Mobile Homes Bill — Second Reading
Lord Best (Crossbench)
My Lords, it is a great privilege to bring this Bill before your Lordships. The Bill aims to end to some disgraceful practices which have been widespread in an industry with which few of us are familiar. If enacted, it will make a huge difference to the lives of thousands of largely forgotten people who currently live with the fear of harassment and ill-treatment at the hands of some unscrupulous bullies. Credit for this legislation goes to a number of people to whom we should all be very grateful. First, there is the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has campaigned tirelessly in support of those living in mobile homes or park homes for over 30 years. I hope that today represents a gratifying milestone in a long journey he has taken to achieve justice for this group.
Then there are the Members in the other place who have also fought long and hard on this issue, including Annette Brooke MP and the other members of the Mobile Homes All-Party Parliamentary Group chaired by Christopher Chope MP. I think that a special tribute is due to Grant Shapps MP who, as Housing Minister, took up the challenge presented by the problems facing mobile home owners and, following an extensive consultation process by his department, really got behind the formulation of this legislation. However, none of these efforts would have brought us to the positive position we face today were it not for Peter Aldous MP, the honourable Member for Waveney, who used his place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills to sponsor this Bill on mobile homes. Although I was hugely impressed by the unanimity of support for this Bill across party lines, piloting a Private Member's Bill through the other place can represent an unpredictable and hazardous task. A great many Private Members' Bills have fallen along the way, so I congratulate Peter Aldous who, with his experience as a chartered surveyor and his local knowledge as a constituency MP, so assiduously steered this Bill to a happy conclusion in the other place.
I must make special mention of the people living in mobile homes, who themselves have fought long and hard to achieve wider recognition for the problems that they face. I am personally grateful to Brian Doick of the National Association of Park Home Residents, who has been advising fellow owners on a voluntary basis for more than three decades on these matters and who kindly showed me around a number of sites and introduced me to many other residents; he has been a stalwart in all the campaigns for changes to the law in this field. I know that many others have also done sterling work, including the Independent Park Homes Advisory Service, the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign, the National Park Home Owners Congress and other resident associations and alliances. My final congratulations and appreciation go to the hardworking civil servants in the Department for Communities and Local Government, who have accumulated considerable expertise on these matters and have done sterling work in crafting the Bill now before us.
Not all noble Lords will be familiar with the mobile homes that are the subject of this Bill. These are static, immobile homes, often called "park homes". They are not holiday homes, but provide permanent, residential, owner-occupied accommodation, mostly for retired individuals and couples. It is estimated that there are 85,000 park homes accommodating approximately 160,000 people on 2,000 sites. Homes may be worth anything from £25,000 to, I gather, £300,000. They are grouped together on pitches on land originally made available, very often, by a farmer who retained ownership of the site and provided services-looking after paths, drains and the supply of utilities, et cetera-in return for a combined ground rent and service charge, or pitch fee. As well as this revenue, the site owner is entitled to 10% of sales proceeds whenever one of the park homes gets sold.
At best, these mobile home sites have been described as "little paradises", often in an idyllic country setting with a friendly site owner and a strong, mutually supportive community. But over recent years many of the original site owners, or their heirs and successors, have sold up and highly undesirable purchasers have taken their place. In these cases, residents have been exposed to exploitation in a number of ways: services are not undertaken, with drains left blocked; pathways are impassable; street lighting is out of action, and so on. Meanwhile, service charges or pitch fees are inexorably increased. Exorbitant fees are added to charges for Calor Gas and other brands of LPG, for use of a gas meter or for other supplies.
Worst of all, owners who want to sell have seen the sale blocked by the site owner, who can invoke the "approval of the buyer" rule. This sale-blocking takes the form of the harassment and intimidation of park homes residents by rogue site owners, who can make tens of thousands of pounds' profit in these circumstances. The aim of the unscrupulous site owner is to prevent the mobile home being sold to anyone other than himself. Various tactics are deployed by the site owner to acquire these properties for trivial sums, often on the pretext that the mobile home is virtually worthless because of its age and condition. The site owner then resells for an enormous profit or replaces the existing home with a smart new version, which can be installed for a fraction of the new sale price.
When prospective buyers meet the site owner as part of the process of that owner approving any new purchaser, rogue site owners block the sale by scaring potential buyers, perhaps by telling them that the home is defective and will need to be demolished or that the site is to become a Gypsy site, with animals free to roam. He may leave piles of rubbish outside the home or even parade his own criminal background, all to deter any purchaser. In other cases, the whole of a park home site is worth more for redevelopment than in its current use and the site owner has sought gradually to acquire all the mobile homes-using every conceivable ploy to persuade current occupiers to leave-so that he can sell the land with vacant possession.
The Trading Standards Institute, which gives regular reports on these nefarious activities, talks of a "large number of cases" where unscrupulous operators, in pursuit of obscene windfall profits, have exploited the piecemeal regulatory framework. The institute illustrates the problem with an example from Cornwall's trading standards service, which has pursued operators named Small who own approximately 17 park home sites. Other site owners are even bigger businesses, controlling up to 40 sites. What was once a cottage industry now has a turnover in excess of £1 billion per annum, with legal advisors and accountants able to exploit the many loopholes in the current law.
Can this Bill end all these malpractices? Can it drive out the gangsters and the rogues from this industry and restore the reputation of the decent, law-abiding site owners who continue to provide a good service? It can indeed go a very long way to ending the current exploitation of innocent victims. Let me spell out its key provisions.
