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5.55 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and others who have spoken in the debate said that we would table amendments in Committee to incorporate in the Bill reform of park home legislation. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who is nodding, has been a great champion of the need for such a reform. In a letter that he sent to me as a fellow member of the all-party park home owners group last July, he pointed out that

If that was the case so long ago, the reform has been a long time coming. In their response to the recommendations of the working party, the Government categorically stated those parts of the document on which they were prepared to act, using language such as:


In other words, those of us who take an interest in the issue have for four years expected the Government to make some much needed changes.

I realise that, as with all legislation, not everything we ask for will be agreed to or put into the Bill, but last year I introduced the Park Home Reform Bill, and although, being a ten-minute Bill, it did not get very far, the fact that I had a waiting list of hon. Members of all parties keen to put their name to the Bill serves to demonstrate the cross-party support for such a measure. My Bill generated a great deal of correspondence with hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Many aspects of park homes legislation need to be sorted out, but there are two primary reasons to implement reform. First, the people who live in park homes and who face problems daily should be treated with justice and fairness. Secondly, affordable housing is at the heart of the Bill, and if anything can be said to embody affordable housing, it is park homes. Park homes are less expensive than other types of housing, and they are probably one of the most economical forms of housing in terms of land use. Such housing favours the elderly in particular—although not exclusively—

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because people often buy a park home when they retire, perhaps after renting their accommodation throughout their working life. The vast majority of the 200,000 park homes in the country are owner-occupied, not let.

Many people who move into other types of property that we want to free up would move into a park home were it not for the increasingly loud warning bells ringing about park home ownership. Such warnings are starting to put people off buying a park home, which is a bad thing for our housing market. We have already heard about bullying and intimidation, which are fairly common. Site owners, as landlords, are not required to recognise properly constituted residents associations. That would be unthinkable if the property were provided by a local authority or housing association.

Park home residents should enjoy such rights, but their landlords do not share that view. Recently, I dealt with a particularly bad case in which the landlord insisted that the steps to the home—usually, there are just two or three steps—should be made of plastic. He said that any concrete steps would be demolished, and insisted that steps be purchased only from him at the cost of £325, even though their market value was £165. Similarly, if someone buys a new park home they must do so through the landlord, who is often involved in its manufacture and procurement. In any other field, that would be called a restrictive practice, and the Government could easily address it by introducing some basic reforms.

There are many other important issues to do with the economics of park homes, some of which are controversial. As I said, I do not expect the Government to embrace every single reform that is needed, but they could certainly include a few in the Bill. I am not asking the Minister for "totality"—I am quite happy to compromise and introduce only those provisions that everyone agrees are necessary. That would not be very time consuming, as the need for some of them is so self-evident that putting them on the statute book would not provoke very much dispute. When my Front-Bench colleagues introduce amendments on park homes in Committee, I hope that the Government will look again at this severe omission from the Bill. We have every expectation that something will be done, but Ministers have told us that the subject may be more suitable for a private Member's Bill. The ballot has just taken place but, unfortunately, no one has chosen to introduce a park homes Bill. Given the Government's involvement in the issue and their commitment over the past three years to listening to the problems, they should not leave the solution to the vagaries of a ballot in the House of Commons—they should work with Members on both sides of the House, including many Labour Back Benchers, who support progress in this area. I urge the Minister to take such action.

Finally, I want to touch on an issue that I raised in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. I am concerned about inaccurate information produced by the Land Registry. My experience is purely of the Land Registry in Devon, but doubtless the problem is nation wide and merits investigation. Solicitors must check with the Land Registry when making searches, particularly on purchasers' behalf, and some of them have said in court that they are concerned about inaccurate information. I intend to take up a particular case with Ministers, although I shall not reveal details to the House.

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Solicitors often have to rely on information from Ordnance Survey, particularly when dealing with older houses that are not registered—we have many of those in Devon. As we know, Ordnance Survey maps do not cover the ownership of property, but deal only with geography and topography. All too often, features such as walls and fences, particularly when they are more than 25 years old, are not included by Ordnance Survey. There are cases in my constituency where people have lost land on a transaction as a result of that. I am not suggesting that Ordnance Survey should be made responsible for ownership in its maps, but the Minister must look at the way in which the Land Registry obtains information, collates it and gives it to solicitors.

What redress is available to people whose transactions go to court, with huge litigation costs, because the Land Registry has provided them with duff information? I am concerned about that problem, so I hope that the Minister will take it on board. If the legislation on the Land Registry requires modification, I hope that he will consider making such a change. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said in response to my intervention, if data about plots and the land on which houses are situated are not accurate in the first place, all the seller's packs in the world will be meaningless. We must do something to improve that situation.

