I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a Second time.
When I was fortunate enough to be drawn fifth in the ballot for private Members’ Bills on 17 May, I immediately received requests to introduce Bills on many subjects. The request to sponsor a Bill on park homes stood out from the other suggestions for a number of reasons. First, the request came from a wide variety of colleagues from both sides of this Chamber and from the other place. Secondly, based on my experiences in my constituency, I was fully aware that the law on park homes was in urgent need of reform and updating. Thirdly, drawing on experiences in my career as a chartered surveyor, it was clear that park home owners in many places have been denied the basic right to live peacefully in and enjoy their own homes, a right that those in most other property sectors with different tenure arrangements take for granted.
The sector comprises 0.38% of the country’s housing stock—approximately 160,000 people living in 85,000 park homes on 2,000 estates. It is the fact that these numbers are relatively small, not any party political differences, that explains why the sector has been overlooked for so long and why there has been a lack of progress in bringing forward legislation. There is, in fact, a remarkable degree of agreement on all sides that the legislative framework governing park homes is today not fit for purpose. It neither deters unscrupulous site owners nor provides local authorities with effective powers to monitor and help improve site conditions.
I commend my hon. Friend’s proposals to allow the sale of mobile homes to be in the control of the occupier, not the owner of the site. This will come as a particular relief to those people on sites on the Isle of Wight and beyond that have been sale blocked. People have come over to the island specifically to block sales of park homes and sites. Most owners set sensible limits, such as restricting parks to over-60s, but does my hon. Friend believe that protecting the rights of mobile home owners will prevent sale blocking by rogue site owners?
Yes, I do agree, and the Bill seeks to address the concerns that my hon. Friend sets out. His constituency, like mine, is a coastal constituency, and it is in such areas that this is a particular problem. I am grateful to him for drawing that to my attention.
It is appropriate to mention some of those who have campaigned so tirelessly to address the unfairness that my hon. Friend outlined. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who chairs the all-party group on mobile homes, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has campaigned vigorously for reform, and the noble Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has championed the cause of park home owners over many years.
A particular feature of the sector is that most residents are elderly and often vulnerable, with approximately 70% being over the age of 70. At present, they face a confusing array of laws and regulations that offer little or no protection. The existing legislative framework is flawed and has many loopholes that enable unscrupulous site owners unfairly to take advantage of residents.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that many of these elderly home occupiers came to what was to them an idyllic home in an attractive setting, often with a very friendly and helpful owner, but have then seen the site bought by somebody else who does not understand or co-operate on their problem at all?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Consumer Focus has just produced a report on park home sites entitled “Living the Dream?”. For many people these homes were a cherished ideal and somewhere they could retire to, but their dreams have been shattered and we need to pick up the pieces.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and support everything in his Bill. He has described how the concerns about park homes relate particularly to coastal areas and to the elderly. May I point out that there are two park home sites in my constituency in Northumberland that are landlocked and that the residents, who are in no way elderly, are robust, strong and intelligent people? However, even the fact that they robust, strong and have their full capacities does not stop them being completely subject to landlords and the problems my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) identified.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. There are some very responsible site owners, but there are also some unscrupulous rogue operators—gangsters, dare I say it?—against whom everyone needs the right protection.
The problem we have identified has been recognised by the Prime Minister, who, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) during Prime Minister’s questions last November, said:
“There are some extremely good park home owners, who not only obey the rules but demonstrate responsibility and compassion, but there are some who do not. We are committed to providing a better deal for park home residents by improving their rights and increasing protection against bad site owners.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 283.]
It is in that spirit, and with full Government support, led by the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), that I present the Bill for Second Reading. In summary, the problem park home owners face is that in recent years many sites have been acquired by rogue operators who, in pursuit of obscene windfall profits, exploit the piecemeal regulatory framework to make the lives of many elderly and vulnerable people a misery.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill to Second Reading and hope that we will get it through today—I am sure that we will. Many rogue operators have come in and bought up sites in idyllic places. In South Derbyshire we have some very good site operators, but there are also some people who have come in more recently who do not care about the residents and basically want them off the sites. It is a really poor show. The Bill will hopefully remedy the situation.
My hon. Friend summarises well the situation and the challenge we face.
The exploitation takes a variety of forms: the deliberate miscalculation of pitch fee increases and utility charges; poor, or even a complete lack of, site maintenance, as is the case at the Waveney residential park in Beccles in my constituency; and the abuse of the right to approve new buyers, known as sale blocking, which rogue site owners often use as a device to buy park homes at knock-down prices before selling them for windfall profits. There has even been a case involving terrified home owners being forced to sell their home, which had a market value of £80,000, for £1—a peppercorn.
The existing legal framework, which dates back over 50 years, is outdated, does not deter unscrupulous site owners and does not provide local authorities with effective powers. Local authorities have a limited ability to revoke licences when site conditions are being breached and, indeed, the granting of licences is at present little more than a rubber-stamping exercise. Moreover, the fines that local authorities can impose to deter operators are inadequate, and some site owners will risk the threat of small financial sanctions rather than maintain sites properly.
Demands for reform are sometimes made on the back of an isolated case, but that is not the situation with regard to the Bill. The case is compelling and overwhelming. The Department for Communities and Local Government carried out a consultation earlier this year, to which there were over 600 responses, and the Communities and Local Government Committee has carried out a full and comprehensive inquiry and come forward with recommendations, many of which are included in the Bill. An issue that I found particularly disturbing about that inquiry was that, of the 250 people who made representations, some asked for their names to be withheld as they were scared about possible reprisals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill this far. In gathering evidence, has he found examples, as other Members have, of unscrupulous site owners deliberately using bullying tactics so that people are afraid? I have seen that in my constituency again and again over many years. One individual in particular—I dare to name him—Mr Sines, owns many parks across the country and has engaged in exactly the sort of behaviour my hon. Friend has just described, and has done so for over a decade.
My hon. Friend makes her point well. A particularly unscrupulous type of site operator has moved into the sector and is making life a misery for an untold number of people.
Earlier this week, Consumer Focus published its report, “Living the Dream?”, which confirmed the abuses and iniquities taking place in the sector. The conclusions of these reports and inquiries are underpinned by the experiences and findings of colleagues in this Chamber and in the other place, drawn from what they have been told and what they have seen for themselves. I anticipate that during the course of this debate we will hear some shocking examples—we have heard some already—of what some park home owners have had to put up with.
The Bill’s objectives are threefold. The first and foremost objective is to drive out the rogues. Secondly, the Bill aims to ensure that responsible site owners, such as my constituent, David Westgate, who runs the Beach Farm park at Pakefield, are not unfairly penalised and burdened with regulations and so can make a fair return on the time, effort and financial investment they put into their properties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this excellent Bill, by driving out the rogue operators, will allow the legitimate and responsible park owners to have much better businesses, to be much more respected and to do much more to improve and enhance their sites in future?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She summarises the position well. The objective behind the legislation, as she says, is to ensure that the responsible site owner can move forward and run a sensible business.
The Bill’s final objective is to ensure that park home owners can enjoy their homes without fear of retribution or harassment. In drafting the Bill, I have concentrated only on those issues where legislation is needed. It contains measures to achieve the following objectives: reform of the licensing system that applies to park home sites; preventing site owners from blocking residents’ sales on the open market, including the misuse of site rules; clarifying the law on harassment and making it an offence to say something that is untrue to prevent a home from being sold; making pitch fees more transparent and setting new rules on what should be taken into account in reviews so that fees are fair and accurately reflect the condition of the site; and, finally, should it prove necessary, allowing the Secretary of State to introduce a “fit and proper person” registration scheme in future.
This Bill has, in many respects, been difficult to draft—the devil is very much in the detail—and I am grateful for the support that I have received. There are many points of detail that will need to be addressed in Committee. There also remains other work to do in the sector, including helping park home owners themselves to obtain a better understanding of their agreements and of their rights and obligations. The fact that at present only 1% of buyers take legal advice when buying a park home means that they are particularly vulnerable when faced with an unscrupulous site owner. The Government need to help the legal profession, including citizens advice bureaux, to improve their understanding of the sector and its legislative framework.
In a week when rising energy bills are making the headlines, it is important to remember that fuel poverty is a very serious issue on park home sites, which are usually off mains gas and where residents invariably do not have a contractual relationship with their energy company. Any proposals that the Government bring forward to address the challenge presented by rising fuel bills need to take account of the particular vulnerability of park home owners.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for introducing this Bill. There is a statutory instrument in place that restricts the amount of extra charges that can be passed on to mobile home owners by the site owner, but only for electricity and water and not for liquid petroleum gas, for example. Would he be prepared to consider in Committee an amendment to his Bill to change that, because it is affecting the people who are suffering the most from fuel poverty in many of our constituencies?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention. This is a very serious concern that does need to be addressed, and we can consider that point if we get to the Committee stage. The Bill has been difficult to draft in terms of its length and succinctness. I am not sure whether it is the right place to deal with the matter, but we can consider doing so.
Fuel poverty is a massive problem for park home owners. The Bill would place an obligation on the site owner to be transparent with the fee arrangements. Will my hon. Friend consider extending that to the fees charged for energy, perhaps in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk? This is very important in relation to the recommendations in the Consumer Focus report that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) mentioned, which would enable park home owners to benefit from the measures that are being introduced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change through the energy company obligation and the green deal, enabling people to improve the insulation of their park homes and to access the best tariffs to get them out of fuel poverty.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She has clearly studied the Bill in some detail and taken on board the issues raised by Consumer Focus. Her point is well merited, and we can certainly consider it if we get to the Committee stage.
