One of the great privileges of being a Member of Parliament is that, in this the most important debating chamber in the world, one can raise issues that really matter to one's constituents. I have rarely been as angry about a matter as I am about this case.
Two of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, have suffered the awful indignity of Mr. Ellis having had three strokes. He is therefore unable easily to look after himself and has to be looked after day and night. They decided that it would be a good thing if they had a mobile home that was easy for them to deal with. They went to a country park in my constituency, Carlton Meres, which was run extremely well by a charming couple, and they bought a mobile home at a cost of £28,280, on condition that there would be a proper path to the home and a proper ramp for Mr. Ellis's wheelchair to be pushed along so that he could use the home. Without those, there was no possibility of its being used. I have here the sales purchase agreement that was made, at the bottom of which it says: "Ramp to be provided". The ramp was not provided.
A couple of months later, the couple were told that the ownership of the park had changed. The ramp had still not been provided. By the time it came to October—they having bought the home in March and hardly having been able to enter it, let alone use it—they decided that they would sell it. Under their original agreement, it was said that they would certainly be able to sell it at a proper price. Indeed, late in October, the salesman told them that the selling price should be more or less what they paid for it because it was new and had not been used. In the event, they were provided with a sum so derisory that it is almost impossible to repeat it—having paid £28,280, a few months later they were given £8,000.
When the couple complained, the solicitor for the company, one Mr. Johar of Leicester, said that the reason for that reduced sum was that the ownership of the company had changed and they did not have an agreement with the new owners. When they wrote to me with the document, an eagle-eyed assistant of mine noticed that the name of the company from which they had purchased in the first place was the same as that of those owners. True, the directors had changed, but the company was the same company, so under the law it was responsible for everything that the previous company had agreed to.
I got in touch with the company and said this seemed to me an entirely unacceptable proposition. It did not answer any letters—that, of course, is the convenient way in which these people behave—so I looked it up and discovered that it already had a history of taking over perfectly well-run sites and then behaving in this appalling manner. I shall give one example: the Riverview and Silver Sands caravan sites in Scotland, about which the list of complaints continues. The owner appears to be a Mr. Barney, who appears on all occasions calling himself Tony and, of course, never giving his full name. It turned out that he told all the owners of the static holiday caravans that they would be required to remove them at the end of the season because he would be replacing them with residential homes. He was told by park residents and the holiday caravan owners that the site licence did not allow for that, but he made light of that, saying that it would not be a problem. He was very upset when they identified him because he is known in the business. If one looks up his directorships, one finds a whole list of caravan sites where that kind of activity continues.
The right hon. Gentleman is articulating concerns of mine. I wonder whether, by any chance, the same individual is in charge of Welch Homes, which is my constituency. If someone buys a place there, they have to be interviewed, they have to be over 50 and they have to have no children. If they then sell their place, they have to pay 10 per cent. back to the company.
I have a whole list of the places that this man has a connection with, many of which have gone into receivership, have closed or are no longer available as sites. I do not know whether that is one, but he seems to be a pretty universal figure, because there have been some very serious attacks on him in Cheshire, Suffolk and Morayshire.
In the Isle of Wight, constituents have come to me concerned that owners of Medina mobile home park are abusing their position and ignoring current laws. Mr. Sines and Mr. Crickmore are driving out owners of older mobile homes so that they can build new homes on the plot. They even vetoed the owners selling their property, and then offered to purchase the property for a much-reduced price. That is wrong; it must be corrected.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The people affected are very often those least able to look after themselves. My constituents made the mistake of accepting the £8,000 because they did not know what else to do. Since then, they appealed to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which unfortunately said that
"Carlton Meres Country Park is not covered by this scheme."
Suffolk Coastal district council—an excellent council—has done its best, but has to say:
"Unfortunately the matters raised are not something that we can use in relation to enforcement."
It would love to, but it cannot because
"The legislation and guidance is specific about what matters can be controlled by licence conditions. The arrangements between individual pitch owners and the site owner are outside of our remit."
