Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am very pleased to have secured this slot for a Short Debate on the problems facing the park homes sector. There has been a flurry of activity in the past couple of years. The Government have concluded their consultation on the future regulation of the sector; the Communities and Local Government Select Committee carried out a full inquiry and produced an excellent report; my Suffolk colleague from the House of Commons, Peter Aldous, has sponsored a Private Member’s Bill on it, which had its Second Reading on Friday; and just last week Consumer Focus published its report into the sector, called Living the Dream?—with an all-important question mark. I am really pleased that such a well respected independent body has carried out research into park homes because their work has confirmed what we knew from a lot of anecdotal evidence. I will not say too much about it because I know we will be hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is very familiar with the work. We have a very good opportunity this evening to hear from the Minister where government thinking is on this matter.
I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, is with us this evening. He has been such a clarion voice crying out for this sector over many years and I pay tribute to you, Ted, for what you have done.
There are more than 2,000 park home sites in this country, predominantly in rural areas, and they house around 160,000 people in 85,000 homes. The residents are almost all approaching or beyond retirement age and many are of modest means. The Consumer Focus report notes that a quarter of these residents are over 75, so many of them are vulnerable. Determined not to be reliant on the state, they have chosen to live in park homes, often using the surplus equity from the sale of their previous home to supplement their pensions.
These dwellings are often called “mobile homes” but this is highly misleading. While they might be technically mobile, they are permanent residences and this is much more than a matter of words. It means that the legal framework that is set out in three main pieces of legislation, predominantly the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, is entirely the wrong legal framework and woefully out of date.
I first became aware of problems in the sector more than 20 years ago when I was a district councillor and things have not improved. In its submission to the government consultation, the Local Government Association gave examples of site owners who overcrowd the sites, ignore licence conditions, make inadequate provision for drainage and sewerage, and dump rubbish. The current maximum fine is £2,500 and it is often cheaper for the site owner to pay the fine than to do the work. In any event, it costs councils to do the enforcement. In effect, local council tax payers are subsidising this abhorrent behaviour.
The solution proposed by the Local Government Association is that the sector is brought in line with the Housing Act 2004, which would allow for the issuing of improvement notices, prosecution for serious non-compliance, the power to carry out work and re-charge for it, and the registration of enforcement notices as local land charges. The current licence system is often manipulated because responsibility for compliance with site conditions does not necessarily transfer to new owners when sites are sold.
Service charges often bear no relation to the actual expenditure of the site owner on the site but it is difficult for the residents to dispute the bills. Some site owners are levying a VAT rate of 20% on the re-charges for gas and electricity. Many charge what home owners regard as excessive fees for site maintenance that is often not done at all.
It is the growing evidence of serious criminality within the sector that gives most cause for concern. I am indebted to Detective Chief Inspector Colquhoun of the West Mercia Police, who has become a nationally recognised expert in the field. He has successfully prosecuted 74 individuals, who received a total of 64 years in prison. He is personally leading efforts to increase awareness throughout the police force of the ways in which fraud can be perpetrated. The growth of criminality in this sector is a combination of the economics of the industry and the inadequate regulatory framework.
Most park homes are owned by their occupants, who must separately buy the pitch that it is standing on and pay ongoing service charges. A pitch can cost anything from £20,000 to £250,000, so this can be big money. Consumer Focus has shown that only around 1% of purchasers take legal advice before they buy, which is a serious problem. The restrictions on park home owners are so onerous that I imagine it simply would not occur to buyers that such a framework could exist, but it does and they often do not know until it is too late. A park home owner cannot sell their home without the approval of the site owner of the prospective purchaser. The site owner then receives 10% for doing very little. The purchase of the new pitch applies only to the original home. When it is replaced, a new fee has to be paid.
The service charges are peanuts compared to the money that site owners can make from their share of the sale of homes, particularly from buying and selling homes themselves. The abuses vary. Some allow the site to decline to a point where everyone who can leaves and the remaining residents are encouraged to sell their homes at knock-down prices to the site owner, who redevelops the site and sells new pitches at a very high price. Prosecutions have taken place of individuals who have decided to speed up this process by adding intimidation to their ways of encouraging people to leave.
