HC Deb 08 February 1983 vol 36 cc908-43

Order for Second Reading read.

5.9 pm

The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. John Stanley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It gives me particular personal pleasure to open the Second Reading debate on the Bill because it was my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment who, in his private Member's capacity, introduced the forerunner of this Bill in 1975. The House will recall that such was the cogency of my right hon. Friend's case for his Bill that he managed to get it through both Houses and on to the statute book with all-party support—a feat which won the admiration of all hon. Members.

I was one of the sponsors of my right hon. Friend's Bill in 1975, as were the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) and others. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I can testify to the great sense of relief and delight of mobile home residents when my right hon. Friend's Mobile Homes Bill became law in 1975.

The attitude of the then Government towards my right hon. Friend's Bill was perhaps slightly equivocal. They certainly allowed it parliamentary time, but equally they regarded it as an interim measure, pending the conclusion of the mobile homes review which the then Secretary of State had set in hand. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), who spoke for the Government on Second Reading, made it clear that they regarded my right hon. Friend's Bill as an interim measure. He said: 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."—[Official Report, 28 February 1975; Vol. 887, c. 924.] Although the Labour Government's mobile homes review was published in 1977, when they left office, more than four years after the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion of fairly imminent legislation, none had been forthcoming. It was left to the present Government, as in so many other aspects of housing, to come forward with solutions to problems which the Labour Government had reviewed but taken no action upon.

New mobile homes legislation is now imperative, because the agreements under my right hon. Friend's Mobile Homes Act 1975 begin to expire as from October of this year. There is no provision in the 1975 Act for extending those agreements, and new legislation is therefore essential if mobile home residents are to have the continuing protection of a statutory agreement. We are now bringing forward these proposals following extensive consultation, and the Bill has of course already been considered in another place. Before corning to the detailed provisions of the Bill, I have one general point to make. The Government have tried to strike a fair and equitable balance between the interests of the site owners, on the one hand, and those of the residents, on the other.

We believe that the operation of the 1975 Act has shown that, while the basic framework of that Act was sound, there are undoubtedly points at which it is legitimate and necessary to strengthen the statutory rights of the 160,000 or so people living in so-called mobile homes but which are in fact their permanent homes. Equally, we recognise the useful contribution towards meeting housing needs represented by this form of accommodation, and, in the light of the impact of, for example, the Rent Acts on the supply of conventional privately rented accommodation, we believe that it would be quite wrong and contrary to the national housing interest to tilt the balance so heavily against the site owners that this useful form of accommodation starts to contract and ceases to be made available. Our objective is then to strike a fair and sensible balance between those who provide the sites and those who live on them.

The most helpful way that I can outline the detailed effects of the Bill is to compare them with those of the 1975 Act and to highlight the differences between the two. The 1975 Act provided for a system of agreements between site owners and residents. Site owners were obliged to offer statutory agreements to all residents on site at the commencement of the Act. Those who came on to the site subsequently were, however, entitled to the offer of an agreement only if they took the initiative. They had to notify the site owner in writing, before coming on to the site, of their intention to occupy the mobile home as their only or main residence in order to qualify for the offer of an agreement. It is clear that many residents were unaware of this requirement and failed to qualify for the offer of an agreement as a result—effectively, through ignorance.

Thus, the first important improvement which the Bill makes upon the 1975 Act is in the procedures that it sets down for the offer of an agreement. The Bill removes the requirement for the resident to take the initiative in order to get an agreement. It places an absolute duty on site owners to offer statutory agreements to all residents, both those on site at commencement and those who come on to site subsequently. At the same time as he offers an agreement, the site owner must give the resident a copy of a notice which we shall prescribe by regulations. The object of the notice is to help residents to take full advantage of their new rights under the Bill. It will advise them to take legal advice when they receive the offer of the agreement and to read the special booklet explaining the legislation that the Government will produce. The notice will also stress the importance for the resident to act within the time limits laid down in the Bill. This notice was not required by the 1975 Act, and its absence meant that many residents probably failed to get the statutory agreement to which they were entitled.

Those procedures are a significant improvement on the 1975 Act. A survey of mobile home sites in Scotland recently carried out by the Scottish Development Department shows clearly that the main reason for failure to take up agreements under the 1975 Act was a lack of awareness on the part of mobile home residents of their legal rights. The Bill will, I believe, ensure that lack of awareness of legal rights will not be a problem in future. Copies of the SDD report, which was published last week, have been placed in the Library.

The Bill currently allows residents three months in which to decide whether to accept, refuse or challenge the agreement that has been offered to them. In doing so, it follows the precedent set by the 1975 Act. This period was the subject of a considerable amount of discussion during the Bill's passage in another place and my noble Friend the Minister for Local Government undertook to consider whether the period might be lengthened. We have looked at this issue carefully, and I should like to tell the House that we have decided that we should propose a change to the Bill's provisions to allow six months instead of three for all residents to respond to the offer of an agreement, both those on site at commencement and those who come on to site subsequently. A Government amendment to make that change will be introduced in Committee.

The Bill will strengthen the rights which agreements provide, as well as the procedures for offering them. In particular, it will give residents much better security of tenure than that provided by the 1975 Act. The 1975 Act provided for agreements to last for a minimum of five years, with a single option for a resident to renew an agreement for a further three years if he wished. It is, of course, open to a site owner to offer longer agreements, and many do, but the maximum security of which a resident could be sure under the 1975 Act was eight years. The Bill, on the other hand, will provide for agreements to last indefinitely, subject to the mobile home being maintained in proper condition, provided, of course, that the site owner's interest in the land or planning permission is not time-limited. However, the site owner will have an opportunity every five years to apply to the court, or to an arbitrator agreed between the parties, to terminate the agreement on the ground that the mobile home will not last a further five years. The other procedures for the termination of agreements by residents and site owners are substantially the same in the Bill as they were in the 1975 Act.

The Bill will give residents the right to sell their mobile home on site and to assign the agreement relating to it. A mobile home is worth vastly less without a secure pitch than with one. The Bill will give all mobile home residents with a statutory agreement the right to assign their agreement on site. That is a key protection for residents at the point of sale of their mobile home when they can be most vulnerable, particularly if they have to sell rapidly.

I shall now refer to the provision concerning the commission or discount payable to the site owner when the resident sells his mobile home on site. The Bill currently contains much the same procedures for the sale of a mobile home as the 1975 Act. That is, it requires a resident who wishes to sell his mobile home to offer it first to the site owner at a fair market price less a maximum discount prescribed by the Secretary of State. If the site owner does not take the offer, he will subsequently be entitled to a commission on the price at which the home is said to a third party. The maximum level of commission and discount for agreements under the 1975 Act was set by the Secretary of State in the Labour Government at 15 per cent., and it has not been altered since.

The discount or commission clearly represents a material element for the site owner in meeting the costs of operating the site. I have, however, decided to consult further on the specific issue of the level of discount and commission, as I announced to the House in the answer that I gave on 18 November last year to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant). We have issued a further consultation paper on that specific issue. We will carefully consider the response and announce our proposal for the maximum level of commission for agreements under the Bill at a later stage during the passage of the Bill.

We are also giving further consideration to the important provision that gives the site owner a right of first refusal on the sale. We are considering whether that right of first refusal should be retained. We shall state our conclusion on that point in Committee, if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading.

The Government have made a significant change to the Bill's inheritance provisions. That is important for a large number of residents. Like the 1975 Act, the Bill allows a member of a resident's family who was living with him in the mobile home at the time of his death to inherit the full benefit of the statutory agreement held by the resident. Following a Government amendment in another place, the Bill now goes further than the 1975 Act in cases where no member of the resident's family is living with him when he dies. The Bill will now entitle the person who inherits the mobile home also to inherit the right to sell the home on site and to assign the agreement relating to it. That means that mobile home residents can now be certain of passing on the full value of their investment in their mobile home to their heirs. When so many mobile home residents are elderly and retired—as in my constituency and, I imagine, in most other hon. Members' constituencies—and may be concerned about what they can leave to their children, that is an important and entirely fair financial provision for them.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I should like to raise a small point of detail. This is a United Kingdom Bill that applies to Scotland. In clause 3, which refers to successors in title, the word "enure" appears. That is not a term of art that is known in the law of Scotland. Will the Minister give me the Scottish equivalent?

Mr. Stanley

Between now and the wind-up speech detailed research will be carried out into the origins of that word. We shall consult the English-Scottish dictionary to see whether we can produce the Scottish equivalent.

There is one more important respect in which the Bill is an advance on the 1975 Act. It is that the Bill applies to mobile home sites owned by local authorities as well as those owned privately. That will give an estimated 10,000 additional mobile home residents the statutory rights provided by the Bill.

Those are the main effects of the Bill. It is undoubtedly the most important and beneficial legislation for mobile home residents that has yet been brought before Parliament. I believe that it will provide a viable and practical basis for site owners to go on making sites available, while freeing mobile home residents from the anxieties and sense of insecurity from which many have suffered.

This is another sensible and beneficial piece of housing legislation that the Government have introduced. I invite the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

5.26 Pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Bolton, West)

I cannot agree with the Minister when he says that the Bill is yet another sensible piece of Government legislation. It may be acceptable, but I cannot think of any other sensible legislation that has been brought forward by the Department of the Environment.

The Minister said that protection for mobile home owners has been the concern of hon. Members on both sides of the House for a considerable time. The Opposition are glad that the Government have taken the initiative by introducing the Bill to help a small but sometimes vulnerable section of the population which on occasions needs help. The Minister acknowledged that, when his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced his Bill in 1975, he got some help from the Labour Government. The Minister was churlish about my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman), who tried to assist the passage of that Bill.

It is interesting to look back to 1974 to see how little has changed since those debates on what became the Mobile Homes Act 1975. The weaknesses and vulnerability of mobile home occupiers remain. The problems of mobile home owners who cannot sell their homes except to the site owner at a large loss, and of those who cannot effectively challenge high rents or poor service and who have to pay well over the odds for electricity, remain. They are all important.

It also remains true that not all site owners are unscrupulous. I am sure that Conservative Members would remind us about that. Some have good relations with their residents but this protective legislaton is by its nature concerned with unreasonable site owners with bad landlords and site operators who have exploited their residents. We shall support the Bill, but we shall take a critical look at it with a view to ensuring that it leaves no loopholes for unscrupulous landlords. We want to ensure that this time we are extending real protection to mobile home owners and that we are not making a token gesture or giving limited protection that will need review in the future.