First, the Bill recognises that local authorities are the agencies best placed to insist on and enforce decent standards of behaviour and performance by site owners. Here, I declare my interest as president of the Local Government Association. The Bill gives local authorities proper incentives and powers to require good practice by the owners of sites, while protecting the rights of those owners with proper provision for appeals against local authority decisions.
Currently, local authorities have to license park home sites but in reality this has been little more than a formality and, in any case, hard-pressed local authorities have faced a heavy financial disincentive to get involved with these cases. The Bill makes licensing a meaningful arrangement, requiring standards to be met. An annual fee will be required from the site owner, which is to be set by the local authority but is likely to be on average around £1,350 per annum per site, to pay for the council's costs of administration. There will be serious sanctions where the terms of the licence are breached. If the site owner is aggrieved by the local authority's actions in this regard, they can take the matter to the Residential Property Tribunal, which is given new powers in the Bill. Putting local authorities centre stage and giving them the resources to do the job is likely to make a significant difference to what goes on at these sites.
Clear new procedures will govern drawing up and maintaining the site rules for each park home site and the level of, and increases to, the pitch fees for services provided by the site owner, in place of the current irregular and often informal arrangements, which are open to abuse. In the case of disputes, the site owner will be subject to appeals to the Residential Property Tribunal, which has been doing good work in this field and whose powers are extended by this Bill. Clarity, transparency and fairness will be the watchwords. Local authorities will also be able to compel site owners to carry out necessary works to fulfil the obligations covered by their licence, and to insist on immediate action by serving notices requiring compliance. If work is not undertaken, the local authority can organise it and recover the costs from the site owner.
In relation to sale blocking, the aim is to prevent the site owner disrupting the sale process. This is best achieved by removing the direct contact that currently takes place between the obstructive site owner and all prospective buyers. The Bill sets out that two months after enactment, irrespective of what is said in the existing agreement between the site owner and the resident, the position of the site owner will change dramatically. There are two aspects to this change. A distinction has to be made between the position for existing occupiers and for those who have bought from existing occupiers. For the latter, when they come to sell, the site owner will have no say at all in the process. For existing occupiers with agreements in place, the position is slightly different.
There were worries that if existing agreements were subject to too much change, objections could be made that the legislation was retrospective or that it might offend the human rights of park owners-including, of course, blameless park owners-provoking the ire of those in another place who could have impeded its passage. However, this does not mean that the Bill does nothing to overcome problems of sale blocking for existing park home owners. On the contrary, the position will change significantly after enactment of the Bill: the site owner will no longer be involved in meeting any prospective purchaser nor is the owner's permission required to assign the agreement when the sale is about to be completed. The only information they will be entitled to receive about potential buyers is their name and, if the site has rules, certain information to be prescribed in regulations. For example, if the site is exclusively for those over pensionable age and that is clear in the site rules, it may be legitimate for the site owner to require information on the buyer's age.
If a site owner wants, for any reason, to block a sale, he will be able to do so only by going, within 21 days, to the Residential Property Tribunal, and only on grounds prescribed in regulations by the Secretary of State. If the RPT finds the site owner guilty of deliberately and unnecessarily holding up the sale to the detriment of the homeowner, it can award compensation.
In terms of legal redress, as from February 2014 when the licensing provisions come into force, magistrates' courts will-assuming that Section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, has been brought into force-have the power to impose unlimited fines for failure to comply with licensing requirements, including failure to carry out works under a compliance notice. If the local authority does the works in default, its costs will be recoverable from the site owner and, until paid, will be a charge on the site owner's land.
Meanwhile, a new offence is introduced by the Bill-that of knowingly making a false statement with knowledge or reasonable cause to believe that this will have the effect of causing a person who is considering whether to purchase or occupy a mobile home to decide not to do so. This will also carry an unlimited fine, six months' imprisonment or both. In other words, sale blocking could lead to fines of tens of thousands of pounds and a jail sentence. These are tough measures intended to stop and deter bad practices.
What of the omissions in the Bill? What are the additional legislative changes that have been recommended by others, for example in the excellent report of the Communities and Local Government Committee of last June and the very helpful Consumer Focus report, Living the Dream, of last October? The two areas that deserve further action are, first, the requirement for site owners to pass a fit and proper person test; and secondly, for measures to ease problems of fuel poverty and exploitation in supplying fuel on park home sites.
In relation to the opportunity to refuse a license for an unfit operator, for example those with a criminal record and/or those who have been convicted of offences specifically relating to their position as owners or managers of a site, the Communities and Local Government Committee was clear that a fit and proper person stipulation should be introduced. The Bill gives powers to the Secretary of State to introduce by way of secondary legislation just such a requirement. Regrettably, there are ways in which devious operators can hide behind a network of companies or switch the ownership and management of parks between family members. Establishing the true position and policing it would not be a trivial matter. The Government have made clear that they will not impose a duty to instigate and enforce a requirement for the manager of a site to be a fit and proper person in the immediate future, but that this provision in the Bill will be used if it becomes clear that this is an essential ingredient in improving the industry. The expectation is that that Secretary of State, if this seems the way forward following a review in 2017, will use the new power and it is an important component of the legislation.
In relation to issues concerning energy efficiency and fuel poverty, mobile home owners are in a difficult position. The insulation and heating standards of these dwellings are low and the new Green Deal measures do not apply to park homes. Measures outside the Bill are being pursued with the Department for Energy and Climate Change but, sadly, cannot be wrapped up in this Bill. However, I know that reforms are being taken forward in other fora, not least by Peter Aldous MP in the other place.
