Property Factors (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd March 2011.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-8029, in the name of Patricia Ferguson, on the Property Factors (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

If members pass the bill at 5 o’clock, we will put rogue factors on notice. This legislature will have told them that the clock is ticking and that they must change if they want to continue to operate.

The bill that we are considering recognises the plight of people who have suffered at the hands of unscrupulous factors. Those people have been identified during the consultation on the bill and recognised by the Office of Fair Trading in its report “Property managers in Scotland: A market study”, and such people have come to our surgeries. In short, we are talking about people who have looked to Parliament for help, because it can be found nowhere else.

It has often been put to me that rogue factors are a problem only in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, but that is not the case, and nor is the problem confined to tenemental properties. Rogue factors are a problem throughout Scotland and—if my postbag is anything to go by—the problem is growing.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I offer thanks to Patricia Ferguson—not just my personal thanks, but thanks on behalf of the hundreds of retirement home owners in East Renfrewshire and beyond who have greatly welcomed the bill and the ability that it will give them to reverse the relationship, which is often a bullying one, between factors and management companies and residents.

I have a specific question. I know that the bill was not able to go as far as some of us would have liked in dealing with land maintenance companies such as Greenbelt Group Ltd, but can the member reassure me that there is some comfort and support in the bill for residents and home owners who wrestle with the behaviour of such companies?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I thank Ken Macintosh for his kind words, and I can give him that assurance. I will deal with that matter in more detail a little later. To be clear, the definition of a property factor that is contained in the bill includes housing associations and local authorities. It also includes land management companies. As I have said, I will say a little bit more about them later.

I have long been convinced that we need a regulatory framework as opposed to a voluntary accreditation scheme, and I felt for a long time that I was fighting a losing battle in trying to persuade others that legislation was needed. Therefore, I am genuinely delighted that the Scottish Government has come around to that point of view and is now so supportive of the bill. I am also grateful to the members of the Local Government and Communities Committee, who listened to the evidence with great care and whose stage 1 report concluded that legislation was required. Consequently, the bill will require all factors to be registered.

Part 1 of the bill relates to registration. It provides for the establishment of a register, the procedures for registration, removal from the register and the enforcement of the requirement to register and, importantly, it provides for a code of conduct for property factors.

Part 2 creates a form of dispute resolution that will task the existing private rented housing panel with the job of dealing with complaints from home owners who believe that their factor has not honoured their contract or has not complied with the factors code of conduct. In certain circumstances, it will also be possible for factors to be deregistered, but only after a thorough appeals process has either been exhausted or waived.

Part 3 of the bill includes miscellaneous and general provisions.

A little while ago, I indicated to Ken Macintosh and members in the chamber that I would return to the issue of land management companies. I am pleased that we have been able to include land management companies in the definition of property factors and that consequently, many provisions in the bill will also apply in situations in which a land management company has been sold land but also has an agreement that allows that company to charge adjacent owners for the maintenance of common parts.

So that I could respond to comments that were made in the stage 1 report, I lodged amendments that would have given more rights to owners who were in such situations. The committee was not minded to support those amendments and, in retrospect, that was the right decision. This is an extremely complicated area of the law. More discussion is undoubtedly required, and more consideration needs to be given to that situation, and to the situation that might arise, so that we can ensure that any remedy does not also have unintended consequences. I welcome the Government’s decision to consult on the issue and I look forward to reading the responses.

My only remaining disappointment—it is a small one—concerns the commencement date. I understand and accept that work requires to be done to make the bill’s provisions effective and I am pleased that the Government has conceded the principle of a commencement date appearing on the face of the bill. However, I sincerely hope that whichever party or parties form the next Government will find it to be possible to introduce the bill’s provisions before 1 October 2012.

In my closing speech this afternoon, I hope to have time to thank the many people who have helped to get the Property Factors (Scotland) Bill to this point. Meanwhile, I commend it to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Property Factors (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

I welcome the progress that has been made on the bill and all the hard work that has gone in to getting it to stage 3. If I may, I will pay particular tribute to my officials, who have worked closely with Patricia Ferguson, particularly on the final amendments that we have unanimously agreed today.

The Scottish Government has always recognised the need for action to improve the residential property and land management industry. At earlier stages of parliamentary scrutiny of the bill, I highlighted a number of issues that I felt should be addressed if the bill is to be as effective as we all want it to be. Many of those issues have been addressed, often as a result of productive collaboration between the member in charge and the Scottish Government.

