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Mobile Home Parks

11 am

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity, because although the rights of mobile home or park home residents have been discussed and amended recently, I want to highlight a constituency case that shows some of the major problems. I shall talk    about the problems at a mobile home park called   Thameside Court, near Northmoor in West Oxfordshire, referring also to Kings Court in Carterton; I shall relate those cases to the general state of the law and put some questions to the Minister about how we can ensure that the people involved have meaningful rights and proper security.

A Mr. Tom Hartley bought Thameside Court, which has 60 residents, on 8 September 2003. After receiving a number of complaints from residents, I organised a meeting with the residents at Northmoor village hall this September. The hall was packed. Former residents as well as current ones and their families attended. Many of the people living in Thameside Court have limited means and are worried by the cost of getting proper legal advice, and they are worried about who will look out for their interests. The residents' association is doing a great job, but it is newly constituted and feels, quite understandably, that is up against a highly experienced park owner. It was incredibly moving to hear people's powerful testimony about the way they have been treated and their determination to ensure that others do not suffer in the same way. Why are those people so concerned? There are two issues. The first is about the way in which park rules can be changed. The second is about the rights owners have when selling their homes.

In October 2003, shortly after buying the site, the owner wrote to the residents suggesting a change in the park rules. Some 90 per cent. of residents objected to the   new rules and a meeting was requested with the owner. Under his membership of the British Holiday and Home Parks Association he should grant such a meeting, but up to now he has refused to do so, even though a residents' association has now been formed and the request has been made several times, including through me. I am delighted to say that, following letters from me to the BHHPA and other action—possibly including the announcement of this debate—a meeting has now been granted. None the less, the saga of the rules is interesting.

Initially, the site owner refused to respond to a number of letters sent by the residents' association about the issue. When he did, it became very clear that he was not willing to hold a public meeting and would deal only with individual residents. In a letter that the site owner eventually sent to the residents on 7 June 2004, referring to the residents' association he said:

When I wrote to him, the site owner responded stating his belief that

It should be remembered that 90 per cent. objected to the new rules. He ended his letter:

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As I have said, a meeting will now, I hope, take place.

In her letter to me, Ros Pritchard, director general of the BHHPA, referred to Mr Hartley's "proposed rule changes". I am glad that the word "proposed" was used, because in a letter to the residents on 2 December 2004, the site owner said:

I hope that this reflects a genuine change of approach and that a more reasonable dialogue can now be established.

I said that the saga was interesting. It throws up two questions for the Minister. First, does he think that we   need proper rights of recognition for residents' associations? Secondly, should the BHHPA guidelines about rule changes and consultation be written into the law? Let me be clear: some of the proposed rules are very significant. One example is: "Strictly no children." A second is:

Vitally, one rule change reads:

The situation at Kings Court in Carterton is a little different. The owner there wanted to develop the land to provide housing and applied for planning permission, but there were and are issues about rule changes and rent charges. Residents have worked together and presented quite a united front, which has clearly had an impact.

To return to Thameside Court, I said that the second concern expressed at the public meeting at Northmoor was about the right of owners to sell their homes. The rule changes are, I believe, directly linked to that issue. If we think about the proposed changes—no kids, no one under the age of 50, no one allowed to put up for sale signs—we can see the connection. Some residents felt that they were under pressure to leave because of the rule changes, but even for those people, it was becoming more difficult to sell homes, because they could not put up for sale signs and the like.

Let me read the testimony of one person who felt enormous pressure to sell their home. The quote is quite long, but I hope that hon. Members will indulge me. That person said:

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One resident alleged that the site owner refused to accept the display of notices inside or outside a mobile home advertising it for sale. After it was pointed out to the owner that he was required, as a member of the BHHPA, to permit one for sale notice to be displayed in the window of a home for sale, provided that it does not exceed A4 size, he amended the rules.

There have been a number of accusations of improper behaviour, and I know that the Government recognise the problem of harassment. A press release from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on 24 February states:

I congratulate the Government on recognising the problem.

When another couple informed the site owner that they intended to sell their home because it was no longer their main residence, he said—this will become familiar—that he could not allow them to do that as the unit was "too old and worthless". He did not want old units on the park and intended to remove their home and burn it. That elderly couple told the residents' association that they were then subjected to threats. The site owner warned them that if they discussed their situation with anyone else, he would leave them with no money at all. In the end, he gave them a cheque for about £5,000 and the unit was carefully dismantled and removed on transporters. The same methods were used with another elderly couple, who had hoped to sell their unit for £70,000. In the end, they sold it to the site owner for £20,000. It is being resold for £90,000. I accept that work has been carried out on those units, but the fact is that people have not been given a fair deal.