Where owners wish to sell their home, site owners often veto numbers of prospective purchasers until in desperation the seller accepts a very low price from the site owner himself. Site owners have been known to intercept potential buyers at the entrance of the site or to pass on false information about the state of the home. There are examples of site owners visiting local estate agents to tell them that they are wasting their time marketing the homes because any new purchaser will be vetoed.
Site owners have been known to write to residents telling them that their home is defective and they will be evicted if they do not remedy it. Luckily, the ever-caring site owner is there to offer to buy their home from them, at a price far below its real value. Conversely, people who want to improve or refurbish their homes are often told that they need the site owner’s permission and that it will not be forthcoming.
A culture of intimidation and fear has grown up. Consumer Focus reports that one in 10 residents has experienced abusive and threatening behaviour. Many do not go to the police because they are simply too frightened. Let us remember that these are mostly older, often elderly, people. Some residents have organised themselves and have set up groups. We should recognise how much courage it takes to organise in this way because there are reports of serious intimidation against the organisers and members of such groups. The National Park Home Owners Congress held its meeting in Birmingham in the summer and it was attended by more than 4,000 people. It takes real guts to do what they are doing and we should support them not just with warm words but by providing a legislative framework that is fit for purpose.
Mr Aldous’s Bill, which I am very pleased has the support of the Government, will go a long way to creating that, but it is not of itself enough. The Bill is not retrospective and I understand that is because of legal advice that the Human Rights Act could be invoked if there were a retrospective change of contract. However, this leaves the current 160,000 people vulnerable to the sort of abuse I have described, in fact possibly even more vulnerable—I fear that there will be a sort of crime bonanza later on as the rogue operators see their cash cow disappearing. I would like the Government to think again and see whether there is a middle way of introducing this for existing tenants, perhaps a few years down the road, in such a way that does not impinge on the Human Rights Act. Can the Minister also undertake to look at the question of park homes and the Green Deal? Fuel poverty is a real problem in this sector.
Finally, while the Bill will include a fit and proper person test for site owners, it will not be implemented until it is deemed necessary later. Will the Minister accept that all the work I have referred to earlier has demonstrated that there is ample evidence of the need for such a test now? It is not just about driving the crooks out; we also need to provide comfort to the good operators who are being tarnished by these criminals.
I look forward to hearing the contributions from other noble Lords in this short debate and to hearing the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for initiating this debate. She is quite right that a significant number of our fellow citizens now live in park homes on permanent sites. Some do so through lifestyle choice but, as she rightly says, the majority of them are quite elderly people who have done so at a stage in their lives when they wish to downsize. Their families have left home and this, in the face of an endemic housing problem, is their only choice. Some people of working age live in them because the cost of mortgages or rent is too high for them to live in the villages where they were born or in the towns in which they work. We have a significant population in this situation.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has said, many sites are well run by responsible site owners. We should note that right at the beginning. However, there are also far too many site owners who abuse their tenants, pay scant attention to the law and seem almost untouchable by the authorities. If the authorities do engage with the site owners, they pay little attention. As she says, the law needs substantial change. I welcome the consultation which Grant Shapps issued last year. I welcome Mr Aldous’s Private Member’s Bill and a similar Bill, which I think will appear in the Welsh Assembly this week, but we need a head of steam and the Government to get behind the action.
Before I go any further, I should declare my past and present interests. I am chair of the campaign group, Housing Voice, a vice-president of the Trading Standards Institute and a past chair of Consumer Focus. In the past few weeks, Consumer Focus and Consumer Focus Wales have produced damning reports of caravan owners’ experience on sites in England and Wales. I will refer to those in a moment. We have also had the Select Committee report in another place. The committee found that malpractice is widespread across the park home sector and the current law is inadequate. It neither deters unscrupulous park home site owners from exploiting residents nor provides local authorities with effective powers to monitor or improve site conditions. It particularly identifies sale-blocking as a significant problem.