This Bill is a vital step forward in addressing the criminality, abuse and intimidation that has evolved in this sector in recent years. I thank colleagues for their encouragement and support, and I hope that the Bill can move forward in order to address the injustice that a vulnerable group of people have had to suffer for too long. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am absolutely delighted to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I am very pleased that he has chosen this subject for his Bill, and I hope that it will progress through Second Reading and Committee and then become law. Like many others in this House, I have campaigned on the issue for many years, as did my predecessor, Harry Barnes—I pay tribute to him—who was MP for North East Derbyshire for 18 years. I continued the campaign when I took over seven years ago. That shows how long it has been going on and for how long this injustice has been building.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), without whom we would not have got this far. She has campaigned tirelessly, along with her constituent, Sonia McColl, to whom great tribute must also be paid. She has been a lifeline to many people; without her, their lives would have been even more miserable than they are today. I thank her very much. I will not steal the hon. Lady’s thunder by saying any more.
The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), who was until recently the Housing Minister, and had been since the general election, did a lot to take the Bill forward and gave great deal of support to those of us in the all-party group on mobile homes who have been campaigning to make these proposals a reality. I am very grateful for that.
I will not go into the details of the Bill, because it will, we hope, go into Committee, where it can be scrutinised in detail. Instead, I will explain a bit of the history of why we have arrived at this point. There are very good reasons why. It is no surprise given that the previous legislation on which the sector is based is called the Mobile Homes Act 1983 and the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. That indicates a complete misunderstanding of the sector. These units may not be made of bricks and mortar, but they are people’s homes. They do not move—they are static—and they are homes like everybody else’s. To call them mobile homes or caravans is completely to misunderstand what this is about. Interestingly, a lot of people who do live in homes of bricks and mortar have joined the campaign because they can see the injustice of saying that somebody who does not have such a home should have to live under completely different rules. It is very important that we support the progress of the Bill to make sure that they enjoy the same privileges as those living in homes of bricks and mortar.
In previous generations, a long time ago, the people who owned park home sites were decent people who looked after the sites and made them idyllic places to live in. Their houses were usually adjacent to the sites. They grew up on the sites, and their children grew up on them, inherited them, and carried on looking after the people who lived there—all aged 50 or over, and almost always a lot older. A couple will downsize their home and move into one of these fabulous small units to live with like-minded people in small semi-rural communities; it is idyllic. Then the husband or wife dies and the person who is left becomes very frail and vulnerable. That is where the site owner comes into their own by looking after that person. For example, in the past, site owners charging people who live in the homes for their electricity, water and gas have bought in bulk in order to pass the savings on to them. However, that benefit has recently been abused.
In the snows of last year and the year before, people often became isolated in their units; they could not leave their site because it was not well maintained and the paths had not been cleared. In one case, because these people are very elderly and frail, somebody knocked on the site owner’s door and asked him to put some grit into the grit bins, saying that they would do the gritting themselves. The previous owner had always put grit into the bins. The site owner said “Grit bins? I didn’t realise we had them”, and took the bins away. Next day, outside his unit, he was selling bags of grit at twice the market rate. People bought that grit because they had nowhere else to go—they could not leave the site because they were too old and frail and scared of walking outside. Instead, they bought the grit at twice the price. That shows exactly what these site owners can be like.
The generation of people who used to care for and look after sites passed them on to their children, who did not want to look after them and sold them. They sold them on to what seems to be a generation of people who not only do not care but are trying to screw the very last penny that they can out of elderly and vulnerable people. Those people therefore need our protection. Because they live in such isolated communities it is difficult for people who do not live on such sites, and have not been there, to see exactly what is happening.
I agree with every word that the hon. Lady has said, and she has described exactly what happens on both park home sites in my constituency. Does she agree that the reason why the law has not worked up to now is that owners such as those she describes are deliberately getting around the law and finding a legal loophole to make the lives of park home residents a misery, simply for the sake of making money? They are using disgusting bullying tactics to do that, which is why the Bill is so important. Previous Governments have tried to close the loophole and failed, but today we must succeed.
That is absolutely right. The hon. Lady says that owners are making money, and indeed they are making considerable amounts. I know of a lady whose husband died, and she became frail and vulnerable and wanted to move into a home. She put her unit up for sale, and the owner blocked every sale. She was an elderly and vulnerable lady, but he used to go round in the middle of the night and rattle the windows. That might not seem to Members the most frightening thing, but a rattling on the windows in the middle of the night was terrifying for her. The old lady phoned the police, but they have better things to do than to go round and see somebody who has had their windows rattled in the middle of the night. That poor woman ended up absolutely terrified and wanting to do anything she could to leave her home. When a letter from the site owner popped through her letterbox, offering her £10 for a unit that was worth £100,000, she took it and left, and she died very soon afterwards.
The hon. Lady hits the nail on the head. The economics of the industry have allowed a criminal class to enter it and exploit vulnerable people who need our protection. The Bill will deliver an end to sale blocking, extra transparency in pitch fees and protection for the people whom she mentions.
When it comes to sale blocking, is not a further problem that the site owner is often in competition with the mobile home owner and therefore does not allow or encourage prominent advertising? The site owner probably has other units that he would rather sell to an incomer.
Absolutely; that is another huge problem and a huge money-spinner. The owners also buy people’s units at cut-price rates and sell them on for huge profits.
I wish briefly to touch on the role of local authorities, which are the licensing authorities. That role is dealt with in the Bill and needs further scrutiny. One big problem has been that local authorities have had neither the capacity nor the ability to enforce the licences on park home sites. Because those sites are isolated, and because they are run by a group of people who really know what they are doing—they pass licences around and change site rules—it is difficult to get hold of the problem. Local authorities have a lot on their plate already, so they cannot commit much time to the problem. The fact that local authorities will be given money to do that, through the awarding of fees, represents huge progress and will make the Bill enforceable.
The hon. Lady’s comments reflect the problems that my constituents have experienced, and she is right to say that this exploitation of the vulnerable and elderly must be stopped. Her points are apposite, because the Bill needs to be practical so that our constituents can use it to hold landlords to account. The most important aspect of our scrutiny of it will be whether it is useable by the lay person as well as by local authorities and the police, so that it can protect vulnerable residents.
That is absolutely right. One big problem is that when a bad site owner moves in, residents who have been living together in an idyllic community where everybody knows each other stop talking to each other. When the lady I mentioned just now told people about the owner rattling her windows in the night, they did not help her. They stopped talking to her, because they were worried that the same would happen to them. It was a terrible thing to happen. Not only was she trapped in her home when she wanted to leave, but all her friends fell by the wayside, although for understandable reasons. It is important that the Bill advances from a human perspective as well as stopping the criminality that is happening.
I finish by making a point that I will wish to raise in Committee—I hope that the hon. Member for Waveney will look favourably my way when the Committee members are selected. It is about the definitions of repair, maintenance and improvement in site rules, which are important to every person who lives on one of the eight sites in my constituency. The owners often do not make basic repairs, but when they do they call them “improvements”. We are worried that they will then charge a fee for them, which absolutely must not be allowed. We are dealing with a criminal-minded set of people, so we must ensure that the Bill is drafted as tightly as possible so that nothing can fall between two stools.
It is important that there is a fit and proper person test in the Bill. The residential tribunal service has led to a massive improvement for people who live on park home sites, but the process takes a very long time and requires huge organisation. We need to find a more flexible system, and I believe that local authorities will be better able to carry out the process. That is a matter for the Committee stage. Today we are discussing the principle of allowing the Bill to progress to Committee, and I hope that it will. I look forward to listening to other Members, but there is no reason for anybody not to support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who has worked with many of us on the Bill over many years to get us to this day.
Like many other Members, I tend to be in my constituency on a Friday doing a surgery and numerous other engagements. I therefore often do not have the pleasure of being present on private Members’ Bill Fridays, unlike some other Members. In fact, the last time I came here on a Friday was to support the Second Reading of a private Member’s Bill—the Daylight Saving Bill—and that somewhat dates it. I remember that I had to get through an ice storm in Winchester, and I broke my paternity leave for my second child—I am still paying for that. I hope that gives the House and the promoter of the Bill some indication of the importance that I place on it. That is why I am here to speak in support of it today.
As others have, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on his success in the ballot and on taking up the cause. It is a complex issue, and he has taken to it with his usual gusto. We have had many conversations in which we have communicated to him how we have got this far, and it has been good to have him on board.
If I had a pound for every Member who has said to me in the two and a half years since I was elected that they have a lot of park homes in their constituency, I would be a very wealthy man. People sometimes think that this is a marginal issue that affects a small number of people living in coastal areas. Not so. There have been varying estimates of the park home population, and the Consumer Focus report that has already been mentioned many times this morning, and will be mentioned many times again, states that about 160,000 people in England live on just under 2,000 sites. I think that is about right, and it is the most up-to-date figure that we have seen.
I represent eight sites across Winchester and Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, and I reckon that in the six and a half years for which I have been in post there, including the two and a half years since my election, I have knocked on pretty much every single door. I soon got a pretty good feel for what park home residents are saying, and I found that they—like most of my constituents —were not exactly shy in coming forward.
Let me be crystal clear: not all park home owners are rogues or difficult people. I have met many in my constituency, and elsewhere through the mobile homes all-party group, and most are decent people running legitimate businesses and providing genuinely affordable homes to many of our constituents. Furthermore, park home residents do not talk to their MP only about park home issues; they use the health service, schools, and experience the benefit system much like all our constituents, and we should remember that.
As I have said many times in the House and in meetings upstairs, my constituency contains good and bad site owners. It is fair to say, however, that by no means do I see the worst of the situation, and some might ask what my interest in the subject is. Having talked to park home residents over many years, I could see that there was a problem and a need to tighten the law. Since becoming an MP and dealing with my post bag and holding surgeries, I have seen this problem time and again. I have spoken to constituents who are frightened and intimidated, and who just want a bit of peace and quiet to go about their lives like the rest of us. That is not too much to ask.