We should consider why there has been so little change for the better since the 1975 Act. There are two basic reasons. One is the fact that the 1975 Act did not go far enough. As the Minister said, it was seen as a holding operation until the mobile homes review was completed and there could be further legislation. The Minister talked about the delay in that legislation coming forward. That is true. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick said at the time, comprehensive legislation would be necessary to achieve all the protection required for mobile home owners. Rent control and security of tenure would need to be provided for. We thought that complex issues of that kind required substantial legislation. It was not something that could be done quickly.

The Bill does not attempt to deal with the difficult problems that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick pointed out as needing comprehensive legislation. It makes no provision for the control of pitch rents. Some of the provisions that it does contain are inadequate. For example, the Bill makes no move away from the situation in which the occupier has no rights unless he obtains a written agreement. Because of these omissions, we find the Bill disappointing. The measure does not provide the comprehensive answer that we would like to see. We believe that the Government should have implemented the mobile homes review more closely. The Bill should have included legal provision for residents based on existing landlord and tenant legislation and existing fair trading legislation. It should have contained powers for residents both individually and co-operatively to buy the sites of their homes. That is the longer-term aim towards which we should like to move.

In the shorter term, we want to concentrate on making sure that the Bill is as effective as possible and that it provides the limited protection that the Minister has outlined. This brings me to a second reason why there has been so little progress in dealing with the problem of mobile homes since the Mobile Homes Act 1975. That Act was inadequate in its provisions. Like the present Bill, the Act provided that protection would be afforded only to people who could negotiate a written agreement with the site owner. Only one third of the 70,000-plus mobile home owners have such an agreement. The figure of 70,000 dates from 1975. To judge by the figures for mobile home sales since that time, there must be several thousand more by now. There are, I believe, at least 50,000 mobile home owners who are living at present without an agreement and with no security except the limited protection from summary eviction afforded by the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

The Bill, although in many ways disappointing and similar to the 1975 Act that it replaces, contains one or two important changes. As the Minister has explained, the Bill puts the onus squarely on the site owner to offer a written agreement rather than, as previously, leaving it to the mobile home owner to ask for one. We welcome the change. We are glad that the Government have introduced it. I hope that this is a sign that the Government wish to see a higher proportion of mobile home dwellers with written agreements and having a formal contractual relationship with their site owners.

I hope that hon. Members will be able to consider this matter in more detail in Committee to work out how these agreements can work to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. A proper contractual relationship between the parties is vital, especially when one considers that the issue relates to people's homes. The Bill provides protection for people whose only or main residence is their mobile home.

Modern mobile homes are not mere caravans. Often, they have highly sophisticated facilities. They are semi-permanent structures costing thousands of pounds. For many families, they represent a substantial investment. Many retired mobile home owners regard this form of housing as permanent. It enables them to release some of their capital formerly tied up in conventional property. It is wrong that such an important investment in both human and financial terms should be unprotected. It is therefore crucial that the benefit of a written agreement should be extended to as many mobile home dwellers as possible. I hope that all hon. Members will agree.

I have stated that the Opposition accept the Bill and will not be opposing it this evening. I wish, however, to set out some of the areas where we would like, and hope, to see improvements introduced during the Bill's passage. If the legislation is to be as meaningful as it could be, we shall have to seek amendments in Committee. We hope to get some co-operation from Conservative Members for our suggestions.

Our first concern is with the provisions for the written agreements outlined in clause 1. We acknowledge, accept and welcome the Government's decision to change the procedure so that the mobile home owner does not have to apply for an agreement but the site owner has to offer one. We also welcome the extension of the time limit to six months announced by the Minister. That is an announcement of great significance and of some benefit to the mobile home owner.

The site owner now has a duty to offer an agreement. What happens if the site owner fails in that duty? The only remedy for the occupier is to take the site owner to court and for the court to make an order. Going to court to get an agreement is an inherently unsatisfactory procedure. It should be used only as a last resort. I should like to see an automatic penalty imposed on site owners who fail to comply with this provision.

Hon. Members will have their own ideas for achieving this aim. It could perhaps be done by delaying annual rent reviews where no agreement had been offered. The courts might be required to supsend possession hearings under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 in cases where no such agreement had been offered by the site owner. Changes are required to strengthen the position. The balance between the mobile home owner and the site owner is not right as it stands.

One means of ensuring that as many occupiers as possible obtain a satisfactory agreement under the Bill is to provide the site owner with a powerful incentive or to penalise him if he does not agree. The Minister should examine the issue again. As it stands, it will cause some concern.

Another problem arises in the case where an offer is not acceptable to the occupier. Clause 2 contains a provision which means that if the occupier makes no response to the site owner's offer of an agreement, the offer will be treated as if it had been withdrawn. An automatic penalty is to operate on the occupier if he fails to play his part under the Bill. That is in severe contrast to the position of the site owner, who has first to be taken to court if he does not fulfil his obligations. There should be some balance to help the tenant. At present, the cards are stacked against him under some of the Bill's conditions. I hope that the Minister will examine the matter again.

As the Bill stands, the occupier who misses his chance of an agreement when first offered it may be deprived of all the protection that the Government suggest should apply in as many circumstances as possible. I hope therefore that the Minister will see fit to accept some of our suggestions and to consider modifications along the lines that I have suggested in relation to written agreements. If improvements can be achieved, this would help to ensure a higher take-up of written agreements. That take-up is fundamental to the success of the Bill. It was one of the weaknesses of the 1975 legislation.

Hon. Members should also be concerned about what is actually contained in the agreements. Even where a written agreement is entered into, the Bill gives only the sketchiest outline of what an agreement should contain. Part II of schedule 1 lays down the matters that the agreement should cover. However, nothing is said about how charges should be arrived at, what maintenance or repair obligations by both parties are appropriate, or what level of services it is reasonable to expect the site owner to provide.

It is true that if either party is dissatisfied with the reasonableness of the proposed agreement, they can take it to court for settlement, but courts should be the last resort only. I strongly support the drawing up of model rules or agreements that could be a basis for mobile home agreements. Not only would such model rules be a basic safeguard against the inclusion in an agreement of unduly onerous or unreasonable conditions, but they could save much time, trouble, and legal expense for the parties concerned.

Another problem that we shall be discussing later is that of pitch charges and the information that the mobile home owner receives from the site owner. At the moment, site owners get away with charging substantial amounts, and many people find this a difficult problem to deal with. Site owners should be required to keep accurate records of their costs, of the breakdown of their service charges, and of charges for electricity, cleaning, site development and rent. Unless occupiers have access to such information, they cannot judge whether pitch charges are reasonable.

Under the Bill, the occupier can ask the court to intervene if he thinks that the terms of his agreement are unreasonable, but a vital point of his agreement will be the level of the pitch charge and the arrangement for reviewing it. How can the occupier decide whether the pitched charge is reasonable or unreasonable unless he knows how it is made up? How can he decide how his electricity bills are worked out and whether the charges are fair?

It is strange and ironic that under the present arrangements, many electricity boards will not give mobile homes a direct electricity supply because they say that they are not permanent residences. Yet we are debating a Bill that deals specifically with occupiers who use a mobile home as their "only or main residence", so it is obviously a permanent home. This might be one specification that the electricity boards could use when determining whether to give independent supply.

In the many cases where mobile home owners cannot get their own electricity supply they have to rely on site owners who can charge anything that they like up to the legal limit of the maximum resale tariff. That tariff is based on the assumption that the landlord pays normal domestic tariff, but caravan site owners can buy their electicity at a special, lower, site tariff. If the benefits of this lower tariff are not passed to the occupiers, the site owner has the opportunity to make, legally, a considerable profit.

I should like to see mobile home owners, especially those with agreements under the Bill, which surely implies a high degree of permanancy, entitled to a right to their own electricity supply. Failing that, the very least that we can do is enable the mobile home owner to find out just what the site owner is paying, and charging for his electricity and other items.

I hope that hon. Members who are concerned about mobile home owners will consider the private Member's Bill on electricity charges that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) is sponsoring. This is a related and important problem, the resolution of which could benefit mobile home owners in the future.

The Minister touched on the resale of homes and the problem of discounts, commissions, and first refusal being allowed to the site owner. There are great difficulties, and much conflict might arise between a mobile home owner and a site owner over the resale of caravans. Many of the difficulties have arisen in the past, and most hon. Members who have taken an interest in this will have been aware of the many incidents where conflict and disappointment have arisen between the owner of the site and the owner of the caravan. This has often resulted in disappointment to the caravan owner because he was forced to sell at a low price. It is strange that the site owner has the first option to buy back the caravan, and I welcome the Minister's statement that he will investigate this further.

Site owners have traditionally received commission when mobile homes change hands. Where the site owner has himself repurchased the mobile home or caravan he has taken a discount, and this has been a traditional way for site owners to increase their income. It is one of the largest causes of discontent among the occupiers of mobile homes. The Minister said that he will look at this more carefully, and we welcome that.

The Minister should consider not only the site owner having first refusal on the purchase of the mobile home in this way, but the related issue of whether the site owner should automatically be entitled to commission. Obviously, if the site owner was acting as an agent in the sale, it would be reasonable for him to take commission in the same way as an estate agent—although I would not defend all that estate agents charge. Why should the site owner receive commission on transactions in which he is not involved?

Given the price of some of these homes, we are not talking about small sums of money. A 15 per cent. discount on a £15,000 or £20,000 mobile home is a substantial sum. This is a major source of worry and discontent among mobile home owners. I should like to see provision for discount and commission eliminated from the Bill. In its place, the agreement could provide for a level of commission chargeable in cases where the site owner acted as agent for the seller.

There are many other issues that we wish to look at in detail—problems such as that of assessing the value of the home that the mobile home owner believes to be in good condition but which the site owner claims is in poor condition and should be either sold or removed from the site, or sold back to the site owner at a knockdown price so that he can resell it at considerable profit to a third party. All those factors need to be studied again.

One matter that the Government must consider before we proceed much further with the Bill is arbitration between the involved parties. It is not satisfactory to have the courts play such an important role. I have mentioned several occasions on which the courts might be involved in disputes under this legislation. The emphasis on the courts is too great, and the Minister should look for a different method of arbitrating in problems and conflicts arising out of legislation between site owners and mobile home owners.

As it stands, the Bill does not go far enough. It does not deal with the most fundamental and most underlying problems with which many mobile home owners are faced. However, we welcome the limited protection that the Government are suggesting for mobile home owners. We look forward to further improvements in Committee because the legislation should be meaningful to the tens of thousands of mobile home owners who feel themselves vulnerable and are indeed vulnerable to the actions of their site owners. They wish to see their position substantially strengthened.

