HL Deb 02 December 1982 vol 436 cc1329-45

4.28 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 [Provisions for securing the making of agreements]:

Lord Bellwin moved Amendment No. 5: Page 2, line 24, after ("1") insert ("(1) or (2)").

The noble Lord said: I have already spoken to this amendment and I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bellwin moved Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 25, leave out from ("Act") to end of line 27.

The noble Lord said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Avebury moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 2, line 31, at end insert— ("( ) For so long, after the expiry of the required period, as the owner fails to offer the occupier an agreement under this Act or fails to supply a written notice in accordance with the requirements of section 1(4) above, the owner shall only be entitled to enforce any obligation on the part of the occupier in accordance with an order of the court.")

The noble Lord said: We come now to the first of the amendments on Clause 2, which is sidelined: Provisions for securing the making of agreements".

This is an extremely important part of the Bill because, as your Lordships will be aware, the main defect of the 1975 Act was that people did not enter into the agreements which were there provided for, to the extent that only something like a quarter of the people who live in mobile homes are covered by those agreements now. We are now trying to make it possible for about 100 per cent. of the people to take advantage of the provisions of the Bill.

The trouble is that there were no effective sanctions that were to be levied against the site operator who did not enter into an agreement. We are trying to remedy that in the Bill by saying that only the occupier has the right to go to court if the agreement is not offered by the site operator within a given space of time. It is the duty of the site operator to offer such an agreement to a person who is the holder of an unrestricted right to station a mobile home on a protected site; but if he does not do that, as we said at Second Reading the onus is on the occupier to take action through the court to enforce his rights. The problem which we highlighted then and to which we should like to return now, is that the occupier may be completely unaware of his rights or may be fearful of enforcing them because of the consequences that may flow from so doing in the form of retaliation by the site operator. In the meanwhile, so far as I can see, the site operator has the power to alter the terms of the existing occupation of the pitch, assuming that the occupier had an agreement under the old Act, prior to the coming into force of the Bill, or perhaps that his agreement had expired.

The amendment that we now propose would enable the occupier to resist any changes that the owner might seek to enforce in the period until the agreement is offered, and would, therefore, prevent the owner from trying to twist the occupier's arm—for example, by raising the charges or imposing any additional conditions in order to soften up the occupier before offering an agreement, as he may well seek to do. This gives the owner some incentive to offer an agreement and our hope is that, as a result, the objectives which we all share will be achieved and that a very high proportion of occupiers will be covered by the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Trumpington

First, may I apologise to the Committee and to my noble friend the Minister because, owing to a longstanding engagement, I literally have to fly from this place as soon as I have sat down. However, I should like to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for a few very simple but important reasons.

If the Government are willing to accept this amendment, the result would be to reduce the number of court cases. Many of the occupiers, who, as the Bill stands, would have to go to court in order to obtain an agreement, would be obliged to ask for legal aid. As we all know, legal aid is costing the country a great deal of money. Therefore, by reversing the process whereby the owner and not the occupier is the party who has to go to court, there will undoubtedly be a reduction in cases and an actual saving of money from public funds.

Secondly, I really think that three months is too short, and six months is to me a far more acceptable period. A third point I wish to make is to point out that the Government supported the principles contained in this amendment in the Consumer Credit Act 1974. I am well aware that as yet this particular clause has not been implemented. Nevertheless, the intention of the Government of the day was clear, and I am presuming that that intention still holds good.

We are dealing with a minority of bad owners as, indeed, with a minority of bad occupiers. As I said at the Bill's Second Reading, we all greatly welcome and applaud the Government for bringing forward this legislation. I was happy to hear what my noble friend the Minister said earlier this afternoon, because it would be dreadful if it was thought that, by introducing amendments, we were implying that owners of mobile home sites are big bad wolves waiting to fleece the mostly elderly lambs, to coin a phrase, who occupy their land. The vast majority of those who live in mobile homes are very happy. All I and others who take an interest in the Bill hope to do is to see that every eventuality is anticipated and that both parties are fully protected.

Lord Bellwin

Let me say at once that I very much appreciate what my noble friend Lady Trumpington has said. Of course, it is a fact that, throughout the rest of our deliberations on all stages of the Bill, we shall continue with the same philosophy in trying to get a Bill which is a big advance on what was in the 1975 Act but which, again, has to hold a balance, for the reasons that I have stated and which I shall not repeat now.

The purpose of this amendment is to impose what is really a very severe penalty on a site owner who fails to offer an agreement under the Bill within the required period or who fails to provide the prescribed notice at the same time. The intention is that a site owner who fails to comply with either of these requirements should only be able to enforce any obligation on the occupier following an order from the court. Thus, the site owner would only be able to recover pitch fees from an occupier to whom he had failed to offer an agreement, or give a notice, if he first went to court. In practice, the amendment would only mean that if an occupier did not discover that he had been entitled to the offer of an agreement until some time after the period within which the offer should have been made, he would then be entitled to go to court to claim his agreement and also to reclaim the fees he had paid.

