Motion to Consider
My Lords, the purpose of this order is to transfer the appellate jurisdiction in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and the Mobile Homes Act 2013 from residential property tribunals to the Property Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal and to make other changes in the law in connection with that transfer. It also makes changes to certain forms required to be used under the Housing Act 1988 with reference to the relevant tribunal. The order applies to England only.
Residential property tribunals had jurisdiction to settle disputes between owners of park homes and their site owners and to hear appeals on contractual matters arising under the Mobile Homes Act 1983. This dispute resolution was transferred to the First-tier Tribunal when it was launched on 1 July 2013. In the mean time, the Mobile Homes Act 2013 received Royal Assent on 26 March 2013. This hugely important Act started as a Private Member’s Bill in the other place and was navigated through your Lordships’ House with great skill by the noble Lord, Lord Best. The Government were pleased to support it.
The Act reflects the Government’s commitment to ensure that park home owners’ rights are respected and their health and safety protected. It introduced a reformed local authority licensing regime, modernising the scheme in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. This came into force on 1 April 2014 and for the first time gives local authorities real teeth in ensuring that park home sites are properly maintained and managed. Local authorities can now require works to be carried out to ensure that licence conditions are complied with and, in the case of an emergency, can enter the site and do the works themselves, recovering their costs from the site owner.
We want, of course, to ensure that local authorities act proportionately and site owners are not required to carry out works that do not come within the terms of the site licence or that are excessive, which is why the Act provided for appeals against local authority decisions to be heard by residential property tribunals. As I have already indicated, those tribunals were already dealing with disputes under the Mobile Homes Act 1983, and were therefore familiar with the issues in this very small niche part of the housing market.
Secondly, residential property tribunals already dealt with appeals on housing conditions and licensing in the private rented sector. It was therefore logical that those tribunals be given the appellate jurisdiction in the new licensing regime in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and take over existing licensing functions in that Act from magistrates’ courts. It is now necessary to transfer the functions conferred on the defunct residential property tribunals under the 1960 Act and the Mobile Homes Act 2013 to the Property Chamber so that appeals against licensing decisions can be determined by the First-tier Tribunal, which is what this order sets out to achieve. The transfer order also amends the 2013 fees order to allow fees to be charged for applications regarding mobile homes site rules and under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960.
I accordingly commend the draft order to the Committee.
My Lords, I declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a former council leader. Therefore, I have a keen interest in all aspects of local government matters.
I would like to ask about the level of fees to be charged rather than the transfer of jurisdiction, which is what the order is mainly about. My query relates to paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which states:
“The normal policy is that fees should be set at a level to recover no more than the full cost of providing the service”
I agree with that; that is the correct policy. However, will the Minister clarify whether the definition of full cost actually is full cost in this instance? It is a fee level of £155. Has that fee level been set to include a contribution to a council’s overheads rather than just being the recovery of the immediate direct cost?
I raise this because I think that it is an issue of principle. When I was a council leader, I discovered that in many instances, particularly in the regulatory and licensing areas, fees and charges were not, in fact, related to the total cost that a council incurred. That total cost includes its overheads for its premises, heating, lighting and so on. Too often fees were set to cover the cost of undertaking the immediate work involved. I seek assurance from the Minister that the total cost to a local authority has been included in paragraph 7.2 in setting the fee at £155.
My Lords, I must follow the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in declaring an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as a former leader of the same council for, if I may say so, quite a bit longer than the noble Lord. I have a certain sympathy with his view on this order to the extent that we are talking essentially about commercial organisations bearing the cost. The implication behind the noble Lord’s question is clear enough: is this a sufficient amount? If it were to fall on the occupier of a mobile home, I would be somewhat concerned about that. If the intention is that it should fall on the owner of the site as a commercial proposition, I think he makes a significant point. I am glad that he has made it because my only reservation about this order would have been to point to the split infinitive in the Explanatory Note.
I am grateful for the learned contribution from the north-east and for the grammatical point made so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. On the question of costs, as the Explanatory Note states, the position is that the fee of £155 is for making an application to the Property Chamber relating to a dispute over a mobile home. It is set at the same level as the fee applied to applications which follow similar tribunal processes for other applications. There are circumstances in which fee remissions can be obtained, but they are available only to individuals. On 7 October last the Government introduced reforms to the scheme of fee remissions in the courts and tribunals, and the purpose was to reduce the cost of the scheme to the taxpayer while ensuring that fee remissions were better targeted at those who cannot afford to pay the fee. They introduced a single fee remission scheme across the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, which is a simplified means test based on a gross monthly income and disposable capital test.
The question arises as to whether the costs payable in these cases should act as a deterrent to elderly residents. I think that, perhaps contrary to the sense of the debate so far, those concerned with these disputes are often people who would not normally venture into a court of any sort. This is to provide a relatively cost-neutral risk for those who want to resolve what can be quite highly charged disputes about their homes without great expense and involving the paraphernalia of lawyers. In fact, in answer to the question put by noble friend Lord Shipley, the fees reflect only the costs of the tribunal, not of the local authority. I accept his point that that means that there are a number of costs which are not reflected in that overall fee. What lies behind it is the provision of the sort of service I have endeavoured to describe.
So as further to assist those who might feel that they are receiving somewhat oppressive treatment from the site owners, and sadly there are some instances of that, the procedural rules contain provisions for cost awards if the tribunal considers that a party has acted unreasonably, although of course that is a judicial decision based on the particular facts of the case. Generally, however, costs are not awarded in the Property Chamber and parties meet their own expenses in bringing a case. These hearings are conducted by tribunal members who are experienced in the area and help unrepresented parties to frame questions where necessary, so clearly it is a cheap and, I hope, effective way of resolving disputes. However, I accept entirely what lies behind the question put by my noble friend Lord Shipley, which is that there is a cost involved which is borne by the local authority.
I hope that that deals with the points made by noble Lords. However unsatisfactory this might be to local authorities from the financial point of view, they are at least in the position of knowing that a useful service is being provided to those who are often in a vulnerable position in society. That is because those who acquire park homes, as they are known, often have little by way of rights and do not have clear contracts. Despite the fact that quite a lot of money is involved in these homes, there is nothing like the same security that someone would have if they were acquiring a house by the normal conveyancing route. This tribunal is providing an extremely useful and important source of remedy to help often vulnerable people.
To summarise, this order will make the changes necessary to transfer the functions conferred on the defunct residential property tribunals to the Property Chamber, so appeals against licensing decisions can be determined by the First-tier Tribunal. I commend this draft order to the Committee.