The Minister said that it was the duty of the Government and the House to try to strike a fair balance between a site owner and the mobile home owner. The Bill will not strike a fair balance. We wish to help the position of the mobile home owner more, because we are talking about people's homes. That is what we intend to do in Committee, but this evening we shall support the Government on Second Reading.

5.50 pm
Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

It gives me great pleasure to contribute to the Bill's Second Reading because I lived in a mobile home for 18 months and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In my constituency in Lancashire there are literally hundreds of mobile home dwellers. They have played an active part in reviewing various items of legislation, responding to discussion documents and seeking to participate in consultation. They have put their views firmly to me.

The Minister has indicated that the Government will consider favourably the strengthening measures for which tenants have asked. There is no mention in the Bill of tenants' committees on mobile home sites. I have the benefit of an active committee on one of the sites in Chorley. Provision for such committees need not be made in the Bill but I should like to recommend mobile home dwellers throughout the country to establish tenants' committees.

There has been much talk about the commission that goes to the site owner and whether he is entitled to it. Consideration has been given to the level at which it should be pitched. I ask the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) to remember that if the commission were abolished, weekly rents for mobile home dwellers would have to rise. Is it better to discourage too many sales and to have more longer-term dwellers on the sites or is it better to increase the rents of all the dwellers on the sites? I and many others want to have longer-term dwellers on the sites and not have too many sales.

What income accrues to the site owner? Too often Labour Members forget that those who engage in private enterprise and provide sites for mobile homes are at great risk because of the considerable capital investment and running costs. Labour Members often imagine that they are on to a good thing and making enormous profits but there is much environmental improvement to undertake and a considerable amount of community spirit to engender by providing clubs and shopping facilities. I pay tribute to the proprietors of the sites on which I have lived and to proprietors in my constituency for looking towards improving facilities for site dwellers.

I praise the various provisions that the Government have included in the Bill and those that they are considering. The purpose is to strengthen the powers of mobile home dwellers. I agree with the Opposition that a slight imbalance has been created over the years. The Bill is designed to correct that imbalance. I look forward to the Bill receiving a speedy passage through Committee and subsequent stages on the Floor of the House.

5.53 pm
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I shall not delay the House for long. First, I welcome the Bill. I was honoured to be one of the sponsors of the Bill that the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who is now Secretary of State for the Environment, introduced in 1975, which found its way on to the statute book as the Mobile Homes Act 1975. The right hon. Gentleman introduced it as a private Member's Bill. I have no doubt that it set the scene for the Bill that is before us. It did not go far enough at the time but many mobile home owners in my constituency on some of the better run sites have every reason to be grateful to it. They said so at the time and since its enactment they have known their rights and obtained satisfactory agreements.

Many sites too have been much better run since the Bill's enactment. That does not mean that all sites have been properly managed. We all know of unfortunate instances when mobile home owners have been exploited. We have all heard of substantial sums passing to site owners. Some of them have taken extortionate sums out of sites but they have been in the minority. Motile home owners who have know their rights, which were set out in the 1975 Act, have been able to take advantage of them.

When the Bill was introduced in another place it was a weak measure. I am grateful that their Lordships, and presumably the Government, too, have listened to the representations that were made in another place. A number of improvements have been made. I welcome the Minister's announcement that he will extend the three-month period for the approval of agreements to six months. That will be a sensible amendment. I understand that he is also considering the question of first refusal of sales. That is an issue that was very much disputed in another place.

Recent experience in the House has not led me to believe that we are likely to make much progress in Committee. Too often these days we argue many issues in Committee and then have to look to another place to get some amendments written into Bills that we have considered. On this occasion it appears that the Government are prepared to consider amendments in Committee. That is a step forward.

I hoped that the Bill might be extended to give greater help to the owner-occupiers of houseboats. I remember that they lobbied us extensively eight or nine years ago, and no doubt they will do so again. They still live with insecurity of tenure. We have been entertained by them and taken out on narrow boats. I was taken to Marylebone and during the trip they pointed out how insecure they were. I should have liked the Bill to be more comprehensive and to take houseboat owners into account. However, we must be grateful for what we have.

There are a few areas in which I would like to see further action, and the hon. Member for Bolton. West (Mrs. Taylor) has referred to most of them. I should like to see many more problems resolved by arbitration instead of going through the courts. We all know that the courts are heavily overloaded and that the court process is likely to take a considerable time when there are differences over agreements and rents. To use the courts to resolve these issues is rather like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Surely they could be resolved by arbitration. I have read the reports of some of the debates in another place and it appears that at present site owners can nominate their own arbitrators. That cannot be right. In the old days the appointment of an arbitrator used to be left to the president of the Law Society or the president of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors. If there is disagreement about who should act as an arbitrator, that is surely one way of resolving it. It would be much simpler if disputes over agreements and rents could be dealt with through arbitration, provided that the arbitrator were seen positively to be independent.

I should like to see a much greater role for rent officers. The rent officer has a considerable amount of knowledge in his area and I do not see why we should not make greater use of him. I should like to see greater clarification of the site owner's role and of his responsibility in providing an agreement. It may be that what the Government have announced in introducing the Bill will fulfil that need. I suggest that there is probably a need for the Secretary of State to prescribe the model form of agreement. That was the subject of an amendment in another place but it did not seem to meet with much favour. I hope that further consideration will be given to that.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West has taken up the argument of removing site owners' pre-emptive rights and discounts, which often extend to considerable sums. A case was quoted to me and it appeared that the site owner had made about £6,000 from sale, resale and sale again of a mobile home. I want to give the maximum possible freedom to the owners of mobile homes to dispose of their properties as they wish provided that the homes have been kept in good order.

Finally, I am disappointed that the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland. No doubt there is a good reason for this, but why has Northern Ireland been excluded? Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland would often like to be included in the legislation that passes through the House. I hope that the Minister will provide the answer when he replies. I apologise in advance if I am not able to be in my place when the Minister replies. I have to be somewhere else at 7.45 pm. Naturally, I do not know how long the debate will continue.

I very much welcome the fact that the Government have introduced the Bill. Much pressure was put on the Labour Administration to extend the 1975 Act after consultation had taken place. They had four years to do that but they failed to bring a Bill forward. Although the Government will have been in office for four years at the end of the month, they have at least introduced the Bill. They should be congratulated on that. I hope that it will be strengthened before it leaves Committee.

6 pm

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead)

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) in congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends on bringing forward the Bill. It is a timely Bill and I was greatly encouraged to see it in the Queen's Speech.

I became involved in the matter of mobile home occupiers—mobile home owners, as they are normally known—through my constituency interest at Beech Park, Wigginton near Tring, and at Scallerdells Lane, near Kings Langley. The problems suffered by mobile home owners in those sites highlighted the need for improvement of the Mobile Homes Act 1975. That is not to say that my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State was not to be congratulated on introducing the 1975 Act. It certainly set the basis for an improvement but it has also shown that it needs considerable amendment at this stage.

I do not wish to speak for too long but I wish to make a number of points, which I hope will find favour with my right hon. and hon. Friends about how the Bill might be improved, not so much in fundamental principle as in format and mechanics, so as to achieve the results that my right hon. and hon. Friends seek.

The basis of the 1975 Act and, indeed, of the Bill is that there should be an agreement between the site operator and owner and the mobile home owner. Unless there is an agreement in any particular case, the whole framework virtually falls to the ground. In those circumstances, where it is vital that everyone has the protection that the agreement is intended to provide, there would be enormous advantage in slightly recasting the provisions which are currently contained in the schedule to the Bill to provide for model terms that should apply to every agreement.

There should be model terms which, first, should be incorporated in any agreement. Secondly, any term inserted by the site owner or the mobile home owner which was inconsistent with those terms should be invalidated. In other words, one should not be entitled to include terms that are inconsistent with those that Parliament has provided.

Thirdly, in the event that there should be no formal agreement, for one reason or another, the relationship between the site operator and the mobile home owner should nevertheless be subject, by statutory implication, to the model terms that Parliament has provided. A slight recasting of the Bill, more a matter of mechanics than substance, would achieve what my hon. Friends are seeking—that there should be an agreement that governs the relationship in every case.

The fact that the initiative is taken away from the mobile home owner and given to the site operator is an advance. It will lead to an increase in the number of agreements entered into. Such is the worry, anxiety and puzzlement with which any form of agreement is seen by a mobile home owner or potential owner, nothwithstanding that they are advised strongly by letter in a form to be prescribed by the Act, that a great many of them will allow the weeks and months to pass, and at the end of three months—or, as I am glad to hear, six months—no agreement will have been entered into and the objects of the Act will be frustrated. I am sure that that will be the case. From the individual examples that I have seen it was plain that the site operator had received an application from a mobile home owner, when he originally bought his home, and had put forward an agreement but the agreement—I have seen them in people's homes—had lain in a file, partly mulled over, partly not understood and never entered into.

Since the Bill clearly sets out what should be the ingredients of every agreement and since it is the will of Parliament that every agreement should contain those matters, I can see no objection in principle to ensuring that it applies through the operation of model terms. Those models terms would not prevent extra terms appropriate to the particular site being added. Indeed, it may be desirable in many instances that they should be added. The model terms should be simple and straightforward and should be fair, both to the site operator and to the mobile home owner. Broadly speaking, what is provided in the Bill is fair but to a layman and, indeed, to a lawyer like myself—who realises that three different Acts have to be correlated—it is not particularly simple.

I know from my involvement with the Mobile Homes Residents Association of England, which has recently been reformed, that many solicitors all over the country get lost in the present legislation. I honestly do not blame them. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who raised an obscure and learned point, is in a minority in his profession in being able to find his way, if indeed he can, through the difficulties. It is a real problem and I know from personal experience that mobile home owners have not been able to overcome it.

I agree with the observation that we do not want mobile home owners to have to keep going to the courts to get matters sorted out. In practice, it will not happen. One does not have to be of the economic standing of most of the people who live in those small houses—which is what they are—to be frightened by the cost and the uncertainties of litigation. The average owner will practically never go to the court. Only on a site where there is a rigorous secretary of a tenants' association may one occasionally find that the matter is taken to court and properly decided. In other cases it will not work. But if we have model terms which show for every agreement what we in the House wish to apply, it will apply and will be fair both to site operator and to mobile home owner.