If this amendment were to work in the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, would like, it would, as I have said, impose a severe penalty on site owners who failed to offer an agreement—a more severe penalty, in fact, than even the Rent Acts impose on landlords who misbehave. I repeat, this is a Bill that seeks to strike a reasonable balance between owners and occupiers. The Bill already contains protection for an occupier to whom an agreement is not offered within the required period. The occupier can apply to court or to an arbitrator to require the making of an agreement on terms that the court, or arbitrator, consider just and equitable. There is no time limit on the occupier's ability to apply to the court in this way. And, following the amendments which I introduced earlier today, the occupier can also go to court to require the making of an agreement, if the agreement which was offered to him was not accompanied by a prescribed notice.

The sanction which the Bill already imposes on a site owner is not insignificant. An occupier must go to court to claim his agreement, but in that case the court will decide the terms of the agreement. I suspect that in practice just as many occupiers would need to go to court even if the noble Lord's amendment were adopted. It would be, as I have said, a very stringent measure for this Bill. Let me repeat the point that I made in our discussion of the noble Lord's first amendment to Clause 1. We do not believe that site owners will make desperate attempts to avoid offering agreements. We are not here dealing with the Rent Acts and the consequences of offering an agreement will not be those of taking on a Rent Act tenancy. I think we must get away from ideas of Rent Act-type evasions. Within the terms of the Bill as a whole, the sanction which noble Lords are proposing to impose on site owners through this amendment, is unusually severe and, I believe, unnecessary.

I heard what my noble friend Lady Trumpington said about the precedent set by Section 65 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. But as she herself said, first, as yet we do not know how this will work in practice and, secondly, Section 65 is concerned with improperly executed credit agreements for the purchase of a washing machine, a television set or anything else. I hope that my noble friend Lady Trumpington will forgive me if I suggest that the Bill is concerned with rather different matters; with the basis on which a mobile home occupier occupies his home. The Bill already provides a sanction of its own on site owners who do not offer agreements when they should. It enables an occupier to go to court at any time to claim his agreement.

If anyone is to say to me, yes. but what we are seeking to do is to avoid the necessity for people having to go to court, then of course I accept that entirely. But it is also fair to say in that context that we are here talking in the main not just of mobile homes of the kind that are holiday type, perhaps a modest structure, or something of that kind; a great number of these homes, surely the vast majority, are not insubstantial. That is why they appeal as they do to those who occupy them. If I were to occupy a home worth many i thousands of pounds I would not be averse to taking legal advice if I had to, with the costs that that may entail, and even to going to court to make sure that my rights were properly considered, but I do not think that that is going to come about. For the reasons I have given, I believe the Bill has sanctions in it. It covers the concerns, the properly expressed concerns, on both sides of the Committee, and I would ask your Lordships in these circumstances to let the matter rest at that.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

My noble friends and I are rather disappointed at the Minister's reply. As the noble , Lord, Lord Avebury, said, this is an important I amendment on this part of the Bill in Clause 2. We believe that the requirements of the measure are not strong enough by any means, especially when you have regard to the problems facing the occupier. We believe that the Act should provide that the site agreement should be unenforceable for as long as no statutory agreement has been offered. If there is any aspect which should be determined then we believe that the court should do that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, mentioned the Consumer Credit Act. We believe that this sets a kind of precedent for this measure. If the Minister cannot be more forthcoming on this, a point which is important to residents and is not unjust to the site operators, I must ask my noble friends to join me in the lobbies.

Lord Avebury

I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, to have a look back at the proceedings on the Mobile Homes Act 1975, to see how many of us warned then that site operators were not going to enter into the agreements that were hoped for then, and that more teeth were required in the Bill—which we did not get—to make sure that this happened. I had a sense of déjà vu as the Minister replied to this amendment. We know that only a quarter of the people living in mobile homes are covered and we are trying to increase that as a common objective, and yet the first time that this matter comes before your Lordships' Committee—and there is an agreement on all sides that the Bill is not sufficiently tough as it stands—the noble Lord turns us down. This is very disappointing, particularly when he agrees with the arguments that we put.

