HC Deb 05 May 1983 vol 42 cc407-24

'(1) This Act applies to any agreement under which a person ("the occupier") is entitled

  1. (a) to station a mobile home on land forming part of a protected site; and
  2. (b) to occupy the mobile home as his only or main residence.
(2) Within three months of the making of an agreement to which this Act applies, the owner of the protected site ("the owner") shall give to the occupier a written statement which
  1. (a) specifies the names and addresses of the parties and the date of commencement of the agreement;
  2. (b) includes particulars of the land on which the occupier is entitled to station the mobile home sufficient to identify it;
  3. (c) sets out the express terms of the agreement;
  4. (d) sets out the terms implied by section (Terms of agreements) (1) below; and
  5. (e) complies with such other requirements as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.
(3) If the agreement was made before the day on which this Act comes into force, the written statement shall be given within six months of that day. (4) Any reference in subsection (2) or (3) above to the making of an agreement to which this Act applies includes a reference to any variation of an agreement by virtue of which the agreement becomes one to which this Act applies. (5) If the owner fails to comply with this section, the occupier may apply to the court for an order requiring the owner so to comply. (6) Regulations under this section—
  1. (a) shall be made by statutory instrument; and
  2. (b) may make different provision with respect to different cases or descriptions of case, including different provision for different areas.'.—[Sir George Young.]

Brought up and read the First time.

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

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

New clause 2—Terms of agreements.

Government amendment No. 1.

Amendment No. 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 3, in line 12, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 4, in line 18, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 19, leave out `mobile' and insert `park'.

Government amendments Nos. 6 to 9.

Amendment No. 10, in clause 3, page 3, line 15, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 11, in line 23, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Government amendment No. 12.

Amendment No. 13, in line 30, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Government amendments Nos. 14 to 16.

Amendment No. 17, in clause 5, page 4, line 10, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Government amendment No. 18.

Amendment No. 19, in line 19, leave out 'mobile' and insert `park'.

Government amendment No. 20.

Amendment No. 21, in clause 6, line 42, leave out `Mobile' and insert 'Park'.

Government amendments Nos. 22 and 25. Amendment No. 26, in schedule 1, page 6, line 13, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 27, in line 18 leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 30, in line 26, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'

Amendment No. 34, in page 7, line 1, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 37, in line 6, leave out `mobile' and insert `park'.

Amendment No. 43, in line 20, leave out `mobile' and insert `park'.

Amendment No. 45, in line 21, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 46, in line 24, leave out 'mobile' and insert `park'.

Amendment No. 48, in line 35, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 49, in line 36, leave out 'mobile' and insert `park'.

Amendment No. 50, in line 39, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 51, in line 41, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Amendment No. 52, in line 52, leave out 'mobile' and insert `park'.

Amendment No. 53, in page 8, line 4, leave out `mobile' and insert 'park'.

Government amendments Nos. 54 and 55. Amendment No. 56, in line 11, leave out `mobile' and insert `park'.

Amendment No. 57, in line 14, leave out 'mobile' and insert 'park'.

Sir George Young

These new clauses and amendments arise directly from the discussion in Committee of amendments proposed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell). I promised in Committee that the Government would look closely at the arguments that my hon. and learned Friend and others had advanced in favour of an approach based on "standard" or "implied" terms.

Following the Committee stage, we issued a consultation letter inviting views on the possibility of incorporating an element of implied terms in the Bill, and on the question of the termination of agreements, to which I shall come later. The consultation letter went to the National Federation of Site Operators, the National Caravan Council, the Mobile Home Residents Association, the local authority associations, the National Consumer Council and a number of other bodies. Copies also went to members of the Committee. With the letter was a group of amendments substantially the same as those now before the House.

We considered carefully the responses of those who commented on the consultation paper in deciding whether to propose these amendments. I am glad to say that we decided we should proceed. I shall say something about the responses we received, but first I will describe what the new clauses and amendments achieve. They will replace the system of agreements which had previously been the basis of the Bill, and of the 1975 Act before that, with a combination of implied terms and express terms. The terms to be implied by law into all agreements between site owners and residents will be those in part I of schedule 1 to the Bill. They concern principally security of tenure, the right of a resident to sell his mobile home and his right to give it to a member of his family. These implied terms will apply from the date of commencement to all agreements between site owners and residents, whatever those agreements may say.

The site owner will be obliged to provide residents with a written statement setting out the implied terms and the express terms of his agreement with the resident. The express terms are those which site owner and resident have agreed between them — on subjects not covered by implied terms. Either the resident or the site owner may then apply to the court within six months of the date on which the written statement is provided to ask that any of the express terms be varied or deleted from the agreement or to ask that terms concerning the subjects listed in part II of schedule 1 should be added to the agreement. The written statement will also have to comply with regulations made by the Secretary of State.

Those are the bare bones of the approach set out in the new clauses and amendments. We have accepted that an element of implied terms will further strengthen the protection which the Bill provides for residents. But we have been careful to limit the scope of implied terms to those subjects that need to be covered by them. We must not push the balance of the Bill too far against site owners. The new approach will leave them free to negotiate with their residents on a local basis those matters that should be negotiated locally—on pitch fees, on the services that the site owner will provide and on the details of the resident's obligations. At the same time, the written statement the site owner must provide will set out all the terms of the agreement between site owner and resident so that both sides may know the basis of their relationship. In that respect, we believe that the written statement can serve much the same purpose as the written agreement in the Bill.

