Tuesday, 23 October 2012
Arrangement of Business
Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) (Amendment) Order 2012
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord McNally, I beg to move that the Grand Committee do consider the Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) (Amendment) Order 2012. This order is made under the Official Secrets Act 1989. Under that Act, it is an offence for a Crown servant or government contractor to make a damaging disclosure of any information within particular categories which is or has been in his possession by virtue of his position, unless he has lawful authority to do so. People who are not Crown servants can be treated as such for the purposes of the Act by being designated in an order. They are then subject to the duties and offences relating to the handling and disclosure of information as set out in the Official Secrets Act 1989.
The order does this by amending the Official Secrets Act 1989 (Prescription) Order 1990 by adding the holders of certain offices to Schedule 2. These officeholders are police and crime commissioners and their deputies, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and its deputy, the Lord Mayor of the City of London and the representative of the Court of Common Council acting in its capacity as the Police Authority for the City of London. Noble Lords will know that the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 establishes a directly elected police and crime commissioner for each police area in England and Wales outside London, with the functions of securing the maintenance of an efficient and effective police force and holding the chief constable to account for the exercise of the chief constable’s functions. A commissioner is able to appoint a deputy. The Act also establishes in London the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime with identical functions in relation to the Metropolitan Police Service and the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. The person who is the Mayor of London occupies the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and may appoint a deputy.
In the City of London, the Common Council has the function of overseeing the City of London police force and its commissioner under the City of London Police Act 1839. The Common Council is headed by the Lord Mayor and is able to discharge its policing functions by means of a police committee. Police and crime commissioners, who will be elected on 15 November 2012, their deputies and the officeholders having similar functions in London, will need to receive and be briefed on police information in the exercise of their functions. This may include information on one or more of the categories protected by the Official Secrets Act 1989. They are particularly likely to be briefed on information which, if disclosed, is likely to result in crime or impede the investigation or prosecution of crime. We also envisage that they will be briefed regularly on security and intelligence material.
The Government are clear that they wish to maintain the operational independence of the chief constable, and that he or she should be responsible to the police and crime commissioner for ensuring the safe and effective maintenance of the Queen’s peace. We therefore envisage that a chief constable may on occasion need to brief a police and crime commissioner on operational matters which may involve the disclosure to the commissioner of sensitive material that has been sourced by the police service and/or the security and intelligence agencies, such as material on counterterrorism. The degree to which the police and crime commissioner is briefed on operational matters and intelligence will be at the operational discretion of the local chief constable in close consultation with the security and intelligence agencies where necessary. The commissioner’s role in democratic accountability and transparency needs to be balanced against the public interest in maintaining community safety and justice. Unauthorised disclosures could lead to risk to the public, damage police operations and impede criminal proceedings.
The Government consulted on how to address these concerns as part of our consideration in introducing police and crime commissioners and have concluded on the basis of responses that, as elected representatives, commissioners should not be vetted in advance. We consulted further and there was a consensus that making these officeholders subject to the duties and offences applying to police officers was a proportionate safeguard. We need to maintain the trust and confidence of the public and, of course, the police service. Bringing the commissioners and other officeholders under the Official Secrets Act 1989 will provide the reassurance that there is a strong deterrent to prevent unauthorised and damaging disclosure of sensitive information. These officeholders will be Crown servants for the purposes of the Official Secrets Act 1989 only, as are Ministers and police officers. That, of course, does not affect the status of commissioners and other officeholders.
The draft order is an appropriate and proportionate safeguard and I hope it will be acceptable to the House.
My Lords, the forthcoming elections for police commissioners may not be an official secret but I can vouch for the fact that, so far as most of the electorate are concerned—at any rate, the ones I have been canvassing over the last few weeks—they remain very much a secret. They are not aware that these elections are going to happen; maybe that will change over the next few weeks.
Certainly, so far as the Opposition are concerned, we have no objection to the order. Indeed, it seems sensible to include the bodies and persons cited within the requirements of the Official Secrets Act. Perhaps where the Mayor of London is concerned, the Prime Minister would like to take it even further, but that of course is not a matter for debate today. However, there is possibly an issue around vetting. In the consultation document reference was made to the issue of vetting. The response to the consultation was published as long ago as December 2010. I have to say that it was not very accessible from the site mentioned in the Explanatory Memorandum today, so perhaps official secrets have overtaken that too, but I was able to obtain a copy from the Library. In it, the Government said that:
“A few respondents identified a need to apply to”,
“at least the same level of vetting checks applied to police officers”.
That is not an entirely candid description of the response, as in fairness the Explanatory Memorandum points out that,
“the Association of Chief Police Officers, Association of Police Authorities, Association of Police Authority Chief Executives, the Superintendants’ Association and the Police Federation all raised concerns with regards to vetting of the proposed Police and Crime Commissioners”.
Those are not just five individuals. The implication of the response to the consultation might have led one to believe that a handful of people had expressed concern about vetting, but these are serious organisations.
Without wishing to prejudge the argument, and noting the position that the Government have now reached on this, will the Minister at least keep matters under review? Could he assure us that if it is decided at some point that vetting at some level might be required in either a particular instance or more generally, there would be the capacity to institute it without further recourse to legislation? Police and crime commissioners will not just be dealing with matters affecting their own force—of course, some of them in themselves may constitute crimes or suspected crimes within the ambit of national security and the like, and hence be covered by the Official Secrets Act—but potentially they could also be involved in matters that require a national response, which by implication are very likely to include matters to which the Official Secrets Act would apply. In those circumstances and given the potential risks—remote risks, I hope, but they arise nevertheless in areas where the magnitude of a failure might have significant consequences—it might be helpful for a chief constable to have the assurance that, if necessary and if he or she has doubts about the matter, a vetting procedure might be entered into. It may not be the case that government Ministers are thoroughly vetted, but I understand that some procedure applies even to them. It would be strange if there were not the possibility, at any rate, of inquiring further into the elected police and crime commissioner should the occasion arise, even if it is not deemed appropriate to make it a matter of course on their election.
Having said that, we do not object to the order and we look forward to hearing the Government’s response to these points.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support for this order. On his concerns about the elections that are arriving on our doorstep on 15 November, at least for those outside London, of course there is a concern about low voter turnout, just as there would be in any election. It is incumbent on noble Lords and indeed on anyone involved in the political make-up of our country to ensure that we have an effective turnout across the country for these most important elections. I know that all sides will support me on that.
The noble Lord also raised a minor point about access to the particular sites, and the fact that it was not as easy as it perhaps should have been. I shall certainly be taking that up with the department. On his final point about vetting, what has been put forward we believe to be a proportionate response, but as with most things, we will keep this procedure under review and, if deemed necessary, we will look at it again. For now, however, what has been put forward is appropriate and proportionate.
Finally, I have just been updated. As I am sure that the noble Lord is aware, even certain Ministers, including the Home Secretary, have not been vetted; nor has the Prime Minister. However, they are subject to the Official Secrets Act, as are Ministers. Coming back to the issue of vetting policy in general, as I said, we will keep it under review. It is very much a matter for the Cabinet Office. If required, I shall certainly write to the noble Lord on this.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. For the avoidance of doubt, I certainly join with him in encouraging people to vote. I do not share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Blair, on this matter. Although I opposed and continue to oppose the concept, now that we have them there certainly ought to be as large a turnout as possible in the election. If there is to be consideration—hopefully the situation might not arise—would that require further legislation of either a primary or secondary kind to institute a procedure, or would it be the decision of a Minister, presumably the Home Secretary? I would assume the latter, but it would be as well to have it on the record.
Forestry Commissioners (Climate Change Functions) (Scotland) (Consequential Modifications) Order 2012
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Forestry Commissioners (Climate Change Functions) (Scotland) (Consequential Modifications) Order 2012.
Relevant document: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.
My Lords, I will provide the Committee with a brief summary of what this order seeks to achieve. It is made under Section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998, which allows for “necessary or expedient” changes to UK legislation in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament and subordinate legislation. This order is made in consequence of the Forestry Commissioners (Climate Change Functions) (Scotland) Order 2012, made by Scottish Ministers under Section 59 of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. For convenience, I shall refer to this as the Section 59 order.
Scottish Ministers are keen to make full use of the national forest estate in Scotland for generating renewable energy. The national forest estate is land owned by the Scottish Government and put at the disposal of the Forestry Commission. While the commissioners have powers to enter into joint ventures in Scotland for the purpose of exercising their functions under the Forestry Act 1967, these functions do not expressly include the development of the renewable potential of the land put at their disposal by Scottish Ministers.
Section 59 of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 enables Scottish Ministers to modify the functions of the forestry commissioners in or as regards Scotland where this is necessary or expedient in order to comply with their duties as regards emissions reductions or otherwise in relation to climate change. The Section 59 order amends the 1967 Act to place upon the forestry commissioners a new general duty to use land placed at their disposal by Scottish Ministers in the way best calculated to contribute to the delivery of the targets set under Part 1 of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009.
However, the Section 59 order does not itself enable the forestry commissioners to use the National Forest Estate to generate electricity. The Scottish Government have indicated that because the forestry commissioners will have a duty to use land to contribute to the delivery of climate change targets, it would be expedient in consequence of this new duty for the commissioners to be able to use the national forest estate for renewable energy purposes.
This Section 104 order will modify the forestry commissioners’ functions under the 1967 Act in order to confer express powers on the commissioners to use the national forest estate for the purposes of generating and supplying electricity from renewable energy projects, thus developing the renewable energy potential of the land put at their disposal by Scottish Ministers. Of course, the generating and supplying of electricity from renewable energy projects is a reserved matter, hence the need for this order.
I can assure your Lordships that this Section 104 order will not affect the requirements under the Electricity Act 1989 with regard to consents. It will not exempt the forestry commissioners from the requirements of Part 1 of that Act.
This order is necessary or expedient in consequence of the Forestry Commissioners (Climate Change Functions) (Scotland) Order 2012 and demonstrates the Government’s continued commitment to working with the Scottish Government to make the devolution settlement work. I hope the Committee will agree that this order is a sensible use of the powers in the Scotland Act, and that the practical outcome is something to be welcomed.
I commend the order to the Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Minister, who, as usual, has made his staff available for any advice and/or assistance. I have a slight regret about the noble and learned Lord’s ever so polite attitude because, being used to another place, I sometimes like a wee bit of aggression but I am still waiting for the Minister to show that quality.
Turning to the legislative context, where in Scotland did the push for this come from? Although I do not stay near a lot of forest, nevertheless it is quite a big issue in some parts of Scotland. Why was this initiative taken, and what was the background to it? The policy background mentions wind farms. That is not an uncontroversial issue. I was wondering how that came about.
I have always tended to suspect the reporting of consultations because it is usually in the eye of the beholder, who wants a particular result. What is the current position on the consultation? Is it completely finished or are there still ramifications because people are making complaints or expressing their support? Is it still an issue? In addition, it is stated that a number of the concerns that were expressed have been addressed. Does the Minister know the specific issues that were identified and then responded to? Can he give an indication of how the consultation was handled? Was it just an exercise from on high or was there a definite consultation?
Paragraph 10 of the Explanatory Memorandum is headed “Impact” and states:
“This instrument has no impact of a regulatory nature”,
and goes on to say that the,
“impact on the public sector is insignificant”.
The one thing missing from that is public opinion. If it was insignificant, that is fine, but if there was a reaction, it would be a crucial factor. I would like to know if there were any expressions of public opinion. Is that the reason why a full impact assessment was not produced?
Although paragraph 12 states that the:
“Forestry Commission Scotland publishes an Annual Report and Accounts which is laid before the Scottish Parliament”,
is that the scope of the accountability? I know about devolution, but is there any further scope for the Westminster Government to be consulted? In short, is the whole issue of accountability now devolved to the Scottish Parliament? Obviously this is a comparatively minor arrangement, but never the less it is right to ask questions here in your Lordships’ Chamber and thus subject the order to a bit of gentle scrutiny.
My Lords, speaking as a backwoodsman, I approve of giving explicit powers to one of the largest landowners in Scotland and thereby removing all the Forestry Commission land from the renewables area. I certainly approve of the widening of the geographic scope for renewables, especially as it takes the pressure off other areas that may be more beautiful and which are worth retaining in that context. The order considerably widens the already broad remit of the Forestry Commission, which is now far wider than its remit in 1919, which was to produce timber. The commission will now get involved with leisure, recreation, health, landscape management, footpaths, cycle paths, biodiversity, wood fuel and still, indeed, the production of timber. I support all forms of renewable energy, and especially hydro. I am pleased to see that two hydro schemes have already been identified. I would encourage the commissioners to have another look at small-scale hydro projects on the hill burns. I also suspect that they are bound to put up some wind turbines, or allow a partner to put them up.
My final point is particularly related to that. Once a site has been established, it is grid-connected pretty much for all time. It is hoped that the generating technology may well improve and something other than wind farms will come to take their place. The important point is that the sites themselves are grid-connected.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie and the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, for their contributions to this debate and for their general welcome for the proposals. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, asked from where the impetus for this had come. The origins go back to the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, which in its generality was setting targets for carbon emissions and the amount of electricity that can be generated from non-fossil fuel renewable sources. The Scottish Government were very keen to make full use of the renewable potential of the estate, which is operated by the forestry commissioners. Indeed my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie remarked that widening the geographical scope of renewable energy production perhaps takes the pressure off other parts of the country, bearing in mind that the Forestry Commission’s estate is almost 10 per cent of the Scottish land area.
My noble friend asked if there were any further potential hydro locations. I am advised that the commission is taking a proactive approach with developers and communities to identify further locations. I think it is important to emphasise the fact that this embraces electricity generation by means of hydropower. It is not solely wind power. The forestry commissioners, however, made it clear that they do not intend to go down the route of biomass, because that could lead to a conflict of interest with their role as timber suppliers. My noble friend expressed the view that it was vital that sites should be connected to the national grid. I can confirm that proposals would only go ahead if there were grid connections.
The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, asked about the position with regard to consultation. The consultation took place in relation to the 2009 legislation. It took place ahead of that, although part of the consultation specifically related to the role of the forestry commissioners. The consultation document explained that the provision would facilitate the development of renewable energy potential of the land in Scotland put at the disposal of the forestry commissioners by Scottish Ministers. There were 368 responses to the specific question:
“What are your views on allowing the Forestry Commissioners to enter into joint ventures, with the intention of participating in renewable energy programmes on national forest estate?”.
Seventy per cent of respondents expressed positive views on the option, although a number added caveats; 15% expressed negative views; and the remainder appeared to be neutral or undecided. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, asked about some of these concerns and whether indeed they had been taken into account. I can confirm that, yes, there were concerns that related to a possible conflict between the regulatory activities of the Forestry Commission Scotland in respect of renewable developments. As a consequence, a forest renewables unit has been set up; it separates the operation of the development role of the commission from its regulatory role.
The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, also asked why no impact assessment had been prepared for the order. The position is that orders made under the Scotland Act are required to be laid in draft if, among other things, they vary the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, executive competence of Scottish Ministers or make changes to reserve UK primary legislation in consequences of Acts of the Scottish Parliament. Usually such orders do not in themselves have a direct or indirect impact, whether in benefit or cost on businesses, charities or the voluntary sector. They would therefore not normally have any regulatory impact. On this occasion, a full impact assessment was not produced as this instrument simply allows the forestry commissioners to enter into voluntary joint ventures with commercial partners should they wish. It does not impose on private sector or civil society organisations.
I conclude on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, that wind developments tend to be controversial. I reiterate what I said in my opening remarks, that any specific proposal that is brought forward will be subject, if it is 50 megawatts or over, to the regime under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. If it is lower than 50 megawatts, it will be subject to the planning regime. Therefore this order does not in any way detract from the planning arrangements that are already in place.
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, before the clerk calls the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, I remind Members of the Committee that this is a one-hour debate and contributions from Back-Benchers are therefore limited to three minutes. Hopefully, the Clock will be working. The last time I chaired Grand Committee it was not, and we all had to add up on our fingers and toes. I think that today it is working.
My Lords, I start today’s debate by congratulating my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece on the recent award by Coventry University of an honorary doctorate, partly in recognition of her contribution to the Cyprus peace process. I also thank the House of Lords Library for its very helpful and comprehensive briefing pack. It is clear from even a quick scan of this document that the prospects for the reunification of the island can seem quite remote and the issues involved quite intractable.
The current dispute is now over 40 years old. Over those 40 years there have been many serious attempts by people of good will from both sides of the island and from outside organisations to bring about a resolution. All those attempts have failed and all had one very significant factor in common—they all used, as you might expect, the political machinery of the island as the primary, if not the sole, mechanism for negotiation. Perhaps repeated failure of essentially the same process, albeit with different actors, should come as no surprise. However, at some point those involved have to address the obvious question of whether it really makes sense to do the same thing over and over again and expect something different to happen.
It is fairly easy to see why the prospects for success may now seem remote. Earlier this year, the UN admitted that talks were deadlocked and saw no immediate way ahead. The Republic of Cyprus’s assumption of the EU presidency has had an obviously chilling effect on dialogue. Research conducted in July shows that over 70% of both communities now feel that they should assert their own rights even if it means members of the other community would be negatively affected. The same survey revealed that only 14% of Turkish Cypriots and 39% of Greek Cypriots would prefer a feasible solution now to an optimal solution some time in the future. Perhaps this is not very surprising. As the International Crisis Group pointed out as long ago as 2009, there appears to be a growing younger generation on both sides of the island who have never interacted with each other and see no reason to do so. They do not have a stake in the property issue and may not wish to face the uncertainties and potential problems that a settlement neither side likes, but accepts, would create. There are additional factors that give weight to the ICG’s comments. The economies of both the north and the south are fragile and both rely on external support, but the intrinsic wealth and prospects of the two sides are widely divergent. It would be quite reasonable to see, in the latest failure, the lack of a real desire in the political machines of the north and the south to actually achieve unification.
That is all very complex and distressing, but does it in fact really matter? The two sides are de facto separate states. Does the de jure status actually matter? I believe strongly that it matters very much indeed. It matters to the people of Cyprus, it matters to the people of the eastern Mediterranean, and it matters to Britain. The eastern Mediterranean is now more troubled and unstable than at any time in the last decade. We have a civil war in Syria, enormous tension between Iran and Israel and unresolved situations in Libya and Egypt. Now, added to all that, there are the problems raised by the huge gas finds in Cypriot territorial waters. Exactly who that gas belongs to and in what quantities, how to develop the fields and how to transport the gas, are all questions that, if unresolved, are highly likely to add severely to the political tensions. It would be absurd and tragic if the division of the island effectively prevented any exploitation of those gas fields, yet that is exactly what a senior energy industry executive has predicted to me privately.
But there is a clear positive side to the existence of those fields, quite apart from their potential for the economy of the island. Over the summer, it seems to have given fresh energy to those seeking renegotiation. In September, Alexander Downer said that the Greek and Turkish sides now had a strong economic reason to agree to a reunification that would reduce the sovereign risk of investing in Cyprus, clear up the problems of investing in property, grow GDP and offer the capacity to service and pay off debt. The British Foreign Secretary made the same point when he said recently in Nicosia:
“We have supported the rights of Cyprus to develop resources but I hope that doing so can somehow be an incentive for the settlement of the problem, rather than a disincentive”.
All that is good news. It is a sign that the parties may understand that there is a new and compelling reason to negotiate. However, it does not address the failure of the traditional methods of negotiation. The UN Secretary-General’s report of March this year notes that:
“Civil society also has a crucial role to play in building public confidence in the process. Unfortunately, civil society organizations, and women’s groups in particular, remain outside the framework of the negotiations. I therefore call on the sides to step up their engagement with civil society and women’s groups, with a view to building public confidence in the benefits of a settlement”.
Most involved countries and supranational institutions and many commentators have recognised the force of that. James Ker-Lindsay of the LSE, writing in May this year, concluded that:
“Having comprehensively exhausted the elite focused approach to conflict resolution in Cyprus, it does seem time to radically rethink the ways in which we try to resolve the Cyprus Problem … a truly Cypriot-led process needs to be far more inclusive than has hitherto been the case … the case for involving civil society in any future effort to resolve the Cyprus issue is certainly compelling. After all, everything else has been tried—and failed”.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had this to say on the subject in its report of March this year:
“We … recommend that if this effort fails”—
referring to the then current round of negotiations, which did fail—
“and there is still no settlement on Cyprus once Cyprus’s period as President of the EU Council is completed … the Government should consider whether any alternative approach to the Cyprus situation, by itself and the international community, might be more likely than previous efforts to yield a settlement”.
Fortunately, some organisations have believed in that approach for some years and have made substantial funds available to help encourage the development and inclusion of civil society. That financial help is absolutely critical. As INTRAC noted last year in its extensive briefing paper on the subject, key challenges are sustainability and funding, staffing and maintaining CSO networks. Funding is absolutely the key issue. If we believe that the involvement of civil society can advance reunification, then money needs to be found. In 2009, the EEA awarded €1.5 million in grants to civil society projects in Cyprus. In June this year the EU approved funding of €26.5 million to the Turkish community with the goal of promoting confidence-building and reconciliation between the two parts of the divided island. Beneficiaries of the new funding will include civil society organisations.
But what is Britain’s contribution to the encouragement of civil society in Cyprus? On 11 June this year in a Written Question, I asked Her Majesty’s Government,
“which bi-zonal or bi-communal civil society organisations or projects in Cyprus they currently support”.
This was the Answer:
“We welcome bi-communal work in Cyprus, which is an important way of preparing the ground ahead of a settlement by building trust between the two communities. The UK supports directly the Committee on Missing Persons through both financial donations and by providing its accommodation. In the past 24 months, our High Commission has hosted the Stelios award for successful bi-communal businesses”.—[Official Report, 11/6/12; col. WA 156.]
That does not seem to be a lot and it does not seem to take civil society very seriously. It does not measure up to our history or our obligations in Cyprus. I hope very much that today the Minister will tell us about a much greater effort and much greater funding. After all, a lot is at stake here. I look forward to hearing the contributions of all noble Lords on this matter.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the current chairman of the all-party group for Northern Cyprus. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Sharkey for securing this brief debate. For years, Northern Cyprus has been treated unfairly, and even spitefully, by Greek Cypriots. Considering that Britain is a guarantor, I believe that we have failed in our duty to the north to get things right. These people really do not deserve to bear the suffering and hardship that is inflicted on them—and many of us have seen it for ourselves.
In my three minutes, I shall deal with the case of Meliz Redif, a Turkish Cypriot athlete who sought to compete in the Olympics. She had every right to do so, but she was not allowed to unless she changed her nationality, lied, denied her own country and claimed to be from Turkey. The Olympic charter specifically states that taking part is a human right without discrimination of any kind. I cannot believe that Britain, as a guarantor, can stand by while people whose only fault is that they live in the wrong part of Cyprus are treated in this way. It seems that only the reunification of the island will end this suffering. I long to hear that my own Government fully appreciate and understand the unfairness and suffering that is going on, and will seek again to end it.
My Lords, the European Union was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and I hope that the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, will congratulate the European Union on achieving the aim of providing peace in Europe over the past 60 to 70 years. But one big failure has been the inclusion of Cyprus in the Union when peace has not been secured on the island. My sympathy for Northern Cyprus was increased when I learnt that it had agreed to the Annan plan but southern Cyprus had not. I can assure the Minister that the European Union Select Committee, which is currently writing a report on enlargement, will ensure that never again will anyone come into the European Union represented by a divided nation.
I have had the benefit of twice visiting Turkish Northern Cyprus. At the moment, the EU presidency is held by southern Cyprus. A missed opportunity there was the chance for the two sides to work together both informally and formally to welcome the other countries of Europe. Can the Minister say what help the United Kingdom has given to the presidency—it is the first presidency to be held by Cyprus—in these very difficult times? I hope that we have given administrative help and advice. Perhaps I can press her to take other opportunities after the six-month presidency expires to try to deal with some of the other outstanding problems, not the least of which is that we are still not allowed to operate direct flights from the United Kingdom to Northern Cyprus. Under the Bologna process the vibrant universities of Northern Cyprus are still excluded from exchanging and learning from other universities around the whole of the European Union.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, I have seen NGOs, civil society and particularly the business community come together on the island of Cyprus. These could use opportunities such as gas exploration to help revive the island of Cyprus, which is experiencing some real financial problems on both sides of the dividing line.
If it is the case, as we have learned, that Turkey is now Greece’s number two trading partner—if their two presences are beginning to come together in the economic sphere—it should also be the case for Northern Cyprus. Will the Government make a new initiative to help out and resolve this issue?
My Lords, I declare an interest as the secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cyprus. I thank my noble friend Lord Sharkey for securing this debate. I have spoken many times over many hours on Cyprus, but I have never had to do it in three minutes, so I hope that I will get in the key points I wanted to raise today.
As has been mentioned, the UN peacekeeping forces have been in Cyprus since 1964—48 years later they are still there. The problems did not start in 1974, as we so often hear, and like so many others of a Cypriot heritage—in my case, Turkish-Cypriot—my family have been directly affected by decades of unrest, conflict and loss. All Greek and Turkish Cypriots have suffered. There are victims on all sides.
Following the failure of the biggest opportunity, the 2004 Annan peace plan, and the ensuing failed referendum, many of us were hugely disappointed when Greek Cypriots voted overwhelmingly no and Turkish Cypriots voted emphatically yes. This no vote cemented the status quo. In 2004 a categorical promise was given to Turkish Cypriots by the EU to lift and alleviate isolation. What representations have the UK Government made to honour these promises?
The recent efforts of the United Nations towards Cypriot-led talks have failed and I believe they have retrenched divisions. Both the UK and, in my view, the EU have hidden behind the United Nations and are in danger of contracting out any responsibility to help and support new ways towards a solution. Disappointingly, lobbying by some here in the UK has become a campaign to preserve the status quo. I must stress that the groups doing this are a minority, but a vocal minority, adept at lobbying parliamentarians who often lack background knowledge and experience of Cyprus, and simply listen to the loudest voices and form their views after a few days visiting some parts of the island. This is not helpful, and only seeks to polarise opinion and reinforce divisions.
I believe that the United Kingdom, as one of the guarantor powers, has a responsibility to be more proactive and an honest broker. Neither Greek nor Turkish Cypriots can fulfil their potential on an island whose future is so unequal, divided, uncertain, militarised and facing new economic difficulties—and, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, educational difficulties as well. Are we really saying that Turkish Cypriots should be denied recognised qualifications until there is a peace plan at some point? I do not think so.
I believe strongly in the need to unblock the situation on the island and engage civil society, as so eloquently mentioned by my noble friend Lord Sharkey. Both Greek and Turkish-Cypriot NGOs argue that by focusing solely on the talks at the leadership level, we are losing out on real opportunities. The UN formula of two men—and I am afraid that it is always men—locked in a room, disengaged from their respective communities, until they agree on all points, has not worked.
In the north, there is a new civil society movement, spearheaded by Dr Kudret Özersay, the former UN chief negotiator, called Toparlaniyoruz, which in Turkish roughly means, “We are pulling ourselves together” or “We are getting our act together”. I call on the Government here to get their act together a bit more and support NGOs, civil society and organisations working on the ground to bring far more peace, equality and dialogue. If you ask any Greek or Turkish Cypriots, here in London or in Cyprus, about the peace process, the response is likely to be the same: complete apathy and resignation. Can we please see efforts from Her Majesty’s Government and the EU to change this?
My Lords, this debate, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, asks the Government what their current assessment is of the prospects for the reunification of Cyprus. I am sorry to say that my opinion is that they are nil and I shall explain why. I have been to Cyprus for every one of the past 50 years and I am also a regular attendee of the Anglican church in Kyrenia. I well remember 1975, after the coup d’état, when the collection plate went around in the church and we were told, “British pounds or Greek Cypriot pounds but no Turkish lira”. Unfortunately, that was the attitude at that time.
In 1963, the Turkish Cypriots were driven out of the partnership state of Cyprus. In 1974, there was a coup d’etat by the Athens-inspired Government, bringing in the former EOKA leader, Sampson, as the president. In 1975, I was there when, only a few months later, the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus was created, which subsequently in 1983 became the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. We are now celebrating the 29th anniversary of peace since the TRNC was created.
In 2004, a peace agreement was proposed by the United Nations. The Turkish Cypriots voted for it, but the Greek Cypriots rejected the peace agreement. What was their reward? The European Union immediately appointed the Greek Cypriots as a member state, which was a disastrous decision yet again by the EU. It was not the first one it has made but this was a very bad decision. It means that the Greek Cypriots no longer have any incentive whatever to reach agreement within the island of Cyprus.
There are three jurisdictions in Cyprus: the Greek Cypriot jurisdiction, known as the Cyprus Government; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; and, of course, there are United Kingdom sovereign bases. Therefore, we must have talks. As one who took part in the Belfast agreement settlement, I know the importance of talks. But those talks must not be under the auspices of the European Union in any way. It is biased in every respect: Greece is a member, Greek Cyprus is a member and there is a background of accepting Greek Cyprus even though it voted against the Annan agreement.
What is the way forward? We can have unity with Turkey; we can have independence for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; or we can have a bizonal agreement. Unity with Turkey is already taking place—they have the same religion, the same currency and free trade. Unity is on its way. I do not think that that is the answer and we have to try to do something to stop it. I find independence of the TRNC diplomatically impossible to accept.
You do not want to hear any more. I have some questions for the Government. First, will they investigate how Cyprus, as present president of the European Council, employing 700 people in Brussels, employs only one Turkish Cypriot? Is that fair play? Let us hear the answer to that. Why has that not been raised by the United Kingdom Government? Secondly, why does our sovereign base in southern Cyprus, in Akrotiri, refuse to issue any statements or contact the press in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Conference of European Churches, of which the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus is a member.
First, I will offer a personal reminiscence. Way back during the summer of 1974, I was preparing myself to take up a post at Lambeth Palace in the then international affairs department. The breaking news of course that summer was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in response to the provocative tactics, already mentioned, of the Greek-speaking south, instigated by Athens. There the division of Cyprus seems to have remained. I am not unaware of the significant local and international attempts at reconciliation, which we have heard, and we know, have had no success so far.
The points I want to make are simple. First, before the intervention and its provocation, there were many villages and communities where there was a well documented positive relationship between the local communities. The partition and then the movement of populations have made that much more difficult and, indeed, in most places locally impossible. Yet there were places where the two religious communities, Greek Orthodox and Muslim, in part shared, in a local way, each other’s local feasts and festivals. Some restoration of this local community respect and mutual celebration needs to be considered, alongside political initiatives. That is very much alongside what the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, said in terms of civil society.
The second point is about the UN and the Green Line. The softening of the Green Line in part in latter years is, of course, welcome—it is easy for tourists. This needs to be further encouraged in terms of the ability of the local communities. Some time ago, I spent some time on the Green Line with the British Army chaplains seconded to the UN force. I could go across either side at will because I have a UN pass and privilege to do that. The local communities need to be enabled to do that again too.
Thirdly and finally, in Turkey there are reasonable and constructive religious relations and dialogue, at least at the level of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Muslim leaders in Istanbul and elsewhere. Obviously that does not apply to more extreme groups, but there are external ecumenical bodies, such as the Conference of European Churches and the World Council of Churches that might in part, alongside a reengagement of civil society, be constructive instruments of reconciliation. In a taxi on the way here this afternoon, I noticed an advertisement for North Cyprus as a unique Mediterranean experience—“beautiful North Cyprus”. I encourage everybody and Her Majesty’s Government to do all we possibly can to make that experience even more beautiful in terms of the reconciliation of communities, in spite of all the international road blocks so far.
My Lords, as a relative newcomer to the Cyprus question and as a member of the all-party Northern Cyprus group, I have listened to many experts speaking in that group and here today. The recent Congressional Research Service paper entitled, optimistically, Cyprus: Reunification Proving Elusive, reiterates that roughly 18% of the population are of Turkish origin, so any settlement must take fair account of this representation. The Treaty of Guarantee of 1960 promised the Turkish population security, which was in danger of being breached by a more hard-line president in Greece, who was encouraging union of the island with Greece. Hence, there was the need for Turkey to invade in 1974 to protect their minority on the island.
I can understand more clearly the history of negotiations since the 2002 Annan plan. The best chances of reunification appeared to be the Christofias-Talat negotiations between 2008 and 2010. However, since Mr Eroglu came to power, relations between the two sides seem to have become much more difficult. President Christofias comes out with little credit and it remains to be seen what the attitude of his successor will be after the election in 2013.
With regards to the issues, the paper makes clear why negotiations have been so difficult. First, there is the very basic issue of how a new united Cyprus would be created. The Greek Cypriots assume it would be evolved from the existing Republic of Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot view, which I have much more sympathy for, is that the new state would be based on two equal founding states. Mr Eroglu has hinted that he is not prepared to give up the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus or its flag. Disagreement has also continued over the process for appointing the president and vice-president.
The next very difficult area is the thorny issue of property. Since 1974, it is estimated that over 150,000 Greek Cypriots living in the north have been forced south, and close to 50,000 Turkish Cypriots living in the south have fled to the north, with both communities leaving massive amounts of vacated property. The establishment of the Immovable Property Commission—the IPC—to hear cases related to Greek Cypriot property in the north was a positive step. It is interesting to note that a few private Greek property owners have filed claims for compensation. As in past negotiations, the gap in the respective Cypriot positions had been great and appears to remain so.
Then there is the by no means small issue of overall territory that would come under the jurisdiction of the two equal states. The Turkish Cypriot side of the Green Line includes approximately 37% of the island and includes several areas that had been almost 100% Greek Cypriot-inhabited before the 1974 division. Greek Cypriots want that territory returned, which would leave the Turkish Cypriot side controlling about 29% of the territory. Next to the property issue, the issue of security guarantees continues to be one of the most difficult bridges to cross. At the end of all this, I feel that the only way forward will be to involve civil society more, but I fear that formalised partition may be a possibility.
My Lords, the recent reports contained in the helpful Library pack make gloomy reading for those of us who strongly favour the reunification of this beautiful island. The Congressional Research Service report ended by asking whether unification can be achieved at all, with the increasing possibility of a permanent separation; a view shared, for example, by Jack Straw. Historians may look back and see the events of 2004, 2008 and 2010, with the good relationship between President Christofias and Mr Talat, as failed opportunities, leading possibly to an ultimate separation.
Does the Minister see any signs of hope in the current position, for example on the apportionment of resources from the recently discovered gas fields? On demography, is it her understanding that many—some say up to 50,000—Turkish settlers have returned to the booming economy of the mainland? Will the election in February 2013 of Mr Anastasiadis of DISY, who voted yes in the referendum, have a positive effect? Does the Minister agree that the key to any possible settlement still lies in Ankara, which, after the EU dimension, has less incentive to press for an agreement?
Surely the grim reality is that there seems to be insufficient political will to make progress. There is currently a sense of drift, with both sides, particularly the younger generation, becoming used to the status quo of a divided island. The lack of confidence has been increased by recent border provocations. In classical Greek drama, when there was no clear ending, a “deus ex machina” was brought on to the stage. Alas, there appear to be none on the horizon, save, perhaps, the greater involvement of civil society as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. The beautiful island of Aphrodite slides towards greater separation all because of a lack of trust on both sides and a continued failure to make progress on the core issues such as property and territory. Can the Minister cheer us by signalling any windows of opportunity?
My Lords, in 2014 it will be 50 years since United Nations troops started peacekeeping in Cyprus. Despite their best efforts, not only has there been a lack of progress but resolution is further away than it has ever been, as public attitudes harden and the economic disparities increase. The international view is that this is entirely a matter for Cyprus. Indeed, the main victims of this failure of political leadership are the Cypriot people. We owe it to them to think about whether it is time to approach this differently. There is also a much wider set of strategic issues that make progress imperative. There is the whole question of Turkey’s membership of the EU and what that means for where Turkey sees its future alliances, and the growing instability in the eastern Mediterranean and how Cyprus plays into that, particularly since the discovery of offshore gas.
Of course, the solution cannot be forced on anyone and nor can you make people undertake fruitful negotiations. However, I believe it is possible to change some facts on the ground, and here are a few possible thoughts. There is currently a proposal to expand the port of Limassol and no doubt an EU grant will be sought to do the work. However, as an alternative, real consideration should be given to developing the port of Famagusta. There is a viable option that would see it operating under the auspices of the European Union and open to all trade. The economic benefits would be significant and it could help unlock the ban on Greek-Cypriot trade using Turkish ports.
Secondly, the EU must turn its attention to meeting the commitment it made to introduce the direct trade regulations that will free up businesses in the north to trade directly with EU countries. The Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce told me two years ago that direct trade would go a long way to bridging the economic gap with the Republic of Cyprus. At the very least, the EU should ensure that barriers are not placed on the transit of goods from north to south under the Green Line regulations.
Thirdly, regional agreement needs to be reached on the development of the offshore gas resources. Currently, the Republic will struggle to develop the fields because of the political uncertainty, and because the cost of liquefying the gas and sending it by sea is unlikely to be economically viable. On the other hand, a gas pipeline through Turkey is a completely different matter. News came from Ankara last week that work has started on a water pipeline from Turkey to Northern Cyprus, to which an electricity pipe will be added. Either the EU or the UN should act as a broker for a deal that develops these new infrastructures for the benefit of the whole island.
Finally, we should build on the work that has been carried out by the UN and EU to build civic society and foster links between the communities. Strengthening these communities, and creating cultural and sporting links on both sides, across the border and internationally, would over time help to change the terms of the debate on the future of Cyprus.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for raising an issue that has preoccupied me for more than 25 years. Rather than repeat what I and others have articulated in support of the human rights of Turkish Cypriots over that period, I want to try, in these few moments available to me, to examine the role and responsibility of the United Kingdom in the context of the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, where we were, and still are, one of the three guarantor powers.
Sadly, I have observed over my 30 years in Parliament the extent to which successive UK Governments have allowed themselves to delegate authority to the United Nations, to the United States and, worst of all, to the European Union—to an extent where Ministers are no longer in a position to state a government position but merely seek to interpret extraneous influences that are used to excuse their own political impotence.
It is, at the time when we ponder 50 years of BBC moral ineptitude, not inappropriate to remember the not dissimilar behavioural vulnerability the United Kingdom exploited in order to force Archbishop Makarios into an agreement that was never going to work, had no historical precedent and abandoned Turkish Cypriots to a form of ethnic cleansing that was virtually overlooked until we encountered the later events in the Yugoslav or Balkan wars 20 years ago.
Our culpability was that as a guarantor power we abdicated to the United Nations, which, not for the last time, stood by while innocent women and children were slaughtered by terrorists like Nikos Sampson and EOKA-B. Thank God Turkey, albeit 10 years too late, intervened in 1974. That was 38 years ago and our feeble reaction to this period has been to isolate the victims and to embargo their rights to their identity, their travel, their businesses and their educational opportunities. What arrogance and what injustice. Still, after two generations we merely subscribe to an unrealistic United Nations premise, which was contrived in panic in 1963. We seek to perpetuate a failed process—the Annan plan—which was voted down at the 11th hour by Greek Cypriots when, to our shame, we cravenly abandoned every conditional promise that we had made to the Turkish Cypriots who accepted it.
Time beats me but I conclude with this challenge. I ask the Minister to show me a single episode in this sad 50-year tragedy that brings credit to the United Kingdom. Is the Minister aware that this and the previous Government do not even have the courage to turn up on 11 November each year to show respect at the memorial in Girne, Kyrenia, to the 371 of our soldiers who died during the Cyprus emergency between 1956 and 1959? I ask the Minister: when will this Government find adequate time to fully debate the Cyprus issue and contribute positively towards a plan that has some modicum of humanity and circumspection, in contrast to our past ineptitude?
My Lords, we should thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for posing this Question, which allows us to have this debate. Many noble Lords have spoken with great passion about the intractable problems and multiple injustices of the island of Cyprus. The Government should listen hard to what has been said. For my part, the Cyprus issue is a 21st-century equivalent of what Lord Palmerston quipped about the Schleswig-Holstein question: “Only three people understood it; the prince consort who is dead; the German professor who is mad; and me, who has forgotten all about it.”. I am afraid that this issue is of such complexity that that is what it is like.
When Labour was in government and I was in No. 10, we tried to resolve this complexity by sending for the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who tried to negotiate a deal. Indeed, he made quite a lot of progress and it is a great pity he is not here to bring his wisdom to this debate.
Our options are limited. What happened in 2004 was a tragedy but we were acting under a threat of Greece vetoing the major enlargement of the European Union and one had to make a realpolitik choice in truth about what was the best thing to do, which was very difficult. What can be done now? What does the Minister think that we can do, as Britain, as a guarantor power in trying to promote reconciliation on the island? Given our history, we have a special responsibility and we should exercise it.
More than that, I have always thought that the solution to the Cyprus problem was part of a wider solution to the relations between Greece and Turkey, and the whole situation in the eastern Mediterranean. It is very important that, as committed members of the EU, we are trying to proceed with Turkish membership. That is what will give us quite a lot of leverage in order to get a solution to this problem.
In terms of Greece and Cyprus, and the economic difficulties that Greece is presently in, if things go wrong there, this will make the situation in that part of the world much worse. We have to exercise our best endeavours to make sure that we do not have an economic collapse that leads to a return to extreme nationalism in that part of the world. I fear for the consequences were that to happen. We look forward very much to hearing the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to this excellent debate.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond for the Government to this debate brought by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. I start by endorsing his words of congratulation to my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, quite usefully laid out how the previous Government dealt with some of these challenges, and once again I am reminded of the great experience and expertise in this House on foreign relations and Foreign Office matters. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, missed me yesterday at Oral Questions, but I am sure that he will agree that campaigning for re-election to the Human Rights Council in Geneva was as important.
Cyprus has been too long divided, as I am sure all Cypriots and friends of Cyprus would agree. The current round of settlement negotiations, under way since September 2008, unfortunately is in hiatus. The United Nations is doing what it can to move the process along in the absence of political-level meetings. It is focusing on the work of the technical committees, trying to make them more productive and focusing on practical co-operation. Alexander Downer, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Cyprus, believes that there has been some success.
The Greek Cypriots continue to express willingness to continue talks, but not constrained by a timeframe. The Turkish Cypriots say that they want to continue talks but wish for a timetable that would include a deadline for a multilateral conference in order to create the environment for give and take, which they say is necessary to address the internal aspects of the negotiations. The leaders of the two communities have not met since March this year and it seems unlikely that any such meeting will take place until after the presidential elections next February.
Her Majesty’s Government continue to take a keen interest in the situation in Cyprus. We are very aware of our role as a guarantor power, but we must not lose sight of the fact that this is a process by Cypriots for Cypriots, and that it is for the leaders of the two communities, whoever they may be, to work constructively together to deliver a new future for Cyprus. We will continue to support this process and to encourage all who have a role to play to seize the opportunity of a new political era to find a solution to this long-running human tragedy.
As a guarantor power, the UK has undertaken by treaty to prohibit,
“any activity aimed at promoting directly or indirectly, either union of Cyprus with any other State or partition of the Island”.
A settlement will bring long-term stability, peace and security for all the people of a united island within the European Union, supporting the prosperity of all Cypriots and ending the isolation of those who live in the north of the island. More widely, it will create an arc of greater stability from the Aegean to the eastern Mediterranean by removing the major impediment to good relations between Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.
Only through a fair and lasting settlement can we ensure that all the people on the island are the beneficiaries of a fair and sustainable future and that the EU acquis can be extended to the whole island. It would deliver significant economic benefits for both communities, opening up greater opportunities for regional trade and investment. Reunification would also provide the space for civil society to flourish and for leaders to look outwards, spending time on the global issues that confront us all, such as climate change and energy security.
Living on a divided island cannot be a situation that any Cypriot would want to continue without a long-term solution. Ordinary citizens cannot move around the island as noble Lords would move around the UK, and this was raised today in the debate. There are checks on persons as they cross the Green Line that divides the two communities, and checks on the movement of goods have an inevitable negative impact on the prosperity of the island as a whole.
The division of the island has resulted in the dislocation of ordinary Cypriot families, and the resulting disputes about the ownership of property continue to impact on people today. Many Cypriots born after 1974 do not know anyone from the other community. Where there is no contact there can be no understanding, and negative stereotypes tend to dominate the image each community has of the other.
My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece raised some valid points about views on the issue not being fully informed. She always speaks with great passion and expertise and expresses very personally the frustration felt by so many in Cyprus. My noble friend also asked specifically what the UK is doing in relation to alleviating the isolation of Turkish Cypriots. The UK is in contact with many civil society groups in Northern Cyprus. It supports the direct trade regulation blocked in the EU and is working to support a comprehensive settlement as ultimately the most effective way of ending the isolation of Turkish Cypriots.
There are some positive signs and it is important that we do not lose sight of them. Following the dreadful explosion in July last year which killed 12 people and knocked out the main electricity plant in the south, the two communities were able to come to an agreement which saw the north of the island supplementing the electricity supply for the south. This mirrors the arrangements made in 2006 when the Government of Cyprus agreed to supply the north with electricity after an explosion in the main power plant. That type of co-operation and practical assistance shows that it is possible to move forward from the difficulties of the past.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, referred to the recent gas finds. The UK is optimistic that efforts to achieve a settlement will eventually be successful. The gas finds and the presidential elections next February are a part of this. In this difficult and long-lasting situation, my noble friend Lord Sharkey is absolutely right to say that civil society within and between the two communities has an important role to play in developing the key missing ingredient, that of trust. Civil society can reach out to those beyond the bounds of politics to establish practical working relationships and foster co-operation that will lay down the grounds for a long-term improvement in relations.
Perhaps I may give some real examples of where civil society contacts and initiatives are working. Over the past five years, our high commissioner has worked closely with Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s Stelios Philanthropic Foundation to encourage bicommunal business. It also directly supports the bicommunal Committee on Missing Persons through financial and practical support. This important committee is working on one of the most difficult and distressing aspects of the whole situation, seeking to identify bodies and find resolution for families who do not know what happened to their loved ones. There are also important locally driven initiatives looking at best practice and learning lessons from other long-running, complex intercommunal conflicts, such as those in Northern Ireland and South Africa. Valuable efforts are also being made to bring the two communities together that include school children.
I take the noble Lord’s point, but there are lessons that can be learnt. The FCO funds a small number of projects to support this.
I agree that more could be done, and I turn to the specific point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford on bringing together religious communities in order to foster reconciliation. The UK would support any efforts made to encourage the coming together of the Muslim and Greek Orthodox communities on the island. The right reverend Prelate is aware of the work I support in relation to inter-faith understanding.
My noble friend Lady Knight spoke of the important case of Meliz Redif. Her Majesty’s Government do not recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and so we were unable to make representations to the International Olympic Committee about the inclusion of Northern Cyprus as a participant country in the Olympic Games. Turkish Cypriots are able to compete under the Cypriot flag, but I am afraid that I must presume that that is not the answer my noble friend wished to hear.
The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked what help could be offered through the Cypriot presidency of the European Union. The Government have provided support through practical assistance, including the provision of secondees across government. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, raised the issue of the employment of Turkish Cypriots in Brussels. Who is employed has to be a matter for the Republic of Cyprus. However, the British high commission employs staff from both communities.
I was not talking about the British high commission. I was talking about the so-called Cyprus Government, the Greek Cypriot Administration, which totally discriminates against Turkish Cypriots in Brussels. The United Kingdom is a guarantor power. Are we doing nothing, as a guarantor power, to exercise our powers in respect of fair employment by the Cyprus Government?
The specific question that the noble Lord asked was in relation to employment in Brussels. We, of course, only have a say in relation to the people that we employ at the British high commission. It is therefore important to stress that we employ staff from both communities. The high commission represents—
No, my Lords, the British Government are not saying that. I must move on as a number of matters were raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Northbrook, raised the issue of the Immovable Property Commission. We support that commission and agree that property is one of the key and most complex areas for any final settlement.
My noble friend Lady Scott raised the issue of direct trade for Turkish Cypriots. The UK is committed to liberalisation of trade with the Turkish Cypriot community but the relevant draft EU regulation is being blocked at the moment by the Republic of Cyprus.
Many of the issues surrounding any debate on Cyprus are understandably difficult and emotive. The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, outlined some of these, including issues such as the fate of missing persons and the loss of one’s home, things that thankfully most of us will never have to face. Those who lived through the events in Cyprus’s turbulent past, and their children and grandchildren, are now living with the legacy of those events. It is absolutely right that we do not forget the past and that we acknowledge the pain suffered by the ordinary people of Cyprus, but we must also look to the future and continue to have faith in the UN-led settlement process. We must look to the leaders of the two communities, who ultimately are responsible for working together to deliver a package that the Cypriot people can believe in and which will secure the future for the reunited island, so that her people can live together in peace.
Until that future is secured, we hope, through the work of the technical committees, confidence-building measures and grass-roots initiatives such as the Stelios award for business co-operation, that the everyday lives of Cypriots can be improved and, in parallel, that trust between the two communities can regrow. It is only through building such trust that a stable and prosperous future for all Cypriots can be assured. I am sure that I have not answered all questions raised by noble Lords—
I wish the Minister well in her new position in Government. However, it is a huge disappointment when we get a response to a debate that has been pre-prepared and does not answer a single question that has been raised. I would have thought that, at a time when the Prime Minister is talking about remembering the sacrifices of 1914, she might at least have had the initiative to address the matter I raised about 371 of our soldiers who died during the Cyprus emergency. I am disappointed that she has failed to do so.
I was about to say in conclusion that I am sure I have not answered all the matters and questions that have been raised by noble Lords in an hour’s debate on such an important issue, about which there is so much expertise in this House. I can assure noble Lords, including the noble Lord, that I will respond to them in writing on any specific questions that have not been answered today.
Housing: Park Homes
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.