The noble Lord the Minister says, "We want to avoid cluttering up the courts unnecessarily". That is precisely what we are trying to do. We are trying to say that if you provide what the noble Lord calls a "very severe penalty" on an owner who fails to offer an agreement, then it is more likely that he will be disposed to offer an agreement and render it unnecessary for the occupier to go to the court. If the noble Lord will look at the amendment he will see that what it says is that one is liable to this severe penalty, as the Minister calls it, only for so long as he fails to offer the occupier an agreement. Therefore, he can easily escape from the severe penalty when he tries to enforce an obligation which the occupier has, and the occupier tells him that he will not comply with it as long as the owner has failed to offer an agreement. He then has the alternative of instantly offering the agreement and thereby securing the objectives that we on all sides have tried to persuade the Minister are desirable. As this is fundamental to the purposes of the Bill, and it is the first time we come to a point of this kind, we really must test the feeling of the Committee to see whether we cannot have a better mood for the later discussions.

Lord Bellwin

By all means let us test the feeling of the Committee on the matter, but to put the record right I think I should say that it is not the case that the amendment would remove the need to go to court. It would only do so if the site owner obeyed the obligation it imposes. Today we are talking about site owners who do not obey the obligation in the Bill to offer an agreement in the Bill. If he does not obey one obligation, why should he obey another? There will always be circumstances in which people have to go to court to enforce their rights. However, the decision lies with your Lordships.

Lord Avebury

I do not wish to prolong this matter. What happens is, first of all, he does not offer the agreement. Then he finds that some of the terms of occupation are unenforceable. He cannot collect the rents, to put it bluntly. Then he has another opportunity of rectifying the matter by offering the agreement at that point. There are two stages at which he can avoid being brought before the court. One is when he has the three months that is given to him under the existing wording of the Bill to offer the agreement, and then later after the three months have expired, again when the occupier fails to comply with any of the terms of his occupation, he has another chance because of the wording of this amendment. I think that we have taken every possible step to encourage the owner and to give him the incentive to offer the agreement over and above what the Bill at present provides. We believe that that is necessary, and we believe that your Lordships will agree with us.

4.47 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 7) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 59; Not-Contents, 91.

Airedale, L. Aylestone, L.
Ardwick, L. Balogh, L.
Avebury, L. [Teller] Banks, L.
Beswick, L. Lloyd of Hampstead, L.
Bishopston, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Lockwood, B.
Briginshaw, L. Longford, L.
Byers, L. McCarthy, L.
Caradon, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.
David, B. Masham of Ilton, B.
Denington, B. Mayhew, L.
Diamond, L. Oram, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Peart, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Phillips, B.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.[Teller]
Gaitskell, B.
Gormley, L. Rea, L.
Gregson, L. Rochester, L.
Hall, V. Sainsbury, L.
Hampton, L. Seear, B.
Hanworth, V. Shinwell, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Stedman, B.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Howie of Troon, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Jacobson, L. Stone, L.
Jacques, L. Strauss, L.
John-Mackie, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Leatherland, L. Wigoder, L.
Llewelyn-Davies of Wilson of Langside, L.
Hastoe, B. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Abinger, L. Mancroft, L.
Ailesbury, M. Mar, C.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Marley, L.
Ampthill, L. Marshall of Leeds, L.
Auckland, L. Merrivale, L.
Avon, L. Mills, V.
Balfour of Inchrye, L. Mottistone, L.
Bellwin, L. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Belstead, L. Nathan, L.
Bessborough, E. Norfolk, D.
Boardman, L. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Orkney, E.
Cathcart, E. Pennock, L.
Coleraine, L. Platt of Writtle, B.
Craigavon, V. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L.
De L'Isle, V. Portland, D.
Denham, L. [Teller] Rankeillour, L.
Derwent, L. Reigate, L.
Ellenborough, L. Romney, E.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Rugby, L.
Elton, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Fortescue, E. St. Davids, V.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Saint Oswald, L.
Garner, L. Saltoun, Ly.
Glenarthur, L. Savile, L.
Grantchester, L. Shannon, E.
Greenway, L. Somers, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Spens, L.
Strathcarron, L.
Hampden, V. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Harmar-Nicholls, L.
Henley, L. Strathspey, L.
Hives, L. Swansea, L.
Hunt of Fawley, L. Swinfen, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Swinton, E. [Teller]
Ilchester, E. Terrington, L.
Kemsley, V. Teviot, L.
Killearn, L. Thorneycroft, L.
Lane-Fox, B. Trefgarne, L.
Lawrence, L. Trenchard, V.
Long, V. Vaizey, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Lyell, L. Vickers, B.
McAlpine of Moffat, L. Vivian, L.
McFadzean, L. Ward of Witley, V.
Malmsbury, E. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Bishopston moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 2, line 32, leave out subsections (3) and (4) and insert— ("(3) Where the owner has offered the occupier an agreement under this Act within the required period—

  1. (a) if the terms of the agreement so offered are unacceptable to the occupier, the occupier may, within six months of the offer, apply to the court for an order requiring the making of such an agreement;
  2. (b) if the occupier already occupies the mobile home as his only or main residence, he may accept the offer at any time;
  3. (c) where paragraphs (a) or (b) above do not apply, the offer shall be treated as withdrawn six months after the date on which it was made.")