During my short time in the House, many Members have asked questions about park home living. Already in this Parliament, questions have been raised with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions, and there have been debates in Westminster Hall and a Backbench Business Committee debate in this Chamber. As we have heard, and will no doubt hear again today, such debates are peppered with appalling stories of park home residents who are far from living the dream—they are living a nightmare. The trick is to make those stories count, and to get a real response so that we can change the law. My fellow vice-chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), has done more than most to get us to this point today, and we are incredibly grateful.
Hon. Members will hear a lot about the all-party group this morning. It is a real working group and I remember a meeting at the Department for Communities and Local Government that was held just before Christmas last year with the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), and also attended by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. We started to see the Bill coming together, and it was exciting to see years of work beginning to go down on the page. Let me recognise again the work of Consumer Focus in this area. Its report, “Living the Dream?”, launched last Tuesday, is a significant and first-class piece of work, and we should thank Consumer Focus for it.
It is a pleasure to support this Bill, which I hope will bring to an end years of uncertainty and suffering for thousands of mobile home residents across the country. I do not think it is perfect, and there are issues concerning the timing of some of the provisions and when they will become a legal reality. It does, however, contain many positive provisions for which we have long campaigned, and I will touch on a couple of those and highlight the experiences of some of my constituents.
Although many mobile home residents are content with the condition of their sites, a recent survey by Consumer Focus found that a quarter of all residents reported problems with maintenance, safety or security. Those issues often involved badly maintained roads or paths, inadequate street lighting, or problems with residents’ private or communal gardens. In some circumstances, the appalling condition of site roads can mean that rubbish trucks, and even ambulances, are unable to access the site.
Many park home residents in Winchester have written to me about their sites on a range of issues. One constituent wanted to draw poor parking facilities to my attention, as well as a badly maintained drainage system that resulted in water pouring into and flooding his garden on an almost daily basis. There was poor quality workmanship on parts of his plot and his home and, to make matters worse, the owner of the site refused to rectify any of those faults, and subjected my constituent to verbal abuse and barely concealed threats when he dared to complain. It is almost as if we have become desensitised to such stories, but they are real and should never be underplayed.
Another constituent wrote to me outlining serious concerns about the upkeep of the site on which he had lived for nearly eight years. During that time, no improvements had been made to the site, which he understandably found pretty frustrating. Perhaps more worryingly, since the site had been sold to a new owner, conditions had deteriorated further with potholes on the road becoming an increasing problem. On top of that, much of the street lighting was not in working order, making it pretty much pitch black in winter evenings. My constituent told me that he no longer felt safe taking the dog round the block after dark. One e-mail I received was sent on behalf of many residents on the site, some of whom, as we have heard, are elderly and have no access to e-mail. I was assured that the majority of residents felt the same way, although, as other hon. Members have said, many did not want to come forward and speak to their MP—that tells a story in itself.
Such problems are not minor inconveniences; they have a profoundly negative impact on the quality of life of residents in our constituencies, and that is why this Bill is important. Surely, as constituency MPs we are interested in the quality of life of our constituents, and time and again I have heard that that is being affected for those living on park home sites. That is not good enough.
The current licensing arrangements are inadequate because—perhaps understandably—local authorities often seem to place greater importance on breaches of licenses that pose a risk to the health and safety of the residents, as opposed to those relating to maintenance that do not on the surface appear to pose the same risk. Park home residents in my constituency frequently mention the provision of utility services and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney said, they are often left with much less consumer protection than individuals living in other sorts of homes, owing to the lack of any direct relationship with the provider of gas, electricity or water. I have been made aware of many examples across the country where residents pay for electricity through the site owner, but that way of operating is obviously open to abuse and leaves residents with little clarity. That is why, if this Bill gets to Committee, I will support calls by some of my colleague to increase the transparency provisions of the Bill to cover utilities.
Under the current law, if conditions attached to the granting of a licence are breached, the local authority has the power to prosecute the site owner only in the magistrates court, and they are not able to serve notice requiring works to be undertaken prior to prosecution. Many local authorities are therefore reluctant to prosecute because the statutory set fines are low—they were set in stone in the previous legislation; we would have required primary legislation to change that, which is another reason the Bill is important—and the resources required are considerable.
The Bill seeks to address those issues in several ways. Clause 4 amends section 9 of the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 by providing that where a site owner fails to comply with a licence condition, the local authority may serve a compliance notice on the owner, outlining the steps that need to be taken to meet the licence condition. It is vital that a greater range of enforcement tools are available to local authorities, as that will make it easier for site conditions to be maintained. We have longed campaigned for that, and it is welcome in the Bill.
Clauses 5 and 6 enhance that measure by stating that a site owner who has been served with a compliance notice that has become operative under the proposed new section 9H, is guilty of an offence if they fail to take the steps outlined in the notice within the required time frame. Both changes provide local authorities with better enforcement powers and will go a long way to improving site conditions where necessary.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. At the moment, the only option available to local authorities is that of prosecution in the magistrates court. That is costly, the maximum sentence is quite low, and that deters enforcement authorities from taking action and provides an incentive to the site owner to evade his or her responsibilities. The powers in the Bill are essential if we are to improve enforcement against unscrupulous site owners.
Absolutely. As usual my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. I hope that local authorities will not become litigious organisations as a result of the Bill, and I like to think that some of the sticks that have been brandished today will be noted loud and clear across the country. The provisions in the Bill are critical.
I welcome the fact that local authorities will be allowed to demand expenses when a compliance notice has been served under section 9A of the 1960 Act. It is crucial that local authorities are able to recover any expenses incurred, to ensure there is no disincentive for them to issue such notices. The provisions in the Bill that provide local authorities with the power to carry out works on a site in certain circumstances are also welcome, as that will surely put an end to some of the worst cases of neglect. I hope that a message goes out from the House that such actions should be the last resort for local authorities, and that the new powers will act as sufficient warning to site owners who continue to ignore their responsibilities. I suspect, however, that I am being naive in that regard, and that is why those clauses are in the Bill.
Under the current law, all privately owned sites are required to be licensed by the local authority. The conditions attached to the licences are designed to ensure that the site is in a suitable state of habitation and maintained to a good standard. However, because local authorities are currently unable to charge for their licensing role, such functions are often under-resourced. A Select Committee on Communities and Local Government report published in June found that the current law is inadequate because it does not provide local authorities with effective powers to monitor or improve site conditions.
I welcome the reforms to the licensing system in the Bill. By allowing local authorities to charge fees for the issue or varying of licences on relevant protected sites, the Bill will greatly enhance the effectiveness of the licensing regime. In doing so, the Bill recognises the importance of creating a self-funding model under which local authorities are not burdened with the costs of administering the licensing system. An effective licensing regime hinges on the cost of the licence being adequate to cover an appropriate inspection arrangement. An annual licence fee will act as a useful income source for local authorities—as we have heard, they can use it to offset the cost of enforcing licensing conditions. By providing better resources to police the system, the fee will help to raise maintenance standards and ensure that the licensing conditions are adhered to more thoroughly.
Although the Bill allows for the annual licensing fee to be recoverable through pitch fee increases—I recognise this is controversial—rather than through a new licence application, park home residents should not be liable for any costs that result from the new requirement for site operators to pay a site licensing fee annually. Ultimately, the revenue from the sale of park homes—the 10% commission that owners receive—should provide revenue to site owners for the licence fee. In an ideal world, the Bill would remove the 10% rule altogether—I have argued for many years that the rule is a scandal—but it does not. That is the context.
Under current legislation, park home residents who want to sell their home must have the new buyer approved by the site owner before any sale can proceed. The process can occasionally be used by site owners, in effect, to block the sale of a home in an attempt to get the current owner to sell their property back to the owner, which is clearly totally unacceptable—we have heard many examples of that, although I have thus far not heard of any from my constituency. Park home residents should have the right to sell their home freely and without unfair interference from the site owner. I am therefore very pleased that the Bill includes provisions to remove the requirement.
A number of constituents and many more park home owners across the country have written to me because they are worried about the bullying or intimidation that often accompanies such unfair interference.
I might pre-empt my hon. Friend’s point, but does he agree that we should not raise the expectations of current park home owners, because the Bill does not apply retrospectively? Could the promoter and the Government work to ensure that it is applied retrospectively?
The all-party group discussed that point this week, and my hon. Friend will want to take that up with the promoter of the Bill. I believe I am right in saying that the Department’s legal advice says that applying the measures retrospectively is not possible, which is regrettable.
One site owner from my own constituency wrote to me this week on the subject of site owners’ involvement in park home sales. For the record, he said:
“Dear Mr Brine…We have read the details of the proposed changes in the Mobile Homes Bill and are most concerned about the change that negates the need for site owner’s approval of purchasers. Solicitors are not normally involved when a home is sold and the only way a purchaser can obtain correct information on their future rights and responsibilities is from the site owner. The site owner also ensures the correct procedures are followed so that the rights are properly assigned. Sellers have a vested interest in omitting and even misrepresenting the facts and it is not practical for a purchaser to rely on civil proceedings…once the seller has his money and has left the park (and is often not traceable)…If the proposals become law, we can foresee a situation where elderly purchasers will pay large sums, for the ‘home of their dreams’ only to find out, at a later date, that they have been cheated by the seller and their rights and responsibilities are not as envisaged. Major problems will occur if the purchaser finds they are not able to abide by the Park Rules and as a result, could face eviction.”
I can see that site owner’s point, but I take issue with one line, although some might wonder why I have chosen only one. The line I take issue with is this:
“Solicitors are not normally involved when a home is sold.”
