HL Deb 02 December 1982 vol 436 cc1314-23

3.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

MyLords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bellwin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Duty to offer agreements]:

Lord Bishopston moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 13, at end insert ("; or (d) permits a person to station a mobile home on land forming part of that site and to occupy that mobile home as his only or main residence,").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 1, with which I think we might take No. 2. This measure is widely welcomed in many ways, because, as we said on Second Reading, it seeks to deal with some of the anomalies which have existed for a long time. I said then that the Government were to be commended on the degree of consultation which has taken place; and I know that they have had many helpful representations from the National Consumer Council, from Shelter and from many other authorities.

I am sure that the Committee, while supporting the Bill, is anxious that we should close as many loopholes as possible and that, at the same time—as the Minister hoped—we should be fair to both the site owner who provides the service, and also the resident who takes advantage of the service offered. Legislation is long overdue to tackle the problems not dealt with by the Mobile Homes Act 1975, or to close some of the loopholes. I think that the Committee will be anxious to be constructive on these matters, and I anticipate, from some of the comments made by the Minister on Second Reading, that he has an open mind on a number of issues. But, if he is not able to help us today, then he may, perhaps, consider points at a later stage.

We think that the measure is ineffective in some areas which are vital, not only to the interests of the resident, but to common justice. In his introduction on Second Reading, the Minister stressed the aim to be fair to all parties and such an aim is very commendable. But, of course, what is in this Bill is what really matters—not what we say in your Lordships' House. Although dealing with some anomalies, the Bill has loopholes and the amendments to which I am now speaking provide opportunities to deal with them.

At the outset, I would say again that greater progress might have been made if the Minister had not indicated on Second Reading that he was not prepared to extend some of the provisions on security of tenure which are in the Rent Act 1977 and the Housing Act 1980. There is a very strong point to be made that these homes, which are not mobile and are virtually the same as any other form of accommodation, ought to have some of the safeguards which are to be found in those two Acts of Parliament. It may be that we can improve the Bill to give some security, which would have been provided in a blanket way had those two Acts been operative in this sphere, because we ought to try to strengthen the provisions so as to give the security accorded to others.

These sites have a resident and an owner. The resident has no interest in the land, or, at least, not in the same way as the site owner, and he certainly has no security. The site owner is obliged to offer an agreement to a person who, under Clause 1(1)(a), has an unrestricted right to station a mobile home, and under Clause 1(6), that is a person who is not precluded from occupying a mobile home as his main or only residence. So the Bill can be evaded if the site agreement contains a restriction or a prohibition against residence. In such a case, a site owner is not required to offer an agreement.

There is a similar means of evasion in the Rent Act 1977, where Section 9 states that a tenancy is not protected if the purpose is to confer a right to occupy a dwelling for a holiday. So, if residents agree to this kind of provision, they can lose the protection of the measure. Surely, the consent to station a mobile home should establish a right of residence, and we believe that this is a loophole which should be plugged. I also believe that the Committee may well support this amendment in order to achieve what I think is essential in the interests not only of the resident but also of the site owner, because, if we can clarify the position so that the meaning of the legislation is quite clear, it will be in the interests of both. I beg to move.

Lord Avebury

I wonder whether, when the Minister comes to reply to this amendment, he will say a word about the problem of the mixed site, where it is possible for a person to be granted a right to station a mobile home as his principal dwelling, but where, equally, there are other parts of the site where only holiday use is permitted. It may well be that, in some circumstances, the site operator will seek to transfer mobile homes from one part of the site to another. So it is not always clear, on a site of this kind, whether or not a person entering into occupation of a pitch has an unrestricted site. It may be clear from the location of the pitch within the site, if the person has the sense to go and look at the site licence and realises that he is on part of it which is licensed only for holiday use. But that might not always be clear to the person coming on to the site, and it is something which we should take care of in the drafting of the legislation.