The noble Lord said: This has some aspects in common with the previous amendment, but it is somewhat different and is still very important. I refer the Committee to the terms of the amendment, which says that, where the owner offers the occupier an agreement under the Bill within the required period, then, if the terms of the agreement so offered are unacceptable to the occupier, the occupier may, within six months of the offer, apply to the court for an order requiring the making of such an agreement".

It goes on: if the occupier already occupies the mobile home as his only or main residence, he may accept the offer at any time",

and, where those two conditions, do not apply, the offer shall be treated as withdrawn six months after the date on which it was made".

Again, we are getting to the core of the Bill, because it depends on the kind of agreement which is made. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said when speaking to the previous amendment, there are problems where an agreement has not been made or where the terms are in doubt. The amendment seeks to protect the resident who is offered an agreement, but it has not been accepted or challenged—an in-between situation of uncertainty—and I believe that in this respect the Bill is on the side of the site owner. A resident may, through ignorance or ill health—such as may be the case with an elderly person, and earlier I mentioned that a large percentage of mobile home residents are elderly—be placed at a disadvantage. Of course, it also applies to younger people who start off in a mobile home—possibly because they can get no other form of accommodation—and, when the family comes, maybe they have the problems associated with moving out. There is, therefore, need for the agreement to be watertight on the rights of all mobile home residents, and we believe the clause as framed provides little or no protection.

The Bill is not clear on the other circumstances of Clause 2(4), and we think the time limit here is too short. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, referred to the period of three months. Where negotiations must take place or agreement has to be sought, there may be areas of disagreement and, by the time a resident has decided what terms would be just and negotiations have taken place, with perhaps an appeal to the court, that period will have gone by. We therefore suggest a longer period. I will not say more at this stage because the matter was dealt with in the debate on the previous amendment, although as I said, we regard this as an important amendment, too.

I hope that, if the Minister cannot be with us on this occasion either, he will, in the light of the representations made to him by many organisations concerned with the interests of those who live on mobile home sites—I refer, of course, to site owners as well as residents—agree to look at this aspect again to see whether something more can be done to put the balance a little more fairly in the direction of the residents. I beg to move.

Lord Bellwin

I do not want to make a great deal of this point, but I think that the period suggested in the amendment is too long, and I cannot accept it as it is. But in fairness I would say that it is an arguable point that the noble Lord makes, and it brings us back to the question of degree and balance. The site owner must be entitled to some degree of certainty, and I feel that the amendment would remove that from him in regard to a major group of occupiers, and would make it very difficult for him to plan the running of the site effectively.

I also believe that six months is a little too long a period to expect owners to wait, especially in cases where an agreement is offered to a prospective occupier who may change his mind about going on to the site but who might not actually bother to refuse the agreement. The Bill allows three months, and we should remember that the occupier will not only be offered a copy of the agreement, but will also receive a prescribed notice that advises him to read the government booklet and to take legal advice. The question is: is three months really that short a period of time in the circumstances? On balance, I do not believe that it is too short a period, and that is why I do not want to accept the amendment. But, as I have said, and as I concede, it is an arguable point, and others may well have a different view of it.

Lord Bishopston

I am sorry about the Minister's attitude to the period of three months. The amendment has other merits that I have mentioned. I made the point previously, but I am afraid that I have to remind the Committee of various points which apply in a number of circumstances, and so I would say that when a person buys a house or bungalow it is necessary to have the help of a solicitor—at least in most cases—and so to some extent the person's problems are taken care of. But in the kind of cases that we are considering, people do not normally receive legal advice and so they may have to use other means in order to obtain information about their rights and responsibilities.

I suspect that the Minister may feel a little uneasy about the period of three months as being perhaps too short or too long, but he might not be happy to accept a period of six months. I do not want to bargain with him, but I wonder whether he would be prepared to look at the matter again and see whether this particular aspect could be considered, too, and then we might come back to it at a later stage. But as I have said, this is not the only part of the amendment. It is a vital part, but it is not the whole amendment. I wonder whether the Minister will respond.

Lord Bellwin

I do not think that there is much that I can add to what I have said previously. One is not saying that 10 out of 10 is right. It is not at all that kind of situation. It is a judgment made in an attempt to strike a balance, and I cannot go further than I have gone. I do not want to accept the amendment. Of course I shall discuss it with colleagues, but I certainly do not want to accept it today. I think that on balance a period of three months is right. I had to smile at the noble Lord when he was referring to the length of the period, and it almost seemed to be a case of, "Do I hear four?", but we did not quite get to that. On this side of the Committee we should like to leave the period as it now is, certainly for the time being at any rate.