The Bill does not end all the deficiencies in the current arrangements for protecting and supporting park home owners, but it goes a very long way. It is a tribute to all those who have devoted endless days, weeks or even years to combating unscrupulous site owners who, until now, have been able to get away with atrocious behaviour. The Bill is a very fine example of the way in which Parliament can seek to right a wrong, end an injustice and secure a better life for many thousands of households. I strongly commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, I follow the noble Lord, Lord Best, with great pleasure. I endorse all that he said. We are very much in his debt for piloting this Bill through your Lordships' House. I have had a very long association with mobile homes. I shall say in parenthesis that my only criticism of the Bill is its title. I wish it were the Park Homes Bill.
I have a long association with park homes. At one stage, I was told that there were more sites in my constituency of South Staffordshire than in any other constituency in the country. I had many long and agreeable conversations with my friend the noble Lord, Lord Graham, when we used to meet to talk about the plight of the home owners. This is the thing that we have to underline in this debate time and time again: we are talking about home owners, people who have invested, sometimes their pension lump sum, sometimes the product of a lifetime of saving, in a modest home in the country. Some of these homes are quite palatial, but most are modest, scrupulously clean and very well looked after. Their owners take great pride in them. There were no communities in South Staffordshire that were truer communities than the park home sites. In some of them residents and owners spent hours every week making sure that not just their own gardens were tidy, precise and attractive but that the whole site was beautifully kept.
For the first 30 years of my 40-year membership of the other place, I had very few complaints from owners of park homes about the activities of site owners. Then in the last decade of my membership of the other place, I had a very great number of complaints about two or three unscrupulous owners in particular, whose practices not only verged on, but sometimes became, criminal. The noble Lord, Lord Best, spoke of intimidation. Intimidation can take many forms. The knock on the door in the night was not unknown, with no one there when the door was opened. Dogs, rather fierce ones, prowling around was not unknown. The blocking of sales, which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to, was quite frequent, an appalling exploitation of the provision by which the park home owner is able to veto the prospective purchaser. There were so many other things. The noble Lord, Lord Best, talked of drainage not being repaired and of excessive fees being charged for fuel. I know of one site called Silver Poplars. Many of the trees around it were, not surprisingly, poplars. In the course of one particularly disturbing weekend, most of them were chopped down. The anguish and distress caused to the home owners at the despoliation of their very attractive rural environment was palpable.
These are people who, for the most part, want nothing more than to live a tranquil life in a place of quiet and tranquil beauty without being interfered with by anyone. The way in which some of these owners behaved was such that it became absolutely necessary for important legislation to be produced. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and I go back a long way. We remember the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, introducing the first Bill many decades ago. It was the beginning of the recognition of the need for some form of regulation, but the problems that we talk about today did not exist then and the provisions of that Bill are not adequate to deal with them. We now need an Act that can be enforced and can make these people-and let us stress that they are still a minority of site owners-realise that what they are doing will land them in very deep trouble indeed.
I know that in South Staffordshire there are still many owners. Indeed, the council owns a very good site called Hinksford. There are many sites where the owners live in the most amicable relations with the home owners-that is good and as it should be. But these few people have given such extraordinary anguish to so many home owners that they have to be dealt with. I am delighted to know that my noble friend Lady Hanham, who will be replying to this debate, has already indicated her sympathy for what we seek to do.
Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, indicated in his closing remarks, there are still problems that will have to be solved in future. The Bill is not the answer to every conceivable problem. There will be some unscrupulous people who will seek loopholes in this legislation, and may be successful in so doing-if they are, we will have to deal with them. It is not right that a particular group of home owners in our country should be treated as badly as Rachman treated his tenants all those decades ago. These are the Rachmans of the mobile home world; they do not deserve a place in any civilised society-they deserve to be hounded out of what they are doing, to be fined unlimited sums and to be put in jail for the way in which they disturb, despoil and ruin the lives and environment of so many decent, ordinary people, who want nothing more than to live in peace with their neighbours.
As your Lordships will have gathered, I am a passionate supporter of this Bill. I hope that we can reach the stage where we talk more of park homes and less of mobile homes. In his opening words, the noble Lord, Lord Best, indicated that they are static-they are not the sort of homes that are dragged around the country-and are not to be confused with those taken from site to site. They are permanent dwellings, owned by those who live in them, who deserve all the rights and protection that the owner of a long lease deserves and, for the most part, enjoys. I hope that this day marks the beginning of a new chapter for those living in those homes and that the Bill speedily goes on to the statute books-and that there will be no delay about its enforcement, or complications arising therefrom. The noble Lord, Lord Best, talked about April next year. I hope that in the next decade what park home owners like dear Mr Joyce in my former constituency-
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
Yes, Ron Joyce, known to the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I hope that what they have struggled for comes to pass. I was particularly proud and pleased when they formed one of the first park homes associations and I became their patron. It was an office that I was delighted and honoured to hold, because they were good people who deserved the support of those of us responsible for these things. Any society that is to call itself civilised must have regard for those who are most vulnerable and least able to create their own form of protection. In this Bill, we have gone a long way to doing that for them. I pay tribute to Peter Aldous for all that he did in the House of Commons and all the Members there, on both sides of the House, who gave it support, and all colleagues in your Lordships' House who are here today to see the Bill go on to its next stage in its progress towards its statute books. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has performed a signal service for us all, and we are grateful to him.
Lord Whitty (Labour)
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Best, on presenting the Bill in this House in a very clear and cogent way. I also congratulate Peter Aldous and all those, such as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, himself and, above all, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who have pursued this cause for many years.
