After we sent our second report to AMs of all parties – and met with Peter Black as the Housing Spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats – we were mentioned again at length by the three parties on 8th July, the last Housing Bill debate before it becomes law. Full transcript here.
Minister for Housing and Regeneration (Carl Sargeant)
I move the motion.
I have the privilege of bringing the Bill before the Chamber today, but it is the culmination of a considerable body of work involving many people. It marks the end of a process that was started by my predecessor, Huw Lewis. It has involved public consultation and extensive engagement with stakeholders. I am grateful for all of the contributions. The Bill has been through several stages; it has been examined by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, the Finance Committee and, on more than one occasion, the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee.
The latter devoted a considerable amount of time and effort taking evidence from individuals and organisations. It has been a considerable amount of work for everybody and a challenging process, but scrutiny of the Bill has been robust.
In addition to you, Deputy Presiding Officer, the Presiding Officer, all Members and particularly those on the communities committee, I want to thank my Cabinet colleagues and also many officials in my department, across the Welsh Government and in the Assembly Commission who have all worked tirelessly during the development and passage of the Bill. I want to put on record my sincere thanks to everyone.
This Bill is significant. This is not just my view, but that of Shelter Cymru and Gofal, which are very well-placed to know what needs to be done to help meet people’s housing needs and to prevent homelessness. Shelter Cymru said recently that,
‘Without doubt, the Housing Bill is one of the most important developments for people and homes in Wales for a generation.’
I thank them for their contributions too.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I know that we have had many long sessions in this Chamber regarding the Bill, including that of last week, and I thank members of staff and am grateful for the indulgence of Members and for their taking a very strong view on the proposals. Tackling inequality, poverty and social justice are at the heart of this Bill. The issues that we are addressing through the Bill—the private rented sector and homelessness, for example—are not problems unique to Wales, but, unlike England, we are doing something about them here in Wales that is made in Wales. Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Presiding Officer. I commend this today.
Mark Isherwood (North Wales) (Conservative)
I think that my 21 years in the building society sector and my 12 years in the housing association sector taught me the most important lesson that if Government or any other agency is seeking to deliver programmes or legislation, the most important thing is that the sector should work together with the proposer of the legislation. In my experience, that is exactly what happened before devolution in Wales, where Tai Cymru would come to people like me, and colleagues across the sector, and agree ways of making the proposal into something that could work, so that all parties could then implement it together. Regrettably, this Bill failed to achieve that.
Much of the Bill, and its beginning, focuses on regulation and licensing—I do not propose to revisit the arguments of recent weeks. Suffice it to say that much of the sector, particularly those parts of the sector that invest or decide to invest in supply, state that it will not work; it will actually have the reverse impact and will disincentive investment. This in turn will impact, sadly and tragically, on a key element of this in terms of tackling homelessness, which is increasing the supply of private rented sector housing to those who are homeless, to those who are on waiting lists and those who need that extra support.
Also, it fails to recognise the recommendations of the Communities and Culture Committee report some years ago at the end of the last Assembly. It recognised the need to embrace the private rented sector as an option of first choice for social housing. It recommended close working partnership across the sector and it recommended that social letting agencies as social enterprises should be developed with the sector, but instead we are seeing development by Government and local government, regardless of the wish of the wider sector to bring expertise and resources to the table.
It is over a decade since the sector collectively said that we had a housing supply crisis. It is many years since the Homes for All Cymru report, ‘Blueprint for Action’, said that there was a crisis in Wales. It is not new. The current housing system has been failing for a long time. The consequences for the health and wellbeing of people and the stability of people and communities in Wales are dire.
Instead, we are having anti-business regulation for all landlords, hitting investment and supply, rather than targeted enforcement against bad and criminal landlords and support for the worst-affected tenants, so they know how to claim, where and to whom to go, knowing that they will be protected if they do so.
As the Let Down in Wales campaign, a coalition campaigning on behalf of private renters, said,
‘The Housing (Wales) Bill proposes voluntary regulation and training for landlords, with an “expectation”’
that landlords will meet certain basic standards but,
‘This is the ONLY thing that is changing for tenants and we refute that there would be any confidence in this system.’
The Residential Landlords Association stated that it supports the aim of raising standards and rooting out bad landlords, but that it does not think that the proposed scheme will achieve these aims. Contrary to the Minister’s claim that it had not offered an alternative way of identifying landlords, the briefing paper that it produced most certainly did.
