Previous Section Index Home Page

27 Jun 2006 : Column 58WH—continued

27 Jun 2006 : Column 59WH

Although it is very difficult to deal with a situation in which a worker deliberately chooses to lie to several employers about their driving patterns, we will consider whether we should require all agencies placing drivers to make all reasonable checks in this area. We plan to explore the issue further in discussion with stakeholders and Government colleagues, as we would not want to place additional heavy burdens on legitimate firms. In particular, we want to be sure before making any changes that any action would make an appreciable difference to our ability to prevent or crack down on rogue agencies and drivers.

My hon. Friend asked about the number of enforcements. Joint work enforcement pilots are up and running, and there were 22 visits under JWEP up to the end of May. She also asked about false self-employed status. Where agency workers are falsely described as self-employed, we obviously share her concerns. We would advise agency workers in that position to contact the employment agency standards helpline, through ACAS—the telephone number is 08457-474747—where advice can be obtained.

On JWEP progress since the launch in September, we have protocol agreements with all Departments represented on JWEP in respect of intelligence and information sharing. There are regular team meetings looking to expand the intelligence pool by including local government. As I said, there were 22 visits to the end of May.

Mrs. Dunwoody: What does that mean, exactly? Is the project working? What conclusions has it come to? How often does it meet? How many inspectors are there?

Jim Fitzpatrick: There are 12 inspectors, and four helpline teams and head office staff who support the inspecting agency. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend, every complaint is investigated. If she has any information or details, we will be happy to receive them, and we can protect the anonymity of individuals who may feel that they are vulnerable from the agency that placed them or the employer that is employing them.

Finally, we are planning a deregulatory measure, looking at how we can simplify the provision of information requirements on agencies that supply workers for short-term tasks. We will address those improper practices through a combination of better guidance for workers in agencies, and closer working with other Departments and agencies, as well as legal and other measures.

27 Jun 2006 : Column 60WH

In the debate last year, my hon. Friend was told by the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), that we supply leaflets in other languages in accession countries, and they appear to have been successful.

In summary, I would emphasise the Government’s continuing commitment to ending the abuse and mistreatment of all temporary workers, in line with the aspirations of the campaign that has been run by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

Where there are serious criminal offences, it is clearly more appropriate to tell the police to investigate in the first instance, and take action if necessary. If there are serious breaches of employment legislation, the appropriate Government enforcement agency will investigate. Workers or third parties, or even hon. Members, who are uncertain about whom they can turn to for advice in confidence, if they wish it, can contact the ACAS helpline, as I mentioned.

I should point out, however, that the vast majority of employment agencies carry out their functions with professionalism and integrity. We want to bear down and focus on those who do not.

In relation to employment agencies, I am pleased to say that the Department of Trade and Industry can take complaints about the conduct of any employment agency from workers, hirers or any other third party. I understand that some workers might be concerned about repercussions if the agency becomes aware of the identity of the person who makes a complaint, but inspectors will not disclose the name of any complainant during their investigation unless the complainant has confirmed otherwise in writing.

We will take forward any relevant complaint, and can do so in confidence without ever disclosing the name of the concerned worker. As I mentioned, if my hon. Friend or any other hon. Member lets the Department have details of any agency or workers, or areas about which they are concerned, I will certainly ask officials to look into them as a matter of urgency.

I hope that I have offered my hon. Friend some reassurance. I know that she will continue to campaign on the issue, and I will certainly be happy to see her doing that. She knows that my door, and that of the Department, is open to receive any concerns, details or information, because we want to join up with the good agencies whose reputations have been damaged by the rogue agencies and those who are abusing workers to ensure that the industry has a good reputation.

Millions of people choose to work through employment agencies. They do a good job, and it would be wholly inappropriate if they were tarnished as a result of the activities of a small minority. We will, I assure my hon. Friend, continue to look at the issues and move on them where appropriate.

27 Jun 2006 : Column 61WH

Residential Boat Owners

1.28 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate, partly because it is of intrinsic importance to many of my constituents, and because when I first came into the House in 1997, this was the subject of the first Adjournment debate that I initiated. I have had 40 since then, but the subject has a certain sentimental appeal and, more than that, it is possible to say that although the problem about which I am concerned—security of tenure—has not been solved, there has been at least a growing awareness of the issue.

When I first raised the subject, in connection with a dispute involving residential boat owners and the Port of London Authority, and the underpinning problem of lack of security of tenure, it was clear that the Government were not aware that there was an issue, and correspondingly, they did not respond sympathetically.

Recently, the issue has made it on to the map, and there has been a Government consultation paper, “Security of Tenure for Residential Boats”, to which I am sure the Minister will refer, which accepts in many ways at least the fundamentals of the argument. It sets out the issues involved very fairly, and there has been subsequent consultation.

Frankly, I am disappointed that the Government have not gone as far in response to the consultation as I think they should have done on the issue of security of tenure, but, none the less, there is clearly an awareness of the problem and a willingness to do something about it.

