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25 July 2007 : Column 300WH—continued

One might think that that is perfectly fair and reasonable—until one looks at the directorships held by Greenbelt directors. Alex Middleton holds 15, in Greenbelt Group Ltd, Greenbelt Energy Ltd and other companies. Greenbelt’s main subcontractor is MG Contracting Ltd. Guess who the director of MG Contracting Ltd is? [Hon. Members: “Alex Middleton.”] Quite correct.

The other director of Greenbelt is Anthony Burton. He holds 21 directorships, including various Greenbelt directorships. What do we find among them? MG Contracting Ltd. He is a director—a Greenbelt company is subcontracting to a company in which its directors hold shares. Mr. Richard Taylor holds 19 directorships—again, Greenbelt this and Greenbelt that. Guess what is among them? MG Contracting. The company clearly is Farepak for home owners.

I should like to address the serious bullying. One of my constituents, Paula Hoogerbrugge, set up a support group to help people affected by Greenbelt. She has now been in touch with more than 30 estates throughout the United Kingdom, from Inverness—the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) wished to be here but, sadly, could not owing to other commitments—right down to Leeds. It is exactly the same story articulated by other hon. Members—money charged and service not given, threatening letters sent and the like.

What did Greenbelt do in response? First, it had its solicitors write to me:

That was on 11 July. They also wrote to Paula. I e-mailed them back and told them to withdraw their bullying letter to my constituent or I would raise the matter in the House of Commons. I mentioned the company during business questions on 12 July. Greenbelt then wrote to the Mr. Speaker in a clear attempt to silence me.

As they say in my part of the country, I am big and ugly enough to take on that sort of threat. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Unanimous applause. But it is totally unacceptable to write a similar letter to my constituent. The letter is addressed to Paula and others—I am clearly one of the others—and complains about her press release. I place on record that not only did I see the press release in advance, but I amended it. I will address each of the allegations that Greenbelt made about Paula.

The letter reads:

of the company.

We know that there are problems. There are problems in Inverness, Fife and right down to Leeds. The letter continues:

the problems

a Scottish Executive Minister,

Well, I have news for them. Here we are in Parliament, and today I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs to say that it should investigate the matter.

Greenbelt’s solicitors continue:

of land. The letter says that that is not correct, but it is absolute nonsense. That is exactly what Greenbelt does.

We just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) that Greenbelt admitted to him that it had only improved it, and Greenbelt’s own director said in this week’s Scotland on Sunday that

and that improvements were now being made.

The solicitor’s letter continues:

If Greenbelt manages 241 sites, why is it economical with the truth in its own report?

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We have heard from hon. Members that that is exactly the problem with the company, yet it says that that is not the case. The letter goes on:

I have heard constituents say at public meetings that they have been trying to contact the company for six years and have been ignored. A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) sent Greenbelt recorded delivery letters and eventually cut a bunch of weeds and went down to the head office. It is unbelievable. The letter continues:

that they pose risks to children and fire hazards. I welcomed the intervention of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), because it showed that that is true.

The letter goes on:

I have dozens of those letters here. The lawyers—I am sure that they are very good lawyers—go on to say:

That is outrageous. I was involved in the press release.

Let me tell hon. Members where the company crossed the line. Paula is a single mum who works for BT. The company’s representatives contacted her employers behind her back in a clear attempt to have her either silenced or sacked. That is despicable bullying behaviour, which is why I am pleased to be here to condemn that group and its behaviour and to ensure that we consider appropriate legislation to rectify the situation.

It is totally unacceptable that a company can have a monopoly. Home owners cannot sack the company. Tomorrow, I shall write to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and to its English equivalent. I shall include in my letter the contributions from hon. Members in this debate and the file that we have on the company. I shall ask local authorities whether they really want to deal with a company that behaves in such a despicable manner.

4.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), not only on securing this debate, but on the passionate way in which he has expressed his concerns on behalf of his constituents, not only today, but in business questions, in a question to the Prime Minister and elsewhere. His constituents can be assured that, in him, they have a true fighter for their cause.

The maintenance of open spaces and housing developments is an important issue, not only for the individual residents concerned, but for the environment.
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The deterioration of such open space has a detrimental effect both on the environment and on the value of individual homes.

According to my hon. Friend and to the company’s report, which is where I got my information, the Greenbelt Group is involved in some 750 developments involving around 50,000 homes in the United Kingdom. Its activities, whether positive or negative, therefore impact on a large number of people in a number of ways, not least of which is the cost to individual home owners who have to pay for the upkeep of the open spaces. As my hon. Friend pointed out, those costs might well run into hundreds or thousands of pounds. He said that some of his constituents are being asked for up to £400 to pay for such maintenance. Companies that take on such work have an important role to play in the preservation of the quality of life and the value of the assets of the home owners on the estates. Where that relationship breaks down, a serious problem occurs.