It seems to me that the amendment which we are now considering looks after that eventuality, because, if the contract between the owner and the occupier is plainly one which grants a licence to station a mobile home on the site as the resident's only or principal residence, then it will not be good enough for the site operator to say later on that, in fact, the mobile home was stationed on a part of the site which was licensed only for restricted use. This is one of the problems of mobile home living, which, although it affects only a very small number of sites, and an even smaller number of inhabitants, we should take care of at this stage and not leave to chance later on.

Lord Bellwin

On the last point that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made, I should have thought that if a person going on to a site has an opportunity, which I would expect him to exercise, to see which part of the site he wishes to occupy, and considers that the area offered to him is not acceptable, it is, presumably, up to him to say, "I don't want to be there." In that way, he should know of all the restrictions and limitations on that part of the site. But I will certainly take note of what the noble Lord said and, if there is uncertainty which could disadvantage the occupier, as he would become, then we shall want to look into that.

So far as the similarity with the Rent Act 1977 is concerned, there were advantages which came forth from that Act, as, indeed, many believe there were from the other Rent Act. But only those who are unwilling to consider the whole subject of the Rent Acts would say that there were not disadvantages which also came forth from the Rent Acts. The major disadvantage has been that they tended very much to dry up the availability of accommodation. What we do not want is to have the same effect on the availability of sites. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, rightly said, we have been at great pains to try to get a balance, so as to do justice and do the right thing by both sides.

If it should turn out, at the end of the day, that there is an imbalance here or there, then I suppose that that is part of life. But, so far as the Government are concerned, the object is to get the balance right and, certainly, if these amendments, or any others that noble Lords bring forth, will help us to do it better or to clarify, then we shall want to know of them.

To turn specifically to Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, the intention of the wording is to prevent a site owner from evading the obligation to offer statutory agreements to mobile home residents by pretending that his residents are in fact occupying their homes for holiday purposes rather than as residences. We do not believe that the amendments would have a significantly different effect from the present wording of the Bill. We also do not believe that the Bill needs strengthening at this point.

At present the Bill requires site owners to offer agreements to occupiers to whom they have granted an "unrestricted right" to station their mobile home. "Unrestricted right" is defined in Clause 1(6) as a right which does not preclude the use of a mobile home as an only or main residence. So a site owner who wishes to evade this duty must give people who come onto his site as residents a contract which specifically excludes their using their home as a residence. A site owner who wished to pursue this course would not be prevented from doing so by the first of these amendments, which replaces the concept of granting a right by one of "permitting" the occupation of the mobile home as an only or main residence. If a site owner really does want to evade his duty under the Bill, he would presumably "permit" the occupation of the mobile home for holiday use only. The second of these amendments, on the other hand, would allow someone who is resident on a mobile home site at commencement to claim an agreement under the Bill, even if he had never been given permission by the site owner to live in the mobile home which was always intended to be used as a holiday home.

We do not, as I have said, believe that the Bill needs strengthening here. In the first place, we do not believe that site owners will be desperate to avoid agreements under the Bill. It is said that landlords attempt to evade the Rent Acts by granting sham holiday lets. But this Bill will not place anything like the same burdens on site owners that the Rent Acts place on landlords. Secondly, most residential mobile homes are on sites for which the planning permission stipulates residential use, either for the site as a whole or for the relevant part of the site. To evade the Bill in the way envisaged a site owner would presumably need to give the appearance of breaching his own planning permission. Finally, we do not see any reason why a resident should not be able to claim that he is entitled to the offer of an agreement and press his claim in court, if he has accepted a "restricted" right which is a sham.

This is the first of a number of amendments in which we shall be trying to achieve a balance between the rights of the two sides. In this case I hope that the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment.

Lord Avebury

Before the noble Lord, Lord Bishop-ston, deals with that helpful reply of the Minister, I should like to pursue one point which arose as the Minister spoke; namely, whether it is correct to say, as he does, that the occupier will be deemed to have an unrestricted right if the licence provides for nothing but residential use, unless the contract which the owner offers to the occupier expressly limits the occupation to holiday use; therefore it is not necessary to have such a provision in the Bill because most of the sites are licensed for residential use only and a person coming onto a site would automatically have the unrestricted right which is mentioned in Clause 1(1)(a). This reinforces the point which I made: that in the case of the mixed site scheme there is a danger which we must guard against.