What is happening seems fairly straightforward. Owners recognise that the value of these sites is now great, particularly in areas of high housing demand such as West Oxfordshire, and particularly if new units can be erected. On occasion, improper pressure is put on people to sell at a low price or to leave because of other rule changes. The case histories that I heard at the public meeting, some of which I have shared today, are pretty clear. There are cases in which what has happened can be done within the law because, for example, the owner in question has another home, but due process should be followed, and judging by what I have seen and heard, that has not happened in every case.

To give credit where credit is due, the Government have taken action. The press release from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on 24 February explained a number of amendments, including the following provisions:

However, some important questions remain for the Minister to answer.

First, what more can be done to stop the abuse of the   rules and the exercise of market power? Secondly, what additional role could the local authorities, or even
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trading standards departments, play in ensuring that owners of mobile units get a fair deal? The Mobile Homes Act 1983 potentially provides people with extensive rights and the Government's amendments to the Housing Bill will extend that provision. However, those rights are mainly enforceable through the civil courts, which means that people must pursue the action themselves, usually with the assistance of a solicitor. In the case in question, West Oxfordshire district council has been extremely supportive, as has the citizens advice bureau, but the council finds it difficult to intervene directly on a resident's behalf because it can deal only with issues relevant to the site licence conditions, or accusations of harassment if they are properly made and put to the council. My constituents often have neither the funds nor the inclination to drag the matter through the courts, especially because of their shortage of funds, and because they fear the consequences of taking that sort of action.

I welcome the recent Government amendments to the Housing Bill, which sought to address the serious concern about park home owners' rights. However, it is essential that the changes are effective in reality, on the ground, when residents either feel too intimidated to take their case to court, or simply prefer the option to leave, selling their property to the site owner at a very low price. There are many good parks that operate fairly, but I suspect that the type of harassment that I have described is common. One of the main reasons why mobile home residents do not assert their rights under the Mobile Homes Act is that they are often vulnerable and elderly, and many lack the means to take their case to court.

I have spoken about residents' rights, but park owners have rights too. I respect the fact that they are running a business, not a charity or a public service, and I understand that they must be able to take steps to ensure the quality of their parks, to protect their investment and to run an efficient and effective operation. Because up to now Mr. Hartley has not had a meeting with residents, I accept that I have not fully heard his side of the story, although I have called him on   the telephone and corresponded with him, as the Minister knows. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I have become involved only because the residents were distraught and felt that they had nowhere else to go. The stories they told me, especially about trying to sell their homes, are quite chilling. Some people have lost their life savings; they are bitter about that and I am angry on their behalf.

My conclusions are as follows: first, we need a system whereby local authorities and citizens advice bureaux can offer more support. Local councils may need to be given specific powers in that respect and I hope that the Minister will keep an open mind on the issue. Secondly, information for mobile home residents must be clear, concise and specific, telling them about their rights and how to exercise them. It should tell them what to do if they feel they are being mistreated or worse, or ripped off. It should also tell them when not to do something, but to consult the residents' association and seek the advice of a solicitor if they are concerned about what they are being asked to do.
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Thirdly, the Government need to keep under review whether more needs to be done about how park rules can be changed and whether a clearer role could be set    out for residents' associations. Fourthly, the Government need to examine carefully the rights of owners to sell their mobile homes in a reasonable market and at a fair price. Fifthly, and lastly, residents need to work together: on their own they are likely to be picked off and disadvantaged if faced by an unscrupulous owner, whereas together they can stand up for each other, seek the backing of the law and ensure that their rights are upheld.

At the meeting in Northmoor, there was strong agreement on the following points. First, no one should agree to action set out by the owner without first consulting the residents' association. Secondly, the request for a meeting between the residents' association and the owner should be made again. Thirdly, the residents' association needed to take legal advice about the position with regard to the proposed rule changes and what has happened about the sale of certain homes. I hope that the Minister agrees that that is the right advice. Hon. Members are often put in a difficult position in such situations, because they come between owner and residents. However, I hope that that was reasonable advice to give to park home residents, to ensure that their rights were protected.

I know that the Minister has been examining the issue for some time, and that he is therefore almost certainly more expert than I. However, I hope that I have crystallised some of the issues by raising a constituency case that throws light on the matter, and put forward some thoughts for future consideration. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing the debate and on his speech. I welcome the opportunity to debate mobile home parks—in fact, similar matters were raised in the House only a fortnight ago, at ODPM oral questions.

I am extremely sorry to hear of the problems that the hon. Gentleman has so graphically described—a sorry saga indeed. I hope that, as a result of his intervention, some progress is now being made. The problems that he describes are unacceptable and a response is needed, although I hope that he understands that I cannot speak about individual cases. I shall use this opportunity to outline how current provisions and ongoing reforms in respect of park homes will help not only those residents but others throughout the country who may be experiencing similar difficulties. Certainly, the issue has not had the prominence that it deserves, given the nature of the exploitation by unscrupulous site owners in the past.

