Most people, when they purchase a holiday property, do so with the expectation of escaping the stresses and strains of home. Perhaps they even hope that it will be a good investment for the future, but for my constituent who purchased a property in the Turquoise development in Bodrum, the reality has been far removed from that dream.
A number of other right hon. and hon. Members have constituents who have been similarly affected, so they will be familiar with the case. However, I would like to outline what home owners have related to me about what they have endured over the past number of years. It is a tale of woe in which they have experienced significant problems with the build quality; the advertised facilities promised either never materialised at all or, if provided, fell well short of the standards advertised; and their properties, far from being prudently managed on their behalf, have allegedly been rented out without their receiving income.
As a result, they have been forced to pursue costly and time-consuming legal action to try to repair the situation. The Turquoise development is one of three by Artev Global on this site, the other two being Royal Heights and the Flamingo country club. Villa Turizm was appointed by Artev Global as the sub-contracting company to manage the site, and it controlled a total of 1,350 homes across the three developments.
The problems began with the build quality of the developments themselves, where to varying degrees home owners found that what they were promised did not match what was delivered, For example, an owner in the Royal Heights development whom I met recently has stated that those properties are significantly smaller than advertised. The layout of the development was also changed unilaterally by the developer, with the result that many of those purchasing a property which purported to have a sea view instead have the rather less appealing view of the rear wall of the adjacent apartment. I have been advised that many properties suffer from damp; others have leaking roofs; some of the structural elements on the site, such as retaining walls, have not been properly constructed; and people have experienced ongoing problems with the sewerage and drainage systems. Their view is that the builder has undertaken only minimal repairs in response to complaints about building defects, simply to get through the five-year period, beyond which responsibility for such problems passes to individual home owners.
Furthermore, the developments were marketed with the promise of certain facilities, such as a golf course, a sandy beach and exclusivity of use. Some have materialised, others have not, with the quality of those provided often at variance with the brochure description. It is worth bearing in mind that these properties were advertised in the UK at various reputable exhibitions and that those promoting them are, in many cases, UK citizens, yet there appears to be limited opportunity for legal redress.
Beyond issues of build quality and facilities, however, the growing catalogue of alleged fraud, corruption and intimidation in respect of the sites is substantial. A dossier prepared by the homeowners group that sets out the detail of the allegations has been sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The dossier documents the multifarious ways in which those in the group believe the property management company has defrauded them, and they are too numerous to cover in any depth this evening.
Let me give just a flavour of the alleged illegal practice. Home owners believe that they have evidence to prove that the company has been surcharging them for utilities, such as water and electricity—they have been advised that that is illegal under Turkish law. In addition, they believe they have also been paying twice or overpaying for some provisions of the management agreement, including maintenance.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. My constituents have also been adversely affected by the situation at Turquoise in Bodrum. Does she agree that although the Turkish authorities are correct in saying that this is a legal matter, it is doing huge reputational damage to Turkey, and that it is in Ankara’s interests to make sure that this is gripped, as it seems to be somewhat systematic?
I absolutely concur with what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I will elucidate that point later.
The dossier also contains statements from a significant number of home owners alleging that their properties were rented out either against their wishes, or without their having been informed of the rental or receiving the income due for the periods in question. Some owners became aware of that when they received utility bills for the properties indicating that they had been in use when no rental was notified, for others it emerged when personal property was missing when they returned to the property after an absence. Others still turned up on site to find someone else staying in their property, and one resident has described arriving at their property to find that their keys no longer fitted the locks. On investigation, they have concluded that a window had been forcibly removed from the property while they were off site to gain access, the locks had been changed and the property had been rented out without their consent. Despite their complete lack of trust in the management company, they then discovered that under the management plan for the site they had no ability to replace the locks. I will revisit the matter of management plans later.
Allegations of intimidation of those who were vocal in their complaints about how the complex was managed are numerous. At one point, those involved in organising an extraordinary general meeting to co-ordinate legal action against the management company were arrested and questioned by the police after a complaint was made against them for doing so. One home owner has told me that the atmosphere became so intimidating that he varied his travel arrangements to and from, and within, Turkey, staying in hotels rather than at the site, and often changed hotels during a stay.