As I understand it, the position is not quite as the noble Lord the Minister mentioned. There can be sites where the licence grants the owner permission to use a certain proportion of the pitches for holiday use and the remainder for residential use and it is not specified, either in the planning permission or in the site licence, which parts of the area are to be used for which. Therefore, with respect to the noble Lord, he is not quite right in saying that when a person enters onto a site he has only to refer to the site licence, which ought to be put up in a prominent place where everybody can see it but which generally is not. Assuming that he could do so, either in the offices of the local authority or somewhere on the site, he immediately determines, by comparing the location of the pitch which has been offered to him with the map, whether it is in a part of the site where holiday use only is permitted or where full residential use is permitted. If, however, the licence is expressed solely in terms of the numbers of mobile homes of each kind which may be stationed on the site he cannot be certain, and in the absence of any specific provision in the agreement there may be some doubt about it. Therefore I should be grateful if the noble Lord would have another look at this matter. I believe this to be necessary in the light of the answer he has given.

Lord Bellwin

The noble Lord has raised an interesting point. I am not sure which would be the best way to deal with it, or to what extent it is possible for somebody coming onto a site to ascertain beforehand exactly what would be the effect of his being on a specific part of the site. Whether or not, for example, the 1975 Act is sufficiently clear on that point, I do not know. I should certainly want to look into it. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that I cannot accept the amendment but, as with everything else we shall speak about during the rest of the Committee stage, we shall want to look carefully at everything that is said.

Lord Bishopston

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has already covered some of the points which I had to raise. In view of the possibility that the Minister may have another look at this matter, I shall, with the leave of the Committee, withdraw the amendment and will not proceed with Amendment No. 2.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

3.47 p.m.

Lord Bellwin moved Amendment No. 3: Page 2, line 6, leave out ("this section") and insert ("subsection (1) or (2) above")

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 3, I propose to speak to Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 9. Amendment No. 3 to Clause 1 is a paving amendment for Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 9 to Clause 2 of the Bill. These are drafting amendments intended to clarify the circumstances in which a mobile home occupier can go to court to require the making of an agreement under the Bill.

Clause 1 of the Bill requires a site owner to offer to all the residential occupiers on his site an agreement under the Bill and a notice which we will prescribe by regulations. If a site owner fails to offer an agreement as required by the Bill, Clause 2 will enable an occupier to apply to the court, or to an arbitrator, for an order requiring an agreement to be made. The present wording of Clause 2 does not, however, specifically provide for an occupier to apply to the court if a statutory agreement is offered but the prescribed notice is not given. It is possible that a court would hold that an agreement had not been validly offered if the prescribed notice had not been given. But the absence of a specific reference to the prescribed notice in Clause 2 might leave the matter open to doubt.

The purpose of these amendments is to remove the scope for doubt. They establish a clear sanction against site owners who fail to fulfil both requirements of Clause 1. An occupier can ask the court to require the making of an agreement, unless the site owner both offers a statutory agreement and supplies the prescribed notice. Thus, for example, an occupier who is offered an agreement without a prescribed notice and fails to accept the agreement (perhaps because he is not sure about the merits of doing so) will be able to go to court later if he subsequently decides he wants an agreement. There is no time limit on the occupier's right to go to court in these circumstances. These are, as I have said, drafting amendments to clarify the provisions of the Bill, and I hope that your Lordships will accept them.