I noted three principal challenges in the bill as it was originally drafted. The first was the definition of a property factor and who is or is not covered by that. The second was the consequences for home owners if a factor is deregistered. The third was the creation of an accessible and effective dispute resolution system.

Through dialogue and co-operation, we have fixed most of the problems with the definition to make it clear, for example, that landowning land maintenance companies are included and are covered by the bill’s provisions. That is the clear policy intention of the member in charge of the bill, and the Scottish Government fully supports it.

The consequences for home owners if a factor is deregistered might be complicated. Section 9(2)(b) makes some provision for the appointment of new factors. In addition, ministers might have to make ancillary provision using powers under section 26A. Ancillary provision could cover such matters as the consequences of deregistering a landowning land maintenance company, and the interaction between this legislation and the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003.

Part 2 of the bill deals with dispute resolution, and my original view was that compulsory membership by factors of, for example, an ombudsman system, was a more appropriate means of delivering an accessible form of third-party redress for the consumer. However, during the stage 1 debate, it became obvious that the majority of members were in favour of the home owner housing panel that the bill proposed. I am happy that, at stage 2, the Government was able to introduce an amendment that would allow some of the costs of running the panel to be recovered from the industry rather than the entire burden being placed on the taxpayer.

I would like to touch on one further issue that was raised at earlier stages of the bill. The bill requires factors that apply for registration to provide details of the portfolio of properties that they manage. Some industry representatives asked for the information to remain unpublished. Section 1(2) requires the register to be open to public inspection, and the Government supports that transparency. However, there is no requirement in the bill to provide commercially sensitive information, such as the pricing of services.

If Parliament votes to pass the bill today, so begins the significant challenge of implementing all its provisions by 1 October 2012. At the bill’s introduction, the member in charge included 29 September 2011 as the date by which all provisions should be in force. Although it is not general practice to provide that an act will commence on a specified date, we sought a solution that would establish a more realistic timescale for implementation of parts 1 and 2 of the bill. Given the work that will be involved, implementation by 1 October 2012 still represents a major challenge—we should not underestimate the scale of it if we want to implement the legislation as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The Scottish Government is committed to beginning work immediately on implementing the provisions of the bill, if it is passed. I see four main strands of work as being needed: first, setting up and making operational the registration scheme; secondly, preparing, consulting on, laying before Parliament and bringing into force the new code of conduct; thirdly, preparing secondary legislation; and fourthly—and crucially—preparing the current private rented housing panel to take on its considerably expanded new role as the home owner housing panel. There will be many other tasks as well: although perhaps they will be smaller individually, they will be significant when they are considered in the round. Taken together, those pieces of work will make full implementation by October 2012 no mean feat.

A number of people have asked for clarification of how the bill will affect land maintenance companies and, in particular, Greenbelt. It is useful for me to spell out for the record exactly what the position will be. The Government has taken action in relation to land maintenance companies. The work on the Government’s voluntary accreditation scheme included land maintenance companies, and we have worked with the member in charge of the bill to ensure that the definition of property factor properly covers land maintenance companies. We have told companies about the complaints that we have received, and we have asked them to deal with them.

Finally, as I have mentioned, we will shortly issue a consultation, which will cover switching of land maintenance companies and will ask whether more information can be provided to prospective home owners on potential land maintenance obligations.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

To conclude, I recognise the impact of property management services on so many people’s lives across Scotland. Action to improve industry practice and to raise standards of customer service is to be warmly welcomed. The Government will whole-heartedly support the bill at decision time.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

This is one of those debates that we can all feel proud of taking part in.

Let me start by congratulating Patricia Ferguson on all the work that she has done in bringing the Property Factors (Scotland) Bill to completion. She has acknowledged the support that she has received from others, including Mike Dailly and the non-Executive bills unit, but I think that everyone would agree that without Patricia Ferguson’s determination and drive we would not be where we are today.

I congratulate the minister—he has been particularly amenable on this occasion—and I commend my fellow committee members. I am aware that they treated the bill with due diligence and were determined to ensure that we have legislation that delivers the measures that evidence shows are needed.

Like many other members, I knew that factoring was a problem because of the number of constituents who contacted me. I have tried to resolve their problems, but I must admit that that has been with variable success.

