statement
This is consequential on the amendment to Schedule 5, page 49, line 32 in the Minister’s name.
Amendments 11 to 13 agreed.
14: After Clause 20, insert the following new Clause—
“Standards relating to energy demand
(1) In section 193 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 (standards relating to consumer matters)—(a) in subsection (2), at the end insert— “(k) energy demand.”;(b) after subsection (2) insert—“(2A) In setting standards relating to energy demand, the regulator shall have regard to the Government’s strategy on reducing energy demand for social housing properties.”(2) The Secretary of State must, before the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish a strategy on reducing energy demand for social housing properties, to include but not limited to the following—(a) achieving a low-carbon heat target, of 100% of installations of relevant heating appliances and connections to relevant heat networks in social housing properties being low-carbon from 2035;(b) achieving an energy-efficiency target, of all social housing properties attaining a minimum EPC C rating by 2030;(c) interim targets relating to the targets in paragraphs (a) and (b) at not less than three-yearly intervals;(d) a programme to support registered social housing providers in engaging with each other, the regulator and a source of advice provided by the Government to encourage energy demand reduction.(3) Before publishing their strategy, the Secretary of State must—(a) consult the Climate Change Committee and its sub-committee on adaptation;(b) publicly consult on the most practical, cost-effective and affordable way of achieving the targets in subsection (2)(a) to (2)(c), and(c) publish an assessment of the long-term impacts of the strategy on tenants of social housing and registered social housing landlords.”
My Lords, I listened very carefully to the words of the Minister in responding to our earlier debate. I do not have a scintilla of doubt about her sincerity and integrity in offering a consultation, but the House will understand that many of us have been promised consultations and not seen them, or they have not been acted upon. In this area, we were promised the consultation in 2017. It has not happened yet. This amendment would give us a coherent and costed plan for energy efficiency in a sector that needs it very urgently. In view of the support from all Benches—I am particularly grateful to the Bishops’ Benches for joining the political parties—I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 21: Direction by Secretary of State
15: Clause 21, page 17, line 21, at end insert—
“(za) to set a standard under section 194ZA,”Member's explanatory statement
This enables the Secretary of State to direct the regulator to exercise the new power to set standards conferred by the new section 194ZA of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 (see the amendment to insert a new clause before clause 19 in the Minister’s name).
Amendment 15 agreed.
16: Clause 21, page 17, line 24, after “paragraph” insert “(za) or”
Member's explanatory statement
This is linked to the amendment to clause 21, page 17, line 21 in the Minister’s name and enables the Secretary of State to direct the regulator about the content of the standards set under the new section 194ZA and to direct the regulator to have regard to specified objectives when setting them.
Amendment 16 agreed.
17: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Inspections(1) The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 is amended as follows. (2) For sections 201 (inspections) and 202 (inspections: supplemental) substitute—“201 Inspections(1) It is the duty of the regulator to carry out inspections, at such intervals as may be prescribed, of—(a) every registered provider’s performance of its functions in relation to the provision of social housing, and(b) the financial or other affairs of every registered provider.(2) Following each such inspection under subsection (1), the regulator must—(a) assess the performance of the providers, and(b) publish a report of its assessment.(3) Regulations may provide that this section does not apply to specified providers or categories of providers in prescribed circumstances.(4) The assessment of a registered provider’s performance is to be by reference to such indicators of quality as the Secretary of State may devise or approve.(5) The Secretary of State may direct the regulator to devise indicators for the purposes of subsection (4) and submit them to the Secretary of State for approval.(6) The regulator must prepare a statement describing the method that it proposes to use in assessing and evaluating the performance of a registered provider under this section, and submit the statement to the Secretary of State for approval.(7) Regulations must provide that in conducting an inspection of a registered provider under this section, the regulator must have regard to any views expressed to him or her by certain persons or classes of person which must include tenants of the provider.202 Special inspections and investigations(1) The regulator may at any time, where he or she considers it appropriate, conduct a special review or investigation, and must do so if the Secretary of State so requests.(2) A special inspection or investigation is an inspection (other than a periodic inspection) of or an investigation into—(a) the exercise of its functions by a registered provider;(b) the financial or other affairs of a registered provider;(c) the standard of accommodation provided by a registered provider;(d) other matters relating to the governance or performance of a registered provider.””
My Lords, Amendment 17 is in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Thornhill, whose support is much appreciated.
This amendment, first tabled in Committee, would oblige the Regulator of Social Housing to carry out regular inspections into the affairs of all social landlords. The objective of such inspections would be to ensure that the new regime introduced by the Bill, with its emphasis on consumer protection for residents—the missing element in the current regulatory regime—was actually achieved. By visiting social landlords and talking with residents, inspections would enable the regulator to see whether its set of standards was being properly met and to take action if not.
The Government have previously mentioned Ofsted-style inspections, perhaps every four years and maybe covering providers with 1,000 or more homes. Such statements in press releases are all very well but are not a substitute for a requirement on the regulator set out in the Bill.
We have all been deeply affected by the efforts of the Grenfell survivors, represented by Grenfell United supported by Shelter, to secure real change as a lasting legacy for the 72 lives lost. They have made the case tenaciously. Without a requirement in the Bill for regular inspections, this key component in support of the Bill’s intentions could evaporate. Without a basis in law, the regulator could not be challenged in the courts if it failed to inspect an organisation large or small. The Grenfell families want to ensure that their efforts have made a difference, and this needs to be evidenced by a legal duty for the regulator to conduct regular, routine inspections.
Meetings have been held with the Minister and the Bill team. As a result, the Government devised Amendments 22 and 38, which come close to fulfilling the ambitions of Grenfell United and its supporters at Shelter. They require the regulator to make a plan for regular inspections, spelling out the basis for them, their frequency and their variations for different cases and circumstances, and they ensure proper consultation with tenants and their representatives.
The Minister has been involved with Grenfell families for many years and is clearly deeply committed to meeting their wishes in so far as she is able. The new government amendments on inspections are intended to secure the outcome sought by Grenfell United and I am extremely grateful to the Minister for bringing them forward. It may be that, on reflection, further tweaks would be helpful when the Bill moves through its Commons stages—Shelter’s excellent briefing on this theme illustrates possible additional refinements— but at this moment I am delighted to support the Government’s amendments and will not take my Amendment 17 to a vote.
