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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as it was to serve under that of Mr Hollobone. Could you pass on our thanks to him? I enjoyed your team tagging at the start, just as I enjoyed the team tagging with Sir Christopher Chope to get us under way. I pay tribute to him for securing the debate.
This is a significant issue. The hon. Member for Christchurch is the chair of the all-party group, which is industry backed. It is highly significant that we heard from him and others the detail of the way in which park home owners and residents are systematically ripped off by some site owners, as well as his call for legislation and tougher enforcement and sanctions.
I welcome Luke Hall to his place in what may be his first debate as Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and I congratulate him. There were 10 Tory MPs present at the start of this debate—I had not realised quite how compelling the debate would be compared with the attraction of the Conservative party conference in Manchester. I just hope everyone got refunds on the rooms they booked and had to cancel.
We have heard again today why an estimated 85,000 park home owners require better protection, stronger rights and Government action. Many of the residents are older people on low incomes, and they are without the means of redress that we would expect to be available to residents in any well-functioning market. The speakers in the debate have listed some of the common problems: unlicensed sites; lack of rights and means of redress for park home residents; unfair pitch fees and unjustifiable increases, sometimes annually; mis-selling, with some site owners encouraging those buying a home on their site to use their lawyers in the transactions; indefensible rules that allow site owners a take or commission of up to 10% when people sell their home; rogue park owners resorting sometimes to bullying, thuggery and even criminality; and, as my hon. Friend Dr Drew said, a lack of clear, independent advice from Government to park home residents and owners.
I say to Sir Christopher Chope that, given the vivid and detailed descriptions we have heard of the deep problems in the market, a membership code for the trade body’s members is not sufficient to resolve those problems—it simply will not cut it. A fit and proper person test may not be the single solution, but it must be part of the system to deal with what he described as rogue operators in the industry. My hon. Friend Alex Sobel, from his constituency experience, powerfully made the case why a fit and proper person test must be part of the answer.
I enjoyed the contribution from Jim Shannon. As you well know, Mr Betts, he is probably the most regular contributor to debates in this House on housing generally and to debates on park homes in particular. He encouraged us to look to Northern Ireland and the experience in his area to see that we can work through co-operation, rather than confrontation. I hope that Ards and North Down Borough Council and his three park home site owners have responded to the current Government consultation. I also pay tribute to Peter Aldous, who spoke about how the Welsh have implemented tougher steps and how we in England can learn from them. I hope that the Minister will heed some of the practical points his hon. Friend made.
Scott Mann, who has now left, and Lee Rowley both pointed out that the best site owners are dragged down by the worst. Sir Peter Bottomley, who has also left, said that for too long there has been too little action by the Government. I regret that fact that the hon. Gentleman is correct: no progress has been made in the past decade. As you will remember, Mr Betts, I was the Housing Minister in the Labour Government in March 2010, when we published the conclusions of a consultation we undertook on park home regulation, including proposals and plans for a new fit and proper person test as part of new licensing requirements for park home owners, and a range of new offences relating to licensing, with tough financial penalties when the rules were not observed. However, as with so much else to do with housing, the Government who came to office in May 2010 were concerned first and foremost with cutting regulation and investment, and from that point on they resisted any case for new regulation and new rules, which have since proved to be necessary.
We have had a lost decade for housing and for park home residents and owners because of the lack of action. The only legislation to be passed in the past 10 years was not Government legislation, but the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Waveney that became the Mobile Homes Act 2013. I pay tribute to him, but the fact that, four years after that the passage of that Act—a qualified success, as he described it, but flawed—the Government had to undertake a consultation on what to do, and finally, in July, a full year after the consultation had concluded, they published their proposals. Will the Minister tell me today when the promised primary legislation will be introduced in Parliament? Will it be part of the Queen’s Speech in two weeks’ time?
With respect to the capacity of councils to do the vital enforcement job that all hon. Members have described, I say to the hon. Member for Christchurch that it is not necessarily that they are unwilling; given that the Local Government Association tells us that by next year councils will have lost 60p in every pound of their funding over the past 10 years, it is that at present they are unable. Will the Minister confirm how much will be available to councils to help to fund the new licensing role to accompany the legislation? Given that the problems that park owners face are part of the wider problems facing leaseholders who buy their home and find that they do not own it, will the Government back the plans that I have set out for Labour: ending leasehold on all new homes and giving existing leaseholders the legal right to buy their freehold for 1% of the property value?
This narrow issue, which nevertheless affects the day-to-day lives and prospects of tens of thousands of people, poses at a small scale the bigger choices that the Government face. The housing market is broken, and the Government must decide whose side they are on: whether they will remain, as they have been for the past 10 years, on the side of the commercial developers, the big landowners, the private landlords and the managers of park home sites, or whether they are—as Labour is—on the side of the hard-pressed homeowners, the first-time buyers, the leaseholders and the park home residents. I say to the Minister that it is “make up your mind” time, before the voters make up their mind at the next election.