HL Deb 16 September 2004 vol 664 cc1367-73

House again in Committee.

Clause 171 [Disclosure of information as to orders etc, in respect of anti-social behaviour]:

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 214:

Page 122, line 11, leave out "138(2A)" and insert "138(2AA)"

The noble Lord said: This is a minor and technical amendment to amend an incorrect reference to a subsection in Clause 171(4) of this Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 171, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 183 [Particulars of site agreements to be given in advance]:

Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 215:

Page 138, leave out lines 2 to 4 and insert— () includes particulars of the land on which the proposed occupier is to be entitled to station the mobile home that are sufficient to identify—

  1. (i) the boundaries of the land on which the mobile home may be located, and
  2. (ii) the services provided on that land;"

The noble Lord said: We come to a number of amendments that are all related to the welfare of park home owners. I declare an interest as the honorary secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Welfare of Park Home Owners. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, is present as she often attends committee meetings at which park homes are discussed.

The background is very interesting. For many, many years the organisations that represent park home owners have brought to the parliamentary committee a series of what one can only term distress signals regarding the hurt that has been visited upon their members by some site owners. Let me make it clear that the view I hold is shared by many; namely, that while there are a number of site owners who are unfair and unjust, and sometimes downright bad, many others are reasonable, sensible and dispense justice and interpret their regulations and rules in a fair manner.

The Minister knows very well what has happened over the years. Ministers from the ODPM, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, when he had responsibility for these matters, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and a series of Ministers in the Commons have all attended meetings and have tried to resolve the problems. When the Housing Bill was undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny evidence was given regarding why there ought to be a complete revision of the law relating to park homes. I attended the relevant meeting with the honourable Member in another place, Mr Hilton Dawson, who is the chairman of the all-party group. We were given the good news that the case had been made and that the Government ought to bring in legislation perhaps within the next two years. Those involved with park homes have literally been overwhelmed by the speed with which the Government have responded to the case that has been made.

In particular I wish to pay tribute to the Minister, Yvette Cooper, who attended two meetings in rapid succession and gave the clear impression that she understood what the problems were, and agreed, when the Bill went through the other place, to a series of amendments to it, all of which were beneficial to park home owners. I particularly want the Minister to note that the general attitude in the park home community is one of appreciation for the manner in which the Government—which of course goes from the Deputy Prime Minister right down to all of his Ministers—have taken that on board. I am advised that there is an excellent liaison between the civil servants who are responsible for monitoring these matters and for advising the Ministers. I have no complaint whatever. Inevitably, like Oliver Twist, I want some more.

I ask the Minister if he could give the Committee, and those affected, the current thinking on two of the matters covered by the amendments. It is all borne out of experience. I remember the Minister last night pleading in aid on an issue a number of letters that backed up his case. He was very careful to say, of course, that Ministers receive the views of many people and these were just a few. The sad fact is that when I asked for comparable evidence of the case I want to make, there was general view that people were frightened and unwilling to put complaints of this kind in writing. It is a fact, in the park home world, that there are some situations in which elderly, frail and sometimes disabled people—who are glad to be living on the park—are very, very reluctant to complain and say things that could get back to the site owner. That is a fact of life. But I ask the House and the Minister to listen carefully to one of the burdens of the complaint, the arbitrary manner in which some site owners determine where the home should be, whether it should be moved and whether they have got the right to move.

On the first of two main amendments I am speaking to, I ask the Minister if he would either incorporate our amendment or come back at a later stage, or even say that the matter is currently being dealt with in negotiations with park home owners. That relates to the actual boundary of the site. They want it to be specific, but they also want to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s as to how communications are made. One of the amendments I am speaking to is that any communications on these matters should be referred to the parties not only by post, but by registered post.

I turn to the question of what is called the five-year rule. It is a fact that the question of the five-year period is in the 1983 Act, and is very often used as a threat by some site owners against people who may not be willing to go to court and to bludgeon timid park home owners into agreeing to things. We believe that this ought to be left in. In general, we believe that a park owner who effectively denies the resident the right to sell their home by using the conditions of the home, dissuading the buyer or other tactics, should be liable to severe penalties. It is not just a question of the five years, because the prospective purchaser may very well be influenced and disaffected in going forward with the purchase if it is seen that the site owner is unreasonable.