The representatives of site owners expressed their concern, in their response to the consultation paper, that the approach embodied in these new clauses and amendments would prove more cumbersome and confusing than that of the Bill up to now. I understand the basis of their concern, but I believe that they are worrying too much. The site owner's written statement will not be the same as the written agreement for which the Bill currently provides, but it can achieve much the same result. As I have said, it will set out all the terms of the agreement between site owner and resident—those that are implied by law and those they have negotiated—for both to see. As the scope of implied terms is limited to essentials, site owners will still have the flexibility they need on other subjects. I ask my hon. Friends who speak for the site owners to tell them not to be over-anxious about the new clauses. They will not harm the interests of the great majority of responsible site owners.

I very much hope that the new approach we are now proposing will be warmly welcomed by those whose main interest is in the position of residents under the Bill. The Government have moved a long way on the Bill in response to the views that have been put to us in this House and in another place. In particular, these new clauses will meet the anxiety expressed by members of the Committee on the Bill that some residents would never gain the most basic rights that the Bill provides, either because they would never be offered a statutory agreement or because they would be prevailed upon in some way to refuse the agreement offered to them. Residents will not now be able to lose their basic rights in that way. They will be guaranteed security of tenure and the right to sell on site from the moment the Bill comes into force. The date of commencement is the subject of another Government amendment that we shall come to later.

The Bill will make a significant difference to the lives of many people who live on mobile home sites. Without the amendments we are now considering, the Bill would strengthen the position of mobile home residents in a number of important ways. With them, it will improve upon that protection still more. I do not believe that it will do so in a way that will adversely affect the interests of site owners. We have strived to retain a fair balance between the interests of residents and of site owners. These new clauses and amendments will keep that balance. The Government have responded in a positive way to the arguments put to us in Committee and elsewhere. I hope that hon. Members will respond equally positively to what the Government have done. I commend the new clauses and amendments to the House.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

I express wholeheartedly the deep appreciation felt by Opposition members of the Committee for the meaningful way in which the Minister set about the task of consulting not just members of the Committee and the House, but the whole range of people outside who have a deep interest in these matters. It was clear to the Minister in Committee that he did not have many friends. I believe that everyone in Committee welcomed the improvement that the unamended Bill was on the present position, but it was clear from the arithmetic that, unless the Minister decided sensibly to do what he did and rewrite the Bill substantially, he and the Government would be in trouble. On Report, I often have to say that the Minister has given us nothing in Committee, that he promised to take the Bill away and study it but has brought back little. On this occasion I am certain that the Minister and his advisers will be aware and, I hope, Conservative Members will agree that the Minister has done a good job in carrying out the wishes of members of the Committee.

There are two substantial new clauses and a range of consequential amendments. We should put on record the changes that have taken place since the Bill was in Committee. I do not say that all that we aspired to has been produced, but the improvements that we sought are contained substantially in new clauses 1 and 2. The Opposition are grateful for that. Although hon. Members will properly make the points that they wish to make, I am sure that there is substantial if not complete agreement on what we are doing.

I took careful note of the Minister's remarks when he said that in seeking to carry out the Committee's wishes a balance had to be kept and that he had to ensure that that balance was not tilted too far against the site owners. Before this exercise was undertaken it was felt by many people that the balance had been against the occupiers of caravans and mobile homes. The Minister was right when he said that the last thing we wanted to do was to make the many site owners who are, if not impeccable, good business men, landlords and people who look after the countryside feel that they were being harassed by legislation.

Under the Minister's guidance, the House has substantially removed the uncertainty and opportunity for disagreement and misinterpretation that existed before today. We now have an objective test of occupation. It is a major advance. Instead of having to rely upon what is in the agreement, by the use of the implied terms method we have a substantial easement of the worry as to precisely what, first, was the right and benefit of the site owner and, secondly, the right and benefit of the occupier. Instead of depending upon the written agreement, if there is conflict between the implied terms and the written agreement, the implied terms will be sovereign and will prevail. There is much more. Only a court can terminate an agreement for breach. That has connotations which we shall come to in later amendments and which I shall deal with then.

I am grateful for the fact that the Minister has referred to—when the amendment is moved we shall pay tribute to his sense of urgency—the date of commencement. The date of commencement is crucial. I have been given information from one or two places about attempts being made by certain site owners to try to protect, if not to anticipate, their interests, in my view punitively and unfairly, against occupiers.

The earlier commencement date will not just mean that the future is secure; it brings forward, even if only by a few days, the protection of the new legislation for the thousands of people who are already living in these circumstances. I believe that the changes have been designed to deal with some recalcitrant site owners who might otherwise ignore the legislation and their obligations under the legislation.