I pay tribute to others who have been considering the issue for some time. My noble Friend Lord Graham of Edmonton and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) have campaigned on those matters. I also refer the hon. Gentleman to the all-party group on park home owners, which has worked hard on the issue for a number of years.

The Government set up the park homes working party in 1998 in response to the views of many residents that some park owners were behaving in the way
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described by the hon. Gentleman—pressurising and harassing residents. The working party's aim was to consider the operation of existing controls on residential park homes and to make recommendations on what changes, if any, would constitute a fair and workable solution that struck the right balance between the needs and interests of park owners and home owners. The working party's report on the options it considered was published in July 2000. It made 30 recommendations covering a wide range of issues, including changes to the rules on the sale of homes, the provision of written statements, the ending of agreements, harassment, site   licensing and the rates of commission and pitch fee    available. The Government accepted 25 of the 30 recommendations and, as the hon. Gentleman said, a number of those have been included in the Housing Bill. Those provisions will strengthen the rights of residents of mobile home parks and, at the same time, ensure that the industry's regulatory framework helps to meet the growing need for quality, affordable housing. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, when such parks are well run, they provide a good opportunity for people to find affordable places to live.

Turning to the specific points that the hon. Gentleman made, he mentioned the problems of harassment that some residents have experienced. Harassment is one of the most disturbing of the many issues that the hon. Gentleman raised today. Let me make it clear that harassment of any kind has no place on park home sites, or anywhere else. There should be strict enforcement by local authorities, which have clear powers to deal with it. Although, as the hon. Gentleman said, residents can be   frightened in such situations, the local authority needs   statements from residents who experience such difficulties. Residents must come forward and make statements so that a local authority can bring a prosecution.

Local authorities, in addition to their power to prosecute, can be helpful in offering informal advice and   guidance to residents. It appears that the hon. Gentleman, as their Member of Parliament, has also been offering such guidance, which is very helpful to residents. We have issued best practice guidance to local authorities on this subject, following the publication of a report entitled "Harassment and unlawful eviction of private rented sector tenants and park home residents"; there is thus guidance for local authorities.

We have increased the protection for occupiers of park homes against harassment and illegal eviction. The Housing Bill amends the Caravan Sites Act 1968 to mirror the protection under the Protection From Eviction Act 1977, which governs the protection for occupiers with other types of tenure, including tenants of conventional housing, against unlawful eviction and harassment. Importantly, the wording, which refers to a site owner doing

of the occupier that cause him to abandon his home has been amended to refer to "acts likely to interfere" with the occupier's peace or comfort, which is obviously an easier test to satisfy in the courts. In addition, a new offence has been introduced, which does not require intent to be shown with respect to the harassment. It will be sufficient if the site owner or agent knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, that his conduct is likely to
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result in an occupier abandoning occupation. That therefore increases the protection available to occupiers and the chance of successful prosecutions.

The Bill also creates a power whereby the Secretary of State can add additional terms to be implied into the    agreement between the site owner and occupier governing the occupation of the site, and to repeal and vary those in the Mobile Homes Act 1983. Because existing agreements are of infinite duration, it is necessary for the Secretary of State to be able to amend the statutory implied terms for existing agreements, where these are clearly inadequate. Provision has therefore been made for the first exercise of the power to   have retrospective effect—that is a very powerful measure. Future exercises of the power will be non-retrospective. That was discussed during the consultation on "Park Home Statutory Instruments: Consultation on Implied Terms and Written Statement", which we closed on 22 October. We propose to insert a right of quiet enjoyment of the pitch into all contracts. We are aware that many site owners enter the pitch with a view to harassing residents, so we propose to require site owners to give 24 hours' written notice before they are allowed entry to the pitch.

I shall now speak to some of the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, including allegations of illegal eviction. The current written statement that residents receive makes it clear that the specific grounds on which a contract can be terminated by the site owner include a court's being satisfied that a term of the agreement has been breached, that notice to remedy the breach has not been complied with in a reasonable time, and that termination is reasonable. Another ground is that the site owner has applied to a court to terminate an agreement because an occupier is not using the home as their only or main residence. Also, at present, a site owner can apply to a court to terminate an agreement at the end of the current five-year period on the basis that the age and condition of a home is having a detrimental effect on the amenity of the site, or that it is likely to have a detrimental effect before the end of the next five-year period.