I am calling for legislative changes, some of which are in the Private Member’s Bill before the House of Commons, to amend the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, the Caravan Sites Act 1968 and the Mobile Homes Act 1983. It brings together the licensing regime that applies to mobile homes in England. A similar proposition is coming up in Wales. The issue of whether a site owner is a fit and proper person, however, is key to this. The Bill currently is quite weak on that proposition.
My first engagement in this area was brought about by two forces: first, my interest in energy and, secondly, the activities of my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton. During the passage of every energy and water Bill—we have had a good few over the past few years—he has brought up the position in relation to gas, water and electricity supply to those homes. In a mobile home park there is no standard way in which residents receive their water, electricity and gas, but the number of sites with individual metering is fairly small. Some are attached to the gas main but the vast majority are off the gas grid. In those situations, the site operator, the owner, has substantial powers in terms of selling on and resale. Significant numbers of residents have problems with their site owner, including, for example, more than a quarter of gas and electricity-supplied caravan owners in Wales.
The reports by Consumer Focus have come up with a number of suggestions in this area outwith changes in the primary legislation. It has asked the regulators, particularly Ofgem, to clarify and issue updated maximum retail price guidance to energy resellers and the rules surrounding reselling energy. It has also asked them to consider how they can help residents who are billed for their energy use by the site operator through a third-party billing company and to make sure that the standards and accuracy of those bills are guaranteed. It has also asked them to look at the level of reduction in energy costs which would be permitted under the maximum resale price rules guidance.
With Ofwat, Consumer Focus is looking for amendments to existing legislation to ensure that those who purchase their water and sewerage through site operators have equivalent rights to those who purchase direct, and, again, to clarify and update the maximum resale price. There is an agenda there for these 160,000 people, for legislation in this Parliament and on the activities of the regulators.
To pick up on a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, it is also obvious that park homes are not the most energy-efficient dwellings in the land. However, it would appear that very few of them have had any benefit from past fuel poverty or energy-efficiency schemes. In relation to the Green Deal, which is just now being launched, it is not at all clear how owners or tenants of park home sites will benefit. The previous Secretary of State, who was asked about this in 2011, said that park homes would be able to apply for the Green Deal. As matters stand, it is not at all clear that that can be the case. Access to finance is dependent on carrying out a methodology to assess the energy efficiency of the home, which is the standard assessment procedure. That is very difficult to apply—in general, it does not apply—to permanent caravan-site dwellings. The Department of Energy and Climate Change needs to look at this and see whether the potential for a Green Deal for owners of caravans could be enhanced. There is also the question of how the billing for that would operate when the site operator had an intermediary.
Outside the energy, gas and water areas, there are of course more general issues: the level of service charges, the failure of maintenance and the breach of various licensing conditions. In addition, regrettably, behaviour, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has said, can amount to intimidation, threats and organised antisocial behaviour, and has inflicted great distress on a lot, albeit a minority, of these sites.
The licensing process is pretty inadequate, and the resources available to trading standards and others to enforce those licensing conditions are not at all adequate. The fit-and-proper test needs to be set in lights in this process. If we could build on the option of going down that road in the Private Member’s Bill, that would be useful, because there are people in this trade who clearly would not pass even a minimum fit-and-proper test.
The last issue that I want to raise is sale-blocking. In the course of its research, Consumer Focus Wales came across many disturbing cases of people wanting to sell and move away being faced with hostility, threats and what I might call physical and financial sabotage on the part of the site owners. Consumer Focus has come up with a number of such cases.
At the moment, the site owner has a veto over the ability to resell. In one such case, for example, the mobile home residents sold their home to an unscrupulous site operator for a fraction of its market value. In another, the home owner told how she had received just £2,000, despite the fact that the home had been valued at £110,000. In another case, a couple bought their home directly from the site owner for £150,000 but, when they tried to sell it, the site owner blocked the sale of the home to any other purchaser until eventually the couple agreed to sell it back to him for just £50,000, of which, in reality, they received only £35,000. That is gross deception and dishonesty but it arises from the anomalous power position between the owners and tenants of the homes and the site owners. In that case, having paid £35,000 for the home, the site owner subsequently sold it for £95,000.
