§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.8 a.m.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is my privilege to move the Second Reading of the Bill, but in doing so I wish to recognise publicly that I am carrying a torch that has been borne in the past by other hon. Members. I am pleased to see in the Chamber my hon. Friends the Members for Abingdon (Mr. Neave), and Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), and the hon. Members for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), who have also been active. I express my appreciation to them and to the other sponsors of the Bill for the extremely constructive work they have done in bringing forward legislation that we think will be effective.
I am also grateful for the consultations that have taken place outside the House with the National Caravan Council, the National Federation of Site Operators and the National Mobile Home Residents' Association, which have all been conducted in an extremely constructive manner. We have also had discussions with the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils. I hope that the House will feel that we have made every attempt to take into account the various points of view that are relevant to the Bill.
I have appreciated greatly the extremely constructive and helpful discussions I have had with the Minister's officials, I know with his kind blessing. Undoubtedly that has been of great benefit in getting the Bill right. I do not suggest that the Bill is absolutely right yet. There may be a little way still to go. The discussions we have had, and the help which has been given in complicated matters by the Government Department concerned, have been in the best traditions of private Members' Bills.
I owe a great personal debt to my parliamentary agent. If I say that I hope I can afford his services. I do not say so 888 in any churlish sense of begrudging his effort and contribution, but rather as the gentlest hint to the Select Committee now considering private Members' facilities. I refer to the problems experienced by a private Member, in promoting a Bill which is not supported or financed by outside interests, who is genuinely trying to strike a balance between different parties and who is therefore not prepared to receive outside financial assistance. I hope that the Select Committee will take note of that point.
Therefore I pay a genuine tribute to my parliamentary agent. My name appears on the Bill, together with those of other sponsors. If the Bill becomes an Act, the name of Mr. Colin Winser should be associated with it, because of his contribution. Part of my personal motivation in introducing the Bill is provided by the background to the approach to mobile homes. Mobile homes can make a great contribution to the housing scene, which God knows, is desperately needed.
Too many local authorities still identify mobile homes with substandard gipsy caravan sites, and do not realise the full potential of such homes. They identify mobiles homes with the small towing, touring caravans. That is a distortion. The mobiles home industry has great capacity and can produce a substantial number of units, which will be extremely helpful on the housing scene.
Today Shelter produced a report on mobile homes and factory-built housing. They make the point that such accommodation can be constructed to Parker Morris standards and that its life span is continually being increased. With the latest improvements, a life of up to 50 years is claimed for the better types. Shelter points out that a twin-unit mobile home, containing two bedrooms, of 800 sq ft is slightly larger than the average two-bedroomed council flat or small private bungalow. Those hon. Members who have visited sites and seen the modern and better mobile homes will appreciate that they make attractive homes, if they are situated on properly planned sites and provided with proper services.
In the United States 5 million people live in mobile homes, the majority from preference. There is nothing like the 889 same impact in the United Kingdom. Although the figures are in some doubt, between 170,000 and 250,000 people live in mobile homes as their permanent and only residences. The Bill is designed to help those people.
I was struck by the number of mobile home residents who prefer this type of home. Elderly people find that this system gives them an opportunity to purchase a home in a part of the country to which they prefer to retire. Mobile homes can provide the first rung on the housing ladder for a number of young couples, provided that there is a resale possibility. That factor is the greatest handicap to the contribution that mobile homes can make to the housing scene. So far there has been insufficient secondhand resale value to make mobile homes a satisfactory purchase for young couples. I hope that the Bill will make a contribution towards solving that problem.
I was pleased that the Secretary of State, in discussing the possibilities of making an urgent impact on the present housing problems, emphasised the possibility of mobile homes.
Having discussed the potential for mobile homes, I look at the present situation. I wonder why more progress has not been made. Last week the Minister indicated, in answer to a question, that there has been a small but steady increase in the number of sites licensed in recent years. The numbers are still modest and obviously there is a much smaller proportion of residents in mobile homes in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Part of the reason is that while the majority of sites are well run and properly managed, there is nevertheless concern about abuse. There have been some tragic cases. I was struck at the number of letters I have received from tenants paying tribute to the way in which their sites were run and to the co-operative and helpful attitude of their site owners. I do not wish the Bill to be seen in any sense as a site owners' Bill. It is an attempt to strike a balance between the legitimate and, to a certain extent, conflicting interests of owners and tenants.
I take comfort from the fact that I received a letter from the National Caravan Council, which includes a considerable 890 number of owners in its membership, and which is anxious to make it clear that in general it supports the Bill. On the "Today" programme, Shelter, obviously with tenants' interests in mind, said that it fully supported the Bill. I have received considerable support from the residents' association. Although I am conscious of the difficulties in striking the balance, I think that we have made a reasonable attempt to tackle the problem.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that local authorities are remarkably slow to authorise sites, which would make the market more equal between those who want sites and those who provide them?
§ Mr. King
I agree with my hon. Friend. I shall speak about planning problems and site supervision. The point he makes is absolutely valid.
Other problems have held back expansion of mobile homes. While the majority of sites are well run and make a useful contribution to the housing scene, considerable publicity has been given to certain cases of abuse, which has undermined the market for many people who might otherwise have considered mobile homes as a suitable form of housing. There is a great fear which arises from insecurity of tenure. Many hon. Members will share my experience of the number of letters which end "Please do not mention my name because if it gets out I shall be off this site since I am without any protection." Whether that is true or false, that is an impression which exists on many sites and which contributes to a great feeling of insecurity.
The other great problem is that on many sites permission is not given to resell the caravan on the site. People have suffered financial loss because there was no alternative but to sell back to a site owner at a very depressed price in the knowledge that the owner might make a substantial profit the following week by again selling the property.
The potential of mobile homes has not been realised. There may be other factors at work, but if we make a contribution to clarifying the legal position we shall perhaps do something to set the scene for expansion in mobile home ownership.
891 There is a certain rhythm about caravan legislation. There was an Act in 1960. Eight years later, in 1968, there was a further Act. Now, seven years after that, this Bill, which hopefully will become an Act, attempts to tackle the problems which arise in this area.
The problems of mobile homes range widely across the world. In the past two years a number of States in America have introduced legislation on the matter. I was struck by the revelation in the diaries of Mr. Richard Crossman, whom the Under-Secretary of State knew far better than I did, that he formed the impression that he should not be so much involved with rent legislation but should do something about the question of caravans. Without wishing to be contentious, may I say that, on the basis of some recent legislation, the same could apply to the Government.
The difficulty—and I should be the first to concede that it has been extremely difficult to strike a balance in a number of issues—is that mobile home residents are in an anomalous situation. They are the owners of mobile homes but tenants of the sites. They are outside any rent control and any landlord-tenant legislation. The Bill is an attempt to resolve the difficulty. We have sought to strike a balance between the legitimate interests of the site owners and those of the residents. I emphasise "the legitimate interests of the site owners" and hon. Members may wish to refer to the abuses and problems which have occurred in their constituencies. They may feel that the Bill does not go far enough.
I am conscious that it would have been easy to play to the gallery and to introduce a Bill which was helpful to the tenants in all sorts of ways, but if it went too far it would destroy the site owners' position, which, in the long term, could be greatly detrimental to tenants. The abuses tend to arise from a shortage of sites. If in the Bill we did anything which reduced the number of sites, it would work against the long-term interests of the tenants.
I appreciate that there are a number of contentious points in the Bill. Hon Members may suggest that the lease period is too short. They may suggest that tougher rent control is needed and that there 892 should be fewer rights for site owners in the matter of the resale of caravans. These points can be debated in Committee and no doubt a number of amendments on them will be put forward. However, I hope that hon. Members will be conscious of the need to preserve the maximum number of sites and not to destroy the position so that site owners vote with their feet and tenants suffer as a consequence.
The core of the Bill is built round the principle that there shall be written agreements. The general outline of the form of the agreements and the clauses in the Bill follow in principle the voluntary model agreement discussions which have been taking place between the representatives of the site owners and the residents' associations.
We require a number of items to be included in the written agreements, but it is not an exclusive list. We have included a safeguard provision for arbitration so that if a site owner sought to frustrate the Bill's intentions by inserting unreasonable conditions in a written agreement there would be a method by which the matter could be tackled.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Will my hon. Friend expand on that point and say whether the Minister will be able to lay down the criteria which the arbitrator shall take into account? Otherwise, it is difficult for us to guess on what basis the arbitrator will decide what is reasonable.
§ Mr. King
That is a difficult matter and, in order not to delay the House, may I point out that it will be more fully discussed in Committee. There are differing views about the propriety of the suggested form of arbitration in the Bill which I accept is not too precise. I am conscious that this is a matter which we shall need to discuss further.
The lease period in the Bill provides for a minimum of three years plus the right to renewal for a further three years. This right will be afforded to many people who may already have been on sites for 10 or 15 years. It is therefore difficult to get the figure right. We are moving into an on-going situation. It is not as if all tenants are starting from scratch. I appreciate that there will be differing views on this point.
893 We have specified in the Bill that there shall be a three-year rent review but that there shall be an annual review of the service charge. In this way we can overcome the two conflicting approaches to the difficulty of the period of the rent review. There are provisions to cover the condition of caravans.
The Bill also provides for the important right of resale on site. However, that is qualified by the option being given to the site owner of a sale at a fair market price. The site owner will have the further protection of his right to approve the purchaser if the property is sold to a third party, with the qualification that such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld. Further, if the mobile home is sold to a third party, the site owner will be entitled to a commission on the sale and such commission must be specified in the written agreement so that the mobile home owner knows his obligation and commitment when originally going on the site.
There is a clause to cover the question of model standards for sites. Such standards have been optional since 1960. We believe that they should be mandatory on local authorities. We believe that local authorities should not only impose site conditions on private site owners but that such conditions should apply to sites owned by local authorities of which criticisms have been made.
A further feature of the Bill is that it will apply to Scotland. The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) will take particular pleasure in that. I am grateful for his help in connection with the Bill. I do not think that he realises that the extension to Scotland also pleases me because Scotland was my birth place and I had the pleasure of working there. I should be very unhappy about introducing a Bill which did not include Scotland. In addition, we have been able to remedy what many of us felt was the anomaly of the 1968 Act that it did not apply to Scotland.
Those are the main provisions of the Bill which I am proud to introduce. I am conscious, however, that the Bill does not cover many aspects of the question of mobile homes and caravans in general. There is, for instance, the question of making planning permission for sites permanent. There is the question, to which 894 we must return in Committee, whether mobile home tenants should be entitled to rent allowances. At the moment they do not qualify for them. I know that it would be a departure if rent allowances which applied to permanent dwellings were to apply to mobile homes. However, many people living in mobile homes would, on financial grounds, be entitled to rent allowances. I hope that the Minister will comment on this matter.
I am conscious that, whatever the Bill can do, it cannot stop inflation and the economic forces that are at work in this country. I have already been sent by an estate agent a list containing a number of sites for sale at this time. The evidence of the correspondent who sent it to me is that the list of sites available for sale is about five times as long as normal. He suggested that my Bill was responsible for that situation. I was able to point out to the gentleman concerned that that was hardly fair as my Bill had not been published by that time. However, I think that we all recognise that the economic forces at work on small businesses, small retailers, and others are also at work on the owners of mobile home sites and that we must be concerned about that situation.
Inflation will obviously affect site owners' costs. The Bill cannot stop the economic forces that are at work having their effect. Nor can it prevent rents from rising to ensure that site owners recover their legitimate costs.
There is a limit to the scope of a Private Member's Bill. I have listed some of the items which I recognise are not covered. For that reason I welcome the review that the Secretary of State has set up, for which the Under-Secretary is personally responsible, which will cover a much wider area than has been possible in the Bill. I hope that will be a useful back up to the initial start which will be provided by the Bill if it receives a Second Reading today.
I make no extravagant claims for the Bill, but I sincerely believe that it represents a real advance in establishing fairer rights and responsibilities to both site owners and residents. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. I look forward to further improvements being made in Committee. I accept that there will be a number of amendments, which we shall approach in an entirely constructive way. It is in that 895 spirit that I commend the Bill to the House.
§ 11.33 a.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)
It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill, so ably introduced by the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), which seeks to deal with the problems of caravan and mobile home dwellers. It gives me particular pleasure to support the Bill because the hon. Gentleman and I have appeared together from time to time at election times as political opponents on the same television screen and occasionally on sound radio. I do not know why that should be. I think that we must have the kind of reasonable, sympathetic approach to the electors that the regional organisers of parties like to see on the television screen—at any rate, during a General Election. I think that that reasonable, sympathetic approach by the hon. Gentleman has been well brought out this morning in his speech.
This is one of several attempts which have been made in the past to assist the security of caravan and mobile home dwellers. At the moment the caravan dweller or the mobile home dweller—I prefer the term "caravan dweller" because it is shorter, but "mobile home dweller" is technically more accurate—finds himself or herself outside the security of the rent and normal property legislation which is given to a tenant under statute law today and which I suppose property owners have to a great extent under the common law of the land.
The root difficulty is that, unlike the normal legal situation where the land and the structure that is reared on it are an entity, the land and mobile home are separate entities. I think that at one time matters may have gone reasonably well, given fair and just site owners looking for tenants to come on to their sites and given tenants who were able to afford the charges. But with the pressure on housing accommodation generally and the failure of successive Governments of both major parties to solve our United Kingdom housing problems, the situation covered by the Bill cries out for legislative action. That has been the case for quite a long period now.
I do not want to take up the time of the House too long, because many of the 896 points which require attention are essentially Committee points. However, the outstanding factors in the situation now are rising site rents, charges for entry to sites, onerous site conditions and the harsh treatment often imposed by site owners on those who need to leave sites and need to sell their caravans or mobile homes. The Bill, therefore, especially if it is improved by consultation with my right hon. and hon. Friends who I understand are generally favourably disposed towards it, is the best attempt yet to set out a framework in which these many thorny problems and grievances can be overcome and solved. For instance, for the first time in a Bill of this kind, the nature of the agreement to be made between site owner and tenant is specified. I understand from those who have followed the matter in the past in greater detail than myself that it is important to do that. I am sure that in Commitee there will be much argument about what should be or should not be in any agreement. That is the difficulty of specifying the nature of an agreement, but it is the right course to take, I am sure.
I should like to point to one or two instances of problems about which I know, which are not, as it happens, in my constituency, because Bristol, North East is largely an urban area. Indeed, I do not think that we have any sites of this kind within our boundaries.
I find that many of my constituents—perhaps I should say former constituents—are forced by difficult housing circumstances to go out to caravan sites. We all know in the House from constituency experience that increasing numbers of families are, for a variety of reasons, excluded from local authority housing lists perhaps because they lack residential qualification or have had to move because of their jobs. Also, a family may fall on hard times temporarily and get into difficulties with its council house rent. It may be evicted in the end and find itself barred for a very long time from obtaining a council house before it can be taken back on a housing list as being reliable. Sometimes they are the authors of their own misfortunes but if we did not pay attention to such people, much of what we usefully do in this House would never be done.
I find increasingly that there are constituents of mine, with whose circumstances I am familiar, who have had to leave the urban environment and go to 897 a caravan site because it is the only kind of accommodation they can find. The Bristol Trades Council has interested itself in this problem and I have had my attention drawn to several bad cases. One of the most active members of the Bristol Trades Council on this matter is Mr. Charles Horton. I pay tribute to him because he has been particularly busy in drawing the attention of Members of Parliament to these issues. Representations have been made to me also by the secretary of the Avon Association of Trades Councils which is concerned with regional problems.
I have collected one or two newspaper cuttings. One concerns a family on a site in Gloucestershire. It was told that its land rent was to rise from 50p to £2.50 per week. This fivefold advance was announced during the very week when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment introduced his rents freeze. That did not affect this family in the slightest.
In another case a family with Bristol connections was living in the most deplorable squalor and threatened with eviction on a site at Weston-super-Mare. I see that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) is here. I know that he interested himself in this case.
I found it necessary to write to the Clerk to the District of Woodspring on another occasion. In this case the site was needed for another purpose and all those on it were compelled to leave. They were not eligible for local authority help without a fantastically long wait. The clerk replied in the following heartfelt manner, which shows that not all local authorities are hostile towards mobile home dwellers:In reality, of course, these people do not wish to become local authority tenants. They prefer to live in their mobile homes in which they have invested a good deal of money. The real solution lies in a change in the law and we are recommending the Association of District Councils to press for the introduction of laws of legislation to confer security of tenure on caravan dwellers comparable with that enjoyed by tenants of permanent houses. As you know there was a Private Member's Bill before Parliament in the early part of this year"—that was in 1974—which was lost because of the General Election. If there is anything you can do as a Member of Parliament to expedite the reinstatement of this Bill or of comparable legislation we should be very grateful.898 That "comparable legislation" is before the House this morning. I have great pleasure in giving it my support.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)
I declare an interest in that I am a consultant to the National Federation of Site Operators, which is one of the major three organisations who naturally take a great interest in the passage of this Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on three notable achievements. First, I congratulate him on his good fortune in being able to introduce this Bill and on the way in which he presented it. Second, I congratulate him on the support he has managed to enlist, not only from all sides of the House but from the three major organisations most involved. Third, I congratulate him on his courage in attempting to achieve by legislation that which has fallen tantalisingly short of voluntary agreement among the three parties time and again over many years of painful negotiations.
I was impressed to hear the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) refer to the fair and just site owner. All too frequently the mass media give the impression that site owners are latter-day operators of Colditz who have no vested interest in life other than to grind into the dust those who have the misfortune to be their tenants. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member accept that there are fair and just site operators. It is my submission that the National Federation of Site Operators can claim its fair quota of fair and just site operators.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
I am sure that the hon. Member is right, but would he not agree that one of the problems is that the National Federation of Site Operators includes only half of those people who run caravan sites? It is the other group with whom we are more concerned.
§ Mr. Mudd
I willingly concede that point. It is to be hoped that with the backing of law the Federation will become a much stronger organisation, with far greater powers of expulsion to operate against those who err and do not conform to ideal conditions.
899 It is only fair to remind the House that for many years the Federation has tried to bring about a model agreement. It was 10 years ago, as a result of consultations betwen the National Caravan Council, the then Minister of Housing and the Consumers' Association, that there emerged a good draft model contract. That remained intact until 1969 when it was renegotiated. It has given good service up to the present time. It is the subject of continuing tripartite negotiations between the National Caravan Council, the National Federation of Site Operators and the National Mobile Homes Residents' Association. They have spent many hours discussing this model agreement. They were together only two days ago.