In 2011, residents were informed that Villa Turizm had left the site and, it would appear, large debts, including money owed to the home owner funds. The home owners have estimated that that could run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, but with Villa Turizm now gone their only option is to pursue resolution and compensation through arduous and costly legal action in the Turkish courts.
The developments are now being managed directly by the developer. The home owners have negotiated, through their solicitor, a voluntary arrangement, whereby they pay their management fee into a UK bank account, under their control, and release the money to the site management only once they are satisfied that the previous month’s financial transactions are legitimate. In the short time that that has operated it appears to be working well, and other similar developments are looking at it as a potential model to follow. However, it has no legal standing, and until the management plan is legally annulled the home owners will remain vulnerable, as the developer could revert to the previous management company scenario.
The arrangement also does nothing to address the wider issue of the alleged missing money, which the home owners estimate could be upwards of £1 million across the three sites; nor does it give them retrospective access to the accounts for that period, which will be the subject of another protracted and costly legal battle, with no certainty of success. In response to my letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the case last year, the Minister for Europe stated:
“The Government cannot intervene in private legal disputes within other states, nor can we become involved in steps to recover any capital outlay in respect of individual property deals that have gone wrong.”
That is echoed in a letter from the Turkish embassy to Justine Greening, who has been pursuing this matter on behalf of her constituents. It states that
“private ownership of immovable property is purely a private law matter which does not allow much to be done by this Embassy.”
Both I and my constituents accept that, up to a point. However, what is alleged here is not a simple property dispute between one purchaser and a developer, but potentially a much more complex and systematic fraud against many UK home owners. Given the seriousness of the allegations, I do not think it unreasonable to expect the Turkish authorities actively to investigate them with a view to pursuing criminal prosecutions, if appropriate, or to expect the UK Government to press them to pursue the matter with vigour, given the number of UK citizens affected.
The letter from the Minister for Europe went on to state:
“We would encourage anyone experiencing problems with property to seek legal advice by engaging an independent lawyer who will be best placed to advise on rights and methods of redress”.
He went on to direct the residents to the British embassy website, which lists English-speaking lawyers. The letter from the Turkish embassy also
“strongly urged them to get professional aid from a practising Turkish lawyer if they have not already done so”,
and referred them to the same website. It is worth noting that, despite using that list of lawyers, it took the home owner group over a year, and six different lawyers, to find one in whom they could have confidence to act purely in their best interests as the client. In one case, confidential documents relating to the home owners’ case against the developer ended up in the possession of the developer, adding to their wariness regarding the independence and trustworthiness of the legal support available to them. Allegations of bribery and corruption of legal teams are frequent.
In addition, the requirement for foreign nationals to lodge a bond of 10% of the value of the claim—in many cases, the value of the property—with the court before being able to pursue action against a Turkish citizen makes seeking legal redress prohibitively expensive for many, who are forced to cut their losses. This is another specific issue that I hope the Government will raise with the Turkish authorities, as access to fair and transparent legal representation and due process under the law is fundamental.
I accept that the Government cannot become involved in individual property disputes in other jurisdictions. Even within those strictures, however, there are things that the UK Government have been doing—and, indeed, could be doing—to help those already caught up in such situations and, importantly, to prevent others from falling foul of the same trap. Indeed, the Minister of State acknowledged that to be the case in his letter to me, and stated that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would continue to work with the Turkish authorities to find ways to improve the situation.
One significant improvement relates to management plans. Under Turkish condominium law, every resort must have a management plan, and that document must be lodged with the local authority. However, there is no onus on the local authority to check the legality of the content of the document submitted. In this case, the management plan effectively prevented the home owners from replacing the management company by a vote at an AGM. The home owner group has been advised that the management plan is illegal under Turkish law and contravenes their international human rights. However, it will be able legally to take control of the site only if that management plan is annulled. Pursuing a legal case to do so over the past nine months has already amassed legal costs of £20,000, and it is expected to take at least another year for the case to reach its conclusion. An immediate change that would help immeasurably would be a requirement for local authorities to check that any management plan was legally valid and compliant with Turkish condominium law. It would still remain the responsibility of each purchaser to seek legal advice on the document, as to whether they personally found it acceptable, but at least they would have reassurance that its contents were within the law. Any influence that the UK Government could bring to bear on the Turkish authorities to introduce such a change would be very welcome.
