To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will establish recommended standards for dealing with litter and waste, adapted for different areas and needs and including labelling plastic carrier bags with the length of time they take to biodegrade.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley): My Lords, the Code of practice on litter and refuse sets cleaning standards for local authorities which vary according to an area's intensity of use and litter levels. The key to reducing the environmental cost of carrier bags is reducing usage, encouraging reuse and recycling. It is unclear whether labelling carrier bags with details of biodegradability influences consumer behaviour. It might wrongly imply that quicker-degrading bags have less environmental impact.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I thank the Minister for that slightly doubtful Answer. Has he become aware, or does he know, that the chemical additive d2w, in use since 1970, has now been developed to a degree of accuracy that almost the exact date of self-destruction can be built into plastic-bag manufacture? Would it not be an advantage for everyone to know this death date so that bags could be tailored for certain markets, such as the fast-food industry-blamed for bags clogging our waterways? Other bags intended for long-term storage would not unexpectedly turn into confetti. Is the Minister aware that some people are now beginning to hoard free plastic carriers because they are so fearful that they may become unavailable?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I was aware of the brief chemistry lesson that my noble friend has given me but I am grateful for that. Labelling plastic bags is not quite as simple as that. Some bags break down in different manners in different environments, according to where they are left, whether it is in the sea or on land. Some will break down into different things, whether plastic or, if they are made of some organic matter, in other ways. All things break down in different ways and labelling would not necessarily help the consumer. I am always prepared to listen to any further advice that my noble friend and others have on these matters. We want to deal with the long-term problem particularly of the single-use plastic bag.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, are the Government giving consideration to the decision taken by the Welsh Government to charge for plastic bags from 1 October, to encourage the reuse of bags and of good old-fashioned shopping bags?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I have not always been the greatest fan of devolution but one of its great advantages is that we can profit from lessons learnt in other countries. We will certainly look carefully at what they are doing in Wales and keep an eye on that. The noble Baroness is quite right to talk about what she referred to as "good, old-fashioned shopping bags" or the bags made available by supermarkets at a cost to encourage reuse of them. Often the problem with those is that one ends up buying too many. I have a very large stack of those bags at home waiting to be reused.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale: My Lords, are the Government aware of the example of Rwanda, where the Parliament and Government banned the use of plastic bags completely, leading to it being widely described as the cleanest country in the whole of Africa? The impact on litter pollution and also civic duty in Rwanda has been considerable. Will the Government look at international examples to deal with this horrendous problem?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for bringing to the House the experiences of Rwanda. I recently met the Rwandan forestry minister on a completely different matter and unfortunately, because I was not briefed on this matter, did not have a chance to discuss it with him. Should I have a chance again, I will do so. That is an option that one could look at. We are not happy that the decline in the use of single-use plastic bags has not been maintained and that there has been an increase. When we got those figures in the summer, I made it clear that, if we do not see an improvement, we may have to consider additional measures in the future, and we will certainly learn from all other countries.
Baroness Eaton: Would the Government consider having their experts look at drawing up a recommended list of materials for recycling, which could be very helpful both to local government and to individuals?
Lord Henley: My noble friend is quite right to draw to the House's attention the problems of the vast variety of different plastics that we use-I cannot remember how many there are-and the problems of recycling them. I think that currently we recycle some 24 per cent of packaging. We would like to get that figure up. Obviously it might be easier to do that if we could reduce the number of different forms of plastic, but that would take quite a long time, a great many behavioural changes and changes by the producers. Certainly, as my noble friend suggests, it is something that we could look at.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, the Government's waste review set out the noble ambition of a zero-waste economy. I ask the Minister, what role
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Lord Henley: I am not always convinced that targets are necessarily the right way to go forward. Targets can very often distort behaviour and distort priorities and how people deal with things. We made clear in our waste review that we want to make it easy for individuals and organisations to do the right thing, because a great many of them want to do just that. We will continue that process, and I hope that as a result we will head towards that zero-waste economy that we are looking for.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, in the general area of litter and waste, and indeed offensive graffiti, localism really should reign and prevail? It is not up to central government to tell local people and local councils exactly what they should do and how they should do it. It is up to local people and local councillors to get together to make sure that their streets and areas are clean and that unsightly graffiti are removed. Would he agree that it would be wrong for the Government to take away any of the existing powers that local authorities have in this area?
Lord Henley: My noble friend is quite right to link graffiti with both litter and waste, and I am very grateful that he did that. I am also grateful for his stress on the importance of localism. I have made it clear the whole way through this process, particularly when it came to our recent waste review, that we believe that it is for local authorities to decide on these matters and that they can get them right. What is right in one borough, such as Westminster, where I happen to live, or Carlisle, where I also happen to live, will be different processes. The same will be true for Pendle, where my noble friend lives.
Lord Grenfell: Would it not be possible to reduce the use of plastic bags if more could be done to encourage the producers and manufacturers of goods that are sold in supermarkets to stop packaging them as if they were mothballing an aircraft carrier?
Lord Henley: Again, it is not as simple as all that. We do encourage them to reduce packaging as much as possible. However, the noble Lord will find that some packaging actually does end up reducing waste. If one takes something as simple as a cucumber, wrapping it in plastic ends up reducing the amount of cucumber that is wasted because it goes off compared to the cucumber that is unwrapped. This is a simple fact. So packaging can play its part in reducing waste, and we will work with the supermarkets and others to make sure that, while packaging is reduced, packaging can also play its part in reducing waste.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): Sellafield is recognised as the most important nuclear site in the UK, employing over 10,000 people. That priority has seen record levels of investment from the latest government spending round, which will lead to the acceleration of decommissioning work at the site. The closure of the MOX plant is of course regrettable, but Sellafield Ltd is actively working with the 600 people who will lose their jobs at this time, and everyone in the area is doing their very best to see that these people find jobs very quickly.
Baroness Worthington: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer and it is welcome that new jobs are being sought. However, my Question leads to the longer-term future for the site. Sellafield is a unique site in the UK and I believe that it could become the home of world-leading research into the use of next-generation nuclear reactors. Such reactors, as well as being more efficient in their fuel use, generating no long-lasting waste, can be designed to burn up existing stockpiles of plutonium held at the Sellafield site. In light of this, is there more that the Government can do to support R&D into new nuclear designs that will help to ensure that we develop the safest and most efficient new reactors?
Baroness Wilcox: First, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and her new interest in nuclear, and I hope that she will feed in her views to the Government and allow us to help her where we can. I hope that she will share her vision of the new approach, which I think she was hoping would be based on thorium. On her Question, if we can turn a liability into an asset, this Government will explore every possibility. The Government consulted earlier this year on their preferred policy option for dealing with the plutonium stockpile, and will confirm their position later this year.
Lord Winston: My Lords, does the Minister not regard it as a crying shame that this country, which after all pretty well started the invention of nuclear power for peaceful uses, is now annually investing less than £25 million a year in research into nuclear fission, which is way behind all our major competitors? That makes us the poorhouse for developing further in the way that my noble friend has just mentioned.
Baroness Wilcox: The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is right that we have not been investing as we should. We have been in government for only a year and we are
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Lord Razzall: Following on from the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, rather than jumping the gun like Usain Bolt, may I ask my noble friend whether there are residual liabilities under the processing contracts at the MOX plant at Sellafield in relation to cleaning up the plant? If so, who is going to bear them?
Baroness Wilcox: There are residual liabilities, and we will have to work out exactly what we are going to do. Can we turn the existing plutonium stocks from the MOX plants from a liability into an asset? That is an area that we must look at and see what we can do. The Government consulted earlier this year on their preferred policy option for dealing with all those stockpiles and will confirm their position later this year. I thank my noble friend for his question.
Lord Grantchester: Does the Minister agree that there would be great benefit to the area and the UK if the existing plutonium stock stored at Sellafield could be converted into an asset? With the right kind of advanced reactor, the plutonium could be completely consumed while making new fuel from thorium, which could be used in increasing carbon-free electrical generation capacity, generating 20 per cent more than the UK is currently using. Could the Minister confirm that this would be of huge benefit to jobs in Cumbria?
Baroness Wilcox: It would be of huge benefit to everyone if we can get this off the ground, absolutely. I really am very grateful, as is my noble friend Lord Marland, for the noble Lord's personal interest in this subject. I understand that he is going to Sellafield soon and we would very much like to hear his views on his return.
Baroness Wall of New Barnet: Will the noble Baroness and the Government do all that they can to encourage the creation of new jobs in these areas, as my noble friend has suggested in her Question? Will she also confirm that the number of apprentices already at Sellafield is the way forward in creating those new jobs and building a future for that area?
Baroness Wilcox: I agree with the noble Baroness, particularly about apprenticeships, which I know are very close to her heart. UK Trade and Investment is looking at this area and seeing what it can do to help, the Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership is working extremely well, the docks at Warrington have been opened for the new containers, and a lot of apprenticeships are, I understand, being sought in that area. So yes, I do agree with her.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, the Government aim to continue to computerise NHS medical records so that patient experience is enhanced, patient care is made more efficient, and patient safety is improved. However, we recognise the weakness of top-down, centrally imposed IT systems. Although elements of the programme have been successful, the policy approach taken has failed to engage the NHS sufficiently. The findings of recent reviews will contribute to planning currently under way for future informatics support to the modernised NHS.
Lord Naseby: Is my noble friend aware that the current programme for the NHS database has cost over £6.2 billion, has taken 10 years and is currently totally unworkable? Is he aware of any other country in the world that has attempted such a project and succeeded? As far as I can see, no other country has even attempted it. Would it not be far better if Her Majesty's Government bit the bullet and scrapped the whole scheme, as they did with the RAF's Nimrod programme, which was itself a brave decision?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I can well understand my noble friend's acute disquiet over this matter, particularly in light of the recent report from the Public Accounts Committee. The view we have taken is that some very good things have been achieved so far, particularly from the national elements of the programme, but it is equally clear that the top-down policy approach taken to the computerisation of the NHS has not delivered the benefits at local level that everybody was hoping for and has failed to engage the NHS sufficiently. Those are the things we are now concentrating on: making sure that the governance of the programme is sound; learning lessons from what has happened; and achieving value for money.