So far, there have been no criminal proceedings of any sort against such people, and that is unacceptable in our society for a significant number of our citizens. We should start by following through with the Private Member’s Bill and the repeal of the relevant provisions on sale-blocking and the veto of the site operator.
I hope that the Private Member’s Bill succeeds but, even more, I hope that the Government take up this case and look at it across the board, perhaps strengthening the Private Member’s Bill or coming up with their own propositions which will ensure that the legislation, the regulations and the enforcement resources are available to end the distressing effects of the present situation.
My Lords, having given prior notice, I rise to make a brief intervention, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for initiating this short debate.
I have been honoured to accept the invitation from Peter Aldous MP to take the mobile homes Private Member’s Bill through your Lordships’ House when it finishes its passage through the other place. I was present at the Second Reading debate on the Bill in the other place last Friday and I was extremely impressed by the unanimity of approval for the Bill. As a Cross-Bencher, I was delighted to see that party politics played no part in that high-quality debate. Rogue site owners were named, powerful examples of malpractice were given, and the solutions contained in the Bill were commended from all sides.
I congratulate Peter Aldous MP on introducing the Bill and securing such strong support for it. Congratulations are indeed also due on the long-standing campaign for justice for park home residents by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has waited a long time for this Bill.
Thanks go, too, to the right honourable Grant Shapps, who was the Housing Minister who got behind this legislation and gave it government backing. Tribute must also be paid to the wonderful campaigners in the other place led by Annette Brooke MP, with backing from Natascha Engel MP and others associated with the APPG on this theme, propelled by faithful campaigners outside of Parliament, for whom this has been a long journey. I know that Members in the other place were greatly helped by the new Consumer Focus report, Living the Dream?, and the excellent analysis from Consumer Focus Wales, Park Life: Residential Mobile Home Living in Wales, and it is clear that the report from the CLG Select Committee, to which reference has been made, undoubtedly helped to win approval for the inclusion of the clause introducing the back-stop of a fit-and-proper-person test.
I noted five issues in the debate, a number of which have been considered by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. None of them is a deal breaker, but all are worth discussing in more depth. My anxiety is that some existing park home residents may feel let down if their current defective leases have to remain untouched and those long-suffering owners continue to face appalling treatment at the hands of site owners, but it may be possible to address that, and I am sure the Bill will be even better when it comes to us.
This is an incredibly important piece of legislation. It may affect only relatively few people scattered across the country, often in remote places, but it is going to make a vast difference to the quality of life of so many of them. I look forward very much to helping to steer it through its stages in this House, where I feel sure it will get tremendous support.
My Lords, it is a joy and a pleasure to have this opportunity, given to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, to have a canter over the course. Undoubtedly when the Bill was passed last Friday, and I was there, many people, not least the Minister here today and the civil servants who have been frustrated over the years, were pleased. When I was in the Commons, I served on the 1983 Bill. Time after time the issues that have caused the problem have been raised. We made some progress, but all too often we were thwarted, not least by the change of ministerial responsibilities. Every time a Minister is led and schooled and has a grasp of the issue, unfortunately for the issue, he is moved on to other things. When Mr Grant Shapps came to the all-party meeting, I said that if he was not careful he would make a name for himself. Of course, he has made a name for himself. At that meeting he told us that time was precious and that if a Private Member’s Bill could be found, or if someone won the ballot, he would assist. I congratulate the Minister, who did what he was able to do, and we are all very grateful.
The Select Committee is invaluable. It is led by Clive Betts in the other place. The summary of the Select Committee’s first report states:
“Malpractice is widespread across the park home sector and complaints from residents about unfair fees, poor maintenance and site owners making it difficult for residents to sell their homes are common. Though we recognise that there are some good site operators, it is clear that action is needed now to improve the sector and drive the worst offenders out”.