In my constituency, it is mainly new flatted properties and open spaces on new developments that are factored. When I issued a questionnaire last summer, I expected to get a response, but how big a response I got surprised even me. The issues that were raised were the ones that we have all heard about during the passage of the bill: people were not made aware that they had a factor until they had bought the property and, in most cases, had moved in; they did not know how much it would cost until they received a bill; they did not understand what exactly they were paying for and, sometimes, what was still their responsibility; and finally—and crucially—when they raised complaints it was difficult to resolve them to everyone’s satisfaction.

Let me be fair to the factors and point out that there were times when people just did not want to pay. That is not fair to either the factors or the other residents who do pay.

I feel that the bill that we are, I hope, about to pass will address those issues. First, as we have heard, it introduces registration of property factors and provides a definition of a property factor. I am pleased that, as we have heard, landowning factors will be included. That is the right way to go.

The bill also provides for the introduction of a code of conduct, which I also fully support because it is important that standards are set and that they are as transparent as possible to everyone involved.

Crucially, the bill also provides for a way of resolving disputes. I know that, as the minister mentioned, early on in the process there were a variety of views as to how disputes should be resolved, but I think that we gave enough time and deliberation to the matter before reaching our conclusion. It is important that there is an easily understood process of dispute resolution and that, as was said during the stage 1 debate, the outcome of the process is enforced.

Being ever the optimist, I believe that if people behave reasonably, most disputes can be resolved. However, I acknowledge that people do not always behave reasonably, so it is correct that residents can have the opportunity to change their factor if that is necessary. The system to enable that to happen needs to be as simple and straightforward as possible.

I am sure that there are other points that I should have made; I will try to address those in my winding-up speech.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I believe that the Property Factors (Scotland) Bill will bring genuine benefits to a range of people. I get the impression from what I heard from Patricia Ferguson that it is one of those bills that was brought in to deal with a specific issue and after it had been introduced we found that there were new issues to deal with. That is how I came to the bill.

As members may know, I came to the Local Government and Communities Committee halfway through the process and I also came to the committee with a concern, from my area, about the management of green space. It was only after I became familiar with the process that I became fully familiar with the problems that the bill was originally meant to deal with. I am afraid that, as we all know, there is a problem with rogue factors in Scotland. It is an industry that is—we might generously be tempted to say—by and large populated by people who do what they say and charge for what they actually do, but there are businesses in Scotland that have been contracted to carry out the work and have not done as we hoped they might.

My experience comes from the north-east. By and large, the problem there has been associated with the change in the planning requirements to provide more green space within developments. That green space requires to be managed by someone. As the area of the green space increased, local authorities were less keen to become involved and, more important, developers were less keen to pay local authorities to do the job.

The advent of the green space management company—the land maintenance company—was something that came to me, in my postbag, with a thump as the activities of such companies on different estates in the Aberdeen area and south towards Laurencekirk within my home range resulted in a series of complaints from people who were unaware that they had signed up to commitments, were dissatisfied with the service that was being provided for them and wished to change their arrangements but could not find a way to do that.

The bill shines a light into that area and offers an opportunity for many people to get out of the difficult situations in which they find themselves. Part 1 requires the registration of property factors. By establishing a register of factors, we will be able to define who is doing their job and who is not and, once that is defined, we will be able to identify them. The bill also defines how factors will be registered and identified. Part 2 provides for dispute resolution, which is vital given the number of disputes. However, the most important aspect is that the bill includes not only companies that are responsible for maintaining buildings, but land management companies. Although I am disappointed that we perhaps did not get as far as we could on that, I welcome the fact that the Government will continue to consult on the issue.

The bill has become relatively complex, as it has been amended several times to ensure that we cover every possible eventuality. The danger is that someone might be able to slip through the net. I hope that we have put together legislation that will not allow that to happen. However, let us always be vigilant. I, too, am disappointed that the legislation might not be fully commenced until October 2012, but I accept the minister’s reassurances that we should get the process right and that that is more important than doing it quickly. The minister said that there is a significant challenge, and I believe that.