4 pm

There are hon. Members and noble Lords in another place who, as always, will speak on behalf of the site owners. The site owners were well served by the members of the Committee who put their point of view, and they have nothing to fear from the legislation. I can well imagine that they may be apprehensive about what the legislation will mean in practice, but I fully accept that, as the Minister has said, the purpose of the legislation and the changes is to make the law simpler and more unified in its approach. Furthermore, under the new clauses, site owners will be spared the expense and trouble of numerous court applications. There will be flexibility on many matters of importance to the site owners.

It would be churlish for the House to debate at length the details of the new clauses and the amendments, because in essence they represent the substantial fulfilment of a commitment to make implied terms the basis upon which the legal obligations of the site owner and the legal protection of the occupant are to be safeguarded.

I was interested this morning to listen to Jeremy Mitchell, the director of the National Consumer Council. The last brief that he sent me was about Sunday trading. It was not to my liking, and I said some harsh words about the importance that he attached to his researches on that matter. However, I endorse all that he said this morning about the benefits of the new clauses.

Labour hon. Members are satisfied that, as far as it is possible for legislation to ease the worries that have been brought to the attention of Members on both sides of the House, those worries will be eased. Many hon. Members will have seen an excellent dossier from the Daily Star listing many of the ways in which the unfortunate occupants of pitches have been affected by the unscrupulous activities of a small minority of site owners. The amendments will remove any doubts that may have existed. If the new clauses favour one side more than the other, I am satisfied that they are to the benefit of the occupants rather than of the site owners, although they do not lay any onerous or punitive duties upon the site owner.

We are grateful for the new clauses and the Governments amendments, and we give them a warm welcome.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) has been fair and pragmatic in his approach to the Report stage of the Bill. As parliamentary consultant to the National Federation of Site Operators, I confirm that I had every opportunity in Committee to present the arguments and the concern of that organisation. I shall therefore now detain the House only briefly on two points of clarification.

I seek clarification of Government amendment No. 54: The sums payable by the occupier". Can my hon. Friend confirm that the sums referred to in that context are pitch fees? If not, can he tell us how he interprets the word "sums"?

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I come to this debate rather late in the day, and if I cover ground that has already been dealt with in Committee, I apologise to the House.

I welcome the new clauses. Like the rest of the Bill, they seem to strike a reasonable balance between the interests of the site owner and those of the occupiers of mobile homes. Nevertheless, I have been in touch with a number of mobile home residents associations, and they are clearly still concerned about what the effects of the Bill may be.

First, there is some concern about the pitch fee. It is believed that the Bill in its present form will still permit an annual review which, in practice, is likely to be an annual increase. There is concern that there is no machinery for arbitration other than through the courts. That point is also made in a leaflet from the Mobile Home Residents Association, which points out: Authentic independent control over pitch rent charges does not exist. The association wonders why the services of a local rent officer had no place in the thinking behind the legislation. I find myself broadly in agreement with the association. Recourse to the courts is expensive, and if the mobile home owner must go to court in order to prove his point, he will be at a disadvantage in relation to the site operator.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister can tell us what exactly is meant in subsection (2) of new clause 2 — Terms of agreements—where it states: The court may, on the application of either party meet within six months of the giving of the statement under section (Particulars of agreements) (2) above, order that there shall be implied in the agreement terms concerning the matters mentioned in Part II of Schedule 1 to this Act. What is meant by the words, implied in the agreement terms"? Is part II so widely drawn that almost any matters can come within its remit, or is there some need for clarification? Home owners are obliged to restore or improve their mobile homes if the site operator so decides, even though no ground leaseholder or freeholder can tell a home owner to renovate his dwelling. Why is the site operator given that power over the occupier of the mobile home?

Some mobile home residents associations feel that residents associations might have been included in the legislation as authoritative bodies with which site owners could be expected to negotiate. They feel, as I do, that to some extent they have been neglected. Associations have proved to be a most effective way by which mobile home occupiers have been able to make their grievances known to site owners and to get some redress for them. The fact that they are not specifically mentioned in the Bill leaves residents uneasy that the legislation may still be somewhat unbalanced in favour of the site owner as opposed to mobile home resident.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead)

I am glad of this opportunity to give a warm welcome to the new clauses and Government amendments in this group. Like other hon. Members on both sides, I believe that the Bill now provides a good balance between site operators and mobile home residents, although I wish to raise one or two detailed matters on a later group of amendments. As a result of the Bill and the changes brought about by the new clauses, on behalf of my constituents and others who have written to me and indeed personally, I am deeply grateful that there will be automatic implication into every agreement of the fundamental terms necessary to achieve that balance.

Mobile home owners will have automatic security of tenure for so long as the site operator has control of the site, which, in the vast majority of cases, means indefinitely. They will have the important right to sell their mobile homes on site. They will no longer have to offer a right of first refusal—a pre-emption right—to the site operator. Moreover, the maximum commission that can be charged to the owner on a sale will be reduced from the present 15 per cent. to 10 per cent. Furthermore they will have the right not to have their pitch fees raised more than once a year. That will lead to far more orderly conduct of sites and more balanced negotiations.

In that context, I recommend that mobile home owners join their local residents association. If there is no site association affiliated to the Mobile Home Residents Association, they would be extremely wise to set one up —not to gain advantage over the site operator, but to have the assistance of a sensible body that can represent their views and reach a fair and beneficial agreement to the advantage of mobile home residents and the good site operators who predominate and are to be found overwhelmingly in the National Caravan Council and the National Federation of Site Operators. If residents find that proposed clauses are not satisfactory or to their liking, once banded together in that way it will not be an overwhelming task for them to negotiate and, in the rare cases, to go to the county court for adjudication of what are fair and proper terms.

In welcoming the new clauses I express grateful thanks to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is notable, because it was his private Member's Bill which in 1975, with the assistance of the Labour Government, laid the foundations for the protection of mobile home owners. The way in which the Department and Ministers with departmental responsibility have approached the Bill has been exemplary. They have been prepared to listen carefully to representations from all sections of the industry, site operators and residents. I have also had great help from the National Consumer Council in my suggestion for model terms.

The proposals now embodied in the new clauses achieve all that I had hoped to achieve through standard and model terms, implying them into every agreement. That will be of enormous benefit. I wish to raise a specific point on a later group of amendments which will then complete the fully balanced package, but I wholeheartedly welcome the new clauses and thank the Ministers responsible for the open-minded part that they have taken in framing this sensible legislation.

4.15 pm
Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Like you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have recently participated in two very late night sittings on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, and I am conscious that Members who served in a long Committee stage do not greatly welcome eleventh-hour contributions on Report from those who were not members of the Committee. Nevertheless, I seek the indulgence of those who served in the Committee vineyards on this Bill to comment briefly on the amendments, some of which are in my name, in this group.

In a sense, I have two interests to disclose. First, my constituency has by far the largest concentration of both American and British air forces and a very large number of mobile home parks and, as I shall describe them, park homes. Inevitably, I see a great deal of the residents and a good deal of the owners of the parks. I am conscious that over the years there has been concern about the arrangements between the two groups, although in my experience relations are usually good and it would be wrong to suggest that the country is littered with mobile home residents or tenants doing battle with rapacious owners. Nevertheless, problems exist and I wish to add my voice to the many who have welcomed the legislation and the balance that it has struck.

I wish to refer to one group of amendments in my name and to a more general point arising from the Government's new clauses. First, as was suggested in Committee, I believe that the title of the Bill and the term "mobile homes" should be changed. I think that it is common ground that the term is a complete misnomer. As long ago as 1977—some years after I ceased to be a Minister at the Department of the Environment—the Department published a report on mobile homes in which it clearly said: In many ways the term 'mobile homes' is a misnomer. In practice residential mobile homes are not usually moved about once they have been installed on site. The Committee was well aware of the point. The term "mobile homes" does not describe the residences with which we are dealing.

Subsequently, your colleague in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong), when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, attended a convention of the National Federation of Site Operators and put to it a challenge on behalf of the Government. He told members of the federation that it was high time that they thought of a more suitable name and emphasised that it was important to do so. Since then, the National Federation of Site Operators and the National Caravan Council have been urged many times by civil servants at the Department to suggest an alternative name, and the invitation was pressed in the Department's consultation paper on the 1975 legislation.

The industry reacted responsibly, issuing questionnaires to all who manufactured or traded in these residences and to tenants who lived in them. It also consulted the park operators. One clear conclusion was reached. Of all the new names that could be suggested and, indeed, rehearsed by the industry, the tenants and everybody else, the most appropriate was "park homes". I think that that makes a good deal of sense, because the land upon which a large number of these homes are located is identified as a protected site and in planning and local authority licensing terms it is known as a park. The common term for such land is "park". We talk of a caravan park, or a mobile home park.

Consequently, this suggestion was made on behalf of the National Federation of Site Operators and the National Caravan Council, and I am glad to say that it is now coming into general use within the industry. This is what the misnamed "mobile homes" are now called. The only major problem that the industry and the tenants have is that the Government insist on continuing to call these homes by a name that simply misdescribes them.

When my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) — who declared his interest in the NFSO, as I declare some interest in the National Caravan Council—made an eminently sensible suggestion in Committee, I was surprised that the best that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State could say was that there were various problems about this but that he would go away and think about it. His Department has been not only thinking about this, but leading the thought process since 1976. I should have thought that, even though the speed of thought in the Department is sometimes glacial, it had had enough time to arrive at a conclusion, which I suspect could be a depressing conclusion. I put it to my hon. Friend that the industry and the majority of tenants certainly want the amendment, because it is an accurate description. Nobody has the right to pre-empt this term, of course. However, I should like to know the reason for the Government not being willing to get away from the misnomer and to use an accurate description.

My second point is more general. I do not find new clauses 1 and 2 models of clarity, although I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in welcoming their main purport. I do not care for implied legislation. I have had some experience in government of implied legislation. I know that there are plenty of precedents for it in the Housing Acts and elsewhere.

What it means to a layman, however—I am not a lawyer— is that, notwithstanding what arrangements a man makes with another when he signs a contract or reaches an understanding, something else shall be implied into their agreement. I do not think that that is a very responsible approach, because it starts with the assumption that one or other of the two parties to an agreement— perhaps they are unequal in some respects—is careless, stupid or negligent, and somehow the great-grand-daddy of the state—Parliament—must rush in and tell them what they really meant to do. I do not find that a very attractive constitutional or legal approach. It would be far better to make arrangements whereby people have private contracts between one another which say what they mean and which are enforceable in the terms of those contracts, not as a result of some imported inference blown in by a sideways breeze.

I find it difficult, in principle, to accept legislation by inference unless there is no alternative. Therefore, it is up to me to suggest an alternative. I am pleased to do so on behalf of the National Caravan Council, with which I have some vague connection, by referring my hon. Friend to the response that the council made to the letter of consultation that was sent out by his Department on 17 March.

In passing, I may say that I am anxious to see this legislation on the statute book. However, I must say that only now, when we are nine tenths of the way through the parliamentary procedures on legislation that affects every site operator and mobile home occupier in the country, is the industry asked to consider complicated new clauses and the whole business of legislation by inference. This leaves the industry a very short time in which to take advice and address itself to the Government's suggestions. However, being diligent, it was able to take advice and it has come back with what I think is a very sensible proposal.

The council recognised the Government's intention. I think that we all share the Government's intention, which is to safeguard the tenant. However, two particular anxieties were expressed very eloquently in Committee by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, who at the material time was managing to serve on two Committees. He would make a splendid contribution to the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill and then nip along the Corridor and make a powerful contribution to this Bill. I would have liked to do the same, but I felt that I was unable to display quite the same intellectual dexterity and physical stamina.

My hon. and learned Friend was concerned about the situation where the occupier, unwittingly or unknowingly, fails to respond to the offer of an agreement made by a park operator in accordance with the provisions of the Bill and does not get an offer of an agreement at all because the park owner fails to comply as he should with the provisions of the Bill.

The Government have addressed themselves to both these problems, but what they have not dealt with is a third real-life situation — where the occupier consciously decides that he does not want an agreement arising from the provisions of the Bill. There are cases in which an occupier may prefer not to enter into a new agreement because what he has already got is a great deal better than either the expressed or the implied agreement that will arise from this Bill. I do not suggest that there is a majority, but I do say that a large minority of people who have been living for many years on park home sites have been able to establish very good arrangements with very good site operators. When they look at the terms of the Bill, either expressed or implied, they may find that there is a worsening of their situation if they enter into such an agreement.

I suspect that my hon. Friend will say that the implied and expressed terms will provide a floor, and above that they keep everything. I can only say that the National Caravan Council, which is a responsible body, has no particular axe to grind here because it has an interest in the tenants who buy and live in the park homes and in the site operators who provide the land on which they are put. However, I am advised by the council that a number of people are very concerned about this situation and, unfortunately, neither of the new clauses deals with it. The council made a suggestion to the Government in good faith following receipt of the consultation document.

4.30 pm
Mr. Lyell

Can my hon. Friend give one instance of how a mobile home owner could be worse off by reason of the implied terms that are now included in the Bill? I cannot think of one.

Mr. Griffiths

I have not come into the Chamber weighed down with evidence, so I cannot do that. I can only say that responsible members of the National Caravan Council with whom I have discussed the matter believe that mobile home owners could be worse off in some instances. A number of tenants have expressed their misgivings to me. If there is any point in so doing, I shall be glad to bring my hon. and learned Friend's attention to their anxieties at the end of the debate. Suffice to say that anxieties exist, which led the council to submit an alternative set of proposals. It proposes that clause 2(4) should be amended instead of adding two new clauses to the Bill.

If the council's proposal were accepted, subsection (4) would read: If, where the owner has offered the occupier an agreement under this Act within the required period, the occupier fails either to make an application under subsection (3) within six months of the offer or declines the offer in writing within that period, the offer should be treated as accepted. That would be a belt-and-braces provision. It would cover the occupier who failed to make an application and the occupier who declined the offer in writing.

It seems that such a provision would cover the three examples that I envisaged. In the first instance, if an occupier failed to respond to the offer of an agreement he would still benefit from all the rights in the agreement, if necessary by reference to the courts. It seems that failure to respond would be covered by the council's proposed amendment.

Secondly, I envisaged an occupier not receiving an offer of an agreement from a park operator, who deliberately or otherwise failed to comply with the Bill. Under the council's proposed amendment, the occupier would be able to apply to the court to order the making of an agreement under clause 2. That agreement, as set out in clause 1(3)(a) and (b), must comply with the requirements of the schedule, including the terms of part II of the schedule. The agreement would have to be in a form that the courts considered just and equitable in the circumstances. The case of the occupier who did not get an offer of an agreement would also be covered amply by the council's amendment.

The third instance is one which I believe is not covered by the new clauses. It concerns the resident who, for various reasons, prefers not to go into one of the new agreements. In that instance he would have the right, after full and proper consideration, to decline the offer. To avoid doubt, he would have to do so in writing. I do not understand why he should not be able to do that. If he does not want a new agreement, why should he not be permitted to write, "I do not want a new agreement because I am satisfied with what I have"?

Surely the case for adopting the council's proposed amendment is conclusive when its merits are contrasted with the rather complicated and, in some circumstances, impractical new clauses that the Government mave introduced. I am in no doubt about the purpose of the new clauses and the purpose for which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead argued in Committee. I am sure that he is delighted that the Government have accepted his argument.

I am in no doubt about the intention of the new clauses. Indeed, I support them because I think that the intention is just. On the other hand, there is a simpler and more comprehensible approach. The way that the council suggests the Government should go would deal with the small minority who may prefer to stay in their present position, whereas the Government's new clauses would not deal with that preference.

I apologise to hon. Members who sat through the deliberations in Committee for detaining them this afternoon. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, when he replies to the debate, to respond to the two principal issues that I have raised.

Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I always respect the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) but I was confused by his remarks about implied legislation when he directed his attention to implied contracts. It seems that the effect of his implied contracts would be exactly the same as implied legislation.

There are a number of caravan parks in the area which I represent and there is a general wish to do all that we can to encourage site owners to develop their parks. Mobile homes constitute a form of housing which has a positive contribution to make. Many owners use their mobile homes as weekend or holiday homes. When they are not using them for that purpose they often sub-let to their friends. As the owners near retirement age many of them decide to make the mobile homes their permanent home.

When this proposed legislation is put into effect I hope that the Government will publish a clear description of the rights of tenants and owners, especially when there are legislative differences between a mobile home which is someone's sole residence and a mobile home which is a second home. There is still some confusion and it is an issue which arises in constituencies that adjoin the coast.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

The Minister was quick off the mark at 3.45 and I did not hear his opening address. I apologise for my absence. I thank the hon. and learned Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) for his lucid summary. If he has it right, which I am sure he has, I welcome the new clauses. However, like the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), I find them somewhat complicated. For example, does "any agreement" mean any verbal agreement? The original clause made it clear that the site owner had to provide the incoming tenant with an agreement when requested to do so.

As a supporter of the Bill that was introduced by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who is now the Secretary of State for the Environmennt, I accept that the new clauses are a great step forward. They offer many advantages. For example, they specify the content of the agreement far more tightly than the original clause, and introduce an element of implied terms. However, there are still serious gaps that should be mentioned, and one or two have been itemised already.

First, there are the sanctions that are available to occupiers if the site owner fails to comply with the requirements of the clauses. It is a pity that occupiers will still have to go to the courts. As about 25 per cent. of the permanent occupiers of mobile homes are elderly retired people, I think that many occupiers will still be deterred from going through that ordeal. I do not wish to criticise the law or the legal profession but people baulk at having to go to court because of the bills and the problems involved. I wish we had been able to simplify the procedure. Perhaps that is asking too much. I still think it would be possible to find simpler methods of dealing with disputes than having to go to court.

The Government amendments do nothing to end the scandal of premium payments. Many tenants have complained over the years about this payment, which can be compared to key money in the housing sector. I agree with the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) that it would be better to use the rent officer in cases where pitch fees and amenity charges are in dispute. This will be a continuing sore.

Mr. Graham

The hon. Member will be aware that that point was made in Committee. I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) made a renewed plea about it. The Government felt unable to accept the amendment and prefer to rely upon the use of an arbitrator. Although the function of an arbitrator may be to act fairly, when he is appointed people question whether he is on one side or the other. A rent officer is clearly impartial and is also experienced in trying to get a balance. I hope that the Minister will say something helpful about access to a rent officer, although it is not covered in the amendments.

Mr. Ross

I am grateful for those comments. I understand that this was dealt with in great detail in Committee.

There are a number of these parks in my constituency. The proprietor of a park which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newbury insists that those who go on to that site shall purchase their mobile homes from one of two suppliers. One of the suppliers has gone into receivership. A problem has arisen about guarantees on essential repairs and fittings. When the regulations are drawn up, I hope that a way will be found of dealing with such cases.

There should be a wider range of choice for those who wish to purchase mobile homes. They spend a lot of money, for example, £8,000 to £10,000, and then may find themselves in difficulty through no fault of their own. I am taking the matter up with the accountants acting for the receivers and, in fairness, they are trying to see what they can do. They are under no obligation to do anything. The site owner, who is no doubt getting commission on the sale of the homes, should bear some responsibility, but he seems to be able to avoid it.

I welcome the changes that have been made. The Government have gone a long way down the road that many of us have been advocating for years. Therefore, they are to be congratulated.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I join in the general welcome that has been given to the Bill as it has emerged from Standing Committee. I welcome also the Government's new clauses. Whatever the final shape of the Bill, it will lead to a substantial improvement for mobile home residents, which we all welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) have referred to the difficulty about jurisdiction over disputes and about the assessment of rents. The Bill provides that the courts shall have universal jurisdiction in respect of all these matters. There is a provision that the court shall include an arbitrator, where there has been a written agreement to do so, consented to by both sides. It will be difficult to find an arbitrator who will be accepted by both sides. In many cases one side or the other will not agree to an arbitrator and will, as part of the game which may be played, insist upon a court. That will mean an expensive process for many mobile home residents and mobile home residents associations.

4.45 pm

That would not affect the main mobile home residents' association in my constituency at Restavon park because, wisely over the years, it has collected money and has substantial funds that would enable it to support itself should the need arise to refer to a court. However, most associations would find themselves in great difficulty, as I understand it, under the Bill if there were a dispute that could not be resolved amicably. The suggestion that a rent officer or somebody at a much lower level than the courts should decide these matters, perhaps on an informal basis, is attractive. Certainly it would be more economical.

I am not wholly persuaded by the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) about implied terms. In my experience most of these agreements tend to be unsophisticated. It is important that those who wish to obtain the benefits of the new legislation should have read into their agreements, as it were, provisions such as are contained in the Bill and which cannot easily be departed from. This is a paternalistic measure. It will also assist when disputes arise. There will be many occasions when the agreements are not satisfactory. Thank goodness the implied terms will come to the rescue of those who have to construe the agreements. On the whole, this is a good proposal which I welcome.

Sir George Young

Before I deal with the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), may I congratulate him on his stamina? He has gone through two long nights on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill and it is a tribute to his energy that he is here dealing with amendments to a different piece of legislation.

May I also commend him on his diligence in having picked up every reference to the phrase "mobile home" in the text of the Bill? I am afraid that we have rather played havoc with his amendments by introducing two new clauses in place of clauses 1 and 2. As he knows, strikingly similar amendments were tabled in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). We had a lively discussion on those amendments and I promised that we would consider further the arguments and the case for change.

We have looked very carefully at the case for changing the naming of mobile homes in the Bill, but I am afraid I have to tell the House that I cannot recommend that a change be made. As my hon. Friend knows, responsibility rests with Ministers, not with civil servants. In considering the arguments, we have sought to judge the case for a change of name by two criteria. The first is whether the change would achieve any positive benefit; the second, whether it might do any harm.

What benefits would a change of name provide? I agree with my hon. Friend that most modern mobile homes are not mobile in any general sense. They are, of course, more mobile than ordinary houses, as the Bill acknowledges by providing for the costs of resiting them should the need arise. They are also dealt with in planning law in a way that recognises this mobility. Neither of these considerations need inhibit a change of name but I think it is important to bear them in mind when we are considering how appropriate the present designation is.

I acknowledge that site owners believe that a change would help to improve the image of mobile homes. They feel that "park home" sounds better than "mobile home". I entirely sympathise with those who wish to give mobile homes a better image, one that is more in keeping with the high standard of accommodation that modern mobile homes provide. A change of name might help to bring that image up to date. However, if that is so, there is absolutely nothing to stop a site owner or anybody else referring to a mobile home as a park home if they want to. I have made that point before, and I repeat it because it is important. The wording in legislation does not need to be the same as that in everyday use, and often it is not. Much housing legislation refers to accommodation units, dwelling houses, buildings and parts of buildings, whereas we talk about houses, flats and rooms. If site owners and others want to talk about park homes—some already do so—they do not need the wording of the legislation to be changed.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

That is right, but my hon. Friend will recognise that in every site owner's office there will have to be a notice conveying to the residents that there is legislation on this matter and under the signature of an assistant secretary in the Department there will be the words "Mobile Homes Act 1983". Therefore, the wrong name will continue. On every agreement there will be a reference to the legislation. My hon. Friend cannot get away from the fact that the Government and Parliament will be perpetuating the wrong name while the industry is trying to bring about the right name.

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend is right. Any reference to legislation will have to mention the Mobile Homes Act 1975 or 1983. None the less, the designation of the site, which is what most people think of rather than the title of the legislation, could be such-and-such a park homes site rather than a mobile homes site. The designation in everyday use is not inhibited by what the Act of Parliament says. It is not essential to change the Bill's terminology to change the image of mobile homes.

There is also a danger that a change of name in the Bill would be confusing. Everyone knows what a mobile home is. The phrase has been used in previous legislation. We cannot use the Bill, even if we wanted to, to change the references to "mobile home" in what remains of the Mobile Homes Act 1975—particularly sections 7 to 10 of that Act — because those sections are outside the scope of the Bill. Even if we could, the 1975 Act is known by everyone who has come across it as the Mobile Homes Act. Those concerned know what the subject matter is, and they will know that the Mobile Homes Act 1983, as I hope the Bill will become, is about the same thing. However, there could be problems if they were then presented with a "Park Homes Act" that followed logically from the Mobile Homes Act 1975. If possible, we should avoid that.

I concede that "mobile home" is not completely appropriate, but "park home" is not perfect either. I can think of many sites with mobile homes on them that could not be called park homes. If we asked people outside this building, or inside it, what a park home was, I suspect that they would come up with a different answer from what my hon. Friends have in mind. The phrase is more likely to produce an image of an institution or a country house than a mobile home. "Park home" is itself misleading. For that reason there are strong arguments for sticking with the legislative terminology to which we have grown accustomed. It would be confusing to change it now. I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendments.

My hon. Friend also referred to the speed of consultation. I agree with what he said. We had to consult quickly. My hon. Friend knows the reasons why. The protection under the 1975 Act runs out in the autumn. We were most anxious to put the legislation on the statute book, and with summer approaching fast and the Bill having to go back to another place we did not have much time to consult. I am grateful to the site operators for responding within the time limit, and I fully acknowledge the inconvenience that that might have caused.

My hon. Friend referred to existing agreements that might give greater protection than that afforded under implied terms. I am inclined to agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell). I do not see how the Bill would make people worse off. Let us assume for the sake of argument that there is an existing agreement that goes way beyond what the implied terms provide, and that the site owner has voluntarily conceded those additional terms. Having done that, the site owner is not likely to go to the courts and use the implied terms under the Bill to take away rights that he has already given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds was not able to produce an example of anything in the Bill under the implied terms that took away rights that already existed. I agree with him that the implied terms are a floor below which nothing shall go. If people want to give extra rights on top of that, there is nothing to stop that. I do not honestly see how the protection in the Bill can make anyone worse off.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does my hon. Friend agree that, at least in principle, if a site owner who had over the years provided very good terms—indeed better terms—were to decide after the Bill became law that he wanted to reduce the standard of provision to the level of the implied or expressed terms of the legislation, there would be nothing to stop him going to the court and achieving that?

Sir George Young

But he could do that, anyway. When the agreement ran out he could introduce a new agreement that was more restrictive. He could do that independently of whether the Bill hits the statute book. It is unlikely that anyone will be worse off under the legislation. I cannot envisage the scenario where that might be the case.

My hon. Friend referred to some alternative approaches. If he had tabled amendments on them, we could have debated them. However, he could not get round one situation that we talked about in Committee, which is when a site owner provides someone with a written agreement and then puts pressure on him to write a letter saying that he forgoes his rights under that agreement. That matter was raised in Committee. The approach that my hon. Friend described does not get round that. The site owner might put pressure on people, and they might write a letter saying that they did not want a written agreement, in which case they would forgo the protection that they now get under the implied terms approach.

I very much welcome what the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) said. I am grateful to him for his endorsement of the strategy on which the Government are embarked. My hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) referred to the rent officer. One has to be absolutely clear that we are not talking about tenants. We are talking about owner-occupiers who own their dwellings, but who rent the pitch. The rent officer has no experience of dealing with pitch fees. That is not his territory.

A second and much more important point is that the regime of rent control has dried up the supply of rented accommodation. The Government are most anxious that there should not be a similar scarcity of supply because of the introduction of a rent control regime on mobile home sites. We set our faces against rent control when it comes to that. We believe that there is a role for the market. We are anxious that more people should provide such sites. Giving the rent officer powers to control pitch fees would act as a serious deterrent to anyone contemplating an investment in such a dwelling.

Mr. Graham

The Minister fairly says that the rent officer has no experience of fixing pitch fees. No category of officer has experience of fixing pitch fees. Our argument is that, of all the people who might be able to bring their experience to bear on the fixing of a rent between an owner and a tenant, the rent officer appears to be the best qualified.

Sir George Young

If one conceded the hon. Gentleman's point—I do not—he would still come up against the second point, which is more important. We do not wish a rent control regime to be introduced into this area of operation because of its impact on supply. Rent officers could develop the expertise if they were asked to do so, but I can think of other professions that might do it better than the rent officers. The important point is that that regime would have a dramatic effect on investment. We do not wish it to be introduced here.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is a concept of fair rents there is also a concept of fair pitch fees? In those terms, could not one look at this proposal?

Sir George Young

We have fair rents. If my hon. Friend reads the report of the Select Committee that has examined this matter, he will see that they have had an effect on investment in that the return that he gets from a fair rent is not perceived by a landlord to be a fair return on his investment. As a result there has been substantial disinvestment in the private rented sector. There is a risk of that happening if we let the rent officers loose on pitch fees.

There is an important point of principle. The Government are most anxious that we should not provide a deterrent against investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury has been in correspondence with my Department about mobile homes. I am grateful to him for the interest that he has shown in the subject. I hope that he will be able to assure his constituents who live on mobile home sites that the Bill gives them valuable additional protection and that they will benefit from the legislation that the Government have introduced. I hope that he will take every opportunity to explain the advantages that we are conferring on them.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne asked what is meant by "sums payable" in amendment No. 54. As he guessed, they refer to pitch fees and any other charges that the site owner wants to stipulate in the agreement.

I was also asked about part II of schedule 1, which provides a list of matters concerning which the courts can be asked to imply terms. It does not set out the details of those terms because they will vary according to the circumstances of the case. The courts will have to consider that when deciding what arrangements to make.

I was grateful for what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said. He has played a key role in entirely reshaping the Bill. I say that with feeling. He has done so in an exemplary way, by persuasion and argument, and the Bill is infinitely the better for his efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) asked about holiday homes. They are excluded from this legislation. If someone wants to convert a holiday home into a main residence, he must secure the consent of the site operator to do so. More important than that, we intend to produce an explanatory booklet about the Bill as soon as possible after the Royal Assent. It will make it clear that the Bill does not apply to holiday caravan owners unless they agree with the site owner that they should take up residence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington asked about the courts. As I think he said, we provide for avoiding the courts if both sides agree. Clause 5 defines the court as the arbitrator when the parties have agreed in writing. That deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight about the cost of going to court. It is inevitable in any legislation that confers rights on people that when those rights are exercised people will end up in court. If one wants to avoid the court, one should simply not give people rights. That would not be a satisfactory answer in this case.

I have dealt with most of the points that have been raised. I am glad that most hon. Members favour the Government's new clauses and amendments and I hope that the House will pass them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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