I move the amendment with gratitude to the Minister and his ministerial colleagues, and in the firm belief that there is a case to be made. It may well be that the Minister will tell us that these are ongoing matters, but I provide the Minister with a chance to say some kind words. I beg to move.

2.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

I speak to my Amendment No. 227 which is grouped with these amendments. Its purpose is to make sure that mobile home owners are dealt with in the same way as any other dweller of a house, be it a mobile home or house of bricks and mortar—indeed, if the amendment is agreed to, houseboat owners, would also be included. It is about renewable energy grants.

Perhaps the Minister can explain to me why it is that the Government's "Clear Skies" renewable energy grants have certain eligibility criteria. They are, first, that the applicant must the owner of the property; secondly, that the applicant must be resident in the UK; and, thirdly, that the property must be located in the UK. However, the fourth states that the system must supply a building and not a mobile home, caravan or houseboat. The guidance for the grant states that those are not eligible. Mobile homes and houseboats are harder to insulate and make more energy efficient because the construction of a mobile home lends itself less well to that. To heat it, you are going to need to use carbon, just as in any other sort of property, such as a house of bricks and mortar. Being able to apply for a grant which enables you to use solar energy, wind energy or any of the others listed under Clear Skies grants is at least as important—perhaps it is more important—as it is for a house. But it is at least equally important. This amendment is intended to probe the Government's thinking about why they have excluded all of those classes of homeowners from being able to apply for these grants.

Baroness Maddock

I support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Miller. I say to the Minister, although I am sure he realises this, that the Home Energy Conservation Act did, in fact, cover mobile homes. So, when people are trying to insulate their homes, that is certainly possible. It is unfortunate that we are not consistent about how we treat forms of homes other than bricks and mortar when we are looking at legislation. I welcome the amendments in this Bill for those who live in park homes, because for a long time I thought they should be cast as mainstream housing legislation. I have made that clear in speeches before, so I will not labour it today.

With the leave of the Committee, I realise that my amendment on mobile homes has been put in a very funny place on the Marshalled List. I thought it was because it was a new clause but when I read it again I realised that that had nothing to do with it. For some reason, it has got in the wrong place. I mention that because it is a related area.

My Amendment No. 229C is about the "fit and proper person" status of those who run park home sites. This was discussed in another place, and at that time Yvette Cooper said that they were getting consultants' reports shortly after Easter. I agree with her that it is not something you can legislate on quickly. But given that this Bill has a very effective way of dealing with the licensing of landlords for houses of multiple occupation, it seems to me that it is not that difficult. I would like to know how far the Government have got.

I end by saying that, with the noble Lord, Lord Graham, I have worked in this area for a number of years. If I might use somewhat unparliamentary language—the sort of language that the Minister sometimes uses—we have failed around on this for a number of years before actually getting to something satisfactory, and we are really very glad. One of the main problems is that the few sites that treat people appallingly are the problem. That is one of the key points missing from the very good amendments that the Government have brought forward on this issue.

When I was a Member of another place—I represented Christchurch—my constituency had a huge number of people who lived in park homes, many of them elderly. They choose to live there because it is a safe environment and a small property to look after, and because they have friends there to look after them. That is one reason why I think the area important. I welcome what the Government are doing.

Lord Rooker

If I may, I shall jump to Amendment No. 229C, to which the noble Baroness has just referred, before I come to the others.

The Government accepted many of the recommendations of the park homes working party, including those relating to site licensing and in principle the licensing of site owners. However, the amendment proposed to implement those recommendations will not work in practice. We are currently drafting a consultation paper to carry out detailed consideration of all the site licensing recommendations, drawing comparisons with licensing regimes in the private rented sector. As part of this work we are considering whether a requirement that the licence holder be a fit and proper person is necessary and, if it is, whether the fit-and-proper-person criteria for a licence holder for a park home site should be the same as that for a house-in-multiple-occupation licensee. We are also considering what procedures would be necessary to ensure that new site owners met the criteria for being a fit and proper person on transfer of site licences. I hope that that brief response will satisfy the noble Baroness on Amendment No. 229C.

I shall now deal with Amendment No. 215 and the others to which my noble friend spoke. I have some good news. Clause 183 requires the owners of park home sites to provide a written statement setting out the terms and conditions of an agreement to occupy a pitch on a site to the occupier at least 28 days before that agreement commences. Amendment No. 215 seeks to tweak that provision by adding the specifics of the boundaries of the pitch and the services provided on the pitch. The aim is to reduce greatly the number of disputes.