I pay tribute to Patricia Ferguson for her work on the bill. I thank the minister for his support, which has ensured that although we each arrived at our position today through different routes, we now all agree about the process that we have gone through. I hope that many of the people who have written to me to complain about things that can be dealt with through the bill will find satisfaction in the not-too-distant future.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat

I, too, thank Patricia Ferguson for bringing the bill to the Parliament. Its passage will no doubt bring a great deal of relief to the many people throughout Scotland who are in dispute with their factoring company. When we debated the bill at stage 1, on 8 December, I mentioned that in a number of areas, the details needed to be considered more closely if residents’ concerns were to be overcome. Now that we have made amendments at stages 2 and 3, I feel that we have reached a workable solution that will provide the required dispute resolution process. Given the on-going need for dispute resolution with factors, the Liberal Democrats will support Patricia Ferguson’s bill at decision time.

As members have said, the bill has not been easy to work through. It was fraught with problems, but it sought to overcome major problems for a growing number of residents in tenemental properties and those who share public open spaces. In fact, a constituent brought a new case to me just last week. The need for dispute resolution is an ever-increasing problem, as Patricia Ferguson outlined. The bill, when enacted, will be part of the solution. However, if the growth of the problem is to be halted, other legislative solutions will be required.

Problems with shared accommodation, such as those relating to the maintenance and insurance of communal stairwells, are at the heart of the issue. For me and many other members, the problem with factors relates to their maintenance—or lack of maintenance—of public open spaces in new developments. Those spaces are often not kept to the standards that are required. Factoring companies introduce a range of charges that bewilder and anger residents, and some residents withhold their on-going payments. Disputes therefore arise that often come to the attention of elected members.

Personally, I would like a return to the situation in which developers were required, through planning conditions, to ensure maintenance of such areas in perpetuity, either with a local authority or through a bond that allowed factoring operations. However, that issue will require significant work, and I am keen to return to it in the fourth session of Parliament.

As well as the measures on dispute resolution, the other main provision in the bill is that on registration of property factors. The industry has hitherto been poorly regulated and sometimes poorly performing. I certainly get a large volume of complaints from constituents on that. With registration will come regulation. Factoring companies that do a good value-for-money job for residents have nothing to fear from the bill. However, those that continually come to the attention of MSPs due to poor performance, irregular bills and an unwillingness to engage reasonably with their customers should be put on a warning. The bill will help to ensure that they either do a decent job or face being put out of business.

I again commend Patricia Ferguson for bringing the bill to the Parliament—as well as her staff and parliamentary officials, who worked tirelessly to ensure that it was fit for purpose. I also acknowledge the minister’s commitment to working constructively with Ms Ferguson on the bill.

I believe that we have a good bill, which will go a long way towards ensuring that the many people who have been adversely affected by poorly performing factoring companies have some rights of recourse when things go wrong. The Liberal Democrats are therefore happy to give their support to the bill at stage 3.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Due to the rapid consideration of amendments earlier, I am pleased that we now have room for two speakers in open debate. I call Bob Doris, to be followed by Malcolm Chisholm.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

As I did at stage 1, I put on record my thanks to fellow committee members, the clerks and everyone who gave evidence to our committee during the scrutiny process. In particular, I put on record my thanks to Patricia Ferguson, the member who has driven the bill forward, and the Minister for Housing and Communities, Alex Neil, for the way in which they have conducted themselves, in particular at stage 2, when the bill was improved in a positive fashion, with partnership between the Government and the member in charge. This afternoon, at stage 3, Patricia Ferguson’s amendments have once again involved working constructively with the Government to make the bill as good and watertight as it can be. That is to be welcomed.

There has been such consensus on the policy intention behind the bill that a feeling of déjà vu will arise during this afternoon’s debate, as certain themes will come up again and again. Given the level of consensus, it is puzzling why new legislation has taken so long to reach the statute book—as it will, I hope—as Patricia Ferguson said in her opening speech.

I want to use the short time that is available to me to mention a few of the strengths of the bill. The bill will do a number of things. Rogue factors will now have a choice: they will need to shape up or they will have to ship out. I know from my constituency casework that many people who approach me with factoring issues are factored by social landlords, with the Glasgow Housing Association, in particular, featuring among the complaints that I receive. It is vital that social landlords, as factors, are covered by the bill.

There are drivers to achieve change in the bill. Under section 12, factors that fail to register as such can be fined £5,000. Under section 9, factors that are deregistered or that fail to register will not be able to recover charges and costs that they have levied or incurred from owner-occupiers. I note the partnership working, once more, on amendment 11 earlier this afternoon, which allows for the on-going recovery of costs for actual works that have taken place. That sums up the way in which the bill has progressed through the parliamentary process.