In conclusion, I hope that all those who have suffered so much as a result of the disgracefully poor management of those Grenfell homes will recognise that it is their efforts that have improved the Bill in this regard. More than this, it is their perseverance, eloquence and sincerity that have led to this whole legislative change. Because of their courage and perseverance, hundreds of thousands of those living in social housing will now benefit from the significant extra dimensions to their protection from poor landlords that this Bill will accomplish.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Thornhill is not well and is unable to be here today. She put her name to the amendment to which the noble Lord, Lord Best, has just spoken, so I am speaking on her behalf as much as anything.
These amendments are really important, because at the heart of the debate is the safety of social housing tenants. It is a similar debate to the one we have just had about whether there should be more professional qualifications for housing managers. Like that one, it is based on the social housing White Paper, in which the Government have suggested introducing Ofsted-style inspections for social landlords. This is, in essence, what the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, proposes. In mandating inspections but leaving their frequency to the Secretary of State, and allowing them to exempt certain providers, Amendment 17 is robust but workable.
There was widespread support across the House for the same amendment in Committee, with organisations such as the National Housing Federation and the Chartered Institute of Housing welcoming stronger and more proactive regulation of the consumer standards. As the CIH stated in its briefing, it is vital that the regulator has the resources to undertake these inspections. Ultimately, these inspections will help not only to avoid the catastrophic lapses in safety that led to the Grenfell tragedy—among others, but obviously Grenfell is by far the worst—but to strengthen the ability of the social housing sector to provide warm, secure and affordable housing.
The Government have tabled Amendments 22 and 38, and the Minister has again shown that she is listening and seeking to respond to what was said in Committee. But in the opinion of these Benches, the government amendments do not appear as robust as the one tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best. Inspections are not mandated; rather, the plan must outline whether they “should” take place and at what frequency. The regulator
“must take appropriate steps to implement the plan.”
Perhaps the Minister can outline what the steps could be. What are these “appropriate steps”? What teeth does the regulator have to implement inspections? Will the Government review these provisions to determine whether they have been successful or whether further steps will need to be taken to make sure that inspections are happening? What timeframe will we see for the plan? When will it be published and how often should it be reviewed? There are lots of questions, and lots of answers are needed if we are to be able to judge whether the proposals from the Government are sufficiently robust.
Given that tenants, providers and the Government all seem to agree on the need for more proactive regulation, we on these Benches hope that the government amendments will be all that is necessary for inspections to be frequent and effective. We just hope that we will not look back and wish we had used this opportunity to further strengthen the law on this issue, as the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Best, would allow us to do.
I want to end the debate in this House on this very important Bill by recognising, as others have done, the powerful commitment that Grenfell United has made to making the Government and the rest of us understand the importance of social housing being of the highest quality and safe and secure, with managers who know what they are doing and with a regulator who has teeth. None of us ever again wants to be party to a terrible tragedy like that which occurred in June 2017.
My Lords, I shall be brief because much has been said that needs to be said, and we had quite a debate on this in Committee. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for the amendments he put down in Committee and again on Report, and for all the hard work and time he has put into moving this issue forward so that we have reached a stage where the Government have recognised that more needed to be done in this area. I thank the Minister for her amendments and for recognising that inspection is a critical part of making progress on standards in social housing.
We are now reaching the end of the debate at Report, so I would just like to say a couple of things. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, asked a number of questions; I will not add to them but will wait to hear the Minister’s response. I thank again the Minister and her officials, as I did at the beginning of today’s debate, for her personal commitment and time on this Bill, and for her efforts where she has been able to make progress—for example, on this issue and in some other areas. It is appreciated by all of us who want this Bill to be as good as it can possibly be.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, ended in the way that we ought to end this debate, which is to recognise why we are here today. It is because of those who suffered so much during the Grenfell tragedy not giving up and keeping going and pushing us politicians and others on what needed to change in the social housing sector. This Bill is a credit to them. On that note, I thank everybody for the debate and for their time today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his Amendment 17 relating to inspections and for the time he has given me and my officials on this issue; it was important. He knows so much about this sector, and it was really very useful to spend time with him, as it was useful to spend time with many other noble Lords on a number of issues here. I thank them so much for their time.
The regulator of social housing has committed to delivering regular consumer inspections as part of its proactive regime to gain assurance that providers are meeting the new consumer standards. This will be an integral part of the proactive regime. The regulator is accountable to Ministers and Parliament for delivering effective regulation under its statutory objectives. The department has strong working relationships with the regulator and has consistently followed policy objectives set by government. The regulator continues to develop its approach to inspections and will work closely with the sector in this process.
While legislation is not required to facilitate the introduction of regular consumer inspections, I have listened and heard the strength of feeling on this issue both in the House and from Grenfell United. Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his support in helping us through this. To demonstrate our continued commitment to the delivery of regular inspections, we have tabled Amendment 22, which gives the regulator a duty to publish, and take reasonable steps to implement, a plan for regular inspections. This will ensure that inspections take place, while preserving the regulator’s operational independence and flexibility. This is essential in ensuring that it has the flexibility to respond to events in the sector in an agile way. It also ensures that it is the regulator who designs the inspections regime and allows it to do so following proper engagement with the sector and, importantly, social housing tenants.
Amendment 38 is a minor amendment to clarify that the regulator is required to consult bodies appearing to represent the interests of tenants of social housing before giving guidance about the use of its intervention powers. This simply provides greater clarity and consistency in the Act.
I support everything that noble Lords have said today about the importance of this Bill and, particularly, its importance to the people of north Kensington—especially those affected by the fire. Our thoughts and our prayers are with them as we move the Bill forward. On the basis of what I have said, and in the hope that my amendment will satisfy the noble Lord, I ask him to withdraw this amendment.
Everything that should be said has been said, and I am very glad that we have finished on the note of thanking those in Grenfell United. Over so many years such persistence has been shown in getting us to the point we are at today, and we are all very grateful to them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 17 withdrawn.
Clause 23: Performance monitoring
18: Clause 23, page 18, line 2, after “194” insert “, 194ZA”
Member's explanatory statement
Amendment 18 agreed.