Lord Bishopston

I shall place more trust in the Minister than some might say would be justified. I hope that he will look at this point again, together with the other aspects of the amendment. I do not want to press it at this stage, but we might return to it later. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bellwin moved Amendment No. 9: Page 2, line 44, at end insert— ("(6) In this section "the required period" means the period within which the owner is required to offer the occupier an agreement under this Act; and for the purposes of this section an offer which does not comply with the requirements of section 1 (4) above shall be disregarded.")

The noble Lord said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

5.5 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal moved Amendment No. 10: Page 2, line 44, at end insert— ("(6) The Rent Officer shall, on the application of the owner or the occupier, specify the extent to which he considers to be reasonable sums payable by the occupier in pursuance of an agreement under this Act and the occupier shall not be liable to pay more than the sums so specified. (7) In determining for the purposes of subsection (6) above what sum is or would be reasonable—

  1. (a) regard shall be had to all the circumstances (other than personal circumstances) and in particular to:—
    1. (i) the character and locality of the protected site;
    2. (ii) the place within the protected site where the mobile home is, or is to be, stationed;
    3. (iii) the services available to the occupier on the protected site; and
    4. (iv) rates payable by the owner in respect of the protected site; and
  2. (b) there shall be disregarded—
    1. (i) the condition of the mobile home;
    2. (ii) the fact that the agreement was offered or made under this Act.")

The noble Baroness said: One of the most important concerns in regard to each mobile home resident is to ensure not only that he has security of tenure, but that he is not faced with excessive charges. I am aware that the Secretary of State has already issued a document regarding premiums, assignments, and percentages, and so I do not want to enter into that field. But one point concerns me in particular, and I should like the noble Lord the Minister to make the position quite clear. Where there is an agreement and it is necessary to go to court because of a dispute over charges, can the court pronounce on the reasonableness of the charges? I ask that question because in the main the mobile home resident will go to court in order to challenge the reasonableness of the charges. I am concerned because as I read the Bill it does not seem to me that the court has such a responsibility.

Nowadays, with rates, water charges, land rentals, and all the rest going up, the mobile home owner must, to a certain extent, accept a rent review mechanism in the agreement. What we are concerned to ensure is that the rent review mechanism will be fair not only to the mobile home resident, but also to the site owner. It is for that reason that on this side of the Committee we believe that the rent officer should be involved. He is well versed in the rent review mechanism and is perhaps looked upon by both the tenant and the landlord as being "fairly fair". Obviously the tenant normally thinks that the rent officer is unfair and the landlord also thinks that he is unfair, but I believe that by and large they must accept that the rent officer acts in a "fairly fair" way.

I have in mind the question of excessive charges, and especially that of rent review, but we must also consider the service charges, and as I read the Bill there does not seem to be any opportunity for the mobile home resident to challenge the owner regarding the costs of providing services. There does not seem to be any obligation on the part of the site owner to supply information on how he bases his service charges.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Bill is before us is that the mobile homes problem was raised quite extensively in the media, including in the press and on television. One problem that was brought out quite specifically both in the press and on television related to the consternation felt over rapidly increasing site rents as well as the suddenness of one-off payments, which led to hardship for many residents. Therefore we feel that there should be provision for the charges to be overseen, and we want to emphasise that this should be available much more easily than by having to go to court. We consider that the rent officer is well placed to carry out such functions. We do not think that it would be at all difficult to assign this additional function to him.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, I would agree that there are some very good site owners; and, of course, if they were all in that group then we would not need to have this legislation before us today. Our amendment, we feel, should not cause any concern at all to the good, considerate, fair site owner, who we on this side of the Committee recognise quite clearly, as does the noble Lord, is somebody who has a right to earn a reasonable return on his capital investment. But we are discussing this Bill today because not all site owners are in that category; there are some much more greedy than others. In fact, mobile home owners have said that there are some quite avaricious ones.

Balancing the two sides, we recognise that the residents themselves need protection from the inconsiderate site owner; and the resident, too, should be able to look after his capital investment. That, too, should be adequately protected, and a reasonable measure of security should be given to him. We are trying to be fair to both sides, and, therefore, the principle embodied in this amendment is, we feel, worthy of the support of the noble Lord; because there can be no doubt that the responsible, conscientious site owner will be able to draw upon the skill of the rent officers, and will be able to rely on them to be fair to the residents. In fact, those in the category of what we call good site owners should have no problems at all in being able to consult and work with the rent officer in drawing up a scheme. What we feel is important is for the residents to be protected from the less scrupulous site owners.