About £70 million has been invested across the three sites in the development, mainly by UK and Dutch citizens, with around 90% of the home owners being from the UK. The same developer has a further three or four sites in the same area of southern Turkey, so at least 2,000 other British people could be affected. This represents a significant investment stream for Turkey, in terms of the property investment and of the associated visitor spend generated by those staying in the resort. To have such a large number of people affected by allegedly fraudulent practice carries with it significant reputational risk for Turkey, as an investment and as a holiday destination. The perception that foreign nationals will also find it more difficult to access justice when things go wrong compounds the situation. In addition, some of the alleged fraudulent practice relates to the avoidance of tax and national insurance payments, at a direct cost to the Turkish Government. It is therefore not in the interests of the Turkish authorities or the many reputable developers and solicitors working in that country to allow this situation to continue.
In correspondence in September last year, the Turkish embassy confirmed that the
“issue of fraudulent builders along the seaside resorts of Turkey, including those of Artev and Turquoise, has already been brought to the attention of the relevant Turkish authorities.”
Further, in the Minister for Europe’s correspondence, he indicated that meetings were taking place between the two Governments, and that the British embassy had raised the issue with provincial governors and mayors. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on any progress that has been made. Also, given the information available regarding this and other sites, and the recent high-profile conviction in Northern Ireland in relation to a Turkish property scam, would the Government consider reviewing the advice for UK citizens seeking to purchase property or needing legal advice in Turkey, as the degree of risk attendant on the process would appear to be higher than is generally perceived?
Although the story of that particular resort has been the primary focus of my remarks, it would be remiss of me not to mention also the wider experiences of those purchasing property in Turkey, as they raise one other key issue affecting buyers and involving the Tapu or habitation certificate, which is similar to property deeds. Unscrupulous developers have be known either to remortgage a property which the buyer has already paid for in full on the strength of the Tapu before registering it in the buyer’s name and disappearing, leaving the original purchaser to clear the debt or forfeit the property, or to fail to register the Tapu in the name of the buyer, instead selling it on to someone else but pocketing both payments.
In the run-up to this evening’s debate, I was contacted by people from across the UK who were keen to share their appalling experiences, first at the hands of those scammers and then in the Turkish legal system. I want to share a couple of those experiences with the Minister this evening. One gentleman bought a two-bedroom villa, having given power of attorney to a prominent lawyer in Bodrum in respect of the sale, only to discover two years later that it belonged to someone else. Despite a four-year battle with a new lawyer, he ended up with nothing: no money, no villa, and even his furniture and electrical items, valued at £2,000, were taken and sold to pay the court costs of the holder of the deeds.
Does the hon. Lady feel that as well as seeking legal advice in Turkey, where these people have purchased those properties, they should also be seeking legal advice at home to give them a double guarantee?
There is merit in that and some of them have sought to do it, but it requires a specialist Turkish solicitor who understands the law there.
In that gentleman’s case, not one person has been held to account for what happened. He is now making a complaint to the Turkish Bar association, but first has to get it translated into Turkish and then pay for the complaint to be investigated.
Another retired couple contacted me about the property they bought on a small site in Bodrum. They followed the Turkish property purchasing guidelines obtained from the embassy in London and had an estate agent, a lawyer and the clearance to buy. After many delays, they learned that it had been sold a second time to a local businessman with the deeds in his name and they have been engaged in a legal battle since October 2007 to secure either the deeds in their name or their money back. A court-appointed expert was of the opinion that they were victims of illegal practice and they had witness statements supporting their case. Bodrum court upheld the current deed holders’ ownership, but did award the couple a full refund. However, that award was reversed in the Ankara Supreme Court. In addition, they now have to pay the court fees of the two defendants of approximately £8,000 and that latter decision has been upheld on appeal. They have a final appeal but are, understandably, not optimistic.