There is within the industry, from the point of view of the site owners and the site tenants, a determination to emerge with some form of agreement safeguarding the rights and responsibilities of one towards the other. I welcome this Bill, especially the proposals in it which would ensure that local authorities must put their own standards on a recognised footing.
It is one of the ironies of the current situations that far too many local authorities own sub-standard sites. They are doubly the worst offenders because not only do they use their own sites as ghettos for problem families, but they are reluctant to enforce regulations against privately-owned sub-standard sites for fear of bringing about their closure and thus swelling their own housing waiting lists. If ostriches do indeed ignore the unacceptable by burying their heads, it must be my charge that many local authorities have sand in their eyes, their heads, their hearts and their obligations towards the people who live on caravan sites.
I should like to sound one warning note. My hon. Friend will secure a hollow victory if his idealism leads to site closures, homelessness and the selling of high density sites at a rental that people can afford in return for low density housing at prohibitive rents. That could be the outcome were site owners to be given financial obligations at the very time that their cash flow is further impeded.
I hope that I shall be able to join my hon. Friend on the Committee on the Bill. Like Thursday's child, it has far to go. 900 Clause 2(1)(a), for instance, needs a careful rethink. Many mobile homes already on site have limited lives, due to their existing age and condition. To extend their presence by a further three of even six years would lead to a deterioration of the site, with consequent increased environmental unacceptability for the other site residents.
Clause 3(m) as it stands does not answer the fair request that sales should not be permitted unless and until all outstanding liabilities to the site operator have been met. If the subsection is not strengthened, any mobile home owner could decamp, leaving nothing more than the commission to answer his substantial financial obligations to the site operator.
Clause 3(d), while commendable in times of virtually static rents, might be grossly unacceptable to the majority of residents in times of high inflation such as the present. Surely my hon. Friend will accept that an increase by annual rent revision is far more tolerable to many people than a bumper inflationary bundle foisted upon them every third year.
This case is all the more strengthened by the consideration that, if pay, pensions and allowances are to be increased annually but rents only once every three years, tenants might live in a fool's paradise in which seemingly their living costs were held in check while their paying capacity increased.
Clause 3(e) could lead to a morass of confusion. The position of existing agreements with less than three years to run would take the judgment of Solomon to resolve while the position of mixed sites, used for both holiday and residential purposes, could create numerous anomalies.
My hon. Friend has been recorded as saying that he does not want to go on record as the man who killed mobile home living, but by means of Clause 6 he could well become an assassin by proxy. Any future Secretary of State on the slightest whim could take the very powers that my hon. Friend does not wish to bestow on him. This clause could lead to a lack of short-term investment, a disincentive to long-term investment and a slowing down of the efforts and output of caravan manufacturers who make a valuable contribution to exports.
901 Even worse, under the existing wording of Clause 6, my hon. Friend not only proposes to give any future Secretary of State absolute powers but has not included any rights of appeal against his decision. In effect, the clause hands the industry and the homes of hundreds of thousands of people to any future Secretary of State, who could then assume absolute and unprecedented control over a major sector of the residential market. I am sure that it is not in my hon, Friend's mind that he and the other sponsors should become latter-day Dr. Frankensteins, unable to contain the actions of their progeny, but if they do not write certain reservations into the clause, that situation could arise.
Underlying the preoccupation of the Bill with site sales divorced from letting rentals is the commendable renascence of Tory belief that the site business should be self-supporting. I should like to be able to subscribe to this one outstanding example of Tory philosophy, but on this occasion it is totally naive. With land currently costing £8,000 an acre, it costs no less than £2,500 to create just one pitch in terms of environmental conscience, providing the resources dependent upon it and the use of tied-up capital.
It is only by charging pitch fees on arrival and then ploughing back the profits of sales that rents can be kept at their current level of about £3.50 a week. Let the Bill separate site sales from rents, but if it does the sponsors should tell their constituents why their rents, which used to be £3.50, have had to be increased to the economic rental of £10.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I am following my hon. Friend's figures with care and he is going into some detail. His figure of £2,500 for the capital cost of a pitch seems rather high. Could he explain how he comes to that figure?
§ Mr. Mudd
I will gladly do so in Committee. At present, we have a great deal to get through. I appreciate my hon. Friend's wish belatedly to dissociate himself from a Bill which seeks to give the Secretary of State unprecedented powers for, in effect, the nationalisation of the site business.
On these figures, mobile home ownership would become the exclusive preserve of the wealthy. In his success with the 902 Bill my hon. Friend would have won his standards and made his point, but 250,000 families could then be pressed out of their chosen way of life. I wish my hon. Friend well in his endeavours. I am prepared to help him in his endeavours and to return him to the path of righteousness.
§ Mr. Tom King
As was said of the Hungarians, with them as one's friends, one does not need enemies. I accept entirely my hon. Friend's point in the best possible spirit. He is making a vigorous case of some of the points made by the National Federation of Site Operators, which we have considered carefully. But I would put to him one point about the powers of the Secretary of State. I have said that there are some difficult judgments in the Bill, particularly about periods, and that is the only matter that the Secretary of State can vary.
On balance, we considered it right that there should be a power to make certain variations if it proved that the figures that we had arrived at did not work. This is not a national power without appeal because these orders have to be laid before Parliament and we can take action against them if we are unhappy about them. It is not an untrammelled power: the Secretary of State will be subject to this House.
§ Mr. Mudd
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification, which was not obvious on first reading. One hopes that it may be possible so to amend Clause 6(2) as to include that provision and avoid doubt. I have misread it but I am glad that this point has been ironed out now, thus avoiding a Committee stage of five months which would otherwise have been needed.
I accept, as does he, that my hon. Friend is treading a very narrow path. If he is to create a tenants' charter, he runs the risk of creating a situation in which site operators would leave the business. Many people may say that that is marvellous, that the sooner they go the better. But if the operators are forced to sell up, there could be residential development where mobile homes currently stand. In 10 years or so a piece of land which now offers perhaps 80 homes at a weekly rental of £3.50 will rapidly become a site for 12 homes at a mortgage level of more than £40 a week.
903 I believe that this is the very narrow course that we have to tread. I hope, therefore, that I shall be able to join my hon. Friend and his hon. Friends in Committee in making what I willingly concede to be a very good idea based on fairness a fair success based on goodness and common sense.
§ 12 noon
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)
I give a particular welcome to my hon. Friend—I should say that on this occasion—the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and congratulate him on having produced the Bill. I know that very many people in Scotland are pleased that he was so helpful in allowing us to make sure that the provisions of the Bill extended to Scotland. This is not a light matter. The previous legislation did not extend to Scotland. This inclusion created difficulties both for himself and the parliamentary agent. I can only repeat that we are very pleased that he was able to help us in that way.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on having won a place in the Ballot but also on the way he has handled it and produced the Bill and for his generosity to those of us who sought to come in on his coat tails, as it were, to ensure that that for which some of us have argued for so long is now coming into being.
At the same time as the hon. Gentleman has done, I thank the Government for the assistance they have given. It is certainly true north of the border, where the Scottish Office has been extremely helpful in straightening out my amateur attempts to draft clauses to bring Scotland into line. They have been very helpful in ensuring that this came about correctly.
I do not want to give a great deal of time to this matter, but I must say, with reference to the speech of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), that I thought that it opened with a reference to having welcomed the Bill. If that was a welcome, God help us when he has the hangman's noose around our necks. I hope that he was not speaking for the majority of site operators.
The hon. Member raised various points, many of which were not merely Committee points. Many challenged the 904 central thesis of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman cannot really have it both ways. He cannot say that he is giving a welcome to the Bill and wishing his hon. Friend well and, at the same time, raise the particular points that he did, which would destroy the Bill. The hon. Gentleman started by saying that he would declare an interest. I hope, therefore, that we can get the matter clear—that in his speech he was not speaking on behalf of the site operators. I hope that that is so.
§ Mr. Buchan
I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman is agreeing that that is so. He is speaking only for himself. We must accept that there are a very large number of site operators—particularly their own association—who have been helpful already in terms of the background to the Bill. If I may quote my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), who recognises the existence of the association and the good site operators, he also says, when talking about site owners who are not members of the National Federation of Site Operators,It does not include many who flourish on the fringe of the trade, a malodorous Mafia of unscrupulous profiteers.I wanted to ensure that that went on the record, because I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North would be too modest to insert it himself.
It is largely with this malodorous Mafia that we are concerned—not the National Federation of Site Operators, which has been helpful in making sure that we are giving legislative force to those points that we have been discussing in close agreement with mobile homes residents' associations and others.
I welcome the Bill in regard to the Scottish situation. I happen to represent a particularly beautiful part of Scotland, and there are many sites in my constituency. But I must say this: there used to be more. Some have been lost because of development. The town of Erskine has destroyed one such site. We had a very difficult task in coping with the residents there. The county council was able to offer houses to some in the new town, but many people prefer to live in caravans. It became extremely difficult not only to get another site but 905 even space on existing sites for those who wished to continue in this particular form of domestic circumstance. We all recognise the fear that through development, or by legislation that we pass, we may shorten the opportunities open to people to get a site.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater—I keep calling him "my hon. Friend", and on this occasion I may—and certainly myself, in Scotland, are anxious about this point. That is why I challenge some of the figures that have been mentioned. I do not think that some of the costs suggested by the previous speaker are at all typical. I hope that from any discusion arising out of the Bill no prospective site operators are put off, either by explanations of the difficulties which would be faced through the Bill or in relation to the kind of costings which would be needed to run such a site commercially.
I should certainly like to see it extended. It is not a solution, but it is a help in the housing problem and, more important, a large number of people wish to live in this particular way. A large section of people, perhaps 250,000 and certainly about 200,000 families, live in this way. There is, therefore, a key sector remaining here without protection, because in Scotland they have been living without protection against eviction, and facing it week after week. The Act passed in 1968 gave 28 days' protection and the possibility of longer protection following action, but this provision was not extended to Scotland—I think because the Government failed to appreciate the real difficulties.
We are dealing in a large number of families. Dick Crossman, in part of his Diaries, published last Sunday—some will have read them—has said that in the exigencies of the first few months of a Labour Government it was recognised that here was a section of the population—like those tenants in furnished accommodation—who needed this protection. So, by the actions of this morning, we rely on the Government to close up almost the last sector that needed to be given protection following the very swift move to protect furnished tenants against eviction.
I am sure that we are equally grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgwater 906 because it is not always possible for a Government, as we hear so often in Standing Committees, to find time for this kind of measure. We should be pleased also by that.
Why the Bill? This is where the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne must recognise the difficulty. Why the Bill? It is because, without that protection, the people will suffer. It is no rise saying that site operators are good. Of course, most of them are. But as soon as we have one who is not, the people will suffer, and suffer in two ways. Not only can they be evicted; they are evicted. I had a particular case in which a man on a site was trying to organise an association of his fellow caravan dwellers. The week after he started to form such an association, he got a notice to move—one week's notice. We fought the case through the courts. It went on for nearly a year. We were using delaying tactics while I was trying to get legislation off the ground in the House. We won the case, but only on a technicality. The next week the notice to evict came in again. The man's wife said, "I cannot go through this any longer". They have now moved to England.
It is because of such cases that we need to introduce this legislation. The first point is that people require protection. The second point is the trade or racket there has been with bad site operators in relation to caravans. I wish that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cam-borne had recognised that. I cannot remember the phrase he used in describing this, but I hope that he was not referring to the particular practice that occurs in relation to caravans when he was talking about "good touring philosophy".
The position about caravans is what I call "Catch 22". If one has a caravan, it is no good whatsover if one has no site for it. If one is evicted and the caravan site owner says, "I will buy your caravan at X price"—perhaps a fraction of what one paid for it—it is no good saying, "I shall not sell at that price; I shall take the caravan with me", as one will have nowhere to put it. It is of no value unless one has a site. That is what happened to the man whose case I described. He managed to find another operator on the other side of Scotland. The site operator allowed it to move, but when the man wanted to move it it was 907 moved to one side because the site owner demanded a certain back payment of rent, and the tenant had to pay it before he could sell the caravan.
What is more important is the fact that the man knew that if he did not have a site available on the other side of Scotland he would have been left with a useless caravan. All he could have done in that event would be to sell it to the site owner at whatever price the site owner chose. That would be an intolerable situation.
§ Mr. Buchan
The situation was very different. I do not want to go into too many details. I advised the caravan dweller to pay the rent every week by registered letter. The rent was returned to him every week. The site owner refused the rent for nearly a year. Then, when the man wanted to leave, the site operator demanded the rent. I believe that he had forfeited all rights to that rent. He was subjecting the family to a great deal of mental torture. I believed that he was entitled to no rent as he had returned it week after week. That was an individual and, I accept, an eccentric case.
The main point is that caravan dwellers can get no real valuation of their caravans when they leave. If they have no site to go to, their caravan is virtually useless. It is this second point that the Bill tries to deal with. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the Bill because of that. It is nothing to do with laissez faire; on the contrary, it is a very rigid form of control. For this reason, too, the Bill must be supported.
No doubt aspects of the Bill will be considered in detail in Committee. For one matter I confess that I have no explanation. Hon. Members will accept and understand why we have to make changes in certain definitions relating to Scotland. Clause 9(2) provides that the words "as to quiet enjoyment" shall be omitted from the application of the Bill to Scotland. Quite enjoyment of a site is vitally important. I have still to thrash 908 out this point in its full depth. I am sure that it is an esoteric legal point rather than any judgment on the part of the draftsmen that tenants in Scotland do not want quiet enjoyment. It is a technical point which goes beyond my cursory understanding of the ramifications of Scottish law.
This point draws attention to the peculiar nature of caravan dwelling. Caravan dwellers are less isolated than other families. It is vital that the place where they live should be in an harmonious situation. A site is different from a housing estate. People are closer together, and are much more involved. The behaviour of other caravan dwellers becomes very important.
Therefore, it is necessary in the Bill, in a way that it is not necessary in many housing Acts, somehow to legislate for social behaviour and for the rights of the site owner. This is the difficulty that the hon. Member for Bridgwater has had to face, and I think that he has struck a good balance. Unlike other housing protective Acts in which one can be very rigid in one's attitude about rights, in this Bill we must, somewhere along the line, recognise the rights of other caravan dwellers and acknowledge that the eventual arbiter is the site owner. For that reason, we cannot be even more Draconian.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, in stressing the other side to such a degree, failed to recognise that the Bill has gone right out of line from normal protective housing Acts and recognises the right and, indeed, the duty, of the site owner. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, rather than attacking what he sees as aspects of stripping power from the site owner.
I repeat that I think that the hon. Member for Bridgwater has got it about right. I am pleased that the Government have been so helpful in the past. I am confident that they will support the Bill today. I wish it well. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater on his achievement.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on introducing the Bill so ably. 909 As one who is not totally without experience of Private Members' Bills, I think that my hon. Friend has been brave, for two reasons. First, to introduce a Private Members' Bill at all requires considerable time and application. Secondly, although what do and do not constitute suitable subjects for Private Members' Bills will for ever be a matter of controversy, I believe that the important subject of caravan sites should have been the subject of Government legislation. In this regard I do not wish to be partisan, so I will say that my own Government as well as the Labour Government should have taken action.
My hon. Friend is taking on something which it is well beyond the capacity of a private Member to tackle, but he has done so in a most competent and capable manner. He mentioned the question of the cost of private Members' legislation. I hope that I shall not be out of order if I strongly support my hon. Friend in this regard. The insignificant sum of £200 buys very few hours of qualified lawyers' time nowadays. If private Members' legislation is to come before the House in a remotely acceptable form, it is wrong that private Members should either have to find funds from an outside organisation or dig deep into their own pockets.
§ Mr. Buchan
I should have underlined and supported exactly that point, and I hope that every succeeding speaker will do so. May I do so in the form of an intervention? We must press for much more assistance for the private Member who succeeds in the ballot.
§ Mr. Wiggin
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. We are not talking about a multiplying factor of two or three. Advice nowadays costs thousands of pounds, depending on the complexity of the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend does not get into such deep water that he finds it necessary to spend such a sum.
I have about 1,000 constituents living in mobile homes. I therefore speak with some experience from the constituency point of view in this matter. The hon. Member for Bristol, North East (Mr. Palmer) mentioned the interest he has taken in my constituency. One of the most unhappy problems that occurs on caravan sites is the difficulty an hon. Member has of seeing that justice is done, of representing the views of all parties, 910 and of being seen to be doing something about the problem.
I found it particularly objectionable when the Bristol Trades Council and others came delving into my constituency for purposes of pure electoral advantage and nothing else. They were of no practical help to my constituents who in one instance were suffering from the type of fringe operator that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) has mentioned. In an Adjournment debate, under the protection of privilege, I quite deliberately called this person what I then believed him to be. I am happy to say that since that intervention and the intervention of the local authority the situation has much improved.
There are others who, for reasons of their own, have seen fit to use the personal unhappiness and misery caused to residents in mobile homes for political gain. The Bill, if it becomes law, as I hope that it will, will go a long way to prevent that sort of thing from happening.
I have been consistent in my approach to the problem which is generated by the fact that the occupier of a mobile home does not have security of tenure and cannot be treated in any way in the same manner as the occupier of a dwelling house. I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), believe that the creation of caravan sites has been a free enterprise operation. I have been involved in the planning applications for two holiday caravan sites. I therefore have some experience of the difficulties a site owner can have in applying for planning permission, in satisfying the planning authority, and ultimately in carrying out the development.
If there were to be complete security of tenure for mobile home owners along the lines of the Rent Acts, I believe that there would be no further development of mobile home sites and many existing sites would be forced to shut up shop, for purely economic reasons. This would remove many sites from the market and it would be a wholly retrograde step. Therefore, my hon. Friend's compromise is sensible. It will create some security of tenure. Whether a period of three years is too long or is not long enough I am not sure. I expect more voices will be raised saying that it is not long enough than the other way round. I feel that 911 three years' security of tenure, with an option to renew for another three years, gives a fairly considerable period, bearing in mind the tight living conditions on a site compared with living in a row of houses.