The Country Land and Business Association stated that the adoption of this scheme would thus only serve as additional red tape and bureaucracy, stifling the Welsh economy and jeopardising the supply of much-needed private-rented homes. The National Landlords Association said that what we need in investment terms, to deliver quality homes that people can afford to rent, is a true social venture partnership between the public, private and third sectors that it has been offering for years. It told me that that was not warmly received, despite its willing offer of expertise.
The Bill even fails to acknowledge the true definition of disability and the difference, which was fought for over generations by disability rights campaigners, between mental illness and disability. That is a step backwards and a dangerous error.
It fails, on empty homes, to put the requisite support in. Instead of replicating what happens on the other side of the border, to be seen to do different it has brought in a system that can work, but unfortunately opens the door to local authorities to bring in the big stick too soon.
In terms of second homes, we have seen, basically, a wealth tax that will not generate additional supply for people who need affordable homes in their communities. It is crude and clumsy; it is vindictive; it does not protect people with tied accommodation; it does not protect people whose main home may be in Wales; it does not protect even priests in the Church in Wales; and it fails to recognise second-home owners who are already paying full council tax for subsidised local services that they are not there for. If the Minister confirms that protection for vicars and others will be there, I welcome that, but it is not on the face of the Bill.
We do, of course, acknowledge measures—
The Deputy Presiding Officer
I am keen to preserve the rights of the minority, but you must come to a conclusion now.
Mark Isherwood (North Wales) (Conservative)
Okay. Although we acknowledge measures to tackle homelessness, we cannot support the Bill. A true measure of good business practice is KISS analysis, which means, keep it simple, stupid. Sadly, the Welsh Government, once again, has inverted the ‘SS’.
Jocelyn Davies (South Wales East) (Plaid Cymru)
Unlike the Tories, Plaid Cymru will be supporting this Bill today. This Bill, I think, has attracted considerable interest, and we have been very fortunate to have significant expertise from our housing sector assisting us. I would like to put my gratitude to the sector on the record. I think that the sector has engaged with us and with the Government in the most positive and productive way, and its contribution has been invaluable.
I have spent much of the last eight months, since the Bill was introduced, criticising it and criticising the Minister for it. It is something, I think, that he was starting to get rather fond of. However, the White Paper promised a more radical way forward that signalled that the principles of social justice were alive and well and I have been disappointed that the Bill has not lived up to that vision. I have not changed my view on that.
There are many ways that the Bill falls short of the progressive legislation that we were promised, but I feel that I must acknowledge that the Minister has given suggested changes serious consideration and has been open to criticism. I am grateful for that. Some amendments have even been accepted. Others have been replaced by Government amendments that achieve the same aims, and this is hugely positive. However, I hope that the Minister will agree to discuss further with me, perhaps, the issue of mandatory electrical safety checks within the private rented sector, as I think that this is something that could be revisited in the future.
Now for something completely different, because most of you know that I missed my Monty Python concert last Tuesday: on homelessness, I am pleased that young people will now be more sympathetically treated, and I am delighted that care leavers will get additional support to help them to maintain their tenancies up to the age of 25. I hope that this will make a huge difference in homelessness prevention, and for a group of people—I think that we would all agree—who can be extremely vulnerable. I think that that was worth staying here for last Tuesday.
We should acknowledge again the efforts of a whole range of outside organisations that helped to promote that as an idea. There are many good things in the Bill. After initial reservations, I have changed my mind on compulsory registration for landlords and letting agents, although there is some room for improvement. I was also interested to read Let Down in Wales’s proposals, although it did not suggest that we should have less regulation; in fact, it was the opposite, I thought. It was calling for the proposal of a housing ombudsman to hold landlords and letting agents to account for bad behaviour and poor conditions, and I hope that the Minister will remain open-minded about exploring ways that the Bill can be strengthened further in the future. Acts are often refined and amended over time, and I hope that this suggestion is not dismissed out of hand.
So, the homelessness provisions are a step in the right direction, although I still have serious concerns about some of the detail. The Bill’s focus on prevention is highly commendable, and this law will no doubt be subject to additions and repeals over the years to come. I think that we will all welcome the day that intentionality and priority need are banished for good. Sadly, today is not that day, but we certainly will be supporting this Bill.