Four other couples, three English and one Irish, have already lost everything on that site. If the retired couple's case is also ultimately lost, those behind the scam will have gained around £160,000 minimum from the five couples and properties. The reselling or remortgaging of Tapu is one of the most common means by which people lose, quite literally, everything—their money and the property that they purchased. It would help if Turkish banks were unable to accept the habitation certificates as collateral for a loan without first authenticating the status of that certificate through their own independent legal searches. That is, perhaps, another issue that the UK Government could press with the Turkish Government to help protect home buyers.
I want to finish my remarks by quoting the words of the retired couple, which reflect the despair and frustration of my constituent and all of those with whom I have spoken. They said:
“Obviously, we are just one in the very long line of foreigners who have fallen foul of the twists and turns of property buying in Turkey over many years. To date, so far, we have not heard of a single person involved in a property deeds dispute retaining the house they bought and rare if any of having their money returned.
We are the INNOCENT victims but it doesn’t feel like it and the criminals walk away unrepentant, well rewarded and their names clear to carry out the same activities again. The worst feeling is we have no figurehead to turn to, no one to support or stand up for us or person with authority/power to put a stop to these practices, which have been going on for years and it seems will continue to do so. Their own government national or local are not interested. Most say ‘Oh not another scam’ and move on and it seems our own government do not ‘interfere with other countries laws’. This is why we are sending this e-mail.”
And that is why I have read it out.
I hope that the Minister in his response will be able to reassure those people and the many other UK property owners who feel both vulnerable and exploited that our Government take the matter seriously and that he will work closely with the Turkish Government to do what he can to help bring an end to this property misery. I hope that he will also be able to say what robust advice and guidance the Government might be able to issue to those who are thinking of buying a dream home in Turkey, which might better equip them to avoid purchasing a nightmare.
May I start by thanking Naomi Long for bringing this subject to the House’s attention? Anyone who heard her speak will have no doubt that her constituents have a formidable champion in her. I also pay tribute to Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend Dr Murrison, who brought their constituents’ concerns to the House in their interventions. The way in which Governments around the world encourage foreign property investment in their countries and subsequently support those who invest is a subject in which everyone in the House has an interest. In the United Kingdom, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular has a responsibility to ensure that where necessary we are delivering high-quality consular services to our nationals as part of their overseas experience.
Before I come to the specific issues concerning Turkey and the particular site raised by the hon. Lady, I want to put this issue in the broader perspective of the Government’s consular policy with regard to overseas property issues more generally. The Institute for Public Policy Research reported in a paper that it published in 2006 that more than 5.5 million British citizens were living overseas permanently. Its most recent analysis, which was published in 2010, showed that the number had grown to 5.6 million, with another half a million of our fellow citizens living abroad for part of the year. In comparison, our overseas missions confirm that only a very small percentage of British nationals abroad contact them about property disputes in their chosen country of residence. I do not want to sound complacent, but I think that suggests that the majority of British nationals who live overseas do so with relatively few property problems. However, I acknowledge from the start that those statistics do not reflect the distress suffered by those who do come across such property problems and the potential loss of large sums of hard-earned and hard-saved money.
I want to assure the House that the British Government do everything they properly can to offer practical assistance. In those countries where a large number of British nationals buy property, our missions now provide guidance about the local housing and property market. That is achieved mainly through our embassy websites, which are the most effective way of reaching a wide audience, but also through ad hoc media opportunities. The information on our embassy websites aims to raise public awareness of the potential pitfalls of buying a property in a foreign country and also offers advice on steps to take before buying a property. Naturally, the information on websites varies from country to country and is tailored to reflect the relevant local and national circumstances. In some cases, we include contact details for organisations that might help those with property problems or recommend where specific complaints can be directed. In other cases, the websites provide contact details of relevant Ministers or information about local legal aid that is available.
