Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.31 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I draw hon. Members attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

How could I not welcome the Bill, representing as I do a constituency where the housing was for decades synonymous with the worst abuses of private landlords, such as Hoogstraten and Rachman? I would have welcomed the Bill's provisions seven or eight years ago, when I was leading a campaign against a hostel on Edgware road that Westminster council had ignored for seven years. In that hostel at any given time 200 people, including dozens of children, shared 12 cookers. I shall never forget the couple—I know them still—who brought their new baby home to Clarendon court hostel and spent the night taking it in turns to stay awake in order to pick cockroaches out of their child's nose, ears and mouth. I am happy to say that I finally persuaded the environmental health department to prosecute the hostel's owners, who received the highest fine ever imposed on a private landlord.

I could have done with the provisions of the Bill when, not so long ago, I discovered in my own road a boarding house—one of several often used by labourers who

12 Jan 2004 : Column 611

come over from Ireland to work on the railways and the roads—where a 79-year-old man was renting a garden shed and had been for the previous 40 years. Despite being well overdue, the Bill is very welcome indeed because, as many hon. Members have said, we still encounter terrible examples of poor conditions in the private rented sector.

However, times change, and so do areas, and what is true in many parts of the country is now less true in areas such as central London. What were terrible private sector properties have, for the most part, although there are exceptions, either been turned over to housing associations—some of the properties in the Rachman-land of north Kensington have been turned over to bodies such as Notting Hill Housing Trust, gone up-market and now retail for £250,000 to £500,000—or been rented back to homeless families. One of the reasons I strongly welcome the provisions on right to buy is that although it has been a great success in terms of enabling sections of the population who would otherwise have had no access to equity to get it, in areas of extremely high demand the properties—often the worst—are being rented back in their hundreds and thousands not only to the people on housing benefit whom my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned earlier, but in my constituency to the local council. Properties sold under right to buy are now being rented back as temporary accommodation, and housing benefit covers the £250 or £300 a week rent charged for properties that are next door to properties that are being rented for £90 a week.

It is therefore essential to have a check on the right to buy, certainly until supply has expanded sufficiently to give us the luxury of such choices. I agree with much of the sentiment expressed by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). However, under the right-to-buy scheme, the most desirable properties have been sold, including street properties, low-rise properties and properties in better neighbourhoods, which means that choice for the poorest and the most vulnerable, to whom he referred, has been removed. Properties on the 20th floor of a tower block or the worst of the deck-access estates are now the only ones available to many of my constituents. The problem was never the right to buy—it was the fact that we did not create the opportunity to build new stock of equivalent quality for 20 years.

We often discuss the increase in the number of people who are seeking to be categorised as homeless which, as I have said on a number of occasions, is connected to the issue of asylum. I remind the House that although the number of homeless acceptances is 10,000 below what it was 10 years ago, the number of new lettings has fallen from just over 40,000 a year to just over 30,000 a year. The problem is therefore supply, and we must deal with it before we can develop other opportunities, including the equity opportunity. Several colleagues have alluded to the omission from the Bill of a provision to deal with the pressure of supply. There should also be a provision allowing us scope to address the crisis of overcrowding, as we need an opportunity to deal with the problem. We cannot go into the 21st century with legislation dating not just, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) said, from the 1930s but from the 19th century.

12 Jan 2004 : Column 612

Every time I speak about such issues in the House I raise new circumstances that should be treated as intolerable in the modern world. Just before Christmas, I met a family of seven who share a two-bedroom house. Three teenagers, three younger children and their mother live in a small two-bedroom house. Recently, environmental health services advised them to house one of the children not in the kitchen or living room but under the stairs. That may be a macabre but neat trick in the Harry Potter novels, but it is quite unacceptable in the 21st century. I accept that we cannot include detailed provisions about the nature of acceptable accommodation in the Bill. The Minister has kindly listened to our representations, and committed the Government to research enabling us to understand the scale of the problem. However, we have a chance to address the issue in the Bill—we cannot afford to lose the opportunity in what may be the last housing Bill for some years to grasp the nettle and make sure that it includes a definition of overcrowding to meet the needs of the modern world.