6.4 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): First, I apologise to the Minister for missing the first part of his speech, and to other hon. Members. I was delayed by a funeral in Yorkshire.

I very much welcome the Bill, which keeps a number of important promises that we made at the general election. We have heard quite a lot about social housing, but the Bill's most important provisions deal with what might be described as antisocial housing owned by private landlords. The Bill begins to address problems in the private rented sector that have made life hell for some of the worst-off people in our most deprived localities, who feel neglected, ignored and dispirited because they have been denied something that we all seek for ourselves—to use the time-honoured phrase, the quiet enjoyment of our homes. Awful landlords are providing dreadful accommodation for some very decent people who are sometimes ignored in our debates. Such landlords conspire with criminal and, in some cases, downright evil people whom they accept as tenants, so we hope that the Bill will deal with that.

The Bill provides great help for people living at risk in houses in multiple occupation. Importantly, at a time of constant attacks on our democracy, it helps councils and local councillors who have been helpless in the face of problems caused by bad private landlords and tenants. They have wanted to help, but have been unable to do so. The situation is also the product of the failure of a substantial part of the market in run-down areas and inadequate regulation. It is our responsibility as legislators to introduce effective legislation, so I welcome the Government's recognition of both those causes.

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In many parts of the country, house prices have rocketed, but that does not apply everywhere. In some areas, prices are static or have even fallen. Nasty absentee private landlords sometimes take over council flats or housing that used to belong to the Coal Board, which they buy for next to nothing. They rake in huge sums of housing benefit, often fraudulently, and hang on in the hope that a publicly funded regeneration scheme will greatly increase the value of their land and property. They are waiting to make a killing, but in the meantime their property is run down and empty. They get in some nasty individuals—people who have been evicted for being bad neighbours somewhere else such as drug addicts running crack houses and drug dens and irresponsible, criminal individuals—who drag down their neighbours' quality of life. They establish themselves in a street or neighbourhood, and gradually spread like a virus, making life intolerable for lots of other people.

People at the dodgy end of the private rented sector are heavily involved in housing benefit fraud, and are financed by the taxpayer. Housing benefit should be called landlord benefit in many areas, because the tenants certainly do not benefit, the standard of housing does not benefit, and taxpayers are being ripped off because they are getting bad value for money. That has been happening in areas ranging from Sunderland to Burnley and Stoke, so I welcome the Government's proposals, which give councils an opportunity to get a grip on the problem, with the selective licensing and registration of private landlords in areas suffering from antisocial behaviour. Such behaviour is not confined to areas with low housing values—there is some very nasty stuff going on in areas where the general value of housing has been going up. I also welcome the mandatory licensing of higher-risk houses in multiple occupation.

These provisions come not a minute too soon. They impose obligations on landlords and at long last give local councils powers to help local people: if they vote in the right councillors, they will get some action to look after them, which is important if we are to sustain our local democracy. Councils will have power to require landlords to bring property up to date, to manage it properly and to deal with bad tenants. If landlords fail, councils will have a duty to take over the management of property.

There may be shortcomings in the proposals—they may need strengthening. As the Tories have criticised the proposals, I look forward to them supporting changes in Committee and on Report to strengthen the measures to tackle the problem of private landlords. I know that the measures have been introduced partly as a result of representations made by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who cannot be here, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). What we are seeing is a Labour Government doing the right thing by the worst-off people in the worst-off neighbourhoods. Taken together with the recently announced measures to tackle loan sharks, we are giving a real boost to the quality of life of some of the most deprived people in the most deprived neighbourhoods.

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Interestingly, all those factors demonstrate the failure of markets in relation to houses in multiple occupation and bad private landlords. The existence of loan sharks, too, shows that the finance sector does not always work properly in relation to people who want to borrow but are skint—many of us have been in such circumstances at one time or another. There is a need for regulation. These days, one might sometimes think that regulation had never achieved anything, and that the nanny state will be denounced. In the past, however, regulation has raised the living standards and quality of life of countless people, and we should not be afraid to regulate—most importantly, on behalf of those who cannot do anything through market forces about the evil circumstances in which they are forced to live.

I apologise again for being late for the opening of my right hon. Friend the Minister's speech. I welcome what is happening, however, which will be a real feather in the cap of the Labour Government. I also hope that the additional points made by other hon. Members, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), will be taken on board.

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