Clause 24: Surveys
Amendments 19 to 21
19: Clause 24, page 19, line 9, leave out from “if” to end of line 14 and insert “an authorised person has given at least 48 hours’ notice of the first exercise of the power—
(a) to the registered provider, and(b) if the premises are occupied, to the occupier (or any one of the occupiers).”Member's explanatory statement
This provides for occupiers of premises to be given 48 hours’ notice of the first exercise of the power to enter to carry out a survey (as opposed to 24 hours). This places occupiers in the same position as registered providers of the premises concerned.
20: Clause 24, page 19, line 20, leave out “(2)(a) or (b)” and insert “(2)”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment to clause 24, page 19, line 9 in the Minister’s name.
21: Clause 24, page 19, line 23, leave out “under” and substitute “required by”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment is consequential on the amendment to clause 24, page 19, line 9 in the Minister’s name.
Amendments 19 to 21 agreed.
22: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
“Inspection plan(1) The Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 is amended as follows.(2) After section 201 (inspections) insert—“201A Inspection plan(1) The regulator must make a plan as regards—(a) the descriptions of registered provider that should be subject to regular inspection under section 201,(b) the intervals at which regular inspections should be carried out under that section, and(c) the circumstances in which registered providers should be subject to inspections under that section other than regular inspections.(2) The plan may make different provision for different cases, circumstances or areas.(3) The regulator must take appropriate steps to implement the plan.(4) The regulator must—(a) keep the plan under review,(b) when appropriate, revise or replace the plan, and(c) publish the plan and any revised or replacement plan.”(3) In section 215 (use of intervention powers), after subsection (1) insert—“(1A) In determining whether the regulator has complied with subsection (1) in relation to its power to arrange for inspections under section 201(1), a plan published under section 201A may be taken into account.””Member's explanatory statement
This imposes a duty on the regulator to produce, publish and take appropriate steps to implement a plan relating to the carrying out of both regular and one-off inspections of registered providers of social housing. It requires the regulator to keep the plan under review and to update it as appropriate.
Amendment 22 agreed.
23: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
“Persons engaged in the management of social housing to have relevant professional qualificationsAfter section 217 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 (accreditation), insert—“217A Professional qualifications and other requirements(1) Regulations may provide that a person may not engage in the management of social housing or in specified work in relation to the provision of social housing unless he or she—(a) has appropriate professional qualifications, or(b) satisfies specified requirements.(2) Regulations specifying work for the purpose of subsection (1) may make provision by reference to—(a) one or more specified activities, or(b) the circumstances in which activities are carried out. (3) A requirement of regulations under this section may, in particular, relate to—(a) the possession of a specified qualification or experience of a specified kind,(b) participation in or completion of a specified programme or course of training, or(c) compliance with a specified condition.(4) Regulations may make provision for any of the following matters (among others)—(a) the establishment and continuance of a regulatory body,(b) keeping a register of social housing practitioners,(c) education and training before and after qualification,(d) standards of conduct and performance,(e) discipline and fitness to practise,(f) removal or suspension from registration or the imposition of conditions on registration,(g) investigation and enforcement by or on behalf of the regulatory body, and appeals.””Member's explanatory statement
This amendment seeks to create a power for the Secretary of State to require managers of social housing to have appropriate qualifications and expertise.
My Lords, I have listened very carefully to the Minister’s response to my amendment. However, my strong feeling—which is supported, as I said, by Grenfell United—is that professionalism is very important in the industry. I do not believe that the Government’s amendments go far enough, so I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 25: Performance improvement plans
24: Clause 25, page 21, line 32, after “194” insert “, 194ZA”
Member's explanatory statement
Amendment 24 agreed.
25: Clause 25, page 21, line 35, after “194” insert “, 194ZA”
Member's explanatory statement
Amendment 25 agreed.
Clause 26: Emergency remedial action
Amendments 26 to 30
26: Clause 26, page 25, line 29, leave out from “building” to end of line 31 and insert “and there are occupied dwellings in the building that have use of those common parts, the occupier (or any one of the occupiers) of each of those dwellings,”
Member's explanatory statement
This is to make it clear that notice of entry to carry out works on common parts needs to be given under this provision in respect of dwellings which have use of the common parts only if the dwelling is occupied.
27: Clause 26, page 25, leave out lines 37 to 41
Member's explanatory statement
This is consequential on the amendment to clause 26, page 26, line 18 in the Minister’s name.
28: Clause 26, page 26, line 1, leave out from beginning to “premises” in line 2 and insert “A pre-entry notice required by subsection (2) need only be given once in respect of emergency remedial action in relation to premises, even if an authorised person enters the”
Member's explanatory statement
This is to make it clear that the authorised person who gives the notice need not be the same authorised person who exercises the power to enter.
29: Clause 26, page 26, line 18, at end insert—
“(6A) An authorised person may not enter premises in reliance on a pre-entry notice—(a) before the date (or the first date) specified in the notice, or(b) within 24 hours of giving the notice,except where the relevant person in respect of the notice consents.(6B) In subsection (6A), “the relevant person” in respect of the pre-entry notice means—(a) in the case of a pre-entry notice required by subsection (2)(a) or (b), the occupier (or any one of the occupiers) of the premises or dwelling; (b) in the case of a pre-entry notice required by subsection (2)(c) or (d), the person (or each person) to whom a pre-entry notice is required to be given.”Member's explanatory statement
This enables persons who are entitled to receive a pre-entry notice to consent to early entry to premises for emergency remedial action to be taken.
30: Clause 26, page 29, line 20, after “notice” insert “under section 225C(2)”
Member's explanatory statement
This is to aid the reader by pointing them to the provision under which a pre-entry notice is given.
Amendments 26 to 30 agreed.
Amendment 31 not moved.
Schedule 5: Minor and consequential amendments
32: Schedule 5, page 49, line 19, at end insert—
“(za) in paragraph (a), for “to 198B” substitute “to 198”;”Member's explanatory statement
The amends section 192 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 to reflect the repeal of section 198B by clause 22 of the Bill.
Amendment 32 agreed.