Mention has already been made of the difficulties which arise when site owners are tempted to apply for planning permission for residential accommodation. One cannot blame a local authority if it takes the view that the mobile home provides only temporary accommodation. There can be no question of that. Even the most superb, brand-new, modern mobile home has a limited life compared with a brick or concrete dwelling built on the same site. The density and the number of persons per acre is much lower on a mobile home or caravan site than on a site containing more permanent dwellings. Therefore, local authorities are reasonably tempted, when an application of this sort is made, to go for the more permanent type of dwelling. The case which has been mentioned put me into some difficulty. More housing units of a durable nature would be created than would be obtained from mobile homes.
The hon. Member for Bristol, North-East rightly quoted part of a letter from the chief executive of my own district council stating that people who live in these mobile homes do so because they want to. We have to accept this. The fact that other people may not prefer this kind of accommodation has no bearing on the matter. Many people like this form of life. They like the feeling of space. They like the convenience of the accommodation which is small, compact, extremely efficient and often is very well made. I am delighted that the Bill copes with this point. The key to the problem lies with the local authorities and their attitude to residential caravan sites.
I have long urged, particularly at the time when difficulties were experienced in my constituency, that local authorities should create new sites to accommodate an overflow, particularly when there are problems on other sides and people can say to the site owner "I do not like you or your conditions. I am taking my mobile home to a local authority site." I appreciate that one would have to 912 reserve part of the site for that kind of accommodation, but this is one positive way of dealing with that problem.
My hon. Friend's Bill imposes a duty on local authorities to bring in model clauses as standard. I believe it is right that sites should be brought up to the model regulation standard, and there is no reason why they should not be. If local authority sites fall below that standard I hope the Government will investigate why that should be and will do something about it.
In my part of the world—hon. Members will know that the promoter of the Bill is my neighbour—there are considerable acreages of low-lying land which are unsuitable for permanent dwellings. I can think of some localities on the border between my hon. Friend's constituency and mine where there is plenty of room on low-quality, poor agricultural land where the landscape would not be seriously affected by properly sited residential areas. An enormous amount of work has already been done in making those sites more acceptable environmentally. It is easy to find some sites which were started before the war, where the density is too high, where the caravans are pushed up together ludicrously close and where the local authorities have done nothing about reducing the density. However, there is no reason why a brand-new site should be unsightly.
There are one or two points in the Bill which may require looking at in Committee. I have mentioned the three-year period. My hon. Friend will find himself between two opposing views. First, there is the question whether the renewal period of three years, after an initial period of three years, is fair. I would prefer to see a shorter renewal period. Clause 3(c) refers to the giving of not less than 28 days' notice before an occupier terminates the agreement, and here we must have some consideration for the site owner. If the occupier can give 28 days' notice, that seems a short period in comparison with the period of three years to which I have referred. Some balance must be created so that the site owner can be guaranteed that if he lets one of his pitches he can expect the tenant to stay there for a reasonable time.
Clause 3(d) raises the question of the payment of rent over a three-year period. 913 I take the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne that a three-year rent review is too long. An annual rent review would be about right, in conjunction with a review of the site costs.
The penalty provisions seem pretty stiff. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater has looked at other Bills before writing into this Bill these rather severe penalties. I prefer an arrangement whereby, after a given date, a daily penalty is applicable, rather than renewing a heavy fine of up to £400 every 28 days. One must have a penalty that bites against the site owner and which makes it uneconomic for him to break the law, but at the same time I should like the level of fines to be reconsidered.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne on the question of orders. In the Hallmarking Act I provided that almost anything in it could be changed by order because it had taken 170 years to get such a Bill before the House. With caravans I can see a great danger, if doctrinaire Governments of whatever party have the ability, by debating an order for one and a half hours, to change the time limits concerned. I hope my hon. Friend will reconsider Clause 6. There is a great deal to be said for getting the period right, writing it into the measure and leaving it at that, so that if a Government wish to change it in future they will have to introduce a Bill, but it will be a far greater enterprise than merely introducing an order into the House.
§ Mr. Tom King
My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that we should get the period right and put it into the Bill. That is exactly our difficulty. It is difficult to be certain at this uncertain state of knowledge of many of the situations involved, and if I were confident that I could get it absolutely right there would be no need to include this power in Clause 6.
§ Mr. Wiggin
My hon. Friend is a man of judgment. He will find that he will have to come to some compromise as directed by the House. The passage of a Private Member's Bill can be quite stormy, and he will find it necessary to obtain agreement from all sides if he is to gain his Bill. He will have to weigh up the arguments and come to a firm 914 decision. I shall deal with the question of orders at a later stage in the Bill.
This Bill is very welcome. I believe that my hon. Friend has steered a most skilful course between the divergent interests concerned and has come up with practical solutions to many of the problems which arise. Equally, he has been sufficiently honest to agree that he has not tried to cover everything, and it would be a great mistake for him to do so. I wish the Bill good speed.
§ 12.29 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)
It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene at this stage to state the Government's attitude to the Bill.
First, I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) both on his good fortune in the Ballot and on choosing this extremely important and somewhat difficult subject for his legislation. I congratulate, too, all those hon. Members, including my hon. Friends, who are associated with the Bill. I believe that it will be acknowledged that special congratulations should go to my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew-shire, West (Mr. Buchan), whose persistence has ensured that Scotland shall have its place in this legislation.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgwater for what he said about the hard work which officials of my Department have put in to assist him to produce a Bill to which the Government could give backing. When the hon. Gentleman told me that he had a Bill of this sort in mind, I asked my officials to help because I was determined that, with this opportunity, we should bend all our efforts towards obtaining a viable Bill which the Government could support, if that were at all possible. I am hopeful, as I shall show, that, as we proceed, we shall obtain a Bill which may be suitably enacted to assist those involved in caravan site dwellings.
I was somewhat taken by certain of the speeches in the debate so far. The speech of the hon. Member for Bridgwater himself reminded me in many ways of speeches which I made supporting our Rent Bill last year. In many respects the problems are similar. Listening to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cambourne (Mr. Mudd), supporting his 915 hon. Friend, however, I was reminded of a good deal of the support which I had from hon. Members opposite during the passage of the Rent Bill through Committee last year. I can only say that I hope that we on the Government side shall be able to give the hon. Member for Bridgwater a little more support than his hon. Friend is likely to give him and, perhaps, cause him a little less difficulty in the process.
I shall start by setting the Bill within the wider context of the problems of mobile home dwellers. As the hon. Member for Bridgwater said, last December my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked me to undertake a review of the problems connected with mobile homes. My remit is wide, and I think that I can best put the matter to the House by quoting directly the terms of reference which my right hon. Friend gave me. He asked meTo review, in consultation with interested bodies, the problems of mobile home residence and the contribution that mobile homes make towards meeting the nation's housing needs: in particular, to consider the relevant legislative provisions as they affect site owners and residents; the planning considerations involved: the terms and conditions on which pitches are let; and the problems of charges, security of tenure and ownership of mobile homes which may arise; and to advise the Secretary of State on legislative or other action which should be considered".As soon as I got to work, my first discovery was that accurate facts were difficult to come by. This is something which everyone concerned with the problem has discovered. To some extent, this gap has been remedied by the evidence that I have sought from the main interested bodies outside the Government—those representing site residents, site owners and local authorities. The Mobile Home Residents' Association, on the one hand, and the National Federation of Site Operators and the National Caravan Council, on the other, have sent to me most useful statements, and I look forward to discussing before long with each of these organisations the points they have made.
I understand also that the Association of District Councils—the local authority association most directly affected—is preparing a statement for me. In the meantime, some individual local authorities have already written in with views deriving 916 from their particular experience, and I am grateful to them for the trouble they have taken. I have also found most illuminating the vast number of letters from individual site residents and site owners, many of which are reaching me through hon. Members on both sides of the house.
But the evidence I have sought and the very large number of representations I am still receiving are not enough to provide all the facts which I need if my review is to be as comprehensive as I seek to make it.
My Department, therefore, at my request, has asked all local authorities to supply information about the number of sites containing mobile homes and the number of mobile home pitches on these sites. It may be thought that this is pretty basic information, but, surprisingly, it is lacking at present. Once this information has been gathered, I intend to have it used as the basis for a comprehensive survey of mobile home living. This I think essential. What we need more than anything else is factual knowledge about what is actually happening on a representative selection of sites. Substantive legislation passed without such knowledge of the field acted upon always entails the risk of doing as much harm as good.
I ought perhaps to digress to explain that the problems of mobile homes used for holiday or leisure purposes do not come within my remit, since they are the responsibility, in the main, of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. In certain circumstances my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection may also be interested. But I recognise that some at least of the problems of residential mobile homes are to be found on holiday sites as well, so I am keeping in close touch with my right hon. Friends throughout the course of my review.
I ought also to explain that I am not specifically dealing with gipsies. I do not want to understate the difficulties in this area or to imply in any way that the Government are not active in it; but the problems of the more permanent residents of mobile homes are of a different kind, the principles relating to them are different, and the legal background to them is different also.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
In line 11 of Clause 1 the words are:… the home or caravan as his only or main residence".In my constituency, notably in the Peak park area, many of the caravans, although permanent residences, are second residences for city dwellers. I am not certain whether those come within the ambit of the Bill and the Minister's remit for his survey, but they represent an important aspect of the matter which should be dealt with somewhere. Perhaps, in dealing with the definition, the Under-Secretary of State will clarify what is and what is not within his remit.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I have given the House my terms of reference. One of the problems which I have already discovered in the early meetings which I have held in the course of my review is the difficulty of defining the boundaries of what my right hon. Friend has asked me to do. Once one ventures into the whole subject of mobile homes, one finds that the complications are great. This is one of the reasons why I have always been anxious that any initial legislation should be limited so that it should suit the conditions about which we know.
However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be looking at all those marginal problems during my review, and, when the review has gone some way, we shall make up our minds about whether they come within my remit. That is the only answer I can give the hon. Gentleman at this point. The review will take some little time. We are accumulating information, and one of our objects at the moment is to sort out our boundaries.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)
I hope that the Minister is saying, nevertheless, that his Department will support the Bill and that the results of his findings may be used only at a later stage to amend it, if need he. I trust that he will not try to delay the progress of the Bill on the pretext, or, rather, on the basis of his review.
§ Mr. Kaufman
If the hon. Gentleman will contain his anticipatory excitement. Before I have finished I shall tell the House fully and precisely the Government's attitude to the Bill.
918 Holiday caravans and gipsies apart, my review is already wide-ranging enough for me to conduct a thorough scrutiny of mobile homes. I intend, of course—the hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned this—to establish what long-term part mobile homes can play in our housing drive. The hon. Gentleman referred to the speech which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made at Brighton on 30th October. I have had exchanges with my right hon. Friend since then, including only the past few days, on those matters. We are most anxious not only to ensure protection for those already living on mobile home sites but to ascertain what scope there is within the general housing field for mobile homes. This is very much a part of my inquiry, but it may well be that the Department will have things to say in advance of the outcome of my inquiry as well.
Among my top priorities is to seek out solutions to the kinds of problem on which hon. Members have concentrated this morning. I recognise that talk of solutions presupposes that, before I have completed my review, I am already committed to action of some kind. That is precisely the position. From the outset, I have had no doubt that under the existing law a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs has been allowed to develop. It is, I think, a happy coincidence that I have been associated with this problem ever since I was appointed to the post which I now hold.
The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) had an Adjournment debate on this important subject early in the life of the last Parliament and it fell to me to reply to him. I have had responsibility within the Department for this matter ever since. I remember answering a fusillade of questions from hon. Members last May on this matter in which I agreed with them that all the answers I gave were unsatisfactory and that action would have to be taken. I invited my hon. Friends—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) is present today—and hon. Members opposite never to cease from harassing me until the Government took action to deal with this problem. I have been anxious at every point that we should move forward to deal with it. I have adopted that attitude because it has been 919 perfectly clear to me from speeches in the House and from other representations made to me that mobile home residents throughout the country are being exploited by the unscrupulous element among site owners. Perfectly reputable owners of well-run and happy sites are unfairly being given a bad name, and we in Government find ourselves armed with inadequate powers to put this situation to rights.
At the same time—and this is widely recognised—the issues involved are by no means simple and straightforward. In particular, there has been no immediate way of curbing the truly extortionate rent increases which some residents have undoubtedly had to endure, wihout the risk of inflicting further hardship. Residents do not, in the main, own the ground on which the homes they own are sited, so rent limitation would in too many cases have been tantamount to offering the ruthless among site owners a direct incentive to evict residents and to replace them by people prepared to pay a higher rent, and even perhaps a massive and disproportionate premium for entry on site. Or it might, if applied uncritically, have induced some site owners to abandon their business altogether as uneconomic and thus to place their residents in a state of anxious uncertainty about the future. There are no immediate means, short of highly intricate legislation requiring detailed study and preparation, of offering the security of tenure needed to underpin rent limitation.
This was one of the reasons we rushed forward security of tenure in the furnished sphere in order to buttress the rent limitation we had introduced. The one cannot proceed without the other. In many cases the site owner himself has a limited interest in the land, or his planning permission may not last indefinitely.
It was thus clear to me from the beginning that some of the most controversial problems connected with mobile homes were urgent, but seemingly intractable. They demanded that something be done fast, but their complexity and range precluded a definite answer overnight. So I formed the view early on that an interim holding Bill would be needed in the near future to deal with such problems as could be tackled in the short term. That is why I told the hon. Member 920 for Bridgwater, when he first came to see me, that we should give his Bill a fair wind if it confined itself to dealing with immediate issues without closing any future options for comprehensive legislation. And I undertook that if his Bill, with the best of intentions, was not successful in achieving these objectives, I should aim to have an interim Government measure speedily introduced.
I am delighted that in the event the hon. Member has produced a Bill the main principles of which are in line with Government thinking and which I can therefore welcome. So if this Bill, with suitable amendments, reaches the statute book, it will be a positive step towards our goal.
I have added that qualification about suitable amendments for three deliberate reasons. Although we have had discussions with the hon. Member for Bridgwater, he will agree that there has not yet been time to get some of the detailed provisions right. So the Bill as now stands contains provisions which, after careful consideration we should not wish to see written into the law. I am not, for example, satisfied that the arbitration procedures proposed by the hon. Gentleman are either desirable or workable. I have come to the conclusion that he should see whether the matters he suggests as proper for arbitration should be brought instead within the jurisdiction of the county courts.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
Will the Minister indicate whether the jurisdiction of the county court means the full jurisdiction or the recently introduced small claims procedure? The latter is very much less expensive, and quicker to achieve results.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I am obliged to the hon. Member for putting that point. We have been consulting the Lord Chancellor's Office on this matter, which is why I have been able to say today what I have said. I will consult further before the Committee stage and try to ascertain the best procedure at that point.
Another matter in respect of which I am uneasy, as the hon. Member knows, is Clause 7. I realise the reasons which have prompted him to include this clause, but I believe that his undoubtedly well-intentioned attempt to impose standards which were intended and framed as 921 advisory guidelines will give rise to fresh problems without solving existing difficulties. It is only fair that I should give warning that there are differences of opinion between us, though this is not the time for me to delve into the details of our objections. At the same time, I have every confidence that these differences can be resolved, and I shall see to it that the hon. Gentleman is afforded every assistance from our side to bridge the gaps between us.
I am sure that the hon. Member will acknowledge that I have done my best to assist him—
§ Mr. Kaufman
—so far, and it is my intention to give him every possible further assistance in order to secure a viable measure to put on the statute book.
The second reason for sounding a note of caution is that I am not yet convinced that the Bill is adaptable enough to deal with what may well be a rapidly changing situation, or with action that the Government may want to take as a result of gaining further knowledge. I of course recognise that the Bill confers certain enabling powers on the Secretary of State. I am grateful to the hon. Member for the extent to which he has already tried to meet the views I have expressed to him. But on my reading, the powers are not as yet sufficiently broad and flexible to deal with the unforeseen, and with altering circumstances.
For example, the hon. Gentleman has set out the matters which an agreement between a site owner and a site resident are to cover. I am sure that at this moment he would not claim that the matters he has listed are comprehensive and definitive. Nor should I like to guarantee that, even after the Bill has been thoroughly scrutinised during its various stages, a perfect answer will result.
I should therefore think it only prudent to include in the Secretary of State's order-making powers a provision to alter the matters spelt out in Clause 3. This is particularly necessary, so as to leave open to the Government the option of taking action on any model site agreement drawn up by the Mobile Home Residents' Association, the National Federation of Site Operators and the 922 National Caravan Council. It is tantalising to find that the often-predicted successful outcome of the talks between these three parties aimed at drafting such an agreement has never quite materialised, but we must live in hopes that it will.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
Is my hon. Friend telling the House that agreement is now so close that it may obviate part of the legislation? None of us has any evidence of that.
§ Mr. Kaufman
This agreement has been imminent for nearly a year and it may continue to be imminent. What I am seeking to say is that if its imminency should become even more imminent we would like to be able to take account of it in any Act the House passes. I go no further than that, but I am well aware of such scepticism as may be aroused by the hopes of this agreement.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke
I should like to be clear about the scope of the power the Minister is seeking to give to the Secretary of State in the amendments he has referred to. Most of us did not go along with my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) in his claim that the Bill as it stands would give the Secretary of State power to nationalise. Some of my hon. Friends pointed out how limited is Clause 6 to deal with the problem. I hope that the Minister is not saying that he would like a general order-making power for the Secretary of State by statutory instrument to alter any part of Clause 3, which is the guts of the Bill. That would be seeking a power potentially to transform the nature of the Bill. I would have thought the Minister would accept that that would be a matter for further Government legislation rather than a matter to be covered by the order-making power under this Bill, so that after one and a half hours' debate in this House the Minister could completely regulate this whole question.
§ Mr. Kaufman
The Standing Committee, which will not be Government-dominated, will make its own decisions. The comprehensive legislation that I seek to introduce will not be ready for a considerable time. That is inevitable, in the nature of the review that I am conducting. We are anxious to ensure that the interim measure introduced by the hon. 923 Member for Bridgwater should not prove to be outdated or sterile before the comprehensive legislation is on the statute book. It is a difficult balance. I hope that the Committee will consider what is the right way to maintain that balance. We must ensure that the Bill remains viable.
It is not for me to impede the hon. Gentleman in any attempts at nationalisation that he may make. I have never been totally unsympathetic to nationalisation, although the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne may have different views about the matter.