We will continue to monitor local property markets; that is a duty of our mission heads in all countries where large numbers of British citizens choose to live. Our mission heads are also responsible for updating the advice hosted on their websites accordingly. Where we are aware of more systemic property issues that affect our nationals in particular, such as national property laws that exclude British property owners from benefits, our officials raise the subject with the authorities in the relevant country, and we do that at all levels of government, from Ministers to local police forces. During my most recent visit to Spain at the beginning of February, I discussed some of the problems experienced by British citizens buying property in Spain with my Spanish opposite number, Mr Mendez de Vigo. I also discussed the property issue with the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, Nikolai Mladenov, in Sofia earlier this month. About 15,000 British nationals own property in Bulgaria, and its Ministry of Justice works closely with our officials at the British embassy in Sofia. They are constructing a new website, which has been designed to take account of the kind of complaints that have been received in order to help foreign property investors better in future. I will continue to raise property issues during my meetings with Ministers and senior officials of foreign Governments.
In recent years we have also devoted more resources both in Britain and abroad to understanding the nature of property problems in the countries to which I have referred, and we now have a dedicated property issues team at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, as well as a large number of consular staff overseas with relevant expertise, who all work closely on the subject. We are starting to see foreign Governments respond positively to our efforts. For example, in Spain there have been significant changes to the property laws. In addition, the Andalucian regional government is preparing a decree to legalise or recognise the majority of properties, many foreign owned, which had previously been declared illegal.
Another way in which we seek to raise awareness with the British public is through an FCO presence at a variety of property road shows. For example, we host a stand twice a year at the “A Place in the Sun” property exhibition, and information on Turkey was included in that exhibition last year.
The help that we can give to individual British citizens is appropriate to the individual circumstances of each case. As the hon. Lady acknowledged, our advice to those caught up in a property dispute overseas is that they should seek independent legal counsel, who would be best placed to advise on their rights in that country and the correct methods of legal or other redress in the country where the property is located. I will be straight with the hon. Lady. Our consular policy is very clear: we cannot give formal legal advice. We do not have the expertise to judge the legal right in any dispute or the funding to pursue it. For those reasons we cannot get involved in individual cases.
Additionally, property laws are in the end the competency of individual sovereign states. The British Government have no authority to intervene in another country’s domestic legislation, in the same way as those Governments have no authority to intervene in the making of legislation or individual court cases here.
Bearing in mind those overall points, I shall now talk about the case that the hon. Lady raised. If I am unable to complete my remarks, I will write to her in further detail after the debate. I want to stress how sorry I was to hear about the experience of her constituents and their fellow property owners. Although about 34,000 British citizens have bought properties in Turkey without such difficulties, there is, we believe, a small but regrettable number of British and other foreign citizens who have faced problems.
My officials in London, our embassy in Ankara and our consulates in Turkey are aware of the case, and I received a dossier from those affected last year. We have been in contact with a number of concerned parties, including individual owners and Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom. Our proconsul in Bodrum was approached by at least one of the British nationals associated with this case, a member of the Turquoise supervisory committee—a group established by those affected.
Our proconsul offered advice in line with our consular policy, suggesting that those affected seek legal advice, contact Turkish authorities and, if necessary, consider taking legal action in Turkey. I should say in response to the hon. Lady that although we offer on our websites or from our consulates and embassies lists of English-speaking Turkish lawyers whom we know to be available, we cannot judge the competence of a particular lawyer or firm of lawyers in Turkey or any other foreign country.
Our proconsul proposed to the gentleman to whom he spoke that he—the property owner—should return if further help was needed. In that case, the British national concerned did not ask for further assistance. Following those initial approaches to our officials in Turkey, our officials have not been asked directly for follow-up assistance by any of the concerned parties since early in 2011.
None the less, our ambassador and his officials in Turkey have raised the systemic problems of property purchasing in Turkey with the Turkish authorities, at both central and local government levels. As a result, property laws are being revised—for example, on the need for foreign nationals to obtain military permission. I give the assurance that our embassy will continue to raise these issues at future meetings, but I must repeat that we can lobby only on systemic property issues. In the case we are debating tonight, the grievance concerns the individual management of the Turquoise resort complex and the alleged intimidation of apartment owners. The management of the complex is a private dispute and, as I have said, those affected should seek legal advice on how this can be addressed in Turkey.
I am certainly willing to consider whether that issue can be described as systemic. I will want to reflect on the points that the hon. Lady made in her speech, but if we judge it to be something that has wider application than to one individual case, in principle I see no objection to our raising it in our conversations with the Turkish authorities.