Lord Bishopston

I thank the Minister for moving Amendment No. 3 and for speaking to Amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 9. As he said, some of them are drafting amendments. I anticipate that the amendments go some way towards meeting some of the points of clarification. But later we shall be having a debate on subsequent amendments standing in my name and in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which are wider than the points made by the Minister on this occasion.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal moved Amendment No. 4: Page 2, line 11, at beginning insert ("is in simple terms and is in such form and")

The noble Baroness said: We on this side of the Committee welcome the obligation that is written into the Bill to provide written notice. We accept that it should be in the prescribed form. What we ask for in our amendment is that the notice should be written in simple terms; simple enough for residents to be aware of the rights they have under the Act and the significance of the draft agreement. We suggest that it should draw attention to the time limit imposed by the Act and recommend that, if the resident is in doubt, he should take further advice. We are asking the noble Lord the Minister to consider our amendment because the people who are involved in mobile homes and the owners of sites are few in number and they really should not need continually to have recourse to the courts to get their problems solved. We feel quite strongly that if the notice is in a simple form then both sides—the mobile home owner and the site owner—will be able to understand the terms, and have them clearly understood between them, when the agreement is being drawn up.

We are asking that there should be no legal jargon. I do hope that I shall not upset any noble Lords in this House by using the term "legal jargon", but it is something for the legal profession and we are talking about an agreement between what one might call ordinary men in the street. We are sure that there must exist in the department someone who could interpret and personalise that kind of information. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, may remember that the words "simple terms", are quite specifically written into the Housing Act 1980 in connection with secure tenancies. When that Act was being debated, I believe all sides of the House felt that it was important for people in those kind of tenancies to understand the Act. Section 41 of the Housing Act 1980 is quite specific and says that every body shall, publish information about its secure tenancies in such form as it considers best suited to explain in simple terms and so far as it considers appropriate"—

and then it goes on to refer to the various parts of the Act. So we are not asking for anything new. We are asking that the same provision as exists for secure tenancies in the 1980 Act should be available for tenancies in respect of people who, although they own their mobile homes, are only tenants of the land on which those homes stand. I want to repeat my point that the numbers involved are not large, and I feel that I am not underestimating the type of people who live in mobile homes or who own sites. They do not proclaim themselves to be clever people. They are just ordinary people who have chosen this way of living.

Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord the Minister that in the Second Reading debate he said quite specifically that people should be aware of their rights, and for that reason: we will prescribe the notice to be given to residents in the agreement".

He is quoted as saying that in col. 671 of the Official Report for 18th November. One applauds the noble Lord—people should be aware of their rights. We on this side of the Committee feel that they can only be aware of their rights if those rights are written out in simple terms. One of the difficulties of Parliament generally is that its deliberations can only command respect if those people who are affected by legislation know the results of Parliament's deliberations and how they are affected by them. Our amendment shows that if hardship (if it is suffered by the owners) or loss (on the part of the site owners) is caused because of lack of information, because matters are not clearly spelt out or because that advice breaks down, then we feel that that is a breakdown of parliamentary democracy.

People should be able readily to understand such matters, particularly in instances such as this one, and to know that their rights are safeguarded. While I appreciate that it is written into various parts of the Act that there can be recourse to the courts, we have to understand what mobile homes are all about. The less recourse to the courts residents and site owners have to take, the more harmonious will be the way in which people live on those sites. It is for that reason—for the sake of harmonious living between the residents of mobile homes and site owners—that I ask the noble Lord the Minister to consider seriously what is a very simple amendment to what is perhaps a complicated Bill. I beg to move.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, put her points in very simple terms, and may I begin by assuring the noble Baroness that she is not very likely to say anything which will upset this noble Lord? Would that I could be so certain that I shall not say anything which will upset the noble Baroness. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that the prescribed notice which site owners will be required to give occupiers when they offer them an agreement will be, as the noble Baroness has said; in "simple terms". I do not believe that it is necessary to impose this requirement, and let me say why. It will not be for the site owners to decide the wording of the notice—that is the first point. Site owners will not be the ones to decide the wording. The Secretary of State will have the power to prescribe the wording by regulations, and he will be using that power.

The noble Baroness made an analogy between this amendment and Section 41 of the Housing Act 1980, which does require local authorities to provide information to their tenants in "simple terms"; but it is not a close analogy. I remember this section very well indeed because I talked about it much at the time, and I am glad that the noble Baroness feels that it has been effective. I hope she will also come to agree in time that what we are proposing now will be equally effective. I believe that the noble Baroness will be happy if it does turn out to be so. I say that this amendment is not a close analogy because, in the case of Section 41 of the Housing Act 1980, it is local authorities—in that case, interested parties if you like—who decide the wording of the information they provide to their tenants. Under this Bill, it will be the Secretary of State who decides.