What we are seeking to do is to ensure that this interim measure bites. The worst of all worlds would be to lose this opportunity to deal with such problems as we can deal with before comprehensive legislation is available. Therefore, amendments will be tabled in Committee, and it will he for the Committee to decide whether they are acceptable.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
My hon. Friend is causing some concern, possibly unwittingly. He says that he wants the Bill to bite at an early stage, but he tells us about more comprehensive legislation over a timescale which is already worrying me. We are not clear on two grounds. First, will my hon. Friend try to be more precise about the timescale for comprehensive legislation? Secondly, will he be more forthcoming about the nature of his worries which affect this Bill and the comprehensive legislation he has in mind? Unless he is frank about this we may find that the imminence in the state of imminence is not as imminent as my hon. Friend suggests.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
Order. I should much prefer that the Minister replied to one intervention at a time.
§ Mr. Kaufman
If the hon. Member for Bridgwater had not been successful in the Ballot, and if he had not introduced what we believe will be viable legislation, the Government would have sought to legislate on an interim basis in the next Session, with the hope of comprehensive legislation in the Session after that. My 924 review will take some time. The survey, which is extremely detailed and ambitious, of a kind which has never been attempted on this subject, will take up most of this year. We shall be proceeding with the review concurrently with the survey, but until we have its results we cannot proceed to legislate. Therefore, I envisage that legislation is possible in the next Session, but more likely in the Session after that. At this stage we are looking for an Act which may have to last for two years, or a little more. That is why we have to be sure that the hon. Gentleman's measure will be adequate.
§ Mr. Buchan
I am still a little worried. With the best will in the world, when Governments say that something is a matter for the Standing Committee, we know very well the powers they have when a measure comes out of the Committee. My hon. Friend's definition of imminence is a little like the definition of parallel lines we used to have at school, which was that they met at infinity. That may be the nature of the imminence of the two sides agreeing. If we have come so close as we have in the past, I do not believe that the two sides will necessarily come any closer.
The purpose here is to say "Here is the balance, as we see it, in Clause 3." If my hon. Friend is saying that we must wait even longer, or remove things that have not yet been agreed, that will not be satisfactory. All sides seem to be prepared to accept the compromise that we are suggesting roughly on those lines. If my hon. Friend has specific objections to some ff the points in Clause 3, it might be better if we knew them now. It would be fatal to have them approved in Standing Commtttee, but with the Government having objections.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman has already contributed to the debate. His intervention was rather long. I hope that interventions will be brief.
§ Mr. Kaufman
My hon. Friend spoke about behaviour in Standing Committees. He must not expect that I shall treat a Standing Committee in the way that he would have treated one when he was a Minister. I intend to go along with the Committee, an independent Committee of private Members not dominated by the Government—a Committee in which 925 the Government will seek to secure agreement. The Government's whole aim has been to assist in securing a viable measure. At no stage have they attempted to impose their will on the hon. Member for Bridgwater, and they will not seek to impose their will on him or on the House as a whole.
What is necessary is to ensure that we have a Bill that works. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West that we are not basing our attitude upon any chimerical hopes of an outcome from the tripartite discussions. We could wait for the Greek kalends for an outcome to those talks.
If the House believes that we are trying to dilute the Bill on the basis of expecting such an agreement imminently, I have unwillingly misled the House. I have been trying to say that if such an agreement eventuated it would be only sense that the Sill could take account of it.
§ Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)
What the Minister has just said has allayed some of my fears which resulted from his earlier remarks, fears expressed from both sides of the House. He has told the House that comprehensive legislation is not likely for two years, and has asked that the widest possible powers be given to the Secretary of State in the Bill so that measures may be introduced. That is not a satisfactory way to deal with these matters, because the opportunities for the House to debate regulations are extremely limited.
We should not wish to see legislation introduced by the back door, by the negative procedure, when the House cannot fully debate the matters that the Secretary of State might wish to bring forward. Therefore, in addition to the reassurance that the hon. Gentleman has given, will he accept that Clause 6 should be altered so that any regulation must be passed on affirmative resolution, rather than being subject to the negative procedure?
§ Mr. Kaufman
I am happy to give that assurance immediately. I have always been much happier with the affirmative procedure, because it means that the House has an opportunity to debate matters. That was the view that I took when I was on the Opposition benches. I do not wish to arouse any misgivings. Therefore, I assure the House that I intend to proceed openly and frankly, 926 so that the sponsors of the Bill on both sides of the House move along with the Government and we achieve a measure which is agreed by everyone. I am not trying to impair or undermine the Bill in any way. I am seeking only to help. I am anxious that we end with a viable measure which does not suddenly become outdated. Hon. Members who are concerned about the problem agree that the worst of all worlds would be to raise the hopes of the people who live on the sites and then have those hopes confounded by the Act in practice.
§ Mr. Tom King
Do I understand the Minister to say that he will move an amendment in Committee to change the negative resolution procedure into affirmative resolution procedure? Is that the undertaking which he has given? Will the Minister seek to attach to that affirmative resolution procedure a wider power than is specified here?
The matter raised by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) has not been covered. I am at a loss to understand which matters covered by Clause 3 the Minister feels may need to be changed. Those matters are not relevant to the model agreement. Nothing new will come up on the model agreement except for final agreement on certain matters relating to the period which is covered and the power to vary.
If the Minister wishes the House or the Committee to consider any variation or extension of the powers, the House will want to know the specific matters which he believes need to be changed.
§ Mr. Kaufman
We want to be in a position to deal with eventualities such as a tripartite agreement. The hon. Gentleman asks whether I shall move an amendment. It is not necessary for me to do so. If the hon. Gentleman tables an amendment we shall go along with it, but if necessary I shall happily move an amendment.
I felt it necessary to tell the House the Government's thinking. There is little point in giving a general blessing to the Bill and a blessing to most of its contents if I do not make clear that there are certain aspects which we shall have to consider in Committee so as to improve the Bill from the Government's point of view and also, I trust, from the point of view of the hon. Gentleman. We are 927 not seeking to turn the Bill into a Government measure. What we are trying to do—as I have repeated to the point of tedium—is to get a Bill which will work when it is on the statute book.
§ Mr. Whitehead
My hon. Friend still has great faith in the tripartite agreement. If the agreement came into effect within the next two years before the comprehensive legislation was introduced, what would happen to all the site operators—more than half of the total—who are not covered by the National Federation of Site Owners?
§ Mr. Kaufman
That is precisely why we have always seen the need for legislation, and why I have not been willing to wait upon such an agreement. Its possibility is always a little way over the horizon, and if an agreement were to be reached a large number of people would not be covered by it. We have always seen the possibility that were such an agreement to eventuate we might be able to incorporate it within legislation to apply to all caravan site residents. Such an agreement may differ from the provisions in the Bill, but I assure my hon. Friend emphatically that I am not prepared to allow assistance to caravan dwellers to wait upon or be dependent upon such a tripartite agreement. That is why I have been anxious to introduce legislation and why I am so happy to attempt to assist the hon. Member for Bridgwater to get his Bill on the statute book.
I am not allowing my review to be held up in the hope of the tripartite talks succeeding. If a successful conclusion were reached, I should want to examine rapidly which features of the agreement should be given statutory backing, and it is not necessarily the case that all such features are covered by the terms of the Bill as drafted. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will widen hi.; enabling power so as to cater both for the contingency I have outlined and also so that we can deal with any other points which ought to be included in an agreement between an owner and a resident which have not yet come to our notice.
I am doubtful also whether my right hon. Friend has been given sufficient powers to regulate in more detail in future the particularly vexed problems of resale 928 of caravans. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman's basic approach is sound. He has recognised, as I have, that there are undoubtedly rackets going on, particularly where some site owners are taking advantage of their control of entry on to a site to offer ridiculously low second-hand prices for mobile homes put up for sale by outgoing residents. Equally, he has heard the point which has also been made to me—and which needs to be explored further—that some owners take a reasonable commission on sale of caravans and thereby maintain site rents at a tolerable level. He has also heard the argument that owners ought to be able to select for their own site the residents of their choice.
As I read the Bill, the hon. Member's principal objective is to ensure that the terms of resale, including the commission allowable to the owner, are at least made clear to a resident on the face of his agreement, but that owners are left with control over who enters on to their site. He has left to the order-making powers of the Secretary of State the precise percentage allowable as commission. The hon. Gentleman is wise in thus avoiding definitive judgment. Until my review is further advanced, there is no reliable criterion for assessing a reasonable commission or a tolerable rent. Even then, I should be surprised if, after this point, I reached the conclusion that there was a simple percentage to be applied to all cases.
I strongy suspect that some range which can take into account relevant circumstances, such as, say, the age of the mobile home, could well turn out to be workable and more acceptable both to owners and residents. I have no preconceived ideas about what an order might ultimately contain. But I hope that the hon. Gentleman will widen the order-making powers he has drifted—I am sorry, I should have said drafted; it is as Freudian a slip as I have ever made—so as to give my right hon. Friend an option beyond simply prescribing a single percentage, as at present.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I shall gladly give way, but I have been speaking for a long time, and several hon. Members wish to speak. It is for the House to decide. I shall gladly 929 give way to any hon. Member who wishes to intervene. I see that the hon. Member has resumed his seat. That is what is known as the democratic process.
Further, it seems to me that the drafting of the Bill does not entirely match the intentions which the hon. Gentleman has in mind. I believe that if the measure is to be effective, a considerable number of alterations will need to be made, and that will entail thinking through the implications of loose ends and anomalies which the Bill presents.
I strongly suspect that to achieve a workable measure at least his first two clauses will need to be recast and that extensive alterations will have to be made to other parts of the Bill. I am not trying to discourage the hon. Member and his sponsors. On the contrary, I applaud his intentions. I am only too well aware of the race against time he has faced to draft the measure and to talk to so many different interests about it. I am sure that there is ample scope for further discussion between us.
So much for the Bill in its present form. I should like to return briefly to the point I made earlier about its being an interim Bill. The temptation to insert definitive provisions into even an interim Bill before the House can of course appear overwhelming. But definitive provisions, however well intentioned, are either premature or risk doing more harm than good if the issues they purport to regulate have not been settled. I have already mentioned rents and security of tenure as two chief areas which need detailed consultation with those affected and considerable preparation before the Government are ready to legislate.
Another such area is rent allowances, which the hon. Gentleman raised in moving the Bill. Rent allowances for mobile home residents would certainly be a departure from existing practice and could have implications beyond the mobile home field in that site rents are akin to ground rents for conventional housing. In addition, rent allowances have hitherto been linked with conventional housing and fair rents in the private sector. Making mobile home residents eligible here and now to receive rent allowances could simply prove an incentive to the less scrupulous owners to 930 increase rents at the expense of the public purse.
These are not conclusive arguments against rent allowances. But they, and the currently unknown implications for public expenditure, have to be examined before decisions can properly be taken. Such an examination, tied up as it is with the problem of rents, will not be concluded within the timescale of the Bill's course through this House.
My caveat about not attempting to find final answers applies across a range of problems, some of which hon. Members have spoken about forcefully. There will be the opportunity in Committee to go into these in more detail. That will be the time to ensure that the Bill goes as far as it can go in providing immediate relief, and contains enough powers for my right hon. Friend to take follow-up action as more knowledge becomes available, or as circumstances change. In the meantime, I warmly welcome a Bill which aims to eradicate the worst abuses practised on sites whilst seeking to encourage those many owners who run well-managed sites and enjoy harmonious relations with their residents.
It is no easy task to achieve that balance and to end up with a measure which works on the ground, but I shall be glad to help the hon. Gentleman to do so.
In his opening speech the hon. Gentleman referred to Dick Crossman and to the Sunday Times version of his diaries earlier this month. It is worth reminding the House of the torrid confrontation with Lady Sharp, one of many which Dick Crossman had with her during their unique partnership. After they had had a row about one subject, he reports:She said curtly, 'Well, we didn't expect you to change, but we thought it worth a try'. I said 'All right, now you've tried that on me I'll try my favourite idea on you. Let's deal with caravans.This is something I have long waited to get into the Rent Bill: the 100,000 people who live in caravans can be evicted by their landlords because they are not strictly tenants, but that is a problem that our Bill ought to deal with.' Of course, I was right;".That was Dick Crossman at his most characteristic. He goes on to say:but she was as sticky about caravanners as I was sticky about redevelopment, and the whole atmosphere of the meeting turned sterile, and she went away sulky and angry as a result.931 I hope that hon. Members will not go away sulky and angry from this debate. I hope that 10 years on we shall be able to do what Dick Crossman wished to do when he took office as Minister of Housing in 1964. After he left office he always said that there were two subjects that he wished he could have dealt with when he was Minster of Housing—one, security of tenure for furnished tenants and the other, assistance to caravan dwellers. Happily the Government have brought in the first measure in honour of Dick Crossman, and the hon. Gentleman has made it possible for the House to deal with the second. I trust that we shall fulfil Dick's posthumous wish.
§ 1.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on his success in the Ballot and on his choice of subject. I apologise if I have to leave before the end of this debate, but I have to catch a train to arrive in my distant constituency this evening.
I am pleased to be associated with the promotion of the Mobile Homes Bill. If a satisfactory written site agreement between mobile home residents and site owners can be devised, mobile homes will make a positive contribution towards solving the nation's housing problems.
I wish to concentrate my remarks within the context of our country's housing difficulties because I believe that mobile homes can play a part. I welcome the Minister's statement and the emphasis that he placed on the fact that one of the more important aspects of his inquiry will be to look into the scope of mobile homes to help meet our housing needs.
I do not suggest that the Bill will provide a panacea for our housing problems. That would be naive. However, I contend that the potential contribution of mobile homes towards solving our housing problems is not being realised. There are a number of reasons for that. Historically there has been a certain amount of subjective thinking both by the general public and by local authorities, who have tended to regard living in a mobile home as something inferior and to be avoided. That attitude may have been justified 20 or 25 years ago, but it is not justified today.
932 There are a number of residential caravan sites in my constituency. The character of their locations varies, as do the amenities on the individual sites. Generally, those sites are well landscaped, and visitors to them could be excused if they confused them with owner-occupied estates of bungalows, since they are neatly laid out and tend to have small gardens in front of the caravans or open-plan grass areas surrounding the individual housing units.
Of equal importance is the considerable advancement in the style, the design and quality of modern mobile homes over the past few years. Some mobile homes are most sophisticated. As a consequence, the concept of the mobile home as a satisfactory form of housing accommodation is recognised by the Government and many home owners and prospective home owners desire to own a mobile home.
There are legal and technical reasons why slower progress has been made in mobile home ownership than we might have expected. Most Members of Parliament have had their attention drawn to a number of those problems, which include the question of security of tenure and the unsatisfactory nature of the terms imposed on residents seeking to leave sites and resell their caravans. Often such people have no alternative but to resell their caravans to the site owners, often incurring significant personal financial loss.
There are problems of rents. Hon. Members on both sides experienced this problem in 1972 when rents were first frozen. Since the freeze did not apply to mobile caravan sites, we received strong representations from our constitutuents.
The essence of the Bill is the establishment of a written contract which should exist between the site operator and the mobile home owner. It will be difficult to obtain the correct balance, since this is a sensitive issue. There is a gap in certain facets of the legislation. It is right that we should settle these details in Committee.
The importance of the Bill is that once the House has established the principle of the written agreement, many prejudices will be removed and mobile homes will 933 be able to make a more significant contribution to alleviating the nation's housing problems. The response of local authorities is a key factor here. They are the local planning committees and we must convince them that they should demonstrate a more enlightened attitude towards planning applications in order to increase the size of existing sites or to create new sites. I know from personal experience that it will not be easy to persuade local authorities, but I hope that if the House points the way in establishing a legal framework one important psychological obstacle will be removed.
I wish to refer briefly to my constituency. South-East Cornwall contains a large number of people of retired age or near retired age. It is a very desirable location in which to live. Ownership of a mobile home is often the most suitable solution to their housing problems. Such ownership is financially within their capabilities. The life-span of a mobile home should be enough to cover their life expectancy and, providing they can meet their desire to live in a mobile home, it will perhaps be one less family on the local authority housing waiting list.
I hope that the passage of the Bill will help to influence reluctant local authorities. A local authority in my constituency, in preparing a memorandum on this subject, has stated:It would seem that the contribution that mobile homes would make towards meeting the nation's housing needs would be of a temporary nature only".That is the sort of prejudice that we are up against. I shall continue to do, as I have been doing for the past four years, everything in my power to persuade local authorities in my constituency to adopt a more enlightened attitude to the question of establishing mobile homes and mobile home sites. The passage of the Bill would further strengthen our arguments and our elbow. It is therefore with pleasure that I support the Bill.
§ 1.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
I shall not detain the House long because most of the points have been made.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who 934 has apologised to me for having to leave the Chamber. I am proud to be a sponsor of the Bill, as no doubt representatives of the nationalist parties would have been if they had been asked. It is a good thing that support for it has come from both sides of the House.
I have not been a Member for more than 12 months, but one of the first Adjournment debates which I heard was on this subject. I think that it was instigated by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). He certainly took part in it. As the Minister acknowledged today, his answer to that debate did not satisfy him any more than it satisfied the rest of us. I have been astonished by the Government's lack of urgency about these matters. Credit is due to the Bill because it has made the Government speed up their deliberations.
I have had representations from tenants on caravan sites in the Isle of Wight, where there are quite a large number of them, and from other parts of the South of England, but it was only last weekend that I discovered, when a deputation of site operators came to see me, that it was my constituency which provided the original model standards which later developed into those of the National Federation of Site Operators. We are rightly proud of that. The National Federation would be well advised to agree with the proposals in the Bill. Those members of it to whom I have spoken largely agree with them. It is right that we have not tried to go too far.
I was worried by what the Minister said about forthcoming legislation. Surely if there is one example in the history of legislation of which we should take note it is the Rent Acts. Since 1919 they have made a complete and utter pickle of the housing situation. The simpler we make legislation, the better. Therefore, the simpler the Bill is set out so that it can be easily understood, the better for all concerned. We should then leave well alone and give it time to get off the ground.
My colleague in another place, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who has much greater knowledge of this subject than I—he introduced the 1968 Act—has always campaigned for the three Fs: fixity of tenure; fair rent; and freedom of sale. He would probably like to go 935 further than I should like to go concerning the question of fixity of tenure. On the question of fair rent, I was worried by what the Minister said on the matter of arbitration. We discussed this subject quite a lot when the Bill was being drafted and considered whether the rent officer should be brought into it or whether, as one hon. Member has sensibly suggested, use should be made of the small claims courts.