Lord Warner: My Lords, I declare an interest as the former Minister responsible for this programme-one does have to own up to one's past from time to time. Could the Minister assure the House that the Government are fully committed to the idea of an electronic patient record system as the way forward for the NHS, given its benefits for patient care, research and NHS efficiency? Could he tell the House what proportion of the population has now been able to avail itself of an electronic summary record?
Earl Howe: I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord did when he was a Minister. Yes, the Government are committed to a summary care record, which, for the benefit of noble Lords, is a record that includes a
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Lord Patel: My Lords, would the Minister agree that to improve the quality of healthcare we would need comparable indicators of health outcomes? In the absence of nationally collected computerised data, how would we achieve this?
Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. We have to measure performance in order to improve upon it. That is why we are focused on producing an information strategy, which we hope to publish later this year. A lot of work has already gone on and the NHS Future Forum, as he may know, is looking at this area. He is absolutely right that this will be central to the performance management of the NHS.
Earl Howe: This is a commitment that we have made. We fully support the concept of patients having full access to their medical records online. A great deal of work is going on at the moment to make sure that the protocols are sound, because clearly the one thing one does not want is for the wrong people to access the wrong patient data. If we can achieve that and do it in a simple way, we shall roll the programme out as soon as we can.
Baroness Pitkeathley: I take on board what the noble Earl says about engaging local commitment and the failure that there has been in that so far, but does he agree that one of the most important things about local commitment is that different localities may have different systems? As far as the patient is concerned, it is absolutely essential that the systems can talk to each other. How will that be ensured if we go down the local route?
Earl Howe: The noble Baroness makes a very good point. I said that the top-down approach to local service provision has not worked when it has come to local service provider systems. We think that local requirements are best judged and best met by decisions being taken locally but that does not mean that they will be left on their own. There will be the necessary support from the centre wherever needed. She is again right that the key will be that these local systems must be interoperable.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that while technology is incredibly beneficial to the National Health Service, we must be wary of people working within the health service depending too much upon technology and ignoring the human aspects of care for people who are in hospital-talking to patients, touching them and holding their hands when they have problems? My recent experiences in hospital have been very unpleasant because people have relied entirely on technology and not listened to what I have had to say.
Earl Howe: The noble Countess is of course correct that good patient care is about humane and sensitive treatment by the staff who serve in the National Health Service. At the same time, I think we are all clear that technology has a role to play in enhancing patient safety and improving the quality of care that the good staff of the NHS can deliver.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, can I entice the Minister into being slightly more definite about when the House might see the new IT strategy which the Government keep telling us that they are about to publish? As a former Minister, I know that the answer "soon" is one that the House always looks at with some wry smiles. If we could have a more definite date, that might be helpful.
Earl Howe: My Lords, we plan to make an announcement towards the latter part of the autumn about the way forward for informatics, which will mean-we are clear about this-that we continue to gain more value for money from taxpayers' investment and ensure that informatics support is fit for purpose in the modern NHS.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the use of slopping out as the primary method of prisoner sanitation ended in 1996. Currently, less than 3 per cent of the prison population are required to use unacceptable alternatives to in-cell sanitation. All new build has in-cell sanitation and, in some cases, in-cell showering facilities.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In September 1991, the then Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, assured everyone, at paragraph 6.8 of his White Paper Custody, Care and Justice, that,
The announcement made by the Prisons Minister Ann Widdecombe in 1996, which the Minister quoted, was premature because there have been, and are, cases of slopping out. The Scottish Prisons Service has admitted that the practice breaches human rights. Recently, the Scottish Court of Session has agreed that prisoners can sue for damages for being made to slop out. Might the prospect of literally thousands of British prisoners taking the same route encourage the Government to fulfil the assurance given 20 years ago that slopping out would end 15 years ago?
Lord McNally: No, my Lords. The figures I have given are accurate: less than 3 per cent of prisoners have facilities that do not comprise in-cell sanitation. The main alternative is electronic unlocking, which is not a perfect system but is certainly not degrading in the terms that the noble Lord suggested. As far as we are concerned, it is compliant with humanitarian and human rights legislation. The truth is that we have a prison estate in which it is extremely difficult to meet the full commitment to in-cell sanitation. Therefore, I cannot be enthusiastic at present about promising a rapid reduction in the numbers. As I say, as new build comes on stream, there will be more in-cell sanitation, but that will not happen quickly. We are down to almost an irreducible minimum whereby electronic unlocking is the alternative to in-cell sanitation.
Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, given the Scottish experience, what provision is being made in England and Wales to prevent a similar situation developing here, where, in round numbers, 1,973 prison places are still affected by this disgusting situation?
Lord McNally: It is not helpful to suggest that it is disgusting to ring a bell to open the cell door in order to use the toilet. As my noble friend said, that applies to fewer than 2,000 prisoners in a prison estate of nearly 88,000. They have to do that because in certain prisons it is physically impossible to put in the facilities that would be desirable.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: The independent monitoring board makes no mention of women. Will the Minister confirm that this grossly offensive practice-I stress those words-of slopping out does not apply in women's prisons? If that is so, does not equal treatment mean that this should be an equally unacceptable practice in all men's prisons?
Lord McNally: It is an unacceptable practice. I understand that the only time people are asked to use a removable bucket to slop out is if there is a breakdown in the system. I am assured that in no part of the prison estate do women have facilities other than in-cell facilities.
Lord McNally: I am told that when it is necessary to carry out some slopping out it is done by a unit of prisoners. Individuals are not asked to slop out but, as happens in many prisons, it is part of the cleaning or
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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, does the Minister agree that reducing the prison population would be one way of tackling this problem? Reducing the adult prison population would be helpful in addressing this problem. Will he consider the success of the Youth Justice Board which, in the past three years, while the adult prison population has increased, has decreased the child prison population by 30 per cent? Rather than abolishing the Youth Justice Board, will he consider whether that model of governance might be applied to the adult estate?
Lord McNally: We will have learnt a lot that is beneficial from the role of the Youth Justice Board. Indeed, we will take those lessons to the Ministry of Justice and continue to work along those lines with the youth system. The noble Earl is right and that is why my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor has drawn attention to the central part in government policy of our programme of rehabilitation. We have far too many of the wrong people within our prison system. If we could reduce prison numbers it would be a win-win situation for taxpayers and a way of getting more civilised accommodation within the prison estate.
Baroness Meacher: My Lords, on a point of order on the coming business of the House, may I make a plea on behalf of the House for the Chief Whip to review the date of the Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill, which has now been scheduled to take place at the time of the Tory party conference, during a week when many Peers do not expect to be present?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, we do not have points of order in this House, but it may be helpful if I remind the House that the dates for such matters are agreed in the usual channels, and these were readily agreed by both the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the opposition Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. Of course, as ever, I can improve that-as I see that there seems to be some unusual reaction opposite, including from the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton. I suggest that these matters continue to be discussed in the usual channels.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Chief Whip has made the correct point in concluding her remarks that we should continue discussions in the usual channels. I rather confess to being the junior partner in these discussions but clearly we need to be flexible. I am more than prepared to be part of a
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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, is it not reasonable that, for those of us who are anxious to take part in the business of the House, not least on this central and crucial Bill, we are entitled to express our views to the Chief Whip? We ask her to take into account the very substantial problems that many of us in this House are having with the rather late notice on the change of dates, which means that people who have a good deal to contribute will find it almost impossible to do so. It is not unreasonable that when the usual channels take their usual course, they take some notice of the position of other Members of this House.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, since I have been mentioned in this regard, perhaps I may say that I am only trying to be helpful. When asked if I would be available on 4 October, the truthful answer was that I would be-but I am also available on three days of the following week. I am prepared to be entirely flexible and put myself in the hands of the usual channels on this matter.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I am loath to involve myself in this, but the House needs to get itself back into order. There are good ways of settling this. I should perhaps add that it is impossible to suit every Peer unless the Chief Whips have a copy of every Peer's diary for the course of the next few weeks. That is simply not practical. I hope now that we can continue with the business of the House.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 43 and 45. Clause 155 introduces the concept of settlement payments to facilitate the self-financing system that will replace the housing subsidy system when it is abolished. A devolved system of council housing, whereby councils are able to manage their stock using their own rents, will be achieved by a one-off debt settlement. We discussed this on Monday. The amount of debt allocated to each authority will be calculated on the basis of what its business plan shows it is able to support. The 30-year cash flow of income and expenditure is converted to a capital valuation using standard discounting techniques. If the valuation is below the amount of housing debt for which an authority currently gets support through the subsidy system, the Government will make a settlement payment. If the valuation is higher, the local housing authority will make a settlement payment.
The cash flows for the 30-year business plan will require the forecasting of rental income and of costs for repairing and maintaining stock, as well as debt servicing costs. Clause 155 gives the Secretary of State the authority to make determinations for providing the basis of calculation of the settlement payments. It covers the right to make assumptions about receipts and payments. Any determination can include an assumption even if it is not borne out by events. Further, it can include an assumption whether or not it is likely to be borne out. The amendment seeks clarification of this phrase. Does that mean that at the point when the assumption is made, it does not matter whether it is likely to be borne out? This probe is not just nitpicking; it is important to be clear on the evidence and analysis that will be needed to underpin the assumptions that will be used. These are the sorts of issues on which my noble friend Lord Whitty sought clarification when we last debated this.
I will take one example of an unrealistic assumption. It is understood that the calculation assumes that the initial year's income is available to offset the cost of the self-financing payment at the start of the year, whereas in practice it will accrue throughout the year. Similarly, the loss of rental income from right-to-buy sales is assumed to operate only from the end of each financial year. This is demonstrably unrealistic and operates against the interests of local housing authorities.
There are also, as I understand it, issues about demolitions. To the extent to which they are recognised, they obviously reduce income in the 30-year plan. However, it is understood that they are recognised only if a degree of actual planning for them has occurred or is under way. Clearly, over a 30-year period, this will not always be the case initially. What is the current position on this? I do not expect an answer to the technical points here and now; but, if correct, they support the proposition that some unrealistic assumptions are built into the calculations operating to the detriment of local housing authorities. What is the process of resolving these?
Amendment 43 focuses on Clause 157 and relates to settlement payments arising from the abolition of the housing revenue account subsidy scheme. Clause 157 covers certain aspects of settlement payments. In particular, it allows the Secretary of State to charge
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Finally, on Amendment 45, we originally added our name to this amendment which I think was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best, together with a small amendment. I am not sure why the noble Lord did not wish to pursue his amendment, and he may let us know. However, I am pleased to see that we continue to have common cause with the noble Lord in wishing to remove Clause 158 from the Bill. This is the essence of what we are dealing with. In place of Clause 158, our amendment would cause local authorities to determine and keep under review their level of housing debt consistent with their obligations under the Local Government Act 2003. As we discussed on Monday, Clause 158, in particular, provides for the Secretary of State to be able to impose limits on council housing borrowing. We agree with the LGA that this power contravenes the objective and spirit of self-financing.
I am grateful to the Minister for her letter of 9 August. However, when she commented on this matter, she argued that the power for central government to control the overall HRA borrowing is essential to protect the Government's fiscal priority of reducing the deficit, and that self-financing gives local authorities direct control over a large income stream-indeed, that is its purpose. She wrote:
"Your amendment proposed at Committee stage would have left the decision as to what constitutes 'affordable borrowing' to individual local authorities to determine, with central government only having the ability to issue guidance on this issue".
Why is the existing prudential regime not considered sufficient to cover the situation? It has worked effectively, and effectively to protect the Government. In any event, why is the protection of the Local Government Act 2003-in particular the provisions in Sections 3 and 4(1) and (2)-not sufficient? To date, the Government seem to have focused on Section 3 of the 2003 Act, not Section 4. Let me try again to draw attention to that, because I believe that it is crucial to this argument.
"The Secretary of State may by direction set limits in relation to the borrowing of money by a particular local authority for the purpose of ensuring that the authority does not borrow more than it can afford".
We accept that, for national economic reasons, the Government should have the residual power to limit local authority borrowing. That was, after all, our legislation. But the Government should not be allowed to hide behind these powers to diminish the benefits of
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I do not propose to press Amendments 39 and 43 today. However, I reserve the right to test the view of the House when Amendment 45 is called, in the event that we do not receive a coherent and satisfactory answer on this very important point.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for speaking to his amendments, the first of which is Amendment 39. Clause 155 provides a power for central government to make determinations providing for the calculation of a settlement payment in relation to every council that retains its own housing stock. This payment is a mechanism for adjusting each council's housing debt to a level which it can sustain after meeting the costs of managing and maintaining its stock. It will leave every council in a position to finance its own housing stock from its own rental income without need for subsidy. The clause sets out that these determinations may be calculated according to a formula, and that this formula may include variables relating to income, expenditure needs and levels of existing housing debt.
The methodology that we will use to calculate these settlement payments has been extensively tested and refined with local authorities through two public consultations. It has also been the product of joint working with local authorities and others working in the sector. Subsequent to these consultations, we have issued two detailed policy documents this year confirming our intentions to make full reforms based on the key principles set out in these consultations. These policy documents include the models we will use to value the stock and working drafts of the determinations that we will issue. We will publish a further consultation in November on the final proposals, when we have the latest data.
It is therefore fair to say that this policy has been subject to unusually high levels of public scrutiny and debate. In valuing the business, the expenditure needs are rooted in unit costs identified in independent research which was itself published for consultation. The income assumed is that set out in the Government's national social rent policy. The settlement payments will reflect the difference between the value of each housing business and its existing housing debt. Where the debt is greater than the valuation, the Government will pay the difference to the council. Where the valuation is higher than the debt, the council will pay the difference to the Government.
The amendment which the noble Lord seeks would remove a degree of discretion available to the Secretary of State in setting the assumptions upon which the determinations will be based. This is unnecessary, as the assumptions will be based on the best information available at the time and have been extensively tested and consulted on. In addition, the determination setting out each settlement payment will be subject to a
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On Amendment 43, Clause 157 sets out the practical provisions under which settlement payments should be made. It gives a reserve power to the Secretary of State to charge interest or recoup costs incurred if councils make their settlement payments after the time specified in the determination. I have described these as reserve powers as we do not expect to use them due to the excellent track records councils have in meeting their financial obligations. The noble Lord's amendment would establish reciprocal arrangements whereby the Secretary of State would make additional payments where any sum payable by the Secretary of State to particular local authorities was not paid on time. I can assure you that the Government will make its payments to local authorities on time.
That sounds grand, so I thought I would check it out a bit further. Presently housing revenue account subsidy is paid in 10 instalments in the year, and is paid on time. When councils receive regular revenue support grant, it is paid and it is paid on time. On the rare occasions, for some technical reason, it has not happened on time, the Government have voluntarily paid compensation. The determination setting out the payment date will be issued by the Government and detailed arrangements for the day have already been set out by the Department for Communities and Local Government in the policy document Self-financing: Planning the Transition, which was issued this July. Therefore, I do not believe that this amendment is necessary, and I trust it will not be pressed.
On Amendment 45, we had some discussion on these areas on Monday and we already debated the power we are taking to set a cap on housing debt as part of our reforms. As I noted previously, Clause 158 is not a minor or technical part of these reforms, it is integral to protecting the Government's central fiscal priority-to bring public borrowing under control. I understand that many councils do not want a centrally imposed limit on their ability to borrow for housing, but our reforms must not risk undermining national fiscal policy on public debt. Self-financing will give local authorities direct control over a rent income stream of around £6 billion a year. This could potentially be used to finance a large increase in public sector debt. It is not possible to say confidently how many councils might choose to borrow more but we know that councils will start out under self-financing with much less debt per dwelling than housing associations with similar costs and incomes. It is just not possible to take the risk that this deal might drive a big increase in public sector debt.
Noble Lords have asked why the prudential borrowing rules are not sufficient to protect against this. The prudential borrowing rules have worked very well but, as I said previously, our concern is not that local authorities will act in ways that are imprudent locally, it is that in aggregate these borrowing decisions may be unaffordable nationally. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord would remove this specific cap on housing borrowing and replace it with a power for the Secretary of State to issue guidance or regulations
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As I have said, our concern is not that a council would borrow more than it can afford, it is that in aggregate councils may borrow more than the country can afford. The bespoke powers we are taking ensure that this cap will apply only to housing debt and not to any other borrowing by local authorities. Indeed, I have some sympathy with the intentions but I have to resist the amendment and I trust that it will not be pressed.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very detailed, if predictable, reply. In relation to Amendment 45, I honestly do not think that he has reasonably addressed that point about the power that already exists with the Secretary of State being able, for national economic reasons-which is why he wants it in this clause-to set limits in relation to the borrowing of money by local authorities. That power is there. Why is an additional power needed? I do not think that the noble Lord has dealt sufficiently with that point.
As regards Amendment 43, as I understand it the proposition is that should the Government be late with their payments for technical or any other reasons, as has happened albeit infrequently in the past, they will make a voluntary payment. Is that on the record and what we are dealing with here? The amendment simply seeks to enshrine that formally in legislation. But, as I have said, I will not push that point if the noble Lord is putting on the record that in those circumstances the Government anticipate keeping local authorities whole.
As to Amendment 39, I recognise and understand that there has been extensive consultation around these important provisions and that there is more to come. I was seeking to get a better view on the extent to which there may still be disagreement challenges over the technical aspects of how the settlements are proposed. What is the process for settling that? Consultation is all very well but it is a question of how the Government respond to that if there are at least residual challenges about those calculations. As I have said, I do not propose to press Amendment 39. We will see where those future consultations and discussions lead us. I made my point in relation to Amendment 43 and we have something on the record.
I am inclined not to push Amendment 45 today, although I urge the Minister to give us a better explanation of why proposed new subsection (4) is not sufficient to
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Lord Best: My Lords, Amendments 41 and 51 are also about local authorities having greater freedom to organise their housing affairs without constant barriers being put in their way. These amendments concern the restrictions on local authorities that flow from taxing the sales of right-to-buy properties or any other sales of properties by housing authorities at 75 per cent of the money received by the local authority. Housing associations can sell properties, whether under the right to buy that they operate or on the open market where they have a vacant property. They can recycle 100 per cent of their receipts back into housing, to improving their housing stock and to building new homes.
The housing association of which I used to be chief executive, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, had a programme of selling alternative vacant properties on our estates so that we could get a better mix of people of different incomes living in the same community. We could replace every home that we sold because we received 100 per cent of the funds from that sale to recycle into new homes elsewhere. However, local authorities have to pay 75 per cent of their proceeds back to the Treasury. Now that we are in the mode of reforming the housing revenue account, this seems to be the moment at which that restriction should be lifted and local authorities should be liberated to recycle the proceeds from sales.
I understand that the Treasury is very reluctant to forgo the receipts that it currently collects. That perhaps is understandable, because this is serious money that is coming into the Treasury. It has managed to scoop the pool here for many years, and tens of billions of pounds from right-to-buy sales have gone into the Exchequer. I understand that it does not wish to say goodbye to those arrangements. I also understand that in settling the debt in the new self-financing scheme for local authorities, account has been taken of the rental income that people will forgo once a property is sold. Nevertheless, saying goodbye to 75 per cent of the proceeds from right-to-buy sales, in stark contrast with the way housing associations are treated, seems to be an item on which reform at this time would be very significant.
Let me make it clear that it is not only right-to-buy sales that attract a 75 per cent tax-not a tax on the capital gain, but a tax on the sum received-as it is also imposed on the sale of bits of land and properties
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During the summer I have had discussions and correspondence with the Minister, and I hope that she will be able to tell us this afternoon that there may be some change of the Government's mind about this very severe restriction on local authority activity, one where the ludicrous level of taxation makes it very difficult to run a business. I beg to move.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the 75 per cent tax levied on the proceeds of right-to-buy sales. It is interesting to note that at the moment there is a good deal of pressure on the Government to abandon the 50 per cent tax charged on those with substantial incomes and that, indeed, at least part of the coalition Government is interested in a mansion tax, which I suspect would be levied at substantially less than 75 per cent. In the context of housing, we should not be thinking in terms of taxation. The nation is paying a very heavy price in terms of housing need for the refusal of Government, initially in the 1980s, to allow any of the proceeds of the sale of council housing to be reinvested in housing and, it must be said, for the somewhat belated and modest change that was made to those rules by the previous Government. It does not seem to make any kind of economic sense.