There is no doubt that there are vast numbers of good site owners who have served loyally and long. However, I shall give the Committee an illustration that I have received. In Cornwall, there is a Mr Jeffrey Small, who is well known to those of us who have been following the issue. His wife is Barbara Small and his son is Jeffrey Small. They have been in trouble. Cornwall County Council said:
“The Smalls have been operating mobile park home sites for around 10 years, at times trading as J and B Small Park Homes and JBS Park Homes and often via offices … in Taunton”.
One of the problems is, of course, that it is not just the owner of one site—it is a site owner with many sites. Let me rattle through them. The park homes owned by Mr Small and his family include Battisford Park, Plympton; Beauford Park, Taunton; Beechdown Park, Paignton; Bickington Park, Barnstaple; Brimley Gardens, Bovey Tracey; Brookmeadow Park, Swindon; Broughton Park, Taunton; and others. Although I could go on, time would beat me.
The other problem is that we are talking not just about blocking the sale of park home sites but about other factors. One issue on which I am grateful to the Minister and his colleagues is the establishment of the Residential Property Tribunal, which is a mark along the way. It has been doing good work. I have here a report of a situation where Mr and Mrs Tony Glew raised some issues, but the site owners were found by the tribunal to have,
“failed to comply with the procedure incorporated into the agreement by Schedule 1, Part 1, Chapter 2 of the Mobile Homes Act”,
and so on. What is interesting here is that mention has been made of frail and elderly residents. This is what happened to the people in this case. The tribunal decision stated:
“On or about the 10th May 2011, they, or their servants or agents, entered the pitch of the park home address, removed and destroyed 2 gates and part of the fence, destroyed a large part of the garden, took up concrete slabs which had been used for parking a car and moved another section of fence all belonging to the Applicant and his wife. They then erected another fence to exclude most of the garden and all the car parking area from the pitch and to allow only pedestrian access to the park home”.
All this arose because the occupants, Mr and Mrs Glew —willing sellers—had found a willing buyer. Yet the landowners could not care tuppence about that. All the owners were interested in was whether the park home was making money for the business. They have a business and they are entitled to carry it on, but not to the detriment of the health or pockets of other people.
I am delighted that we have started on a journey. I know that I might have felt alone at times over the past 30 years, but this time I will not be alone and I am very grateful.
My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for initiating this debate. I suspect that we will have a wide degree of consensus in our contributions—there certainly has been already. We have the benefit of the introduction of the Mobile Homes Bill—a Private Member’s Bill in the other place—which had its Second Reading just last week, of the CLG Select Committee report in June of this year, and of the Consumer Focus report that my noble friend Lord Whitty spoke to.
It should be clear from our contributions in the other place that we support the Private Member’s Bill, and I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Best, has been asked to take it forward in our House. I am sure that it will have strong support right across the House, as he suggested. We also support the need for comprehensive measures to address the abuses that are all too prevalent in this sector, some of which have been mentioned. These abuses continue despite some measures being taken by the previous Government to improve matters; and, sadly, more measures never made the statute book. However, like other noble Lords, we should not let this occasion pass without acknowledging the role of individual campaigners—the most prominent of which has been my noble friend Lord Graham. His faith and determination over 30 years has kept the flame alive.
My Lords, the Minister in the other place accepted that the practical constraints on the size of the Private Member’s Bill mean that it cannot include every issue on which the Government consulted. Perhaps some space in our legislative programme created by the lack of a House of Lords Reform Bill could give the Government time to take up more fully the issues that they feel have been left out by this Bill.
Perhaps the Minister could say, if extra time were available, what would be included in the legislation that the Private Member’s Bill currently excludes.