We considered the revised wording suggested to the original draft of the Bill. However, it was felt that there were difficulties that needed to be explored, and therefore it was thought necessary to consult relevant stakeholders. Those issues have now been resolved, and the topics are discussed in the consultation paper on implied terms and written statements that was published at the end of July. I therefore hope that my noble friend will not seek the need to pursue Amendment No. 215 today.

Amendment No. 216 concerns the service of the written statement by post to occupiers. We are going to be haunted by postal voting and post, although I know that we are not talking about voting. I was waiting for postal voting to come up on the BIDs regulations; I had a note on them, but they did not come up so I did not use it. Section 7 of the Interpretation Act 1978 will apply in the circumstances, which means that the service will be deemed to be effected by properly addressing, prepaying and posting a letter containing the document. Prepaying means putting a stamp on it. One has to keep a straight face saying all that; it is difficult. Unless the contrary is proved, service will be deemed to have been effected at the time at which the letter would be delivered in the ordinary course of post. That leaves a hit to be debated, does it not? That is not an attack on the postal workers, by the way, but on their barmy management. I do not want to be misunderstood on that.

The problem with requiring service by recorded delivery is that actual receipt is not until the letter can be delivered to someone prepared to take receipt and sign for it. It was felt that by using Section 7 of the Interpretation Act, the site owner can be confident when service is going to be deemed to have taken place, so that he can properly comply with the requirement to serve 28 days. Of course, it would be prudent for him to obtain proof of posting, but that need not be by recorded delivery. There is therefore an adequate way out of the problem.

Amendment No. 217 seeks to extend the provision about removing age that is already in the clause, to remove the five-year relevant period which also forms part of the grounds for termination. The five-year rule effectively breaks the life of a mobile home up into five-year relevant periods. We agree with my noble friend that whether that is useful should be re-examined. Therefore, we proposed a choice of options concerning paragraph 6 in the consultation paper on implied terms and written statements that was published at the end of July. When we receive the results of the consultation, we will be in a better position to decide whether the five-year rule should stay or go. I hope that my noble friend will take that as a useful response.

Before I come to the government amendments in the group, I should deal with Amendment No. 227. It is quite nice the way people write my notes; it says here that the amendment has the noble intention to give residents of mobile homes the same access to energy grants as people in bricks-and-mortar housing. It is a proposal with which the Government agree wholeheartedly. However, the amendment is unnecessary as mobile home owners are already eligible for four types of energy grant—private sector renewal, disability facilities grants, Warm Front grants, and energy efficiency commitment. I agree with my officials; we have no idea so far as Clear Skies grants are concerned. I have never heard of them.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

I am just giving the truth. The Committee on Standards in Public Life says that Ministers do not tell the truth. I have never heard of Clear Skies grants, and I will write to the noble Baroness on the matter well before Report.

I want to speak briefly to government Amendments Nos. 218, 220, 221, 222 and 246, which remedy an error. Clause 220, which was formerly Clause 184(3)(1B), has now been placed in its own section, a separate part 3 in Schedule 1. They basically sound like technical amendments to the Bill.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I express my thanks and appreciation to the Minister. He tells us that the matters that I raise will form part of the consultation document. When Yvette Cooper came to see us, she saw great scope in examining the implied terms route for a great many things that were exercising people's minds. I am absolutely certain that those outside the House who have a responsibility for park home owners will advise the likes of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and me on such matters.

There is a sense of grievance among many park home owners that some of the rights enjoyed by other owners or tenants are denied them. However, the Minister has done a good job in taking this opportunity to bring the situation out in the open and up to date. I commend to him again the excellent relationship between his officials and those who represent park home owners. I am very grateful and I am sure that those outside the House will be, too. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 216 not moved.]

Clause 183 agreed to.

Clause 184 [Implied terms relating to termination of agreements or disposal of mobile homes]:

[Amendment No. 217 not moved.]

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 218:

Page 140 leave out lines 27 to 35.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 219 not moved.]

Lord Rooker moved Amendments Nos. 220 to 222:

Page 141, line 32, at end insert— (4A) After Part 2 of Schedule 1 to the Mobile Homes Act 1983 (c. 34) insert—

Forward to