The last thing that we want to do is to make people go to the county courts. That has about it the spectre of having to go through the court processes. The procedure should be made as informal as possible. Agricultural arbitration is a good example. If we could adopt a similar procedure and encourage tenants and landlords to work together, that would be the right approach.
I wish to refer to -some comments made by the Mobile Home Residents' Association Limited, of which my noble Friend Lord Avebury is President. It welcomes the Bill and says that itwill deal with some adequacy with the problems of security of tenure and the extension to local authorities of a duty to adopt the model standards".If the Bill does not become an Act fairly quickly, it foreseesa rash of threats of eviction, and an epidemic of new residents being racked into subjecting themselves to unsatisfactory agreements if this Bill as a first measure in legislation does not go through".It therefore likes to think that the Bill will receive every encouragement from the Government.
It seemed to me that the Minister welcomed the Bill, throwing it a few bouquets, but in the latter part of his speech came the brickbats. It seems that he does not like Clauses 1 and 2 and wishes to rewrite parts of Clause 3. This is worrying to those of us who are keen that the Bill should come into force largely as drafted. If there are many amendments to it, it will change its scope. I believe that the Bill is on the right lines.
Another urgent reason why the Bill should be given a swift passage is the deplorable housing situation. Permanent mobile homes sites fulfil a great need among people, young and old, with low incomes. I am pleased that one district 936 authority in my constituency is to acquire a substantial number of these homes. It is our duty to look after these people and to give them a reasonable measure of protection. That is what the Bill aims to do, and I commend it to the House.
I hope also that when the Minister carries out his review he will consider the position of people in houseboats. If we are to have legislation on this subject, I suggest that houseboat owners and occupiers could be brought within it.
§ 1.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick (Brecon and Radnor)
I welcome this opportunity to support the Bill and to congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King on introducing it.
I should like, first, to refer to the degree of financial help that should be forthcoming for private Members when they introduce Bills. It would be a tragedy if important measures, such as this Bill, were to suffer because of inadequate financial assistance. I commend to the Select Committee the remarks that have been made in this respect. We should ensure that legislation which may go on the statute book is properly discussed and brought forward, and that can be done only with adequate financial assistance.
I believe that private Members should be afforded different opportunities for bringing in legislation by using up time during the week in the mornings rather than relying entirely on Fridays as we do now. Some hon. Members who have been here today come from distant constituencies. I am rarely able to attend on a Friday because I have work to do which can be done only on that day. It is sad that we do not have better opportunities for introducing legislation.
I have received many representations from my constituents on this subject. There are many caravan sites in my constituency. I use the word "caravan" in the sense in which it is used in the Bill. People outside may think that we are simply considering vehicles on wheels when we talk about caravans. The definition in the Bill clearly states that the word "caravan" covers the whole range of mobile homes, be they chalets or otherwise.
People in my constituency have been very concerned for some time about the treatment that they receive on some sites. 937 I acknowledge that some sites are well operated. Unfortunately, that is not true of all sites. They vary from one extreme to the other in my constituency as in other constituencies.
I have had letters from constituents who have asked not to be named. They are afraid of the consequences if the owners of the sites find out that they have been writing to me. I have had to meet constituents outside sites. They have asked me not to enter sites in case the owners should see me discussing matters with them.
Residents want some form of security and freedom from exploitation. The vast majority of my constituents occupying sites are pensioners. Often they have moved from other parts of the country to retire into the countryside. They have taken advantage of selling properties in towns—this has happened with many people from the Midlands—to buy cheaper mobile homes and to have surplus funds to enjoy their retirement. These people now find that, because they do not have agreements which safeguard their rights, their surplus funds are being whittled away.
People have arrived at sites in all innocence thinking that they would have a happy retirement. However, they now find that they are virtually prisoners with very few safeguards. They have to suffer the whims of the owners in the form of rent increases at very short notice. These rent increases are exorbitant and unrealistic. They also suffer from the most shoddy services at quite ridiculous rates. People who have seen brochures advertising sites have arrived, rather hastily entered into agreements, and then found themselves with very little protection and freedom of manoeuvre.
Indeed, some residents have restrictions on their purchases of certain goods. For instance, they must buy their oil for heating purposes from the site owner. That oil is sold to them at an unrealistic price not to be compared with prices outside. They have been forced to buy the owner's unit and to resell it to him if they wish to leave the site. In some cases they have no option at all. The occupier has no bargaining power whatsoever. These and other matters must be put right. For those reasons I warmly support the Bill.
938 I should like to refer briefly to Clause 3 which deals with agreements between owners and occupiers. I hope that some of these matters will come up in Committee. Paragraph (d) mentions an annual payment. I wonder whether we should restrict ourselves to an annual payment or should seek a proportionate payment if a site is occupied for only part of a year. The situation would seem to be that if anyone is in occupation for less than a year the annual payment has to be made in full. We should clarify whether it can be broken down.
The clause refers to what the agreement should contain, but there is no reference to control and inspection. Who will ensure that the agreement is kept? In my opinion, that should be written into the Bill.
Paragraph (h) refers to breach of the agreement. I think that an owner should be obliged to serve notice of a breach and that a specified time should be given for remedying it. That point is not mentioned.
Paragraph (j) refers to arbitration. The Minister said that he questioned the arbitration procedure. I question who will pay the costs of the occupier in an arbitration. The vast majority of my constituent occupiers are pensioners who can ill afford to go through expensive arbitration machinery. I believe that it is necessary to have arbitration covered by some machinery which, if not free, should be inexpensive for occupiers.
Many people suspect arbitration. For example, tenants on many farms in my area are sceptical about the arbitration machinery available to them regarding rent increases. Many pooh-pooh the idea of going to arbitration because they suspect that they will not get a square deal. I have come across cases where the owner of a farm, the landlord, has served notice of a breach of agreement, the matter has gone to arbitration and, at the last moment, the owner has withdrawn, but the tenant has gone to great lengths in employing a barrister and paying him a large fee. This kind of arbitration machinery would not be satisfactory.
Clause 3(m) says thatapproval shall not be unreasonably withheld.The onus is on the owner to prove that he is being reasonable. I believe that it 939 should be the other way round, that he should demonstrate that any objections he has are reasonable. Fourteen days is too long because the occupier may need to sell in a hurry. He may have a purchaser waiting, and if he delays he may lose the sale.
I do not see why the owner of the site should take a commission on the sale. After all, he has received rent over a period. I should like to see this provision deleted altogether.
The occupier should have the right to remove his caravan from the site if he wishes to sell it. That right is not available to all my constituents. Some of them have signed agreements whereby they are compelled to sell to the owner should they wish to move. I believe that they should have the right of removal. Of course, if they have nowhere to take their caravan it is a very slim right indeed. There should be the freedom, if people rent a site, for them to take their own caravan or unit to that site. We are far too rigid in forcing people to occupy units which the owners of sites sell to them.
I hope that the Bill has a swift passage. If it is delayed, unscrupulous owners may exploit the situation and make high profits for themselves while the Bill is passing through the House. Unlike the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, I believe that as a result of the review conducted by the Department there may be a need for further legislation. I keep an open mind on this pending the review. I hope that the Minister will hasten the passage of the Bill and will give it every encouragement so that it can go on the statute book as soon as possible.
§ 1.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Hurd (Mid-Oxon)
I join with other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on choosing this subject for a Private Members' Bill and for all the care he has taken, not only in drafting the Bill but in consulting a wide range of authorities and wooing the Minister to gain his support.
My interest in this subject began when I was elected to this House a year ago. I rapidly came to realise that certain areas in Oxfordshire suffer from acute housing shortages and that some areas contain large numbers of sites for mobile 940 homes. I quickly learned that the majority of people living in those sites did not do so because they could not find anything else but because it was the form of housing they preferred. If this is denied to them, often the only alternative is to go on the council's housing list which in Oxfordshire is very long In any case this is not the type of housing they want. They want to keep the independence afforded to them by a mobile home and at the same time not pay the high costs involved in living in a conventional house.
Nevertheless, they feel that the present situation is profoundly unsatisfactory for various reasons, three of which are especially important. Two of the three are covered by the Bill. The first concerns the question of rent and the ability of a site operator substantially to increase rent overnight without any need for explanation or justification. This can cause real hardship. Last weekend I visited a site where the tenants had just received notice that their rent would increase from £3.15 to £4.15 with no word of explanation and no break-down of costs. They have been left with the feeling that the site operator either wishes them to leave the site or wishes sharply to increase the return from it. This matter is dealt with under Clause 3.
The second and most important point is the question of resale. I am sure that every hon. Member present has heard of cases where some operators appear to be trying to derive the main part of their income from profits on the resale of caravans. There is the case of a lady who paid £1,300 for a second-hand mobile home a year ago. She was recently offered £700 for it by the site operator and had no choice but to sell to him. The same mobile home is now being offered by him to the incoming tenant at £2,800—four times the sum he paid for it. Another site owner has recently made a profit of £1,200 twice on the same caravan.
As these figures become widely known they create a feeling that this situation is entirely wrong. I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) in saying that no commission should be allowed. If we were to investigate the economics of running a site, we might find that if the site owner is not allowed a commission 941 on sales he would in many cases come to the conclusion that site-owning was no longer for him and the site might close down. Some such provision in the Bill is essential.
A third point, not covered in the Bill, to which attention has been drawn by the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), is the right of tenants to form an association. There have been cases where this right has been denied. When associations have been formed there is often an uneasy feeling. The members do not know whether they are operating within the law. It is possible to argue that the Bill, with its reference to the right of owners to determine the agreement for breach of covenant and its other reference to what the covenants could contain, covers this point and that it would no longer be possible for an owner to evict a tenant because he joined with others in an association. This is an important point which should be looked at in Committee in the hope of finding a form of words to enshrine this right.
Those of us who support the Bill are grateful for the support which the Minister has given and for his undertakings about the future course of the Bill. He got into a Title bit of a tangle on Clause 6. This clause arouses different feelings. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) said that it was far too wide. I have had representations to the same effect.
The Minister obviously thought in terms of extending Clause 6 so as to enable the Secretary of State to do considerably more by order than the Bill intends. There would be considerable difficulty about that which would not be entirely resolved by the Minister's important concession about the affirmative instead of the negative procedure. I hope that he does not try or encourage others to try to broaden Clause 6 so far as to give the Minister powers by order in effect to redraft the Bill. That would be a pity and would mean that the Bill would be bogged down in Committee.
The essential point, as the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) made clear in a remarkably cogent speech, is to get something like the present Bill on the statute book reasonably soon. I hope that the Minister will clear his thoughts about the scope of the changes that he 942 proposes, particularly to Clause 6, otherwise, the Committee will get bogged down.
The Minister said that the worst possible situation would be if a Bill was passed which then proved not to be the right sort of holding Bill. Another bad result after the promising situation which the Minister and my hon. Friend have together made possible would be if the Bill were bogged down in Committee because we were not sure whether it was a holding Bill or whether the Minister had to have powers to enlarge it into something different.
I hope that the Minister's proposals will be modest. There would then be no reason, given the general blessing that he has bestowed, why a very useful measure should not reach the statute book in a reasonable time.
§ 1.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
I begin by joining in the well-merited congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) for bringing this measure forward. As I am speaking immediately following one of the other sponsors of the Bill, I hope that that means that all resistance to the Bill is crumbling and that we are within sight of getting it on the statute book this Session.
Every speaker so far has expressed support for the Bill, but that of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Cambourne (Mr. Mudd) was very damning. There were moments during the Minister's speech when his support, too, had a slightly barbed edge. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) said, the Minister aroused fears that he thought that it would be a good Bill if he were given a general regulation-making power which would enable him to rewrite all the important bits without further reference to the House.
I am sure that that is not what the Minister has in mind. I remember the sympathetic response that he gave my Adjournment debate on this subject almost a year ago and I congratulate him on the considerable work that he has done since, the help that he has given to the Bill, the setting up of the review which the Secretary of State announced a short time ago and the fact that he has been able to give clearer details of the 943 kind of legislative programme he envisages the Government following in future.
I am sure that the Minister would not wish to insert any powers which were unacceptable in principle to the sponsors of the Bill. I am sure that if in Committee he will tell us those parts of Clause 3—parts, as opposed to the whole clause—where he expects that regulation-making might be valuable, many of the Bill's supporters will be able to accommodate him.
§ Mr. Clarke
I see my hon. Friend nodding. We are entirely open to all suggestions that the Minister's expertise may suggest.
Some Bill on this subject much reach the statute book this Session, because this gap in the law has existed for far too long and is leading to exploitation of vulnerable groups. We all had hopes that the tripartite talks among the National Mobile Homes Residents' Association, the National Federation of Site Operators and the Caravan Council might reach some helpful conclusions which could then have been extended by the Government to cover sites the owners of which do not belong to any of those associations.
It has become clear, I am afraid, that although those talks keep getting tantalisingly close to total agreement, there is little prospect that they will reach helpful finality in the near future. One wonders whether some shadow boxing is not going on in the negotiations and whether there is the greatest sense of urgency on all sides to reach firm and helpful conclusions. Now that a rough idea of what everyone interested in this matter would like to see passed into law has emerged from those talks, the time has come to put something on the statute book.
The urgency arises because the residents of caravan sites tend to include a particularly high proportion of the retired who have purchased a home in the country for a minimum amount of their savings by going to a mobile home park in an attractive area, and also the very young and newly married who find that it is the cheapest and easiest way of making the first step up the housing 944 ladder to acquiring, they hope, a permanent home of their own.
A common feature of both those sections of the population is that they are an extremely vulnerable group, with limited resources, who suffer particularly acutely from the weakness of their position vis-à-vis the site owner and who are therefore open to exploitation in the present housing shortage. They enter sites believing that they are acquiring a secure home of their own, believing that the caravan is their own to dispose of as they wish, subject to the rent and any reasonable conditions, often believing that they have full security of tenure. It is only after they have embarked on this course that they find how limited is the protection that the law gives them and how strong is the market position of the site owner in the current housing shortage.
I hasten to dissociate myself from anyone who would say that there is anything wrong with the site owner making a reasonable profit from ownership and development. This is an important sector in the production of housing. I am not sure that I am as enthusiastic as some other hon. Members for the ever-greater spread of mobile home parks as a large-scale contribution to our housing problem. What I have seen of the huge dependence on mobile home parks for housing in large areas of America has not assured me that anything like that would be acceptable in our town and country planning tradition.
Nevertheless, well-run sites can be a valuable contribution and the owner is entitled to a legitimate profit. The question which was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne is one which we should try to answer. In what way should a site make a profit? What is a legitimate source of profit and what is not? In particular, should the principal source of profit be either the resale of the caravans or the rent or a combination of both, and if so, what restrictions should there be on the level of profits?
The boom in recent years in caravan sites has brought a change. Currently, most operators do not expect their return on capital to come from the rent. They are making their money—in some cases, still, very big money—out of the profit they make on the resale of caravans when 945 their tenants try to move on. There is no need to explain in detail how big money can be made. If the tenant cannot assign the tenancy of the site, he can sell only to someone named by the site owner. In practice, it is always the site owner who actually purchases and at a knock-down price of his own choosing, pleading that there has been depreciation of the value of the caravan. Then, in some cases even before the tenant has left, he sells again, often at a substantial profit, on the open market.
Various arguments are used to defend excessive profits of this kind—that there has to be a waiting list of those coming on to the site, which does not apply to the market in houses; that in some way it is compensation for improvements to sites, although that does not justify big profits made in a short time; and that it is a means of vetting those coming on to the site. It is not. It is just the way in which most site owners now make a profit from the ownership of the site.
There is one way in which they are entitled to make a profit of that kind. It is certainly arguable that the rising market value of a caravan in times of housing shortage is in part the rising value of the land upon which it stands, and the right to have a lease upon it. Therefore, part of the profit which will go to someone on resale is legitimately a profit that belongs to the owner of the land. But the key thing is to reach a situation in which there is some proper division of profit between the site owner and the caravan owner, the best possible price is obtained from the open market, and there is a proper division of profit between the two.
The proposals in the Bill in respect of the resale of caravans, about allowing a discount if the site owner actually purchases the mobile home, or a commission to the site owner on any other sale should be used in order to try to determine what part of the profit is legitimately the site owner's, and all the rest should go to the caravan owner, as any householder would expect when selling his house.
There must be some restriction on rent, although I accept that if one restricts the profits on resale it would have a tendency to push up rents towards a commercial level. That is one of the 946 things we have to face which will follow from this measure. I hope very much that we do not introduce rent control, which would be impractical in this matter and could be harmful, if unrealistic rent controls were applied, in driving people out of the market and leading to the homelessness that we are trying to avoid. The approach should be some sort of set period review in the written agreement, as the Bill suggests, but I have doubts about the three-year period in the present conditions. I am glad that the Bill gives the Secretary of State an open-ended power to come to a determination about the appropriate time for rent revision.
My final point is that the great advance in the Bill and the biggest contribution of my hon. Friend in this matter has been to decide to frame the Bill in this way and to put it around the core of a written agreement, which most people do not have at present, and to specify the contents of that agreement. In choosing that approach, my hon. Friend has come up with the most workable suggestion that I have heard so far for trying to solve the otherwise intractable, difficult and complicated problems of how to regulate caravan tenancies. The model agreement in Clause 3—that is what it is—and the terms which have to be included in an agreement which must be offered cover many of the points of serious grievance.
I have two points I want to make in this Second Reading debate about that—and not many points to make thereafter.
I am not quite sure why a new caravan tenant should not be entitled to see the written agreement before moving into occupation of his caravan. One of the biggest difficulties is that the weaknesses of the tenant's position tend not to become apparent until he has committed himself, bought a caravan and moved in. As the Bill stands, there is no duty to give a written agreement until 30 days after the new owner of the caravan has taken occupation. New occupiers should be shown the agreement before they sign on the dotted line and buy their caravans.
§ Mr. Tom King
My hon. Friend has a valid point. This is also a concern of the site operators. They, too, would like a written agreement to be signed before letting someone enter a site. My hon. Friend will appreciate, if he reads the 947 clause, that there is nothing to prevent a site operator including in the agreement the fact that the person will be required to sign an agreement before moving on to the site. In other words, the agreement can be at an earlier date; but it must be at least within 30 days of entering on to the site.