The Bill will give park home owners-the 160,000 people who live in park homes-greater benefits and security. We have to remember that most of these home owners are elderly. The majority are over 60 and probably about 25% are over 75. I remind your Lordships that this is roughly the same demographic as the membership of the House of Lords. Therefore, we should particularly empathise with them. In the nature of things, they are in a difficult balance of power situation with the site owner and site manager, particularly on an individual basis, and are open to potential exploitation and abuse. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack said, it is wrong that the law treats these people so much less favourably than other home owners and leaseholders. This Bill goes some way to rectify that.
We need to recognise that there are hundreds of good, effective, decent site owners and site managers around the country, but we also have to recognise that there is a minority of unscrupulous site owners. People such as the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Graham, who have been involved in this matter for some time, say that that minority is increasing and has recently increased significantly. The organisations involved in this area even give them the acronym USOs to try to define them.
There have been several reports on this issue. The report of the CLG Select Committee in another place has been cited, as has the TSI report. My interest in this matter was brought about by the reports produced by Consumer Focus, with which I was formerly connected, and Consumer Focus Wales. Incidentally, a parallel Bill is going through the Welsh Assembly. Those reports drew attention to the situation in which these home owners find themselves, which comprises a background of a mishmash of legislative and regulatory measures and differing and often inconsistent application and enforcement by different local authorities. The report that applies to England identifies how widespread these difficulties are and states that roughly 25% of all park home owners had experienced severe problems in relation to resale and an even higher proportion had concerns about safety, maintenance, security and the way in which they were treated by site owners.
I give just one example of the way in which site owners can hugely exploit park home owners and their beneficiaries when a sale occurs. A park home owner in east Sussex used his life savings to buy his home for £72,000. He then spent the rest of his savings on improving that home. When he died only four years later, he left his home to his two daughters, who wished to sell it. However, before they put it up for sale, the site owner approached them and said that he would take it away for them for £1,000. Less resilient inheritors might not have understood the position and gone along with that. However, the man's daughters put the home on the market, initially for £60,000, as the market had obviously gone down in the interim, and were prepared to sell for £50,000. But even at that point when they had a buyer, the site owner stepped in, spoke directly to the buyer, told him that the recently renovated home was subject to dilapidation and was waterlogged, which was untrue, and that he would be foolish to pursue the sale. He clearly did that to a number of potential buyers but eventually one came forward and the home was sold several months later for £37,000, of which the site owner received 10%. Therefore, the home was sold for significantly less than half the purchase price that had been paid four years previously. That is a typical case, but there are worse examples where sales do not go ahead at all and where the site owner effectively obtains the home for a mere pittance for his own use and onward sale.
Some of these abuses, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, spelt out, will be dealt with by the Bill. Clauses 1 to 4 will improve the licensing system. It is important that local authorities take this seriously, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said. Clause 10 will deal with a site owner's ability to control and intimidate and Clause 12 with deal with harassment. Other clauses are equally important, such as Clause 9, which deals with site rules. The ability of local authorities to intervene and require a site to be improved is also important.
However, probably the most important clause-and one which could probably do with improvement, although we may not be able to do so within the timetable of this House-is Clause 8, which deals with the requirement to be a fit and proper person. The fact that this is going to have to be turned into reality by secondary legislation-and not immediate secondary legislation either-is a bit of a weakness in the Bill. Will there be an opportunity at some point for the Secretary of State to exclude the quasi-criminal elements that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described, and to improve the general standard of people who take on the ownership and management of sites? That will involve a test of competence as well as of criminality.
As I said, there are areas of the Bill which could be improved. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that her department will come forward with secondary legislation to turn those improvements into reality as soon as possible, as opposed to the timetable that has previously been indicated. There are other improvements that we could argue for. We could probably have done more about improving the RTP procedures, which many homeowners have found rather difficult. The noble Lord, Lord Best, also referred to the on-sale of water, gas and electricity, where there have been fairly horrendous stories, including in relation to LPG, and the applicability of energy-efficiency measures to mobile homes. However, we cannot have everything in a Private Member's Bill and there may be other means of delivering some of those things.
For the moment, this is a good day. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, and all who have worked to get us this far, and I hope that the Government and the House will give the Bill good speed.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I join in the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for taking this Bill through the House. His expertise in housing matters and his diligence will be put to good use in this regard. I also pay tribute to Peter Aldous, the MP for Waveney-which for the uninitiated is in my home county of Suffolk-both for choosing this topic for his Private Member's Bill and for the skill with which he steered it though the Commons. I am particularly pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Graham, in his place today. He has fought very hard for this over many years and must be delighted to see that we are finally making some progress.
During the debate that I secured in the Moses Room on this topic last summer, it became apparent that the Government intended to support the Bill, and I know that the Minister will deal with it in her customary efficient and sympathetic way. Many changes were introduced in the Commons-many by the Government-and they are most welcome, but I think that it has resulted in a little confusion about exactly what the Bill does and when the various provisions will come into force. Some of those have been clarified very well by the noble Lord, Lord Best, today but there are still a few areas of confusion to which I shall allude. If the Minister does not have time in her summing up today, perhaps she could write to explain exactly when some of the provisions will come in.
It is more than 20 years since I first became a councillor, and my experience was very similar to that of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. There were a few problems initially and then the situation got worse and worse. By the time I finished, problems on park home sites were very common, and they have been quite well rehearsed: poor site management, breach of licence conditions, misuse of the tariffs for charging electricity and gas, breaches of fire safety regulations and general quality-of-life matters. The council did what it could, but it lacked the statutory framework that it needed to deal with many of these issues.
The power that the Bill gives to local authorities to tackle some of these abuses is most welcome. I understand that some park home owners regret that that is not a duty on local authorities but I agree with the Government's more localist approach that we should be looking at powers and not duties. However, it means that it is essential that the Government work with local authorities on best practice with park home owners to ensure that they are fully aware of the new rights that they have under this Bill.