Amendments 33 to 39
33: Schedule 5, page 49, line 25, after “safety” insert “, energy efficiency”
Member's explanatory statement
This is to make it clear that the regulator’s power to set standards extends to setting standards for registered providers as to the energy efficiency of accommodation, facilities and services provided in connection with social housing.
34: Schedule 5, page 49, line 30, at end insert—
“(c) omit subsection (3).”Member's explanatory statement
This is consequential on the amendment to Schedule 5, page 49, line 32 in the Minister’s name.
35: Schedule 5, page 49, line 30, at end insert—
“17A In section 194 (standards relating to economic matters), omit subsection (3).”Member's explanatory statement
This is consequential on the amendment to Schedule 5, page 49, line 32 in the Minister’s name.
36: Schedule 5, page 49, line 32, leave out “or safety” and insert “, safety or energy efficiency”
Member's explanatory statement
This is linked to the amendment to Schedule 5, page 49, line 25 in the Minister’s name and is to make it clear that the power of the Secretary of State to direct the regulator about the setting of standards extends to standards relating to the energy efficiency of accommodation.
37: Schedule 5, page 49, line 32, at end insert—
“18A In section 198 (supplemental provisions about standards), after subsection (5) insert— “(6) In setting standards the regulator must have regard to the desirability of registered providers being free to choose how to provide services and conduct business.””Member's explanatory statement
This avoids repetition in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 by including in one place (section 198) provision which is currently included in sections 193, 194 and the new section inserted by clause 19 of the Bill. There are consequential amendments removing the provision from those sections.
38: Schedule 5, page 50, line 1, at end insert—
“21A In section 216 (consultation), in paragraph (b), at the end insert “of social housing”.”Member's explanatory statement
This makes clear that the regulator’s duty to consult bodies appearing to represent the interests of tenants before giving guidance about the use of its intervention powers is a duty to consult bodies appearing to represent the interests of tenants of social housing.
39: Schedule 5, page 50, line 1, at end insert—
“21B In section 217 (accreditation)—(a) in subsection (4)(b), after “193” insert “or 194ZA”;(b) in subsection (6), after “193” insert “or 194ZA”.”Member's explanatory statement
Amendments 33 to 39 agreed.
Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022
Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022 introduce a “single view” procedure which (1) will prevent forensic psychologists, prison and probation officers, and other specialists working for or commissioned by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service from making recommendations to the Parole Board on the release or transfer of prisoners to open conditions, (2) has potentially profound implications for the sentence progression of individuals subject to Parole Board oversight, and (3) has been made by the made negative procedure, with no external consultation or parliamentary debate.
Relevant document: 10th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, I declare my interest as a former executive chairman of the Parole Board of England and Wales from 1997 to 2000. This regret Motion relates to a specific part of the statutory instrument which amends Part B of Schedule 1 to the Parole Board Rules 2019 to allow the Secretary of State to give a single view on suitability for release or transfer in certain cases. The introduction of the “single view” procedure forms part of a wider series of changes to the parole system introduced by the former Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab.
The first ground for regret is that the specific change implemented by the statutory instrument—preventing forensic psychologists, prison and probation officers and other specialists working for or commissioned by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service making recommendations to the Parole Board—was introduced without consultation. This meant that those with experience of the parole system had no input into the new statutory instrument. Such radical changes to how the parole system works should have been implemented only after those who work in it were consulted. The manner in which these changes were introduced, with no consultation even with the Parole Board, undermines confidence in the professionals and the system.
The second ground for regret is that the Government have simply failed to establish that there is a problem which justifies the package of changes made. In other words, there is no evidence of the problem the changes purport to solve. These changes may well result in increased risk to the public, as the Parole Board is denied the benefit of expert opinion and the opportunity to see how prisoners respond in conditions of lower security. As we know, having the benefit of expert opinion and proper risk assessment is important to ensure that prisoners are prepared for reintegration into society.
The reason for introducing the “single view” procedure was to respond to recent cases in which expert witnesses employed by the Secretary of State took a different view from that of the Minister. Parole panels hear different opinions and, after consideration, reach their own conclusions. The Secretary of State may disagree and can now insist on a reconsideration. This provides an adequate remedy in such situations. Therefore, excluding the input from expert witnesses appears extreme and ill judged.
The department expects the “single view” procedure to operate rarely, in perhaps 150 cases out of over 3,000 annually, but the rule changes go much further. They prevent witnesses employed or commissioned by the Secretary of State providing a recommendation to any parole hearing either in writing or orally. This represents a major interference with the Parole Board’s ability to operate independently and undercuts the independence of a court-like body. It also undermines the professional standing of witnesses, for whom risk assessment is a core skill.
The “single view” procedure is currently subject to an ongoing judicial review in the case of Bailey v Secretary of State for Justice. In this case, the court has provided interim relief solely to the plaintiff on the basis that the parole panel should be free to ask any questions relevant to its task and expect the witness to answer them. This includes asking an expert witness for their recommendation. This judicial review is an important test of the “single view” procedure.
My third regret is the change in the criteria by which prisoners may move to open prison. These changes were expressly opposed by the Parole Board and the National Association of Probation Officers. As we know, the period spent in open conditions is a practical aid to resettlement in the community, and considered recommendations by the Parole Board, albeit subject to the Secretary of State’s approval, are crucial for public protection. These directions had three tests: that the prisoner is assessed as having a low risk of absconding; that a period in open conditions is considered essential to inform future decisions about release and to prepare for possible release on licence into the community; and that the transfer to open conditions would not undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system.
The second test is controversial as it sets the bar for open release very high and excludes prisoners who have progressed well and for whom a move might be considered beneficial, rather than essential. It prevents the decision-makers from considering whether a move to open prison might reduce risk and improve the prospect of safe release.
The third test—that the transfer to open prison would not undermine public confidence—is completely open-ended, and no guidance has been provided as to the circumstances in which it might apply. Now, only the Secretary of State considers the public confidence criteria, a task which essentially falls on officials. This has led to a dramatic reversal in the proportion of prisoners being approved for transfer to open conditions.
The Parole Board has estimated that the consequent delays may add 800 a year to the number requiring prison places. The Prison Reform Trust has recently received data from the Parole Board showing that, prior to these changes, 94% of recommendations for open conditions made by the Parole Board were accepted; since the change in criteria, and despite a falling number of recommendations, only 87% have been accepted.