§ Mr. Clarke
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. But the fact remains—and I should like to think further about it—that there is no obligation on the site owner to produce a written agreement until 30 days after occupation. If there should be some mavericks—rogues would be only ones who wanted to do it this way—they would offer the written terms 30 days after the caravan owner had entered the site and taken a caravan into ownership. It may then be too late.
The other problem is the approach in the Bill to setting out what must be offered. The Bill sets out what must be in an offered agreement but does not set out what must not be. There is nothing in the Bill which prevents site owners including utterly unreasonable clauses. There is a danger here. I come across many agreements with thoroughly unreasonable clauses. I have in mind one in terms which were tantamount to instructing the tenants not to gossip or to talk about the affairs of the site owners. A site owner is entitled to feel aggrieved about gossip, but not to make that a condition of someone staying in his own home. The aims of the Bill could be defeated if someone who was under an obligation to offer a written agreement chose to include terms which are not banned by the Bill and which would be totally unacceptable to a tenant, so that no written agreement was entered into and no promise given.
I hope that some formula can be found which will include a reference to a county court to be made to settle disputes about any terms which either party suggested were totally unreasonable in whatever draft agreement was being offered, according to the terms in the Bill.
Given those slight reservations, the rest of my feelings about the Bill are total praise. It is an extremely important move towards giving caravan tenants greater security of tenure, predictability in their rent changes and some control over the 948 profits which may be made out of the management and ownership of their sites. It has taken far too long for the House to produce workable proposals. This Session should not be allowed to conclude without something being put on the statute book.
§ 2.6 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
Like the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who, as I have, has attempted to draw attention to this problem in past Sessions of Parliament, I should like to offer my very warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on introducing a Bill which is comprehensive, lucidly presented and capable of meeting all the reservations already expressed from some quarters in the House about it. I congratulate the hon. Member and his adviser, Mr. Colin Winser, most sincerely on the formulation of the Bill. It is everything that those of us could have wished for who have campaigned over the years for legislation adequately to protect the mobile home owner.
It is not entirely inappropriate that it should have come, more or less, on the tenth anniversary of that unhappy confrontation between Dame Evelyn Sharp and the late Richard Crossman in the Ministry. It is true—and I say this in a spirit of warm friendship to my hon. Friend the Minister—that over the years, successive generations of officials within the old Ministries of Housing and Town and Country Planning and, nowadays, the Department of the Environment, have not been 100 per cent. enthusiastic about legislation of this kind. Indeed, imperfect though it was, the 1968 Act owed all of its impetus and much of its fault to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—Eric Lubbock. M.P., as he then was—when he introduced it as a Private Member's Bill.
This time I think that we have the best of all words. We have the force and tenacity of the hon. Member for Bridgwater and his all-party support and the backing and support of the Government. With all this on our side, how can we fail? I am personally confident that the Bill will go through in this Session.
The Bill will be a major step forward for the quarter of a million people—we do not know the exact figure; my hon. 949 Friend's survey will no doubt turn that up—who are now living in mobile homes in a situation in which the home is not a house. Legally speaking, they have none of the protections which have been made available through legislation over the years to those who live in rented accommodation. If they try to resell their caravan, they find themselves immediately up against all manner of problems, and sometimes extortion. However expensive, well-fitted, and scrupulously maintained the vehicle may have been, at the point of resale it will still be a vehicle and not a house. Its depreciation will be taken by the monopoly buyer, the site owner, as similar to that of a vehicle.
The Bill must be seen against the background of the very great need for more accommodation. It is a need which has been stressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and which is doubly emphasised in the Shelter report which has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Bridgwater. I fully agree with those who have said during the debate that nothing we do in the process of implementing this legislation ought in any way to deter those who have put mobile home sites on the market, and who have offered a public service in doing so, from continuing to give that service to the public and, indeed, from extending it in the future. But the fact is that the more those of us who have studied this problem have looked at it, the more we have realised how little the 1960 and 1968 Acts were giving in the key areas of leases, site charges, arbitration about rent, and resale. Bad as the position was in England, it was in every sense worse in Scotland where the protection of the 1968 Act did not apply. The single biggest step forward of the Bill is to make this legislation wholly applicable to Scotland also.
My hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) mentioned my description of the unscrupulous fringe of site owners as a Mafia. In fairness to that expression, I should say that the expression was not lightly chosen. The Mafioso element on the fringe of site owners are more often than not people who are not members of the National Federation of Site Operators, which would be the first to deplore these practices. 950 This element has made its money in the way that the hon. Member for Rushcliffe deplored, namely, by making to the wretched caravan owner an offer that he cannot refuse about point of entry, resale, and so on.
There has often been intimidation of those who have wished even to form associate branches of the National Mobile Home Residents' Association which, as all of us who have had discussions with Mr. Orpen and his colleagues know, is by no means a militant body. Its membership is widely scattered. A large proportion of its members are elderly. Many of them go in fear because there has been extensive intimidation by some of the more unscrupulous operators of those who wish to form associate branches. The NMHRA and the National Federation have been doing their best.
There has been much discussion about the possibility of a tripartite agreement. It has been suggested that in some way this might need to be spatchcocked into the provisions of the Bill. The tripartite agreement would not cover the worst cases which have been brought to the attention of hon. Members. It is those cases which have to be discussed. It does no service to the Bill if it is discussed or described as an interim measure. It cannot be an interim measure when these cases are under consideration.
After introducing a Bill under the Ten-Minute Rule procedure in 1974 I received an immense amount of correspondence from all over the country. I received many letters from constituents of hon. Members now present—the hon. Members for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), for Beeston (Mr. Lester), for Rushcliffe, and for Dorset, South (Mr. King). People discussed in detailed terms precisely what was being done to them but always with the proviso that they were terrified of personal publicity. Their plea was "Please do not mention my name. If any of this gets out, I shall be in trouble."
I received a letter from a residential park, as it is called, in Weston-super-Mare. One of the residents discusses exactly the sort of thing which happens once an association is established:The residents of this site were most cheered by your remarks".951 That was at the time of my Bill.
But unfortunately someone must have passed on the information, as the site owner has issued eviction notices to the 21 owners asking for the site to be vacated by June 17th. Obviously he has realised that time was on our side and is speeding up things before the Government can protect us.That writer, whom I do not propose to name, was guilty of nothing more than attempting to set up a branch of the residents' association. As a result of that, there was a blanket eviction notice served on everyone on the site.
We have had a number of examples, most of them brought to our attention by the Scottish Shelter organisation, of evictions and worse going on in that area. The Scottish Shelter report, which came out late last year, mentioned a number of examples of evictions at Port Seton in East Lothian which were taking place without even the protection of the 1968 Act. There was no 28 days' provision to help these people. In one case a tenant was being evicted for no better reason than that he had reported the under manager to the police for driving round the camp drunk. He was given notice to quit. He was told that he could have been given four hours' notice and it was extremely generous that he should have been given 28 days' notice.
A number of complaints—some of them mentioned in the Scottish survey and many others in correspondence I have received—discuss not merely this kind of harassment but also the operation by some of the more unscrupulous site owners of what can only be described as a practice amounting to false pretences in terms of the services notionally offered, and of course paid for, in the site rent and service charge agreements but which are not actually delivered.
The Scottish Shelter report goes into some detail on the question of fire hazards and fire fighting equipment at some of the sites in Scotland. This is a serious matter as regards all these residential sites. The report says:At one site a Shelter worker approached what purported to be a fire point. It consisted of a red box some 18 ins. by 2 ft. 6 ins. by 6 ins., attached to a wall. On the outside was the message 'In the case of fire dial 999', inside was nothing.I have had one letter saying that the residents have been charged for two years 952 for launderette services which have never been provided on the site. In another case the residents have been charged for electricity connections for five months without the electricity being connected. Such practices have gone on for a long time, partly because of the scarcity of sites, partly because people are terrified of getting on the wrong site of the owners, and also because there has never existed a proper form of written agreement mandatory on the site owner which in many cases could be quoted and used. This more than anything else is what one now wishes to be brought in.
I have had a number of letters also about the quite exorbitant level of rent increases. I have had a letter from an old-age pensioner in the constituency of the hon. Member for Canterbury complaining about a 66 per cent. increase in site rent which took place—this adds insult to injury—in the middle of the Government's freeze over the past year. This kind of thing just cannot be allowed to continue. I do not believe that any measure which sets out to tackle that can be described as an interim measure.
I turn briefly to some of the main provisions of the Bill. For those of us who have been concerned in the early discussion about a Bill, the written agreement or lease is crucial, but I believe that as the Bill is drafted there is still a small print let-out for the sharp site owner when one is discussing the way in which the lease must be offered within 30 days. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe has dealt with the point in some detail. There is a later let-out which would emerge in the small print of any lease drawn up by a sharp and not particularly scrupulous site owner when we come to the point about resale, with which I will deal in a short while.
I do not believe that the three-year minimum for leases is long enough. A number of representations have been made to some of us that a longer period is needed. Many branches of the NMHRA have written saying that perhaps 10 years would be more appropriate. Ten years may be too long—I do not know. However, there is the difficulty that the prescribed minima become the maxima and that if it is provided that the minimum period of the lease shall be three years, it is very quickly found that very few leases are being offered for a longer 953 period than that and the maximum period for leases tends quickly to become three years. I do not believe that this is long enough. This is a point to which we should seek to return in Committee.
I welcome the fact that the new model agreement in Clause 3 is comprehensive and will be mandatory. I personally do not want to hear too much in Committee—I am sure that we shall not—about leaving matters to the good sense of all parties, waiting for the tripartite agreement, and so on. Most of those who have been most active amongst the residents' associations are quite right to warn us of the danger of leaving anything to the good sense of all the parties who are concerned with this dispute, because the one party not concerned in the discussions is that group of unscrupulous site owners to whom I have already referred.
I have a letter here, for instance, from the Dewlands Park Residents' Association in Dorset which makes the point absolutely clearly that there should be alegal obligation that all operators use only the official contract'. This is absolutely imperative as the NCC and the NFSO are minority organisations and any of the present members could opt out and join the majority of operators who have no allegiance to either of these groups and thus would be under no legal obligation to use the 'official contract'.That is an entirely fair point which must be borne in mind.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) said that he hoped there would be a wider power to expel unscrupulous organisations from the NFSO if the NFSO, through the tripartite agreement, had a model agreement in force, but one cannot expel those who are not members of one's own organisation. The difficulty would be to persuade—and this is beyond the scope of the Bill—the site operators who have managed very nicely to operate outside the NFSO, actually to join it.
I wish now to refer to the resale provisions. I absolutely endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe. My own interest initially was raised in this matter by complaints from constituents. In one instance a caravan owner died. The caravan was only three months old and the widow had to sell up. She could not afford to live on the site any longer and she had to move. For this brand new and very expensive caravan 954 she was offered 45 per cent. less than she had paid for it. In such a case the galling thing is that a week later such people see the caravan advertised at more than the cost price, because it suddenly becomes a home and not a vehicle, and it reflects the accumulating value of the site. The former owners then feel that they are cheated twice over.
The provisions in the Bill for dealing with these contingencies are very necessary, but I should prefer to see a specific percentage figure written into the Bill. I do not think I am breaching any confidence in saying that at meetings that the sponsors had when discussing this Bill there was originally the feeling that a 15 per cent. or a 10 per cent. figure should be written into the Bill, but it was eventually decided not to do so.
My worry is that within the small print of some of the leasehold agreements which site owners might produce would be an unjustifiably high percentage figure as the commission figure which a site owner could charge, and many people, particularly the elderly, do not look too closely at the small print when they are just moving in. When a person is moving on to a caravan site the last things he considers are the resale provisions. It is possibly one's retirement home, and the possibility of resale does not enter into one's head. I would not want to leave a loophole in the Bill which would allow the unscrupulous site operator to write in a 30 per cent., 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. figure when most of us feel that, given the expenses incurred, somewhere about 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. is the proper figure.
This Bill cannot cover everybody. When we see the comprehensive legislation which has been promised we shall need to look at those other areas with which we are concerned as sponsors but which do not come within the category of a reasonable definition of mobile home. For instance, there are those in holiday chalets. There is a notorious estate in Worcestershire where people have to sign every week to the effect that they are there on holiday. They are on holiday technically for 51 weeks of the year. They will not be protected by this Bill.
There is an analogous situation involving those who live in small boats. Small boats, because of the charges which are 955 levied on the owners for anchorage and some of the connection charges, are in a similar position, and these are permanent residences for many people. Yet we cannot cover them under this Bill. I hope that when the Government consider the comprehensive legislation, they will widen it and not merely polish up the existing clauses in the Bill.
The Bill cannot lay upon the local authorities the responsibility for providing extra or alternative sites. We cannot—I wish we could—introduce legislation which will increase the supply of land. The local authorities—and in this respect I dissent to some extent from my hon. Friend—will have specific duties under Clause 7, and Clause 7 should be left more or less as it is in the Bill.
For those two sections who mostly need mobile home accommodation—the young marrieds who are vulnerable, and the retired elderly who are equally vulnerable—this Bill is a major step forward. We commend it to the House and wish it a speedy passage.
§ 2.25 p.m.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) because I was one of the joint sponsors of his Bill which failed to get through because of the election.
I am sorry that the Secretary of State has left us, but we are at least grateful to him for having taken some time off to come and listen to part of the debate, thus demonstrating his recognition that it is an important piece of legislation.
I welcome the Bill and the manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) introduced it. I think we all agree that nobody could have introduced the Bill in a better manner than he did—concisely, clearly and with great feeling.
This Bill gives recognition and rights to a neglected minority in this country—people who, as the Minister said, have been neglected for far too long. Anybody flying over my constituency, as I have done, will see a great many sites—both holiday caravan sites on the coast at Whitstable and Herne Bay and in between, and a great many permanent residential sites, which are what we are 956 really talking about today. That is one reason for my being here today. I have a constituency interest in the matter.
This Bill, apart from giving recognition and rights to a neglected minority, seeks to impose a responsibility on the site owner. It is not a responsibility which the site owners are trying to dismiss and avoid. In fact, those site owners whom I have met in my constituency, far from wanting to avoid this responsibility, have made a valuable contribution in argument and debates on this matter with which I have been concerned over the years. The Bill establishes a proper relationship at last between site owner and occupier. The Bill is essentially about a written agreement. That is really the kernel of the Bill.
There are some parts of the Bill about which I am concerned. For example, Clause 3 details the content of a written agreement. The clause contains many paragraphs, and I should like the agreement of the Department of the Environment on the points contained in those paragraphs. It may be that this matter will be raised in Standing Committee. Some of these points must involve the Department in determining what is and what is not correct. I think the Minister agrees with me.
§ Mr. Crouch
I am glad to see that the Minister agrees. The Caravan Council and the National Federation of Site Operators have said that they feel that the Department of the Environment should be involved in determining the contents of the agreement between the site owner and the occupier.
Clause 3(j) refers to arbitration on disputes arising over the replacement of caravans, and their condition. I am concerned with a situation in which a site owner might suggest that a certain caravan was looking rather shabby and old and that therefore the occupier should get rid of it because it was 10 or 15 years old. We have heard today that the life span of a caravan varies according to whether one is a site owner or the occupier of the caravan.
I should not like to think that that clause gave any site owner reason to think that he could take action against an occupier, perhaps putting pressure 957 upon him or evicting him from his home, the idea in the owner's mind being that the Bill enabled him to have a good case for telling the court that the caravan should be replaced. It is important that the Department of the Environment should come in here between the two contestants who might at some stage appear in court.
Another important matter is raised by the reference to the provision of services in Clause 3(j). A good site owner provides many services for those living upon his site. For example, he puts down concrete or tarmac roads at his own expense, and he provides car parking space. In this connection, at a site in my constituency objection has been raised to the practice of one of the mobile home occupiers who happens to operate a taxi service parking a taxi or taxis on the site. Some of the people there object to that use of space. Many problems of this kind may cause dispute between the site owner and occupiers of mobile homes.
Many of the services provided by an owner may be the subject of dispute. For example, in a confined space such as a mobile home site, there will often be problems of refuse and litter, some of that litter being of a kind which the local authority will not readily remove. Where there is a fairly tight concentration of people on a comparatively small site, the abandoned motor car can easily disfigure the place and soon cause a deterioration in amenities. For these problems there has to be some legislation. They cannot be left to the good will, which may or may not exist, between the parties. There must be legislation to ensure that sites are maintained to a good standard.
I should add that, in my experience, standards generally are remarkably high, and I pay tribute for this to both site owners and those who live there. Properties of the kind which we are discussing could easily deteriorate quite rapidly and develop a slum character, but I have yet to see any such. I find it most encouraging that people who live in mobile homes seem to keep higher standards in the maintenance of their living conditions than others do. There is no neglect of the gardens. There is no neglect of the services to the home, the sewerage, the water supply, drainage, electricity, and so on. These people take great pride in 958 their home conditions. The same can be said for the site owners whom I know. They also take a pride in the high standards which they maintain.
However, there may always be somebody who steps out of line and parks a 30-year-old car at the bottom of the site, by the incinerator, or who, having cleared a house, leaves old furniture and mattresses about. We all know how disagreeable an accumulation of that kind can be, destroying the look of a site immediately and damaging the general amenities.
It should be said that some site owners go out of their way to provide something which is not just a luxury but a necessity, especially where there are elderly people living in mobile homes, as there so often are. Many site owners provide site lighting at their own capital expense, and this is always extremely valuable. No doubt, they recoup the cost of it in their charges to occupiers, but it is a valuable provision.
If we are today giving a blessing to the idea of mobile homes as part of our national housing stock, we must not neglect the infrastructure services which have to be provided. I am sure that the Minister will not neglect that, since he knows very well from his close connection with the local authorities that when a local authority is considering any form of housing development, large or small, it is required to take into account the infrastructure services, whether social or environmental. Equally, mobile homes are an essential part of our housing stock, and they should have the same attention in that respect.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that he welcomed the Bill as a necessary measure to fill a gap in our housing provision, and he referred to the late Mr. Crossman's view of the matter, saying that he felt much the same. But we must recognise that there is a gap in the thinking of local authorities about the mobile home and the caravan site.