I particularly welcome the power given to local authorities to carry out work where site owners fail to do so and then recharge them for it. This will concentrate the minds of site owners wonderfully on the need to get the job done. I hope that this provision can be brought in without delay and I ask the Minister to clarify the timing. There has been some debate about which provisions might be caught by the Government's moratorium on new regulation. I accept that to an extent red tape is in the eye of the beholder, but in this case it is not red tape; this is fundamental to the quality of life of the several hundred thousand residents of park homes. I also think it is important when considering all this to look at the potential for a bonanza of bad behaviour, which might carry on if there is a delay in bringing in the new provisions. I fear that some of the bad owners will make hay while the sun continues to shine.
What has shocked me and many of my colleagues is how criminality has crept into the park homes sector. It has been able to thrive due to a combination of an inadequate legal framework and a very poor understanding of what is going on. The way in which intimidation has been used to prevent sales, for example, is absolutely scandalous. I am delighted that, at long last, we are tackling the legal framework and that police forces have become much more aware of how this intimidation can work and what they can do about it.
When we debated the matter in the Moses Room last year, the Government said that they thought that the right of veto of sales by site owners would have to remain because of the Human Rights Act, so I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Best, explain what is clearly a compromise but one in which at least existing park home owners have far more rights than they previously have, and in which they are not likely to be subject to challenge under the Human Rights Act. That is very important.
I have one question with regard to the information that has to be sent under the new regime to the park home owners. I think the noble Lord, Lord Best, said it would include their name and issues around their compliance with the site regulations, around age and so on. When we look at the regulations for this, I would be very keen to ensure that the information that has to be given cannot lead to their being readily identified by the site home owner because we know that some of them will use intimidation, including knocking on their doors, if they are easily identified. So I hope we can think about that.
In this regard, as with many others, good site owners can welcome this, as can the residents because it is important that there are some controls on those who are able to move in. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, about the delays on the introduction of a fit and proper person test. It has always seemed bizarre to me that we set standards in all sorts of areas, but not for park home owners. I am very concerned that, given the track record of many of them, there will be another three years before these things can be considered. Although I accept that devolution means a thousand flowers can bloom, it would be very odd if a site owner was barred under the provisions made recently by the Welsh Assembly as not being fit and proper, but was allowed to run a site on the other side of the border.
Given the age profile of the owners of park homes, and the nature of the homes themselves, energy use is a major problem. I understand that the rules of the Green Deal preclude grants to park homes. I wonder whether the Minister would undertake to hold discussions with colleagues in DECC to find a way to remedy this, so that those who are in greatest need can benefit from the scheme? Furthermore, can she say whether the current framework for resale of electricity and bottled gas is fit for purpose?
The Bill marks a major breakthrough. It is not just about the legal framework. It is also about there finally being recognition of the serious problems in this sector. Governments of all colours have been in denial for too long. I ask the Minister to work with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the tribunals are sufficiently resourced, particularly in the early years when they will have a high case load and will still be building up a framework of knowledge.
We need to encourage park homes owners to use all the powers that they now have to fight the rogue element where they find it, and urge the statutory bodies to listen to them and support them. There have been some very brave individuals who have stood up for the rights of park homes owners, even in the face of serious intimidation. One such was Bob Holland from Needham Market, who founded the National Park Home Congress which had such a successful conference last year. Sadly, Bob died not long ago, but I like to think that he would be pleased with the changes that this Bill would bring in.
We need a major communication programme with people living in park homes so that they are fully aware of their rights, and we need to work with organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux, as they are often the first port of call. I hope the Minister will also work closely with the Local Government Association in the context of its new powers and because councillors will often be the first port of call when problems occur, as I was. It is important that they communicate changes to the residents.
Good site owners have nothing to fear from this Bill, but 160,000 park home residents will be able to sleep more soundly in their beds at night. I wish the Bill all speed through this House.
Lord Graham of Edmonton (Labour)
My Lords, it is a joy and a pleasure to take part in this debate; I am delighted. We must of course remember that almost everything that could be said has been said, but not by everybody. I have some evidence to produce, which may be new but I do not think so.
I want to thank a great many people who have brought us to this position. To me, the hero is Mr Grant Shapps. Over a period of 30 years, since I served on a committee in 1983 and took an interest in this matter, both Houses of Parliament, the police, local authorities and councillors have all had some responsibility for the issue, yet we are still in this position now. Perhaps there have been some false dawns, but I sense from the action of Mr Grant Shapps that this will not be one. Incidentally, I say to all his civil servants, who know more than any of us about the background to the Bill, and who are listening not many miles away, that I appreciate their frustration at the previous inability to get to this point.
Brian Doick, who has been mentioned, Alan Savory who has not been mentioned, Colin Packman and Ron Joyce represent the residents' associations. The great thing for me over the past two years is that more organisations have found their way to them, principally Sonia McColl, who started the justice campaign and got to the stage where she had a petition signed by 10,000 people. She had a meeting in one of the rooms upstairs with more than 200 people, a petition to No. 10 and a comment from the Prime Minister on the matter. She has done a marvellous job and I thank her.
I also thank Tony Turner, who has represented park home owners in Cornwall and that part of the world. Of course, reference was made to Bob Holland and his organisation. The Civil Service must recognise, and Ministers do, that there is a growing band of people who are now more aware than ever of the situation. How we are going to deal with the situation is dealt with in the Bill.