The money raised by the right to buy would be ploughed back into housing provision. That would have two effects, the first of which would be that it would create assets on the balance sheet; it would not disappear into thin air. Secondly, it would give a much needed boost to the construction industry and therefore to the economy at a time when, as the Chancellor has belatedly conceded, things are not looking good in terms of the projected growth rate. Thirdly, it would lead to employment being taken up and thus a reduction in the cost of paying benefits. Most particularly, I suspect that the result would be that houses would be
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Looking at it purely in housing terms, the noble Lord's amendment makes a great deal of sense. I hope that the Government will rethink their position because it would make an immediate and much more significant contribution to dealing with the housing problem, as well as helping with economic growth without damaging the balance sheet. Indeed, in some respects it would strengthen the balance sheet with assets that are likely to appreciate.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I hesitate to speak, having not taken part in previous work on this Bill, but my noble friend's amendment and his words bring to mind some research that was brought to my attention some years ago into lone mothers living in isolation with their children, scattered around cities. They were often forced to live a long way from their communities and extended family because there was insufficient housing stock to enable them to be placed closer by. So if my noble friend's amendment will help local authorities to supply enough housing to ensure that parents-more often than not mothers-bringing up children on their own had easy access to their communities and extended family, I certainly want to support it.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I also strongly support this amendment. First, if we look retrospectively, had this provision applied from the start of right to buy, much of the pressure on social housing, and by extension on other housing sectors, would not have arisen. I am not saying that it would have completely resolved it, but it would have made a major contribution to stopping us being in the position that we are in.
The second point, which the noble Lord, Lord Best, emphasised, is that it would have enabled a lot of our worst housing stock to develop the manner of mixed tenure, creating a stable, reliable and interactive community instead of the isolation into which some of those estates have fallen.
The other point, also made by my noble friend Lord Beecham, is that I do not understand the economics of this. It would be an asset on the books of part of the public sector. Economically speaking, the deficit relates to the totality of public borrowing. In international opinion, raising money relates to the total deficit on public spending. The fact that it is in the Treasury's accounts rather than the local authorities' accounts economically makes no difference. It makes a bit of difference to the credibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer from time to time, but economically this has always been nonsense and it is nonsense that we should now end. If we are to interpret localism and self-financing of the housing activities of local authorities effectively, surely this anomaly needs to be rectified. I hope, therefore, that at some stage the Government are going to recognise that.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, we have put our name to this amendment and support it thoroughly for the reasons that have been advanced by all noble Lords who have spoken in favour of it. I want to pick up the point my noble friend Lord Whitty made about how it all pans out in the Government's accounts. It seems to me that the Government's arguments on deficit reduction have not been entirely logical. They recognise the loss of rental income that arises with local authorities because the proceeds are snaffled by Government to the extent of 75 per cent. Therefore, debt that is imposed on local authorities is reduced by £862 million.
Correspondingly, the government debt is higher. If local authorities retained the proceeds, the government debt would be lower, presumably by £862 million, and local authority debt correspondingly higher. That seems to be a net nil. Local authorities would then have the proceeds either to pay down their debt or, as we would all urge and my noble friend Lord Beecham in particular urged, to reinvest in new stock. So I think the Government are entirely in the wrong place on this.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I thank the five noble Lords who have spoken and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Best, and his work in housing over many years. The business of the amount gained when houses are sold and how the money is used is a subject that many of us have been debating for most of our years in public life.
What we have here is a total, and there are trade-offs in this element of the Bill. Although I understand the intention behind proposed new Clause 51, which is to end the surrender to central government of 75 per cent of receipts from the sale of right-to-buy and similar houses, and although I appreciate councils' disappointment that we have not been able to end the policy, its continuation is necessary to help with the country's huge fiscal deficit. The Government have ensured that the viability of the self-financing settlement is not affected by the decision. We are compensating local authorities for loss of rental income from future right-to-buy sales. To do this, we have included a forecast of right-to-buy sales in our valuation. The level of debt that authorities will take on has consequently been reduced in our latest estimate, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, indicated, by £862 million. In addition, all councils will still retain 25 per cent of receipts. They will also be able to retain 100 per cent of receipts from other sales to spend locally on affordable housing or regeneration. It is worth noting that receipts generated from right-to-buy sales have rapidly declined, sales being now about 5 per cent of what they were at their peak.
I hope the noble Lord will draw some comfort from the fact that we issued a consultation on 25 August, which set out proposed amendments to the regulations governing the use of receipts arising from the disposal of council housing assets. We have proposed to amend the regulations to make it clear that the requirement to surrender 75 per cent of receipts to central government shall apply only to receipts arising from right-to-buy sales or sales that are right-to-buy in all but name: that
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Lord McKenzie of Luton: The Minister said that the Government were reducing the level of debt that local authorities would otherwise take on because of this policy by some £860 million. Does it follow that central government debt is correspondingly £860 million higher than it would otherwise have been, and how does that help deficit reduction?
Lord Shutt of Greetland: I might have to think that one through, because I see the contra. On the other hand, there is only one central Government. The problem that we have all along is that some 170 local government entities are involved in housing. At least you know where you are with central government and that £862 million. The position can be entirely different in local government.
I would like to think that there will be a time when this policy is not in place. However, as I indicated, it is no longer the big deal that it was, given that so many former council houses have been sold and the amounts coming in are nothing like they were at their peak, when this Government were not in business.
Lord Best: My Lords, the housing revenue account is often compared to the Schleswig-Holstein question. Of the only three people who understood it, one had committed suicide, one was in a madhouse and one was in a monastery. Following the debate on the housing revenue account today has been a bit like that.
I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken on this. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, made two fundamental points. First, if only we had kept the receipts during the past 30 years, we could have built a lot of houses and renovated a lot more. That money has evaporated. If we could get that changed henceforth, that would be thoroughly commendable. The noble Lord also made the point that if local authorities had been able to sell vacant properties on some of their estates on the open market, they could have introduced people on different incomes and created mixed-tenure estates, which would have been better socially for everyone concerned. However, there is absolutely no reason why local authorities would do that, because they would lose all the money that they received from the sale and could not then replace the home that they had sold. I am very grateful for that intervention and for those of the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord McKenzie.
I shall certainly bank the very important point that in respect of sales outside the right to buy-the voluntary sales by local authorities-the intention is that in future the levy will be lifted. That could be quite a significant change in the future. The leader of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, Councillor Stephen Greenhalgh, is very much in favour of this. He explained to me that he has properties which, going back to the days of municipalisation, are scattered
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Landlords of social housing may levy a rent above the target rent for that dwelling to fund the capital cost of additional facilities requested by the tenant."
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, this is a relatively small amendment but I think that it may have wider repercussions. First, I declare an interest as chair of Broadland Housing Association. It is a medium-sized, traditional-build housing association-not a stock transfer-which seeks to meet housing need in Norfolk and north Suffolk. Every one of our homes is of decency standard and properly insulated, and we are effectively at target rent levels.
Last year, a dozen or so middle-aged and older tenants in a small close of bungalows in sunny Norfolk asked us to install solar panels at a cost of some £3,000 to £4,000 a property. We did so and I understand that the tenants' fuel bills have fallen considerably. However, the cost of those solar panels has effectively fallen on other tenants, either in increased rents if they are below the target rents or in opportunities forgone-for example, in environmental works.
There is now a queue for work such as the installation of solar panels, which is understandable, but as a housing association we cannot afford it for all who wish it. We know that hundreds of thousands of
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We would like to suggest co-payment. If, say, the fuel saving from installation of a solar panel was £10 a week, the rent could rise by £5 a week above the target rent to contribute to the capital cost of the loan of that money. The tenant would keep as a bonus the other £5. Why can we not do that now? Very simply, we are at the target rent for properties, which takes no account whatever of energy efficiency. That is foolish. The Minister in her letter in August-for which I thank her-explained that she could not support the amendment. She said, first, that it would lead to increased rents, which was unacceptable, and, secondly, that this could lead to unacceptable rises in housing benefit. I challenge both those points.
The concept of the target rent that the Minister said cannot be exceeded has of course been exceeded by Government with the introduction of 80 per cent market; that is, affordable rents. In future, with two identical houses, side by side and currently up for re-letting, one will go for a rent of £90 as it is social housing, the other will go for a rent of £120 because it is at the new 80 per cent of market value. That increase is simply because we have relabelled the description of tenure over the lintel of that house.
Why does it make sense to have increased rent properties because we have renamed the tenure, adding nothing of value at all to the property, but not be able to increase the rents when we have markedly improved the property by reducing fuel costs? Why have we got to choose either a rent of £90 that equals social housing or one of £120 that equals 80 per cent of market value intermediate rents when it would make sense to have a rent of £95 because of investment in energy efficiency? Raising rents above the target, despite the Minister's letter, involves no new principles because government is doing that already.
But, says the Minister in her letter of August, it might come out of housing benefit. The Minister says that such increases are not affordable and that the taxpayer would not obtain value for money from this increased public expenditure. There are two points on that. First, her new 80 per cent of market rents will largely be financed by housing benefit. Virtually every tenant going to our housing association is on HB. Whatever the tenure label-social housing or intermediate rent-it will largely be met by HB if our housing association is anything to go by. Indeed, it is calculated
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The Minister then went on to say that such investment may not represent value for money for the taxpayer, at a time when the same Government are urging energy companies and individuals to take up government grants to increase loft and cavity wall insulation, replace boilers or install wind turbines-which are, as is solar power, renewable. If a part of Government is urging all of us because it thinks it prudent to invest in energy reduction, why does the DCLG oppose it? Indeed, why is the DCLG not positively encouraging us to do what we wish and get housing associations to work with tenants to consider energy renewables such as solar panels? As I say, that will reduce fuel poverty and carbon emissions-both goals we all want. Therefore, I think that the Minister's letter in August, in reply to the original tabling of this amendment in Committee, is entirely invalid.
Earl Ferrers: The noble Baroness is making a very interesting speech, but she will talk in acronyms. She talks about HBs, DCLGs and so on, and some of the more modest of us are not quite certain what she is talking about.
If indeed housing benefit is the issue-because an increase in rent of £5 would be covered by housing benefit-I put it to the Government that any increase in rent above the target rent for such purposes should not be covered by housing benefit, quite simply. That way the housing benefit bill to the Government would be protected and the tenant could choose whether to proceed with solar panels by way of co-payment. If the tenant did so choose, the tenant would enjoy reduced fuel bills and contribute to lower energy consumption in this country. The choice would be with the tenant, there would be no additional cost to the Government, but the reduction in conventional energy and the substitution of green renewable energy would be a gain to us all. I beg to move.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Hollis is most interesting and has considerable merit. She has considerable experience in the local government and social housing sectors. Where tenants want to make major improvements or improve other amenities, I can see the case for this being financed by an increase in the rent paid on the property. My noble friend makes compelling points in particular regarding fuel poverty and green energy and also dealing with the issue of
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Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their contributions. It is more complicated than I thought. The amendment is clearly about additional facilities requested by the tenant, yet the points made by the noble Baroness have been about solar panels and, basically, energy. Clearly the amendment is about any form of enhancement required by a tenant. All I would say on the detail is that my noble friend Lady Hanham has shown me a letter that she wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, on 9 August offering to discuss this matter. She may not have got the letter or something may have gone wrong, but this offer has not yet been taken up. My noble friend Lady Hanham would be happy to discuss the matter and that could well be a helpful way forward. I cannot give a commitment on where that would lead, but I think it would be a good thing if that offer were taken up.
I cannot accept the amendment because it would allow landlords complete freedom to charge rents above the target rent for particular properties in order to fund the cost of additional facilities. This would lead to an unacceptable rise in the housing benefit bill. There are two types of landlord to whom the amendment could apply: local authority landlords and housing associations. Both sectors are able to exercise some flexibility over rent setting but are subject to important constraints. In the case of local authority landlords, there is the "limit rent", which is the maximum that the Department for Work and Pensions is willing to pay in housing benefit. This cap is vital to control the welfare bill. For housing associations, a direction on rent is set each year by the regulator in order to achieve a degree of consistency in rent levels across the sector and to protect the housing benefit bill. Noble Lords may not be aware of this, but for two-thirds of all tenants in council and housing association properties, the rent comes from housing benefit. So it clearly would be significant.
The noble Baroness's amendment would remove an important control by Government over rents, which they will largely pay for. While this could pay for some improvements, it would result in uncontrollable increases in the housing benefit bill that we can ill afford. Furthermore, there would be no assurance that the taxpayer was obtaining value for money from the additional public expenditure. For this reason, I must reject the amendment. Councils and housing associations can charge affordable rents of up to 80 per cent of market rents as part of an agreement with the Homes and Communities Agency to build new homes. The extra rent must be used entirely to fund the new homes, which will produce a housing benefit saving as they are still at rents below those charged in the market.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, did not actually listen to the arguments I sought to make. He has repeated the two points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in her helpful letter in August, which I sought to rebut in my speech and on which the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has not commented. It was as if the speech had not been made and that the arguments of August were still the only arguments in town.
I remind the noble Lord that I was not arguing for complete freedom for landlords, as he suggested. It was made very clear that this would be at the initiation of the tenant. The reason I used the solar panels example was because it had such obvious spill-over benefits for the tenant, fuel poverty, energy consumption, renewables and the reduction of carbon emissions, so we would all gain. I used the example, too, because it is consistent with the drive by this Government in the Department of Energy for the further extension of insulation and the use of renewables. So it is entirely consistent with government policy, though in a different department, and it would be initiated by the tenant and would therefore not give complete freedom to the landlord.
Secondly, the noble Lord argued, as was argued by the Minister's letter, that it would lead to an unacceptable rise in housing benefit. I hoped that I had made it clear that if the Minister so wished it could all be outside and above the rent covered by housing benefit. I am well aware of the role of housing benefit-I made that point explicitly-but the Minister has not replied to that offer as a way forward that would address the issue, which I understand, of housing benefit, but would equally allow us to respond to a perfectly proper and appropriate request by tenants to be able to reduce their fuel bills at no cost to the Government. That is what I sought. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has not answered that point at all.
Given that there is clearly no meeting of minds, because people are not listening to each other's arguments, I wish to take up the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for a further discussion about this matter. I assure her that surveyors across the country are very interested in trying to proceed with such policies as a way of producing the nearest that we can get to things such as passive housing, and so on, which we need to see in this country. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(d) engaging with the Housing Ombudsman.""
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: In moving Amendment 52A, I shall speak in favour of amendments in the same group, particularly Amendment 68, standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Whitty and myself, and of similar principles as set out in Amendment 69, which appears in my name and in the names of my noble friend Lord Kennedy and the noble Lord, Lord Best.
Clause 167 introduces what is called a "democratic filter" as regards the housing ombudsman. What it means is that all complaints that currently go to the housing ombudsman would instead have to be taken to an MP, a councillor, or a tenant panel member for a hearing. Not only that, but a tenant would not be able to take their case to the ombudsman unless agreed to by one of these people, giving them a veto over these citizens' access to the housing ombudsman.
I would like to go through seven reasons for resisting this clause. The first is the role of MPs untrained in this area and the conflicts of interest that might be involved, which I think are fairly obvious. It would be a brave MP or councillor who rejected a complaint maybe three weeks before an election. The councillor could, of course, be the provider of housing, which would be a serious conflict of interest. What if that MP or councillor had already heard of the complaint in their surgery in their role of representative? How could they then adjudicate de novo on a complaint? If the councillor happened to know the local housing official, it would hardly be seen as an independent hearing of the complaint.
Furthermore, our MPs and councillors, wonderful though they are, are not trained in alternative dispute resolution or complaints handling, or in the accurate recording of such findings and giving the reasons thereof; nor indeed are most of them well-versed in some basic rules of natural justice and fairness and the handling of evidence. They will not be accustomed to awarding redress and they will not have the authority to enforce their awards.
There could also be a threat to a tenant's privacy if they had to reveal some personal circumstances to an elected officer who was not under a code of conduct to respect confidentiality. There could be a lottery between the findings of different councillors and MPs. At present the housing ombudsman deals with about 5,000 cases per year, with a high measure of consistency to add to the centrality of fairness. It could, of course, also be a very heavy burden on an MP and councillor. I have to confess that I have been neither, but I do wonder whether they are ready for this extra little task.
It would also make MPs adjudicators. They would therefore lose their role as champions on behalf of their constituents, quite unable to advise them on how to formulate a complaint if they themselves were the people to hear the complaint. Furthermore, having rejected the complaint, how could they then promote it to the housing ombudsman?
So the first of the seven problems is about the role of the councillor and MP. Secondly, the British and Irish Ombudsman Association strongly opposes the proposed filter in the Bill. The association believes:
"Public service ombudsmen form an integral part of the administrative justice system and it is essential that citizens' access to justice should be unfettered. Any restriction on access is counter to the principles upon which the ombudsman institution is founded".
Indeed, one of the principal conditions for being an ombudsman is that citizens should have direct access. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman regards their MP filter as restricting access to their service.
Thirdly, let me quote from others. The Law Commission says that this clause as it stands could hinder investigations and it calls for the filter in this clause to be scrapped. The commission prefers a dual system whereby complainants could either go through a local representative or direct to the housing ombudsman, which is what these amendments set out.
The National Housing Federation believes that MPs and councillors should only be involved at the discretion of the complainant, not at the insistence of the Government. The federation strongly opposes the proposal in the Bill to deny access to the ombudsman without the MP or councillor's permission. It also notes that similar requirements have been abolished elsewhere, such as for the Local Government Ombudsman.
Coming from Kentish Town, perhaps your Lordships will excuse me if I also refer to the Camden Association of Street Properties and Kentish Town District Management Committee, which have said that they are angry at the proposed block on tenants' rights to access the ombudsman, which in their view has worked so well.
The consumer organisation Which? also supports the amendments in this group and, as a matter of principle, is opposed to the proposal in the Bill. It believes that consumers are empowered when they can take action themselves. It therefore wants a complainant to be able to go to the Housing Ombudsman. It is for the ombudsman to decide whether to accept that complaint, not a go-between. As Which? has said, given that the Government have a big agenda on consumer empowerment, it finds it very odd that the CLG is disempowering consumers in this way. Which?has said,
Which? points out that an MP filter goes against the grain of what the Government themselves would like to see, and refers to the Government's report, Better
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Which? believes that complainants should be able to take their complaint directly to the ombudsman, as this will help complainants resolve problems themselves. As it says, tenants do not need a filter to double-check on their case. Incidentally, Which?'s opposition to the Bill is predicated on access to the ombudsman being possible only once a complainant has exhausted the relevant in-house complaints procedures.
If I may refer to tenants, an ICM survey shows that 73 per cent preferred either to go direct to the ombudsman or at least to have the choice of whether to use an MP. Councillor Stacy, leader of Islington Liberal Democrats, said,
and he noted that the proposal was in neither the Liberal Democrat manifesto nor the Tory manifesto nor, indeed, in the coalition agreement. I hope therefore that the Liberal Democrats will be supporting us in the Lobbies on this.
Fourthly, the July 2011 Open Public Services White Paper emphasises the role of redress where choice is not available. The new framework for choice in services will also give additional rights to individuals, but the Government have acknowledged that there needs to be a means to enforce these rights. They set out that that power of redress should sit with the ombudsman, who can specify remedial action. The White Paper even names the Housing Ombudsman covering social housing for this role-yet the Bill would neuter this very body so that most complaints would not come to it.
Fifthly, on the learning from the quantum of cases, knowing the similarity of complaints that have been made and what redress should be awarded gives a much better idea of whether complaints are likely to be frivolous or better dealt with elsewhere. There is a body of expertise that builds up, such that generic lessons can be learnt and fed back to legislators or providers.
My last two points are simple. No reason has been given for this: it was not in a manifesto. There is no evidence of a problem from the right of direct access to the Housing Ombudsman. There has been no consultation with tenants, landlords or their representatives. The Minister in the other place said that the measure was meant to re-engage politicians with social housing. It will do no such thing. Councillors
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Finally, the measure is wrong in principle. Why should we deprive tenants of a right that they have enjoyed-access to free, professional dispute resolution? Why should they be denied such access without the say-so of a councillor? The amendments in this group would allow a complaint to be heard locally by the MP or councillor if the tenant so chooses but would retain the right to go to the ombudsman.