Perhaps a better analogy would be with the shorthold notice which landlords require to give tenants before the start of a shorthold tenancy. The wording of that notice is prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State under Section 52 of the Housing Act 1980. There is no requirement in the Act for that notice to be in "simple terms" and I do not believe that the language of that notice could be described as technical and still less as gobbledygook—although the noble Baroness has not described it as such today.

I said in my Second Reading speech that it was our intention that the prescribed notice should advise occupiers to take legal advice and to read the Government booklet that we will produce following the Bill. It will also emphasise to occupiers the importance of taking action within the time limit the Bill imposes. I can assure your Lordships that it will be in terms as simple as possible. I do not want to make a great deal of this but I heed carefully what the noble Baroness has said on this subject and recognise her concern. I certainly take her point about the need to obviate recourse to the courts; my goodness!—that is the last thing we want to see happening. If we got it right on this point—and I think the record will show that we did—in the 1980 Act, I think we also have it right here. It will not be left to either party to decide the wording; it will be up to the independent Secretary of State, who has no axe to grind. There will be plenty of opportunity to discuss how simple is simple, whether it is really simple. We know what the objective is. I would ask the noble Baroness to have confidence in our concern on this point, which is the same as hers.

Lord Bishopston

I feel sorry that the Minister has not been a little more forthcoming, I do not know whether he was the Minister at the time, but the Housing Act 1980, which was passed by this Government of course, said this in Section 41: Every body which lets dwelling-houses under secure tenancies shall, within two years of the commencement of this chapter and thereafter from time to time, publish information about its secure tenancies in such form as it considers best suited to explaining in simple terms and so far as it considers appropriate the effect of'— and it goes on to refer to the express terms of its secure tenancies, the provisions of the Act and so forth. I see no reason why the same kind of requirement should not be put in this legislation. The Minister has said, in effect, that he agrees with the terms of the amendment. I think I mentioned at Second Reading the point which must be borne in mind, the importance of the fact that whereas with other forms of accommodation very much like mobile homes—which, as we keep saying, are not really mobile anyway—one often has title and deeds and so on and one would employ a solicitor to go into these things, this does not happen in the case of mobile homes. People are left entirely on their own to sort out the legal safeguards. After all, the amount of investment of residents could be comparable with that invested by people in other forms of accommodation. So there is a very real need that people should be informed.

The other point is the fact that 25 per cent. of the people living in mobile homes are elderly people. They may be a little confused about the terms of any agreement. Although I welcome the Minister's assurance that he will do what he can to make sure that all this information is available, it is very important that it goes to the right people. Everyone has a duty in this connection—the site owner, and of course the Secretary of State—to make sure that the agreement is in simple terms, can be understood and can be complied with. Otherwise the whole point of the legislation is lost. Perhaps I can ask the Minister if he would look at this point again. It ties up with the views he has expressed already.

Lord Bellwin

There is no difference at all between us in what we are seeking to do. It is only a question on whether or not there is a necessity to have written into the Bill the wording suggested in the amendment. I would only repeat that I am absolutely satisfied that there will not be a problem, for the very specific reason that it will be an independent Secretary of State, with no axe to grind, who will prescribe the wording. Whether that is in simple terms or not will be for everyone to judge at the time, but it is intended that it should be in very simple terms. I just do not think it is necessary to write it into the Bill.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

In thanking the noble Lord for his reply, I would say that all we are hoping to do—and I think the noble Lord would agree with us on this—is to make this Mobile Homes legislation perhaps the best Act. This is two bites of the cherry on what is a comparatively small problem regarding housing. In view of what the noble Lord has said, we accept his undertaking that he will ensure that it is in the kind of form that we hope for and the Secretary of State will personalise it and make it simple. If we feel that that is not so, we shall come back to it at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Swinton

I beg to move that the House do now resume in order to discuss the Statement.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.