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27 Jun 2006 : Column 65WH—continued

1.45 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I am grateful for being allowed to speak, and I shall be brief because I understand the constraints. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on raising the matter. I speak because of the interests of the Chelsea Reach Association, which has similar interests to those of the hon. Gentleman.

I want to make two brief points. First, the Government themselves have acknowledged in their document that residential boat owners represent the only tenure type in the United Kingdom without legislative protection. Therefore, the onus has to be on those who would deny legislative protection to explain why that group should be the only one not have it.

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The only reason given both in the documents and by the operators themselves is that if legislation were introduced to give security of tenure and other protection, the consequence would be fewer available lettings. That may be true, but it is the argument that landlords have used over the past 100 years to try to prevent protection for tenants.

As Governments—particularly the Labour Governments—have never been persuaded by those arguments in the past, I am interested to know why they seem to be so willing to be persuaded by them now. Is there evidence in support of that view or is it an assertion that the Government appear to be endorsing?

The final point—it is on the final page of the Government’s document—is what they say in rejecting legislation at this stage:

The responses to the Government’s own consultative document—72 residents opting for option 4 and a small number going in any other direction—show that there is real concern that is not being addressed. If that response is not considered sufficient, it would be helpful if the Minister said what type of complaint is required in response.

I conclude by saying that this is an important matter. Not just Twickenham and Chelsea, but many other parts of the country, have a similar interest. I hope that the Government do not feel themselves too committed to refusing the legislative route at this early stage.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for raising the matter in debate and the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) for making his comments. I will do my best in the time available to respond to the points that have been made.

I understand that the hon. Member for Twickenham has raised these issues on a number of occasions, and he said in his second such Adjournment debate that he remembered the first fondly. I thank him for his comments, and say that his points and the issue are taken seriously. The Government’s response has moved along in line with responses that he and others have made on this matter.

Some of us might recall that the issue of security of tenure for the boat owners was raised during the passage of the Housing Act 2004, as well as before that in relation to a number of matters, which the hon. Gentleman’s questions and debates on the matter show.

At that time, the problem centred around harassment and terms of contract. There were other issues that also concerned boat owners, and some of those are outlined in the document that we spoke about during the consultation. As a result of those issues being raised, and following an undertaking given in another place during the 2004 Act’s progression through Parliament, the Government undertook to investigate those matters further.

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There was a considerable correspondence from all sides, which helped to inform our consideration. The consultation, which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea referred to, proceeded following discussion with stakeholders.

A full public consultation was published in November and, as has been said by Opposition Members, we have posed four options to address the problems identified. They range from maintaining the status quo to introducing legislation. I have to correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who says that the Government have ruled out the legislative option. That is not true. That is kept under review, and I will come on to it in a moment. It is important that we look at the matter in the round. Security of tenure would be a significant step, and one that the Government could consider in line with other options.

We received 135 responses to the consultation exercise, including many from the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham. As he said, and as was expected, there was no overall consensus on the way forward. Indeed, he referred to the issue becoming increasingly polarised. There was little common ground between responses from residents and those from mooring operators.

The response did show helpfully a number of similar contractual disagreements between residential boat owners and the mooring operators. They indicated to the Department that the situation was further complicated because not all parties were sure of the role played by the navigation authorities—the hon. Gentleman referred to them—in enforcing controls. I can confirm that we will be making contact with the navigation authorities to discuss that matter.

The responses suggested also that although contractual problems are not widespread, there does need to be far better communication between the parties concerned. There is a misunderstanding of the rights and responsibilities of each party.

The hon. Gentleman was a bit dismissive of some current legislation. Perhaps it is worth touching on some of it. He said that the Government have “bought” the argument that existing legislation is sufficient. That question was asked in the consultation document. It is unfair to say that the Government “bought” the argument. When posing questions and asking for responses, the Government must consider all arguments put to them.

The occupants of residential boats have the benefit of protection under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. I appreciate that that Act does not cover all the areas about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. However, under the Act, “acts likely to interfere” with peace or comfort are classified as harassment. That has been raised before, and it is worth noting that that Act covers that concern.

The 1977 Act also covers illegal eviction. If residents believe that they have been harassed or subject to an illegal eviction, they should contact their local authority for help, guidance and assistance. The Department might be able to improve contact with local authorities to assist.