Peter Black (South Wales West)
The Welsh Liberal Democrats will also be supporting the Bill, although Mark Isherwood nearly persuaded me the other way—no. [Laughter.]
I join Jocelyn in thanking the housing sector for its contribution to this Bill. Its representatives made an invaluable set of proposals that came to the committee and to individual Members and led to some amendments to the Bill. I think that we also need to thank the Minister for being open-minded enough to listen to those arguments and for accepting amendments to the Bill. The Bill is not exactly as I wanted it, or as Jocelyn wanted it either; there are further amendments that I wanted to see in there, but I think that we have to recognise that it is a different Bill from the one that came before the committee at the beginning, and amendments were accepted to it and changes were made to it as the Minister listened to the arguments and took on board those that he felt able to accommodate. As I said, there were other things that needed to go in there in my view, but, you know, the Bill is getting there and, like Jocelyn, I think that we have a potentially good Bill that can make a big difference in Wales. Certainly, however, we do need to look at further issues for future legislation as well.
I just want to touch on a few issues in the Bill. In terms of the private rented sector, like Jocelyn, I was not convinced at the beginning. We listened to the evidence in the committee, and that evidence in the committee convinced me, as it did Jocelyn and others, that that was the right way forward. As I said when we were at Stage 3, if you have a compulsory registration and licensing scheme, then those who do not register will be the ones who are the bad landlords, and it is easier to find them that way than if you rely on a voluntary scheme in which some of the good landlords also might not register. It is much easier to root out the bad landlords with a compulsory scheme. I think that, for that reason, I supported it.
The section 41 guidance is going to be absolutely crucial here, and I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate whether we can actually have a pre-scrutiny look at that guidance in the committee. Jocelyn has also already highlighted the issue of electrical safety, which I think is a key issue for me and other members of the committee, as were carbon monoxide detectors. Also, there is the issue of how we can use that guidance to improve the quality of the private rented sector. Some pre-scrutiny by the committee would certainly help to put some input into that as part of that.
Again, I met representatives of the Let Down in Wales campaign and, as Jocelyn said, they do want more regulation, not less. I think that the important issue, however—and this is an issue that you may be able to take up in the next housing Bill—is one that they raised, and that is a compulsory redress scheme for private tenants, in the same way as you have in England and in Scotland. More protection for private tenants would be very helpful, and it is certainly something that we need to look at in future legislation when the next Bill comes before us.
On homelessness, I absolutely agree that prevention is the way forward. The emphasis on prevention in this Bill is absolutely right and certainly the way forward on that. I remain disappointed and concerned about the changes to the priority need for ex-prisoners. I think that, unless you get the rehabilitation side right—and we have not been able to do that so far—that is going to cause more reoffending on the part of that particular group, and we certainly need to look at that. I also think that, in terms of the ability for local authorities to discharge to the private rented sector, we need to look at the sustainability of those tenancies as well. Again, I look to the Minister to monitor that and to take action if that causes a problem.
Finally, in terms of the council tax and second homes, we did support that, but, again, the Minister has indicated that he will consult on guidance and that he will recognise that there are major concerns about the impact on tied homes particularly, and we need to have that matter addressed as part of that guidance.
In summary, I think that this is a reasonably good Bill that we can support and vote for today. I think that it will make a difference to the housing sector in Wales, and I think that we can build on it for future legislation.
The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister to reply.
Minister for Housing and Regeneration (Carl Sargeant)
We have a great housing sector across Wales. I have a fantastic drafting team, some of whom are in the public gallery today. I thank Peter Black and Jocelyn Davies, and their respective parties, for shaping the Bill and supporting its passage.
It is with regret that I note that the Conservatives are not able to support protecting the private rented sector and standing up for the rights of tenants and students, as suggested by Shelter Cymru and the National Union of Students in Wales. The Conservatives have failed to support the homelessness provisions that this Bill will change in terms of prevention in order to support the most vulnerable in our communities. Indeed, that is supported by those in the sector, such as Gofal and the Welsh Local Government Association.
Mark Isherwood is unable to support this, along with his colleagues—they are not supporting the exit of local authorities from the housing revenue account subsidy system in order to build new council properties and to create better standards for our communities across Wales. The Conservatives have let Wales down in not supporting this made-in-Wales solution in terms of the first made-in-Wales housing Bill. I commend the motion, Deputy Presiding Officer.