To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that property guardians are legally protected.
My Lords, property guardians have some legal protections and we are working to ensure that local authorities enforce their rights. However, depending on the arrangements in place, these protections are often fewer than those of tenants. Therefore, we are improving our guidance for property guardians so that they fully understand their rights and the difference between a licence and a tenancy. We are planning a programme of research better to understand the sector and to inform further work.
I thank the Minister for a meeting with him about this last week. Will he use this opportunity to reassure the growing number of property guardians that the full force of the current law will be applied and new regulations considered? Will he also make clear that the clauses that these people sign, which include no talking to the media or local authorities, mean nothing if they live with mould, rats, electrical hazards, fire doors screwed shut and more? They can and should report it, even when, as is often the case, the property is owned by a local authority.
I thank the noble Baroness for her interest in this. As far as we can tell, there are 5,000 to 7,000 property guardians—the figure is in that area. It is the case that some protections apply. Under the housing health and safety rating system, certain key rights apply, as do rights relating to electrical safety, gas safety and so on. I agree with the noble Baroness that those rights cannot be overridden by non-disclosure agreements. As I said, we are keen to ensure that existing rights are enforced and are planning work to look at the current position and inform possible further action.
My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant registered interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Does the Minister think it acceptable that most property guardians must provide their own fire safety equipment when staying in a place as a guardian? Does he agree with the London Fire Brigade, which has raised safety concerns about these dangerous and inadequate arrangements?
My Lords, I should be grateful to the noble Lord if we could arrange a meeting at which he can raise some of the matters he has just disclosed. As I said, under the housing health and safety rating system, as both tenants and licensees, property guardians have rights in relation to fire and hazards of the first category, which include fire protection. As I said, we are very keen to look at this situation. Some property guardianships are perfectly legitimate but they are not tenancies. For example, if a student looks after a house for a family member or friend in their summer break, that is perfectly acceptable. What is of concern is where the rights of people who are there on a much more permanent basis are overridden; that is what we are looking at.
My Lords, what is the definition of a property guardian? Can these situations just be produced by simple means or does there need to be a full legal definition? I do not know, and I think many in the House would like clarification.
My Lords, thinking on my feet, it is not a straightforward matter. Rights attach to people as tenants; more limited rights attach to people as licensees. I do not think there is a statutory definition of a property guardian. We are looking at how to ensure that property guardians have a bedrock of rights in all situations so that people are properly protected. That is the key.
My Lords, the Netherlands has a regulator for guardianship properties, which has introduced a kitemarking scheme. Will the Government consider introducing a similar scheme here? I remind the House of my declaration of interest.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I met the Property Guardian Providers Association, which might be the organisation to carry this forward. Some 80% of the market are members of that association. The remainder of the market is principally from Dot Dot Dot; a few others may well join that association. We are looking at that measure; it is certainly one possible way forward, similar to the Short Term Accommodation Association that applies in relation to Airbnb-type associations.
My Lords, standing between the occupiers, the property guardians in these empty properties, and the owners—local authorities or people who own an office block—are the property guardian providers, the companies that set up these operations. The Minister knows that MHCLG has a working group on the regulation of property agents, which I have the pleasure of chairing. Will he relay back to the Secretary of State that my working group would be very happy to look at the regulation of property guardian providers, just as we look at estate agents, letting agents and managers of leasehold properties?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I will certainly relay that message to the Secretary of State. I know he will be extremely pleased; we were hoping that the noble Lord would look at those.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the work he has taken forward since I introduced this issue in a Question for Short Debate in your Lordships’ House. Does he have any advice for local authorities, which use property guardian companies to get income from their empty properties, particularly on enforcing the law on decent conditions, which sometimes includes rogue landlord conditions?
I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this issue. How right she was to raise it in the way she did in October. I am grateful to her for that and our subsequent meetings. She is right about that problem, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, also referred. There is a question about who polices local authorities and the other public authorities in this area. We will want to look at that too, as the noble Baroness said. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Best, will want to comment on it as well.
My Lords, would the Minister care to add to his shopping list the lack of recognition of residents’ associations in this context? At present, there is no way in which the law can be invoked to ensure that residents’ associations are party to these discussions.
The noble Lord raises a somewhat different but important point. I quite agree. If I may, I will drop him a line on what we are doing in that general area, copy in noble Lords and place a copy in the Library. There are certainly concerns there, which I have shared on previous occasions with my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes.