§ Amendment made: No. 25, in page 6, leave out lines 6 to 16.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]
§ Mr. Graham
I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 6, line 19, leave out from 'subsist' to end of line 20 and insert`for—
whichever is the longer.'.
- (a) the term of the agreement; or
- (b) until the agreement is determined under paragraphs 4, 5, 5A or 6 below,
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government amendments Nos. 29, 31 and the amendments thereto, amendment No. 32, in page 6, line 38, leave out from 'agreement' to end of line 41 and insert`forthwith if, on the application of the owner, the court is satisfied that—and Government amendments Nos. 33, 35, 41 and 42.
- (a) the occupier has breached a term of the agreement;
- (b) after service of a notice to remedy the breach, the occupier has not compiled with the notice within a reasonable time; and
- (c) it would be reasonable to allow the owner to terminate the agreement.'.
§ Mr. Graham
The Opposition do not want to be churlish but we still have some reservations. There may be defects in amendment No. 28 but it should be discussed. Our main reservation is that unacceptable terms 428 could still be imposed by an unreasonable site operator on such important matters as services, repairing obligations, site rules and access arrangements. As we understand it, the only remaining sanction is the occupier's right to apply to a court. That entails many problems. Amendments Nos. 28 and 32 are designed to take account of that. In 1977 a Department report stated:There is resentment at some of the more oppressive conditions, and particularly at the way in which rules which were not in themselves unreasonable had been enforced.My worry is that breach of unacceptable terms would still, under the new approach, lead to mandatory termination of the agreement. The same would be true for the unreasonable enforcement of apparently acceptable terms. The problem would remain that occupiers who have failed to challenge unacceptable terms will be exposed to the threat of termination.
It is easy to envisage cases where, unless there is further amendment, an occupier could face the termination of an agreement in unacceptable circumstances. Some examples are an occupier who broke a term prohibiting visits by grandchildren at weekends, an elderly occupier in breach of an obligation to paint the outside of his home every three years, or an occupier in financial difficulties who needs a short time to pay arrears of pitch fees. Tenants of publicly and privately rented houses and flats would not usually be evicted in such circumstances. Eviction for breach of agreement can be ordered only if a court believes it to be reasonable. That is the genesis of paragraph (c) of amendment No. 32, which provides that the site owner's will could prevail in the court only if the court held that it would be reasonable to allow the owner to terminate the agreement. What the owner wishes may appear to be reasonable and sensible, but the court must say that the owner's action, in all the circumstances, not merely within the strict letter of the law, is unreasonable. The discretion shall be exercised by the magistrate or judge.
The amendments are modest improvements to ensure that the satisfaction felt by many because of the Government's action will be more complete. It is not enough to say that occupiers should negotiate agreements to ensure that they are not unreasonable. That ignores the dangers of an apparently reasonable clause being unreasonably enforced, and it ignores the weaker bargaining position of the occupier and his lower willingness or ability to negotiate or to go to court. The Government introduced their amendments to rectify that imbalance, and we hope that the Government will accept the sense of our amendments.
The Law Society has expressed support for the suggestion that the courts should have discretion. This is not a major matter, but it means that if a site owner's rights are to be upheld a judge or a magistrate should have the power to say whether they are reasonable. The site owner can do nothing until the court decides that it is reasonable.
§ Mr. Lyell
I support the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham), and I shall speak to amendments (a) to (e) to Government amendment No. 31, which deal with the termination of an agreement by the court. I welcome the fact that the proposals already accepted by the Government mean that an agreement can be terminated by the site operator only after he has been to court and the court has permitted it, having weighed up the circumstances. However, as the hon. Member for Edmonton explained, 429 if the amendments are not accepted, the court might have to sanction an unfair termination. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept them.
I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the residual judicial discretion in the court was included in my amendments in Committee, on which my hon. Friend promised consultations. Let us suppose that a perfectly reasonable term of a mobile home agreement is that the home owner shall paint his home every three or five years. Perhaps an elderly mobile home owner has failed to paint his home, which is beginning to look a little scruffy, and the site owner serves him notice to do so within three to six months. However, the home owner may become ill or have a sudden financial difficulty and may not paint his home within three or six months. An unreasonable site operator may decide to take advantage of that. I hasten to assure members of the National Caravan Council and the National Federation of Site Operators, the vast majority of whom are excellent site operators, that they have nothing to fear from this amendment. However, a small minority of operators are unscrupulous and may take advantage of that unhappy position. The matter would then come before a court. The facts would be established and, however much he might wish to help the home owner, the county court judge would have no discretion to alleviate the problem.
Parliament has seen fit to give such discretion in landlord and tenant cases, leasehold cases and private rented accommodation cases, and the Government rightly saw fit to give that discretion to council house tenants who could have been evicted at the whim of the council, although that did not often happen. My amendment is based on the proposals of the National Consumer Council, as is amendment No. 32. We wish to give the same judicial discretion to the courts for mobile home owners as applies to all other residential occupiers. I hope that my hon. Friend can accept the amendment, because recently persuasive letters about the matter have appeared in the press.
Amendment No. 28 has a slightly different purpose from that outlined by the hon. Member for Edmonton. It deals with those who have longish leaseholds, and I invite my hon. Friend to consider it carefully in that context. It is not a mast to which I have nailed my flag, but it seems to be sensible, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will consider it with his usual good will and good sense.
§ Mr. Mudd
Government amendment N9. 35 sets out what might seem to be a rather cumbersome procedure. If we take the purpose of the amendment literally, the site operator must go to court to obtain permission to terminate the agreement and must presumably state his case. If he receives the court's permission to terminate the agreement, he must then start the procedures to gain possession on almost the same evidence. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can show us how to simplify that cumbersome procedure.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I listened carefully to the speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell), but I am unable to give his amendments enthusiastic support. I hope that the Government will not support them, although I suspect that they will. According to the Government's amendment, a site owner can go to court because an occupier has 430 manifestly breached the agreement. In my constituency that could mean that a tenant has, shall we say, entertained a group of American service men in a park home. That is rare, but it happens. That may cause grave offence to many elderly residents. Those residents do not always write to me about such incidents, but they do so quite often. There are 27,000 American service men in my constituency and it is not unknown for a cen ain amount of entertainment to go on in park homes.
Under pressure from the majority of residents, the site owner may go to court and seek an order. A county court —at least in Suffolk—would agree to such an order. However, if my hon. and learned Friend's amendments were carried, the person in question—for example, an unattached female — could become homeless. In my constituency, we have great trouble with the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. For one reason or another, people voluntarily, in my judgment, make themselves homeless. However, it is difficult to prove that.
Some district councils in my area are at their wits' end to know what to do with the ladies who are attracted to American air bases in East Anglia, and who come from every part of the country and from other countries as well. They become attached to airmen, who, after a short while, are transferred back to Arizona or Germany. They leave behind them not only the ladies whom they have come to know, but sometimes young relatives. The district council finds that, under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, it must provide accommodation. Those of my constituents who have been waiting for some time on the housing list take a very poor view of queue-jumping by such ladies.
Let us suppose that the site owner has gone to court and obtained an order for the termination of the agreement, and that the lady involved becomes homeless. Her publicly-provided, legal-aid solicitor might point out that she and her child would have nowhere to go. The court would certainly have to take account of the amendment tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, which states that the court would have to be satisfied that it would be reasonable to allow the owner to terminate the agreement.
In our debates on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, we ploughed through an enormous number of clauses that turned on the question of what was reasonable or reasonably praticable. Many courts would think that, given the occupier's unreasonable behaviour, it would be best, on the whole, for her to go, irrespective of the fact that she had nowhere to go. However, if a young child was involved, the court would probably think it unreasonable for her to be pushed out. The court would have some discretion. I am not against that because at the end of the day the court must determine what in the circumstances is or is not reasonable. I understand that. But when an agreement that the owner and occupier entered into freely has been clearly breached, I have serious doubts whether we should add the braces as well as the belt and so enable that person to stay on, to the discomfort of the majority of those living on the park estate and of the entire neighbourhood. We may also be depriving the site owner of the means of earning his living. I am not at all sure that we should impose that further condition upon him.
§ Mr. Lyell
My hon. Friend has rightly said that he is not against the court having some discretion. Is he aware that, without these amendments, the court would not have any discretion? The amendments have been tabled to give 431 the court the discretion that my hon. Friend rightly wants it to have, but it is a discretion that can be exercised only on judicial, not on purely sympathetic, grounds. In view of what I have said, does my hon. Friend agree that the amendment is desirable?
§ Mr. Griffiths
That may be. My hon. and learned Friend has more working experience of the courts than I have, although from time to time I have a little to do with the law in another capacity. I should be surprised if my hon. and learned Friend is entirely right in saying that, without the amendment, a court would have no discretion. It would be rare for a judge, confronted by such a case, not to have regard to the circumstances. It would be rare for a judge not to apply a reasonable degree of discretion in the circumstances. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary.
§ Mr. Graham
I hope that the Minister will meet that point head on. If it is in the court's power to judge whether an action is reasonable, I would agree that the amendment is unnecessary. However, we have been advised that our amendment is necessary. That is why it appears on the Amendment Paper.
§ Mr. Griffiths
It is, of course, for the Minister to say what he has been advised. After some years' experience in his office and in others, I suspect that the advice he has received will be that which his Department, in all the circumstances, wanted to give him, and that is not based on any detailed knowledge of the practice of our county courts. I should be surprised if county courts did not have the discretion to judge how to handle such cases.
§ Sir George Young
In discussing the Government amendments that have been selected, I shall be inviting the House to support amendments (a) to (e) tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) and to resist amendments Nos. 28 and 32. I shall come to amendment No. 32 in a moment, but I think that my hon. and learned Friend's amendments secure the objective in a better way.
Amendment No. 28 was moved by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) although he did not speak to it. Agreements now in force between residents and site owners may not allow the site owner to terminate them on the grounds of the age or condition of the home. In those cases, the Bill could make a difference if the site owner chose to use the powers within it. It is right that it should. We considered in Committee whether the provision in the Bill which allows the site owner to terminate an agreement on the grounds of age and condition was fair to site owners and residents. I argued then that this ground for termination was needed to protect the site owner against mobile homes that had reached the end of their lives and to protect other residents on the site for the same reason. It is certainly not in the interests of other residents that decaying mobile homes should remain on site indefinitely. Most hon. Members accept that the lives of mobile homes are finite. The Bill recognises that fact, but amendment No. 28 would not.
The second group of amendments deals with the second point raised in the consultation letter that we issued following the Bill's Committee stage. It covers a site 432 owner's ability to terminate an agreement on the grounds that the resident had breached its terms. The Government amendments will provide that a site owner can terminate an agreement on these grounds only after an application to the court. The court must be satisfied that the resident has breached his agreement and that he has been served with a notice to remedy the breach, with which he has failed to comply within a reasonable time. Taken together with the other procedures for termination of agreements in the Bill, these amendments will ensure that an agreement to which the Bill applies can be brought to an end only with the consent of the court. It will be the site owner rather than the court who terminates the agreement, but he will need the court's approval to do so.
With regard to what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said about discretion, the Government amendments would merely provide that the court had to be satisfied that the resident had breached his agreement and been served with a notice to remedy the breach with which he had failed to comply within a reasonable time.
In response to our consultation letter I am glad to be able to tell the House that no one is opposed to the Government's proposed change in the Bill's provisions. Some pro-resident groups wanted us to go further to allow the court discretion to decide whether to terminate an agreement. That is the purpose of the amendments in the name of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead and of amendment No. 32 in the name of the hon. Member for Edmonton, which I heard myself being urged to support on the "Today" programme at 6.45 this morning. I shall discuss the amendments in a moment.
I pay tribute to the National Federation of Site Operators and the National Caravan Council for their willingness to accept the change that the Government have proposed. I hope to put their minds at rest on the question that they raised. They were worried that a site owner who wished to terminate an agreement to which the Bill applies and to evict a resident under the Caravan Sites Act 1968 might have to go to court twice to do so. My advice is that this is unlikely to be necessary, and that there is no obvious reason why a site owner should not be able to apply for an eviction order at the same time as he applies for the termination of an agreement. I cannot give a categoric assurance. It is a matter for the court rather than for Ministers. We cannot amend the Bill to deal with this subject because it relates to eviction, which is quite separate from the matters with which the Bill deals at present. I hope that what I have said will allay the fears of site owners.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead has proposed that we should go further than the amendments proposed by the Government and allow the court to terminate an agreement for breach of its terms only if it considers it reasonable to do so. The Opposition have tabled amendment No. 32 for the same purpose. We have looked carefully at the arguments in favour of giving the court discretion here and at the possible disadvantages. We have come to the conclusion that we should recommend to the House that my hon. and learned Friend's amendments (a) to (e) should be accepted. I am advised that amendment No. 32 would not work, and I hope that that will not be pressed.
We accept that, without my hon. and learned Friend's amendments, there is a danger that the courts would have no discretion and would have no option but to terminate 433 an agreement even though the term that had been breached or the breach itself was trivial. These amendments will allow the courts to exercise their discretion in such cases. There is a precedent, as my hon. and learned Friend pointed out, in the provisions of the Housing Act 1980 relating to the termination of secure tenancies for breach of agreement, and in the Rent Acts concerning the failure to pay the rent and other breaches of a tenancy agreement. At the same time, the amendments will not bring the Rent Acts into the Bill.
It is essential that I should reassure site owners on this point. In the first place, the court will have no power to suspend an order terminating an agreement. If the court accepts that it should be terminated, the site owner will be entitled to do so forthwith. Secondly, the courts will not be required to consider the relative hardship of site owner and resident as they are in certain cases under the Rent Acts. The Bill will say only that the courts must consider
'forthwith if, on the application of the owner, the court is satisfied that the occupier
§ Amendments made to the proposed amendment No. 31:
- (a), in line 2, leave out '40', and insert '41'.
- (b), in line 3, after 'court', insert `(a)'
- (c), in line 4, leave out `(a)'.
- (d), in line 5, leave out `(b)'.
- (e), in line 6, at end insert
'within a reasonable time; and
(b) considers it reasonable for the agreement to be terminated'.—[Mr. Lyell.]
§ Amendment No. 31, as amended, agreed to.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take the following Amendment No. 38, in page 7, line 7 leave out `(a) and insert '(i)'.
Amendment No. 39, in page 7, line 9 leave out `(b)' and insert '(ii)'.
Amendment No. 40, in page 7, line 10 at end insert—`(b) By reason of changes in the character of the neighbourhood or that the land has been zoned for another use the owner has obtained planning consent for the redevelopment of the site'.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I am concerned to import into the Bill a little more flexibility for the site owner, particularly where, due to circumstances beyond his or anyone else's control, the nature of the locality in which the park homes are situated drastically changes or where, as a result of decisions of the local authority about land use in the area, he is able to obtain planning consent for a development of his site for a different beneficial user. I have had some responsibility for planning for a number of years, and I am conscious of the difficulty in getting change of use certificates in many areas. I am also conscious of the fact that things happen that can rapidly and dramatically transform the character of an environment.
I shall give one example, but there are a million others. In my constituency, not far from an extremely large American air base, the local authority decided to establish a small industrial park to provide alternative employment for the people of the Mildenhall area who do not work at the American base. The local authority was anxious to do that because the GLC had terminated its overspill
§ it reasonable to terminate an agreement before doing so. I do not believe that the amendments will make it significantly more difficult for site owners to terminate agreements where they have a good case—for example, where the residents have failed to pay the pitch fees.
§ I do not believe that the Government's amendments or those of my hon. and learned Friend will tip the balance too far against site owners. I concur with what has been said by other hon. Members that, together, the amendments of which I have spoken in favour add a further worthwhile protection to residents. I commend them to the House.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Amendment made: No. 29 in page 6, line 20, after '5' insert `5A' .—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]
§ Amendment proposed: No. 31, in page 6, line 38, leave out from 'agreement' to end of line 40, and insert
§ agreement and the authority therefore thought it right to encourage starter units for small factories. This duly happened. As a consequence, one of the best-kept park home sites suddenly found that, instead of it being in a relatively agreeable rural environment, albeit with an airfield close by, it was turned into the neighbour of an industrial estate, making the circumstances of the park home site and the circumstances of those who lived on it very different indeed. Many of them had gone there believing that they were going to the countryside. They ended up finding themselves the neighbours of a factory estate. Roads were laid, there was noise and pollution and surroundings became drab.
§ The site owner went to the local authority and it was agreed that at the end of five years, when most of the agreements had run out, he would be granted a change of use for the land to turn his park site into an industrial site. That was very sensible. That can happen before the Bill becomes law, but it will be difficult after the Bill becomes law. I am not sure that that is just or sensible.
§ I read with great care the debate in Committee on this matter, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). The Minister gave him a fairly dusty answer, and he may give the same response this afternoon.
§ When there is a dramatic change in a neighbourhood, or when a local authority zones the neighbourhood for a different use, it should be possible for the owner of a site to go to court and attain possession of his own land on that ground. I am well aware of the housing Acts and the protection available. I understand that hardship could be caused if, as a result of planning consent, people were turfed out. That would be outwith the spirit of the Bill. However, it is not right that, where circumstances have changed dramatically, people are locked in. Because one or more people, perhaps quite unreasonably, insist upon remaining in occupation of their homes, the owner of the site could never do anything to change the use of that site in his own interest and, in my judgment, in the interest of the community and the public.
§ The reality is that a landowner—and he is not always a rich man—could lose his long-term freehold interest 435 in his own land in perpetuity. That is bound to have an adverse effect on the value of the land. If it damages the value, he is much less likely to make the new investment to improve the site. I find it difficult to believe that a Conservative Government would want that. Under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, the freeholders of commercial prpoerties have certain protections against this problem. I am asking only that park owners should be given similar rights.5.45 pm
§ Sir George Young
i fully understand the reaons behind my hon. Friend's amendments. He is right to say that the Bill would restrict the freedom for manoeuvre of those who own the sites, but that it is right that that should be the case.
The amendments would have a very significant effect on the working of the Bill. They would add a new ground on which a site owner could apply to the court for an agreement to be terminated. The bill currently allows a site owner to go to court for the termination of an agreement on a number of grounds—first, that the resident is not living in his mobile home; secondly, tha the mobile home is, having regard to its age and condition, detrimental to the amenity of the site or that it will become so within the next five years—a judgement that our constituents will have to make on us shortly—and, thirdly, following the government amendment that I introduced earlier, tha the resident has breached a termof his agreement. The amendments would add a fourth ground for termination by the court — that the site owner hs obtained planning permision to redevelop the site as s result either of changes in the character of the neighbourhood or of the local authority's decision to zone the land for another use.
The amendments are similar to others put down in Committee by my hon. friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). I was concerned about the effect that those amendments would hve had s drafted, and I am afraid that I mut raise a boring pint about the drafting of the new amendments. They appear to require the court to satisfy itself as to why a site owner has received planning consent for the redevelopment of his land before terminating an agreement. I must tell my hon. Friend that it does not seem to be any business of a court whichis examining an application for the termination of an agreement under the Mobile Homes Bill to consider what reasons a local authority had for granting a planning permission in respect of the site. The reasons might not be available in the form required by the court.
I rest my case for my reluctance to accept the amendments on a more fundamental reason. They would seriously weaken the security of tenure the Bill will provide for residents. I do not want to go into detail about the possible reasons why a site owner might gain a new planning permission for the use of a mobile home site. That matter is between a stie owner and his local planning authority. If my hon. Friend is concerned that development in an area neighbouring a mobile home site makes it necessary for the site owner to reorganise his site, the Bill will not prevent his doing so, so long as he has made provision for that in his agreements. It provides for him to pay the costs of a reorganisation, but it will not prevent one happening.
436 What the Bill will not allow is a site owner taking possession of his site and evicting his residents because he has found a more profitable use for his land. If he has allowed people to bring their mobile homes on to his site, he can terminate the agreements he has with them only on one of the limited grounds for which the Bill currently provides. There will be constraints on the use of his land. That is the inevitable result of the security of tenure that the Bill provides.
§ Sir George Young
A mobile home does not have an indefinite life. A site owner could run down the site and not allow any new homes on it. However, I accept that that would take a period of years.
There is no way in which the Bill can guarantee genuine security of tenure for residents and give site owners complete control over the land. The Bill will allow a site owner to make a decent income from his site and to get rid of residents who break their agreements or whose homes deteriorate. But if it is to strike a balance between site owners and residents, residents must have real security of tenure. The amendments would severely reduce that security of tenure and alter the balance between site owner and residents.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
When a local authority considers its structure plan and what it wishes its area to become, it can go down one of two routes. If it believes that land should be used for good public purpose, such as a school, it can apply for a compulsory purchase order. It can act against a caravan park for that purpose. A public hearing would take place and the matter would be referred to the Secretary of State. A local authority can usually obtain a CPO for a public purpose.
However, a local authority might take the view that rather than applying for a CPO and using public funds to buy the site it preferred to encourage a private owner to develop it for the same purpose, perhaps an industrial starter site. Is it not rather peculiar that a CPO could be placed upon a mobile park site for the purpose of constructing industrial units, but a Conservative Government are preventing, certainly for a generation, a private owner from doing exactly the same thing, at no cost to public funds and to the considerable benefit of the economy in the area? Why is there the difference in standard?
§ Sir George Young
There is a crucial distinction between the two cases that my hon. Friend cites. In the one that his amendment deals with, the incentive lies with the site owner to apply for planning permission. With CFOs, there are many inbuilt protections which would give some protection to the people on the site. My hon. Friend said that the matter has to go to the local authority and it has to make the decision about a CPO. Also there has to be a public inquiry, and finally the matter has to come to the Secretary of State. There is a series of inbuilt checks and balances which do not exist in my hon. Friend's amendment. So I cannot accept that there is a direct parallel between the two situations that my hon. Friend described.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
With respect to my hon. Friend, local authorities do not just hand out planning consents like confetti. They have to be convinced. He must know that, throughout the country, far too many applications for 437 redevelopment are turned down. An owner seeking to get a change of use for his caravan site, for instance for light industrial use or something of that nature, has to go through many hoops and over many obstacles. So there is a great deal of protection in the fact that the local authority's own judgment and discretion are involved.
§ Sir George Young
What my hon. Friend says is quite right, but that is not quite the same as the CPO procedure, with its public hearing and the decision coming finally to the Secretary of State. There is nothing to stop the site owner applying for planning permission for a change of use for his site to obtain light industrial use. If the local authority agrees, that change can be made. However, the home owners cannot then be evicted. We are not prepared to deny the security to which the owners of the caravans are entitled. There will have to be some arrangement to persuade site owners to buy back the homes, or to make alternative provision, or to rearrange them on the site. That is possible under the Bill as drafted. My hon. Friend's amendments would shift the balance against the owners of the caravans, and for that reason I cannot commend them to the House.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Amendments made: No. 41, in page 7, line 11, leave out '(2)' , and insert '(1)'.
§ No. 42, in page 7, line 16, after '5', insert '5A' .— [Sir George Young.]
§ Mr. Timothy Smith (Beaconsfield)
I beg to move amendment No. 44, in page 7, line 21, before 'the occupier' insert`Subject to subparagraph (4) below'.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this we are to take amendment No. 47, in page 7, line 32, at end insert—'(3A) Where the owner is a local authority and the protected site has been provided by that local authority solely to meet housing need on or before the date that this Act came into force, the owner may withhold his approval of a person who is not on the waiting list of the local authority for a pitch on that protected site. '.
§ Mr. Smith
Amendments Nos. 44 and 47 are supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), Wycombe (Mr. Whitney), Surrey, North-West (Mr. Grylls), Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), whom I am delighted to see here today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour), and my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner), Wokingham (Sir. W. van Straubenzee), Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), and Canterbury (Mr. Crouch).
The object of the amendments is to add a new subparagraph to paragraph 8 of schedule 1, which deals with the sale of mobile homes. The paragraph provides:The occupier shall be entitled to sell the mobile home, and to assign the agreement, to a person approved of by the owner, whose approval shall not be unreasonably withheld.That is fine for mobile home sites that are owned privately and in the private sector. I make it clear that all those who support the amendments have no quarrel with the general objects of the Bill.
However, as I explained on Second Reading, a difficulty arises with mobile home sites that are owned by local authorities. Although the main abuses that have occurred have occurred in the private sector, the Bill extends to local authorities, principally because there have been abuses in cases where a mobile home site has been 438 transferred or sold from the private to the public sector and as a result the occupiers have lost their statutory rights under the 1975 Act. However, that is not the concern of the proposers of the amendment. The amendment is concerned with sites which are and always have been owned by local authorities and which are provided to meet local housing need.
It is not a coincidence that all those who support the amendment represent constituencies in the home counties. There is good reason for that, and it is that in the home counties the cost of housing in both the private and public sectors is very high indeed. That is why a number of district councils have sought to meet local housing need and to fulfil their statutory obligations in that respect by providing mobile home sites. I emphasise that the object of providing such pitches is local housing need.
I take my district council, South Bucks, as an example. It has two sites which provide altogether for over 100 tenants. It keeps a separate waiting list for mobile home sites, and that list is completely separate from the waiting list for council houses and fiats. To ensure that the people who are tenants are people who are in housing need, it limits the sale of the mobile homes to people who are on the waiting list. If a tenant who is the tenant of a pitch and owns his own home wants to sell it, the council says—in my view, quite reasonably—that he must sell it to someone who is on its special waiting list for mobile home sites. That is very different from what happens in the private sector, where the principal object of running a site is, presumably, to make a profit. It is therefore reasonable to provide, as the Bill does, that the tenant of a pitch can sell his caravan to the highest bidder, regardless of where he comes from or of whether he is in housing need.
Amendment No. 47 recognises the distinction that I have just described. It is supported by the Association of District Councils. It provides:Where the owner is a local authority and the protected site has been provided by that local authority solely to meet housing need on or before the date that this Act came into force, the owner may withhold his approval of a person who is not on the waiting list of the local authority for a pitch on that protected site.We have specifically included reference to the date when this legislation comes into force so that there is a cut-off point and so that this amendment will be applied only to local authorities which at present provide pitches on site to meet local housing need.
I recognise that since Second Reading the Government have given close and serious consideration to the problems that were raised in that debate. However, in my opinion, the Government have reached the wrong conclusion. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to Sir Duncan Lock, the chairman of the housing committee of the South Bucks district council, on 28 April setting out the reasons why he felt that it was not possible to accept the amendment, or something on the lines of the amendment. He said:I am sorry that you feel that the Bill will limit the ability of local authorities to meet local housing need.There is no doubt that if the Bill is enacted in its present form it will limit the ability of local authorities to meet local housing need in this respect. The existing tenants, who are local authority tenants, will have the right to sell to all corners. The highest bidder for a caravan may be on the housing waiting list, but the chances are that he will not be on that list. Certainly there is no guarantee that he will be.
439 The Under-Secretary went on to say in his letter to Sir Duncan Lock:You make the point that a mobile home is worth very much more on a site than it is off it. That is the very reason why it is important that occupiers should have the right to sell on site.I accept that. Under the amendment they would have exactly the same right. If they want to sell off site, no one will quarrel with that, because the question does not then arise. It is only when they want to sell on site that the question of who they sell to arises, because the local authority is providing the pitch, and not the caravan, to meet a local housing need.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary also said thatthe site owner will be allowed a say in who the purchaser of a mobile home is. The Bill provides for the purchaser of a mobile home to be approved by the site owner, that approval not to be unreasonably withheld.I do not know exactly whatthat approval not to be unreasonably withheldmeans. I suspect that it would not extend to a case where the local authority decided that it would withhold its approval unless the prospective purchaser was on the waiting list or in housing need. That proviso in paragraph 8(1) of the schedule will be of great help to district councils which are affected by this provision.
My hon. Friend then said:It seems to me likely that … people on the Council's waiting list ought to be able to compete from outside the Council's area";and he made a distinction between people who were long term tenants and who had perhaps been on the site for a long time and short-term tenants who perhaps were hoping to move elsewhere.
It may be that they would be able to compete; it is possible if the price of the caravan is £1,000 or less. On the other hand, it might not be so reasonably priced and then somebody from outside would be the highest bidder. There would be no guarantee in that situation that the people on the housing list would win.
My hon. Friend then said thatthe Bill is unlikely to have the severe consequences you fear".We shall have to wait and see what the consequences are.
It has been made quite clear to me that if the Bill is not amended my district council will have to think carefully about whether it should be in the business of owning a mobile home site because it is not in the business of trying to provide mobile housing just for anybody who wants it. Its aim is to provide such homes for people in need and that will not be possible if the Bill remains in its present form. The council would then be likely to withdraw from that business and sell its two sites to private owners. If that were to happen, that method of providing for those in housing need would go and and the authority would have to fall back on the more conventional methods of providing homes. As Sir Duncan Lock made clear in a letter to my hon. Friend, the cost of providing conventional housing in South Bucks is high compared with pitches on a caravan site, and one must bear in mind the sums of public money involved.
I understand that there are ramifications attached to amending the Bill in the way I seek. Nevertheless, I am sorry that after the careful consideration which has been given by the Department to the proposed change, it has not been possible, although a number of options to find a way of coping with the problem were considered.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
I am pleased to support the amendment and the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), who is my neighbouring hon. Member. Many of the sites to which he referred are situated in his constituency. This matter has been raised with my hon. Friend and with me by Sir Duncan Lock, who has a distinguished record in local government. The Minister will be the first to agree that my hon. friend is not the sort of person who would raise such a matter unless it was extremely serious for his local authority.
The Government might have been prepared to concede the case which South Bucks district council put forward, remembering that it is not just that area which is concerned. I understand from the answer to a parliamentary question which I tabled recently that the report of the mobile homes review published in 1977 indicated that 5 per cent. or 450 out of about 9,000 sites in England and Wales were owned by local authorities. There has not been a survey since 1977 and the number today may be higher. These sites are used by local authorities as part of the housing stock to meet housing need. I should have thought that the amendment would, therefore, be acceptable, especially as no other local authorities would be able to benefit in future in view of the cut-off point mentioned in it.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
Does my hon. Friend know whether in the case to which he is referring the local authority owns any of the mobile homes, or is it exclusively the owner of the site? If the latter, who owns the homes?
§ Mr. Shersby
The local authority is the owner of the site and the homes can be owned by an operator or tenant, but my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield can deal with that in more detail, being familiar with the problem because the sites are in his constituency.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
In that case, how does my hon. Friend distinguish his case from that of a council which wishes to impose limitations on the right to buy council houses by tenants who subsequently want to sell them on the open market? Is there any important point of principle in the case to which my hon. Friend refers and is not the logic of his argument and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) that the principles involved in the right to buy council houses are wrong? If so, would they come clean and say why they are distinguishing between the two?
§ Mr. Shersby
My hon. Friend is right to say that there is an important point of principle at stake here. We are talking about local authorities wishing to meet their housing need by other than conventional houses and flats, in this case by way of mobile homes. I am saying that if the Bill remains unamended, those local authorities will have to provide additional local authority accommodation, and that may involve them in considerable additional expense. That is a different position from that of a local authority which is selling council houses from within its normal housing stock; it will not suddenly have to meet an additional housing need because it is selling those houses to tenants.
There is therefore a slight difference. That difference is recognised in the amendment in that it is not seeking to apply the exclusion for ever and a day. It proposes that 441 there should be a cut-off point, after which no further mobile homes of this type should be affected. It is an attempt to reach a compromise, taking account of the importance of the principle of the right of council tenants to buy their own homes. There is a slight difference in the case of mobile homes.
It has been useful for my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield to bring the matter to the attention of the House. It does not concern my constituency because my local authority does not meet its housing need in this way; it does not, so far as I am aware, do anything of this sort. But relatives of my constituents live in mobile homes in my hon. Friend's constituency and are therefore affected by these provisions. That is why I take a friendly, neighbourly and passing interest in the amendment.
The chairman of the South Bucks district council has made a strong case to my hon. Friend, who has considered the matter with his usual courtesy and consideration. I hope that, when replying, the Minister will be able to give the Department's latest thinking on the matter and may feel able to offer advice to councils in the position of South Bucks.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I too wish to offer a friendly, neighbourly and passing comment. I am somewhat bewildered by my hon. Friend's speech, excellent though it was. If the tenants who have the good fortune to occupy municipally owned sites which Sir Duncan Lock and his authority have provided and are living in mobile homes, they will have had to find perhaps £5,000 as a minimum in cash because mobile homes do not normally attract mortgages.
§ Mr. Timothy Smith
I agree that it is difficult to obtain a mortgage for a mobile home, but it is possible to get loan finance.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
Yes, but they will have had to find the cash or have had the resources to finance a substantial loan. If they have a relatively modern mobile home—I am sure that in South Bucks they have nothing but the best—the owners one way or another will have had to find very substantial sums. I understand that nowadays these homes cost from £15,000 to £20,000. The case being made by my hon. Friends is that if the council, as a result of the Bill, were to lose the use of its sites, it would then have to provide alternative accommodation out of its municipal housing stock because the provision of mobile homes is part of meeting its housing need. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) has a stronger argument than that. In my area, those who have an asset worth a minimum of £5,000 and probably more like £20,000 can hardly, by any stretch of the imagination, be regarded as being at the top of the list of those in housing need. That is why I asked who owned the vans on the site.
I have been made aware of the correspondence from Sir Duncan Lock and I share my hon. Friends' admiration for him, but I do not think that the case is well made out. In the same innocent or mischievous way as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), I ask a question. Where a local authority owns the site, a result of the Bill is that the tenant virtually has ownership in perpetuity or for at least a generation or so, because he cannot be moved out if he behaves himself. Why should not the tenant be able to exercise the right to buy which has been brought in so commendably by the Minister for 442 Housing and Construction. whom I am delighted to see here? He has been the author of a social revolution of enormous benefit to our people.
Why should not a person who has a mobile home worth from £5,000 to £20,000 on a municipal site have the same right to buy that site as has been provided for other tenants? I believe that I know the answer. There are many problems which have led my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to leave that out of this legislation so far. I could not, against that background, accept easily the plea that the Bill would create a problem of housing need in South Bucks if it were to go through unamended.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will not accept the amendment. Although I suspect that he may come close to doing so, I do not believe that he will go all the way. I find it difficult to accept the implication of a double standard. This afternoon I have been putting forward a number of pleas on behalf of the site owner without much result so far. The amendment implies that what is sauce for the private site owner—providing good accommodation for tenants—shall not be sauce for the municipal gander. What is the difference in principle between the two? I do not believe that that can be right as a matter of principle.
I referred earlier to the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. When people make themselves undesirable neighbours or unacceptable tenants, the owner goes to court and asks that those people should leave. He is then confronted suddenly by the fact that the local authority is unable to provide accommodation unless that Act is brought to bear.
I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield what the position would be if the local authority insisted on withholding its approval of a person who wanted to go on to a municipally owned site on the ground that that person was not already on the housing list. What happens if the local authority is confronted, under the provisions of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977, with a priority person whom it has to house even though that person is not on the housing list?
§ Mr. Timothy Smith
There is a fundamental distinction between the two cases. The private operator of a mobile home site is in business basically to make a profit. At the same time, he is providing a service for his customers. In the two cases to which I referred, the local authority is in the business of meeting a local housing need.
My hon. Friend asked how people could be in housing need if they could pay from £5,000 to £20,000 for their caravans. There is a wide range of prices. The Under-Secretary wrote to me the other day saying:My understanding is that the 'short-stay' occupiers occupy caravans at the inexpensive end of the market, normally costing less than £1,000.These caravans are not all as grand as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) believes. Some of them are pretty clapped out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) said that these amendments were inconsistent with the right-to-buy provisions. If I thought that that were so, I should not be putting them forward. I have been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Housing Act 1980 and put forward a private Member's Bill about five years ago advocating the same thing. If the Government had included a proposal in the Bill whereby a tenant could have bought the freehold plot on which his caravan was 443 situated, I should have had to think carefully about putting forward the amendments. I do not know why the Government did not think of that. There could be a great deal in favour of that proposal.
I should like to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Sir George Young
I am deeply flattered that, before the Government have put their case against the amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) has decided that it is so overpowering that he does not want to hear it. As one would expect, he put forward an eloquent case on behalf of South Buckinghamshire district council and he deserves a reply. I join him in paying tribute to the energy of Sir Duncan Lock in securing support for the amendments.
There has been a great deal of correspondence that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have received from five local authorities and from seven county branches of the ADC. It is clear that a number of local authorities are worried that the provisions of this Bill will prevent them from using mobile home sites which they own in the way they have done in the last few years. That is the background to these amendments.
We have considered the amendments carefully. I have talked to Sir Duncan and met officials from South Buckinghamshire. I cannot commend the amendments to the House, but I bring some small cheer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), who had to put up with a little dialogue earlier when we found ourselves on opposite sides of the debate. I believe that the effect of my hon. Friend's amendments would be undesirable. I do not believe that the Bill as it stands will have the adverse effect on local authority sites that some local authorities fear.
The Bill currently allows a resident who wishes to sell his mobile home to seek the site owner's approval of the prospective purchaser. That approval is not to be unreasonably withheld. It would be for the courts to decide whether a local authority consistently tried to block someone from moving on to the site on the ground that he was not on the waiting list. The Bill provides that the site owner shall receive commission on the sale price up to a maximum which we propose to fix at 10 per cent.
The Bill will apply to local authority and private sites in the same way. The Bill's application to local authority sites is one aspect that has been welcomed on all sides. These amendments would have a very significant impact on the rights of residents of local authority sites.
The right to sell a mobile home on site is one of the most crucial that the Bill provides. Indeed, to judge by the correspondence that my Department receives on the subject, it seems to be regarded as more important by many residents than security of tenure. Mobile homes cost money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, some of them cost many thousands of pounds. Whatever their cost, their owners want to be able to recover the value of their investment when they leave. This is what the right to sell on site will provide, and we would need a powerful case made out to restrict that right.
The amendment would enable a local authority to refuse approval to a prospective purchaser of a mobile home who was not on its waiting list for the site concerned. 444 It would be able to do so in the case of sites which had been in existence before the Bill came into force, where those sites had been providedsolely to meet housing need".Our estimates suggest that there are 7,000 mobile homes on local authority sites in England and Wales, and there cannot be much doubt that the amendment would limit the right to sell for most of those residents. Whatever the intention behind the amendment, most, if not all, local authorities would claim that their sites were provided "to meet housing need". The amendment does not provide any way in which the courts could test the reasonableness of that claim. A resident who was unhappy with his local authority's decision to refuse approval of a sale would have to go to court to try to overturn that decision. In practice, the amendment would give a local authority an almost completely free hand to refuse approval of a sale to anyone not on its waiting list.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said that local authorities use their sites to provide homes for people who cannot find other housing. It has been said that people will pay several hundred or several thousand pounds for an old mobile home on a local authority site, and live there until they can afford a conventional house or until they are rehoused. My hon. Friend fears that such people will sell their homes to those who are not on the waiting list and perhaps not even in the local authority area.
Whatever the merits of restricting the right to sell of those who have bought relatively cheap mobile homes—I do not accept that there is a good case for doing so—the amendment would also bite on those who have bought expensive homes as a form of permanent housing. South Buckinghamshire district council told us that a third of the residents on its biggest site are people for whom mobile homes are only a staging post, but that two thirds will be on site for two years or much longer. Therefore, if long-term residents on local authority sites wanted to sell their homes, they would be placed at a serious disadvantage if the amendment were carried. I doubt whether they would have confidence that their investment was secure.
Finally, I do not believe that the Bill will have such a dramatic effect on the use of local authority sites as has been claimed. It would give residents the right to sell to anyone they choose, but people on the council's waiting list can bid for a mobile home that is up for sale just as anyone else can. I wonder to what extent people from outside a council's area will be so desperate to move in that they will pay an excessively high price for what may be a very old mobile home. It is more than likely that most homes on local authority sites will continue to be sold to people in the immediate area, and there is no reason why people on the waiting list should not bid for them. The difference will be that the residents will have guaranteed security of tenure and a guaranteed right to sell.
The Bill will place some limits on a local authority's ability to use its mobile home sites as it chooses, but the tenants' charter also limited local authorities' freedom over their conventional housing. Any legislation that gives residents or tenants new rights must limit the control that a site owner or landlord can exercise. The Government believe that residents should be given the rights that the Bill will give them, and that those rights will be by no means as damaging to local authorities as some people seem to believe.
445 Before I made that case, my hon. Friend expressed his willingness to withdraw the amendment. I hope that nothing that I have said has caused him to change his mind.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments made: No. 54, in page 8. line 4, at end insert—
`1A. The sums payable by the occupier in pursuance of the agreement and the times at which they are to be paid.'.
§ No. 55, in page 8, line 5. leave out from 'sums' to end of line 6, and insert 'so payable' .—[Sir George Young.]
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I beg to move amendment No. 58, in page 8, line 14, at end insert—`7. The right of the occupier or his representative to be consulted in the making or amendment of site rules.'.The point of the amendment is to ensure that there is some form of consultation and democracy in the making of rules that may be of vital importance to the mobile home residents on a site. There does not appear to be any such provision anywhere in the Bill—the appropriate place would be part II of schedule 1—although most people must accept that it is desirable.
Part II of schedule 1 lists the matters that must be provided for in any agreement. First, there isThe right of the occupier to quiet enjoyment".That is a normal provision in any tenancy agreement. Secondly, there is provision for a rent review. Thirdly,provision of services available on the protected site, and the use by the occupier of such services.That provision takes us close to the point of my amendment, because it simply lays down what must be covered in the agreement and does not provide that no such provision should be made without consultation with the residents. Fourthly, there isThe preservation of the amenity of the protected site.That also suggests what I have in mind. Who can be more interested in the preservation of the amenities than the residents of the site themselves? It is a great pity that there is no provision in the Bill for participation and consultation. Fifthly, there is reference toThe maintenance and repair of the … site by the owner, and the … repair of the mobile home by the occupier.Again, those are important provisions but there are no clear instructions about what should be done. The sixth provision is forAccess by the owner to the land on which the occupier is entitled to station the mobile home.The landlord's right of access is another normal provision of tenancy law.
That is the end of the list. Those are all important matters, but it would be quite possible for the spirit of the site rules which govern the day-to-day administration of the site to be contrary to the intentions of the Bill. That cannot be the Government's intention.
The Minister may well reply that we must look at the provisions of the Bill as a whole and consider all the safeguards. However, I am thinking of day-to-day matters at ground level—the small problems that cause disputes and loom large in the everyday life of those who occupy the sites. I am not thinking of problems whose solution deservedly requires the assistance of a court. If there is no provision in the Bill for consultation with residents, how can we be sure that site rules will be made in a reasonable 446 manner and will not contradict the provisions of the Bill? I respectfully submit that the Government ought to allow this modest addendum to the Bill.
§ Mr. Lyell
The care and concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for the mobile home owners in his constituency came to my knowledge as soon as I became interested in the subject because I rapidly began to receive letters from Westavon park.
Whether or not my hon. Friend's amendment fits neatly into the framework of the B I heartily recommend to the House, to mobile home owners and to the country the principle that owners should be consulted by site operators before site rules are made. It is likely to be a term of many mobile home agreements that mobile home owners on sites shall abide by the site rules, persistent breaches of which might justly lead to termination of the agreement. Therefore, it is only sensible and proper that they should be consulted. The Government support the principle of consultation in the far wider areas of industry, council housing and so on. Therefore, whether or not the amendment slots neatly into the framework of the Bill, I commend the spirit of it to the Government.
§ Sir George Young
First, anything that a site operator sought to put into an agreement would be invalid if it conflicted with the implied terms. New clause 2(1) states thatthis subsection shall have effect notwithstanding any express term of the agreement.In other words, the implied terms have priority.
I agree with what has been said about the need for consultation and we are entirely in favour of such consultation on site rules. The amendment seeks to ensure that a resident or his representative is consulted about amendments to site rules by adding a reference to the right of residents to be consulted in this way to the list of subjects in part II of schedule 1.
We took a trip round this course in Committee when the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) tabled an amendment on the same subject. I said then that we would see whether our consultation produced any fresh thinking on this.
We have now considered the responses to our consultation letter as well as the points made in Committee. I must tell the House, however, that our view has not changed. We do not believe that the Bill would be significantly improved by the inclusion of a provision requiring the public display of site rules, as suggested in Committee, or specifying that residents may ask to be consulted about amendments to site rules, as my hon. Friend's amendment provides. We reached that conclusion for the following reasons.
First, I am sure that an implicit purpose of the amendment is to ensure that residents are aware of site rules, but it is most unlikely that they will not know those rules and we know of no site where that is the case. Naturally enough, if the site owner wishes the rules to be observed he must ensure that they are widely known.
Secondly, an owner who wishes to force residents to act in accordance with the site rules will have to make that a term of the agreement that he offers to them. If the resident does not like the way in which the matter is dealt with in the agreement, he can challenge that term and indeed any other term that he does not Like and, if necessary, ask the court to vary or delete it.
447 The amendment merely adds to the existing provisions in the Bill the right to ask the court to add a term about site rules to the agreement. However, it is likely to be the site owner rather than the resident who will want to include such terms.
It might be possible for a site owner to have a separate contract with the resident about site rules, but it is up to the resident to decide whether to accept such a contract. If there is a separate contract and it is broken, however, the site owner will not be able to terminate the more important statutory agreement which ensures the tenant's right to security of tenure and sale of his mobile home.
In practice, therefore, it is likely that agreements to which the Bill applies will include terms about site rules and procedures for varying them. The standard agreement produced by the National Federation of Site Operators following the 1975 Act included such terms. It provides that site rules may be varied only if a majority of residents agree. I understand that site owners who are not members of the NFSO also include such terms in their agreements. I think, therefore, that there is little danger that residents will be unaware of site rules or unable to influence them.
As I have explained, site rules will be effective only if reference is made to them in terms of the statutory agreement and all residents have the right to challenge those terms if they consider that a matter is not dealt with satisfactorily. I believe that that provides adequate protection for residents. The only effect of the amendment would be to allow a resident or site owner to ask the court to add a new term about site rules where previously there was none. I do not think that such a change would be of great benefit to residents. I therefore invite my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.6.36 pm
§ Sir George Young
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have almost reached the end of the Bill's passage through Parliament, although it will have to return to another place for consideration of the amendments that we have made. I think that the House will agree that, although the Bill has not taken a great deal of time in this House, the time spent on it has been lively and productive. The Bill has changed a good deal since it was introduced in another place. It was a good Bill then. It is a better Bill now.
The Bill strengthens the position of residents on mobile home sites in a number of important ways. It replaces the Mobile Homes Act 1975 which took the first steps towards a proper legal framework for the relationship between site owners and residents. That legislation was introduced as a private Member's Bill by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and the present Bill is built on that foundation. Thus, the first measure was introduced by a Conservative Back-Bench Member and the second by a Conservative Government. All that the Labour party produced was a report about mobile homes in its last term of office. There can therefore be little doubt as to which party has done more for the residents of mobile homes.
448 The Bill makes a number of important changes in the legal position of mobile home residents. Following the Government amendments made today, the Bill will now guarantee security of tenure and the right to sell on site will apply to all residents entitled to protection under the Bill. The position of a resident who wishes to sell will be stronger because he will not have to offer the site owner first refusal and he will pay a maximum of 10 per cent. commission compared with the 15 per cent. fixed by the Labour Government. The Bill will allow residents to pass on to their heirs the value of their investment in their mobile homes even if the heirs are not living with them at the time of the death. It also clarifies the ability of an arbitrator to resolve disputes on a mobile home site and gives residents on local authority sites the same protection as those on private sites.
At the same time, the Bill will not stop site owners making a living. In fact, it may make little difference to the way in which the many responsible site owners already conduct their business. The Bill will allow them to negotiate pitch fees—and other matters that should be resolved locally — freely with the residents, subject to the right of either side to take a dispute to court. The Bill will not bring the Rent Acts on to mobile home sites. I shall be very surprised and disappointed if it causes owners to try to close their sites.
I believe that the Bill is fair to both site owners and residents and will provide a good basis on which their way of life can flourish and develop in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
It seems to be almost a reflex for Ministers to look for a trumpet, however small, to blow. However, I do not grudge the Minister a little self-satisfaction in relation to the Bill as it is not a partisan measure and has been widely welcomed in all parts of the House. We were certainly prepared to give it a fair wind and to seek in Committee to improve what was basically an admirable piece of legislation. We have continued to try to be constructive and helpful and the Bill has passed through this House relatively quickly.
Perhaps I too may make a little dig, as in the latter part of the Report stage I sat with commendable and uncharacteristic patience through an almost theological debate between the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and some of his Back Bench colleagues about the Conservative approach to home ownership. However, all that is irrelevant. The important thing is that we are now well on our way to putting on the statute book a measure that makes important improvements in the legal status of a small but important group of people who in the past were often at risk and disadvantaged compared with home owners generally. It is right that that should be done, and I am glad that it has been done. I accept that security of tenure is important. That security has now arrived.
I also welcome the greater freedom to sell and to benefit from sale without giving too much of a pound of flesh to the site owner in commission.
I accept that the reduction from 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. which can be ingathered by the owner is a change that will be widely welcomed. I think that on the whole the Minister has responded well to the points made in Committee. The amendments that were discussed earlier 449 this afternoon on the implied terms of contract, for example, will be widely welcomed by all interests in the field.
By and large, the discussions on the Bill have been nonpartisan, non-controversial and useful, and one cannot always say that about proceedings that we have to sit through in this place. The Opposition, therefore, welcome the measure and hope that it reaches the statute book. I say that sincerely, because if we believe all the rumours that we hear there is some prospect that it may not reach the statute book. Then the next Labour Government, early in their life, would have to consider whether to take it as it stands or perhaps to make refinements.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will be particularly pleased that this Bill is reaching its final stages in the House under your chairmanship, because I believe that it was you who, in 1977, when you were at the Department of the Environment, made a speech that forecast something of this kind. I am only sorry that you were not able during your previous incarnation as a Labour Minister to get it as far as has my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who has piloted it through the House so effectively.
I wish to make three points. First, I have some disappointments about the Bill, but they are all marginal. I am disappointed that my hon. Friend was not able to overcome the pig-headed resistance of his Department and allow the Bill to be called the Park Homes Bill. They are not mobile homes; the industry does not call them mobile homes; they do not move. It is time the name was changed, but unfortunately the Department, and the Department alone, will be insisting on having notices and messages with the official paraphernalia of the Mobile Homes Bill when everybody knows that it is a misnomer. It is a pity that the Government have lent their support to the perpetuation of a myth.
I am sorry that in the passage of the Bill the Government also washed out the right of first refusal for the site operator, but there it is. I also believe that the Government were wrong to legislate by implied agreements. I do not believe that that is a very sound practice. It is complicated, it was not necessary, and I regret that it is in the Bill.
Those marginal criticisms, however, are outweighed by the manifest advantages of the Bill, which on balance is another feather in the cap of the Government and an addition to their admirable record on housing. It provides what I can only describe as a mobile home park residents' charter. I hope that in the explanatory booklet which the Government will be producing the Department will follow the example of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing whose series of booklets has been first class — the tenants' charter, the right to buy, the improvement grants, all set out in these admirable publications. I suggest that a further one called, I regret to say, "Mobile Home Residents' Charter" should come out quickly in the same attractive cover.
Equally, on the site owners' side of the coin I am very glad that the Government have got the Rent Acts and the rent officers off these sites. Nothing would have done more to prevent the investment that we need in future sites than the importation of the rigidities of this particular system, which has done nothing but harm.
450 I also believe that the Government were wise to retain the ability of the site owners to make some money, and therefore keep their businesses going, through the 10 per cent. commission on sales which take place on their sites. I know that there was pressure for that commission to be cut out altogether, but I think that the Government were wise to resist it.
I commend the Bill. I do not like it entirely, but I think that for many of the residents in my constituency, and indeed throughout East Anglia, it will be a source of security and satisfaction. I congratulate the Government on introducing it.
§ Mr. Lyell
I am glad to give the Bill an unreservedly warm welcome and to congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench on the way they have dealt with it, the way they have listened to suggestions from the Back Benches, including my own, and on the now excellent form of the Bill. I hope that within a very few weeks it will be on the statute book.
I became involved in the question of mobile homes because of constituency problems in Beech park, Wiggington, near Tring, where people were literally being ripped off because they did not have the protection which this legislation will now give them. The practical problem was that they, in common with about two thirds of mobile home owners, did not have the agreement necessary to give them security of tenure on site, or the ability, above all, to sell their homes on site. As a result, if they wished to sell, they were charged an extra 10 per cent. commission—that was the way the company dealt with it—over the 15 per cent. which was then the maximum. That meant that they were charged about £2,500 on a £10,000 mobile home, and there are mobile homes today which are worth more than £20,000.
Mobile homes are the first step on the home ownership ladder, and it is characteristic of my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing that he should have taken so much trouble, with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, to get it right and to create a fair and balanced framework for people who live in these often highly attractive mobile homes on small country parks such as are found in my constituency.
I believe that moving to implied terms —which achieves exactly the same effect as the standard terms which at one time I suggested — guarantees that everybody will have the protection which the Government seek to give them via this Bill. I am delighted that even today, at this very late stage, the Government were prepared to accept the amendment which will give the county court judge a residual discretion to allow an agreement to be terminated.
All in all, it has been a most interesting experience for me to see the problems arise and be constructively tackled by the Government, thus enhancing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said, their excellent reputation in housing.
§ Sir Albert Costain
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on not agreeing to alter the name of the Bill. If it were called the Park Homes Bill, anybody calling his house Park house would be caught by the Bill, so it would be necessary to put in the Bill the definition that a park home was a mobile home.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill read the Third time and passed, with amendments.