What should be the ingredients of those model terms? I have given the matter a certain amount of thought, and I very much hope that the parliamentary draftsman will be asked to consider putting into model terms form the present ingredients of the Bill and then to mull it over with the Ministers in charge of the Bill. I know that the National Consumer Council, with which I have been in close touch, has asked an experienced solicitor to draw up a draft. I have seen the draft and in due course I hope to discuss it with the Under-Secretary of State my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who will be in charge of the Bill in Committee, and with my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. It is not beyond the wit of man and the draftsman to draw up fair and simple clauses that provide everything that we would wish to provide.

We wish to provide security of tenure for the mobile home owner provided that he keeps his mobile home in good condition and that it does not damage the site. He must keep it in good and reasonable repair.

We wish to provide that the mobile home owner should have the right to assign or to sell either on death or when he wishes to leave the site, and the Bill makes that provision.

We wish to provide that the mobile home owner should have "quiet enjoyment". That legal phrase, which is supposed to cover a multitude of sins, is an important protection against harassment by the minority—I emphasise that it is a minority—of unscrupulous site operators.

We also wish to provide that the occupier should keep the home in good condition and repair, abide by the reasonable regulations laid down by the site owner and give reasonable notice before quitting the site. It may be unusual for a person with an investment to quit the site, but not every mobile home represents such an investment. We also wish to provide that the owner-occupier should do other sensible things such as insuring against fire.

The model terms need not be lengthy or complicated. If they are either incorporated into any agreement or deemed to apply, I believe that we shall overcome almost at one fell swoop the vast majority of practical problems that have arisen in the operation of sites in this country.

I suggested this principle when I raised the subject of mobile homes last summer, both on the Adjournment and on a ten-minute Bill, and I am greatly encouraged by the introduction of the Bill today. I wish to deal briefly with one or two more controversial matters.

I do not believe that it would be wise to institute a system of rent control in relation to mobile home sites, although I realise that Labour Members believe that it would be an advantage. The growth of mobile home sites throughout the country has been of great benefit to hundreds of thousands of people. If we can produce fair and enforceable terms to overcome the main disadvantages and abuses, most of which relate to the ability to sell on to another person and the level of commission payable, I believe that there will be no need for rent control.

I do not disagree with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that the rent officer may have a part to play, but on balance I have decided against that course.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that rents paid by mobile home owners can be registered with the rent officer? It would not be an innovation as it already exists under the present law.

Mr. Lyell

I was not aware of that. If that is so, it may operate in a beneficial way. I shall check up and take advice from those more learned in these matters than I am.

Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that if the model terms, with which I wholeheartedly agree, were incorporated in a standard form of site lease or tenancy agreement they would place obligations, responsibilities and duties on the site owner as well as on the mobile home owner and, ipso facto, regulate the fairness of the rent charged by the site owner for the pitch?

Mr. Lyell

The Bill at present provides in effect that rents may be changed only once a year, which is very sensible. I had not seen it as providing a mechanism to govern the level of rents. That is the kind of rent control that I would not support.

Since I received some publicity as a result of my interest in this, I have received letters from mobile home owners. Many complain at increases in rent of, say, £1 per year from perhaps £4 or £5 in 1977 or 1978 to £8 or £9 now. Given the rate of inflation during that period, such increases do not seem unreasonable, although some may regard them as a hardship. I concede, however, that in some cases people are being ripped off in terms of the site rent, although I believe that such cases are few and far between and are not the primary problem with which we have to deal.

On the 15 per cent. commission, I believe that in many respects site operators are justified in asking for some commission, although I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) that the removal of commission might affect site rents and I commend that point to the House. I confess that I am doubtful whether the commission should be as high as 15 per cent. As mobile homes are now worth between £10,000 and £20,000 each, a 15 per cent. commission could mean £3,000 every time the mobile home changes hands. Indeed, I have heard of cases in which some less scrupulous site operators have chivvied and harassed people to move so as to increase the frequency of commission. That aspect should certainly be examined in relation to the consultation document. Perhaps the 15 per cent. should be reduced or a limit imposed on the number of times that it can be claimed in a particular period. Those are just thoughts, however.

My basic point is that we should make utterly sure that the basic terms required are included in model terms that apply to every agreement. I very much hope that the Government will consider that favourably in due course. In all other respects, I support the Bill and commend it to the House.

6.6 pm

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

This has been a slightly unusual day in that this is the second time that I have given tongue on the Floor of the House to be answered by an admirable but unfamiliar Minister responsible for strange and arcane matters south of the border. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart) gallantly in his place. I even noticed him reading the Bill with an air of puzzled excitement. Clearly, he was determined to discover what it was about with the thoroughness that we have all come to respect and admire in him.

The Opposition give a qualified welcome to the Bill. In Scotland, these matters are certainly important, although they are not the greatest irritation to caravan dwellers there. That doubtful prize undoubtedly goes to the rating of mobile homes. Even in my constituency, in which there is probably not a great deal of caravan ownership, I have received a veritable flood of letters about that, although I have not heard a cheep out of anyone on the important subjects dealt with in the Bill. Most hon. Members recognise, however, that the subjects on which they receive letters do not constitute an exhaustive list of the important matters at stake and I accept that the Bill deserves proper consideration.

In passing, I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the public concern about rating. Although I realise that there are considerable problems, I am not trying to harry the Scottish Office on this. There is no doubt that the Rating (Caravan Sites) Act 1976 has built significant anomalies into valuation practice in Scotland, but I appreciate that piecemeal reform and nibbling pieces out of the rating base of local government in Scotland when there is certainly more than one anomaly in the system is not necessarily the best way to make progress. Nevertheless, I hope that momentum will not be lost in considering the problem and that the Minister will bear it very much in mind.

My welcome for the Bill is qualified, because I do not want to be carried away with enthusiasm. Before the House is a Government housing Bill that is not essentially obnoxious. Indeed, it is a modest and useful reform.

Seldom have Scottish Members been able to say anything enthusiastic about a Bill put forward by the Government. The House is debating not so much the principle of the Bill as giving advance notice of some points that may come up in Committee, for which I have qualified myself by taking part in the debate.

The Bill has a very short long title. That is a little disappointing, and it may restrict some hon. Members when drafting new clauses and amendments.

The Bill is important for Scotland. The Government are to be congratulated on placing in the Library a document from the housing research unit, which refers to a detailed survey on mobile homes carried out in Scotland last summer. I was surprised by the small number of mobile homes in Scotland. One or two well-informed bodies had given me higher estimates than the total of 3,810 shown in the survey. It is interesting to note that the largest number of residential caravans are in the Grampian region. That area has 1,099 caravans out of the comparatively modest total of 3,810. I presume that that relates directly to the impact of oil and the inability of the Government's financial provisions to allow local authorities to keep up with demand for housing.

The 3,810 mobile homes are on 140 licensed sites. A total of 58 per cent. of mobile homes are owner-occupied. Those people will fall within the ambit of the Bill. A further 792 caravans—21 per cent.—are rented. Of the remaining 810–21 per cent.—the tenure is unknown. The survey had to work with a fairly broad brush. The housing research unit's best estimate of the number of caravans in Scotland that will be covered by the Bill is 2,800. That is considerably lower than I thought was likely when I first turned my attention to this subject.

People in this category do not at present have the statutory safeguards with which we have become very familiar under the Rent Acts and the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980. I hasten to say that some parts of the Tenants' Rights Etc. (Scotland) Act were borrowed by the Government and I accept that they have been useful.

It is important to consider ways of strengthening the protection for owner-occupiers of mobile homes. The Bill goes a small way down that road. I do not wish to labour all the points in the Bill. If there is a general welcome for the Bill, we should leave it at that. I welcome the fact that there will be a statutory duty on the owner of a site to offer an agreement to the owner of a mobile home. That is very important.

What is extraordinary is the low take-up under the Mobile Homes Act 1975. Some 47 per cent. of tenants did not know that they had the right to an agreement. Only 29 per cent. had an agreement under the terms of the Act. The balance had either asked for an agreement but had not received one, or knew about the provision but had not bothered to ask. It is startling that 47 per cent. of mobile home owners are unaware of their legal rights, but that is understandable and inevitable when one thinks about it. The statutory duty upon the site owner to offer an agreement is a shift of onus in the right direction and it should have no difficulty in reaching the statute book.

I welcome the decision to sweep away the five-year period, plus the three additional years for which the agreement may run. We must have a permanent, open-ended agreement. That would give an element of security of tenure and be especially sensible.

The Minister announced that the period within which a tenant can consider and accept an agreement is to be increased from three months to six months. That is sensible. The Minister will remember that in his consultative document, which was produced last year, he said that a three-month period was too short to take proper legal advice and that six months would be more sensible. I am glad that he has listened to his own argument and come forward with a small, sensible change to the Bill.

I endorse the worries expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor), and by other hon. Members, because this is a non-party issue. Clause 2 is a little disappointing. It presupposes that when occupiers wish to enforce their rights under an agreement they must go to the sheriff court in Scotland. If an agreement that is totally unacceptable is offered, the sheriff court must do the work necessary to reach an agreement. This will be a cumbersome process. As civil legal aid is a contributory service, it will be expensive for anyone thinking about litigation. I hope that we can consider that matter in Committee. I hope also that some sensible changes will be made, and that we shall examine the "enure" problem.

I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will appreciate my saying that it is not always satisfactory to have United Kingdom Bills in this form. There must be a lot of double drafting on matters not of principle but of terminology and nomenclature, whereby "quiet enjoyment" becomes "undisturbed possession". The Scottish arbiter has to run in tandem with the English arbitrator. By going through the Bill at a series of levels it is possible to find an unsatisfactory position.

Another important matter that has cropped up in the debate relates to the commission or discount that is charged by the site owner when a mobile home changes hands. Not surprisingly, the housing research unit survey discovered that the sole cause of dissatisfaction with the selling procedure is the discount or commission. Of the operators canvassed, all but a handful claimed that they did not charge any discount, but all of them charged a commission at a maximum of 15 per cent. Defensive jockeying was necessary when filling up the questionnaire which was part of the survey.

I shall not canvass the arguments at great length because we shall almost certainly come to them in Committee. However, it would be interesting to know how the Minister views the discount or commission provision. Perhaps he will say something about it in reply. The discount, or a tranche taken off the selling price, could be justified only on the basis that one was trying to give to the site owner and operator a share in the capital appreciation of his part of the mobile home. If that is what we are trying to do, we should consider it in that light and argue it on that basis.

Commission is very different. The obvious analogy is the estate agent. If the site operator introduces the purchaser or agent to sell on behalf of the present occupier, he might well be entitled to a discount. In Scotland—I say this rather nervously in case I am told that it is different south of the border—the discount from an estate agent would be 1.5 per cent., which is very different from 15 per cent. I see the payment to the operator as falling into the payment for service category, so there is a case for saying that it should be paid only if the service was offered or if the sale was conducted through the operator. A commission similar to that of an estate agent would be much more appropriate. Of course, that is open to the argument that it may have an impact on site rents. We must consider the matter carefully in Committee. The argument is not black and white and we should not jump to conclusions. We should consider a much lower commission. I hope that the Minister will come forward with some interesting arguments and information.

A point to which I shall revert in Committee—if I am a member of the Committee—or on Report comes under the heading "Termination by court" in schedule 1, paragraph 6. I see the argument that there must be an arrangement whereby there should be termination if a dilapidated mobile home has a detrimental effect on the amenity of the site. I do not know whether going to court is the best way of doing that, although it might be seen as a safeguard. However, it worries me that the agreement can also be terminated if the state of the mobile home is likely to have such a detrimental effect before the end of the relevant period. That period is the five years that appeared in the original 1975 legislation and has been smuggled into schedule 1.

There are areas of considerable difficulty. Sales must be examined. I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West that many site owners have happy relationships with those who own the mobile homes and live on the sites. But even someone who is only occasionally in touch with the realities of those sites, as I am, is aware of stories about people who believe that they are selling through the site operator. The site operator finds a potential purchaser and persuades him to bypass the second-hand mobile home that is for sale and to take a pitch on the site with a new caravan on the grounds that it is a much better buy. There are abuses and we must try hard to correct them.

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said about the impact of the Rent Acts. My understanding is that the Rent Acts can apply to mobile homes, although presumably not the mobile homes that are covered by this Bill, because it refers to owner-occupiers. Perhaps we should consider the substantial group of tenants on sites in Scotland who do not have much protection except for the Rent Acts. However, those Acts apply only in some areas because of differences in practice and approach. Those tenants are thrown back on the inadequate protection of the Caravan Sites Act 1968.

In some areas in Scotland one can register a rented mobile home such as we have been discussing, but in other areas the rent officer demands that the mobile home is not only plumbed into standing services and sited on a hard surface, but bricked in. A little wall of bricks must cover the gap underneath the mobile home. That is unsatisfactory. We should have a uniform approach and we should protect tenants. I do not draw inferences about the economic position, but perhaps the tenants are more in need of protection than almost any other category.

That is a small selection of points that everyone will wish to canvass in due course. The Bill is a little timid, but I do not wish to sound grudging or ungrateful for this measure, which is better than any that has come from the Government's stable for some time. With that rather back-handed praise, I wish the Bill well in the hope that we can improve it considerably in the later stages.

6.37 pm
Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) will forgive me if I do not follow him too closely. He has expressed the consensus of hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent the tenants' interests in this legislation. What I shall say now will probably cause alarm bells to ring in many minds. I am parliamentary consultant to the National Federation of Site Operators, which also welcomes the legislation. That must cause many tenants to wonder what the catch is. The federation wishes to pay tribute to the terrific steps that the Department of the Environment has taken in preparing, consulting upon and framing this legislation, as a consequence of which it represents the consensus.

I have four specific observations about the Bill. One of them might strike a chord in your recollection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the Minister introduced the Second Reading of the Bill he said that it refers not to mobile homes but to permanent homes. The House will recall that those homes are as immobile in 1983 as they were in 1975, when we first got to grips with the subject. The majority of dwellings are completely immobile. As the "Immobile Homes Bill" is hardly likely to inspire enthusiasm or delight, I shall argue later in the proceedings that it would be more appropriate to replace the words "mobile homes" by "park homes", partly because the majority of operators now call themselves park operators as a consequence of the improved conditions that they provide. Secondly, tenants increasingly refer to themselves as living in parks rather than on caravan sites. Thirdly, the homes, whether they are fitted with wheels or are chalets, are so permanently linked to their pitches as to be parked and not mobile. The introduction of the designation "park homes" cannot undermine the spirit of the legislation, but it can increase the dignity of residents and the pride of operators in the parks for which they are responsible.

Many right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the indefinite nature of the agreements. Under the Bill, as long as the occupier behaves himself, the agreement becomes open-ended. That may be good for the tenant, but I wish the House to consider the inhibiting effect that it will have on the park operator. The circumstances that affect the stability of a park can change. Building developments such as the construction of a road extension, a sewage works and the arrival of a friendly new international airport at the bottom of a site can take place. All that could create reasons why, to safeguard his own legal obligations to his tenants, the park operator should have powers, if necessary, to repossess if extenuating circumstances present themselves.

Park operators are also worried about the gift element of clause 2. The owner of a park has no objection to a home owner giving his dwelling to the person of his choice, but there must be some safeguard against that freedom being extended to the gift of an assignment as well as the gift of the fabric. The case might be hypothetical, but it is not unknown in the caravan parks operation business for the owner of a mobile home to exchange his home for a car and claim that as there has been no financial transaction a gift has taken place. That is on the ground that no money has changed hands.

If park operators are to accept liabilities under the new Act—I am sure that the majority of them will—they will still have some means of ensuring that the gift does not of itself open the door to those people who, once admitted to the park, will not act in the best traditions of good neighbourliness. They might cause disruption, annoyance and distress to existing tenants.

The main worry lies with assessing the vexed problem of what should be the true rate of commission that falls to the park operator on the sale of a park home. Paradoxically, commission is as important to other residents as it is to the operator. A recent survey suggests that about one half of an operator's revenue comes from commission, which currently averages 15 per cent. of the sale price. It is used in two ways. First, it is a lump sum receipt that can be used in general park improvements as opposed to pitch rent, which is committed to the costs of labour-intensive activities of park management. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) said, there is a correlation between commission and pitch fees.

The stark relationship is that if commission was not payable, pitch fees would almost certainly have to be doubled to provide an equivalent revenue. Moreover, as many newcomers to parks are families on low incomes or elderly folk on fixed incomes, the necessary high pitch fees to replace the reduced revenue from commission could lead to a dramatic inequality between the incoming resident who pays highly from scant resources and the outgoing resident who would take an even greater share of the enhanced value of his dwelling with him. That is why the national federation of site operators suggests that the carefully balanced and tried 15 per cent. should be the proportion that is eventually nominated by the Secretary of State.

So that there should be no question of that developing into a state of "us versus them", with park operators on one side and tenants on the other, I shall quote from just one of the many letters that I have received recently. It was written by the tenant of a park. It closely identifies the way in which operators' interests are the tenants' interests and the tenants' interests are the operators' liabilities. After saying that the operator, Mr. Hill, intended to use his accumulated commission to resurface roads, improve lighting on roads and recreational areas, to provide extra car parking and garages and to extend the landscaping, the letter continues: Work on these improvements was to have started this month, but Mr. Hill said his company has postponed the work awaiting clarification of the new Act which Mr. Hill states could be biased detrimental to Park owners. Should this be so, it would mean the deterioration of these parks, residents homes would quickly devalue and the Parks could become 'shanty towns'. I therefore trust, Sir, that this new Act planned to give residents of mobile homes more security, also makes allowances for the standards and upgrading of these parks, not only for the benefit of the residents but also to make them an attractive and acceptable part of the district in which they are situated. The Bill provides that balance between the rights of the tenants and the necessary finances of the operators so that they can maintain the standards, dignity, cleanliness and happiness of the majority of our caravan parks.

6.45 pm
Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I do not wish to join the defence that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) has put forward for caravan site owners. I shall continue with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) about the Bill containing essentially Scottish legislation.

It is time that the House made up its mind about Scottish and English legislation. If there is to be a difference, we should carry it through in everything. We should not have Bills that relate entirely to Scotland and others that relate to England which Scottish Members find too late, not having examined the Bills, also apply to Scotland.

It is not as if the Scottish Office is overloading the legislative programme. There have been only two Scottish Bills. Both of them are non-controversial. The first has already passed through this House and the other has passed through the other place. It would not have been impossible to include another small Bill, such as this, to make it a purely Scottish measure. Scottish Members of Parliament would then have an opportunity to discuss points that relate to their constituencies.

The best way to ensure that Scottish legislation is dealt with separately is to have a Scottish assembly in Edinburgh. English Ministers would not then have worry about differences in terminology.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

We should miss my hon. Friend here.

Mr. Maxton

My hon. Friend would not miss me as I would still be here. Other legislators would be involved with these problems in Edinburgh. Perhaps I would join them. Nevertheless, some of us would still cause problems here on the larger national issues.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden, I cautiously welcome the Bill. It is an improvement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mrs. McElhone) whispered in my ear, this must be election year as today is the second day running on which we have cautiously welcomed what the Government are doing. That has been unusual in the past three and a half years. Nevertheless, the Bill does not go far enough. There will still be many occupiers of mobile homes who do not have the type of protection that they should have. We are dealing with some of the people who find housing provision most difficult.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) said, and as the figures for Scotland show, mobile home owner-occupiers and tenants are not, in the main, those who are retired. Those above retiring age represent the smallest percentage in the housing sector. The largest percentage comprises small families with children under five. For many of these people the mobile home is their first home and it is one that they are keen to vacate. The survey carried out by the Scottish Office revealed that one third of all those occupying mobile homes in Scotland are on waiting lists with either local authorities or housing associations. In other words, one third of them wish to move from their mobile homes to permanent houses somewhere else.

The second point to be made is that, unlike houses, mobile homes do not go on appreciating in value, except for the first few years. Unless there is some structural damage, houses go on appreciating for 60 or 70 years—even 500 or 600 years. Mobile homes are not like that. They begin to depreciate in value after a comparitively short time. When people sell them, therefore, they are often unable to recover the money that they paid, let alone pay a 15 per cent. charge or discount to the site owner as well. We ought therefore to look very carefully at the whole question of surcharge and discount to ensure that we do not allow site owners to milk those who are among the poorest of owner-occupiers or tenants.

My hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden pointed out that Scotland has only a small number of mobile home owner-occupiers and tenants. I, like him, was rather surprised. To some extent it may be accounted for by the fact that some people are not on licensed sites and the figure in this survey covers only those which are licensed. It shows that large numbers of caravan sites are in rural areas, normally Conservative or so-called independent-controlled local authorities, where the provision of proper council housing is not up to the standard and quantity provided by Labour-controlled urban areas. That is one of the reasons for the number of people in these homes.

I want to finish by referring to a point that the Bill does not cover. Presumably amendments will not be possible, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden said, the long title is very short. I refer to those who rent mobile homes. They are probably among the most disadvantaged occupiers of any. They often pay very large rents for very poor accommodation, frequently with extras on top. The survey shows that in Scotland one third of the homes on licensed sites are occupied by those who rent rather then own them. Such people are not protected under existing housing legislation—certainly not in Scotland—unless very strict terms are applied. That means that often they have great difficulty in applying to a local authority for rent rebates. If the court has not laid down a fixed rent, it is difficult to get a rent rebate from the local authority. The Government should look very carefully at this group of people—not large but certainly significant—who need the protection of the law.

We give a cautious welcome to this legislation. It could go a lot further. I hope that in Committee it will be pushed much further.

6.54 pm
Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Second Reading of this Bill and to welcome it in this House. It is a necessary measure which will go a long way to improve the situation which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, for the Environment saw prior to 1975. I am sure that it will be widely welcomed by mobile home owners or park home owners—I am rather attracted by that term put forward earlier in the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). It is a well-intentioned Bill and I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward at this stage in the Session.

There is no doubt at all that mobile home owners are a significant and self-sufficient section of the home-owning community, 150,000 of them in 70,000 mobile homes. Some are young married couples, potential first-time buyers, nurturing hopes perhaps of a more permanent home, with, at the other end of the scale, elderly couples fostering memories in the security of their own home but in the insecurity of their own garden.

Orchard Glade, Tamworth or Bluebell Woods, Lichfield conjure up visions of heaven on earth but because of a few site sharks, devils in the deep blue sea of home ownership, that heaven on earth can for some become hell. That is why I wholeheartedly support the views put forward by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) whose ten-minute Bill I had the pleasure of sponsoring.

It is essential, if this Bill is given a Second Reading this evening and proceeds to Committee, that we direct our attention to embodying in the Bill model clauses to ensure that both ground landlord and owner-occupier achieve some measure of protection, the one for the benefit of the other. There seems to be a wide measure of agreement across the House—and this is welcome—that mobile home owners deserve this form of statutory protection. The Englishman's home and, of course, the Scotman's home, whether owned outright, mortgaged, rented or mobile, should be his castle.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

What about the Welsh?

Mr. Heddle

I would be delighted to introduce the Welsh to this debate but we have not had the benefit of any contribution from a Welsh Member nor, so far, have we received a contribution from a Member of the Social Democratic party. Perhaps that pleasure awaits us.

The ability to remain in one's home, provided all financial and other obligations are met, is of fundamental importance to, and a fundamental right of, every British citizen. This security is available to owner—occupiers, to those living in leasehold property and to public and private tenants. Here it would perhaps be appropriate to remind the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor), who earlier this afternoon suggested that this was the first worthwhile housing measure introduced by the Government since it came into office, that one of the other significant measures that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction introduced very early in his tenure of office was on the question of the tenants' charter. The hon. Lady is perhaps likely to remind the House that the concept of the tenants' charter was not exactly new to this Government and that it had been on the stocks, just as the mobile homes provisions had been on the stocks, during the lifetime of the previous Labour Government; but, like some parliamentary Neros, perhaps they fiddled for far too long.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne rightly reminded the House, mobile homes are not really mobile at all. In fact, it was Lord Denning who said—the House will probably recall the case of Taylor v. Calvert— (The Mobile Homes Act 1975) was no doubt designed to deal with caravans, but it also applies to very substantial dwellings. Indeed, so substantial that the 1975 Act might almost be called the Immobile Homes Act. Whilst some mobile homes are aptly named, others are more like bungalows than caravans. They are more like castles.

They have no wheels … they are very permanent and there is no intention to move them either by the site operator or the owner.

It is that aspect upon which I should like to engage the Minister's attention. No other hon. Member has so far referred to one of the measures contained in the Bill which extends the licence period from the five years embodied in the 1975 Act with an option to extend for a further three, to a period which amounts, as I understand the Bill, to perpetuity. That raises the important consideration of the mobile home owner's right—the head leaseholder in a sense—to compensation in the event of the mobile site owner or operator wishing to develop that site for some alternative purpose.

The Minister may have considered the point, and I may have missed it in the Bill's small print. I bring it to the attention of the House because I have this week received a letter from one of my constituents, Mr. V. S. Keen of 19, Biddulph Park, Ironstone Road, Chase Terrace, Nr. Lichfield. It is dated 3 February. With the indulgence of the House, I shall read it: Dear Mr. Heddle, I have been allocated an appointment to see you at your surgery at Lichfield on 11th February 1983 and have been asked"— [Interruption.] For any hon. Member including my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) who would like to make an appointment through my constituency office, we start at five o'clock and continue until such time as the needs, wishes, requirements, hopes and aspirations of my constituents have been met. The letter continues: I have been asked to write and inform you of the subject matter of this interview. If only more constituents gave one such advanced and detailed knowledge of the case our burdens would be lightened considerably. The letter further states: I am appearing on behalf of over seventy mobile home owners on the Biddulph mobile home park, Ironstone Road, Chase Terrace, who have but recently become aware of a proposal to redevelop the area, including the park, into an area of low density executive housing with the loss of the entire park. We find that information is still vague, but have received indications that our site agreements are to be renewed in February 1983 for a three year period with no option of renewal. Thus, by implication it would appear that we shall be given notice to vacate some time during that period, thus rendering a large number homeless. The residents of the park purchased their mobile homes on the belief that the site licence was long-term licence, and, understandably, there is a considerable amount of anxiety for their future, for some in the thought that the amount invested in a home will within that period become a worthless investment, for some, on their future prospects. I would like to ascertain from you the truth of this matter and the exact position in respect of this planned development, and the position of the residents of this park who are now, and will be for some time, living with the threat of eviction, and the loss of their capital assets and"— most importantly— their mobile home. While I welcome the Bill's provisions, which extend from five through to eight years to perpetuity, the mobile home owner's right to "quiet enjoyment"—I think they were the words used by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead—it nevertheless throws up the anomaly that if a mobile site owner wishes to develop, it is not unreasonable that the mobile home owner should expect some compensation for the termination and diminution of his interest in the site if the Bill becomes law and provides a right in perpetuity.

The Bill was initiated by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and taken up by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. I want to add one point about the way in which site rent should be assessed. I agree, on balance, with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, that the matter of the site rent should be left, in all fair and reasonable circumstances, to the landlord and tenant—the freeholder and leaseholder—who are the two parties to the transaction.

Although I have tremendous respect for them, I am not certain that rent officers are the right people to determine a fair rent. Provided that the model clauses, which I support wholeheartedly, include a requirement for the site owner to reveal to the mobile home owner the amount of money that the site owner is spending on behalf of the mobile home owner in maintenance and service charges, I believe they will deal with the matter in most reasonable circumstances. The model clauses will protect the mobile home owner where there is an unreasonable site owner.

Mobile homes have a tendency to change hands more than once or twice a year. The site owner then has an opportunity to increase the site rent more than once a year, thereby circumventing one of the other provisions in the Bill. I should like to suggest to the Minister and the parliamentary draftsmen that they explore ways in which a clause can be incorporated in the Bill that would allow the site owner to increase the site rent once a year only. There should be a synchro-site-rent-increase day for mobile home owners once a year.

I welcome the Bill. I am sure that the Government are as anxious as everyone else to see that it is placed upon the statute book as swiftly as possible. It is most certainly a jewel in the Minister's legislative crown, in which there are already many others. I am certain that, once this measure passes through the House and receives the Royal Assent, it will bring the security and happiness sought by mobile home owners who have bought their homes.

7.6 pm

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) made an interesting and informed speech. I do not agree with everything that he said, but he gave the House much to think about. I am still reeling—I believe that that is the right word—from the possible implications of the fact that he allocates times and places for his constituents to meet him at his advice bureau. That is not a custom in my part of the world, but it has possibilities—"Come in number one; go out number ten. Your time is up." It is something new that I shall pursue with him outside, because it does not really fall within the provisions of the Mobile Homes Bill.

The hon. Member has encouraged me to take part in the debate because it is not my custom to intervene when I have not heard the preceding two hours. The Minister was late in starting because he had to make a statement. I was detained elsewhere because of a delegation from the Merseyside branch of the Police Federation. They are not people to be kept waiting unnecessarily, as the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) will know, and they had a point of view to express. I therefore missed the opening statements by the Government and the Opposition and the speeches of many hon. Members. It is not often, as our Scottish friends can confirm, that we have housing legislation that covers three parts of the United Kingdom. It will be interesting to see how it develops in Committee. I have the Bill before me, but it is only when one has heard the Minister explain how he interprets it and how Opposition Members would want to change it that one can make any detailed comments.

I agree with the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) that "mobile home" is a misnomer. Many hon. Members have said that they cannot be moved. I suggest to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne that he be careful about the phrase "park homes". He will have objections from Woburn, Chatsworth and Croxteth because we are not considering that sort of home.

The Government are clearing a few shelves with this proposed legislation to keep things going until something else is decided. If they intend to bring security of tenure for owners in mobile homes nearer to the security of tenure for owner-occupiers in more permanent homes such as terraced and brick housing the House would support it. It is a consensus.

The Government should be under some apprehension because when the Bill reaches Committee, if there is consensus on both sides from people who have more practical knowledge of the subject than I, great improvements to the Bill could be made.

If the intention of the Bill is to provide more opportunity for responsibility to site owners and management—to encourage rather than to discourage by penalties—that should be encouraged. What advice has come from those areas where mobile homes are prevalent, such as the north Wales and Lancashire coastlines?

I doubt whether one home in my constituency would fall within the provisions of the Bill, but there are many in other parts of the country that would. What advice has been given by local authorities, the Welsh Office, the Scottish Office or the British Tourist Authority?

The Bill is a good attempt to provide the necessary legislation. With practical advice from either side of the Committee that considers it—I am not volunteering to be a member of the Committee—the Bill will be better on Third Reading than on Second Reading.

7.12 pm
Mr. Timothy Smith (Beaconsfield)

I apologise for my absence during part of the debate, but I was required to attend a Standing Committee and the Government Whip finds my occasional presence reassuring.

I have only one point to raise on the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the Bill is to apply to local authorities—unlike the Mobile Homes Act 1975. That concerns my local authority, the south Buckinghamshire district council. The Minister did not explain why the Bill was to apply to local authorities. Perhaps he thought that that was self-evident. However, I noticed that in another place Lord Bellwin explained that application in terms of following the precedent set by the tenants' charter in the Housing Act 1980. He said: It does not seem right to us that mobile home residents on local authority sites should continue to be denied the rights enjoyed by residents on private sites. This Bill will put right that anomaly."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 November 1982; Vol. 436, c. 640.] I can see the strength of that argument.

