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Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill

Volume 728: debated on Friday 3 March 2023

Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee

Clause 4

Licensing Regulations

I beg to move amendment 1, page 4, line 37, at end insert—

“(4A) The provision that may be made by virtue of subsection (4)(c) includes provision for the Secretary of State to designate the district of every local housing authority in England.”

This amendment confirms that licensing regulations under clause 4(1) or (3) may provide for the Secretary of State to designate the district of every local housing authority in England for the purposes of the regulations.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 2, in clause 5, page 5, line 41, at end insert—

“(ba) conditions requiring the carrying out of assessments of the needs of residents (or potential residents) and relating to the conduct of such assessments;”.

This amendment enables licensing regulations under clause 4(1) or (3) to provide that conditions attached to a licence may include conditions relating to needs assessments.

Government amendment 3, in clause 6, page 7, line 4, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

“(a) each local housing authority in England,

(aa) each social services authority in England,”.

This amendment substitutes local housing authorities in England and social services authorities in England for the Local Government Association in the list of persons the Secretary of State must consult before making licensing regulations under clause 4(1) or (3).

We have already heard earlier in the Bill’s passage that there is a real risk of rogue providers changing location in order to avoid regulation. I am determined to put a stop to the exploitation of vulnerable people through the provision of poor-quality supported housing. For the rogues this is a lucrative activity, which is incentive enough for them to move location in order to avoid impending regulation.

The Bill currently provides that licensing regulations may include provision under which the Secretary of State may designate the district of “a” local housing authority as subject to licensing. The amendment clarifies that such provision includes provision for the Secretary of State to designate every district in England as subject to licensing, which means that the Secretary of State could introduce universal local licensing by exercising a power to be conferred by the licensing regulations of clause 4 to designate every local housing authority district in England. It is important that this is set out clearly as an option. The licensing regulations must still make provision for a local housing authority to self-designate, and may require a local housing authority to do so if conditions are met.

I tabled amendment 1 because the Government need to be able to reset the system. We must be able to put a stop to providers simply moving to areas without a licensing scheme and setting up there. With universal local licensing, we could prevent a landlord who had failed a “fit and proper person” test in an area with a licensing scheme from simply relocating to an area without licensing, and thus potentially protect vulnerable residents. If universal local licensing is pursued—and I consider it to be an option—that will mean that all residents of supported housing, wherever they are in England, can take comfort from the fact that the national supported housings standards will be enforced, and action will be taken should a provider not meet them. That option must be available to the Secretary of State.

I want to reassure Members that the Government will consult on the detail of the licensing regime, as is required in the Bill. That, of course, includes consulting on the duty set out in clause 6 relating to the method of enforcing the national supported housing standards, and the effectiveness of the licensing regime. We remain determined that the regime should be light-touch in order to avoid overburdening good providers and local authorities, but also robust enough to force out those running supported housing for the wrong reasons. We will keep the licensing scheme under review to ensure that it is working as was intended. I hope that Members will agree to our making this change.

Let me now deal with Government amendment 2. I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) cannot be present today because of future commitments, and he sent me his apologies. I am grateful to him for tabling a similar amendment in Committee, and I am pleased to be able to bring it back to the House today. In Committee he spoke of his concerns about how residents could access supported housing, and expressed particular concern about the problems experienced by residents who were mixed together inappropriately, as well as the increased advertising of supported housing provision on websites such as Gumtree and Zoopla. On the latter point, I can offer some reassurance. I recently met representatives of Gumtree, at their request, to discuss the practice by some supported housing providers of placing advertisements on its website. Gumtree, I am glad to say, has already started to crack down on these inappropriate advertisements and has expressed its willingness to continue to work with the Government on this matter. Members will know that Gumtree is not the only service that can enable rogue landlords to advertise poor-quality supported housing. The Government will work with these services to find solutions, and my amendment will also help.