Perhaps I might locate this general issue in my constituency. I have the names and addresses of approximately 150 residential boats, housing about 250 adults, in the Twickenham constituency. They are scattered along the Thames on the Middlesex bank from Isleworth opposite Kew gardens, along the Twickenham bank through Hampton Court, right across the south of Hampton. There are five main communities, the largest being Taggs island, and such exotic places as Swan island, Burgoyne quay, Thistlewaite marina and others. There are probably 100 smaller moorings that I have not captured in those figures. My guess is that there are some 250 residential boats in my constituency, and possibly 400 people who are directly affected.

Of course, Britain is a country of boats. An estimate is that there are some 450,000 boats in the UK, but only a small proportion are used for residential purposes. There are disputes as to how big the population is. The Government’s paper cites a figure of some 10,000 to 15,000 based on statistics that they acquired through one of the regulatory agencies. The Residential Boat Owners Association, with which I have discussed the issue, thinks that there are about 15,000 residential boat owners.

The British Marine Federation—the industry, if I can use that term—uses a much smaller number. It says that about 2,000 are recognised, but of course that is part of the problem. Many boats are not recognised because their tenure is not secure. Their owners operate in a grey economy. Indeed, the fact that the official estimate is so low palpably illustrates the problem.

27 Jun 2006 : Column 62WH

British Waterways, which deals mainly with canals, came up with a figure of 6,000, but that did not include the boats in the Port of London Authority, which governs the waterway up to Teddington lock in my constituency. To give a rough idea of the magnitude involved, there are probably about 10,000 boats.

The population is diverse. On the Twickenham stretch, we have what some people call floating palaces—very well upholstered boats—but there are many that provide modest and low-cost accommodation. There are different types of tenancy arrangement—leases, licences and renting arrangements—and two navigation bodies: the Port of London Authority for the tidal waters below Teddington lock and the Environment Agency for those above it. My constituency does not have canals, which are covered by British Waterways, nor does it have Crown Estate properties. Four different navigation authorities are involved, so this is not a simple issue.

To give more of a human flavour, I have come to know many of the boat owners. It is increasingly apparent that what 10 years ago was primarily a lifestyle choice is now becoming an important form of tenure for people on low incomes who are trying to get established in an expensive part of London. I went to one quay recently where the majority of residents are young professionals. There are teachers and social workers who are unable to afford commercial rents in south-west London. As providing a £250,000 mortgage on a salary of £25,000 is absolutely hopeless, they got together a bank loan and some savings to buy a boat. That is the only kind of home they can afford.

The Government acknowledge in their White Paper that residential boats are becoming a small but significant—I believe that that is the phrase the housing Minister used—part of the housing market. The Mayor of London has also taken up the issue, because he recognises that it is important.

That was brought home to me some time ago when a boat sank. The owners survived, but lost all their possessions. Because their boat sank, they became homeless, which was quite a problem for the local authority, which had not previously realised that people who live on boats have homes and could therefore become homeless. It fought the homelessness claim, but eventually the couple were rehoused.

The case underlined the fact that if those 250 families, or whatever the number is, had to be rehoused in some other way, that would bring considerable pressure to bear on social housing in the area. Residential boat ownership provides an important social function as well as an economic one.

The people who live on residential boats have a big problem that is preventing that sector of the housing market from expanding: lack of security. It is recognised—the Government acknowledge this in the White Paper—that this is the last segment of the housing market to enjoy no security of tenure. Park homes and mobile homes are now covered, and Travellers are protected, but this segment enjoys no security. The practical implication is that residents are exposed to the risk of summary eviction. Of course, eviction must follow the course of law, and there are contractual arrangements of varying quality, but many residents are subject to eviction at short notice. I have something of a quarrel with how the Government have dealt with that.

27 Jun 2006 : Column 63WH

In the White Paper, the Government appear to have bought the argument from people in the industry who provide moorings that existing law—the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999—is largely sufficient to provide security. The people with whom I have discussed that, at federation and individual boat-owner level, argue that it is completely inadequate.

I do not know whether the Government are keeping up with the case law, but we had a recent case in my area where four boat owners were evicted. The case went to Kingston county court and the judge took the view that although he was highly sympathetic to the individuals concerned and felt that they had not been properly treated, the law providing security of tenure was sufficiently weak that he could not, under the law, protect their position. He allowed the eviction to proceed.

I note that in some of the literature there is a certain sarcastic tone in some of the industrial side’s contribution to the debate, questioning whether boat owners have ever had such problems with the law. I can cite a specific case, and I am sure that there are many others. That lack of security and the exposure to the risk of eviction create secondary problems, as boat owners are often exposed to arbitrary, large and sometimes capricious increases in rent. I have seen cases where the rent was increased by 200 or 300 per cent. and the occupiers had little power to resist it.