My problem is that the people involved are very vulnerable and they often wish to have a mobile home because they have limited sums of money—very limited capital. My constituent, Mrs. Ellis, is trying to handle the problems caused by having a husband with three strokes. Mr. and Mrs. Ellis have had £20,000 stolen by an organisation that has absolutely no concern for them at all. I wrote to the solicitor—I hope that the Law Society will look at the nature of some of the solicitors who are members of its society—and he refused to treat me as a Member of Parliament. He constantly talked about my constituents as my clients in order to suggest that somehow or other, they should go to court about the matter. The fundamental issue is this: of course they cannot go to court; they cannot afford to go to court. Mr. Barney has taken from them what money they had and left them in circumstances such that they are already extremely endangered. Their lifestyle very much diminished, they are now poor, because their life's savings have been taken from them.
I have rarely received such insulting letters—all of us who have been Members of Parliament for any length of time receive pretty insulting letters from time to time—as those that I have received from Mr. and Mrs. Barney, who run the operation, and their agents. I am sorry that the Minister should be the one dealing with this matter, because I know him to be a kind-hearted and decent man, but how would he feel if his constituents wrote to him to say the following?
"Since writing to you on 24.3.2008"—
I have been writing to the people concerned and trying to get some answers from them since then, so you can see how long the process has taken, Mr. Deputy Speaker—
"including copies of letters I sent to Golam, the new Salesman...I have received a most hostile and angry phone call from Golam this evening, shouting at me that we have had £8,000 and they do not intend to recompense any more. They insist that they were not the owners of the home when we purchased it."
That is a lie. Mr. and Mrs. Barney bought the company. They took on the goodwill—and in this case it was real good will—and they took on the responsibilities as well. However, my constituents clearly do not understand that, nor can they be expected to, because they are not legally trained.
Why is it that in 2009, Mr. and Mrs. Ellis should have no redress? They cannot ask anybody to intervene. In fact, they could have asked somebody to intervene, because the original owners—the directors, before they sold—were members of the National Caravan Council, which has a proper system through which people can appeal. What was the first thing that Mr. Johar and his friends did? It was to resign from the National Caravan Council, so that no appeal, even of a voluntary kind, could take place.
I could go into great detail about the sadness that I feel for my constituents, but I hope that the House has recognised just how serious the matter is. However, after we have discussed this issue, I hope to be able to show, to every lawyer and every estate agent in the area covered by Carlton Meres, the dangers of conveyancing any such home to anybody. Unless there is some protection, people will be left at the mercy of an organisation that does not seem to have a single drop of the milk of human kindness at all. Who in this world could possibly say that it was proper to take £20,000 from an old couple, one of whom is severely disabled, who bought a caravan in March but had to sell it in October because the company failed to do what it promised to do in the first place?
The problem for my constituents is that, being decent people, they thought that if it said, "Ramp to be provided," on the bottom of their sales agreement, that was a legal position—something that they could depend on; something that was reasonable; something that they had a right to expect. But of course, the people who now own Arncliffe Leisure Ltd do not obey any of those natural rules that we in this House would expect everyone, as a matter of ordinary human decency, to accept. What I find so difficult is that this company tells direct lies. It told that couple that it was not the same company, when it was. It told them that it had no duty to carry out the promises made by the company, although it did. It also told them that they were lucky to get the £8,000. In fact, the company was wickedly lucky to get £20,000 profit from the deal that it had done.
In my 30 years as a Member of Parliament for a Suffolk constituency, I have rarely been as angry as I am about this, and about the fact that people can be defrauded in this way, and that there is no proper way of getting any sort of recompense. So I said to the company, "If you will do something about this, when we come to discuss the issues, I would be happy to say that, in the end, you have done your best." I received absolutely no answer other than, "See you in court." That is the only thing that those people are interested in.
Up and down the country, these people are destroying the lives of the most vulnerable people. Whatever our political divisions in the House, most of us came into Parliament to oppose bullying. Deep down, what we dislike most is those who are strong bullying the weak. I am so angry about this because those people are feasting off the fat of the poorest in our community—people who need help but, instead of being given it, are having what they have taken away from them. I do not want to use biblical quotations, but Naboth's vineyard is truly in the same category as this case. I only wish that the kind of biblical justice that was visited in the Old Testament could be visited on those people.
