Considered in Grand Committee
I beg to move that the House consider the draft Mobile Homes (Requirement for Manager of Site to be Fit and Proper Person) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which were laid before the House on 22 March 2021.
My Lords, the purpose of these regulations is to amend the Mobile Homes (Requirement for Manager of Site to be Fit and Proper Person) (England) Regulations 2020 to correct an error in that instrument. Specifically, these new regulations change the reference in Regulation 3(5)(a) to the Local Government Finance Act. The year of this Act was incorrectly given as 1992, and this is now amended to show the correct year, which is 1988.
On 23 September 2020, we made principal regulations to prohibit the use of land in England as a relevant protected caravan site—a site on which year-round residential occupation is allowed—unless the relevant local authority is satisfied that the owner or manager of the site is a fit and proper person to manage it. This will be guided by a fit and proper person test.
I will set out the reasons for the reference to the Local Government Finance Act 1988 in the principal regulations made on 23 September. The fit and proper person requirement does not include sites that are operated by local authorities; operated for holiday purposes only; exempt from requiring a site licence; or being occupied by members of the same family and not run as a commercial residential site.
To determine if a site is a commercial residential site, a local authority will take into consideration both the amount that any person is required to pay the site owner in respect of the right to station a caravan, to reside, or use the common areas of the site, and whether that amount exceeds a fair contribution towards the relevant costs.
Part of the definition of relevant costs in the principal regulations is:
“any amount which the occupier”—
who for the purpose of this debate we will refer to as the site owner—
“is liable to pay as regards the site by way of a non-domestic rate under Part 3 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992”.
The reference to the Local Government Finance Act 1992 is an error, as it is Part 3 of the Local Government Act 1988 that deals with non-domestic rates. This amendment is therefore necessary to ensure that local authorities are able properly to apply the intended exemption from the fit and proper person test requirements for non-commercial, family occupied sites when the principal regulations come into force on 1 July and 1 October this year. I emphasise that these regulations will not amend or affect any other aspects of the principal regulations, which were laid before noble Lords last year.
To conclude, the fit and proper person test requirements form part of the comprehensive programme of work that we announced in 2018 to drive up standards of management and conduct across the park homes sector and ensure that residents’ rights are respected. Good site owners who already provide a professional service will not be concerned about being unable to meet the required standards. The minority who continue to abuse and exploit residents will have to improve or make way for more professional people to manage the site. The fit and proper person test will also be a useful addition to local authorities’ existing powers to help them tackle the worst offenders in the sector. I commend these regulations to the House.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly back this important change to the legislation. If the law is not operable because it is technically wrong, it will create many foreseen circumstances that will be negative to those living in park homes.
Specifically, having had a number of battles over the rights of park home residents—there has been some horrific stuff—I wanted to ask two questions of the Minister in welcoming the Government’s approach. He may not be able to answer now, but I should be keen to get the information. How many local authorities to date have challenged in any way the fitness of an owner, and which ones? What are the Government doing to monitor whether local authorities are choosing to use the powers available to them?
In terms of the severity of the incidents that I have personally dealt with, one is talking about things that are almost beyond description such as forced removal of tenants, arbitrary removal from tenants of core services such as electricity, or the sending of people of dubious motive to persuade tenants to pay unauthorised money or not pursue complaints. Those are fairly heavy-handed acts against people who are often relatively vulnerable and have got themselves into situations where they are living on such sites not out of choice but from economic necessity because of major financial mishaps—for example, a company going bankrupt. In a previous life in the other House, I have dealt with a majority of residents living in such accommodation for such reasons. For them, this is a major issue and I suspect that there are others in a similar situation in other parts of the country. I should therefore be keen to know if the Minister can assist.
My Lords, I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Mann and look forward to the Minister’s responses to those points. Obviously, I supported the main order when we discussed it last September, and I am very happy to approve this one today.
My only question here concerns the error and how it was detected. How did the error happen? I assume that it was just a mistake. How was it detected, and what would the consequences have been if it had not been detected? It would be quite useful to find that out. In my 11 years in the House I have done lots of SIs and I do not recall ever doing one where we had to come back because we had got the name of the Act wrong. In this case, it does not seem to be too much of a problem, but potentially it could be very serious in other situations. With that, however, I am happy to approve it.
My Lords, we have had a short but informative debate this afternoon. I am grateful for the insightful and helpful contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Mann and Lord Kennedy. I have been in the House for a relatively short time and work as a Minister across two departments, and I have now had two issues with SIs where we have had to come back and repeat them. One was in the Home Office, and it was a little unfortunate; we had to almost redo things. This is now in my other department, HCLG. I am fairly sure that this was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. I had to determine that it was caused by an error, because it was not offered up particularly as something that people wanted to dwell on. However, the consequences are very minimal, because the fit and proper regulations have not come into force yet; we have nipped it in the bud. So I think we should be reassured that this was a genuine error; it has been picked up and there are no consequences.
To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, I do not have the specifics on the number of authorities that have challenged the fitness of individuals who run these sites. I shall need to get back to the noble Lord after I find out whether we have any figures, and I shall certainly write to him with the information that we do have. There is no doubt that local authorities are very much in the front line of implementing this, and we are providing them with a quite considerable degree of support and guidance to ensure that they understand how to implement these important regulations to ensure that we get the people we want in this sector and get rid of the rogues. We are encouraging them to share information, so that an individual who is known to be a troublemaker is then put on a list so that other local authorities can pick that up.
In conclusion, these regulations are to correct a small error to the principal regulations that we made on 23 September. I reiterate that the majority of site owners are responsible and compliant, and make a valuable contribution to the park homes sector and the housing market, providing well-maintained and safe sites for their residents. But we recognise that a minority do knowingly flout their responsibilities, and these regulations are designed to deal with that. The residents deserve our protection and support. I am glad that noble Lords recognise this, and I am very pleased that we have been able to correct this small error in time.
Committee adjourned at 5.05 pm.