Without these amendments tenants will lose that choice and will lose access to justice. Residents who just happen to be in social housing will be further stigmatised. No other category of citizen is having their right to an ombudsman removed in the course of remedying a perceived democratic deficit. In the light of that, I hope we can retain the right of direct access to the Housing Ombudsman. I beg to move.
Lord Tope: Whereas the noble Baroness began by saying that she had been neither an MP nor a councillor, I begin by saying that I have been both. I was an MP for a rather short tenure a very long time ago but have been a councillor for the past 37 years, representing a ward with a substantial amount of social housing. Therefore, I have real and practical experience of some of the issues that have been spoken of. The noble Baroness will know well that I have considerable sympathy with much of what she has said. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Shipley and I have our names to Amendments 70 and 73 in this group. As I say, I have great sympathy with what the noble Baroness has said. My preference would certainly be to have unfettered direct access to the Housing Ombudsman. I feel strongly that tenants should have the right of direct access to the Housing Ombudsman when necessary, and I wish to spend a few moments considering when that is necessary.
It is for the Minister, and certainly not for me, to explain the Government's reasons for the proposals in the Bill and for wanting to tackle the matter in this way. However, we have to recognise that, certainly in the 37 years that I have been a councillor, the involvement of local authorities, and therefore of councillors, in housing management issues has decreased. We have had the wholesale stock transfer and the creation of ALMOs. Generally, the move has been away from involvement. It is fair to say that some councillors-I cannot say that this has been my experience-have much less engagement in the day-to-day business of housing management, and therefore of knowing and understanding the issues that their constituents, as tenants, experience. If the Government wish to bring politicians, particularly councillors, closer to these issues-I do not know what the relevant phrase is-that is an objective we all share. We might have varying degrees of cynicism about how effective that will be, but it is an objective that we all share. I certainly share the Government's objective in that regard.
If the Government's objective is also to ensure that, whenever possible, complaints and issues are resolved locally, I am sure that we all share that objective too. That is clearly desirable for all sorts of reasons. It is usually quicker, more effective and engages people.
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The difficulty that I have with the Government's proposal is that, while I am sure that we all share those objectives, one of the-I hope unintended-consequences is that it will give councillors, Members of Parliament and tenants panels a right of veto. I have to say that that is wrong. I do not think that it is our job as councillors, Members of Parliament and so on to be the final adjudicator of the rightness or wrongness of the complaint. I would expect that in practice most Members of Parliament and most councillors would anyway refer something to the ombudsman-whether the Local Government Ombudsman or Housing Ombudsman. That was always my practice whether I thought the complaint was wholly justified or even unjustified. I felt that the complainant had the right to independent arbitration and to go to an ombudsman, and referred it that way.
I have had the opportunity to discuss this at some length with the Housing Minister, who says that as an MP that was what he always did. The reality, which I know from personal experience, is that some elected representatives, for whatever reason-and sometimes for no good reason other than personal idiosyncrasy-refuse to do that. That is wrong. I do not think that a Member of Parliament or a councillor should have the right to deny the tenant access to the ombudsman to have the complaint, whether justified or not in our view, properly investigated and independently decided upon.
A little later this afternoon we will get to Amendment 73A and those with it. Amendment 73A is a compromise to try to help the Government, which is always our objective on these Benches. Amendment 73A says that, if the designated person will not refer the complaint-we should have included the words, "or fails to do so within 30 days", or some other given period-the tenant has the right to go direct to the ombudsman. That amendment has been decoupled from this group for reasons that I understand, but I hope that when the Minister replies she can give us clear and strong words of comfort that it is not the Government's intention to give the right of veto to us councillors to decide whether or not a complaint is worth forwarding. We need to ensure that the tenant may do so when necessary-I come back to those important words-if a designated person who is willing to forward the complaint cannot be found. That is a
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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, like the Minister I, too, have been a housing chair in a local authority, for some 11 years. I am also chair of a housing association-an interest that I have declared-and regularly sit at stage 4 of precisely these complaints panels that are the subject of discussion. I am sure that the Minister knows but I wonder whether your Lordships realise how thorough the complaints procedure is, and rightly so, within housing associations and local authorities, particularly encouraged by the TCA of the Homes and Community Agency.
At stage 1, the tenant's complaint-often, it is a complaint against the behaviour of a neighbour of some sort-is investigated by the local senior housing manager. If that is not resolved to the satisfaction of the tenant, stage 2 means that it will go to the housing manager at the top of the organisation, who will then seek to get all the information, build the file and see whether some resolution can be arrived at. If that is not satisfactory, there is a stage 3 where the complaint goes to the chief legal officer, who is usually the deputy chief executive of the housing association, who goes through the file, takes the evidence, makes further notes and attempts again a further resolution of the difficulty. If that is not enough-by this stage, most complaints have been reasonably addressed-the matter goes to stage 4, which involves the panel, chaired by someone like me, alongside the tenant board representatives of the housing association and the senior staff. Five or six of us spend perhaps a couple of hours going through a thick file and seeking as best we can to hear and resolve the tenant's complaints and concerns.
In my experience, the tenant nearly always finds that satisfactory. However, if on that occasion the tenant is still not satisfied, having gone through the four stages to the final panel hearing, putting in a fifth stage, bringing in who knows what-perhaps the councillor who sent the letter into stage 2 or the MP who sent a letter into stage 3-as an independent adjudicator, sitting on top of those four stages to decide whether to progress the complaint to the ombudsman, would be to add an absurd additional bureaucratic delay that would stand between a tenant whose complaint, legitimate or otherwise, should by rights be heard by the ombudsman if the appeals system locally has been exhausted.
When I, with my modest experience of chairing panels at stage 4 of an elaborate appeals and complaints process, saw these government proposals for a stage 5 to go in before there is the possibility of recourse to the ombudsman, I was baffled beyond belief. If we believe in reducing bureaucracy and regulation, what on earth are we doing putting this in the way of a
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Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I ought to declare a string of interests. I am an ex-MP; my wife is a district councillor; I was chairman of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, which had a close relationship with the British and Irish Ombudsman Association; and I know Mike Biles, the Housing Ombudsman, quite well. I should also apologise to the noble Baroness for not having added my name to her amendment, as she encouraged me to. I would happily have done so, and should have done.
I will make clear to my noble friend that I agreed with every word that she said, and every word that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said. The starting point is that if this is administrative justice-and most people would say that it is-what right have the Government to say that somebody is to intervene in somebody else's right to seek administrative justice? It could not conceivably be argued that somebody should need an MP's or a councillor's permission before going to a tribunal, a court or anything comparable in the administrative justice field. Why should we have it here? All this comes at a time when the Parliamentary Ombudsman has a consultation document out, which I know she feels quite strongly about, for the removal of the MP filter in respect of the ombudsman. This was supported by unduly sensitive MPs 50 years ago when the ombudsman-a foreign creation-was introduced. However, as far as anybody can judge, now it is not supported by most MPs, who also think it should go.
Why should people be subject to the vagaries of what their councillor, tenant panel or even-dare I say it?-MP thinks about whether it is a case for the ombudsman? That is a matter for the ombudsman to judge. If there are procedures that the tenant should go through beforehand, such as those described by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the ombudsman can make the point: "We are not looking at this until you have had it looked at along the other lines". It would be perfectly reasonable for him to do that, but there is no serious case for what the Government are proposing in the Bill. I very much doubt whether it was part of the coalition agreement or has been seriously endorsed by the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister, because it is just not the kind of proposal they would support. Individuals ought to have this right, and we in this House ought to be defending it.
I have one last question to which I would like an answer. We have lots of ombudsmen in this country. We have the Parliamentary Ombudsman with an MP filter; we have the Health Service Ombudsman, who is also the Parliamentary Ombudsman, in practice, with no MP filter; we have the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, with no filter at all, for Scots; we have the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales with no filter at all in respect of matters that he or she can consider so, in a way, this is yet another form of discrimination against the English, and I am fed up with it. It is wrong in principle, it is daft and the Minister should take it away and get rid of it.
Lord Beecham:My Lords, I welcome the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Newton, not least because he is only the second Conservative Back-Bencher to speak in seven hours of debate on Report. I dare say we will hear a great deal more from him and, I hope, others as we go forward.
I entirely endorse the remarks that have been made so far by noble Lords, and I share the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, of serving as a local councillor. It is frequently a local councillor's task to take up tenants' complaints, as one does, with the relevant housing department or ALMO-many authorities have now transferred their stock-to help people through the council's complaints procedure and to help them move complaints to the ombudsman. Many of us have done that. I find it rather patronising of those who suggest that it is somehow necessary to reconnect councillors with social housing. Most of us who represent areas with social housing regard that as part of our daily, weekly and monthly routine.
However, there are some additional issues to which I would like to refer briefly. First, as I read the Bill, there need be no nexus between the individual making a complaint and the councillor for the area in which he lives, because the Bill speaks of a member of the housing authority. It could be from one end of Newcastle to the other in my own case. There is no necessary connection between the tenant and the member he approaches, and that is hardly sensible, even if one follows the line of the Government's thinking on this matter.
Secondly, I presume that under the adjudication by the ombudsman there may be the possibility of an award of compensation. That is not necessarily binding on an authority, but it is pretty indicative and most authorities, though I regret to say not all, comply with those recommendations and make a payment when one is indicated. On the face of it, it would seem that the individual member adjudicating would also have that responsibility. It seems distinctly worrying that there should be implicit pressure on a member not only to make a finding but also, perhaps, to award compensation. That does not seem to be a healthy relationship between an elected councillor or, for that matter, a Member of Parliament, and a constituent.
The third factor that we may have to bear in mind is that there are pending changes in the legal aid and advice system that will effectively strip people of their right to legal aid and advice. In this housing area, whether it be with local authorities, housing associations or other landlords, there is frequently a need for legal advice and support, and one fears that effectively removing that source will be unhelpful to tenants. Frankly, imposing the responsibility on elected members, whether councillors or MPs, is by no means a substitute for such proper advice.