The powerful sanctions that are contained in the bill should mean that cowboy factors will leave the business and that others will drive up their standards. Driving up standards is indeed an important issue. Most factors are not bad factors. They might be complacent or sloppy, but they are not necessarily bad. We must shine a light on better customer service, which has perhaps been neglected by many a factor in taking their core business for granted. They should not do that.

I note that deregistration is viewed as a last resort under the bill. That relates to driving up standards, rather than driving people out of the sector. We have now opted for a private rented housing panel and private rented housing committee over the alternatives that were presented. The future will show whether or not that is the right decision, but let us monitor the mechanism and get it right. The principle that underpins it is the idea of mediation and negotiation before escalation and deregistration. It is about factor and consumer working together to reach a positive solution that makes everyone happy.

There is a responsibility, within that, on home owners. I am able to help out nearly every home owner who comes to me raising issues about factors, but there are always one or two people who are simply unwilling to pay, and who will use any procedure to avoid paying. We have to ensure that a bureaucracy of the non-paying is not created under the bill. I am sure that early monitoring of the bill’s implementation will be most welcome in that regard.

I want to finish by talking about one final group, who I mentioned at stage 1: those who get factors’ bills and cannot pay. I seek not to make a party-political point but merely to state on record that there are many people who bought their properties under right-to-buy legislation in the 1980s and who now receive huge factoring bills, but who could never afford to maintain their properties. Those people must be assisted in meeting their responsibilities to make repairs on their properties.

I commend the bill to the chamber.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I congratulate Patricia Ferguson on successfully piloting this important bill through Parliament.

I know that factoring has been a long-standing issue in Glasgow, which is no doubt why Patricia Ferguson has taken an interest in it for so long, but it is a far more recent issue in Edinburgh. Although the city’s traditional tenements have not had factors, the new-build properties do. It is now a massive issue in my constituency, and I have had many meetings about it, most recently this week about insurance, which is certainly one of the issues that require to be dealt with in the code of conduct.

Sometimes factors have legitimate grievances—for example, if people do not pay when they should—and I am pleased that there is something in the Private Rented Housing (Scotland) Bill that will help factors in that regard. More often, however, it is the residents who have the grievances, which is why the hundreds of residents in my constituency whom I have consulted about the bill overwhelmingly support it.

I have come to believe that this is not a matter of a few rogue factors; it is about the systemic problems related to the lack of regulation and the lack of required standards, which are the precise issues that the bill addresses. Today marks the end of part 1, but there is still a great deal to do. Alex Neil spoke about the tasks ahead of us, but the most important task is to formulate a strong code of conduct. I am pleased, therefore, that amendment 17 was agreed to today, as it requires the code to be brought to the Parliament under the affirmative resolution procedure.

The code of conduct is dealt with in section 13 of the bill. I mentioned in committee a slight concern with regard to the words “minimum standards”. I did not lodge an amendment, because I think that the wording is adequate; what concerns me is the connotation that some people—including, at times, the Government—put on the word “minimum”.

Some have suggested that the word “minimum” means that the standards cannot be very demanding, and it has even been submitted that those standards that have already been consulted on as part of the voluntary accreditation scheme a few months ago would not be suitable as “minimum standards”. I strongly disagree. “Minimum” means what it says: those are the required standards below which factors cannot operate, but on which they can build further. The standards that formed part of the voluntary process are a good starting point for further work on the code of conduct, but there must be genuine consultation so that residents can have an input into the final form of the code.

The success of the bill will be determined by the effectiveness and rigour of the code of conduct. If I am re-elected to the Parliament, I will pay a great deal of attention to that issue in the coming months.

One other important matter that needs to be further addressed is the issue of switching, which relates to the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003. The committee recommended that the Government should commission further research on that and I hope that whoever forms the new Government will do so in the not-too-distant future.

Today is the end of the beginning, but it is a very important beginning, for which I once again thank Patricia Ferguson.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I join others in congratulating Patricia Ferguson on bringing the bill to a conclusion. It is important, but she will recognise that it is part of a wider panoply of bills and legislation on problems that stretch across landlords, factors, tenants, houses in multiple occupation and a series of interconnected matters that are extremely difficult to disentangle in particular situations and which relate to absentee landlords, who are increasingly prevalent in the current economic climate.