The Bill’s promoter eloquently told us that solicitors are involved in only around 1% of park home sales. That is crazy. Although the Bill does not—and legally could not—demand a change, I suggest in the strongest terms possible that it must change. Many park homes sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. To make such sales without the involvement of a solicitor is a most unwise move, and the park home community must face up to that inconvenient truth.
I should like to highlight a couple of cases from my constituency that illustrate the extent to which site owners are able to take advantage of residents by significantly raising pitch fees, year after year. In one case, a constituent who happily accepts that pitch fees increase with inflation wrote to me expressing his concern that his pitch fee was rising by £500 per year, well over the rate of inflation. Another constituent who wrote to me on this issue was careful to point out that he had no problems with the site owner—we have heard that before—but did have concerns about how pitch fees were calculated. There is currently little transparency over what expenses are covered by the pitch fees or how increases are calculated. I therefore warmly support clause 11, which amends parts of the Mobile Homes Act 1983 to require a site owner who serves a pitch fee review notice proposing an increase in the pitch fee to provide the resident with an accompanying document that meets the requirements set out in paragraph 25A. That transparency is most welcome.
I am an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Government’s energy policy and the green deal, having served in Committee on the Energy Act 2011—the green deal is one of the best things the Government have done. I asked the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in March 2011 whether park home owners would be eligible for the green deal, and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) has said:
“Park homes will be able to apply for the Green Deal as long as they fulfil the same criteria as other types of eligible buildings.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 616W.]
However, it is my understanding—Consumer Focus says this in its report this week—that park homes will not be eligible, because the new green deal assessors will not be able to carry out their standard assessment procedure, and because park homes are exempt from requiring an energy performance certificate.
Green deal finance is also not available to some park homes because, as I have said, owners pay for their utilities through the site owner’s joint electricity Bill. I mentioned that to the Minister earlier, but I urge him speak to his colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and find a way to make the green deal work for park home owners, because they are among the most fuel poor in our country and they deserve better.
Park home owners deserve better across the board. They deserve better when it comes to buying and maintaining their homes, and better when it comes to enjoying the environment around their homes. They deserve a lot better when selling their homes and, as I have just said, when it comes to staying warm. In short, park home owners should be able to live the dream like anybody else. The Bill will help. It could be a dream-making Bill in some important respects, which is a great thing. I urge Members to join me in supporting it.
I am delighted that the House has voted unanimously that my speech should be given a public airing. I hope I can prove to be worthy of that honour.
I congratulate the promoter of the Bill, which I am delighted to sponsor. I have been dealing with the matter for the 20 years I have been in Parliament—I joined in 1992, along with your good self, Mr Deputy Speaker. The problem affects a wide variety of constituencies. When discussions on it first took place, there was a perception that the problems occurred only in seaside areas, but they occur across the country and there are many substantial sites in inland areas. There are common threads to the problems in all parts of the country.
There is a substantial number of good park home sites that are run by good owners in partnership with tenants associations. I congratulate the park home owners and the National Association of Park Home Residents on the work that they have done collectively to try to set standards. Unfortunately, the law—and this is the trouble with all law—is made not to deal with the good people but with the rogues. We come across a number of rogues in this area, and some of their behaviour is desperately poor. We must bring that to an end. To a substantial extent, we have done that in the housing sector. There are still rogue landlords in the private rented sector, but park homes have been a neglected area over the years. Despite the sterling efforts of many, including my dear friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has done so much to bring this issue to the attention of both Houses, we have not got far enough. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on pressing this matter.
In my constituency, I have the case of a site that is owned through a complex series of companies. I am not even sure to whom the site fees are paid. If HMRC staff would like to contact me, I will tell them whom they should be chasing, because I have a feeling that the structure is a neat tax dodge. This is the same chap who has sent me letters saying that he is going to take me to court for the things I have said about him. I am still waiting for the writ, and I look forward to my day in court with him. This is a case of consistent threats and bullying, and attempts are regularly made to carve any resident with a problem away from the rest by insinuating to the rest of the tenants that if they raise the issue too, it will be a black mark against them in terms of their relationship with the landlord. For example, the communal electricity supply to the site has electrical safety standards that even I, with my modest knowledge of electrical safety, would not approve of. I have asked a friend of mine, who is qualified in electrical safety and was then a local councillor, to drive round the site to have a look. He was horrified. We raised the matter with the local authority, but very little has happened. It is all very well having a regulatory structure, but we have to have the enforcement that goes with it.
The other practice that is remarkably common is the deliberately wrong interpretation of the law, in particular the use of Daily Mail-style myths about health and safety. People are told, “You must do this, on the grounds of health and safety”, when in fact the site has been inspected by a fire safety officer from the local fire authority. The owner has been given the nod that A, B and C need doing, but that does not amount to an instruction to the tenants. It needs to be clear where the responsibility lies in such cases.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) raised an interesting point about the role of solicitors in the procurement of mobile homes, and I have spoken to the hon. Member for Waveney about the line we need to develop on this. Philosophically, we should be trying to ensure that a park home owner is in the same position as the owner of a leasehold property. By definition, that would mean a need to move towards transactions conducted by legal process. The idea that the involvement of the law would be a burden on park home owners and residents—I think that solicitors are always a burden on people, but that is another matter, with apologies to those present who are members of that profession—is wrong, if the issue is dealt with properly, sensitively and in a structured way.
When the Bill is in Committee, I invite those on the Treasury Bench to think carefully about drawing parallels with rights that exist for leasehold occupants of conventionally built homes, because therein lies the key to some of the problems that we have faced for many years.
I realise that many hon. Members wish to speak on this important measure, so my final point is about enforcement. There is no point having a regulatory structure if it is not accompanied by an effective, but appropriate enforcement structure. We need to ensure that we create a structure that does not make it impossible for local authorities or fire authorities to do their work. We need not “light touch”, but “right touch”. We do not want a heavyweight regulatory structure: we want one that works properly in the context. Legitimate complaints have to be investigated, but frivolous complaints must be sidelined. A proper complaints process will work in the interests of individual park home owners as well as the collective group on the site
All the evidence suggests that where there is a good tenants’ association on the site, and a landlord who is acting rationally, a good working relationship can be achieved, even to the extent that in case of a dispute, the owners and the landlord jointly invite the local authority to adjudicate in terms of the legal position. We have come across this on issues such as spacing of homes and transitions when owners move on. On the other side of the coin, some sites still give rise to huge concern.
I again congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney, and I wish his Bill every success. As I have said, those on the Treasury Bench need to look carefully at the Bill in Committee and invite officials to draw as many parallels as possible to give this group of home owners the same status as owner-occupiers of leasehold properties.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on his success in the ballot and, even more, on his selection of this issue for his Bill. I am sure that he will go down in history for his wise and splendid choice. Like the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), I cannot quite believe that we are today to start the introduction of much-needed legislation to protect park home owners, so many of whom are vulnerable and have suffered financial and other forms of abuse over many years.
I pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Sonia McColl, a park home owner who set up the national park home owners justice campaign, particularly to stop sale blocking, who deserves to be honoured for her work, persistence and readiness to run a campaign of this magnitude, especially given that she had to learn on the job. She reminded me that three years ago this week the first petition to the Government to stop sale blocking went out. Almost 10,000 people signed it before Christmas 2009. She has also organised several mass demonstrations in London, and we have organised meetings in the House so that MPs can hear at first hand the dreadful experiences of many park home owners.
Initially, it seemed that the then Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), was not inclined to introduce new and extra regulations—after all, the Government initially intended to cut regulation—but then came progress, as the evidence showed that the industry had been infiltrated by rogues and that action needed to be taken for the sake of the whole industry, as well as for park home owners.
I praise the hon. Lady for her work. I am proud to be a member of the all-party group on mobile homes and to have my name on the Bill. Does she agree that our work on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, bringing this issue forward and taking enormous amounts of evidence, was a turning point that gave the final nudge to get the Government to do something? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), too.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will refer specifically to the Committee later.
Sonia has carried out a massive survey, Consumer Focus has proceeded with an investigation and, latterly, the Communities and Local Government Committee has conducted an inquiry. Throughout, there has been enormous support and help from the park home owner associations. Many parliamentarians have been involved over the years, although I can only mention a few today. First, of course, I want to congratulate the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield for bringing these proposals together and the noble Lord Graham for his unstinting support for park home owners over many years. More recently, there has been the truly cross-party work of the all-party group and, in particular, the meetings between Ministers and me, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire. This is the very best type of legislation, with strong cross-party support.
To prove that malpractice is widespread, Consumer Focus carried out independent research to back up the anecdotal material that we all had. This provides some incredible background—this is an evidence-based Bill—and makes it clear that we are not dealing with a series of isolated events, but that the problem goes right across the whole industry.
I am pleased with the structure of the Bill, although of course we will have to scrutinise each clause closely in Committee. On licensing reform, local authorities must have the resources to do what I believe most of them want to do. Consumer Focus reports in its survey that local authorities want more power, so let us give them the necessary resources. They are on the spot, and it is fairly easy for park home owners to go and find someone at their local authority.
According to Consumer Focus, 25% of people surveyed reported problems of maintenance, security and safety, which is why it is important to have a site licence and site licence conditions, to enforce those conditions and to ensure that the site owner does not carry out vital work but that the local authority is empowered to do it and recover costs. I agree with the hon. Member for Winchester that this should be a last resort, however, and let us hope that the Bill sends out the message that we need a better and more consistent approach throughout the industry. I am a little concerned, however, that the clauses on licensing might not be brought in operation before April 2014. That is a long time to wait, if, as I hope, the Bill is enacted in 2013.
On clause 8, we must thank the Select Committee for its recommendation regarding the “fit and proper person” rule, which would not be in the Bill had it not been for the Committee’s important work. It is a clever device to have in our back pocket ready to introduce. We have been calling for it for many years. There are reservations—will it work?—but it is excellent that it is now in the Bill.