My hon. Friend described how his constituents see the Greenbelt Group charging home owners for services that it either does not provide or provides very poorly. He went on, amusingly and wittily, to show that there are several limited companies within the group, which I understand are all registered in Scotland. I do not know whether he has had time to look at the website of the Greenbelt Group, which describes the company as


I appreciate that that is probably not the language that my hon. Friend or his constituents would use, but it is the language that the Greenbelt Group uses on its website. As another avenue down which he could take his campaign, he may want to consider whether that is in breach of the rules of the Advertising Standards Authority.

In response to the comments that my hon. Friend made about the lawyer’s letter to his constituent Paula, I say that those are serious allegations. His constituent is clearly a robust person, because she has been campaigning on the issue, but I can perfectly understand why she might be very concerned indeed about receiving such a letter. I suggest to him that he
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and his constituent take legal advice from a law centre or other such organisation to ensure that she is properly represented when responding to that level of intimidation, as he called it.

This issue clearly has particular impact in Scotland. I have been told that the Scottish Executive are looking into it, and that Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s Minister for Community Safety, is taking up the matter. I hope that that is true. If it is not, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that Mr. Ewing takes forward the issue, because it has to be dealt with within the Scottish Executive. I also gently suggest to my hon. Friend that, when he is taking up the matter with the Scottish Executive, he might suggest to them that they look to England and Wales, where a better policy has been developed.

A few months ago, I dealt with claims management during the passage of what was to become the Compensation Act 2006. In that area, Scotland’s system was better than that in England and Wales. On this issue, in a similar situation, exactly the reverse applies. In England and Wales, we now have commonhold, which is called the third way. It ensures that the community of owners on the estate owns the common parts and arranges for their maintenance. The division of ownership between home owners and the management company is therefore avoided. That system has not yet been widely adopted in England and Wales, but it represents a long-term solution to the problems of the maintenance of common facilities and open space on freehold estates. That is one of the reasons why the Government want to encourage its use.

Commonhold involves the creation of a limited company known as a commonhold association, so it might not suit some of the smaller estates. Nevertheless, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider whether it could be adopted in Scotland and that, if the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs decides to investigate the case, it might consider including that scheme in the recommendations that it makes.

Mr. David Hamilton: I recommend that, if the Scottish Affairs Committee looks into the matter, it also has discussions with Scottish Building Federation contractors, who give out the contracts when houses are to be built. Massive house building is taking place throughout Scotland, including in Midlothian. One of the issues that that has raised is the need for discussions with the federation, so that it can consider other opportunities for giving out contracts.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope that the Scottish Affairs Committee takes up that suggestion.

I should briefly like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston that publicity, through TV and the media, is always a good way of bringing people to account. As well as going to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Affairs Committee, I suggest that he might use the media and some of the consumer programmes on TV—

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Miscarriages of Justice

4.30 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an important issue. I was inspired to seek this debate following the disappointing response that I received from the Prime Minister during Question Time a few weeks ago. In a moment, I shall explain why I believe that it was disappointing and why I believe that the Government have a moral duty to introduce a step change in the support provided to such victims of state action.

I understand that the responsibility for miscarriage of justice victims in Scotland lies primarily with the Scottish Executive, and I shall also take the issue up directly with them. However, I am raising the issue in this Chamber because I believe that the situation in the rest of the UK is equally unacceptable and that there should probably be joint action between the devolved Administrations of the UK and the UK Government.

Victims of miscarriages of justice are victims; just because they are victims of the state does not make them any less so. Yet the state and the public often consider them, at least in private, still guilty: “No smoke without fire,” is often said. Why do we have such faith in the justice system when it finds people guilty, but not when it finds them innocent? Those are the fundamentals that result in the innocent being dumped in the street after years of state incarceration—no apology, little support and years upon years before they receive compensation.

My interest in after-care support was sparked by my constituent Steven Johnston, who was released from prison last year after 10 years behind bars. His murder conviction was quashed. Since then, despite some assistance from the council, he has received no specialist support, even though it is clear that he needs it. Such lack of support is not confined to Scotland. Gareth Pierce, the solicitor who represented the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six defendants, said:

Judith Ward, wrongly convicted of the M62 coach bombing, was refused a £5,000 bank loan while she waited for an interim compensation payment. Michael Hickey, one of the freed Bridgewater Three, told a court that he had stolen a ring from a Birmingham jeweller to highlight his case. He said:

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