In the report on exempt accommodation, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee also raised the issue of access routes into supported housing. I am well aware that residents are finding their way into supported housing through a variety of routes, including websites, as I mentioned earlier, where landlords purport to be providing supported housing but are, in fact, perpetuating the abuse that we are here to tackle. At best, placing someone in supported housing without testing its suitability will mean that the right outcomes will not be achieved and the person will not be able to move on into independent living, if that is appropriate. At worst, failing to assess the residents’ needs is a clear indicator that genuine support is simply not being delivered at all, and that is not acceptable.

The hon. Member for Sheffield South East and I are in agreement that it is vital that the resident’s support needs are assessed, so that they can be given the right support in the right accommodation. Once these arrangements are in place, we would expect assessments to be carried out in advance of a resident moving into the accommodation, but, in some circumstances, we recognise that that may not be possible. None the less, all supported housing residents must have the confidence that they are living in the right place with the support that they need. Amendment 2 proposed by the Government delivers on that by adding to the list of conditions that may be attached to a supported housing licence at clause 5(3) conditions requiring the carrying out of assessments of the needs of residents, or potential residents, including in relation to the conduct of those needs assessments. The fine details will, of course, be subject to consultation, but this amendment demonstrates the importance that the House places on proper support being given to supported housing residents, tailored to their individual need. I hope Members agree with me on that.

Amendment 3 is more of a technical amendment. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for proposing this amendment in Committee and I am pleased to be able to return with it today. The amendment seeks to amend clause 6, following a request from the Local Government Association to be removed as a statutory consultee. The Bill includes a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult on a number of issues related to the measures in the Bill. As I have said in earlier debates, it is very important to me that we carefully test these measures for unintended consequences before implementation. As determined as I am to drive out poor provision and drive up standards in supported housing, I am equally determined to ensure that good providers can continue to support the vulnerable people who need these vital services.

The Local Government Association asked to be replaced as a statutory consultee by local authorities. Local authorities—or to use the language of the Bill, local housing authorities and social service authorities—will deliver many of the measures in the Bill. It is right that we seek their views before making regulations. In line with that request, the amendment removes the Local Government Association from the list of statutory consultees in clause 6 and replaces them with local housing authorities and social services authorities in England. The effect of the amendment is that the Secretary of State will have an obligation to consult local housing authorities and social service authorities on the design of the licensing regime before making regulations. I hope that hon. Members will agree with this amendment also.

At this stage, I will confine my remarks to the three amendments tabled; I will have more to say on Third Reading. The amendments stem from the very healthy cross-party debate we had in Committee on four amendments that were tabled at that stage.

The first amendment, as the Minister has outlined, relates to clarification in the Bill, and it has my full support. The clear point is that it allows the Secretary of State

“to designate the district of every local housing authority in England”

for the purposes of the regulations. That confirms that licensing regulations may be provided by every local authority in England, as opposed to only a few; while possibly only a few will require such measures now, this is a rapidly growing market and we must ensure that the legislation is future-proofed and that rogue landlords are held to account throughout the country rather than, as the Minister rightly says, moving from one area to another.

I ask the Minister, when we look at the regulations that will underpin this legislation, to look at grouping local authorities together to form a licensing regime, rather than relying on relatively small district housing authorities, which may only have one or two units within their area and will therefore find it overbearing to have that regulation and a whole bureaucratic structure just within that area.

I welcome this Bill and, having served on the Bill Committee, I am aware of its importance. I welcome my hon. Friend’s point about grouping councils together and I highly recommend the Minister looking at that. I was responsible for bringing children’s services together with Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea when I was children’s services lead at Westminster Council, so I know how important it is that we ensure that local authorities, where possible, can work together, not only to be more cost-effective, but to provide a better service.

There are also several advantages beyond those my hon. Friend mentions. Providers that provide across more than one district housing authority will then have one set of regulations to abide by rather than, potentially, a number of different ones. That was the original intent of the Bill: to ensure that we deal with the rogue landlords and encourage the good providers to carry on with the excellent work they do. We also need to ensure that no one can slip through the net as a rogue provider, so I am glad the Minister has put forward that proposal.