I think the noble Lord spoke about harassment. This was another point that was brought out by the television programme and by other parts of the media—that there are people who are harassed. The last thing we want to happen is that people should quite suddenly lose their homes, there and then, because of the harassment they suffer. If I may quote from one letter, it says: I feel that the site owners take unfair advantage of the often legally-ignorant mobile home owners who fear that to approach a solicitor may result in facing legal bills that they can ill afford. There is also"—

and this is, I think, important— the element of fear, of reprisal from the site owner, who can make life difficult for people on his site who are known to have complained".

It is for that reason, perhaps, that we need, as our amendment quite clearly states, the experience of somebody who is conversant not only with rent reviews but also with harassment.

The noble Lord might challenge the experience of the rent officer and say that he would not be capable of doing this job. I remember that when the Rent Act came into operation rent officers had to be trained to do the job—a very difficult job, as I can remember. I was a member of the local authority in Birmingham at the time, and the people in my ward were perhaps in the category of those being harassed by landlords because of the Rent Act. But the rent officers have gained in knowledge since the Rent Act came into operation, and the very unusual cases that they would have to deal with in the category of mobile homes are, we feel, matters that their expertise and their acknowledged skill should enable them to deal with quite easily for the benefit of both the site owner and the mobile home owner.

The Minister might perhaps feel that our amendment is a little untidy. I am not concerned that he thinks it untidy, because he can tidy it up. What is important is the principle behind it, and it is for that reason that we would ask the noble Lord to consider it quite seriously. I say with all humility that when a crisis occurs to an individual, and when it has to do with his own home—whether those concerned have bought it or let it, or whatever is the situation—it is of immense importance to him and sometimes he does not know how to cope effectively. The chances are that, under stress, such an individual will do the wrong thing.

I think it is important for us in this Committee to be realistic and to recognise that those who cannot afford the services of a solicitor and who, because of that, have to cope alone when they are going through these periods of stress, are placed in a worse position than the person who is able to pay for somebody else to worry for him. It is for that reason that I would ask the noble Lord to consider our amendment. Its purpose is really to give to the rent officer the power to deal with the charges, and with the criteria; and we feel that in this way it can be done much more easily, much more effectively and much more fairly to both the owner of the site and the resident than it could be by any court or judge when what is being considered is the reasonableness of the charges that are involved. I beg to move.

5.16 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

I am sure it is not necessary to remind the noble Baroness that it was I who during Second Reading referred to the point of harassment. Indeed. I mentioned, if I remember, the Daily Star, which had brought certain cases to the forefront, and I paid tribute to the influence that they and others had had in (if you like) helping to bring out the need for something much better than the 1975 Act. So, again, there is no difference between us on that. However, I keep having to come back all the time, as I do, to the fact that although in this Bill we are trying to bring forward a measure which will be much more effective than the 1975 Act—and I think everyone accepts that—nevertheless at no stage shall we be able to get away from the need to protect the interests of all concerned. The noble Baroness does not quarrel with me on this. Indeed. I am sure she herself spoke about it. But it brings us back all the time, because this amendment would involve the rent officer service in fixing the level of pitch fees payable by occupiers through agreements under the Bill. It also offers criteria which rent officers could use in so doing.

There is one point I should make before I deal with the substance of the amendment. There is no time limit within which an occupier can apply to the rent officer. The Bill provides that any challenge to the terms of an agreement must be made within the first three months. The effect of this amendment would be to allow challenge to one of the terms, the pitch fee, at any time. Even if I accepted that it would be a good idea to involve the rent officer service in mobile homes matters, I would wish to resist that aspect of the amendment. But I think that is secondary because, as the noble Baroness rightly said, one can always make adjustments if one accepts a principle, and the final wording of an amendment, certainly at Committee stage, does not have to be the last word on it.

I prefer to base the case against doing this—in fact, I do so—on the whole matter of the rent officer service in relation to this particular situation. The fact is that the task of rent officers is to fix rents within the criteria laid down by the Rent Acts. No doubt they do a very good job there. As the noble Baroness said, they do not please everyone; but I think there is general acceptance that they have skills and knowledge which enable them to hold a reasonable balance, at least one which makes a very hard situation tolerable. I gladly pay tribute to them—and I know quite a lot about the way in which they work.

But deciding the rent for a tenanted house or flat within Rent Act criteria is a very different matter from fixing the level of a pitch fee which the owner-occupier of a mobile home must pay the owner of the site on which his mobile home is stationed. This amendment would mean involving rent officers in a new and quite distinct field. The Bill allows occupiers and site owners to agree between them on an arbitrator—the noble Baroness did not mention the arbitrator—to resolve their disputes. The choice is a free one. If they cannot agree, they can then go to court. I frankly believe that that must be a better approach than bringing in the rent officer service. The noble Baroness will recognise the implications of bringing the rent officer service into this field. She knows a great deal about this aspect, as I know from our debates over the past three and a half years on other Bills. It would not be desirable to bring them in. All kinds of complications would arise for them.