Clause 9 deals with site rules. It is important that park home owners know exactly what the rules are, that the rules are printed in the pitch agreements and that the agreements are transparent. We must have certainty. I have come across cases of the age clause in site rules being very conveniently changed after a purchaser has been turned away for being the wrong age. I suggested that site rules be lodged with the local authority, so I am pleased that such a provision has been included. One of my local authorities requires residents associations to lodge their constitutions with it, and does not invite associations that do not do so to consultative meetings. So there is a precedent. This would get a grip on the problem of people changing the rules as they go along. Having said that, some park home owners have expressed concern about how the licence fee will be paid, but we will talk about that in greater detail later.
Sale blocking is what first got me involved in this issue. We had the most appalling incident in my constituency where £15,000 was offered for a home that could have gone for £150,000 on the open market. The problem is widespread. Consumer Focus showed that 28% of residents thought they could not buy or sell their homes freely, and that 10% reported problems of intimidation, violence, vandalism and damage to property.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This is the tip of the iceberg. I keep referring to the figures, however, because they are evidence—that is what is important. We relied on anecdotes for a long time, but it got to the point where we were not going to make progress without evidence.
We have a two-tier approach to sale blocking comprising existing agreements and new agreements. We have to look at that closely. Consumer Focus recommends a targeted campaign to ensure that prospective and current park home residents are fully aware of their rights and obligations. This will be really important. We say that park home owners do not want to speak out, but we are not convinced that we have reached the majority of park home owners. It is especially important that the home owner provides the purchaser with the regulations. I agree that citizens advice bureaux need to be more proactive in making much more information available to park home owners, and that we need to encourage purchasers to use a solicitor. The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield made a very good contribution when he proposed to increase fines. We are now talking about fines of £50,000, which will make a difference, because in one very bad case in my constituency the fine was £1,000, which was just not enough in the overall context.
Other Members have probably, like me, received representations from park home site owners who have expressed concerns, because there are a lot of unknowns for them, with a lot of references to things being covered in regulations. I understand that uncertainty, particularly on the part of our good site home owners—like everybody else, I have good site owners in my constituency. It is important that we should have a good dialogue, because we want this to be a good industry overall. That means ensuring that we do not pass bad legislation, and there are fears that we might do that. We need to reassure those concerned that we will scrutinise the proposed regulations in Committee in the utmost detail, because we want the Bill to work for everybody.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her work. Does she agree that park home owners/residents associations have an important part to play in having good dialogue with the owners? I had a problem in getting recognition for a residents association. It was a great comfort to me to know that the hon. Lady and her group were batting for everybody on the issue, which eventually gave me the incentive to persevere until we secured that recognition.
I thank the hon. Gentleman; that is absolutely right. We have to move towards co-operation and working together, rather than coercion. However, because we have the evidence—all the horrible stories—we have got to act today. Metaphorically, I raise my glass to justice for park home owners.
I am delighted to support a Bill that for many of us has been long overdue. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing a favourable position in this year’s ballot and on having the good sense to take on this cause, not only for his constituents, but for all the constituents—the thousands of people—we represent, many of whom have been suffering for too long as a result of the actions and the inactions of unscrupulous site owners.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke). She and I have been working on this matter since my arrival in this place some two and a half years ago. Alongside the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), we have, I think, worked together very well as part of the all-part group on mobile homes, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and others. However, the real tribute should go not only to Sonia McColl, who has rightly been mentioned, but to all those residents who not only have raised the issue with their Members of Parliament and their councils, but have come to this place and spoken, very eloquently indeed, about the issues they face. I include in that the residents of Brook Meadow Park in my constituency, in Wroughton, near where I live. They have come to this House on several occasions and have spoken up very powerfully indeed about the problems they experience.
It is sad to note that, in the years since I first became concerned and involved with these issues prior to my election to Parliament, apart from one or two items of progress—most notably the transfer of jurisdiction from the county court to the tribunal system last year—progress has been altogether somewhat slow. This Bill marks a welcome further stage in the process of recognising the fact that park homes are not merely goods or chattels to be bought and sold, but are the homes of thousands of our residents. We have heard the statistics; we know what the expectations are of people who live in mobile homes. What they want is security, safety and that well known legal phrase “quiet enjoyment”. It is that principle which we should adhere to strongly when we consider legislation in this area.
As a parliamentary candidate, I was particularly concerned with the issue of sale blocking. I am delighted to see that the various provisions in clause 10 mark a welcome change in this area. I accept that a distinction is to be drawn between agreements that are made or assigned after the commencement of the legislation, if it is to be enacted, and existing agreements. Hon. Members have already quite rightly raised the issue of whether that could be made retrospective. I would urge the Government and everybody concerned to consider the matter carefully when the Bill goes to Committee. At this stage it is right just to outline where we are with the provisions.
For existing agreements, although the right of objection by a site owner is not to be removed, there is welcome change. It is important to emphasise that, because the effect of the new provisions will be to reverse the burden of proof. The prospective buyer will no longer have to demonstrate their suitability; rather, it will be for the site owner to demonstrate, via use of the tribunal, that the prospective purchaser is unsuitable. That is an important point to make. The change is one that we should welcome warmly, and it is one that will give some comfort to all our residents who have existing agreements. Obviously the position is dramatically different for new agreements, which is an extremely welcome initiative.
When it comes to one of the most fundamental issues in the campaign waged by residents and others, I am absolutely delighted that a “fit and proper person” test for licensing is now part of the Bill. That is something that we have heard about from residents time and again, and I know that they will be as pleased as I am to see those words in the Bill. At long last, the Bill gives a benchmark against which local authorities can work and a benchmark for every site owner to reach. It also gives certainty to all residents concerned. That test will go a long way towards resolving some of the abuses that have taken place in far too many parks.
The question of enforcement has already been raised. It is important to note that, sadly, there is often a disconnect between what the statute says and what the powers of local authorities may be, and the economic realities that apply. As I said in an intervention, the sad truth is that for many local authorities the cost and resource implications of taking on prosecutions are often too high for them to bear. The low penalties that have applied until now are a further disincentive to local authorities in bringing prosecutions for infringement.
In the past my hon. Friend has, like me, done cases on behalf of residents of park homes acting against landlords. Does he agree that, just as there is a need for local authorities to pursue criminal actions, it is manifestly the case that all matters would be so much easier if, when the original purchase took place, there was a solicitor involved?
I entirely take on board my hon. Friend’s point. This is a plea not for more work for lawyers—I declare my interest as a lawyer—but for all residents to ensure that they are fully and properly advised about their rights in the purchase of park homes, as well as their rights pursuant to any sale of them and their rights when it comes to the enforcement of an existing licence.
I know from my own discussions with residents how frustrated they feel when the local authority says, “It will be very difficult for us to do anything, because we do not have enough resources to mount a full prosecution.” If, for instance, a private building has become so dilapidated and dangerous that it poses a health and safety problem or a threat to the environment, the local authority can issue an enforcement notice, but it has no power to do so in the case of park homes. The Bill deals with that very effectively.
At long last, local authorities can take advantage of further stages before prosecution to enforce licence agreements. The issuing of a notice will often do the trick. It will place the onus on the site owner to make good any dilapidation, or to deal with a problem caused by a poor access road, a dangerous tree or an item on the site that is causing a potential or real nuisance to park home owners. It will give the site owner an incentive to get on with the job and ensure that the wrong is righted. The increase in the armoury available to local authorities is an essential part of the Bill.
As other Members have pointed out, this Bill is not the consequence of a headline or a knee-jerk reaction to a single isolated case. It is the product of many months, if not years, of careful evidence-gathering, consideration of the technicalities of the existing law, and testimony from thousands of our constituents whose stories of suffering have not only moved us all, but demonstrated to us the deficiencies of the existing legislation.
Many of us have spoken of the vulnerability of park home residents, but we should also note that their advocacy has been incredibly effective. They have been not just victims but very effective campaigners for legislation, and they should take some credit for the Bill.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I think that she speaks for us all in expressing admiration for the fortitude of the constituents whom we have the honour of representing.
The issue of commencement has been mentioned. I think that if the Bill is to become law, it should become law towards the end of the current Session. Waiting until 2014 would mean a lengthy further delay, and I urge Ministers to ensure it comes into force as early as possible in order to alleviate the problems that we are discussing.
Rather than making glib generalisations about what the Bill can do, we should be realistic about what it cannot do. It is important for all of us, as parliamentarians, to get to grips with the detail, ensure that the Bill’s provisions are as strong as possible, and use the opportunity that we have in the current Session to ensure that it is future-proof, so that we do not have to keep returning to tweak it as we have been forced to do with legislation in the past.
Today is a good day for residents and an encouraging day for park home owners everywhere, and for that reason I am delighted to commend the Bill to the House.
It is a great pleasure to speak about this Bill, on which I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I am sure that we all wish to encourage and support him in driving it towards its Committee stage and, subsequently, the statute book, and to support our constituents, many of whom have had to suffer for so long as a result of inadequate legislation.
A number of Members have spoken passionately about views that they have been expressing for a long time, but anyone watching this debate must consider the fact that it has taken so long for Parliament to do something about the whole business of park homes a bit of a mystery. A report produced by Berkeley Hanover in 2001 stated categorically that the arrangements for the sale of pitches could not be described as fair, flexible or transparent. However, the past is the past. Perhaps, as we heard from the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), what was needed was a champion in the sector—in this instance, her constituent Sonia McColl and the park home owners justice campaign—to mobilise the downtrodden in the park homes sector, along with a Select Committee to gather evidence and a greater awareness among all of us of the issues affecting our own residents.