In case I have not made them clear, I should like to remind the House of the names involved. It is important that people should recognise that this is a so-called family organisation. Foolishly enough, it has the name of Lifestyle Living, and it got a prize from a really good man, David Bellamy. I just hope that he will read this and perhaps decide that this is not an organisation with which he wishes, even indirectly, to be associated. Lifestyle Living, Arncliffe Leisure and a dozen other organisations are owned and run by a Mr. A. J. Barney and his wife, Mrs. D. M. Barney, and operated under the close supervision of the solicitors Johar. They are a disgrace to what could be an important part of the provision of housing for people in Britain.
I have no angst about mobile homes. There are a number of excellent ones in my constituency. For example, I would honour Mr. Little, who has run two mobile home parks in the most exemplary way. I do, however, have angst about those who use their position of power, influence and wealth to destroy the lives of others who are unable to stand up for themselves. In that sense, it is a great privilege for me to be able to say to the House that Mr. and Mrs. Ellis should not be in this position, and that the Government should do something about it. They have not done anything about it to date, and I am not asking them to do anything about it retrospectively, but they ought to ensure that no one else is ever tempted to buy any such mobile home from Arncliffe Leisure, or from Mr. Barney, Mrs. Barney or Mr. Johar.
I congratulate Mr. Gummer on securing this debate on park homes. The case that he has outlined is extremely distressing, and I wish Mr. and Mrs. Ellis all the very best. Unfortunately, it is clear from the right hon. Gentleman's contribution and from interventions by Mr. Turner and my hon. Friend Mr. Devine, that there is a culture of unscrupulous behaviour and bad practice in this sector on the part of site owners.
I think that the House would accept that, as the right hon. Gentleman himself said, that those owners represent a minority of the sector and most sites are managed by professional and competent persons who maintain good professional and sometimes caring relationships with their residents. In support of that view, I am very much aware of the efforts of the trade organisations to secure high standards of performance and behaviour among their members and to promote good practice.
Unfortunately, as the right hon. Gentleman said and as I often see from correspondence I receive directly from residents or through hon. Members, professionalism is not universal in this sector and the standards of management on some sites are clearly woefully inadequate. Moreover, as the right hon. Gentleman said and if what is reported is correct, a few cases that I have read about are criminal—quite literally criminal. Because of their vulnerability, many park home residents—very much like Mr. and Mrs. Ellis—are simply not able to stand up to those owners. As this industry promotes itself as being particularly suitable for the older members of our community, it must cater for their needs as consumers, yet some site owners clearly take advantage of and exploit their residents—precisely because of their vulnerability. The truth is that, in some cases, we have to accept that only enforcement with meaningful penalties—focused and targeted enforcement—is likely to change behaviour or drive the unprofessional operators out of the sector.
I know that my hon. Friend will be aware that many of these people are using the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and applying it to mobile homes, but as Mr. Gummer said, these are not mobile, but permanent homes. Is it not time that we looked to amend the 1960 Act so that we can cover those individuals?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying and I pay tribute to the fantastic work he is doing in exposing unscrupulous managers of park homes and sites in his own area. I have a great deal of sympathy with what he says, but my difficulty—and the difficulty for the House—is that changing the definition of caravans and mobile homes will, frankly, open up a can of worms for the law on property. The essential concept of mobile homes as dealt with in the 1960 Act is that they are located on someone else's land and permission is given to base them there on the proviso that they are allowed to move them. That is the difficulty. If we addressed that specific point by addressing the specific rights of caravan owners, we would open up a huge range of issues regarding property, which would be counter-productive. I am keen to look further into this, but I must think about the limitations that follow from the complexity of property law. That makes me reluctant to do something that might have unforeseen consequences.
