Housing and Planning Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:19 pm on 11th April 2016.

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Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 9:19 pm, 11th April 2016

My Lords, this amendment deals with property guardianship schemes, a term with which I was entirely unfamiliar until I read about them in, appropriately enough, the Guardian last December. The situation originally arose when the owners of properties—often commercial properties—who were unable to sell or improve them for the time being wanted them protected. The owners allowed people to go in unlicensed to live there on moderate terms until such time as they could proceed with redevelopment, demolition or whatever.

As a concept it was workable and satisfactory to many people. But latterly it has changed. It has now become a commercial enterprise in which, I have to say, a number of ruthless owners are exploiting people who are not tenants—they have no rights; they are merely licensees—charging quite considerable sums of money for them to live in places that are, very often, unsatisfactory from the point of view of the conditions in which they have to live, with absolutely no security of tenure of any kind.

This prompted me to put down an amendment in Committee, where I quoted the experience of some people who had been through this system. One guardian described rooms that were “like chicken coops” in a place in Kennington offered by a guardian company—that is the euphemistic phrase—for £500 a month. It was a single space with rows of plyboard walls and no natural light or ventilation. In another place, carpets had been worn and stained by thousands of shoes that had crossed the floor of what was a council’s now defunct one-stop shop. Office furniture was piled high next to windows caked with soot, letting in the gloom from Commercial Road. The toilet light did not work. To wash, the guardian had to descend two flights of stairs to a dirty, windowless room, where the guardian company had installed a temporary shower. Other people in the property also used it. The Government should—this amendment seeks to compel them to—apply the same terms as to fitness for human habitation and repairing obligations that apply to proper tenancies under the Landlord and Tenant Act to these guardianship scheme contracts.

The Minister who is to reply to this debate is a different Minister from before. The buck has been passed and I sympathise with the Minister who is replying to this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and I had an exchange of views—our usual civilised correspondence—in which she acknowledged that,

“property guardianship schemes have a range of drawbacks. The properties that are used are frequently derelict commercial or industrial buildings that were never intended to be used as accommodation and may be in an unsafe condition with inadequate physical security. Occupiers pay a fee to occupy part of the building, are responsible for securing it and preventing damage. However, they are not tenants and do not therefore have the right to exclusive possession of any part of the building. In addition, they can be required to leave at very short notice. The Government does not encourage such schemes but I do recognise that recent media reports suggest they are becoming more widespread. It is very important that anyone considering living in such a building clearly understands the limitations of these schemes and that they will have very limited rights. My department will therefore publish a short factsheet on its website which highlights the fact that the Government does not endorse these schemes, explains

With all due respect to the Minister and perhaps those in the department who produced this response, it is very unsatisfactory given the kinds of conditions that I briefly described by quoting just a couple of examples.

That follows a rather difficult exchange with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, in Committee where she made much the same points about being sympathetic and concerned. She said then:

“The Government do not support the schemes, as the guardians can be asked to live in conditions which do not meet the standards expected in residential properties”.

However, the reason given for not doing anything was that she did not believe—or, in all fairness, the Government did not believe—

“that it would be appropriate to require that Sections 8 to 17 of the Landlord and Tenant Act should apply to guardianship agreements”.

I found that entirely puzzling. If the Government are sympathetic to the plight of the people in these places, applying Sections 8 to 17 would not convert them to the status of tenants but would simply apply to those people conditions which apply to the tenants of residential properties. When I challenged her on this, the Minister said,

“if the noble Lord is talking about the property guardianship schemes, it is because they are arrangements between a building owner and one or more individuals, and the arrangement is temporary. They are not intended to provide stable alternative accommodation”.

However, that does not exempt the Government from protecting people in that position. I find it inexplicable that the Minister was falling back on her brief, which she is entitled to do, but that the brief in turn simply asserted that as there is no tenancy agreement, the Government did,

“not think that the Landlord and Tenant Act actually applies”.—[Official Report, 9/2/16; col. 2223.]

Well, it does not and would not without the Government legislating for that purpose. That is the point of the amendment. As the Government are so clearly aware of this growing problem—there are now reckoned to be more than 4,000 people living in these dreadful conditions—I cannot think why they cannot simply accept that these people should benefit from the limited but essential requirements of the relevant parts of the Landlord and Tenant Act which would be applied specifically by legislation for this purpose. I cannot think why the Government have so far declined to do that.

Unless there is an assurance from the Minister that she will take this issue back and return to it at Third Reading, I will seek to test the opinion of the House. I hope that we can make progress on this issue. It is not a party or divisive point. It is a simple enough matter which the Government should respond to more constructively and helpfully than they have done hitherto. I do not blame Ministers for that. I suspect that someone in the department has not grasped the reality of the situation. I beg to move.