Ms Oona King: As my hon. Friend is aware, the Minister kindly met us to discuss the issue and is sympathetic to our concerns. Does she share my concern that there may be a downgrading of standards if, in arrangements for same-sex siblings, the disregard of 10-year-olds is extended to cover 12-year-olds? Under those arrangements, one of my constituents shared a bedroom with her father until the age of 23.

Ms Buck: I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will clarify the position, because under current legislation on overcrowding, a child under 10—we must wait to see whether that will be amended to 12—is treated as half a person. My son turned 10 on 27 December, but I did not notice him doubling in size between the 26th and the 28th. A child needs a lot of space, and if we are to ensure, as the Government so commendably want to do, that our children have the opportunity to enjoy good health and achieve decent educational attainments, they must be given that space.

A nine-year-old takes a lot of space; indeed, a baby under the age of one should also be treated as a human being and not discounted entirely for this purpose.

In our constituencies, we have families in which a baby or two, a toddler or two and teenagers are all crowding into the same accommodation. Partly by recognising the scale of the overcrowding pressures and the research on that, the Government must start using their influence with the Housing Corporation and others, and possibly even through the new private sector companies, to say that in areas of housing stress the need for larger accommodation must be recognised. The latest Joseph Rowntree study pointed out clearly that if we are to have a proper social mix in the cities, a financial imperative to create one-bedroomed and two-bedroomed properties is no good, because that is precisely what is driving families out of inner-city areas and unbalancing the delicate cohesion in the community in relation to all its different sections. I urge the Government to take that opportunity.

Finally, I want to support those colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who have raised the issue of Travellers. I have a Travellers' site in my constituency,

12 Jan 2004 : Column 613

and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a Conservative council, has always been positive in dealing with some of the issues in relation to that estate. I am also grateful to the Government for the substantial investment that was put into that site a couple of years ago, which enabled the facilities to be upgraded, which in turn is very welcome. If my hon. Friend were to visit that estate, which is buried under several of the slip roads to the Westway, he would see a kind of vision of hell. As it happens, however, several of its residents would prefer to stay on that site to roaming around in a country in which, as the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's research have found, there is a pitiful shortage of sites. It is precisely because there are so few official sites that are properly regulated and managed that we have some of the tensions between the community and Travellers. If we are to look for a long-term solution, it is an imperative that the Government also take the opportunity to return to some form of the provisions that applied before the repeal in 1994 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968. We must examine the responsibilities of local authorities across the country to ensure an adequate supply of caravan sites.

8.42 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. In any hierarchy of human need, the shelter and security afforded by a home will always rank high. In a country in which the principal asset of many millions of people is their own home, and in which access to suitable, affordable, decent-quality housing is the dominating issue in many millions of lives, we will consider few more important Bills in this Parliament.

I agree with many who have already spoken in believing that this should and could be a bigger and better Bill, and I believe that it should be a flagship Bill. It is a good Bill so far, because it aims to address the issues faced by some of the most vulnerable people in our society in some of the most problematic housing in our country. In particular, I support strongly the Bill's aim to improve housing conditions, to license houses in multiple occupation and the people who own and manage them, and to introduce home information packs for use at the time of house sales. I deeply regret, however, the fact that the Government have so far resisted all efforts to persuade them to include measures that they have agreed are necessary to improve conditions, to strengthen licensing, to provide better information at the time of sale and to protect vulnerable people living in park homes.

The minority of rogue park owners who make their residents' lives a misery ensure that park homes are a significant part of the housing problems of this country. If we get rid of those people through the right legislation, I believe that park homes can be a big part of the solution, providing affordable, adaptable, good-quality sustainable housing. It is vital that the Bill is amended to include legislative proposals that are supported by 150 Members of the House, by the park homes industry, by the four residents associations, by the Local Government Association, and above all by the Government themselves. The Government's excellent response to the park homes review acknowledges that park homes are housing, and accepts the case for major

12 Jan 2004 : Column 614

reform in respect of three key issues. The time for that reform is now: park homes reform belongs here, in this Bill.