Since the Worboys case in 2018, the parole system and the Parole Board have been subject to multiple reviews; some have been independent of the ministry, but the root-and-branch review prompted by the 2019 Conservative manifesto was conducted by unnamed officials within the department. Only aspects limited in scope were subject to public consultation, but change introduced by this statutory instrument formed no part of that review, and the Parole Board was given almost no notice of it, still less consulted.
The Parole Board has an enviable record; in recent cases only one in 200 releases resulted in a person being charged with a further serious offence. Every time a prisoner absconds, or a person released on parole commits a serious further offense, public concern is wholly understandable, but it is important that the response to these cases is proportionate. The Parole Board has co-operated in an exemplary way, with some radical changes in its operation. Its willingness to provide the public with reasons for decisions in individual cases, its adoption of a reconsideration process, and its skill in undertaking the complex challenge of holding some hearings in public all show that the Parole Board is open to new ideas. But some of what has been forced upon it in recent months has clearly been ill-thought through, and I hope that the Minister might now be open to a conversation on how these aspects of reform might be adjusted.
To conclude, I ask the Minister why the Secretary of State decided not to consult before introducing the statutory instrument, and if he will do so now. Given the dramatic reversal in the proportion of prisoners now being approved for transfer to open conditions, what is the Minister’s assessment of the probable delay before those prisoners may now be safely released from prison?
On the “single view” procedure, what is the Minister’s assessment of the impact of the new procedures on public protection, particularly in cases where decisions on release or transfer are complex, and where the Parole Board will not now have the benefit of clear recommendations from officials? I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. Because she set out the arguments so well and so fully, there is very little more that I need to say—save that, in standing, I want to demonstrate that this is not a party-political issue; this is a matter of constitutional propriety, and I think it is a matter of justice.
I suppose this is a smallish point, but I think that the negative procedure is the wrong way to deal with a statutory instrument of this nature. According to the notes attached to the statutory instrument, this regulation has been in law since the summer, and this is the first time that your Lordships’ House has had an opportunity to discuss it. As we have learned from the noble Baroness’s remarks, this statutory instrument carries with it matters of huge importance which should not just be lightly passed into law.
The second point I draw from her remarks is that, long ago, we got rid of political decision-making in the tariff-setting of life sentences for prisoners, and yet we are now introducing political input into questions which should be dealt with by the Parole Board by a “single view” of the Secretary of State. I suppose there was a time when the Secretary of State for Justice might be expected to know something about the law, but that is no longer the case. Therefore, it seems to me all the more extraordinary that a political Minister should have the power, passed by this little-discussed measure, to have a single view which trumps all others—indeed, shuts out all others.
In essence, I entirely support what the noble Baroness had to say, and I am reasonably certain that most other speakers will as well.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and to reinforce her concerns about recent changes to the parole process.
When it considers a prisoner’s case, the Parole Board has two decisions to make: first, whether to direct the prisoner’s release; and, secondly, whether to recommend that the prisoner should be transferred from a closed prison to an open establishment. The board carries out these functions to an extremely high standard. Its members include current and former judges, police officers, Crown prosecutors, probation officers, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers and members of other professions.
All Parole Board members receive thorough training on risk assessment, which is regularly reinforced by risk-focused in-service training. In every case which goes to an oral hearing, the board assesses whether a specialist member—such as a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a member with particular training in terrorism issues—should be on the panel. As a result of this strong focus on effective risk assessment, the proportion of prisoners released on parole who commit a further serious offence is less than 0.5%, which is a remarkable record of the success of the Parole Board in its work. It is difficult to see how any system based on human judgment could produce a significantly better result.
An essential part of the parole process is the provision to the board of reports from specialists working for His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—including prison staff, probation officers and psychologists—as well as other specialist reports commissioned by the service. These reports contain a detailed assessment of the prisoner’s risk. They include information about the prisoner’s progress in custody, their sentence plan, their risk of reoffending, their risk of serious harm and the arrangements and licence conditions which would be in place if they were released.
In the past, these reports also contained recommendations for or against release on parole and for or against a transfer to open conditions. The Parole Board was not bound to accept these recommendations, as it has a duty to make its own independent assessment of the prisoner’s suitability for release or open conditions. However, it was obviously helpful for the board to receive recommendations from professionals who had particular knowledge of the prisoner because they had worked with him or her on a regular basis during the prisoner’s sentence.
These recommendations have now been prohibited. This decision is totally illogical, since professionals who are commissioned by the prisoner’s legal representatives will not be prohibited from making recommendations. If a prison psychologist assesses the prisoner and believes that he or she is not safe to release, they are prohibited from saying so. However, if an independent psychologist is commissioned by the legal representative to assess the same prisoner and concludes that they are safe to release, they can make a recommendation for release to the Parole Board. In this case, the board would receive only one recommendation from a psychologist, a recommendation in favour of release, as even though the prison psychologist considers that the prisoner remains too dangerous to be released on licence, they are prohibited from saying so to the Parole Board.
This approach is patently nonsensical. It is difficult to see what it has to do with protecting the public or promoting sound decisions. The decision to prohibit these professionals from making recommendations seems to have arisen from the desire of the previous Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, to reject recommendations for open conditions in certain cases, specifically cases where he argued that a move to an open prison would
“undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system”.
This phrase seems to be shorthand for refusing recommendations in high-profile cases because of a fear of adverse media publicity, even when there is strong evidence of the prisoner’s suitability for open conditions.
The former Secretary of State may well have feared that it would look embarrassing if he refused a recommendation for open conditions when his own professional employees in the Prison and Probation Service recommended this. This does not seem to be a very grown-up way of making decisions. ln any organisation, senior leaders are entitled to overrule the recommendations of subordinates if they consider that there is a good reason for doing so. But no sensible leader would prohibit their staff from making recommendations in the first place in areas where the subordinate has particular knowledge and expertise.
The Secretary of State has always been able to reject recommendations for open conditions made by the Parole Board. But it makes no sense for him or his officials and the Parole Board itself to make their decisions in the absence of recommendations from those who have close knowledge of the prisoner. The new Secretary of State should review this change in the parole procedure and reverse it. This would be by far the least of the U-turns which the Government have undertaken in the last few weeks. None of us would be inclined to crow over a sensible reversal of policy of this kind. On the contrary, we would welcome a readiness to change direction after considering reasoned arguments from those with knowledge and experience of the parole system.