The problems with the sector are well documented. Inevitably, we have concentrated this afternoon on unscrupulous site owners—the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to the “growing evidence of serious criminality” and that clearly is the case—but we should acknowledge that many site owners take their responsibilities seriously, as my noble friend Lord Whitty and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, acknowledged. The need to stop abuses is especially great because most residents of park homes are elderly and increasingly vulnerable. I have a statistic that says that 70% of them are over 70 years old. Many of them moved to park homes in retirement, into what they saw as idyllic homes in attractive locations.
As my honourable friend Natascha Engel MP pointed out in the Second Reading debate last week—a point echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott—the current legislation may be the Mobile Homes Act and the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act, but we are talking about people’s homes. They may not be made of bricks and mortar but they are essentially static.
The noble Baroness and others have highlighted the key issues: lack of maintenance of sites, deliberate miscalculation of pitch fees and utility charges, sale-blocking and intimidation. The Second Reading debate in the other place highlighted some of the disgraceful practices around sale-blocking, which is often coupled with intimidation and harassment.
Perhaps the question we should be addressing now is: will the Private Member’s Bill be the effective way of tackling these abuses? The Select Committee recommendations in particular made reference to the removal of a site owner’s existing right to approve the buyer, an interim measure to give the residential property tribunal the right to award damages and compensation when sale-blocking takes place, and modernising local authority licensing arrangements.
The capacity and funding of local authorities to conduct their licensing activities is an important matter. Clearly, the ability under the Bill to charge for that will help with resources. Perhaps it would be inappropriate on this occasion to debate the wider issue of the capacity and resources available to local authorities, but funding by way of charging for licensing activities would not necessarily deal with the support that is needed—but it is a start.
We support the discretion to grant or transfer a site licence that will help and deal with the problem created by mandatory current requirements, and the powers to serve a compliance notice on site owners and to intervene to carry out work when compliance is not forthcoming are important, as stressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott.
A long-standing point of contention is whether or not site owners and operators should be fit and proper persons, just as they need to be for HMO licence holders. As the Communities and Local Government Committee pointed out, although it may be difficult to apply retrospectively, and would need to consider who would take over the management if somebody was disqualified, nevertheless there should be regulations to that effect—and we support that recommendation. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, I ask the Government what will determine whether and at what point regulations should be brought in so that people have to be fit and proper persons.
The Select Committee recommendation was that,
“removing a site owner’s right to approve prospective buyers provides the only effective way to eliminate sale blocking”.
For new agreements, this seems to be a pretty straightforward arrangement but for existing agreements I think it is more protracted; the provisions in the Bill are less secure. I would appreciate the Minister’s view on that.
The Private Member’s Bill would appear to put us on the road to an effective regulatory regime for park homes. We are delighted to be able to support that and look forward to its passage through your Lordships’ House. However, it is not a panacea. My noble friend noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to issues that could or should be dealt with by regulation, particularly the rules around re-selling of energy supplies. Perhaps the Minister could say what is intended on that front, and address the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, on the fact that this is not retrospective. How can we inculcate the provisions that are in the Bill in a way that could operate for the future, and will protect all of those who are at serious risk under current arrangements?
This has been a short but very important debate, and one that is timely, given the legislative process that is under way. I hope that that, in particular, will be a great comfort to my noble friend Lord Graham, for everything that he has done in the past.
My Lords, I believe I can say without risk of being challenged by anybody at all, that this is a debate, perhaps unusually, for the noble Lord and myself, where there is absolutely no disagreement at all.
We all welcome this legislation, and we will look forward to it when it gets to this House. As did other noble Lords in this debate, I pay tribute to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Park Homes, which has raised the profile of the sector in Parliament and beyond. Absolutely crucial to that has been the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. He may not remember, though I do, that as a rather new and very wobbly Front-Bencher, I took forward one of the many debates that he organised in this House, about 10 years ago. I remember that well, and I remember being persuaded by what he said, that here lay a big problem. It is a pity that it has taken us 10 years to get here, but here we are.
A number of noble Lords have mentioned my right honourable friend Grant Shapps. He grasped the situation when he became a Minister, and it was due to him that the residential tribunal was set up. It may not have had time yet to show all its teeth, but it is certainly starting to make an impact on this.