As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, various different providers are exploiting the system via internet and other social media activities. I recommend her taking a look at a new set-up called RoomMatch, which I believe is just about to be released, and which enables users to look at what providers are providing—both the quality of accommodation and the support provided—to assist those placing vulnerable people in those types of accommodation. At the same time, the people going into that type of accommodation can view it virtually before they get anywhere near it.

The amendment will prevent unlawful providers that have had regulations imposed as a result of the Bill by the local authority in which they operate from simply upping sticks and moving to a nearby authority that does not have regulations, and then continuing to exploit vulnerable tenants for vast quantities of money while still providing a shamefully inadequate level of care. That is the big challenge. Unfortunately, I have had experience of seeing some of that; it is truly dreadful what we put certain vulnerable people through. Allowing providers to set up somewhere else and continue to exploit people would leave the purpose of the Bill unachieved. I am delighted that the amendment has been tabled; I think it will prevent the worst-case scenario.

It may seem unlikely to some people that the aforementioned case could take place, but I have visited numerous examples of such supported housing. The set-up is extremely quick, and there are low start-up costs, so rogues can set up very quickly and far too easily. They do not need to obtain planning permission, because of the permitted development rights they acquire when providing supported accommodation. Consequently, they can immediately start up and falsely advertise the property on social media networks as good quality with a high level of care. Residents promptly apply, particularly because there is currently a limited amount of affordable housing in the private market.

Almost immediately, tenants are found, and the high rent payments start coming in. To be clear, this is an industry that, when abused, pulls in huge profit margins, so it is completely within the rogue landlord’s interest to set up in another district, even if it is only for a year, before the housing authority introduces regulations. I welcome this amendment, which will send the strongest possible signal to those who wish to abuse vulnerable tenants.

Amendment 2 will enable the licensing regulations under clause 4 to include in the list of conditions attached to a licence requirements related to the needs assessment of those looking to enter exempt accommodation and supported housing accommodation, and it has my complete support. I commend the excellent report that the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee did on this. Its Chairman, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), tabled the amendment in Committee, and I am glad that the Minister agreed to look at it further and refine it to make sure it was fit for purpose. I am glad that she has agreed to adopt the amendment, and I thank her and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East for their contributions and advice relating to it.

I emphasise that good providers have nothing to fear. I have been to many supported housing units where the first thing they do is conduct a needs assessment of the individuals. If a provider is possibly taking someone for two years, they need to assess their needs, so that they can provide the right level of support. It is a scandal that many rogue providers provide no support whatsoever. This amendment is extremely welcome. It has support from Members on both sides of the House and has been broadly welcomed and accepted by local authorities, housing providers and charitable bodies across the sector, which is incredibly reassuring.

At present, the Bill stipulates that the conditions that may be attached to a licence include conditions relating to the standard of accommodation; conditions relating to the use of accommodation; conditions relating to the provision of care, support or supervision; and conditions requiring compliance with national supported housing standards, when we eventually publish them. Amendment 2 will add to that:

“conditions requiring the carrying out of assessments of the needs of residents… and relating to the conduct of such assessments”.

Fundamentally, this means that residents of supported accommodation must have an initial assessment of the level of their needs, to ensure that they have access to the correct amount of care and appropriate care relating to their specific complex needs. As we are all aware, every case is unique, and no two individuals will have exactly the same requirements. I am confident that this amendment will help residents to receive the best care—helping them eventually to stand on their own two feet, rebuild their lives and probably enter the private housing market in future. Local authorities can be held responsible for initiating these assessments and ensuring enforcement by all supported housing providers in their districts. The amendment will ensure that every local authority carries that forward and achieves the best outcome for residents.