The bill is needed for several reasons, which are summarised in the Consumer Focus Scotland briefing that has been circulated. It talks about a lack of information and says that customers are dissatisfied with information about fees and services. I echo Bob Doris’s point that such issues, among others, sometimes apply to Glasgow Housing Association and other bodies, too. The briefing also refers to the significant issue of difficulty in arranging repairs, value for money, dissatisfaction with service quality and poor complaints handling. All those factors have been part of the issue with factors—that is a pun, but never mind—and with property management.

The way forward must be to use the compulsory framework that we now have on a carrot-and-stick basis. That involves the code, bringing up standards, vigorously enforcing the act when it comes into force, the practice that factors adopt under the accreditation scheme and all that goes with it and the information that is made available to residents about their rights and remedies, which is extremely important, as we know from all other housing issues.

Malcolm Chisholm was right to talk about systemic problems. Factoring has always had an old-fashioned feel about it, although it has moved forward from the traditional close situation to land management—that often happens with new buildings because of new arrangements and new conditions that apply.

Patricia Ferguson asked the rhetorical question whether the bill is required. The bill is required. We have long since passed the point of recognising the problem. As I said in the stage 1 debate, way back when I was first elected to the City of Glasgow District Council, factoring was a big issue. It has continued to be and still is a big issue for many people and it affects the quality of the life that they can lead.

Alex Johnstone was right to say that it is important to get the arrangements right. We want to move forward speedily, but much more important is moving forward effectively.

To balance what has been said, it is worth saying that the panoply of issues that we deal with shows that the problem is not always the factor. Sometimes, factors are underfunded and the funding arrangements are unsatisfactory. Sometimes, a significant number of people do not pay their way. The two aspects can be linked—residents’ lack of payment can be caused by dissatisfaction with what factors have done or it can contribute significantly to what factors cannot do. The matter is complex and we need to take it forward.

Good management can sort out many problems more effectively. The bill is good and is part of a wider package of legislation that the Parliament has passed. It will make a significant difference to the lives of many people. I enthusiastically urge the Parliament to support the bill tonight.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I was a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee when it considered the bill for the purpose of preparing a stage 1 report. However, thanks to my subsequent appointment to the Scotland Bill Committee—I will refrain from regarding that as an elevation—whose work concluded today, thank goodness, I did not have the pleasure of participating in the stage 2 debates in committee and keeping in touch with the detailed to-ing and fro-ing that has gone on between the minister, his officials and Patricia Ferguson, who is the member in charge of the bill. For the Conservatives, that task fell to my colleague Alex Johnstone, whom I thank for taking my place on the committee and for the work that he contributed to the bill’s final stages.

On the bill’s principles, I am mindful of our debate at the outset about whether the consumer and public interest would be best served by a voluntary accreditation scheme, which was the Government’s preferred route for some time, or a scheme of statutory regulation. My natural disposition and that of my Conservative colleagues is to prefer the voluntary route, but I have to say that all the evidence that was presented to the committee by Patricia Ferguson and others was highly persuasive of the need for a statutory scheme, particularly as the accreditation alternative was proceeding at a snail’s pace and did not inspire the least confidence that it would address the problems and concerns of the people across Scotland, whom we have heard about, who are affected by poor standards of property factoring and management.

I am pleased that the issues that were highlighted in the committee’s report and in the stage 1 debate, particularly those concerning the appropriate mechanism for resolving disputes between factors and clients, have been resolved in the course of the discussions that have taken place.

As is evident from the debate so far, the measures that the bill proposes enjoy wide parliamentary and public support. I am grateful to Malcolm Chisholm for highlighting the volume of complaints that have been made in our native city of Edinburgh, and I agree entirely with him on the systemic failures that led to the bill’s being necessary. I could not agree more that minimum standards are not necessarily low standards, and that it is extremely important that in the next parliamentary session careful scrutiny is given to the code of conduct that the Government will publish to ensure that minimum standards mean the high standards that people expect.

It is self-evident from the volume of complaints that members have received that poor standards and shady practices by a minority of factors are what have driven the Parliament to take such action, but I stress that we are talking about a minority of factors. The majority do an excellent job and their clients are perfectly satisfied with the service that they receive. If the bill achieves its goal of raising overall standards of service across Scotland, that will be to the benefit of the responsible members of the property factoring and management professions.