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In addition, the Office of Fair Trading, local trading standards departments and other regulators are responsible for enforcing consumer protection legislation, in particular the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. Those apply to written agreements, and either party can go to court if they feel that unfair terms exist, so as to rectify the situation.

Consultation raised some general concerns about the working of the OFT and protection from eviction legislation, but no evidence was produced to show that they are not working in regard to residential boat owners. The hon. Gentleman gave specific examples. If he lets me have them, I shall pass them on to my colleague in another place, who will look at the issues raised.

From the consultation, it seems to us that many residents are not aware of the existence of relevant legislation or of the involvement of the OFT. We need to consider whether the problem is with the existing legislation or with its implementation and residents’ understanding of what is available to them.

The issue of the number of moorings was also raised in consultation. As has been indicated by the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the demand for existing moorings is high, and there needs to be an increase. It also became clear that new legislation further to control the activities of mooring operators for residential moorings could lead to a short and medium-term reduction in the number of available residential moorings. The majority of mooring operators made it clear that new legislation would make it harder for them effectively to manage their businesses and the surrounding environment.

Along with all the other responses to the consultation, we took note of those concerns because residential moorings constitute only a small part of many operators’ businesses. The concern is that those moorings could be removed or the number reduced, and holiday and pleasure moorings increased. So, there would be reduction in the number of such moorings, even though we need an increase. There is concern that legislation could exacerbate, rather than address, some of the issues before us. We might be able to deal with some of the concerns raised by increasing the number of moorings.

As we have only recently realised this ourselves, I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a working party on the issue of moorings. My Department has worked closely with DEFRA on this issue.

There was consensus over the issue of planning permission for new moorings or marinas, or the continued use of existing sites. The existing planning policy guidance note 3 on housing requires assessments of housing need to underpin local plan policies. PPG3 is clear that local authorities should consider the needs of specific groups, but does not identify them separately. We are currently undertaking extensive reform of the planning system, which will give local authorities the opportunity to take into account community participation at a local level and will mean that the needs of residential boaters can be identified more easily by the authority.

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I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk to the local authority and residential boat owners in his constituency in order to urge them to engage with their local planning authority. By bringing both sides together, a greater awareness should be created within local authorities of the concerns, demands and needs of residential boat owners.

The responses received highlighted the need for better communication between parties; a clearer understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the parties involved; and the need for an outline of the responsibilities for enforcing authorities. Where do we go from here? Our concern is whether legislation would resolve the issues or create an overall better deal for residential boat owners. I am not 100 per cent. convinced that that is the case at present. Consequently, we have decided that these issues are best addressed not in legislation but in guidance. In our response to the consultation process, published in May, we made a commitment to develop best practice guidance and a model agreement for mooring operators to use.

Together, these will set out our expectations and show mooring operators that our plans are not intended to be detrimental to their business, but that high regard needs to be given to residential boat owners. That is in line with the Government’s better regulation agenda. In addition, we will continue with the ongoing planning reform so that additional suitable moorings can be developed, and we will include the planning aspects of residential houseboats in the best practice guidance.

We have to recognise that those operating moorings are managing a business. Like all businesses, they need to set targets for ensuring there are reductions in the number of complaints; that they improve their performance on resolving disputes; and that greater importance is attached to resolving matters in a timely manner. We want to help them achieve that. The next step for us is to begin work on the best practice
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guidance. We have had indications from a number of organisations of their willingness to be involved in developing that guidance, including the Swan Island Residents Association based in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. A number of organisations have suggested what should be included in the guidance, and we welcome this and look forward to working with them and other stakeholders.

We are now seeking to bring together a working group, including other Departments with an interest in this area, later in the year. I would be happy to keep hon. Members informed of progress. We will be writing to all interested parties in the coming months to set the process in motion and engage with them.

We will be looking for the working group to take a view on the scope of the guidance and ensure that it addresses the needs identified through the consultation. If we can bring together stakeholders to agree the guidance, that will carry far greater weight in the sector and will give boat owners the protection that they need.

I accept that action in this area has been sought for a number of years. We are now making progress, but the priority must be getting the document right. I trust that it will then strike the right balance between protecting houseboat residents and ensuring that mooring operators can run their business in a way that is fair to residents.

I am not able to give a date at present, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not something that we want to delay. I have asked officials that among the early issues for agreement of the working group should be the scope and framework of the document, and we will place copies in the Library of the House.

The Government are committed to ensuring that what we introduce will provide a more secure footing for the owners of residential boats, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Two o’clock.

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