Departmental Response Times

Tuesday 19th September 2023

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee
Select Committee statement
Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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We now come to the Select Committee statement. The Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement. Those should be brief questions and not speeches. May I emphasise that questions should be directed to the Select Committee Chair and not to the relevant Minister? Front Benchers may take part in questioning if they so wish.

14:55
Clive Betts Portrait Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)
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Today, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee has published a special report on the response times of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to the Committee’s reports. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for kindly granting time to our Committee for a statement on the special report, and I thank the Committee staff for their support to assist us in producing it.

The House has appointed our Committee to scrutinise the Department. The issues that our Committee considers affect the day-to-day lives of constituents up and down the country. During this Session, we have published reports on topics such as adult social care, housing supply and funding for levelling up. We have also investigated damp and mould, and reforms to the private rented sector—two issues that are raised on a daily basis in correspondence to the Committee and in our mailbags as constituency MPs. We have heard evidence from hundreds of witnesses, who have given up their time to share their experiences—in some cases, harrowing and deeply personal experiences—to inform the Committee’s work. They do so in the expectation that our reports and recommendations will influence Government policy and improve people’s experience of public services.

For our scrutiny of Government policy to be fully effective, the Government must consider and respond to our conclusions and recommendations. Sometimes the Government will accept our recommendations and sometimes they will not. What is important is that we receive a response from the Government. Their responses demonstrate that they have considered the views of the Committee and allow the public to see what the Government are doing in response to our inquiries. It is a well-established convention that the Government should respond to all Select Committee reports within two months of publication. We understand that that will not always be possible, perhaps during a parliamentary recess or where recommendations are directed to more than one Department. However, delays should be the exception not the rule, and we expect open and proactive communication from Ministers and officials on the rare occasions when they expect a Government response to be delayed.

The experience of our Committee is that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has historically and consistently failed to respond to our Committee reports within a reasonable time. During this Session, we have published seven reports and not one of the Government’s responses has been published within the two-month deadline. On average, Government responses to our reports have been almost six months late. The responses to our reports on funding for Levelling Up, on the Electoral Commission’s strategy and on exempt accommodation were all late. The response to our report on adult social care was eight months late; The response to our report on social housing was 10 months late. The response to our report on permitted development rights was one year and eight months late. We are still waiting on overdue responses to our reports on reforms to national planning policy and on reforming the private rented sector. Our Committee staff spend a disproportionate amount of their time, resources and energy attempting to engage with Ministers and officials, through formal and informal channels, to get responses.

Over the years, as Chair of the Committee, I have seen responses being late, but things have got progressively worse. In March 2022, the Chair of the Liaison Committee wrote to the then Leader of the House to highlight cases of “egregiously overdue” Government responses. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was identified as a repeat offender when it came to late responses, and was responsible for five of the 13 examples in that letter.

In January this year, we asked the permanent secretary about his Department’s failure to respond. He said:

“We need to make sure that it is an important responsibility of the Department that we respond on time.”

We have seen little evidence that the Department has taken this responsibility more seriously. Indeed, in the case of our report on reform in the private rented sector, published in February, the lack of response has been deeply disappointing.

The two-month deadline passed on 9 April. On 3 May, the Secretary of State wrote to the Committee to explain that the delayed response will be published

“alongside the introduction of the Renters Reform Bill”.

The Bill was introduced on 2 May, but we have still not received a response to the report. Instead, we have heard that a response will be published “as soon as possible”. We have made seven separate formal requests for the response, as well as many informal requests, but we are still waiting for the Government’s response. It is now more than five months overdue.

The Committee broadly supports the legislation on private rental reform and has made suggestions for its improvement. We now need to hear whether the Government plan to accept these recommendations, and if not, why not. We expected a response in April; we were promised one in May; we are now in September and still waiting. We are also waiting for the Second Reading of the Bill. We hope to receive the response before Second Reading, although that appears to have been somewhat delayed as well.

It is imperative that the Government fully consider the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations in the report, and publish a full response imminently. Our special report calls for a Government response on the private rented sector in the next two weeks, along with an explanation as to what has caused the delay. We have requested an assessment from the Cabinet Secretary about these matters. Finally, we have asked the Liaison Committee to consider a formal review of Government response times, including our experiences with this Department.

In reality, a Select Committee’s powers and effectiveness are significantly undermined when the Government do not fulfil their responsibilities towards it. Ministers must be accountable to this House. We, as a Committee, treat our responsibility to scrutinise the Department and its Ministers with the utmost seriousness. It is time that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities took its responsibilities to our Committee and the House equally seriously. The first step in doing so must be to respond to our principal output—our reports—in a professional and timely manner.

I normally take great pleasure in coming to the House to report on the Committee’s inquiries and findings. It gives me no pleasure at all to have to make this statement today. I hope I do not have to make a similar statement in the future.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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There is now an opportunity for hon. Members to ask questions of the Chair of the Select Committee.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), and all its members for the valuable work they do shaping, challenging and scrutinising policy and holding people to account. My constituents, and those of many other hon. Members, are waiting with bated breath for reforms to the private rented sector. The Committee has produced an excellent and powerful report about it, but can I clarify that a response to that report has been requested from the Department on several occasions?

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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Yes. The Committee works on a cross-party basis and our report on the PRS was produced unanimously. We have raised our concerns about the delayed response in person with Ministers at our hearings, and we have also written to Ministers, but still we have not had a response.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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I take no pleasure in rising on the subject of the statement either. I have had the opportunity to serve on the Committee and its predecessors for the last 13 years, since I have been in Parliament, and over that period of time we have worked very hard, on a cross-party basis, to make sure our recommendations are agreed on a cross-party basis.

Does the Chair of the Select Committee agree that the Government’s response to the Committee’s report on exempt accommodation was some six months late? Given that I was promoting a private Member’s Bill, which has now become an Act of Parliament, not having a response from the Government was hardly helpful in guiding the House or the House of Lords. Will he confirm that position and that many of the recommendations that the Committee has made would have helped the Government to deliver much better service for all our constituents?

Clive Betts Portrait Mr Betts
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Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has served on the Committee all the time I have been Chair. We have worked together closely and he has done an absolutely outstanding job, both on the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Act 2023, which deals with exempt accommodation.

Given that the Committee undertook a report on the issue of exempt accommodation, it would have been really helpful, not merely to the hon. Gentleman but to all Members of the House who were looking at that particularly challenging issue, which we described as a complete mess, if the Government’s response to our report had been available in a timely fashion, as it could have informed the deliberations and considerations of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent Bill. In the end, we got an Act that is valuable and well supported, but the Government did not help because of their delay in responding to our report.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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Thank you, Mr Betts, for your statement—it was almost a 10-minute point of order. I am sure that Members on the Treasury Bench will have heard the points that have been made, not only by Mr Betts but by Bob Blackman.