I refer here to Circular 122/73 issued by the Department of the Environment, which made specific reference to mobile homes. It was a circular advising local authorities and commending to them the need to find more land for housing 959 development, but in paragraph 12, referring to mobile homes, it said that though.
sites surrounded by houses are seldom suitable for residential caravan sites, irregular or uneven sites unsuitable for building may sometimes be used to advantage for the siting of caravans, and sites allocated for future building may also be suitable for temporary use for such purposes.That worries me a little, because it suggests to local authorities that a site not suitable for building permanent houses—houses of bricks and mortar—might be suitable for mobile homes. In other words, second-best might do. I hope that that instruction will be amended or cancelled. In my view, local authorities should never be instructed or encouraged to think that a piece of poor or badly shaped land—perhaps on the side of a hill, or inadequately drained—which is not suitable for normal residential development might be suitable for mobile homes.
Neither do I like the reference in that circular to a site being used temporarily for mobile homes. A person's home is not a temporary concern. In talking to those of my constituents who live in mobile homes, I find that there is great uncertainty in their minds because of the lack of legislation and lack of rights which they have for so long experienced. If there remains in a single councillor's mind anywhere the thought that a piece of land not suitable for permanent building might be suitable for a mobile home site, that thought ought quickly to be dispelled, and I hope that the passage of the Bill will soon do it. Any such idea ought at once to be driven out of the mind of every local authority council member and official, and I hope that it is no longer present in the mind of the Minister of his Department.
The Bill goes a long way, but I fear that it does not go far enough. I am glad to think that it will be of benefit in removing from the minds of mobile home occupiers fear and uncertainty about losing their homes. It is a terrible thing for anyone to fear the loss of his home, and this applies especially, of course, to elderly persons or couples. If such people, who may well have looked forward to a little peace and quiet in retirement on a mobile home site, have so much as the glimmer of a fear that 960 they are living from year to year, or even from month to month, this can cause extreme worry, and I am glad to think that the Bill will go far enough to remove a great deal of that uncertainty.
However, even when the Bill is passed I shall still have grave concern—this concern was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd)—about the uncertainty which may still remain in the minds of mobile home occupiers about what a site owner may do with his site. There may be 80 or 100 persons in mobile homes on a site.
If a site owner feels that the council is changing its mind and that his land will become eligible for development he knows that the value of that site will be much increased. However good a man he is, he may be getting on in years and he may be attracted to the possibility of realising a return on his land through selling it for development. In such circumstances he might put his social conscience in the background. I want the Bill to remove any such uncertainties and to stabilise the situation.
Therefore, a mobile home site should be designated as such. It should retain that designation and it should not be possible to turn it into development land so that the site owner may suddenly sell out. If land can be designated in this way it will do much to raise the standard of caravan parks, and it will recognise their contribution to the nation's housing stock.
The question of infrastructure is vital. In my constituency mobile home sites lack the necessary infrastructure. They are located a long way out of the towns, on remote pieces of farmland. They are not connected with planned housing development and they are not within the envelope of villages. They are far off rural bus services and nowhere near other amenities. Usually there is no shop except the one provided by the site owner. I take my hat off to the owners who provide these shops. There is no telephone kiosk. In short these sites are completely forgotten. The people living there are responsible citizens, who maintain their homes in good order. They have a sound social conscience but, unfortunately, the infrastructure around them is not developed. This matter does not attract the attention that it should have.
961 As a result of the Bill, therefore, local authorities must be sent another circular telling them that the mobile home has now been recognised as an integral part of the country's housing stock and should be properly served by infrastructural services.
There is also the question of the resale, on site, of caravan homes. The caravan is more than just a caravan, since it includes a lot of fixtures and fittings, and sometimes furniture. All these fixtures and fittings are subject to depreciation. I hope that when the Bill goes to Standing Committee hon. Members will remember the problems which face the site owner. It is important that sale on site should be allowed, as is provided in the Bill. I am glad that the provision recognises the situation not only of the existing occupier and the new tenant to whom the occupier is seeking to sell, but also of the site owner. He must have the right to determine who should come into the site. He cannot be neglected in this respect, and there is always provision for arbitration. By allowing sale on site we should be enabling the seller to get a better price, and we should be taking an important step for a nation which is hungry for houses. There must be more cheaper homes on the market than at present, and I am sure that these arrangements will help that situation.
Caravan buyers often sink their savings into their home with a view to permanent occupation. Sometimes they even sell a brick and mortar house in order to buy a mobile home in an attractive rural situation. These people must be given greater certainty and greater security. Site owners are meeting a need in providing the service they do. Both the site owner and the occupier have rights and responsibilities. The Bill goes a long way towards serving both those ends. I commend it.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe (Surrey, East)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to interrupt this important debate for more than a moment, but it is essential that I should draw attention to the present state of affairs in relation to amendments to the Finance Bill, the Report stage of which begins on Monday. As I understand it all those amendments which were tabled during the course of yesterday and which would ordinarily 962 have been printed and available to hon. Members today for them to consider with their constituents and others during the weekend have not yet been printed.
Representations have been made through the Vote Office during the course of the morning, but up to now only about 30 photo-copies of a very large number of amendments have been made available and this is, quite frankly, adding intolerability to intolerability.
I briefly raise this point at this stage so that it may be drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House and others responsible. In that way the right hon. Gentleman may be able to be present in the House at four o'clock, at the close of the debate, in order to tell the House exactly what the Government are proposing to do about this disgraceful state of affairs.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
The right hon. and learned Member knows full well that his point of order has nothing to do with the subject under discussion. I can say only that I heard the Leader of the House indicate yesterday that ample opportunity would be given for the amendments to be considered, and I think that Mr. Speaker dealt with the point on several points of order yesterday. It is not for me to send for the Leader of the House. That is a matter for the Government. If they wish to take that action they can do so.
§ Sir G. Howe
I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about what the Leader of House said yesterday, but I do not wish to pursue that point with you. The absence of any copies of these amendments makes it even less likely that the undertaking by the Leader of the House that ample opportunity will be available will be fulfilled. I therefore raised the point of order so that it could be drawn to his attention by his hon. Friends in order that he may be in the House at four o'clock to tell us what he intends to do about the matter.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The Whips are here and the right hon. and learned Gentleman's points will have been noted.
§ 2.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
It is a great honour to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe)—or it would 963 have been had he not had to raise such an important and dissatisfying point of order. I only hope that immediate Government action will result from it.
In the best Conservative Benthamite tradition, I believe in the greatest happiness for the greatest number and my speech will be about happiness and evil in relation to the Bill. I begin with happiness by expressing my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) for all his efforts and I hope that they will be blessed by success this afternoon.
The main evil is the exploitation of residents on mobile home sites. It is a serious evil. We all have some knowledge of its extent from our own experience. We know of tenants threatened with eviction unless they buy a new caravan or desist from joining residents' associations. We know of the compulsory resale of caravans to site operators, who sell them in due course at a much higher price. We know of excessive increases in rent or service charges. These are all matters that cause us considerable concern. But we should not be driven to over-react. Legislation is not the solution to all human problems that are caused by the inter-relation of conflicting parties. We should bear in mind that most site owners do not exploit their residents.
There is now a greater demand than ever before for mobile homes, yet there is a shortage of sites at a time of acute housing need. We must be careful to do nothing that will make the situation worse by forcing the closure of existing sites or stopping other site owners from coming forward to expand the facilities. The defaulters are not always individuals. They are sometimes local authorities which do not always exercise their responsibilities to provide sites or to maintain them properly. I hasten to add, as Member of Parliament for the Burton Division, that as far as I know the East Staffordshire District Council has never offended in that regard.
I emphasise that it is not the case that residents under existing law have no protection. Under the 1968 Act it is extremely difficult for site owners to get residents out. It requires a court order, which can be suspended for 12 months. 964 Protection is written into the existing legislation against harassment. Under the 1960 Act local authorities were empowered to take over or close down sites. Under the Fair Trading Act 1973 the Director General of Fair Trading keeps under review commercial activities concerning the provision of goods or services.
Unfortunately, some tenants are trouble-makers. It is especially important for those of us who have constituency problems concerning mobile sites to keep an objective and fair-minded approach to the problem, the more so as the Minister pointed out that the facts are so difficult to come by.
The ideal that we should be aiming for is the maximum happiness. We should be aiming for a site where the residents are happy with the rent and the services provided and are happy with their neighbours. We should also be aiming for a site where the owners are happy with the returns on their outlay, and where there is no trouble. It is important that the site owner should be happy, not only because he has as much right as anybody else in our society to be happy but because it is in the interests of the overall housing picture to encourage a proliferation of site owners. It is also in the interests of those who want to be mobile home owners that they should be given the maximum possible opportunity.
The Bill does much to make the residents happier and much to allay the fears of the site owners. But does it do sufficient to make site owners happy? My view is the same as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd)—although I have no interest to disclose—namely, that it may not provide as much happiness for site owners as perhaps it could, and in one regard does not provide enough protection for the site owner and the residents alike against undesirable residents. I am referring to the trouble-maker, the persistent drunk and the rowdy and destructive children who make life unbearable for people who live on the site.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I am sorry to interrupt the Benthamite musings from the hon. Member, but does he agree that the balance of advantage at the moment is too far towards the site owner?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Six hon. Members who have sat patiently throughout the debate are still anxious to take part. I hope that there will be no unnecessary interruptions, so that they may be accommodated.
§ Mr. Lawrence
My answer to the hon. Gentleman is "Yes", but we should not be moved into the position of placing the balance of benefit too far against the site owner. That is all the warning I give.
It is undesirable for both parties if derelict caravans spoil attractive sites and if residents cause fights or trouble on sites, refuse to pay rent or rates, or damage property wantonly. At present they can do so and get security from the courts for a long period. I am pleased to see that the Bill retains some power of selection of new residents in the hands of the site owner. I should like to see a provision making it easier for a site owner, not only in his own interests but in the interests of fellow residents, to remove an undesirable resident more simply than he can now, subject to all reasonable safeguards.
There are two other proposals which will raise the general level of happiness. I should like to see provision for greater leverage upon local authorities which are not fulfilling their obligations. That provision is not yet in the Bill. Secondly, having said that legislation will not solve all the problems of human relations, I think that much of the ill-feeling on sites is caused by minor disputes and misunderstandings. I should like to see the appointment of a local government official who is acquainted with the subject of mobile sites, to deal with the problems that arise on sites from time to time, and with power to refer disputes to an arbitrator.
Much of what I wanted to say has already been well said. I have other proposals—on the question of arbitration, for example—but the hour is late, and I see other hon. Members straining at the leash. Because I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater is making a genuine and reasonably successful attempt to strike a balance, which will in the end achieve a greater happiness for a greater number, I support the Bill, although I should like to see improvements made in Committee.
§ Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it right that the whole of Friday should be taken up by a non-controversial Bill which has been supported by all hon. Members who have spoken, when there are other important Bills to be discussed, including one on industrial democracy?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
There has been no abuse of the Standing Orders. Everything that has been said has been relevant to the debate. No one can take exception to the proceedings.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)
As this is likely to be my only opportunity, I should point out that millions of people who are affected by rate increases will be denied the opportunity of having the subject discussed this afternoon. I endorse what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that all the speeches have been to the point, but I hope that there will be five minutes remaining at the end of the debate in which to discuss rates.
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I shall do what I can to help the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) by dispensing with the formality of praising my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and merely saying that the work that has gone into the preparation of the Bill is a matter in which the House can take pride.
I am glad to lend my voice in support of the Bill's objectives. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) in expressing concern to the Minister about the wider need which remains beyond the Bill. I apologise to the Minister for not being able to be present during the whole of his speech. I want to focus on two matters about which I have corresponded with the Minister. I urge the Government not to regard the Bill as letting them off the hook. The Bill goes a long way, certainly in the framing of the agreement, to remove many of the problems. There remain areas of doubt and difficulty, such as, for example, the inability of elderly people to have deliveries made to the 967 site by tradesmen, but that type of problem can be covered within the framework of the agreement.
There are two wider issues. The first relates to the ownership of mobile homes. I am anxious to hear the Government's thinking, which we have been promised for some time, on the way in which councils may be encouraged to meet some of their housing needs by the purchase of mobile homes. The Government have been reluctant to allow financial support for councils to be used in that way. This is an important development, which I hope the Government will take into account.
Secondly, there is confusion and difficulty in justifying to mobile home dwellers the situation in which they can obtain rate rebates but not rent rebates. For mobile home dwellers who pay a site rent of between £3 and £4, excluding water and electricity, that is an important matter. The position is indefensible, because it is a legal nicety to suggest that that payment is not rent. The argument that the mobile home cannot be classified as a dwelling, or that a licence fee is not rent, plays around on the fringes of legal interpretation in a way that does not satisfy mobile home dwellers.
I commend the Bill to the House and I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater of my support. I hope that the Minister will take into account the suggestions I have made, on which I shall correspond with him further.
§ 3.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)
I point out to the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) that for many hon. Members the Bill is a measure of the utmost importance. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was successful in the Ballot, with the result that he and other hon. Members on both sides of the House have spent an enormous amount of time on the preparation of the Bill. It would be wrong for those of us who have taken a special interest in this subject to allow ourselves to be bullied off—a point which the Minister described as a particular aspect of democracy when he prevented my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) from intervening in his speech.
968 The Minister's reference to the size of the problem was one of his most important comments. He made clear that the Bill will progress unimpeded by his Department. I hope that he will be able to discover how many people are living in mobile homes. In an answer to me recently he said that there were 180,000. According to an article in The Guardian of 2nd January last year the figure is 250,000. Might not local authorities be able to provide information on this?
One anomaly is that people who do not live in mobile homes think that those who do are second-class citizens. They do not realise that mobile home dwellers pay the normal rates. Local authorities should, therefore, be able to provide the Department of the Environment with information on the size of the problem.
Another anomaly is that the last thing the mobile home dwellers are is mobile. They occupy permanent homes and the phrase "mobile home" is an anomaly which should be corrected.
In the Adjournment debate on 19th March last year to which the Minister referred he said, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), that mobile home dwellers are not legally tenants. The Bill provides that mobile home dwellers shall become legal tenants, and that is most important for the peace of mind of many thousands of ratepayers and taxpayers.
The citizens' advice bureaux have been enormously helpful to me in assembling information. Many tenants of mobile home sites are unwilling to come forward openly to discuss their problems. Here I pay tribute to the New Milton Citizens' Advice Bureau, which made a submission to the Minister earlier this month. I commend the citizens' advice bureaux, which are willing and ready to take up, on behalf of tenants, points of interest which those tenants have not always been able to express as openly as they should in a democracy. The organiser of the Citizens' Advice Bureau in New Milton wrote to me in relation to the Bill as follows:We hope that means will soon be found to put a stop to some of the outrageous treatment being handed out to tenants by some site owners.The bad site owners tend to attract all the attention. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater said 969 that the evil deeds of a few tend to obscure the fact that the majority of site owners are good, decent, responsible citizens, doing their best to provide adequate housing conditions for a large number of people.
To highlight the problem of bad tenants, I wish to quote one or two brief examples, not only from my constituency but from the neighbouring constituency of the New Forest. My hon. Friend the Member for the New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has done a great deal of work and has asked me to say that he strongly supports the Bill. The case in his constituency concerns an elderly couple, who are both over 80, who have lived on a site since 1964, but who were told two weeks ago that their rental was to be increased to £10 a week, plus rates. Those two people are living solely on their pension.
The next case concerns the Glendene Mobile Home Park, in my constituency. This is the kind of situation which causes concern. A letter was sent on 28th December 1974 to the tenants of Glendene Mobile Home Park. This scruffy document is unsigned, although it bear the name "R. W. H. Porritt" at the bottom. The final paragraph reads:You have every right to terminate your tenancy and this increase will not apply provided your notice to quit is received by me at these offices on or before January 25th, 1975. If no such notice is received you will be deemed to have accepted the tenancy on the basis of the increased rent and no further action is required on your part except to pay the rent.I think that that is a grotesque way in which to treat human beings. I hope that that abuse will be eliminated by the Bill.
There is a need for tenants to know who is their landlord. In the case of Glendene, the letter came from Mr. Porritt. He does not live on the site, and the tenants have never seen him. Correspondence takes place with the Ratcliffe Caravan Company. Somewhere in the background is a gentleman called Mr. McAlister, who is involved in the life of the people at Glendene. Anyone who has taken an interest in the problem knows the reputation of that gentleman. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me whether the Bill is adequate to deal with that problem. If not, is he prepared to consider amending the Bill to make it a 970 condition of the written agreement that the name of the ultimate owner of the site should be made known to all the tenants on the site? This is an important point. If it is done, much fear of the unknown will be removed from the minds of many of our constituents.
The other matter which has been mentioned is what happens when there is a rent freeze. I do not wish to discuss the merits or otherwise of a rent freeze, but the Minister wrote to me on 5th December explaining why it was not possible to give mobile home dwellers legislative protection. He said:if we were to make such an order without being able to offer residents a firm hope of security on their sites, we would be offering site operators a strong incentive to evict residents …That is true. The Bill will give tenants the security which they have been lacking.
I refer to the difficulty of people wanting to sell their mobile homes and being unable to obtain a reasonable price for them. The following information has been provided for me by the citizens' advice bureau and it relates to people on a site owned by Tuckton Riverside Services Ltd., in my constituency. It is stated:Mr. and Mrs. Eaton left the site and sold their caravan to the site owner who, in turn, sold it to a Mr. and Mrs. Hawksworth for £2,500. Six months later, in about October 1973, the Hawksworths decided that they could not afford to live on the site and they gave notice to the site owner, and asked him if he would buy the caravan back. The site owner said that they could either remove their caravan from the site or he would repurchase it for £1,000. As the Hawksworths could not obtain another site, they had to accept the site owner's offer. Subsequently in December 1973 the site owner sold the caravan to a Mr. Ralph for £3,500.That is by no means an isolated example.
On the credit side, there is an extremely good site in my consituency called the Hoburne Caravan Site. I know that Mr. John Burry of that site has been in extensive consultation with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater. He suggests that on new parks tenants might be granted long leases on individual pitches and that the common parts of the site should be operated by a maintenance company in which each caravan owner has a share. That is a constructive 971 proposition and I urge my hon. Friend to consider incorporating it in the Bill or the Minister to incorporate it in the report which, presumably, he will make to the House.
We have clearly portrayed the House's overwhelming support for the Bill and the need to protect people who live in permanent mobile homes. We are not talking about caravans in the accepted sense of the word, or about what some of my constituents have been known to call the "summer Grundy bins" which block up the roads and use all the facilities in constituencies like mine. We are dealing with specialised home owners who have never had any of the protection which house owner and house occupiers have long since come to accept as part of their rights as citizens.
I hope that the passage of the Bill will enable people who live in mobile homes to acquire the rights which they are entitled to expect.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
I should advise hon. Members that if they wish the Bill to have a Second Reading speeches will have to be briefer.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Rossi (Hornsey)
I shall he as brief as possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker, consonant with what I have to say.
The whole House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) for the moderate and thoughtful way in which he introduced the Bill. The importance of the Bill is indicated by the large numbers of hon. Members who were in their places this Friday morning and the large numbers who have sought to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to add my warm congratulations to those that my hon. Friend has received from both sides of the House.
It is clear that in producing this measure my hon. Friend has put in an enormous amount of work in his consultations with the National Caravan Council, the National Federation of Site Operators, the Mobile Home Residents' Association and, of course, local authorities. It is a tribute to his efforts that, despite the conflict of interest which must exist at some points between those bodies, my hon. Friend has 972 produced a Bill which receives a general welcome from all of them. That he has succeeded is undoubtedly due to the fact that he has tried to maintain a fair balance between site owners and occupiers.
My hon. Friend has recognised the economic forces at play which push up operating costs and has eschewed a system of rigid control of rents and of security of tenure as likely to drive site operators out of business and so cease to supply existing demand. That point was effectively underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). That is a matter that we have unhappily experienced in other areas of residential housing. We all know the effect that rigid control of rents and security of tenure has had on supply.
At the same time, my hon. Friend recognises the worries of residents living on fixed incomes faced with ever increasing site rents without the benefit of rent allowances, their vulnerability to loss of possession at the hands of a minority of unscrupulous operators, and the fundamental unfairness of current practices regarding the resale of mobile homes to site operators, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) has just given a glaring example.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater has tried to meet these problems by a formal agreement freely negotiated between the parties, but incorporating and defining certain basic rights. This concept can give protection against abuse and yet leave site operators with sufficient incentive to continue with their business of making land available for these homes. It is a concept which could well be considered in other areas of housing to bring forward the under-used supply which undoubtedly exists.
I should like to ask the House to consider the question of mobile homes in the context of the broader housing problem. The Under-Secretary of State said that accurate facts are hard to come by. In a Press notice of 10th December issued by the Department of the Environment there was mention of 182,000 occupants in 70,000 mobile homes. The Mobile Home Residents' Association says that there are 300,000 people living in mobile homes. An article in The Guardian on 973 2nd January stated that there were 250,000 people living in 93,000 mobile homes. A note that I have received from the Library says that there are no up-to-date figures since 1968, but it gives a figure of 173,000. Therefore, hon. Members can take their choice of the actual position as of today.
Whatever the actual number of people living in mobile homes may be, there is undoubtedly a great demand. They are extremely popular. Most of them are well laid out, attractive, and ideally suited for retired couples.
The Shelter report, published this week, states that there are waiting lists on up to 20 per cent. of site pitches at the moment. The report concludes that that means that 20,000 people would move into mobile homes tomorrow if they were available. That would release 10,000 homes for families with children, on the basis that the people demanding and looking for mobile homes are retiring and wish to give up larger accommodation in urban areas. If the number of pitches were doubled over three years it would release 70,000 homes. That is a factor that the House must take into account when considering the housing problem facing this country.
Therefore, in the general housing context, there is a need to encourage more provision by site owners. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) pointed out that there is a quantity of low-quality agricultural land throughout the country which would provide excellent sites. The mere fact that demand exceeds supply means that there are those who take advantage of the situation.
We have heard these hardship stories of ever-increasing rents and of advantage taken of people when they come to resell caravans to site operators. This is particularly hard for those who buy a mobile home as their first home to try to save up for a more permanent residence but find gnat in the process they have lost over 50 per cent. of their hard-earned capital.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater has, with characteristic open-mindedness, said that he has done his best to strike a fair balance in the Bill but is willing to consider amendments in Committee. One of the criticisms made 974 of the Bill by my hon. Friends the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) and Weston-super-Mare is that the rent review period of once in every three years is not sufficiently frequent. The suggestion has been made that reviews should take place annually, particularly in an inflationary situation. This is understandable. The point has been made that if a rent increase is delayed for three years tile impact of that increase in inflationary times can be enormous. There is something to recommend a gradual increase in rents.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend would consider an indexation clause to deal with this problem. It would assist site operators and at the same time ensure that occupiers were not faced with sudden and large increases in rents at set periods. We all welcome the right of the occupier to sell at market price—subject to a reasonable condition—to the site-owner. My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made a valid point when he said that it was right that there should be a fair division of profit between the site-owner and the caravan occupier.
It is right that the site-owner should have a say as to who shall come on to the site. It is important for the residents that there be a measure of control over who occupies adjoining mobile homes. If we give the occupier the right to sell the caravan in the free market there has to be a condition concerning the consent of the site-owner who must be able to ask for references and so on.
My hon. Friend said that he had reservations about the arbitration clause. The Minister said that he felt that the county court might be the best way of dealing with this. Perhaps a middle way could be found. The costs of county court procedures, which can be cumbersome, are often discouraging. When there are matters of interpretation of documents and genuine disagreements over rights, a simple arbitration procedure involving a third party can often resolve difficulties speedily. There is no disincentive to reaching a solution using that method. At present there is a difficulty because Clause 4 says that:Any question or difference arising between an owner and an occupier as to any term or condition … shall be determined by arbitration.975 However, presumably the determination for breach of covenant under Clause 3 (h) would involve an application for compensation, which can be decided only by a court. Such an agreement could not, therefore, go to arbitration, so the arbitration clause would not operate at all in such a disagreement. I offer that point also for consideration in Committee.
Several hon. Members have had severe reservations about Clause 6 and the Secretary of State's power to make orders. Happily, interventions in the Minister's speech have helped us to resolve some of our doubts, but I am sure that the House would not wish the clause to be used as a vehicle for further legislation in a way which did not give adequate opportunity for debate and decision in this House.
I am grateful to the Government for accepting my hon. Friend's Bill. I hope that the Minister will not rush into alterations by statutory instrument but will give the Bill a fair opportunity to work and learn from the experience that it gives all of us.
§ 3.26 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
I hope that my hon. Friends will pull me down in five minutes.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on embarking on what must have been a time-consuming exercise and what I hope will be a mobile homes charter. I set out in a Bill 12 years ago to curtail and to regulate, and at one time to abolish, trading stamps. Unfortunately, there was a dinner in America after my Bill went through, to celebrate what became a trading stamps charter, although I had intended to achieve the opposite.
I mention that in view of the debate that we have had on the technicalities of caravan and mobile home use, from which I have learned a lot despite the many problems that I have had to deal with since I have been in Parliament. Virtually every constituency has a caravan site of some sort. I live in the Peak Park. My constituency touches on the park and between my home and my constituency there are a number of caravan sites, as opposed to mobile home 976 sites, in villages like Calver, Crindleford and Rivelin.
I agree that one difficulty is that the description mobile home is an anomaly, and various types of dwellings are involved.
I should like to deal with only one issue in view of the time. The sponsors of the Bill suggest that there should be more sites for caravans. In any of the national parks, unless there is adequate landscaping, caravan sites will be decried. Almost every proposition of this sort in my area meets a great deal of opposition, justifiably, from environmentalists.
Clause 3 establishes an agreement to cover many items between the owner and the occupier. Could a ruthless owner frame an agreement to avoid the objects of the Bill? If the owner has a site which is in demand, perhaps with a desirable view, he could still enforce terms outside the intentions of the Bill. Time and again we have had illustrations in this debate of an owner who owns a good site demanding exacting terms. Although what should be agreed quite clear in the Act, it will be still possible for the occupier to make exacting terms.
My second point, which I also raised in my intervention, is that I readily accept that my hon. Friend curtailed his interest when he defined "a mobile home or caravan" as "the only or main residence." In my area perhaps the main residence could be described as the weekend home. I very much hope that the Minister will find that this type of home will come within the Bill rather than without, although I know that in the debate he explained the situation as he saw it and felt that we would have to go steadily on this matter.
It seems that we can have a model agreement, but as I see it, because of the price of land and because the guidelines might not be clear enough, the only thing is that a good site owner may strike a hard bargain.
There is a demand for model rules on how a caravan site should be landscaped, and on the sewerage and other conditions. But I am not sure whether Clause 7 will achieve enough towards what my hon. Friend wishes to achieve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) spoke about security 977 and certainty for people dwelling in these so-called mobile homes. A mobile home is not such a solid structure as a home of bricks and mortar, because it should be on wheels—even if it has to be moved by a lorry. The mobile home is therefore a different proposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) mentioned the subject of the happiness of the relationship between the site owners and the occupier. That was an excellent point to make. I still think, however, that at the end of the day my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and those who will be members of the Standing Committee will find that he who enters a mobile home must accept that there will always be a greater risk than there would be with bricks and mortar. Nevertheless, this is a first step in the right direction. I support it and wish my hon. Friend every luck in his efforts to put it on the statute book as an Act of Parliament.
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton)
My interest in the Bill is heightened by the fact that I have in my constituency nearly 1,500 caravans—or mobile homes, using the terminology of the Bill. Therefore, I am very interested in the Bill. I welcome it. It is long overdue. We should have some semblance of order brought into the relationship between the occupier and the site owner.
In this debate the sins of some site owners have been well rehearsed. In view of the time factor today, there is no point in my going over that ground again—save only to welcome the balance of the Bill. There is great temptation—which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has resisted—to turn it into a complete free-for-all for tenants, at the very great danger of drying up the source of supply and driving site owners out of the market in the future.
I very much welcome also the assurances that the Minister has given that he welcomes the Bill, because only a week ago we had a certain experience. The fact that a departmental inquiry was about to start was used as an excuse for not allowing a particular Private Member's Bill to make progress. I am glad not only that the Minister has welcomed the measure but that he will not use any suggestion of a departmental inquiry as an excuse to delay the Bill, or vice versa.
978 The Minister referred to the fact that only the Government could unravel the very intricate legal problem of the status of the resident of a mobile home. I hope that we shall see before very long, as he described it, comprehensive legislation being brought forward to try to tackle that problem. Only when we get the legal status of such residents changed shall start seeing some kind of improvement in their status, in the wider sense of the term, within the local community.
When one talks to mobile home residents, one is struck by their great difficulties in obtaining credit, their serious problems in regard to hire purchase, and so on, because they are regarded within the community in which they live as some kind of second-class citizens. That would probably be putting it rather high. Certainly they are regarded as wandering nomads who are literally going to get into their mobile homes—however immobile they may be—and depart in the night. The difficulties that site owners have had with site maintenance have contributed to the impression that residents are living in rundown conditions and therefore are not worthy people.
One group of people who do not come within the ambit of the Bill are the 15,000 of our fellow citizens who live on residential boats. It was decided in the preliminary discussions before the Bill was brought forward that to include this group would add further complications to an already complicated piece of legislation. The residential houseboat is another form of mobile home which is in many cases more genuinely mobile than the mobile homes we are considering.
Houseboats have the problem in law of being regarded as chattels, and security of tenure is particularly lacking in their case. Many local authorities are actively discouraging the granting of further moorings and are even trying to abolish many existing ones. Nearly 100 houseboats have been evicted from the Thames-side moorings in the past few years. A houseboat loses almost all its value if it has no mooring to which it can be attached.
Residential boat owners live under even greater fear and uncertainty than their brethren in caravans and other more permanent forms of mobile home. As the Minister is looking for the first time for many years at the question of mobile 979 home residents—I give him full credit for this—I hope that he will consider embracing the 15,000 residential boat owners who are in great difficulty and who would welcome a Government inquiry.
Many local authorities do not pay proper regard to the problems of mobile home residents, whether they are on the river or on caravan sites. I exempt from that statement one of the councils in my constituency, namely, Runnymede council, which has written to the Minister expressing the hope that the Bill will be supported. The Bill is necessary. I am pleased to support it.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)
I add my congratulations to those which have already been tendered to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on the skill with which he introduced the Bill. As time is getting short and others wish to speak I shall keep my congratulations and, indeed, the rest of my speech, short.
The only jarring note in this otherwise non-controversial debate was the allusion by the Under-Secretary to the comparability between this debate and the debates which preceded the Rent Act 1974. The hon. Gentleman implied that there was some comparability between the Bill and the Rent Act. That is a false analogy. The Rent Act 1974, whatever its original intentions, weighted the balance too much in favour of the tenant and has led—certainly in my constituency—to a substantial withdrawal of furnished accommodation from the market. I am pleased that Shelter is to conduct an investigation into the effects of the Act.
What my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater seeks to do by the Bill is very different. He seeks to achieve a compromise, a golden mean, a situation in which more security will be given to tenants—to occupiers of mobile homes—whilst at the same time respectable site operators will not be discouraged from continuing to operate sites they already have and from seeking to find and develop further sites. This is a hard balance to strike. I am sure that it will be argued in Standing Committee that in some instances my hon. Friend has not quite made it, but I am certain that this is his purpose.
980 I want to make three points, each referring to specific matters which constituents have raised with me. The first concerns the right to occupy for a lengthy period. As has been said during the debate, many people who move into mobile homes are elderly. They have sold their homes. Their children have moved away. They wish to move into smaller accommodation with neighbours close to them, where they hope to live out the rest of their lives. For these people to have to change home at the age of 70 or 75 would be a sudden and difficult change indeed.
It is against that background that I query whether the minimum period of three years is quite enough. The problem in arriving at a period of fixed tenancy is that as the period comes to a close the tenant wonders whether his tenancy will be renewed. In an ideal world there would be tenancies without fixed periods. They would roll on and effectively would be automatically renewed. In this case an argument can be developed for something longer than three years—perhaps five years—with a renewal period of three years thereafter. I am not quite clear from the Bill whether or not the person to whom an agreement has been assigned has the right to a renewal period.
§ Mr. Renton
I thank my hon. Friend for making that clear.
My second point concerns a situation of which there are numerous examples in my constituency, in which, after a caravan has been on the site for some years, the owner claims that its value has depreciated substantially and therefore offers the occupier a very low figure if it is to be sold. I am delighted that this point is so well covered in the Bill, with provision for an offer of fair market value to the owner or to third parties, but I agree with the comment of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) that there is a case for attaching to the Bill a schedule of commissions or discounts which the owner shall receive in the event of the caravan's being sold.
A particular reason for this is that occupiers can be very enthusiastic when they first move to a site. Their anxiety to move to it is so great that they sign an agreement in which the discount mentioned is too large. Subsequently they 981 regret this. For that reason there should be a schedule with a definite comparability to estate agents' commissions on the sale of a house, with a tapering scale of percentages.
Incidentally, on Clause 3(l) the right to go to arbitration or to the county court should appertain also to assignation agreements by the occupier and sales to third parties by occupiers. We are well aware that the phrase "consent shall not be unreasonably withheld" can be and often is misused, and this, in turn, can lead to fairly lengthy legal procedures. This point could be covered by the arbitration or county court procedures being attached to those agreements.
My final point concerns site fees and management or maintenance charges. Constituents pointed out to me a year ago that because it was not a rent they came to the conclusion that their site fee was a charge and they referred it to the Price Commission head office in April last year. The Price Commission passed it on to the Crawley office which in turn passed it to the London headquarters. London headquarters passed it on to the Cambridge office in July, and it was then sent back to London headquarters. During all this time my constituents had not obtained a ruling on the site fee increase which they had suffered. They pointed out to me in January that by then they had been discussing the matter with the Price Commission for nine months and that any day another site fee increase would be passed on to them. In fact, after 10 months, they were told by the Price Commission that the site fee increase was totally justified by cost increases, but this was stated in a very vague way by the commission. Some of the costings mentioned, in my constituents' view, were not valid and did not apply to their mobile home park at all.
I greatly welcome the minimum three-year period provision and the recourse to arbitration in order to remove the uncertainty, created by the regular annual reviews, which so many people have suffered.
On the same matter, there is a case for saying that a company which operates a caravan division among many other activities should be required to substantiate in writing at the site its claims for cost increases, this being a necessary 982 preliminary to any application for an increase in management charges or maintenance fees. If that were done, it would, I believe, remove a large measure of the present uncertainty and dissatisfaction in this respect.
I understand the difficulty of legislating in these matters, and I welcome the broad inquiry being conducted by the Department. I give the Bill a warm welcome as a notable step in the right direction.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Tom King
First, I express my appreciation to the Minister for the way he responded to the debate—not in every particular, as there are matters which, naturally, we shall wish to discuss in Committee—but for his general approach. I am especially grateful for his remarks in support of the affirmative resolution procedure under Clause 6. We shall certainly wish to consider that matter carefully in Committee, and he will know that we are concerned about too great a widening of the order-making power.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to clarify that matter and, perhaps, assist the House as it comes to a conclusion. I understand that the hon. Gentleman, supported by several hon. Members, has felt slightly uncomfortable about my suggestion that the order-making power relating to Clause 3 be widened. That being so, I wish to give reassurance. I have done my best to reassure the hon. Gentleman already, but I do so again.
Nothing sinister is intended. If the tripartite talks drag on for, say, another six, nine or 12 months, it is possible that they will cover fresh matters outside the scope of Clause 3 as it stands but which might still deserve statutory backing. To cover such a contingency, it seems prudent to widen the order-making power, but I assure hon. Members that this is no back-stairs attempt to write into the Bill a power to do anything the Secretary of State feels inclined to do.
§ Mr. King
I am much obliged for the Minister's intervention. We shall wish to discuss the matter further in Committee.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Mr. Rossi) for 983 his helpful comments, especially his suggestion about the possibility of indexation, which is plainly a matter which we could look at in Committee. Other hon. Members have made valuable points which also will be subject to consideration in Committee.
I am sorry that we have not been able to include everything in the Bill. I have in mind here what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn), and, in particular, the literally floating voters about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) expressed concern. We have not been able to accommodate them in the Bill. I readily acknowledge that theirs is a problem area, and I hope that, before too long, help will be at hand for them, too.
It has been a worthwhile Second Reading debate, none the worse for being non-controversial, there having been substantial agreement and constructive comment. I hope that the Bill will go forward swiftly and that we shall soon see on the statute book a measure which, though not covering every conceivable eventuality, will give real assistance to a substantial number of our fellow countrymen.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).