All these factors tend to the same direction, namely that the amendment should be accepted by the Government. There is no huge political issue here. As we have heard, there is no demand for this outside, from tenants, their representatives or anybody else. There is no logical basis for the recommendations and I hope that the Minister will indicate that she will
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Lord Whitty: My Lords, my name is on Amendment 68, which provides for a dual system. I do not think anyone is arguing that the tenants or leaseholders should not have the right to call in their councillor, MP or tenant panel. The issue, as has been said, is whether they should also have-from the start, not just when they have already been to their councillor-the ability to go direct to the ombudsman.
I have two points on this. First, it is not only a contradiction to principles of administrative law, it is also a direct contradiction to most consumer practice in the rest of the economy. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, said, there are numerous ombudsmen. Some were set up by Parliament, such as the financial services and energy ombudsmen, and some are industry-based, dealing with anything from double glazing to property. In none of those cases is there a filter after the initial filter of having to raise the complaint with the provider in the first place, as my noble friend Lady Hollis has said. After that point, there is not a single example where a third party, of whatever description, is required to intervene. That may be discrimination against the English, but it is certainly discrimination against tenants and leaseholders as compared with any other consumer.
Secondly-this ought to be an obvious point, but it has not yet been spelled out in this crude way-there are a lot of reasons why individual tenants and leaseholders may not want to go to their local councillor. They may have fallen out with them, or had a terrible decision from them, or they may be their political opponent. There are also all sorts of reasons why they may not wish to raise the issue through the tenant panel, although I believe that is a good innovation. They may know people on the panel whom they disagree with or they may not approve of earlier decisions made by the panel. It surely should not be for Parliament to say to them that, despite all their reservations and previous experience, they must go through one of these three channels. All three channels are important and should be there, and if they need to be put on the face of the legislation let us do so. But we must not deny the ordinary social housing tenant or leaseholder within social housing provision the right to go direct to the ombudsman. I plead with the Government to drop this absurdity.
Baroness Eaton: My Lords, I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred more positively to the role of councillors than has been the case elsewhere, except for the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I am very supportive of stock transfer, but I do feel that with these arrangements there has sometimes been a reduction in the ability of councillors to be involved in housing activities in their area.
As we all know, in our role as councillors-and I declare that I am one-we are expected to be community leaders. One of the most important parts of the well-being of a community is how its housing operates and functions on behalf of tenants-the social housing aspect. I firmly believe that it is important that elected members have the opportunity to work closely with
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Lord Best: My Lords, I, too, support the role of councillors and their engagement in these processes, but I do not think that this is an either/or. My name is against Amendments 69, 71 and 72. If people do not wish to go to the councillor for any reason, surely they should have the opportunity to go directly to the ombudsman service. My interest is that I have been on the receiving end of the ombudsman's judgment, complaints having been made about organisations that I have chaired and run, and I think the ombudsman service is great. It resolves complaints that have been running sometimes for ages; the filing cabinet is full of going backwards and forwards, the ombudsman sorts it out, the decision is final. It is a professional service. The British and Irish Ombudsman Association thinks that an essential ingredient in any ombudsman service is that the consumer has a right of direct access to that service.
I chair the Council of the Property Ombudsman, which looks after the private sector, separate from the arrangements for the Housing Ombudsman in the social housing sector. In the private sector, of course, tenants can go direct to the ombudsman; they do not have to go to a council, an MP or a tenant panel. That system works extremely well. I have watched the process from both sides of the fence. Ombudsman services really work and direct access to them seems an important ingredient.
We have one example. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said he did not think that there were any examples of there being a bureaucratic filter of this kind, but I think the Parliamentary Ombudsman is the last outpost of this approach. It applied to the Local Government Ombudsman but was scrapped as it was found to be unworkable and unnecessary, but with the Parliamentary Ombudsman, going through your MP remains. However, Ann Abraham, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, says:
I think it likely, as a result of the consultation now going on, that the filter will be dropped in that last case of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. So let us by all means engage councillors and encourage people to go to their councillor-sometimes that can be the best kind of mediation and local way of organising things-but let us allow people, if they wish, to go direct to the ombudsman service. It is there as a professional body and it sorts things out.
Lord True: My Lords, I also declare an interest as a local councillor. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that my aged aunt, who has a great fear of spiders, says, "In September and October never talk about a spider, otherwise you will talk one up", and one invariably comes up. I heard what he said about
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I wish to follow very strongly what my noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Tope said. I have visited a number of authorities and it is true, sadly, that in many authorities where there has been large-scale voluntary transfer, there is a growing disjunction between the council side and RSLs. As I see it, aspects of this proposal from the Government may be designed to break that down and to reinforce the role of a councillor. In my authority we have introduced a tenants' champion system in order to encourage people to use the local resource of the council as a first resource for complaint and redress against social landlords. That is desirable. Surely in the spirit of this Bill things should be settled as locally as they can be. There are all forms of bureaucracy and the ombudsman system in itself is potentially that. I agree that tenants may not need a filter, but in some circumstances they may need a local champion.
I am not quite so absolutist about these proposals as some others who have spoken. However, I hope that my noble friend will listen to the debate, particularly to the points made by my noble friend Lord Tope, and see whether some middle ground can be found that will enable tenants to have this recourse, but perhaps in the normal course of events to encourage people to seek to settle matters locally.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken on Report so I should declare a few interests. I am an elected member of a district council in Lancashire, a vice-president of the LGA, a vice-president of the Open Spaces Society and a member of the access, conservation and environment group of the British Mountaineering Council. Those are the interests I can think of that might come up during Report. If I have any others, I shall declare them later.
I apologise for having to nip out of the Chamber for the latter part of the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the beginning of the speech by my noble friend Lord Tope. I can assure everyone that I probably agree with every word that they said, even when I was not here, on the basis of what they have said otherwise. We had a glowing account from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about how wonderful the complaints and resolution system is in her housing association.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I was not trying to say that. I was trying to say that, having gone through such an exhaustive system, I could not see what added value would come by having a fifth tier, an MP or a councillor, as opposed to going direct to the ombudsman.
Lord Greaves: I entirely accept that. However, in my experience, not all housing associations are the same and some do this better than others, which is inevitable with any type of organisation. In a sense, if there are housing associations or social landlords that do not do it quite as well as the organisation in which the
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Like my noble friend, we on these Benches would have preferred that this proposal from the Government was not in this Bill. It seems to go back to a local government ombudsman system that, as noble Lords have said, used to exist in local government but that, frankly, was not necessary and in some cases was harmful. There is no doubt whatever that on some occasions councillors used to find reasons not to pass complaints on or tried to persuade people not to pursue them. I always took the view that unless it was clearly vexatious I would automatically pass it on, even on one occasion when it concerned a complaint against the borough council about a housing matter in which I had been closely involved. I was chairman of the housing committee and I still said, "I will pass it on because it is right and proper that it gets dealt with".
At Lancashire County Council, on one occasion I made a complaint against the education authority. Shortly after, I went to a reception of important people at county hall in Preston. As soon as I walked in the room, the then education officer came bounding across the room and at the top of his voice tore a strip off me for daring to question the reputation and organisation of that education authority. He then marched back to the other side of the room. I was much younger and a bit more timid than I am now but I still marched after him and, in an equally loud voice, tore a strip off him and told him that he was undermining democracy. In a sense, I should not have had to be there as part of that system. The people involved should have been able to go direct.
Along with other noble Lords, I think, around the Chamber, we have had quite a few discussions with members of the Government, particularly with Grant Shapps, who I believe is in charge of the housing parts of this Bill. We came to the view that we might win the argument but would not win the process of this legislation of removing these parts of the Bill or of putting in an amendment along the lines of that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, which I would otherwise strongly support.
To help the Government, in these discussions we are looking for some compromise that at the very least provides a backstop so that, if any of these designated persons are not helpful and try to resist or are just incompetent in passing on a complaint, the tenant can nevertheless go direct to the housing ombudsman. It is a slightly messy process and it is not as good as now, but it can work and at the very least would maintain their right to go direct to make the complaint, even if someone else tries to persuade them otherwise or to block it.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, does not the noble Lord accept that if a tenant has reservations about their circumstances, which may be very personal, it is not just a question of whether if they go to them they may be rebuffed, but that they would be seriously inhibited about going to their councillor or their tenants' panel, or possibly even their MP, in the first place? We should take that into account.
Lord Greaves: Yes, I accept that and I think the noble Lord is quite right. All I would say is that I would expect that most Members of Parliament are used to dealing with that kind of sensitive information, and if they are not, they are not fit to be Members of Parliament. I think also that there are councillors who are prepared to help and are experienced in dealing with that kind of information. I do not entirely take the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that they have to be skilled in the processes of assessment, conciliation and so on. All they have really got to do is say, "You have a reasonable case. I will sign this and you can send it on".
The objections to going to a councillor can be overstated. As the noble Lord said, the legislation states that you can go to any member of the housing authority, so you will have a choice of 40, 50 or 60 people to approach. I would have thought someone could be found who would pass it on, and not necessarily knowing all the details. Sometimes people come to me as a councillor and say, "I want to tell you all about this". I say, "Look, I am not an expert in this. It seems to be very personal and I really do not want to know. What I will do is put you in touch with the people who can help you and with the authorities who might be able to sort it out". So I think that this can be overstated.
Nevertheless, we are absolutely clear that we would like to support an amendment along the lines of that tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. We have a compromise amendment in an attempt to help the Government to resolve this in a way that is not as damaging as perhaps it otherwise would be, and perhaps not very damaging at all. However, we would really like an assurance from my noble friend the Minister that between now and Third Reading she will think seriously about this so that it can be considered again at that stage, either through a government amendment along the lines of our amendment or perhaps something a bit better. That is the assurance we are looking for and I hope that she will be able to give it. I should say that if we get it, I will not move my amendments when we get to them later on.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, I am pleased to support my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town in the amendment she has moved in respect of the Housing Ombudsman. I have known my noble friend for many years and we have worked together on numerous matters. As usual, she has hit the nail on the head, identified the problem and provided us with a sensible and reasoned solution which I think should command widespread support across the House. The Housing Ombudsman provides a free, independent and impartial service to the tenants of social housing providers. It is a respected organisation which provides resolutions for problems as well as valuable advice and guidance to the providers of social housing on how to get it right by developing effective complaints procedures.