To answer some points that the noble Baroness made, she spoke about a rent review mechanism. There is no rent review mechanism in the Bill as it is. She wondered whether the courts can judge the reasonableness of a charge. If they have do so, the answer is, yes. I hope, as she does, that first of all the matter can be agreed between the parties; secondly, if it cannot be agreed between them then at least they should ideally go to arbitration. They can decide upon that. That does not have to involve costly processes at all. It is only at the end of the day that, if necessary, they can go to the court if they so wish, and then the court will decide, provided that the challenge is made within the time limit laid down.

I am sorry not to be able to meet the noble Baroness who argues her case so eloquently on this issue and clearly believes that the rent officer service has a part to play here. I do not think that it has. It would be an awful mistake to bring that great mechanism into play on what we are trying to do in this Bill. I hope that in those circumstances, on reflection, the noble Baroness will be able to accept that answer.

Lord Jacques

I should like to plead with the Minister to give consideration to this amendment because of its significance. It has great psychological significance. If we are going to help the kind of people that we have in mind, there are one or two principles that have to be observed. First of all, if we want them to go somewhere for help they should go to the place that they are accustomed to visiting, to the town hall rather than the court. They should not be involved in something which they feel will immediately involve them in some big expense, such as going to a solicitor. The hearing procedure should be informal rather than formal. I suggest that on all these grounds the rent officer is more likely to do the job better than the court.

I am not smitten with the idea of arbitration. All kinds of things can happen when you provide for an arbitrator. The site owner could arrange for his agent to be the arbitrator or he could name a friend. The poor old occupier who is looking for a site regards that as a mere detail, but when it comes to the test it is of vital importance. When it is the rent officer, that is different; that is specific.

My final plea is this. We have introduced the rent officer into housing legislation. That has been a great success. I believe that, by and large, rent officers have given very fair and reasonable decisions. They have not satisfied everybody; that is impossible, but I think that they have done a first-class job. I believe that it will be no great step to apply this service also to mobile homes. I believe that for psychological reasons it is one of the most important amendments that could be made.

Lord Bellwin

I do not like to disagree with the noble Lord because we so often seem to see eye to eye on matters that we discuss. But I shall have to say—and I said this on Second Reading—that we do not want to bring in a Rent Act type Bill. What the noble Lord said about the Rent Acts is right. There is confidence in the rent officers based upon, in general, the fairness which they have shown and their skill. I paid tribute to that a moment ago and I do so again. But the fact is that for all the good things that they do—and they do many—they also have a connotation of bad things in housing, certainly since the 1977 Act. That introduced a new range of security of tenure, and when I was on the Francis Committee we always said that would have the effect of drying up the availability of great numbers of dwellings or parts of dwellings that are needed for renting.

If we were to contemplate a Rent Act type régime within this Bill then the fear would be, without question, that the availability of sites too would also decrease very much indeed. Just as it is true that there are certain concerns by the tenants who turn to the rent officer for protection in terms of giving a fair judgment on what rents should be, so conversely there is the fear of landlords, or even prospective landlords, who are contemplating making their accommodation available. In this particular Bill above all we are trying to bring forward a moderation—and we are all saying it and I am saying it again now—trying to get a balance between the interests of both sides to be fair. I believe that to bring in what is proposed really would have an adverse effect.

As to the point the noble Lord made about arbitration, the arbitrator does not have to be appointed by the site owner. The occupier must have equal say in who should be the arbitrator. If he does not agree, then there is not an arbitrator. The arbitrator has to be someone mutually acceptable. If not, there is no arbitration. Then you come on to the point of the court. The point that the noble Lord makes about going to court is the most important part of what he was saying, if I may say so. People do not want to go to court. People dislike this; they fear the costs; they fear it might involve them in all kinds of traumas. So they do not want it, and I understand it.

I do not believe that at the end of the day, in drawing a balance on what we should do. we ought to go into a Rent Act régime. The noble Lord asked whether I would at least consider it. I always like to read and think about whatever is said at various stages of the Bills that I deal with. Of course, I shall do that on this occasion and with this amendment. But I do not want to be less than frank about it. My own view is that I fear that, well intentioned though it may be, to introduce any Rent Act aspects will have an adverse effect on what all of us want to see.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Bishopston

I can well appreciate the points made by the Minister. He talks about the danger of accommodation drying up. This is any form of accommodation, including mobile homes, which are used by a not insignificant number of people. A problem to a tenant or owner of a house is a 100 per cent. problem to him and we should take that into account. If we do not have the Housing Act 1980 and the Rent Act 1977 safeguarding these people, as I and many of my noble friends contend—we accept that the Minister says that we do not want that régime—the fact is that we shall not have a régime which will be tied to the Rent Act and the Housing Act. It will be tied to this Bill, the Mobile Homes Bill. The rent officer, as we envisage it, will have to act in keeping with the provisions of this particular measure.