In the Housing Bill we have provided that the age of a home should be removed as a relevant criterion for ending an agreement. The amendment will remove the reference to age from the Mobile Homes Act, as we consider that only the condition of the home, not its age, should determine whether it is having a detrimental effect on the amenity of the site. The amendment will also enable courts to consider the condition of the unit and to allow time for appropriate repairs if reasonably practicable, and if the occupier indicates that he intends to carry out those repairs. That would deal with some of the instances that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

We are examining a number of issues in the implied terms consultation paper on protection from eviction. We aim to remove mention of the relevant five-year period so that the current condition is the only reason for which a site owner can apply to have a home removed. We also propose that a court can evict someone on the basis that their home is no longer their only or main residence only if a court considers it reasonable to do so. That will protect people who have prolonged absences from their home, such as lengthy hospital stays, or to care for a sick relative elsewhere in the country, from an abuse of those circumstances.
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The Housing Bill will also improve the transparency of transactions and ensure that the resident has more information on the transaction at the time of purchase. At present, written statements setting out the terms of the agreement between site owner and occupier governing occupation of the site by the occupier may be given up to three months after the agreement has commenced. It is quite amazing that that is the current position. I am pleased to say that the Bill requires a written statement of terms to be given to a prospective occupier 28 days before any agreement for the sale of the mobile home is made; or, if there is no   such agreement, not later than 28 days before the occupation agreement is entered into. To clarify, the parties will be able to agree a shorter period than 28 days between themselves, but the prospective occupier must indicate their consent in writing to the specified shorter time scale. That provision is designed to ensure that potential park home occupiers are made aware of the terms under which they will occupy the site before—not three months after—coming on to the site.

The hon. Gentleman gave some examples of restrictions on sales. I cannot talk about specific cases, but will talk about the issue in general. At present, a simple failure to give timely approval to a purchaser, as opposed to the active withdrawing of approval, is a method used by some site owners who wish to force occupiers of older-style homes into selling back to them. If the delays are too long, potential purchasers lose interest and it becomes difficult in practice to sell the home and assign the agreement to anyone. In that way, sale to the site owner becomes the only practicable option. The site owner can then replace the old home with a new model, or do it up, to sell on at considerable profit. The Housing Bill introduces a contractual duty for the site owner to give approval to a prospective purchaser within a time limit of 28 days unless it is reasonable not to do so. If the site owner does not issue a decision within 28 days, or withholds approval unreasonably, the occupier can apply to the court and seek damages for breach of contract. The occupier can also seek an order from the court declaring that the prospective purchaser is approved.

The consultation paper for secondary legislation proposed further changes to aid the transparency of the transaction. The Bill will help to deter site owners from behaving in an unreasonable manner, by making them explain the reasons for withholding consent. However, the process could be made more transparent by the resident already knowing possible reasons for consent being withheld. The consultation paper asks site owners to specify criteria, which, although not exhaustive, would provide a useful checklist of standard criteria applicable in all cases for residents. We propose that it be made available to residents with the written statement.
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The hon. Gentleman also raised a number of issues about the amendment of the park rules. That subject is   well covered by the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999, which provide that a term may be unfair if it has the object or effect of enabling the seller or supplier to alter the terms of the contract without a valid reason specified in the contract. Where park rules or other obligations are incorporated into the contract made between a park owner and a park resident, the Office of Fair Trading is likely to object to any term that allows the park owner to make substantial alterations that change the balance of advantage under the contract. The OFT takes the view that any such change should be made only with the genuine agreement of the park residents. The OFT is also likely to object to a term that enables the park owner, without a valid reason, to alter important characteristics of the way in which the service will be provided. Unfair contract terms are unlawful and the OFT will look into such matters and take action if necessary. Park residents are legally entitled to receive the service that they agreed to purchase, not one that is merely analogous or similar.

We are shortly to consult on some more recommendations from the park homes working party that deal with site licensing and the recognition of residents' associations. In January next year, we will consider the recognition of residents' associations in park homes; that will an important area for the hon. Gentleman to look at when we publish our consultations in a few months time. We will also consider the reform of the payment regime—the 10 per cent. commission—early next year. Those recommendations will help us to take forward the measures that we have already put in place.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we should not allow the obvious and well-known problems, which are so distressing for individuals, to affect the reputation of all operators, because we know that there are good operators who run parks effectively and we do not want to do them an injustice. Park home living is attractive to many people: it offers a freedom that other forms of occupancy do not, and it provides a livelihood for many responsible site owners who care for their sites and for the residents of the homes on such sites. We have no will to curtail park home provision, and indeed we are happy to encourage more.

I hope that I have answered most of the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman. We are making significant progress and I congratulate him on bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is an important one, and I hope that the measures that we are introducing will be an important first step. We shall press ahead with secondary legislation at the earliest opportunity.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.
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