The problems do not simply relate to the companies that provide the moorings, which argue that they are often intermediaries against the navigation authorities. The Environment Agency and the Port of London Authority have a mandate from the Government to pursue sound finance, increase their income and reduce Government subsidy, and one way they do that is by trying to squeeze a bit more rent out of people who have moorings, which often manifests itself in large rent increases.

The practical problem for boat owners is that they have little bargaining power when such demands are made. Boat owners do not have a forum within which they can negotiate. Many of them feel harassed. When I tried to get a bit of publicity for the issue, I was struck by how many were reluctant to appear in local newspaper pictures. They did not want to be identified and were afraid that in some way their landlord, or the owner of the mooring, might take action against them. They did not necessarily think that they would, but there was apprehension as well as lack of security and of the ability to stick up for themselves, which was rather worrying.

A further consequence of the lack of security is that there is no pressure on the operators to improve their facilities. On one quay in my constituency, there is one toilet and shower between 17 boats. That is not quite as disastrous as it might appear, since there are chemical toilets on the boats, but none the less the provision is poor and the boat owners have little leverage or bargaining power with which to strengthen their position.

Perhaps the most fundamental point is that expanding the sector is very difficult. If people are going to invest in a boat, we are talking about quite large sums of money. They would like to get a
27 Jun 2006 : Column 64WH
mortgage, but they cannot because they are on short-term lease or letting arrangements. In any event, banks will not provide a conventional mortgage-type arrangement, so it is very difficult for people who want to move into the sector to do so.

I recognise that there is another side to the story. I have read the submissions of British Waterways and the British Marine Federation, which speak for the owners of the moorings. They have a case, which we need to understand. The commercial side of the business is saying that if security of tenure is given, the provision of commercial moorings will be inhibited. The owners have a choice. They can, in certain circumstances, provide residential or recreational boating facilities. If they are going to have a lot of hassle from the residential boat owners, they will simply switch.

If the Government succumbed to the pressure for security of tenure, all they would do is reduce supply. Basic economics suggest that we cannot disregard that argument. However, the conclusion that I would draw is that any action to improve security of tenure must be accompanied by planning provision—in other words, to safeguard moorings for residential boat ownership—otherwise it will operate in the way that the pessimists predict.

My final comments—I will try to draw to a conclusion rather quickly—turn to the Government’s proposals and the reactions to them. The Government have offered four options, from the status quo to full security of tenure, with two intermediate possibilities that involve what effectively amounts to self-regulation through best practice or model agreements—variants of the same general idea.

The argument for security is provided by residential boat owners, who believe that they should have treatment consistent with that of other forms of house tenure. They believe that they need the security to invest and because they need to be protected from harassment and a weak bargaining position.

Very striking in the Government’s summary of their consultation is the fact that the debate has become worryingly polarised. Of the 77 residential boat owners who were consulted, 72 opted for the fourth option, security of tenure. Every single one of the residential boat owners that I have consulted came to the same conclusion, which is that without security of tenure, they can do little. On the other hand, on the commercial side, there was complete polarisation too. I think that only one of the 39 respondents thought security of tenure acceptable.

There is a schism between the different sides of the industry, which is worrying if we want to achieve consensus. I can understand why the Government are attracted by the two voluntary regulatory options—the second and third ones. I think that the Government wish to proceed that way. Since the Minister appears to be moving in the direction of model agreements and best practice, perhaps she will tell us how that will be disseminated.

We are dealing with a fragmented activity, which takes place all over the country and involves small moorings. If the process is to be initiated by the Government, how will they spread it? Are they going to take responsibility? How will they ensure that, beyond purely token initiatives, best practice will spread?

27 Jun 2006 : Column 65WH

I have two final points. One of the positive things to come out of the Government’s exercise is the recognition that we are dealing with a wider problem than merely security of tenure. I read of two Government initiatives in the White Paper and welcome them. First is the acknowledgement that we are not simply dealing with tenure arrangements, but that there is also a shortage of moorings. That must be addressed partly through planning.

I would welcome some indication from the Minister that the Government plan to produce planning guidance to encourage local councils—indeed, strengthening their position—to provide residential boat-owning accommodation.

The second, and perhaps in the long term most important, point is that the key players are the quangos, the regulatory bodies and navigation authorities—the Port of London Authority, the Environment Agency and the waterways agency—which, from the tone of their comments, are rather hostile to residential boat owners.

At best, the authorities tolerate the residential boat owners, but they certainly do not see them as an integral part of canal conservation; they regard them as a bit of a nuisance. The Government response says that they intend to write to them, or at least contact them, and discuss with them how they can improve their practices to make residential boat owning a more secure and viable form of living.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is an exercise she intends to undertake and give us some indication of how she intends to do it.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con) rose—

Mr. Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. In a half-hour debate, I can call the right hon. and learned Gentleman only with the agreement of both the initiator of the debate and the Minister.

Dr. Cable: I am happy for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to speak.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): So am I, but it will eat into my time to respond.

Next Section Index Home Page