I wish briefly to explain the position in south Buckinghamshire. The council has two caravan sites with a total of 126 pitches. It is an integral part of the council's housing strategy to provide for the housing needs of people in the district. The sites are occupied by people who often live there permanently—many are settled itinerants, and others use them as a stepping stone to permanent housing. The pitch has almost a 100 per cent. usage, and the council always has a waiting list, which at present numbers about 40. A prime requirement of the list is that the applicant must be a resident of or be working in the district, or have some firm connections with it.

Mr. Stanley

Will my hon. Friend clarify a fundamental point? Are those mobile homes rented or owned?

Mr. Smith

The sites are rented; the homes are owned by the individual occupiers. That point was misunderstood in some correspondence between the chairman of the housing committee of my district and the Minister's Department. That point may be unusual to south Buckinghamshire, but the Bill cuts across the council's arrangement for its two sites.

I wish to quote a letter from Sir Duncan Lock, the chairman of the housing committee, to the Department: You will appreciate from what I have said that the Bill is going to stand our organisation on its head and make it impossible to operate purely on the question of the sale of caravans and to whom. Our scheme has operated very well and fairly for many years, so why do we have to change it. First of all, the Council does not want to go into the second-hand caravan market with all the problems and extra work that is going to be involved. Although the council rents the pitches, and the people living there own the caravans, when the Bill is enacted the only way in which the council can ensure that when a pitch falls vacant it is filled by someone on the waiting list will be by taking advantage of the provision—which my hon. Friend has said is under consideration and may be removed—that an occupier who wishes to sell his mobile home is required to offer it first to the local authority as site owner. It would be for the council to decide whether to accept that offer.

My council does not want to be involved in the business of buying secondhand caravans. Sir Duncan continued: Secondly, if the Council does not want to purchase caravans, the seller can sell it, together with the use of the pitch, to the highest bidder. Because of that provision, the person holding the tenancy of a pitch can sell it to anybody. Therefore, the council's waiting list would be wholly bypassed. It could not ensure that the pitches were allocated to people on its waiting list, who presumably would be connected with the district. The pitches could be sold to people outside the district.

Sir Duncan continues: Our waiting list would then be meaningless as any outsider could jump the queue simply by bidding more, i.e. the pitch would go to the highest bidder irrespective of local housing needs and the Council would be providing facilities for anybody who came from anywhere. This is clearly acceptable as our mandate is to provide for local housing need. That is the essential point about which the council is concerned. We may have misunderstood the Bill's provisions. However, I am concerned that the council feels that, if the Bill is not amended, it will probably decide that it is not worth sinking £500,000 into the improvement of one of its two sites.

I am sure that the Minister will consider those points carefully.

7.17 pm
Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

It has been an unusually well-informed debate—not a partisan debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) said, we do not intend to divide the House.

Various adjectives have been used to describe the Bill. "Cautious" has been used more than once. The Opposition welcome its progress. We are mindful of the need for new initiatives and to review and reflect upon experience. The Bill is the net product of the experience not only of the Department, but of many people.

Reference has been made more than once to the opportunities provided by the 1975 Act. Unfortunately, many people—either by misunderstanding or by lack of information—have not fully used the Act.

We appreciate the problems of framing adequate legislation in this area. We look forward with great interest to the Committee stage. As many hon. Members have said, if they are lucky enough to serve on the Committee, they can help the Minister and those affected by the Bill.

We are grateful to the Minister for giving a comprehensive review and history of the matter, and we have nothing at which to cavil.

The hon. Gentleman said that this was a new imperative for statutory protection and that it would help many people. He gave a figure of about 160,000. I am not certain whether that figure related to mobile homes or to people who live in them. However, it is a sizeable section of the community, and we are as interested as he is to protect those people.

Labour Members recognise the rights and responsibilities of site owners. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) declared his interest in speaking here on behalf of the National Federation of Site Operators. He expressed and shared the views of that body. He represents a part of the country where that is an important factor, and the Committee will benefit from his experience.

The hon. Gentleman took up a point that was made by the Minister, who said that part of his responsibility was to endeavour to strike a balance between what could be, and often has been, the competing interests of the site owner and the mobile home occupier. The nature of the present situation tilts the balance in favour of the mobile home occupier. The present situation gives the site owner a number of advantages. I do not say that they are unfair advantages, but they are advantages. Sites are not always freely available, so people who want to occupy mobile homes, as a result of the supply and demand situation, are already at a disadvantage.

The site owner often sells the original or replacement mobile home. He is the person who often arranges the finance for purchasing and selling homes. He is a professional who deals with a number of occupiers, and he is familiar with the law, lawyers, arbitrators, and the courts. The hon. and learned Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell), in a constructive speech, pointed to the dilemma in which ordinary untutored individuals frequently find themselves. He made a statement which caused some mirth among legal Members on this side of the Chamber, when he said that this legislation caused problems of interpretation and understanding, even among people who are professionally qualified.

The owner-occupiers tend to be vulnerable. They are often elderly or people with young families. Frequently they are not well off. They are already, if not frightened, at least vulnerable. They are also vulnerable in that they have made a substantial capital investment, the average being £7,000. That may not be a large amount compared with the amount that has to be paid for a traditional home, but for someone just starting out, or someone at the end of their days, it can represent the whole nest egg. Therefore, the site owner has some muscle behind him. Owner-occupiers will not want to antagonise him and will be anxious to get the best deal that they can.

We acknowledge the importance of the changes that were made to the Bill in the other place. The Minister told us about some of the improvements. He also pointed out some of the potential improvements that he intends to introduce in Committee. We were particularly glad to hear what he said about the obligation to provide statutory written notice, outlining the rights of the owner and the occupier, and the contractual obligation that will exist thereafter. There is also the intention to write all the documents in simple English. I imagine that it will be King's English, bearing in mind who the present Secretary of State is. That will be welcomed by everyone. We shall also welcome the clear definition of the members of a family, and who will benefit in the event of a will or intestacy.

Mr. Maxton

It is different in Scottish law.

Mr. Graham

Certainly there are differences, and long may those differences exist. We welcome the voice of Scotland in our debates. I know that the Committee stage will be enlivened by the experience and questioning minds of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton). They have told us that they see ways in which the Bill can be improved.

We are anxious that improvements, some of which were resisted in the other place, should be made. Reference has been made to some of those improvements, and we shall certainly seek to introduce amendments. The excessive rate of commission has been mentioned more than once. The Minister said that this matter needs to be looked at. I take what he said in good faith. We are grateful that he accepts the importance of this matter. He said that at some point in Committee we should be told the results of the consultations, and that perhaps an amendment or statement would be made.

The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) said that if the commission went down, the rent ipso facto would go up. I do not agree that the equation is as precise as that. The tenant or the owner-occupier would be advantaged without the site owner being disadvantaged. It was said that the commission reflected 50 per cent. of the total income. If that 50 per cent. were depressed, the other side of the equation—the rent—would be increased. However, one would need to be satisfied that the total profits or income were fair and reasonable. If they are fair and reasonable, what the hon. Gentleman said is correct.

We should understand the inhibitions from which present owner-occupiers already suffer. I do not say that that is true of the majority. However, the annex to the document which the Department produced in 1977 contained a series of illustrations of sharp practices. The Committee should be reminded of those sharp practices: refusal to allow second-hand homes to be brought on to the site, charging excessive connection charges or premiums to enter the site, attempts to impose a premium on the grant or assignment of a Mobile Homes Act agreement, and attempts to require replacement of mobile homes solely according to age as a condition for the grant of a Mobile Homes Act agreement. We cannot say that matters, such as overcharging for water and electricity, restrictions on the use of gas not bought from the site shop, refusal to allow tradesmen on the site in an attempt to increase likely sales from the site shop, are general, but some people who are attempting to lead a quiet life are caused some distress. We are seeking to legislate to improve that situation.

Esther Rantzen, in the BBC programme "That's Life", revealed several distressing situations. Later, when interviewed, she said: In spite of the fact that MPs have already tried to stamp out this kind of abuse, unfortunately there remains these loop-holes, so that unscrupulous site owners sometimes regard people who live in mobile homes as a 'crop'. Therefore the rent alone is not sufficient return—they think they should be able to harvest mobile homes as well. Hon. Members have a responsibility to try to eliminate as many abuses as possible. We give the Bill a timely welcome. In searching for the right adjective, I am trying to be careful not to overdo it. I would not say, as the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) did, that this legislation is a jewel in the crown of the Secretary of State. If so, both the jewel and the crown are getting more tarnished every day.

Mr. Heddle

Crowns contain jewels just as Lichfield goes with Tamworth.

Mr. Graham

If Lichfield goes with Tamworth, we wish the hon. Gentleman well—farewell—on his journey. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make an appointment, he will be seen on Saturday morning in his constituency office and will be allocated sufficient time to make his point.

The debate has revealed that the Committee stage of the Bill will not be short of either experience or advice from many people outside the House. We are conscious that we shall be attempting to provide a small sector of the community with some statutory cover. I am mindful of the fact that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) said that he saw the Bill as a movement towards providing the protection enjoyed by other individuals, whether owner-occupiers or tenants. The hon. Member for Chorley said that tenants' organisations could provide some experience of other spheres which would be useful in Committee. Labour Members look forward to the further improvement of the Bill, despite the fact that it has already been improved in another place.

7.33 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

This has been a friendly and constructive debate of a high quality, which has lot been unduly prolonged. It is clear that the House, like the Government, believes that mobile homes provide a small but important source of housing and that it is right that we should provide their owners with a statutory framework which works—both in their interests and in the interests of those who run the sites.