We take the safety of British citizens in Turkey seriously, as do the Turkish authorities. Any allegation of intimidation or violence against a British citizen should be reported to the gendarmes, who would be expected to take action in line with Turkish procedures. If a British citizen is concerned that the gendarmes are failing to take legitimate concerns seriously, they should contact our consular team in Turkey so that they can make the appropriate representations to the Turkish authorities. If requested, we will certainly consider making further formal representations once all due legal processes have been exhausted, and especially if there is evidence that due process has not been followed.
On the point about advertising, anyone who considers themselves to have been a victim of fraudulent advertising should present evidence to Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud reporting centre, which provides a central point of contract for information on this subject. That service is run by the National Fraud Authority.
I know that hon. Members will have examples of overseas property disputes individual to their constituents. Where they are indicative of systemic property issues, we will raise them with the relevant Governments. I assure the hon. Lady, and the House, that the British Government will not let up in our efforts to pursue this subject in those countries where, sadly, some of our citizens continue to face the distressing difficulties that she has described.
Question put and agreed to.
That having been said, anyone reading the 120 words of my motion would have had to be hyper-critical to imagine that it related in any way whatsoever to court proceedings or to the sub judice rule, and that being so, I hope that in future the Table Office will not take to itself rights over what Members of Parliament themselves have the right to say beyond what you yourself, Mr Speaker, would accept.
The role of the Table Office is to assist the Speaker in upholding the rules of the House. I hope that that is widely understood.
The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot debate this matter further now, and that it would not be right to do so, but he has made his point very clear. I have heard it, representatives of the office in question have heard it, and I hope that that will suffice for now. I will keep the matter under close review, and I am sure that the spirit of what the right hon. Gentleman has said will be respected.
I will take a point of order from a Member who first arrived in the House four years before Sir Gerald Kaufman.
You have made a point that I was not going to make, Mr Speaker, except perhaps in passing.
I have the highest respect for my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman. His point of order illustrated that, having been in the House for nearly 42 years, he is still always willing to act on behalf of his constituents, which is highly commendable. I do not think that a single Member in the House would disagree with that.
However, given that my right hon. Friend was highly critical of the Table Office, I wish to put on record that during my years in this place, I have always found those at the Table Office co-operative and courteous. I have never found them rude at any stage. Had I done so, I should have reported the matter to the Clerk of the House or to the Speaker, as the case might be. I look on the Clerks of the House, as on the other Officers, as dedicated servants of the House of Commons who serve the House of Commons, and I think that that should be put on record.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I think that the Clerks who serve the House will appreciate it too. Perhaps we can leave it there for today.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise an entirely separate and unrelated point of order.
On an entirely separate and unrelated point of order, Mr Speaker. No doubt you will recall the excellent work done by the Leader of the House—whom I am pleased to see sitting on the Front Bench at this moment—in relation to the question of the demonstrations in Parliament square. I believe that we have freedom of speech in the House, but that does not mean that we have the freedom to shout and bawl our opinions incessantly whether people wish to hear them or not. I understand, however, that an application has been made to Westminster city council to reinstate permission for amplified noise to be used to broadcast, for hours on end, abusive and hostile political messages at this House, in the way that was done—causing maximum disturbance—by the late Brian Haw, notwithstanding his lawyers’ assurances to Westminster city council when they applied for a licence that he would not use it to harass people going about their normal work in the Chamber.
May I ask, Mr Speaker, whether you have had any indication of a statement from the Leader of the House on whether he is willing to make representations to the city council that no requirement of freedom of speech enables people to have the right to broadcast at top volume, when no demonstration is taking place, political messages which are intended to disturb people going about their lawful occasions, not least the armed security guards who have to be on constant readiness in front of the Houses of Parliament?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Certainly no concept of free speech should mean that some people have a right to shout at the tops of their voices through an amplifier at other people irrespective of those other people’s wishes. The point that the hon. Gentleman has made seems to me to be entirely reasonable; but the Leader of the House is stirring in his seat, and I feel certain that the House will want to hear what he has to say.
It sounds as if the Leader of the House may not be the only one, but we are grateful to him for what he has said.