Those of us who entered the House in 2010 may have other points to make. I first visited Woodlands Park, one of two park home sites in my constituency, in about 2007. At that stage I had no idea of the number of issues with which residents were having to deal. I suspect that, far too long ago, our predecessors concluded that it was all just too difficult. However, the phrase “Something must be done” has resonated throughout the history of this Parliament, and it could not be truer of the park homes situation.
The champions in the House—many are here today, and I salute them all—finally found a Minister who was prepared to listen and to take up the cause. I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), whom I warmly welcome to his position on the Front Bench, has picked up the baton and will complete this race with the same élan with which Usain Bolt completed his during the Olympics,
For me, this has been a process of education at the hands of residents in my constituency, and I pay huge tribute to the calm and steady leadership of the Woodlands Park residents association that has been provided for many years by Mike Morgan. It was his commitment to focusing entirely on the facts of the situation that quickly converted me to the residents’ cause and persuaded me to fight for it. I suspect that all Members who are present today have had similar champions in their own constituencies.
I hope that the issue of residents associations will be dealt with in Committee. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, they have not always been recognised by park home owners, and in many cases have been studiously ignored.
We need to ensure that they are recognised as an important part of the dialogue between residents and owners.
Under the heading “Site maintenance”, the minutes of the August meeting of the Woodlands Park residents association note:
“Residents have constantly complained of street lighting being out of action for six weeks or more”.
It is one thing for street lighting to be out of action for six weeks or more in August, or even September, but it is quite another thing in December or January. The way in which the Bill deals with site improvements, how they will be tackled and how owners’ obligations can be made clear will be of practical relevance to many of our constituents.
The Bill covers issues that have been discussed in the House, in the all-party group and in the Select Committee a number of times. It is the third change in the law since the coalition Government came to power, following the introduction in February 2011 of new rights for residents in disputes and the introduction of statutory security provisions two months later. This Bill will go further by tackling the routine blocking of residents’ sales by site owners and, in some cases, the blocking of home owners’ improvements. It also includes clarification of licensing reforms and penalties for eviction or harassment.
Anyone listening to this debate or reading the Bill might be forgiven for thinking that park homes are the last hideout of mediaeval robber barons. However, the point I make is that previous legislation of 30 years ago unintentionally incentivised the piratical approach. That is because an owner can block sales and thereby oblige someone to sell their unit at a significant discount to that owner, who can then sell on at a profit or replace the unit and make a profit in that way.
I wish to mention a point that has not been made so far in the debate. There was a good reason for giving site owners the ability to block a sale, which was to avoid people who did not fit in with the park coming to the park. The initial legislation was put in place to enable better site practice, but it has been abused and so, unfortunately, it must be removed.
The hon. Lady make a good point, and it was why I said “unintentionally”. As is so often the case with legislation, it is the unintended consequences that we all have to live with years later. She is right in what she says, but I think we are all agreed that it is time to change the legislation and ensure that those unintentional consequences are removed.
Like several other hon. Members, I am here on a Friday for the first time. I am abandoning Gloucester to come to this important debate on behalf of my constituents in park homes. I am very pleased to do so, because this is a good, if not a great cause. Above all, what the Bill will do is show that democracy does work. Even though this has taken a long time, this Parliament, helped by this Government, is taking forward legislation to put right historical wrongs and to ensure that everybody living in park homes has the same regulatory framework as all the rest of us living in other homes. In short, we are seeking to ensure that Cinderella does finally come to the ball.
It is a humbling and special moment rising to follow such distinguished speakers. If we are here to do anything, it is surely to protect those less able to protect themselves. People in park homes have found themselves in that situation through a variety of means and statutes that have been passed down the years. I should record at the outset that, of course, some very good park owners provide a perfectly good service and are in no way to blame for the problems caused by the miscreants, who have created the disasters that we have all heard about, either as constituency MPs or as lawyers—the joyous profession of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). When the two of us were at the Bar we had to represent individuals who owned park homes and were attempting to litigate, with diminished funds and diminished ability, at an age when no person should be in a court. I do not refer to my hon. Friend there; I refer to the individuals whom I had to look after and guide through a litigious process that no 70, 75, 80 or 85-year-old should have to undertake. Their being in that position is manifestly wrong.
I am humbled to follow such distinguished speakers. I confess that I have never spoken in a private Member’s Bill debate before. The reason I am speaking almost last in this debate is that I speak far too often in the House. [Hon. Members: “No.”] You have not heard all of my speech yet! I follow the coastal king of Waveney, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), who has ploughed forth his ship from Waveney down to Westminster to create a new law that will, for the first time, protect park home residents—and that is not the only wonderful thing. What is also wonderful about today is that the House has had the chance to be united. It was a pleasure to hear the speech made by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Normally we all go to the Backbench Business Committee to prostrate ourselves at her feet with a view to obtaining the opportunity to debate matters in the House. So it was good to see her on her feet making the case eloquently on behalf of not only her constituents, but her predecessor, who so ably served the cause of park home residents in her area.
I do not, in any way, diminish the contributions that we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I also wish particularly to pray in aid the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who, long before the good residents of Hexham decided in 2010 that they would like me to represent them—to my surprise and, I suspect, to theirs—was ploughing a strong furrow on behalf of this cause, and she must be given due credit.
It is worth bearing in mind the number of people we are talking about, because the context is fascinating. Individual constituents would come to us with particular problems and we would raise them, and Governments would often step in and change the law to help individuals on a large scale. The paucity of the numbers has been part of the problem here, and it has stopped Governments necessarily getting involved. In reality, however, we are talking about approximately two parliamentary constituencies—there are about 85,000 park homes involving between 100,000 and 150,000 people.
Interestingly, we spend so much of our time looking after the Army and attempting to champion its cause, whereas park homes have, to a certain extent, been a less strong element in this House’s consideration. Individual champions have changed that and have brought the matter to people’s attention and to the attention of the House. I give due credit to all the individual local champions, both those who have been cited by hon. Members today and those who have gone to their MP in other circumstances. They should all be welcomed and supported. The point is that a small section of a society of well over 60 million people is particularly disadvantaged by the current legislation, and that is manifestly wrong. So today is a historic day, as the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney will come to fruition.
I urge hon. Members not to judge a book by its cover: park homes are superficially very attractive and we can see why so many people would wish to enjoy the benefits of one, but I must add the sad reality of a conveyance into that context. It is madness that so little legal advice is given to park home residents when they purchase their property. I assure the House, before I am said to be trying to cite the benefit of employing lawyers, that I do not practise as a lawyer in any way and have not done so since May 2010. In addition, I must say that I would not be any use when it comes to a conveyance. Conveyances are specialised and specific things. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, the Lloyd George of Llanelli, would be wonderful at many aspects of the law, but would be utterly useless on conveyances. We are not pitching for work. I am urging that individual park home residents should not purchase a property without spending £500 on legal advice to get their conveyance right. Failing to do so is manifestly wrong. One would not make an investment of £50,000 or £100,000 without taking a modicum of advice, as to do so is short-sighted in the extreme and patently wrong. If people from park home residents associations read the Hansard record of this debate, I urge them to take that point and give it as advice on every occasion.
That point is also relevant for site owners. Individual site owners do not start with the predisposition, “I want to cause problems. I want to have disputes with my residents.” There may be isolated examples of site owners who do take that approach, just as isolated individuals set out to commit crime, but most of the time these situations develop. They arise because of a breakdown in relations or because they cannot keep the agreements going on. It is surely in the site owners’ interests for legal advice to be given and taken. I urge the site owners, who have just as much to gain as the individual purchasers, to consider that.
It ill behoves me to cite the various problems, as I have been in the Chamber for nearly an hour and a half and listened to repeated examples of problems in yesteryear. I am grateful to my constituent Mr John Stafford, who lives at 5 Pinewood Grove in Yont the Cleugh in Coanwood, for describing the difficulties that his park home has suffered down the years. He cites the usual litany of problems with the water and electricity supplies, street lighting, field drainage, road surfaces and power cuts—and, of course, a problem that particularly concerns us in the north-east, which is liquefied petroleum gas.
The provision of LPG for park homes is an utter scandal. LPG is effectively the only power provision in this country that is unregulated; all other power providers, including those in oil and gas, are regulated. The House has debated heating oil on many occasions and those who have heard me speak about fuel poverty will know that I consider the heating oil market manifestly to be broken and there is a particular problem with LPG. Individual canisters of LPG are available only from certain providers and in Northumberland, we have only two providers for the whole area, so the competition is limited at best. In the more rural areas of Northumberland, there is a single provider, which does the best job it can. We must bear it in mind, however, that the LPG canister is sold by that single provider, which has not a whit of competition, to the site owner, who can charge property owners whatever he or she wishes.
Countrywide—I stress that this is not the case in the two Northumberland properties that I represent—there are plenty of examples of the provision of LPG being an utter scandal. Mark-ups are unbelievably large—well over 100%—and unless they are paid, the elderly residents, who are struggling pensioners, are deprived of all power and heating. That is manifestly wrong. When the Bill is in Committee, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney to consider LPG and how it is provided and to see whether he can address the problem in any way. I urge him to take on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is from Suffolk, not from Norfolk, as was cruelly suggested earlier. I thought that she was having mild palpitations until she realised that it was an error, and that her constituency had not morphed into Norfolk in the boundary review. Lord knows, I blame—no, I will not go there.
Park home residents will be in a better state as we go forward. The journey has been long for the individuals with difficulties, but there is great potential. I go to the park at Blenkinsopp, where a wonderful 14th century castle is set high on the hill overlooking the River Tyne between Haltwhistle and Hexham. It was set up by that famous Frenchman Bryan de Blenkinsopp, whose family came over in the Norman invasion. If hon. Members will indulge me, I will give them a little history tour. It was Bryan de Blenkinsopp who set up the latest castle in the 14th century and at a feast, he was teased about his marriage plans but replied, “Never, never shall I marry, until I meet with a lady possessed with a chest of gold heavier than 10 of my strongest men can carry.” Sure enough, a lady returned with 12 strong men carrying a very large chest of gold. It has never been found and the park homes still reside on that site today. Bryan obviously passed away long ago and is no longer with us. It is still an idyllic spot and when I take individuals around there, they say, “This is where we want to live.” The site has a very good owner, but there is no legislation to provide the protection that those individuals would like.
Let me sum up the Bill, if I can. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney is doing something amazing that reforms the licensing system, prevents residents’ sales from being blocked, clarifies the law on harassment, makes pitch fees more transparent and introduces a proper and fit registration scheme. This is a special day and we are privileged and lucky to be in the Chamber to demonstrate our support for the long campaign that many have fought.
I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous)—I am inclined sometimes to say Waverley, but that is of course a station in Edinburgh—and to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has done so much to champion this cause. I pay tribute to the previous Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), for his work and welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). I congratulate him on his appointment.
The problem and the concern about it are widespread, as demonstrated by the presence of Members from all over the country who are in the Chamber today rather than in their constituencies, and by the fact that they are prepared to speak up on the matter. As well as hearing from your county of Lancashire, Mr Deputy Speaker, we have heard from Members from Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Cheshire. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is from Birmingham—perhaps I should say Warwickshire, or his part of Birmingham might be in Worcestershire; I am not sure. We have heard from Members who represent Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire, Cornwall, Essex, Wiltshire, Northumberland, Kent, Oxfordshire, Somerset—or as that Member would say, Somersetshire—Middlesex, Pembrokeshire and, of course, Staffordshire. This is a problem across the country not just, as Members have said, in coastal constituencies. Stafford is about as far from any coast as one could possibly get and we have this problem.
Before coming to this place I was not aware of the problems that we have discussed today, but my constituents have brought them to my attention time and time again. I pay tribute to my office manager in Stafford, James Cantrill, for his tireless work on behalf of those constituents in trying to resolve some of their problems.
Members have mentioned that the Bill results from evidence, which is vital. The problems it seeks to correct are real and affect people daily. I do not want to detain Members for long, but I want to go over three of the problems that have been brought to my attention by my constituents, including examples from other constituencies.
The first problem is with the ability to do emergency works when required. A council officer in my constituency brought to my attention an incident that had happened elsewhere, when they were in a previous post. A water main had burst and continued to gush for days on end, if not weeks, without any action being taken, depriving residents of their water. The council was unable to gain access or to do any work and, in the end, had to resort to bringing water to the residents who were without it. It is clear that such a situation must be dealt with and that councils must be able to enter and perform emergency works when necessary.
My second point is about sale blocking. Members have already spoken at great length on the subject. I would just like to say that I have heard of several instances in my constituency in which it is quite clear that that is taking place, and it is vital that we stop it.
Finally, hon. Members have referred to fees. I cannot count the number of times that people have come to me and said that they believe that the fees levied on them, whether for energy or other things, have been over the top and higher than they should be. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, park home owners deserve better. They deserve our protection. This is precisely the kind of work that Parliament should be doing, and I am glad that we are doing it. I hope that the Bill becomes law before too long.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on bringing this legislation forward. He was lucky enough to be in the top seven of the ballot; he could have picked any topic on which to introduce a private Member’s Bill, and it is a great credit to him that he had the wisdom to pick this issue, which we have struggled to get to grips with for so long.
As has been pointed out, there are very few constituencies in which there is not a park home. In my constituency, there is Priory park and Falcon park. Both are mixed sites, with a mixture of holiday homes and park homes. We need to be clear at the very start that the Bill does not apply to holiday parks, or those parks where the residency is formally for 10 months, even though people may happen to stay a bit longer and nobody may realise that, officially. We need to be clear that the provision relates to proper residential parks, where a full 12-month licence is granted every year, and where people can stay until the end of their lease.
I am sure that all Members will agree that when we go canvassing or deliver leaflets in our constituencies, and go to park homes, they are often in the most beautifully kept park areas. People have great pride in their homes. It is right to bring in the changes that we are discussing, so that instead of the contract being about chattels and services, as I understand it is at present, a park home can legally really start to become a home.
I want to reiterate the two points that I made in interventions, and I will tell Members why I feel so strongly about the subject. One of the things that politicians get a bad reputation for is saying, “We’ve come up with a solution; here’s the answer,” only for people to find that the solution does not apply to them. I give great credit to the officers of the all-party group on mobile homes. Its meetings are usually held in Committee Room 14, because they are so well attended, and when they are in other Committee Rooms, it is standing room only. It has been tireless in its campaign to move the issue along. As has been said, credit should be given to the former Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps).
I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), to look at what they can do. As the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said, there is precedent for changing retrospectively the rights of leasehold owners, whether of flats or land. I know that the legal implications are very difficult in this particular case, but it should not be beyond the brains of our excellent civil service and parliamentary counsel to draft a provision to that effect. It is vital that all the people who have worked so hard, and have been praised in the Chamber today, do not suddenly feel that they have to say, “So what? What has it all been about?” I welcome the Bill; I do not want to sound like a complete sourpuss, because I know how much hard work has gone into it, and how much effort my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has put into it, but let us see what we can do to make it even better.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) refer to Blenkinsopp castle, given that a castle is probably the most immobile of homes. As there is a castle that bears the name of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) and has gold underneath it, he might make a claim. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham was right to bring up the issue of energy. To give credit to some liquefied petroleum gas companies, there are metered estates where everyone is on one contract and they do not rely on bottles. Some changes have already happened, voluntarily, on that score, and that is good news, but my hon. Friend is right to bring up the issue. I encourage the Government to look at the small statutory instrument issued in Ofgem’s name, to see if we can do something about the issue while we are tackling the problems that park home owners face. That would be another small thing that could be done to add to the Bill, although I appreciate that the subject is complex enough already.
This is an important Bill, and I am sure that it will get wholehearted support. I am delighted to have made a contribution to the debate on behalf of my residents.
We have heard some moving stories this morning about what has happened to people in our constituencies as a result of the deliberate, unscrupulous bullying actions of people who have taken over park homes that were previously idyllic places in which to live with a view to using them as a money-making exercise, with no regard whatever for the people living there. I pay tribute to the people who live in park homes in Breach Barns park and Woodbine Close park in my constituency—beautiful places on the edge of Epping forest. I would like to name the park home residents who have worked so hard to try to ensure justice, but I cannot; they have asked me not to mention their names, because they are afraid of the actions of Mr Sines, the man who owns those parks, who has deliberately, over a period of more than 10 years, made the lives of the people who live there a misery.
It is brilliant that this Bill is before us today. Previous Governments have tried and failed to close the loopholes in the law, because the owners of park homes sites who are deliberately flouting the law and using the loopholes can well afford to pay lawyers to get around the law. Today, we can give power to the people who need it—our local authorities and others, who will use it on behalf of our constituents, who need our protection.
I should particularly like to pay tribute to another person who lives in my constituency, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has been a great champion of this cause, and to those, including my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who have worked so hard for the all-party group. I wish the Bill every success.
I will start by focusing on the human face of why the Bill is so important—those who have bought park homes in areas of rural idyll, often in the twilight of their years—and on the inhuman face of rogue site owners. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) is absolutely right when she says that if anyone is not a fit and proper person, it is Mr Maurice Sines, who has a long track record of abusing those who live on park homes sites that he owns.
In Ladycroft park in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, residents went to the county court after suffering harassment and intimidation, and an inability to sell their home. Mr Sines was abusing the law, saying that he had to approve any sale. He was meant to give a valid reason, but did he? Did he, hell. Residents took action in the county court, led by the admirable Sheila Austin, who said at the time:
“He blocked sales saying homes would be dragged around the park, threatening and shouting abuse…It was absolutely horrendous”.
Eventually, sadly, 30 people sold their homes to Mr Sines, but at a very good price for him, and a very poor price for them. One home, valued at £50,000, was sold for £10,000. The homes were then demolished and replaced with new ones.
Let me give another example involving Mr Sines and his track record at a mobile home park owned by him and his business partner, James Crickmore, at Hardwick Bridge in Norfolk. One of the owners, Jackie—this is not her real name; as the hon. Member for Epping Forest rightly said, many of the vulnerable people concerned are reluctant to reveal their identity—reported:
“They were banging on the doors in the early hours of the morning saying: ‘You have got to get out or we’ll hook your van up and pull it round the site until it just falls to bits.’ It was unbelievable.”
There are other rogues like Mr Sines. At another park, the Glen site in Worcestershire, elderly residents suffered a series of terrifying arson attacks. One woman lived almost next door to one of the homes that was burned to the ground. She said:
“When I saw the blaze I opened my door and fell down the steps, because I thought: ‘It’s going up in a minute.’ Of course I was thinking: ‘If they put anything under mine I won’t stand a chance.’”
She and three others living on the site were eventually blackmailed into selling their homes to the owners for only £1. I repeat: one pound. In this case, because of the serious acts of arson, a police investigation resulted in seven men, including the site owners, John and Simey Doherty, getting jail sentences of 64 years in total.
The situation must end. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on introducing this much-needed and long-awaited Bill. I congratulate Members on all sides who have worked hard and long in support of action being taken at last. On the Opposition side, they include my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who was right to say that we must end the second-class status of park home owners, and the indefatigable Lord Ted Graham.
I congratulate the all-party group on the work that it has done, and the park home owners justice campaign on the work that it has done. I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee because, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire said, it conducted an excellent inquiry and produced a powerful report, including calling for the law to be strengthened on the “fit and proper person” issue.
Today is one of those days when the House speaks with one voice to say that the time has come and that legislation is long overdue. The hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) were right to say that for all the discussions that have taken place over many years, it is about time that we got on with it and changed the law. We embarked down the right path in government, and this Government continued down that path.
The reason why I pay such a tribute to the hon. Member for Waveney is that thanks to his private Member’s Bill, he will now force the pace for long-awaited action to be taken at last. He is right to point to the scale of both ownership and abuse. There are 84,000 park homes across England, with an estimated 160,000 residents. Although the evidence is that the majority of site owners are reputable, there is too great a minority who are rogues.
In conclusion, I express the Opposition’s warm support for the Bill. Of course there will be discussion in Committee on the eventual shape of the Bill, but the Bill is a noble measure with a noble intent. Today, by backing the Bill, the House is sending a united message that park home owners deserve security and an end to their second-class status. Reputable site owners deserve an end to the damage done to their reputation by the rogues. So today we serve notice to quit. Just as there should be no place for rogue landlords, so there should be no place for rogue site owners. No more Maurice Sines.
It is a pleasure to be able to stand at the Dispatch Box today when there is total House coalition on an issue which I would no doubt have found myself speaking to on a Friday as a Back Bencher. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on the Bill that he has introduced and on his success in the ballot for private Members’ Bills.
As was pointed out earlier, a company has a duty to protect its minority shareholders. This is a clear case in which we as a Government have a similar duty to protect a small part of society in the best way we can. I congratulate all the campaigners and my hon. Friend and neighbour on introducing a Bill to do just that. I understand the issue fully both as a Minister and as a Member of Parliament. In Great Yarmouth, as in other coastal towns, we have our share of such properties. We also have examples of good ownership, which the Bill will help to protect.
It is important to reiterate some of the comments made this morning to show the breadth of support and the range of topics covered. My hon. Friend and neighbour outlined the Bill. I congratulate hon. Members on their cross-party support and thank the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for her comments, emphasising the importance of behavioural issues for park owners and of protecting the rights of park home owners. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) highlighted the size of the industry. I noted his comments on the green deal and will pass on to the relevant Department his remarks on the Floor of the House and in a conversation earlier today. He was right to draw attention to the excellent work done on the issue by Consumer Focus.
Everyone is better off for having heard what the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) had to say, fortunately in public. I entirely agree that it is hugely important that we achieve the right touch as well as a light touch. The Bill can certainly achieve that. Special congratulations are due to the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on being such a long-term campaigner on the issue, as I know from my time on the Back Benches. She emphasised the importance of the “fit and proper person” provision being, in her words, in our back pocket.
My hon. Friends the Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman) highlighted a message to go outside this Chamber, and, to an extent, outside the Bill’s remit. They spoke about the importance of good legal advice on an investment of the scale we are discussing; clearly they were not looking for any business for themselves. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon also emphasised the need to work, particularly in Committee, to make the Bill future-proof, and to retain the power in our back pocket—a point also made in respect of the phrase “fit and proper person”.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for his comments. I will do my best on this Bill to match the speed of Usain Bolt, as I am sure we all will. I will restrain myself from using the hand gestures on the Floor of the House, although I might be persuaded to do so for charity at another date.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham was right to highlight the need for protection, and I much appreciated, as I am sure we all did, his history tour. If anything, I was slightly disappointed that it was not matched by the usual tour through Greek history given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). No doubt that will be saved for anther day.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) rightly highlighted how widespread this problem is, and said that it is an issue not only for coastal towns, such as Waveney and Great Yarmouth, but throughout the country. One of my near neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), constructively highlighted some of the issues that the Bill needs to deal with. I noted her comments on the SI and Ofgem, which I will pass forward.
We will all have noted and taken on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)—they were also eloquently made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington—highlighting some of the hugely unscrupulous behaviour in this sector that must be stamped out, to protect not only the residents, who are our prime focus, but the reputation of the good owners, who are by far the majority throughout the country.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. The “fit and proper person” test is nice and neat in our back pocket, but may we have his assurance that if, as I said earlier, I am being naive and the Bill does not have the desired effect, the Minister and the Government are prepared to dip their hand into that pocket?
I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to confirm that. Yes, we will, and I will highlight that point specifically in a few moments.
As has been said, the Bill affects only a small number of homes, but it is hugely important to the people who live in those homes, and that is what matters. It will deal with about 85,000 park homes on 2,000 sites. The sector represents only about 0.5% of the housing stock in England, but it is vital. Its residents have rights just like everybody else, and they matter a great deal to all of us. The fact that the sector is small does not mean that we should not address the injustice that is rife in it, and the Bill goes some way towards doing that. That is why the Government fully back the Bill.
Let me explain the Government’s position and why the Bill does not contain more—a point on which some Members have commented. The Bill builds on the thorough and searching inquiry conducted in the spring by the Communities and Local Government Committee. I congratulate the Committee on the report and thank them for it. The Bill takes forward a number of the Committee’s recommendations. As we have heard today, there is a good deal of consensus on the fact that legislative reforms are desperately needed. There is cross-party support for such reforms. Members have given examples of unacceptably unscrupulous behaviour towards older and sometimes vulnerable home owners, disgraceful acts that must not be tolerated for a moment longer.
For Members with park homes in their constituencies, these stories will unfortunately be all too familiar. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney reminded us that the Prime Minister has himself called for urgent action to tackle the problems in the sector. The Bill will do that, but the Government are mindful, as is my hon. Friend, that there are many good site owners in this industry who provide a professional, top-class service to their residents and respect their rights. Sadly, their good work is too often masked by the unacceptable behaviour of the unscrupulous operators who pervade the sector.
We want to create a level playing field where the good operator does not face unfair competition from unscrupulous ones who ignore their obligations and the rights of others. We want to see the industry put on a sustainable footing for the future, so that those who run a decent and honest business can flourish and there is no place for the unscrupulous and for criminals. We want home owners to be confident that their homes are safe and their rights are respected. The Bill aims to achieve that by introducing measures targeted at those who ignore their obligations and exploit their residents, while placing minimal burdens on those businesses that manage their sites well and respect their residents’ rights—the right approach with a light touch.
The Bill focuses on three key areas: reforms to the antiquated licensing regime that applies to park home sites; removing the ability for unscrupulous operators to block lawful sales by residents of their homes; and ensuring that pitch fee increases are transparent to prevent residents from being overcharged. All those issues were identified in the Department’s consultation paper on reforms to the sector published in April.
The Bill also includes a provision that would permit the Government to introduce a “fit and proper person” test through secondary legislation, should that prove necessary, which was one of the Select Committee’s recommendations. I will say a few words about why the Government have accepted that recommendation. It is not our intention to introduce an industry-wide “fit and proper person” requirement at present. I sincerely hope, as many Members have commented today, that the introduction of such a test will never be necessary. New bureaucratic burdens on good businesses must be a last resort. As we have heard this morning, the majority of site owners are good.
However, we must also ensure that conditions in the sector improve, which is why the Bill focuses on making it simply unprofitable for unscrupulous operators to exploit residents. We accept the risk that some of the worst operators might try to persist and that it might therefore be necessary to take powers later to remove them directly from the industry. Therefore, we will review the situation after a suitable period to see how behaviour in the industry has changed. If unscrupulous practices persist, we may consider introducing the “fit and proper person” test. A clear message must go out to bad owners that their behaviour will not be tolerated and, if it continues, the Government will act.
I congratulate the Minister on his new post—it is great to see him at the Dispatch Box. I am so pleased to hear his words about the “fit and proper person” test. I came here four years ago, as leader of South Derbyshire district council, to meet Ministers and discuss this matter, but we were just thrown out of the room and not one iota of the proposal was to be considered. Time has moved on and I am delighted that there is cross-party support for the proposal. Clearly, it is such a big issue that the Government have listened and everyone wants it to happen. I thank the Minister very much.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Hopefully I have been able to give some assurance about the Government’s determination to deal with this issue. If we need to act, we will do so.
I acknowledge that my hon. Friend’s Bill does not include everything the Government consulted on. The policy reasons are explained in the published response paper, which is available on the Department’s website. In some cases we have simply concluded that legislative change would not necessarily be the best solution, but it is also a matter of size and what can be achieved in a private Member’s Bill. The Bill already runs to 15 clauses, which is unusual for such a Bill, and it would have been impossible to include everything we consulted on if it was to have much chance of completing all its stages and receiving Royal Assent—something that we all want and which is important for the industry.
I want to congratulate everyone who has campaigned so hard on this issue over the years, including the previous Housing Minister, who did a huge amount of work on it, Lord Graham and the all-party group on mobile homes. I also congratulate the Select Committee on its report.
In conclusion, I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s decision to focus the Bill on the key areas of reform that would have the greatest impact and the most lasting effect. These reforms, as we have heard, are well overdue and desperately needed in the industry to protect all our residents. That is why I commend the Bill to the House and wish it a safe passage through this House and the other place.
We have had an interesting two and a half hours. I have been heartened by the support from both sides of the Chamber. This place is often at its best when it speaks with one voice. We have also heard from across the country. I have been particularly heartened by the extremely robust responses from the two Front Benchers, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the Minister, my hon. Friend and neighbour.
We have heard horrific stories of what some park home owners have had to put up with. We need to chase out and remove from the sector the rogue owners who have caused so much misery for so many elderly and vulnerable people. I also hope that the constructive nature of the debate will be taken forward into Committee. Some very valid points have been raised this morning which we will look at in great detail.
I will sum up by saying that park homes were, for so many people, seen as the dream retirement. In so many places that dream, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) said, has turned into a living nightmare. We need to deliver a wake-up call to the rogue operators that they are not wanted and must get out. That is what we will be doing, and I am grateful to the House and to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving us the time to do so this morning.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).