A number of important issues have been raised. I will try to deal with some of those; if I leave any out, then I will of course write to noble Lords. I also wish to comment on the Select Committee, which did an extremely good job, and to mention the Consumer Focus report, which absolutely confirmed the findings of the Select Committee.
As others have said, living on a park home site is an affordable choice of housing for many people. I have the figure of 85,000 households here—I do not think that we probably have much disagreement about that—and they are mainly elderly. It would also be fair to say that some or many sites are properly managed and maintained by decent, honest and professional site owners who look after the rights and the welfare of their residents and community.
However, the good work that they do is often completely masked by the unacceptable conduct of the minority—and we have had many examples of that today. They cause misery by not maintaining the sites properly, bullying residents, and interfering unreasonably or unlawfully when residents wish to exercise their rights, and their rights to sell—something that the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Whitty, raised. The park homes sector should have no place for these people. We want the good site owners to thrive and we absolutely want the bad to wither and go away. We are therefore committed to targeted reform, which does not place unnecessary burdens on those site owners who operate in a well regulated and lawful manner.
The Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s inquiry received 250 pieces of written evidence and held four oral sessions in the spring, including one in Bournemouth at which it took evidence from home owners and site operators. As has been mentioned, the committee’s report showed that the catalogue of problems that people had been raising were a fact. It formed the view that malpractice was widespread. Many of the responses to the Government’s consultation, which ran from 16 April to 28 May this year, found that that was the conclusion. We received 621 responses, many of which corroborated the evidence to and findings of the Select Committee. The Government’s response has been published on the Department for Communities and Local Government website.
In the mean time, my honourable friend the Member for Waveney introduced, with government backing in the other place, a Private Member’s Bill for which reference has been made to reform the law on mobile homes. It may not cover all the points and aspects that everyone wants. Maybe during the course of its passage through one or other House it may be strengthened, but at the moment it is as it is. It received its Second Reading and will now proceed to its Committee stage. I understand that when it passes all stages—my brief says “should it”, but I am reasonably satisfied that it will do well—the noble Lord, Lord Best, will pilot it in this House. I am sure that he will have good support here as well.
I must emphasise that the Bill focuses on permanent residential sites and will not apply to holiday homes, even those where the residents live there for up to 10 or 11 months in a year, with just a month away from it. It applies purely to those sites that are residential where the home owners have agreements under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, including mixed-use sites such as those that are partly residential and partly holiday.
The provisions in the Bill relating to changes to the Mobile Homes Act will not apply to local authority traveller sites either because sale blocking is not in question on such sites, as sales are not permitted. But there was also no evidence that the other changes to site rules and pitch fees were required where ownership was in the hands of local authorities. I ought to say that I am quite glad about that.
The Bill’s objective is to put the park home business on a proper footing for the future, where honest and professional site owners can prosper, while those who abuse their legal powers and have no regard for the welfare and rights of their residents or their health and safety will no longer be able to profiteer. As we have heard, the Bill aims to achieve this by introducing light-touch reforms that target the worst practices, minimising the burdens on good operators. Through these measures, we hope that residents will be able to live peacefully in their homes, secure in the knowledge that their lives, health and safety will not be endangered and their rights respected. The Bill contains most of the key measures on which the Government consulted earlier in the year and builds on the Select Committee’s recommendations following its forensic inquiry into the park homes industry and its practices.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to unlawful sale blocking, which was one of the most serious complaints. It is clear that the practice is not confined to a small number of rogue operators. In some parts it appears to be acceptable practice that the landlord should be able to put their foot down for a sale, but it is not acceptable practice.
Park home owners are as a matter of law entitled to sell their properties on the open market. However, also as a matter of law, the site operator must approve the buyer. To some this seems a sensible way of ensuring that the purchaser would meet the rules that apply to the site, for example on age, family composition or the keeping of pets. However, some site owners abuse this process to thwart a sale by not responding to the request for approval at all or by making contact with the buyer and putting them off proceeding.