I believe strongly that future parole decisions should continue to be based on the accumulated experience and expertise of the Parole Board, informed by reports and recommendations from professionals with close knowledge.
My Lords, I speak in support of my noble friend’s regret Motion, which she moved with such clarity. She speaks with great experience and authority, as she told us at the beginning of her speech.
These regulations, already in force, feel like an attack on the Parole Board. I have been knocking around the legal system for decades, and I know many people who have been, and some who are, judicial members of the Parole Board. I think I reflect their feeling of the Parole Board being under attack from the Government, so I want to start by praising the Parole Board: for its fastidious care over the evidence in cases for which it is responsible; for its determined and proper independence, which is key; and, indeed, for its accepting the increased judicialisation that has made its processes more transparent and public. The Parole Board has moved with the times, and it perfectly understands its responsibilities.
Like others, I want to focus on paragraph (22), which provides that:
“Where considered appropriate, the Secretary of State will present a single view on the prisoner’s suitability for release.”
Even by statutory instrument standards, those are words of breathtaking vagueness. I suggest that this provision is a very unwise and unwelcome change for the following reasons. First, it is nothing less than an unwarranted interference by Ministers with what is clearly, now at least, a judicial process. Nobody can deny that the Parole Board is a judicial process; the issue goes, therefore, to the heart of the separation of powers. The previous Lord Chancellor knew perfectly well that he was attacking the separation of powers. I have, sneakingly, more confidence in his successor, who in my view has operated with some skill in bringing to an end quickly the justified strike by criminal barristers.
As I said a moment ago, the provision is vague. What are the terms of reference that would make it appropriate for a ministerial single view to be given? What does a “single view” mean in this context? Who is actually going to make these decisions? Who is going to prepare the papers to be put in the Minister’s red box? This is such an unclear procedure as to be wholly unacceptable.
Why on earth are report writers such as psychologists, an example already given, those with real knowledge of the prisoner concerned and, by definition, experts themselves to be banned from expressing a written opinion, which, of course, is not more than that—an opinion, not a decision, on the outcome of the case? This seems to me to presage a political reaction to media stories in an attempt to influence the Parole Board. That can have no legitimacy.
Furthermore, these ministerial decisions or recommendations are apparently not binding. What do they really mean? Well, they obviously mean that the Minister does not trust the tribunal, or at least he does not trust the media’s reaction to a decision that may be made by the Parole Board as a tribunal. But it certainly puts unacceptable pressure on the Parole Board.
With those comments in mind, please will the Minister tell us whether the Parole Board was consulted and, if so, whether the Parole Board welcomed these proposals and in what terms? Indeed, I think that we are entitled to know who else was consulted. What did they say? Did anyone support these proposals? If so, who were they and what reasons did they give?
Also, please will the Minister tell us how many cases this is expected to apply to? Is he, as a very experienced and eminent lawyer, comfortable with these changes? Do they accord with the ethical principles that separate Ministers from the courts and tribunals? He should be clear, when he answers, that most responsible commentators and respected NGOs see this as a slippery-slope provision to be deprecated.
My Lords, I shall speak extremely briefly. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. I fully support the views expressed in the excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in introducing this regret Motion.
I want to ask the Minister one question. Has guidance now been issued on the interpretation of the public confidence test and if not, when will it be issued? Who will be consulted on it, so that there is absolute clarity as to what public confidence means?
My Lords, I rise somewhat nervously to speak, because I am not an expert in this field. I am not a lawyer. There are clearly many noble Lords in your Lordships’ Chamber tonight who are experts. Unlike some of my dafter colleagues in another place, I rather value experts. I listen carefully to what they have to say.
Whatever disagreements there may be tonight, I think we can all agree that public service on the Parole Board is one of the most challenging tasks imaginable: balancing the paramount need for public safety with the hopes of eventual reform and re-entry into society for some offenders.
It is often said that nothing seems to work in the UK criminal justice system. I do not think this is right. It is a mistake. An awful lot works pretty well. The record shows that this most specialised part of the criminal justice system, in respect of which I am an amateur—a layman is perhaps a better way of putting it—generally works quite well. But because of human nature, it does not work all the time, alas; sometimes it fails, whatever the statistics show.
While I agree with noble Lords that a bit more consultation in drawing up these regulations would not be a bad thing, I must respectfully disagree with the regret Motion, for two reasons. First, the Secretary of State, like Parole Boards, has a very challenging task regarding public safety. On reflection—again, I stress, I speak as a layman—it is surely right that he or she should be able to produce a single view in a small number of the most serious cases. In all other cases, whole dossiers of reports can be obtained from those who are experts—psychologists, psychiatrists and, of course, lawyers. I am content with that, and I want my noble friend the Minister to know that I strongly support it.
Secondly and lastly, I strongly support our manifesto commitment to have more public hearings, where possible, at the request of victims and their families, the media and the general public. This is to the public good. As a layman, I feel strongly that the parole system must be as open and transparent as possible—not some experts’ secret garden where the generality of the public should not go. As I said before, I do greatly value expertise.
It is interesting to see what happens in other jurisdictions, which are not often spoken of well in this country, such as the United States. In some states, though not all, the system is very open indeed. Some have parole boards on which ex-convicts, as they call them, serve as full members. We must not shut our eyes to trying to make our system as transparent as possible. This is a second reason why I strongly support our manifesto commitment being followed up.
My Lords, I am here listening because I may shortly be on the Woolsack—although hopefully not—after my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. However, I declare an interest. I am a victim, and so are my daughters, of the murder of my late husband, Garry Newlove. Having listened to Members, and with no disrespect, I cannot agree with this regret Motion.
For the last 15 years, I have attended every parole hearing and tariff review hearing and, in my role as Victims Commissioner, I have shadowed parole hearings. I also worked on the review of the Worboys case. Although an appeal system is in place, the bar is so high that it feels like a waste of time. I have been through an appeal. I have been through exactly what anybody else would have to go through, with no favours. That appeal route is not easy. You must explain why you want to do this and why you disagree with the result of the parole hearing. My appeal was sent to the then Secretary of State, Robert Buckland. His team looked at it and worked on it without knowing any of my views, except for what I had written through my victim liaison officer. His office then recommended that it be reviewed.
