Social Housing: Mould

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Wednesday 10th January 2024

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of conditions in social housing, including levels of mould.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Scott of Bybrook) (Con)
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My Lords, the English Housing Survey found that in 2022, 10% of social homes failed to meet the decent homes standard and 5% had a problem with damp. The Government have now introduced Awaab’s law, requiring the Secretary of State to set out new requirements for landlords to address hazards such as damp and mould in social homes within a fixed period. We published our consultation on those requirements yesterday, 9 January.

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, may I say how pleased I am to see the noble Baroness back in her place?

The death of two year-old Awaab, who was killed by mould in Rochdale, was a shocking insight into the condition of many social homes across the country. Unfortunately, millions of children in the private rented sector are also living with damp, mould or excessively cold temperatures, causing conditions such as asthma, pneumonia and respiratory illness. What plans do the Government have to tackle poor conditions for tenants in private rented homes?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, there are differences between the rented housing tenures. Almost half of private rental landlords own a single property and the vast majority own fewer than five so, unlike social housing landlords, very few will have in-house or contracted repair and maintenance teams, which makes it more difficult. We have to consider proportionate timescales in legislation for the private rented sector. However, we are taking action to improve the safety and decency of private rented homes through the Renters Reform Bill, which will be in this House shortly. We have introduced an amendment to the Bill to apply a decent homes standard to the private rental sector for the first time and to give local councils enforcement powers to deal with non-decent homes. As I say, that Bill will be introduced to this House shortly. We will also set up a new private rented sector ombudsman through that Bill, which will also have extra powers.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome my noble friend back to the Dispatch Box. I welcome the speed with which the Government have implemented Awaab’s law and issued the consultation documents. Is there not now a dilemma facing social housing tenants who want their landlord to effect repairs? They can either go to the social housing regulator or to the Housing Ombudsman, which have different regimes but overlapping powers. Will my noble friend issue guidance so that social housing tenants can use the new powers the legislation has given to them?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My noble friend is right; this is all about communication, to make sure that tenants know what to do if they have an issue with their property. We have had a number of communications and marketing campaigns, such as Make Things Right, and the latest one is just being completed. That makes sure that all tenants know that, first, they should go to their social landlord, and if they do not get the right answer—or any answer, as sadly happens in some cases —they must go to the ombudsman. The social housing regulator will deal not with individuals but with bigger issues relating to individual housing associations.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister’s response focused on social homes. Housing associations are very keen to do more to regenerate existing social housing but are unable to do so—at least, not very effectively—without improved access to government funding. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will look to maximise the use of existing funding through the affordable homes programme to support housing association-led regeneration?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Yes. I think we already said in the levelling-up Act that the £11.5 billion in the affordable homes programme can be used for social housing, as it has in the past. It is important that social landlords understand that and use that money.

Baroness Thornhill Portrait Baroness Thornhill (LD)
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I am pleased to see the noble Baroness back in her place; she has been missed. For this new legislation, the Government have sensibly constituted a Social Housing Quality Resident Panel to advise them and, presumably, to listen to its views. The panel stated that it did not believe that

“court action would … prevent and resolve housing hazards”

or

“incentivise landlords to meet the deadlines”,

and that it would

“place the burden of enforcement on residents”.

What is the Government’s response to this plea? Most importantly, what support will be given to tenants to make this work?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I thank the tenants’ panel. I have been to a couple of its meetings, and it has been excellent. It was meant to last for a year, but we are going to continue with it. No, we are not expecting tenants to fund their own cases. That is not correct, and I do not know where that has come from. I would like to discuss the issue further with the noble Baroness and get a clearer answer, because I am not aware of that.

Lord Best Portrait Lord Best (CB)
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My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Baroness back in post. The Government are absolutely right to come down hard on social housing landlords who have not doing what they should have in keeping their properties up to a decent standard. The ombudsman, the social housing regulator and legislation are all great but the amount of money available for social housing remains the same, and switching resources to getting that older stock up to muster is going to absorb an awful lot of money in the years ahead. Are we going to see quite a big decline in the new affordable social housing that is so badly needed?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No. Through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, which, sadly, I did not see the end of, we intend to deliver more social housing. That came out strongly throughout proceedings on that legislation. The noble Lord is right; there are a lot of challenges for the sector in upgrading its stock, after many years of not putting money into it. We will all be working on that. This year we gave £30 million to Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. We wanted to look at how such investment would help them make improvements, and we are looking at that intervention quite closely for the future.

Lord Bishop of Chelmsford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford
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May I say on behalf of these Benches, too, how pleased we are to see the noble Baroness back in her place. We know that cots are extremely important for the health and well-being of babies and young children. What is the Government’s policy on the provision of cots to those in social housing? The charity Justlife states that around 25% of temporary accommodation falls under the purview of the social housing regulator. With nearly 140,000 children living in temporary accommodation in England alone, what steps are being taken to ensure that cots are provided for families in temporary accommodation under the purview of the social housing regulator?

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. I do not know the answer to it, but I will certainly find out. I know that this is an important issue. Housing associations providing temporary accommodation have to provide the correct furniture and fittings for such families, and I will check that cots are included. I also know that such charities—which I have been involved with many times, and which do a wonderful job—are providing not just cots but all the other things that babies and young people need, particularly if they are being moved around a lot. I will get a Written Answer to the right reverend Prelate regarding cots.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Portrait Baroness Finlay of Llandaff (CB)
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My Lords, the NHS spends £1.4 billion a year on treating illnesses associated with mould. The evidence is that the number of damp problems in the private rented sector is almost double the number in the social sector. People renting often have great difficulty in knowing where to seek help and are frightened of going to the landlord in case of recrimination against them for having raised an issue. Have the Government considered asking every local authority to establish a registration point where people who feel that their housing is seriously below standard can report the issue and discuss it, so that they can get support when going to the ombudsman or wherever else they might need to go? There is a real gap in their ability to advocate for themselves.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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No, we have not considered that, and I am not sure that local authorities have the capacity to that at this time. But it is important that we make sure that tenants know their rights and where to go. The ombudsman is creating many more positions, so it should be able to deal with these things quicker. I was pleased to learn that the Department of Health and Social Care has developed new, consolidated guidance, tailored to the housing sector, on the health aspects of damp and mould. There was some disagreement about what was important or how much damp and mould could be allowed in these homes in order for them to be safe; I am glad that that guidance has been consolidated. I hope that we are moving forward, and I absolutely know that when Awaab’s law comes into effect, things will change considerably and at much greater speed.