The rent officer has a very important role. The Minister has indicated his respect for rent officers and the work that they do. Unlike the courts, which deal with a number of issues, the rent officer is specialised in his approach. He is greatly experienced; he knows the problems; he can bring a certain degree of uniformity to his judgments, and so on. I am sure that his rulings and advice would be acceptable to both sides.

We believe that the rent officer is particularly suited to this kind of situation, and I hope the Minister will be able to look at this matter again. I stress that this is not bringing into focus the whole of the régime of the various Acts we have mentioned and which he has rejected. I am sure that he wants in fairness to make sure that the security and all other aspects which are accorded to the tenants and to the landlords and which are covered by these measures are extended so far as possible to those we are discussing. There are lesser provisions, if I may say so, in this Bill than there are in the provisions of the two Acts we have been discussing. Therefore, it will be a major measure to suit the particular circumstances, and we think that the rent officer is well experienced to do this with a degree of uniformity and fairness which will be fair to both sides.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

May I ask the noble Lord how he equates the skill of an arbitrator, who will be a one-off person, as against the skill and expertise of a rent officer? The arbitrator might be doing something in Devon, another in the North-West and another in the Midlands—completely isolated people. So far as I can see, there is no need for somebody with the qualifications of an arbitrator. How will they be able to do the jobs which the noble Lord felt that the rent officer could not do? I find that quite unacceptable. With regard to the principle that some people have chosen to live in mobile homes, that is their choice, in the same way that other people choose to live in a bungalow by the sea, or wherever. I think it is important to recognise that, having chosen, they have a right to protection in the same way as the tenant of a council house, the tenant of a private landlord or of a flat. Because they are a very small group of people and have chosen a different kind of housing, I am afraid that the more we discuss the Bill, the more we shall find ourselves in the same difficulty as on the previous Bill on the same issues. I would therefore sincerely ask the Minister to be much more generous than he is being at the present time. We have accepted that there is a need for the site owner to be dealt with equally fairly. For that reason, we will press this issue to a Divison unless we get a much clearer understanding from the noble Lord that the tenants of mobile homes will get equality with the site owner.

Lord Bellwin

May I say again, just to set the record straight, that I really do not need any "pushing" or any lessons on the need for the Bill. May I remind the noble Baroness that it is the Government who are bringing forward this Bill. If she feels so passionately about it—and I commend her for that—I should have thought that she might have prevailed upon her own colleagues in 1975 to have brought forward a different kind of Bill, which might have put it another way. I respectfully suggest that she did not do so, or perhaps was not able to do so—she may not have been involved in those days—

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

I was not.

Lord Bellwin

Then that absolutely explains it. Had she been, I have no doubt that she would have made the point she has made today; and so I will not press that point further. Even so, the principle remains fair. This Government are bringing in this Bill trying to do precisely what she wants us to do—to protect the interests of people who choose to live in this particular way. Many of them are very nice homes—indeed, why not?—and that is why we are bringing forward the Bill. They are entitled to protection, but in the bringing forward of the Bill we are anxious to look after the interests of others, too, who have an interest in providing the facilities and the sites where this accommodation is placed. So we seem to be repeating the same thing again. I cannot go as far as the noble Baroness would wish me to go. I really feel that it would be a mistake to bring a Rent Act régime into this Bill. I think it really would be contrary to what we are trying to do, despite the good intentions that I know are behind this amendment on the other side. So I cannot help on this occasion.

Lord Bishopston

I think we are still hopeful that the Minister will look at this again. We feel very strongly about it and are inclined to press the matter, but it is one which needs to be given more care and attention. The Minister will know that his own department, as have noble Lords, has had piles of correspondence on the matter. There have been many letters sent and the Press have had campaigns about the various injustices suffered by residents on mobile home sites.

It may be that it would be a good thing to come back to this on Report, if the Minister will look at it again. I am sure he has had many representations from many organisations on this matter. This is one of the key points as to what mechanism is to be used: whether it is the courts or the rent officer. As I said earlier, the rent officer does not have to pick up these Acts when he is dealing with mobile home matters: they are completely on one side. He will be looking at a modest Bill, and we want to be sure that the enforcement of its limited provisions will do justice and do the job which I am sure the Government and others in this House wish to be accommodated. On the basis of my charitable attitude to the Minister on this, and in the hope that he will look at it again, because it is terribly important, I will seek the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Swinton

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.