There are people who ought to have done more in the past. I mentioned local authorities, Whitehall, Parliament and the police. It is from their hands that our solution will come-but only if they work together. I will read the comments made by Inspector Colquhoun. He was on the spot when two villains launched a campaign to capture all the homes on their site. He set about a gang that tried to burn down two of the homes. Fortunately, a neighbour was quick enough to get on the phone. Inspector Colquhoun was in charge. At the end of the day, seven gang members were sentenced to 64 years in prison. The great thing was that under the Proceeds of Crime Act, the criminals' means were examined. They were millionaires, but they had made their millions on the backs of poor, innocent people. They were fined.
I said before and I will say it now: there is only one way to deal with people who have contempt for the law, and that is through their pockets. They have millions of pounds, and assets to protect, but they do not care tuppence. Inspector Colquhoun said:
"Park home crime can be an extremely serious form of criminality which may lead to the ruination of its victims, while enriching its perpetrators in sums of hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. It is a form of criminality which is underreported, and where victims do seek police involvement, the service has frequently fallen short in terms of offering inappropriate advice".
That is an admission. All of us, including Parliament, must be honest with ourselves in saying that in the order of priority on dealing with problems-goodness knows there are lots-this is far down the list. The Minister has always shown an understanding of the problem. Now she has a chance to make a name for herself. She can be the Minister in this House who ensures that we get this through successfully.
Very often people talk about the validity of what has been said. I will pray in aid correspondence sent to me by Sonia McColl and her campaign. It makes very heavy reading. When the Bill went through the other place, she received a letter that said:
"It's brilliant news that the park home bill has now moved onto the next stage. We really hope it goes through now ... because it will go a long way in preventing sale blocking. We know from bitter experience that being stopped from selling something that is yours by the site owner and those who work for them is absolutely soul destroying".
That came from a couple who live in Derbyshire. Another letter stated:
"It is good to know that at last we the park home owners are getting some recognition in our fight for justice and to be able to live normally as any other person who owns property without hassle, harassment or bully-boy tactics".
When I thought about what I was going to say, I suddenly realised that this was my day in court. People sometimes say, "I want my day in court, to stand up and say what I want to say". Modestly, I say that I am standing up in this court, speaking on behalf of all those people. To everyone else who has spoken in this debate, I say that it is not partisan. It will not give us a halo, but we are speaking on behalf of a great many people in that way.
There is another person from Warwickshire-and another site, the Longcast Mobile Home Park, Welford on Avon, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire-who says:
"There are still a minority of older homes that have not yet been 'acquired' by the site owner, ours being one of them. Our House is 30 years old and we have put a lot of time and money and energy into it to make it a wonderful place to live. Our only concern is that on this site not one of the older houses has been allowed to be sold on to a private buyer. The Site owner has always managed to get them and pay as little as possible for them, selling them on to traders to move off and then putting a massive new one on".
We have experience and evidence of these matters, and I have evidence that I am willing to give to other people.
One thing I want to say is that, besides the movement on these parks and the militancy of the parks, we also have to recognise that, whereas at one time we talked about a park home owner, now we must speak in terms of a park home owner who has a number of sites.
There has been a marvellous development in Cornwall. Cornwall Council has produced a pamphlet that it will send to everybody who lives in a park home on a site. One of the problems-and I speak kindly to the Minister and to those who serve her-is that it is all very well saying that you can get the information by fax or online in one way or another, but many of these people have only a telephone and not all of them have even that. Many of them, but not all, are mobile. Many have the ability to get information but not all do.
I pay tribute to Cornwall Council. It has produced this pamphlet which sets out what you can do. Not only that, it is especially aimed at park home owners. It is going to make sure that every park home in Cornwall gets one. That costs money and takes time and has to be prioritised; but if Cornwall can do it, so can other counties. I lay down that challenge. Perhaps Cornwall has a lot of park homes. That is where Tony Turner operates from. He has done a marvellous job in not being bullied by the despicable people who manage his home. He is doing a marvellous job in that respect.
This is a new dawn. I believe that the Minister and her civil servants will relish this. We have moved from being defensive in trying to justify the present position into a situation we are on the offensive. Those people who are unscrupulous should use this debate as a warning. They are on trial. They have been tried in a court of justice many times. This is now the court of Parliament. If they cannot see the militancy there is about this, they are not the people that I think they are.
There are people who are unscrupulous. They have lots of money, lots of barristers and lots of recourse. They have done this. One of the aspects of the Bill, as noble Lords know, is to talk in terms of increasing the powers of local authorities up to level 5. Level 5 fines are £5,000. We have already had it explained that that will be transformed within 12 months: it will be moved up from £5,000 to an unlimited sum. I look forward to the day when the first £50,000 fine is levied. It will not make much difference to the people I am talking about, but it will be a warning. I also look forward to the day when there are no fines of that kind because they will have acted as a deterrent.
Park home site owners may not have a gold mine, but they have a rich cow that can be milked many times. They have decent people living in their parks who at one time were happy, but now they are unhappy. Our job as parliamentarians is to ask the Government to speed up the Bill in any way they can so that it can be put into practice. There are blemishes, of course. It is intriguing that site owners do not take account of the views of their residents. There are some parks-I have their names-where despite the fact that they qualify, the site owner simply ignores that; he just "takes notice" of something. The Minister should know that many site owners ignore moves made by her department to make sure that they act properly. Today we have an opportunity of speeding this Bill through, and it certainly has my very warm welcome.