I thank Patricia Ferguson for the tremendous amount of work that she has put into the bill’s promotion, in succession to her former colleague, Gordon Jackson, and into steering it through the parliamentary process. Like others, I also pay tribute to the minister, Alex Neil, and his officials for their willingness to work with the member to bring the bill to this final stage in a shape that allows all parties in the Parliament to give it their support.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

We have had a very good-natured and positive debate, which reflects well on all those who have played a part in the bill’s development. I assure Mr McLetchie that we got through stage 2 very amicably, thank you very much; I am sure that that had nothing to do with him not being there.

I said in my opening speech that I am pleased that landowning factors are to be included in the property factors register and the definition, and a number of members have picked up on that. Like them, I recognise that the nature of land owning makes such factors different. I regret the fact that the bill will not introduce the final sanction for them—that of removing the factor—but I fully understand why Patricia Ferguson has not been able to take that final step. It would not have been right to put the bill at risk.

I said in the stage 1 debate and I repeat that whoever is in government after 5 May should look at the consultation that the minister has started and, if legislation is necessary, find an early opportunity to introduce it. That is Labour’s intention, and I believe that there would be cross-party support for that.

I am pleased that Patricia Ferguson and the minister were able to come to an agreement on when the bill should be enacted. Many people are waiting for new legislation to be brought in and it is important that we give them a sensible and achievable date to look forward to.

I think that it was Bob Doris who said that there is a need for factors. On a number of occasions when I have talked to residents about problems that they have experienced with factors, they have said that they should just do away with them and do the job themselves. However, I agree with Bob Doris that a good factor can provide a good service that allows people to live in their homes in an environment that is conducive to all. For that reason, it is important that we take this opportunity to recognise that there are factors who operate in a fair and responsible manner and that we should encourage them. Patricia Ferguson reminded us that the definition will include not just the private sector but local authorities and housing associations that factor. I know that we have had good experiences with them, which should be continued.

One issue still gives us cause for concern. When a factor is not acting responsibly, residents will look to switch. We heard compelling evidence from witnesses that it is possible to switch but that people need to be able to give time to that. People do not always want to use their time to do that. However, we need to ensure that if switching is necessary, it is as easy and accessible as possible for people and that, when switching takes place, they have options for where to go.

Patricia Ferguson has pursued this issue for many years. I remember visiting her Maryhill constituency some years ago to speak at a public meeting about it. It may have taken us a while to get here but, thanks to her steely determination, the people at that meeting will now have a way of dealing with any problems. The committee heard the evidence and was convinced that the Scottish Government’s proposal for a voluntary scheme did not go far enough. The Parliament is right to underpin by legislation the definition, the register and the code of conduct. I am sure that all our constituents will feel reassured by what we are doing here today.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party

If the bill is passed—I make a guess that it will be—it will be a double whammy for the Butler-Ferguson household tonight. I am sure that Bill Butler and Patricia Ferguson will be proud of each having their bill passed; I congratulate both of them on that. I look forward to the day when Mr McLetchie is serving on the Scottish independence bill committee, rather than just the Scotland Bill Committee.

The Government has long recognised that there are concerns about how property management services are delivered in Scotland. That is why we consulted on a voluntary accreditation scheme to drive up standards in the industry and why the Government has supported—and, hopefully, helped to improve—the bill during its passage through Parliament.

The bill does not solve all the problems, but it is a good beginning. We need to consider further the issues relating to how owners can, when they are dissatisfied, switch or dismiss and replace their property factor. The Office of Fair Trading market study on property managers in Scotland that was published in February 2009 found that only 1 per cent of people switch. Given the number of complaints that all of us receive, it is clear that the law needs to be changed to facilitate switching by dissatisfied tenants. That must be on the agenda for the new session.

As I said earlier, in the next few days we will issue a consultation on switching land maintenance providers. A number of points were made on the issue during summing-up speeches. I will deal with a couple of those. I say to Mary Mulligan that landowning land maintenance companies can be deregistered under the bill, but ancillary provision may be needed on what happens after deregistration. That is another issue with which the new consultation that Fergus Ewing is leading will deal. We have told Greenbelt, in particular, that its invoices should be transparent and clear, so that people know what they are being charged for.