Unlike other hon. Members, I have no sites or parks in my constituency. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover), I have never lived in a mobile home. However, I visited the caravan show in November last year and I looked at a variety of mobile homes which are available as permanent residences. I was impressed by the comforts and amenities that are available in those modern mobile homes and was delighted to find that nearly all of them were made in the United Kingdom. They seem to be an excellent investment and good value. They are light years removed from the image that some people still have of them. If I have one criticism, it is that I find it difficult to stand up in some of them and impossible to lie down in any of them, but I think that that is my fault rather than the industry's.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) asked me what the word "enure" was doing in the legislation. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State drafted his Bill he managed to restrain himself from including that word in the Bill but the moment the professionals got hold of the legislation it was clearly inevitable that it would appear and enrich the legislation's quality. By the time we reach that clause in Committee I shall be able to explain to the hon. Member why it is in the Bill and what its application might be to Scotland.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mrs. Taylor) said that little had changed since 1975. If that is the case, it is no thanks to the Labour Government, who for five years did not apply themselves at all to this subject. However, the more she went on the more relieved I was that the Labour Government had not legislated, because the sort of regime that they appeared to advocate—rent controls and progressive restrictions—would have quickly dried up the supply of sites that we want to see. The hon. Lady also developed an intriguing new argument. She said that mobile home owners should have the right to buy their sites. When one puts that against the attitude adopted by Labour Members in Committee, where they have resisted the emancipation of council tenants and any idea that they should have the right to buy their homes, some interesting questions are raised.

The hon. Lady objected to the agreement being treated as withdrawn if the occupier did not respond. In the light of the change in the Bill that was announced earlier and the fact that the occupier now has six months to make up his mind, it is reasonable that the agreement will be withdrawn if the occupier does nothing. The site owner is entitled to know where he stands in the running of the site and what return he can expect to get from his investment. If no agreement is offered, that is an offence and the owner would have to comply with any court order which then imposed an agreement.

The procedure for disputes is set out in clause 2(5). The commission was fixed at 15 per cent. by the previous Administration. As my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) made clear, if one alters the commission it has implications for the overall revenue for the site or the park and the owner might then look to the pitch fees to make up the shortfall.

Mr. Graham

Will the Minister deal with those site owners who want to increase their commission out of all proportion to what might be considered reasonable?

Sir George Young

I shall say something about commission in a moment. The greater security that people will have under the legislation might mean that there is a lower turnover of individual caravans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley spoke out in favour of residents' associations, which have a valuable role to play. He was right to add that their existence should not be enshrined in legislation. He mentioned some improvements to sites in his constituency, which also raises the question what would happen if the site owner's income was reduced. Would the sort of improvements that we should all like to see on the parks come about if the commission was entirely eliminated? The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) was good enough to welcome the legislation and I shall say a word or two about the role of the rent officer later. He envisaged the rent officer as having a higher profile.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) was anxious to see the Bill improved in Committee, and the Government do not have a closed mind on that matter. In particular, he was interested in seeing model terms or leases enshrined in the Bill. We have no objection at all to some non-statutory model clauses or leases but we see enormous problems in trying to enshrine them in legislation for the variety of conditions that exist on all the sites.

Mr. Lyell

I understand what my hon. Friend says about trying to have model terms to cover every eventuality. Is he sympathetic to the idea of a certain number of model terms being included in every agreement, which could be varied as long as they were not overturned by other clauses put in at the will of the site owner and mobile home owner?

Sir George Young

I shall come back to the model clauses in a moment.

We would welcome the non-statutory advice to which my hon. and learned Friend referred. He talked about a draft model lease that had been produced. We envisage setting out in the schedule the conditions that a model agreement should contain, but not the words of the model agreement. I shall come back to that matter, which we shall want to explore in Committee.

Some hon. Members asked about the role of the rent officer. It was suggested that rents should be registered by him. However, the rent officer cannot register a rent for an owner-occupied mobile home because the owner is paying not a rent but a pitch fee. He can register a rent when the home is rented, provided that the mobile home satisfies the conditions of the Rent Acts. However, they do not apply to owner-occupied mobile homes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne was generous enough to voice the support of the federation that he represents. He said some kind words about my Department, which were gratefully received. If people want to call the sites parks, there is nothing in the legislation to inhibit them. I understand my hon. Friend's strong feelings about the anomaly of calling immobile homes mobile homes. He produced the dramatic arithmetic that the commission can account for half the revenue and he said that there would be implications if that source of revenue dried up.

My hon. Friend suggested that the indefinite length of the arrangements might be unfair to the site owners. The Government believe that the provisions in the Bill for the length of agreements are fair. They combine reasonable security for occupiers—it seems to us that an occupier who may pay £20,000 or more for his mobile home is entitled to expect security of tenure—with an ability for the site owner to terminate the agreement in certain circumstances. He can terminate at any time for breach of agreement provided that he has given the occupier the chance to remedy the breach first. He can also apply to the court at any time to terminate on the grounds that the occupier is not living in his mobile home any more. Every five years he can ask the court to terminate on the grounds that the mobile home is or is likely to be having a detrimental affect on the amenity of the site. Five years is the initial period for which agreements under the 1975 Act run. It has an important psychological value for occupiers. They will have the security that provided they fulfil the terms of the agreement, they will be safe for five years. That is not unreasonable.

My hon. Friend also referred to sham gifts. The provisions in schedule 1 which allow a resident to give his mobile home and to assign his agreement to a member of his family are new. It is fair because we consider that a resident should be able to give his mobile home to a member of his family, if he wishes to do so, without paying commission. An example might be after the breakdown of a marriage. Let us suppose that the husband has the statutory agreement and leaves the family home. Without the gift provision, the only way in which he could be sure of being able to transfer the home and the agreement to his wife would be by selling it to her.

There are safeguards for the site owners. First, the gift must be to a member of the resident's family. On Report in another place we introduced a definition of "family" in response to the concern of site owners. Secondly, the site owner has the right to approve the person to whom the mobile home is given, although his approval cannot be withheld unreasonably. That is an adequate safeguard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Heddle) can say to his constituent on Friday that he is entitled to an agreement under the legislation. The fact that the owner wants to redevelop is not grounds under schedule 1 for terminating the agreement. I am sure that my hon. Friend will convey that assurance on Friday.

The Government believe that the balance that the Bill strikes between the interests of occupiers and site owners is just about right. I shall of course examine carefully the points that have been made in today's debate. I shall look into the problems of south Bucks, which were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), to see whether the fears that have been expressed are justified.

I have no doubt that many other points will be raised in Committee. I do not rule out the possibility of changes in the Bill. We have already made one major change to the provisions dealing with inheritance. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced that we would introduce an amendment in Committee to lengthen from three months to six the period in which occupiers could accept, refuse or challenge the agreement that is offered to them. That has been welcomed by most hon. Members who have spoken.

My hon. Friend also said that we would look closely at the procedures that the Bill uses, which follow those of the 1975 Act, for the sale of a mobile home. We are as anxious as anyone that the Bill should give genuine protection for people who live in mobile homes.

One or two hon. Members mentioned the Rent Acts. We are anxious that the Bill should not impose excessive restrictions on site owners. We do not want to fall into the trap contained in the Rent Acts. It will not help mobile home occupiers if we enact legislation the main affect of which on site owners is to make them get out of the business as quickly as they can, and which deters new people from coming in.

Nor is it our intention that the rent officer service should become involved in disputes on mobile home sites. The quality of the service is excellent within its terms of reference. However, the task of a rent officer is to register rents for tenants of houses and fiats within the criteria of the Rent Acts. It is a different task from that of resolving disputes between the owner-occupier of a mobile home and the person to whom he pays a pitch fee for the land on which his home is stationed. It is not necessary or desirable for the rent officer to deal with such matters.

Some hon. Members mentioned arbitration. The Bill lays down its own procedures for settling disputes. If the occupier is dissatisfied with any of the terms of the agreement offered to him, whether it is the term that specifies the initial pitch fee or provides for it to be reviewed, or any other term of the agreement, he can challenge the agreement in court or before an arbitrator. The Bill provides for the choice of arbitrator to be made freely by both parties. That is generally welcomed.

The hon. Member for Bolton, West said that the Bill placed too much emphasis on the courts. However, it allows residents and site owners to agree on an arbitrator instead of going to court. That can often provide a quicker simpler and cheaper means of resolving disputes.

Some hon. Members mentioned loopholes. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) expressed some anxiety about loopholes in the Bill. There was a fear that site owners would seek to avoid the duty to offer agreements under the Bill as private landlords are said to attempt to avoid the repercussions of the Rent Acts. But the Bill is not like the Rent Acts. It does not impose anything like the same burden on site owners that the Rent Acts impose on landlords, and I do not believe that site owners will have the incentive to try to avoid it. There may be some site owners who will not be prepared to accept any restrictions at all on their activities and who will seek to avoid the obligation to offer an agreement. But, in that case, the Bill provides a means for the occupier to press his claim to an agreement. If he has to, he can go to court for an order requiring the making of an agreement—on terms —that the court considers just and equitable.

It is in the context of the sales of mobile homes that some of the worst abuses have been said to occur on mobile home sites. The hon. Member for Edmonton mentioned Esther Rantzen's television programme. There have also been instances on the radio programme "Checkpoint." The programmes have highlighted cases in which occupiers have been forced to sell their homes to site owners for a very low price only to see them sell them on at a vast profit.

I do not want to see that happen any more than anyone else, but I think we should be clear that those abuses have generally happened where occupiers have not had statutory agreements under the 1975 Act. Agreements under the Act give occupiers the right to sell their own homes at a fair market price. The Bill will do the same, and of course it will make it possible for many more occupiers to have statutory agreements.

As my hon. Friend the Minister said, we are re viewing the procedures governing the sale of a mobile home in the light of the responses to the consultation paper that we issued on commission, and of the arguments put forward in another place. We will also, of course, take into account the views that have been expressed today. Our intention is to inform the House of the maximum level of commission that we will prescribe, while the Bill is still before the House. We will also have something further to say about the provision that allows a site owner first refusal when a mobile home is up for sale. Beyond that, I would rather not say any more at this stage.

I wish to deal finally with model terms. The Bill does not provide for the Secretary of State to prescribe t form that agreements must take. I am not convinced that it would be particularly helpful for it to try to do so unless we were also to impose detailed control on the content of agreements. That we do not intend to do.

Schedule 1 of the Bill deals with the content of agreements. Part I of the schedule lists those requirements with which agreements must comply. Part II lists those matters which an agreement must cover but it does not say how they are to be covered. It says, for example, that an agreement must provide for the provision and improvement of services by the site owner. It does not say what those services have to be. The services will, of course, vary enormously from site to site. It is my view that these are matters which the site owner and the occupier should properly resolve between themselves.

The Bill is important for those whom it affects. It will provide the basis for the relationship between site owners and the occupiers of mobile homes in the future. We have to be sure that it is as fair as possible to both sides. We need a measure that will provide real and worthwhile protection for occupiers but which does not drive site owners to give up their sites. I believe that the Bill can achieve that objective and that it can provide a basis for the industry to develop in the future. I invite the House to give it a Second Reading.

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.)