Lord McKenzie of Luton (Labour)
My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have spoken, I start by offering my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Best, on taking on the responsibility for bringing this Bill before your Lordships' House and add our thanks to the many people he listed who have helped to bring the Bill this far, including Peter Aldous MP. Like all noble Lords, I want to pay my own tribute to my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton for his tireless campaigning on this issue over 30 years. We have just heard his passion for and deep understanding of these issues. If for my noble friend it is a day of joy and pleasure, I can say that that is thoroughly deserved. He is not alone. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about the important role that he has played, and it is right to acknowledge the role that has been played by Mr Grant Shapps, at least in this respect, on the legislation.
It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that we support the Bill. We said so in the other place and, of course, in the debate in the Moses Room initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, just a few months ago. We support the Bill in the knowledge of the excellent report of the CLG Select Committee and the recent report by Consumer Focus, to which my noble friend Lord Whitty referred.
For some time the park home sector has been polluted by serious abuses, the victims of which are mostly elderly people. They are people who looked forward to a peaceful and secure retirement, often in rural areas that are referred to as "little paradises", and as part of true communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said. However, we should recognise that for some it is not necessarily a lifestyle choice, but their only affordable route to a home in or near a place that they know and love. Like others, we recognise that not all site owners are unscrupulous. Many have well run sites and act responsibly.
I do not propose to speak at length about the abuses that we know need to be tackled because they have been more than adequately covered by all the other speakers. We have a common understanding of the problems, including uncontrolled levels of service charges, particularly for utilities, restrictions on the sale of homes and the intimidation that accompanies that in the form of sale blocking. We heard some grim examples of how that intimidation is inflicted. There are examples of failure to undertake the proper maintenance of sites and inadequate licensing processes. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, explained in his opening remarks, the Bill will do much to improve the detail of the position. We share the desire to see the fit and proper person test to be introduced as soon as possible. No doubt the Minister will update us on this in responding to the debate.
We wish the Bill speedy progress on to the statute book. However, we know that, whatever the law, some site owners will not rush to adhere to it. We have heard about the increasing criminality in the sector. It is therefore important to pick up a point made by my noble friend Lord Graham about the need for wide publicity to be given to the Bill, or the Act when it becomes one, so that park home owners are made fully aware of their new rights and opportunities and their access to justice, which has hitherto been denied.
Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)
My Lords, I follow other noble Lords in congratulating and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Best, for introducing this Bill into this House and my honourable friend Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, for all that he has done to promote and take it through Parliament. I also thank noble Lords who have mentioned my right honourable friend Grant Shapps, who finally grasped the nettle of this. It is something, as other noble Lords have said, that has been bobbling around for far too long. I remember well the very first debate I was ever asked to do from the Front Bench in this House, which was to answer, on behalf of the Opposition, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and discuss mobile homes. It took us back a bit but we did it. Ever since, I have admired enormously the expertise and the absolute, sheer determination of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to see that something was done about this absolutely dreadful situation, which has put so many people into such jeopardy. There have also been others, including the notable campaigners who have not given up all the way through. At last Parliament is able to take a role and try to bring an end to some of these real travesties.
If enacted, this Bill will afford much better protection to park home owners, and it is good to see it so warmly supported by all sides of the House. As other noble Lords have said, it affects only a relatively small number of homes in England. However, we heard that the Welsh Assembly is also taking this seriously, so it will affect England and Wales. It is hugely important to the people who live in these homes. I believe there are around 85,000 park homes, on 2,000 sites. The sector represents less than 8.5% of the housing stock in England, but just because this part of housing is tiny, it does not mean that we should not address the injustice that is rife and of which we have heard various examples today. That is why this Government fully back this Bill. The Prime Minister said in the other place on
"important ... that we get the balance of law right".-[Hansard, Commons, 16/1/13; col. 869.]
This Bill is important in ensuring that that objective is achieved.
The Bill builds on the thorough and searching inquiry into the industry and its practices, which the Communities and Local Government Select Committee held last spring, and takes forward a number of the recommendations that the Committee made. We want to create a level playing field where the good site operator-and we know there are good site operators-does not face unfair competition from unscrupulous ones who ignore their obligations and the rights of others. We want to see the park home sector put on a sustainable footing for the future, where those who run a decent and honest business can flourish and which has no place for the unscrupulous and criminal. Above all, we want homeowners to be confident that their homes are safe and, perhaps most importantly, that their rights are respected. The Bill aims to achieve these objectives by introducing measures targeted at those who ignore their obligations and exploit their residents, while placing minimal burdens on those businesses which manage their sites well and respect their residents' rights.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, has given a very clear exposition of what the Bill says. It focuses on four key areas: reforms to the antiquated licensing regime that applies to park home sites; removing the ability for unscrupulous operators to block lawful sales by residents of their homes; preventing owners from imposing unreasonable site rules for their own benefit; and ensuring that increases in pitch fees are transparent to prevent residents being overcharged. These issues were particularly identified in the department's consultation paper.
The licensing reforms will mean that for the first time local authorities in England will be able to recover costs incurred in licensing directly from the site owner through fees and costs in recovery enforcement action. These functions will no longer have to be subsidised by the local taxpayer. Authorities will also be able to serve notices requiring works on sites to be carried out, and the courts will be able to impose large fines on site operators who do not comply. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was very modest in wanting to achieve £50,000.
The changes to selling a home will remove altogether the need to seek approval of a purchaser by the site owner. This is one of the most important provisions. This new system will apply to all new agreements and from the second assignment of existing agreements. On the first assignment of existing agreements, site owners will retain a role but the circumstances in which approval can be withheld will be specified to those relating to the site rules. In particular, it will be for the site owner to establish at the residential property tribunal that a purchaser does not meet the relevant site rules. In both circumstances, however, there will no longer be a requirement that a prospective purchaser needs to contact or meet the site owner or that the site owner has to agree to the assignment of the agreement when the buyer and seller, as it were, exchange contracts.
The Bill also includes a provision that would permit the Government to introduce the "fit and proper person" test through secondary legislation in the future. I hear what noble Lords say about the importance of this aspect. It was a recommendation of the Select Committee and I will say a few words about why the Government have accepted this recommendation. It is not the Government's intention to impose an industry-wide fit and proper requirement at present. New burdens on business are always a last resort, but we must also ensure that the conditions in this sector improve. That is why the Bill focuses on making it unprofitable for unscrupulous operators to exploit residents, but we accept the risk that some of the worst operators will persist and that it may be necessary to use these powers to directly remove them from the industry.
Therefore, we will be reviewing the situation after a suitable period-I hope that would be shorter rather than longer-to see how behaviour in the industry has changed. If unscrupulous practices persist, we may have to consider introducing the fit and proper test as well. It will be in our back pocket should it be needed, although that may not be likely if this Bill achieves its purpose of hitting the unscrupulous and criminal operators in their pockets.
I acknowledge that the Bill does not include everything that the Government consulted on. The policy reasons are explained in the published response paper, which is available on the department's website. In some cases, we have concluded that legislative change is not the best solution. It is also a matter of size and what can be achieved in a Private Member's Bill. This Bill runs to 15 clauses, which is quite unusual for a Private Member's Bill, and some of those clauses are very long. It would have been impossible to include everything on which we consulted if the Bill was to have any chance of completing all its stages and receiving Royal Assent, which the Government are anxious to see.
From what we have heard today, I anticipate that noble Lords will want to discuss and debate further details in Committee, but I earnestly hope that any amendments are not pressed to a vote or supported.
Baroness Hanham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Conservative)
Amendments will cause delay and very likely result in the Bill not completing its passage before the end of the Session. That would mean that it could not be enacted, which would be a huge blow to many thousands of people whose rights and health and safety would be better protected by its measures.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, and others spoke about problems relating to re-sale of liquid petroleum gas, re-sale of electricity, fuel poverty and the Green Deal. The Government are aware of these problems and take them very seriously. The application of the Green Deal to park homes was raised with the Prime Minister by Annette Brooke in the other place. He undertook to look into the matter, which demonstrates how seriously we take this issue.
My officials are working with those in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and other authorities with policy responsibility in these areas to see what can be done to improve the situation for park home residents. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will agree with me that this Bill is not the right vehicle for addressing these issues, but some of the issues require not more legislation but better education and more enforcement action. Those that need legislation should not be addressed on the back of a Private Member's Bill, with the effect of reducing the likelihood of it clearing its stages.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, asked me when the provisions would come into force. The provisions relating to sale blocking, pitch fees, site rules and harassment will come in two months after Royal Assent-so that is pretty quick. Licensing will come in in February 2014 and other provisions by order of the Secretary of State, but, as I have indicated, we will keep a close eye on those to see whether they are necessary.
We have in this Bill a comprehensive set of reforms to key areas which will have the greatest impact and lasting effect. As we have all said, the reforms are well overdue and desperately needed. That is why, in commending the Bill to the House, I say again to those who have campaigned so long and so hard that we are very grateful for and acknowledge their determination. We wish this Bill a safe passage through its remaining stages so that it can come into force, by the latest, in the summer.
Lord Best (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the House who have spoken in support of the Bill. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, not only for his practical examples that bring to life these issues but for the passion with which he delivered his words. I am grateful, too, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who raised the question of "fit and proper person" and pointed out that the Welsh Assembly is looking at these matters even as we speak and might go further than has been possible in this case. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also raised that issue.
I support the Government in putting this matter not on the back burner but on the edge of the back burner, ready to be brought forward if needed. It is quite an undertaking for government to require local authorities to ensure that people are fit and proper persons when we know that some of these devious individuals are able to swap the ownership of their sites. We know that some of them have companies-more than one-registered in the Cayman Islands. These are not entirely unsophisticated operators. Keeping tabs on everything that is happening and enforcing a duty to ensure that only fit and proper persons should operate on these sites is a big step, but one that the Government are prepared to take if it proves necessary in due course.
I was very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for the various points that she made, bringing to the debate her experience as a local councillor, which was an important extra dimension for us. I hope that she was satisfied with the timetable that the Minister indicated. It was an amendment in the House of Commons that brought forward the timetable for implementation of the first chunks of the legislation-I shall not say breakneck speed-to two months after Royal Assent. The civil servants will kept busy getting that to happen.
We then heard from the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who made a wonderful speech. I know that we all feel a deep sense of gratitude to him for putting so much time and effort over so many years into making things happen today. He was described to me by one park owner as "diamond". "Dogged" is another word that I would have added to that list. I thank him so very much for all the work he has done over so many years on behalf of park home owners.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, for the support of the opposition Benches, which was incredibly important for seeing this through. There is more work to be done in explaining to everybody what the position will now be, including park home owners, the legal profession, citizens advice bureaux, police forces, trading standards officers and site owners themselves, who will need to know where they stand in the future. I am confident that the excellent team at the Department for Communities and Local Government will get on with this and do it very well.
I am very grateful for the personal support of the Minister and the Government as a whole. Her support is important: she was able to remind us today-if we had not spotted it earlier-that the Prime Minister is now taking an interest in ensuring that some aspects of this are now taken forward. There will be other reforms relating to the Green Deal and energy saving which will also be important and can be taken up in other fora. There is work to be done to ensure that the Bill, when enacted, has the impact it should, but the stage is now set for a new era for park home owners. I am grateful for all the support from your Lordships in taking this Bill forward to its next and final stages in this enormously worthwhile exercise. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.