As noble Lords are aware, tenants currently have the right to complain to and deal directly with the Housing Ombudsman where a complaint has not been resolved to their satisfaction. The Government propose to take away a tenant's right to make a direct complaint to the Housing Ombudsman. That is just wrong. It
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There is also a practicality issue in that, in more cases than not, the complaints the Housing Ombudsman deals with are complex issues, often evolving over many months or years. Local MPs or councillors, who are working hard for their constituents, may not have the capacity in their offices or the town hall to deal with these complex matters as effectively as the ombudsman could. No criticism of anyone is intended-it is just an observation. In conclusion, I congratulate my noble friend on bringing this matter forward and other noble Lords who have spoken in support of this amendment, and I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, to think again and accept my noble friend's proposal.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, it has been a very interesting and helpful debate, mostly coming from people who understand the process in place at the moment. There has been a lot of talk about arbitration. However, this is not about arbitration; it is about resolution. It is about somebody having a problem and needing it resolved. They need somebody to write a letter to the housing chairman. They need somebody to write a letter because they have been through the process and they have not got a reasonable answer. As former councillors, we have all done precisely this and made sure that there is some means of resolving a problem for tenants. To say that councillors, MPs, and now tenants cannot do this seems absurd.
One of the reasons for suggesting that people take their complaints through one of those filters-if that is what they are-is, as my noble friend Lord Tope said, that there is a strong belief that removing housing by and large from the direct control and interest of councils and taking it to ALMOs and housing associations means that councillors and MPs become disconnected from the problems. Councillors in particular ought to know what is going on in the housing stock in their borough. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, knows exactly what she is doing and has a very good complaints procedure. I am not sure that is true of every ALMO or even of the way council properties are run. So we want to reconnect councillors and MPs with what is going wrong within their area. Can we dump the suggestion of arbitration? Nobody is asking them to arbitrate. We are asking them to resolve a problem. If they cannot resolve the problem, they
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I do not want there to be any misunderstanding. We recognise that the Housing Ombudsman does an extremely good job. There is no doubt about that. It is responsive and it knows what it is doing. This is not about trying to exclude the ombudsman from the system. But the Housing Ombudsman has an enormous case load which went up by 72 per cent between 2007-08 and 2009-10. Maybe that reflects the fact that there are more complaints coming forward about housing, which could be dealt with locally if there was the opportunity to do so. An additional 11 per cent of complaints have been made in the past year.
We want to ensure that the ombudsman is not the first port of call. We do not want the immediate response to be, "Oh, I'm going off to the ombudsman". There should be a step before that; namely, going to one's tenants panel, a councillor or an MP and seeing whether the matter can first be resolved through them.
A dual-track model currently applies to complaints to the Local Government Ombudsman. In practice, although the ombudsman does not collect detailed statistics, complaints are almost always submitted directly to the ombudsman and not via local councillors. Therefore, we are not convinced that this model will help local complaint resolution.
I have listened carefully to what has been said and I know that these matters have been raised over a number of weeks. I understand what has been said about discussions passing a last barrier point between the council or tenants panel to the ombudsman. I am not clear that dual track increases the number of ways of resolving complaints, but I have heard what has been said. Bearing in mind what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Tope, and my noble friends Lord True and Lady Eaton, who all see the advantage of an initial stage, I am happy to look again at the second stage and how a matter would get to the ombudsman. I give a commitment to do that before the next stage of the Bill so that we can discuss how we think that could take over. We feel that this would be a good way to proceed. I hope that both my noble friends and the noble Lords opposite will be content for us to see whether there is a way through here without absolutely undermining the provisions that the Government wish to introduce. The Government believe that local people who are associated with local housing and have become disconnected from it should be aware of what is going on and be capable of dealing with a lot of the problems that tenants have without them having to approach the ombudsman.
My offer is one of discussions to see whether there is a way through. If we have not found one by Third Reading, we will be able to deal with the matter then. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, does the Minister accept that what has been proposed would enable tenants to keep their right to decide whether they want to go through their councillor or MP or go
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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I do not think that it denies them the choice. I am happy to look into how the passing from one to the other can be done. We think that there should be an initial stage. Often, those initial stages work: a councillor intervenes; they see what is going on; and the matter is resolved at that level. If that does not happen and somebody goes directly to the ombudsman, it is very difficult for councillors and tenants panels to know exactly what people are thinking. People do not always want to go to the ombudsman and would quite like somebody to deal with the matter at a local level. That is why we think the initial responsibility for getting matters put right lies with one of those three groups. I am very happy to look at how we can deal with the question of whether it is a requirement for the MP or local councillor to be the final arbiter of when a matter is passed on to the local ombudsman.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response and, indeed, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. We all support the idea that the service provider should be the first person to solve the matter and that there should be good ways of doing so. We all prefer local resolution and we all want councillor involvement. I do not think that there is anything between us on that. The only difference is in whether an extra layer should be added and whether we want a veto regarding whether people can, after that extra layer, go to the Housing Ombudsman.
Obviously I am addressing myself to those who I think have already reached a compromise. I hope that they have not, because some problems remain with the amendments, which may not now be moved. One, which has not yet been covered, is that the complaint is still required to be made in writing. Part of our amendment was intended to remove that requirement. I realise that we are on Report rather than in Committee, and therefore that may be a possibility. However, it would be a new statutory requirement. It would go against good practice and, indeed, the Law Commission has specifically recommended against it. Its latest report on public service ombudsmen states:
Lord Greaves: Does the noble Baroness accept that our amendments are not intended to be a perfect answer? We tabled them to persuade the Minister and the Government not to resolve the matter finally today but to give us more time to discuss it before Third Reading and perhaps to come to a resolution that might be agreed around the House at Third Reading. The Minister has given a very clear assurance that that will now happen. The matter can be brought back at Third Reading and, on that basis, I wonder whether the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: The problem that remains-and I shall explain why I think there is still a problem-is the Minister's final response, in which she did not give an assurance that the same right will remain for social housing tenants as exists for every other ombudsman-that of direct access to the ombudsman for justice without having a filter.
I should like to say one other thing about what I understand was an attempt to find a way through. Procedurally, I think that it is a bit of a nonsense to say that you must go to your MP or councillor in order to be able to go to the Housing Ombudsman but that if they say no, you can still go anyway. I accept that the wording was an attempt to get through this afternoon's discussion but it is a bit of a nonsense to say, "Go through your MP but, if they say no, you have an automatic right to go anyway". That does not seem to represent progress; nor does it remove the extra layer. If the councillor or MP is to become involved, they have to carry out another inquiry-they have to hear both sides of the case. That is all that I mean by natural justice. I believe that councillors and MPs are champions of their electors but I do not think that they are adjudicators. I deliberately use the words "adjudication" or "resolution". In other words, they resolve a problem where someone else cannot, and coming in with a fresh mind rather than being a champion seems to be very important. I believe that it would be a form of discrimination to say that just one group could not go directly to an ombudsman. The noble Lord, Lord Best, chairs the Property Ombudsman service. I was a member of the Surveyors Ombudsman Service. In all these cases, people are allowed direct access to an ombudsman.
"(d) any accreditation or standards to be held by landlords of social housing.""
Lord Kennedy of Southwark: My Lords, in moving Amendment 52B, I shall speak also to Amendment 85. During the course of deliberations in this housing section of the Localism Bill, we have referred on a number of occasions to the private rented sector, which plays an important role in providing accommodation to individuals, couples and families. There are some excellent private sector landlords-there is no doubt about that. We should always be concerned with driving up standards and making provision better for all. Good quality housing that meets the needs of tenants in the private rented sector is an aim we can all sign up to.
However, as with all types of housing, there are landlords who are not quite as good as they should be, and property that is not up to the standard that it should be. The proposal for a landlord accreditation scheme is an attempt to address this serious problem. The proposal is for local authorities to operate one or more voluntary-and I stress the word voluntary-landlord accreditation schemes. The amendment also gives the Secretary of State the power, if he wishes to use it, to make regulations in this respect, in consultation with the local authorities. This proposal will have the effect, when the schemes are operating, of highlighting the good landlords-those who manage their properties well, deal with their tenants properly and provide a reasonable product for a fair price. That will give tenants more confidence, as they can have information on the landlords on the scheme and have a procedure
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If the Minister is not prepared to accept my amendment, can he give us an assurance that the department will keep the matter under review, as this is a genuine attempt to address a problem which we know all too well exists. I beg to move.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, these amendments focus on the potential impact of accreditation schemes, both in the private rented sector and the social rented sector. I turn to the social rented sector first.
Amendment 52B would give the Secretary of State the power to require the Homes and Communities Agency, and from April 2012 the Greater London Authority, to supply information about any accreditation or standards to be held by landlords of social housing. I assume that the amendment relates to the HCA's future role as a regulator of social housing. The noble Lord nods. However, under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 the regulator is already obliged to consult on its own standards for social housing landlords and to bring those standards to landlords' attention. In practice, of course, the regulator's standards are freely available for everyone to view on its website, so I do not see a need to empower the Secretary of State to require that this information is published by law.
The amendment could also encompass accreditation or codes that might be adopted by social landlords on a voluntary basis. It is important that this kind of voluntary activity is owned by the sector itself, so I am not convinced that the regulator should be required to publish information about it. Indeed it is important that there is a very clear distinction between the regulator's standards, which are compulsory, and any codes or accreditation arrangements that are adopted by landlords on a voluntary basis. Of course, we would encourage such voluntary activity in the sector, but we do not believe that it would be helpful for the regulator to police it or to report on it.
Turning to Amendment 85, which deals with accreditation in the private rented sector, I think that we all agree that a good accreditation scheme can play an important role in developing a local authority's relationship with their local landlords. Many local authorities already run successful accreditation schemes, but as with the social sector, accreditation works best when it is owned by those involved. One of the main strengths of voluntary accreditation to date is that local authorities have been able to tailor their schemes to local needs, and experience shows that accreditation works best when it matches local circumstances.
Instead of allowing that local discretion, the proposals in front of us today would impose top-down burdens on all local authorities, including those who, quite
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