I am not pressing the Minister to change the definition in the legislation. I do not want that, because the legislation enables people to acquire homes that they would not otherwise be able to acquire. I press the Minister to say, however, that if people have mobile homes on a static site—we all know what happens—there should be an application of reasonable rules that would make it possible for people to appeal to somebody. It might be a financial ombudsman or someone else who can take a decision about this sort of issue. That would mean only a very small change in the operation of the law.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He said that it would be useful to have a court of appeal that is less onerous than the county courts. I have a great deal of sympathy with that and I can tell him that I am mindful of helping Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and others in their circumstances in that way.
Where civil disputes arise between residents and site owners, I think the whole House will agree that there needs to be an accessible, cheap and relatively informal means of resolving them. That is why I have consulted on transferring the jurisdiction of county courts under the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to residential property tribunals. My officials are studying the responses we have received to the consultation and I intend to announce the way forward on that proposal shortly. I hope that that gives some comfort to Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and to others.
In the past couple of years, we have made a number of improvements to the framework of the park homes sector. I am a strong advocate of resident empowerment and I firmly believe that the measures we introduced in October 2006, amending the 1983 Act and requiring representative residents' associations to be recognised, go an awfully long way in that direction. They give residents a voice in the management of the sites that they occupy, and I strongly urge park home owners to form associations. I believe that a collective voice can and does achieve results.
There is a technical problem with that as 50 per cent. of the residents are supposed to be involved. What happens? There are often two residents in each of the mobile homes and it is easy to prove that 50 per cent. of residents are not involved, so it is important to introduce a change that enables a reasonable number from those in each unit to be able to form a residents' association with powers under the Act.
That is not my understanding, although I can take that point away and look at it. In my constituency, there is a similar site—Elmtree Park—where there are two residents' associations that are equally recognised by the site owner. That can be provided for in the current situation, although I can certainly consider the point made by the right hon. Gentleman and write to him if need be.
The key focus of my response to the right hon. Gentleman's speech is that I am keen to go further to help people such as Mr. and Mrs. Ellis and to help people who live in park homes. I believe that we need to do more to prevent unscrupulous individuals such as Mr. and Mrs. Barney from operating in this sector. Also, where an individual has acted in a criminal manner that is relevant to his fitness to be engaged in the management of a park home site, we need to address it.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, local authorities are obliged to license park home sites in their areas, but they often have little discretion in that duty and insufficient tools to enforce compliance. If someone wants a licence to station park homes on a site, provided that he or she has planning permission to do so, the authority must issue the licence and give it free of charge, except in very limited circumstances. Once a licence has been granted, it is extremely difficult for an authority to take it away from that person, no matter how unsuitable that person may be. The local authority cannot even require minimum management standards to be applied under the licence it grants.
As we have heard tonight, that is not reasonable. Therefore, I want to consult on introducing a licensing regime that requires managers of park homes and some other caravan sites to be suitable persons and to have the relevant competences to manage that type of accommodation. I want that consultation to seek views on giving local authorities the right tools to be able to enforce their licensing requirements.
We need to ensure that any regulation is light touch, clear and easy to understand. I want to be sure at the consultation stage that it will neither drive good owners out of the market nor discourage other suitable persons from entering it. I am committed to ensuring that we have a vibrant park home sector that meets the needs of its residents, offers a safe and affordable housing option, and encourages investment and good management by decent owners.
A new licensing regime must meet the needs of all, be comprehensive and work in the 21st century housing market. Therefore, I think the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that, before we embark on any detailed proposals, we need to consult on those proposals and their impact. I especially want to hear from residents, site owners, and local authorities and their representatives on how we can take matters forward to avoid appalling cases such as that of Mr. and Mrs. Ellis.
I hope that my remarks demonstrate to the House the Government's commitment to ensuring that park homes residents have as much protection as possible. We have in recent years built upon the protections already enshrined in law through the status of mobile homes. We aim to consult on providing a suitable licensing regime that will help to eliminate poor practice and unscrupulous management. Park homes have an opportunity to play a growing role in this country's housing offer over the next few years, and we in government will continue to pledge to work with the industry, local authorities, police and right hon. and hon. Members to fulfil that potential.
House adjourned without Question put (