As I have said, there will be much to do on implementation. I agree with Malcolm Chisholm that the draft code of conduct and its implementation on a statutory basis are key to the success of the bill’s implementation. I give an undertaking to consult extensively on the draft code before we bring it to the Parliament for approval.

We will need to establish, as I said earlier, a new registration service and consider what ancillary provision is required to cover, for example, the interrelationship between the bill and the Title Conditions (Scotland) Act 2003. We will need to establish, too, the dispute resolution service. So, there is still much work to be done to implement the bill and to introduce additional legislation that will be required to enhance this area of the law and the housing sector.

The bill lays down the framework for registration and dispute resolution in more general terms. We will go into implementation mode after tonight’s vote, I hope. Parliament in the new session will need to consider what we can do on land maintenance companies once the consultation is finished. I have no doubt that additional legislation will be needed to cover land maintenance companies specifically.

The bill is a welcome first step. We look forward to working with all the key stakeholders in its implementation and ensuring that it is a success. The litmus test will be whether there is a dramatic decline in future years in the number of people who come to our surgeries to complain about their factors. I hope that there will be a decline because they have found a remedy as outlined in the bill. That is why the Scottish Government is very supportive of the bill. We will do everything that we can to ensure not only that we meet the deadline for implementation, but that we do it earlier, if possible, than is outlined in the bill.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

It is four years since my colleague Gordon Jackson first signalled his intention to introduce a bill to regulate the factoring industry. Unfortunately, he was not returned to Parliament in 2007. However, as someone who was supportive of his policy intentions, I was pleased to be able to take up the issue. What I was not prepared for was that my office would be inundated with calls and e-mails from people looking for help because of problems that they were experiencing with their factors.

I would be the first to say, as others said in the debate, that not all factors are bad or uncaring. Most factors are assiduous and often continue to try to help maintain properties even after that has stopped being profitable for them. Being a factor is not an easy job. Jim Tolson and Alex Johnstone were quite right to identify the intransigence that occurs with both homeowners and factors. I hope that this debate can help to take that issue forward.

I say to Bob Doris that I, too, hope that the bill will not lead to people somehow being encouraged not to pay their factoring bill. In fact, the homeowner housing panel will not be obliged to take up a case if it does not feel that it is relevant. That shows that we had thought of that element.

I believe that the bill will help to root out the rascals in the industry and give it the opportunity to show that most factors do, indeed, work to high standards. I hope that, in time, the bill will help to improve the image of the industry; David McLetchie made that point.

I am grateful to colleagues who have spoken in an interesting, if short, debate. I agree with Malcolm Chisholm’s intentions and comments around the use of the word “minimum”, but I very much hope that minimum does not mean weak. I, too, will want to ensure that that is not the case. Robert Brown’s point about the amount of legislation that now exists in this area was entirely valid. I have said before in the chamber that the time has come to consider consolidating much of that legislation. Perhaps that work will be done in the new parliamentary session.

I must thank a great many people for their input to the bill. I thank the clerks and members of the Local Government and Communities Committee for their careful consideration of the bill; the staff of the non-executive bills unit, particularly Frances Bell from the legislation team; and Consumer Focus Scotland for its advice. I also thank the Minister for Housing and Communities, Alex Neil, and his officials for their co-operation and assistance, and their invaluable help in framing the stage 3 amendments. I thank the staff in my constituency office, particularly Chris Kelly, and all my staff, who have become very knowledgeable about the factoring industry in the past few years; I think that they will breathe a huge sigh of relief this evening.

I thank the Evening Times and the Glasgow Herald, whose first-class investigative journalism helped to demonstrate why the bill is needed. Last but certainly not least, I thank Mike Dailly, of Govan Law Centre, who not only supported me through discussions on the finer points of Scots law but supports in the courts, almost daily, the victims of some of the most unscrupulous people that I have ever come across.

In previous debates I have given harrowing examples of situations in which my constituents have found themselves. I do not intend to do that now, other than to say that the bill will not come soon enough for a constituent of mine, who has had an inhibition notice attached to her property because of a relatively small debt. I hope that the bill ensures that in future there will be fewer people in her situation and that people will have somewhere to go to have their problem resolved. Those people will know that the Scottish Parliament made that possible.