Although there is a right of appeal to a residential property tribunal, which was brought in by this Government in 2011, if an approval has been unreasonably withheld, very few cases reach the door of the tribunal because the purchaser has normally withdrawn from the transaction by the time this happens. In fact, of the few cases that have been decided by the tribunal, in every case they found the site owner had acted unreasonably in not responding to the request or in refusing the approval.
As has been said, site operators are legally entitled to a 10% commission on the sale of a park home, so if one was sold for £80,000 they would be entitled to £8,000 of the sale price. The Government do not intend to interfere with that aspect. However, an unscrupulous operator realises that he can make significantly more than £8,000 by refusing to approve the purchase. Often if the home owner urgently needs to move or if purchasers are persistently refused, the home owner is forced to agree to sell. Indeed, we have heard today of some who have sold for as little as £2,000. No other form of home ownership sales is subject to such interference and abuse. I confirm that we fully support the measures in the Bill to restrict the role of site owners in approving buyers of homes from existing residents and to remove that role altogether in respect of future sales by new residents.
Allied to this is the strengthening of the criminal law against harassment and to make it a criminal offence to make false or misleading representations to prevent a sale from proceeding. There is also widespread concern that pitch fee increases lack transparency and unlawful charges are often included. The Bill addresses this by requiring site owners to set out in a notice precisely what is included in the proposed pitch fee and if this notice is not used the pitch fee review will be invalid.
Another major problem identified from the consultation and in the committee’s report is the condition of many sites and the poor quality of services and amenities to them because of either underinvestment over the years or, in some cases, a deliberate policy of allowing or causing whole sites or parts of sites to fall into disrepair. This was underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, telling us about the site owner who had effectively wrecked one of the homes. The Bill will permit local authorities to address such problems through a more effective licensing regime that will enable enforcement action to be taken against those who do not keep their sites properly maintained. I am sure that local authorities that are affected by these problems will be only too happy to take up the cudgels.
The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked whether there would be room for more and more legislation on this. I am sure he does not really expect me to answer that. There are people who make decisions about legislation other than me, but we will enthusiastically follow this Private Member’s Bill through from beginning to end.
My Lords, at the moment the Government support everything that was in the consultation. There are areas where we are waiting to see what happens as a result of the Bill’s implementation and further consultation; the fit and proper person test is probably one, but it is very much on the radar because it was brought up very significantly in the Select Committee report.
The noble baroness, Lady Scott, asked about the human rights aspect. We cannot take away altogether the site owner’s contractual right to approve, but we have in fact reversed the burden of proof. Refusal can be made only on certain grounds and only with agreement of a residential property tribunal.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene because I know that she is short of time. My concern about the way the Human Rights Act is being interpreted means that it cannot apply retrospectively. Current owners will remain vulnerable; only the new owners will have protection. I am very nervous for current owners, particularly as I fear a kind of bonanza where people will see this money-making opportunity drying up in the future. The situation could inadvertently become even worse for the existing tenants than it is at the moment.
I am sorry if I misunderstood the point, but it is one that is extremely well made. As my noble friend says, the Bill is not retrospective, as indeed most legislation is not. Potentially, however, it will offer protection in a perilous situation. Unfortunately, there will be bad site owners until they are stopped.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, asked about fuel poverty. We are talking to DECC about the application of the Green Deal to park homes. However, as this is a Private Member’s Bill, we cannot connect them together. Someone may wish to try to strengthen the law as time goes on.
I think that I have dealt with the issue of the fit and proper person test as best I can, and as I say, there is going to be very much a watching brief on that. That probably covers most of the aspects that have been raised in our debate. I hope that I have made clear that we strongly welcome and support the measures in the Bill. They are indeed long overdue because too many people have been put in jeopardy for too long a time. I hope that the Bill will get as far as this House and that it will be passed unanimously in the other place. We will then have an opportunity to consider it—it is hoped in the not too distant future. A Private Member’s Bill will provide at least some protection for those who have been suffering for a long time.
Committee adjourned at 6.07 pm.