I welcome the introduction of a housing health and safety rating system and the identification of hazards included in the fact sheet issued by the ODPM, which certifies that it will apply to all types of dwelling. Among them are hazards arising from gas, electricity and water supplies, inadequate lighting, fire and inadequate arrangements for sanitation and drainage. Those are huge issues for people living in some of the worst properties in the country in the private rented sector, but they are also of major concern for people—often elderly—who live in park homes. The Government's October 2001 response to the park homes working party states:

Park homes are housing, and park home reform belongs in the Bill.

Clause 3 requires local authorities to consider housing conditions in their districts. Many authorities will not be able to do that without considering conditions in residential parks. Clauses 5 to 37 set out local authorities' powers in relation to the enforcement of housing standards. Authorities will fail in their duties if they do not consider the plight of elderly residents in parks where the electricity supply is inadequate and vital equipments fails; where lighting does not work properly, creating dangers in the dark; where there are floods leaving people marooned in their homes; and where homes are too close together, presenting a danger from fire.

I strongly support the proposals in part 2 to license houses in multiple occupation, and to designate additional licensing areas. The Government have accepted—here again I refer to park homes—that it would be beneficial to place a duty on all local authorities to attach, monitor and enforce licensing conditions. Clause 55 contains excellent proposals relating to evidence establishing whether someone is

When considering that, Members should also have regard to the Government's expressed intention that holders of park home licences and managers of residential parks should be fit and proper persons.

Some very good people own and manage residential parks: Michael and Julie Ward, for instance, own two excellent residential parks in my constituency, and at the end of this month will for the third time be acclaimed as park owners of the year. Decent business people can make a good living and provide first-rate conditions for those living in residential parks. Some dishonest and violent people own such parks, however, and some who own and manage them harass their residents. The Government have accepted the principle that the protection against harassment that is available to park home owners should be on a par with that available to private rented tenants, and they have a great opportunity to put that right in the Bill. The current

12 Jan 2004 : Column 615

maximum fine for breach of a residential park site licence is £2,500, a derisory figure. Clause 82 proposes a fine of £20,000 for a licence breach in the private rented sector; why not extend that to park homes?

Part 5 introduces a duty to provide home information packs. Some of the main problems affecting residential parks are caused by a lack of information or sharp practice relating to written statements, and a lack of clarity in regard to implied terms at the time of sale. The Government have accepted that statements should be provided in advance, and have agreed that one addition to the implied terms should be a pitch plan showing the boundaries of the plot where a person will live. Those commitments could easily be stated in the Bill.

It is more than two years since the Government set out their commitment to legislate on park homes, but so far they have said that there is no parliamentary time. Is there really no time? Is there no time for the elderly man being harassed by violent bullies who are trying to make him leave his home? Is there no time for the couple with limited means who are threatened with court action by a multi-millionaire when they try to mildly assert their rights? Is there no time for honest, hard-working people who put their savings into a park home and find that their park has been bought for cash by someone with a criminal record and an ability to cheat them? There is plenty of time—and the Bill is the time.

I have been delighted to hear around the Chamber today ringing endorsements of the need for park home reform. No one in the House should expect vulnerable residents in residential parks to wait a moment longer for a modicum of justice and fair play.

The ODPM Committee declared that there should be discrete park home legislation within two years. The Government have not given that commitment. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) support the call for the inclusion of park home measures in this Bill. The Government have a hand-out Bill for private Members, but last week none of the lucky 20 took it up. The Government have agreed 13 recommendations of the park home review. I for one am prepared to table 13 amendments to this Bill. I should not need to draft them myself.

The hand-out Bill covers harassment, the written statement and its terms and the age criterion for ending agreements. If the legislation is already drafted, and if there is any will to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society from rogues and criminals, those clauses at the very least should be incorporated in this Bill right away. Park homes are housing. This is an important Housing Bill and no one in the House should ignore the needs of vulnerable people living in park homes.

The Government have done an excellent job in setting up the park homes review, in responding extremely positively to the review and in setting out so many areas for legislation. They need to complete that excellent job by incorporating in this Bill all their promises to park home residents, to the park home industry and to anyone concerned about conditions in park homes. We can make it a really excellent Bill and bring real reform to park homes by that means.

12 Jan 2004 : Column 616

Next Section

IndexHome Page