I want to draw the Chamber’s attention to the information victims receive. In bold letters, the Parole Board says that no matter what goes through, it does not change its mind. For a victim, it is absolutely appalling to see that in bold, even though there is a process for victims to go through. This is not to be disrespectful to the qualified people in this room, but I am speaking up for the many victims who go through a system that says one thing and delivers another. I speak as the mother of three daughters, who witnessed every kick and punch to their father, when I say that the system is broken. I totally agree that the public has no confidence in the criminal justice system where victims are concerned. I am very grateful that the media pick up these stories, because that means that I find out more information about my case than I would have been told personally by the system.
I disagree with this regret Motion. The system needs a good overhaul, and we need transparency. I hear from Parole Board members that it is a courtroom. Well, if it is a courtroom then there should be transparency, so that victims can fully understand why the decision was made. In one of the parole hearings, the Parole Board disagreed with a psychologist from the prison, a representative who knew the situation and went against that decision.
I welcome that we are discussing this, but I cannot agree with the regret Motion. We need transparency and we need public confidence. Victims have a right to know, to understand and to be treated with dignity, as I have for 15 years. They have a right to understand, to be there, to listen. More importantly, this is an opportunity to ask my noble friend the Minister: when will a draft victims Bill be presented, so that our voices can be listened to?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for tabling this regret Motion, which I support. She made a powerful case. I will not repeat the points she made but, in opening, I put six questions to the Minister.
First, why was removing probation recommendations not included in the root and branch review and why was there no prior consultation with all the stakeholders before the changes were implemented? Secondly, on the removal of probation recommendations, what impact assessments have been carried out regarding black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners and IPP prisoners?
Thirdly, the National Association of Probation Officers is concerned that removing professional recommendations in parole will lead to inappropriate releases and the non-release of those who otherwise may have been granted parole. Therefore, what impact assessment has been carried out on this issue, and did the Government seek the views of the Parole Board itself about having to make release decisions without expert witness recommendations?
Fourthly, under the changes, what protections are in place for probation staff who are required to attend a public parole hearing? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the noble Baroness that these hearings should be public, but the question is specifically about the protection of parole officers—and, potentially, expert witnesses—when they are taking part in these hearings.
Fifthly, how many responses were there to the root-and-branch review, and how many of those were in favour of the public parole hearings? I echo the question of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, about whether anyone at all supported the Government’s proposals.
Sixthly, will the Government withdraw these changes if the judicial review finds against them?
In July’s Justice Questions in the other place, Kate Green MP challenged Dominic Raab on the proposed changes. He argued that
“there is a risk that separate reports, whether from psychiatrists or probation officers and those who manage risk, may give conflicting recommendations.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/22; col. 711.]
Sonia Flynn, the chief probation officer, added in September’s committee session that differing recommendations would seem
“quite confusing, given that we are one HMPPS”,
and that the new change
“kind of tidies”
that up. That was the justification.
I must say that I find that explanation very surprising. I am absolutely sure that Parole Board members are well used to assessing conflicting sources of information; it is what people who sit as judges, or in a quasi-judicial capacity, do all the time. In other contexts, such as criminal courts or family courts, it is absolutely routine to get recommendations from probation officers—or in the context of family courts, recommendations from experts—which can indeed be contradictory. That is what the judges or magistrates do when they decide the merits of a case.
I hope that the Minister, who is exceptionally experienced, will bring an open mind to this situation. There have been a lot of changes on the Government and Treasury Benches over the last few months—or days. He is in a position where he can bring an open mind to this, and I hope that he will respond to the noble Baroness’s regret Motion in that spirit.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for tabling this regret Motion.
The principal concern is that the recent changes to the Parole Board Rules prevent prison and probation staff making specific recommendations in the reports that they give the Parole Board. It is said that this has implications for the sentence progression of individuals subject to parole review, and complaint is made that this was done through the negative procedure without consultation. What we are not considering today are other changes, such as changes relating to the move from closed to open prisons, which are, strictly speaking, not the subject of today’s regret Motion.
I will provide some background. The Parole Board of England and Wales is an arm’s-length body which, as has been pointed out, performs a judicial, or at least quasi-judicial, function. It is required by statute to decide whether prisoners serving eligible sentences can be safely released into the community—that is the board’s decision. The statutory test requires that the board must direct release if it is
“satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.”
As is well known, the Secretary of State is required to refer eligible prisoners to the Parole Board once they have completed the relevant period of their custodial sentence. When a reference is made, the Prison and Probation Service—HMPPS—provides a comprehensive dossier of evidence, which includes information about the offence, risk assessments and information from those who have worked closely with the prisoner during their time in custody. Those reports, including those from psychologists, may be anywhere between 150 and, in some complex cases, up to 1,000 pages. Essentially, that procedure and process will continue.
I simply point out that the change that we are talking about is quite limited. It is concerned with the removal of the previous requirement that written evidence submitted on behalf of the Secretary of State must include a recommendation. The previous legislation said that the staff reports must include a recommendation, and that provision is no longer in force. In other words, the reports continue as they did before, but there is no final conclusion that says, “I therefore recommend” whatever the recommendation is.
My understanding is that they are not to make recommendations. They can make their risk assessments and say whether there is a valid release plan; they can do all of those things. They can say this man or woman poses no risk to the public, or does pose a risk, or whatever it is, but they cannot express an opinion on the very question that the Parole Board is required to answer: whether the prisoner should be released. This is essentially a change that brings the decision on release back to where it belongs: the Parole Board, not the expert.
Is not the noble and learned Lord confusing two quite different things? The expert does not give an opinion on whether the person should be released, as the noble and learned Lord suggested has been the case; the expert gives his opinion on whether it is safe for the person to be released. That is quite different. Can the noble and learned Lord, with all of his expertise, think of another form of expert evidence in which the expert is not permitted to give his opinion on the key matter under consideration?