Amendment 3 stems from discussions with the Local Government Association; I declare an interest, as a vice-president of the LGA. The LGA is the body that was previously named, which meant that it was consulted on all aspects of licensing regulations. However, as a localist, I believe it is right that local housing authorities and social services authorities are the ones consulted, so that each authority can have its views taken into account by Ministers when decisions are made. Stipulating the LGA as a consultee risked local authorities, as delivery partners, not having the primary opportunity to consult on elements that they will consequently be responsible for enforcing, so amending the Bill in this way is clearly the right way forward. I am pleased that the Local Government Association is highly supportive of the amendment. It has assured me and other local authorities that it will continue to work with colleagues and officials across central Government, other local authorities and accommodation providers to support the future consultation on the Bill. As this will be the case, it has been explicitly named, as per the amendment. The amendment is extremely welcome; it clarifies a point, and I endorse it completely.

I am thankful to the Minister for honouring her pledges in Committee by tabling the amendments, which I wholeheartedly support.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Clause 5

Further provision about licensing regulations

Amendment made: 2, page 5, line 41, at end insert—

“(ba) conditions requiring the carrying out of assessments of the needs of residents (or potential residents) and relating to the conduct of such assessments;”.—(Felicity Buchan.)

This amendment enables licensing regulations under clause 4(1) or (3) to provide that conditions attached to a licence may include conditions relating to needs assessments.

Clause 6

Consultation

Amendment made: 3, page 7, line 4, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

“(a) each local housing authority in England,

(aa) each social services authority in England,”.—(Felicity Buchan.)

This amendment substitutes local housing authorities in England and social services authorities in England for the Local Government Association in the list of persons the Secretary of State must consult before making licensing regulations under clause 4(1) or (3).

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

When we are considering opportunities for private Members’ Bills and when we are drawn in the lottery for them, it is important that we consider what we are going to take forward. I am very conscious that I have met many Members who have been in this House for more than 20 years and have never been drawn in the ballot, and this is my second opportunity to propose a private Member’s Bill. [Interruption.] Members have to enter the ballot if they want to succeed.

My experience in 2016 with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 was a key pointer, because Members have the choice of taking a Bill that the Government would like them to take, developing a Bill that the Government completely oppose and going down in flames, or developing their own. In both cases when I have been drawn, I have chosen the latter. That is not the easy route by any means, but when I had the opportunity to propose a private Member’s Bill, I wanted to make sure that I helped vulnerable people who cannot speak for themselves. That is why the Homelessness Reduction Act, the single biggest reform in housing for more than 40 years, came about.

This new Bill, the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill, deals with the vulnerable people who should be assisted as a result of the Homelessness Reduction Act. Both that Act and this Bill stem from reports published by Select Committees on which I have had the honour of serving: we have provided the evidence base and have almost carried out pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bills before we propose them.

I am pleased to speak to this Bill once more as it reaches Third Reading, and I am encouraged by the journey thus far. We have engaged in meaningful and constructive debate, leading to the fine-tuned edits that we have just made on Report. The main message of the Bill, however, remains the same: we want to prevent vulnerable tenants from being exploited by rogue landlords. My central message to the good providers out there—there are some brilliant organisations that help vulnerable people—is that they have nothing to fear from the new legislation. It is the rogues we are after—those who exploit vulnerable people.

As the cost of living crisis continues to affect residents across the country, the need for supported accommodation is growing rapidly. It is therefore vital that we regulate the market now, before many more vulnerable people are subjected to the horrors that are far too often demonstrated. Once again, I take the opportunity to recommend that individuals read the report of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, which is available from the Vote Office and other good bookshops: it is a right riveting read. That report highlighted the extent to which tenants were abused, forced and manipulated into damaging practices, whether it be prostitution, substance abuse or discouragement from work—I could go on. People are exploited in an unacceptable way.

The main reason that people are referred to supported housing is to receive the constructive support they need to transition back to normality, yet far too often, those people go backwards as a consequence of damaging malpractice. It is an issue that is popping up in more and more constituencies all over England, highlighting the need for prompt regulation. The sheer volume of money that landlords can make in this corrupt practice is so huge that once others learn of it, they jump on the bandwagon. It is a licence to print masses of money very quickly.