Thursday, 8 September 2011

Localism Bill: Peers vote to cut tenants' access to ombudsman

An amendment to the Localism Bill that would have preserved the right of tenants to complain directly to the housing ombudsman has been defeated in the House of Lords. It follows a campaign by the National Housing Federation (NHF) - supported by 24housing magazine - opposing plans that will see tenants having to go though either MPs, councillors or tenant panels to have their complaints heard from April 2012.

The amendment called for tenants to be given the choice to involve an elected representative if they wished. Introduced by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab), the amendment pushed the peers to a vote where it was defeated by 207 votes to 183. Following pressure from peers, however, Baroness Hanham (Cons) has agreed to discuss issues around whether it should be a requirement for the MP, councillor or tenant panel to have the final say of when a matter is then passed on to the ombudsman.

Introducing the amendment, Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town said there were "several reasons for resisting" the move, not least because of the conflicts of interests that could occur. She said: "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."

In an emotive address Hayter referred to expert opinion, including that of the Law Commission, opposing the plans, adding that "there is no evidence of a problem from the right of direct access to the Housing Ombudsman". She said: "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."

The Government has said the plans will "re-engage politicians with social housing". Lord Tope (Lib Dem) -  who has experience as both an MP and councillor - said he shared this objective but had concerns that it would give MPs, councillors and tenant panels a right of veto. He said: "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."

Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Lab) - a housing association chair with experience of dealing with the different stages of complaints - said she was "baffled" by the proposals and said it was an "unnecessary, restrictive and undemocratic block on a tenant's rights." In defence of the plans, Baroness Hanham said that removing housing 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".

Baroness Hanham alluded to the fact that complaint procedures offered by social landlords were not universally good and effective.  She said: "We want to reconnect councillors and MPs with what is going wrong within their area.” She added that the Housing Ombudsman had an "enormous case load" which went up by 72% between 2007-08 and 2009-10.

Baroness Hanham continued: "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% of complaints have been made in the past year." She said a dual-track model - giving tenants a choice to involve a representative if they wish - wouldn't work, adding: "We are not convinced that this model will help local complaint resolution."