My Lords, I respectfully submit that we are dealing with angels dancing on pins here. What is intended by this change is to make it clear that the responsibility for the decision rests squarely with the Parole Board, and to avoid the risk, however remote, that the expert report tends to usurp the role of the decision-maker, running the risk of them delegating their decision to the expert. This amendment brings the Parole Board process in line with the rest of the justice system. I respectfully refer your Lordships to the evidence of Professor Stephen Shute to the Science and Technology Committee of the other place on 7 September. He made this very point, saying that it is for the Parole Board to make the decision, rather than run the risk of the matter being left in the hands of the expert.
Analogy has been rightly drawn with what happens elsewhere in the justice system; for example, in relation to pre-sentence reports in the criminal process. One does not find the probation officer saying that the court should impose a community sentence. One asks the probation officer to assess whether the offender is suitable for a community sentence. This change will align the practice of the Parole Board more closely with the rest of the justice system.
Not realising that this was a high tea, rather than a dinner break, I confess that much to my regret I was not here at the start of the debate. Why, if this is designed to stop these individual experts pre-empting the Parole Board’s decision, is it left to the Secretary of State to be allowed to do so with his single view?
In a sense, this is an inter partes procedure, with the Secretary of State on one hand and the prisoner on the other. The Secretary of State, like a party, is putting his view to the board. That is the single view that, in my submission, he is entitled to put.
While I am on the single view, this is likely to refer simply to the very top tier of cases, probably 150 to 200 cases a year out of the many thousands that the Parole Board deals with. It refers to very dangerous, highly sensitive cases of prisoners involving murder, serious violence and so forth. In those cases, it is thought right that the Secretary of State, through his representative before the Parole Board, should be able to present a single overarching view. That is a sensible approach which avoids confusion and uncertainty.
Nothing in any of these reforms prevents or limits the ability of the Parole Board to make the right decision or the ability of the relevant members of staff, whether psychologists, probation officers or whatever, to make the risk assessments or to put in whatever observations they wish within the assessment that they are required to make, except to make the relevant recommendation.
It is not a change that should in any way undermine the system. HMPPS staff will continue to provide reports to the Parole Board. Their reports will still contain the same detailed evidence and assessment of risk as before. The only omission will be a recommendation on what decision the report writer thinks the Parole Board should make. Far from undermining the Parole Board, the intention of these reforms is to draw a sharp distinction between the roles of those who provide evidence and those whose duty it is to assess the evidence and reach a decision. That is the essential background.
The Secretary of State has an overriding duty to protect the public. In that context, as the guardian of the safety of the public, he is entitled to present his view to the Parole Board, which then decides.
On the second point made by the noble Baroness in relation to the implications for the progression of offenders, the Government’s position is that there is no change. The rules by which prisoners progress through the system and their opportunity for release will continue to be assessed by the Parole Board, as they are at the moment.
On this occasion, I will not go into the open prison/closed prison issue, because that is not the subject of what we are discussing today. On the point we are discussing, this change in the rules about the recommendations, it is a very limited change and is fully in accordance with general principle. HMPPS will continue to provide comprehensive evidence to the Parole Board and factual evidence for the assessment of risk, as before.
I am really rather surprised at what the Minister says. I have sat in courts for many years. To suggest that an expert cannot give an opinion as to what should be the outcome is something I find contrary to everything I remember from my experience, which admittedly was a long time ago.
My Lords, with respect, I have always understood it to be the case—I hope I have not got this wrong—that an expert should not normally give his opinion on the very issue on which the court is required to decide. The scope of the expert’s opinion is to provide the court with the factual details. It is the duty of the expert not to say whether X or Y is guilty or not guilty but to provide the court with the facts on which that decision is taken. At least, that is common practice.
In the jurisdiction in which the Minister is so expert, namely competition law—as he knows, I have sat with him in the Competition Appeal Tribunal—economists and other experts giving evidence before the Competition Appeal Tribunal do give an opinion as to whether the practice under consideration is competitive or anti-competitive.
I pull the Minister back to a previous point. Time and again, those of us who have been in criminal courts for a long time have heard judges say to a probation officer, for example, “If I pass a non-custodial sentence, do you think he would comply with orders A, B and C?”. That is an opinion on exactly the issue under consideration. I am completely befuddled by that part of the argument and so, I think, are many noble friends and colleagues.
Perhaps I ought to try to bring this somewhat tetchy debate to a close. The Parole Board is required to decide that it should direct release if it is satisfied that the detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. The provision we are discussing makes it clear that the expert should not pronounce on the prisoner’s suitability for release. In other words, the expert should not pronounce on the principal matter on which the Parole Board is being asked to decide. Subject to that, all the other material that was there before will continue to be there.
I am not in a position to answer all the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, was kind enough to ask; I think there were six and maybe several sub-questions within the six. I will have a look at the transcript, if I may, and answer what I can in due course as with other questions asked by noble Lords this evening. There was no consultation in this case. This is within the legislation; that is the procedure that is normally adopted for amendments to these rules. I am perfectly happy on behalf of the Government to say that we will keep this issue under review and see how it works out. There is a case in the High Court, which I cannot comment on, which may affect the outcome. The essential point is that these rule changes in no way undervalue the importance of the reports or the assessments that will continue to be provided by prison and probation staff and psychologists. Those will remain vital. In closing, I pay tribute to all the staff in the service who provide those reports and reassure them that their role will continue to be vital, as heretofore.
My Lords, I know that time is rushing on and the Front Bench is keen to close the debate. I first want to thank all the colleagues who have contributed to this debate and say that I respect the alternative views expressed by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove.
I found the Minister’s response rather confusing. He was trying to justify the unjustifiable. If I wanted to refute every point, it would take me about half an hour, which I do not have. This really highlights why it is important to have a consultation—a proper debate—so we are not eroding the fundamental principles on which the Parole Board actually operates. At the outset he said it was an arm’s-length body and should be respected as such. Also, if may say so, experts can give their opinion but from my experience the Parole Board hears different, conflicting views and it makes up its own mind. It does a risk assessment, which it is good at. Its record shows that.
I ask the Minister, having listened to this debate and felt the unease round the House, whether the Government will be willing to meet to see how some of these things are going to be discussed. We need clarity about what actually is intended. I am leaving this debate more confused than enlightened. But I thank the Minister for the response and everybody else for their contributions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
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