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26 Mar 2008 : Column 87WH—continued

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To pick up a point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) has made about the Government’s consultation, it is worth reflecting on the figures. The Government received 834 responses favouring a reduction in the maximum commission from 10 per cent. to 7 per cent, and 161 responses favouring keeping it at 10 per cent. The Government have not yet responded favourably to the overwhelming majority of the responses to their consultation. We are, naturally, curious to know why. Do they believe that the number of responses was too low, or is there another reason? We look forward to hearing from the Minister.

In March 2007, the Government announced plans to improve transparency in the commission—the very matter to which my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness has referred. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect any planned changes to take effect? On site conditions and licensing, will he give the Chamber a timetable for the implementation of any plans to address difficulties with the current site licensing system announced in the Housing Act 2004?

This has been a good and useful debate. The hon. Member for Teignbridge should be congratulated on securing it and on his work more generally. We all look forward to the Minister’s reply.

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I have enjoyed today’s debate, which has been excellent, and well chaired by your good self, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing it, and I hope that he agrees that our meeting yesterday was productive and useful in setting out our respective lines, on which there is an element of consensus.

Richard Younger-Ross: I do.

Mr. Wright: The debate has illustrated an important point, which is a key matter for many constituents of hon. Members here today, including the good constituents of Elmtree Park in Hartlepool in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman’s debate has provided a much-needed opportunity to discuss this matter, and the excellent contributions from many hon. Members have illustrated its importance. The subject is worthy of a debate longer than the 90 minutes available in Westminster Hall, and I would press for a three-hour debate on a Thursday afternoon to tease out in more detail the important issues that have been raised.

As other hon. Gentlemen have done, it is worth paying tribute to the work of the all-party park home owners group, which is excellently chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), and benefits from the commitment and wisdom of my noble Friend Lord Graham of Edmonton—Lord Ted of Ed, as he describes himself—who is its secretary and driving force, and who is a fellow north-easterner. Support for the group and its members concern for park home constituents was demonstrated by the high turnout of hon. Members at the most recent meeting in November last year. I do not believe that I have ever seen so many hon. Members attend an all-party group, which demonstrates the strength of feeling about the matter.

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The driver for today’s debate is hon. Members’ concerns about bad practices by owners of park home sites. I believe that hon. Members accept that those owners represent a minority in the sector and that most sites are managed by professional, competent people. That point was made well by the hon. Members for Castle Point (Bob Spink), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). In support of that view I am aware of the efforts of trade organisations to secure high standards of performance among their members and to promote good practice. However, as hon. Members have graphically illustrated today and as I can confirm from the correspondence that I have received in my role as the relevant Minister, professionalism is not universal in the sector. Indeed, I admit that standards of management at some sites are sometimes woefully inadequate and in some cases border on the criminal, as we have heard.

I start from the principle of wanting to incentivise good park home site owners, while penalising the bad ones. In a minority of cases, only enforcement with meaningful and appropriate penalties will change behaviour or drive unprofessional operators out of the sector. I acknowledge that further change is necessary, and I confirm my commitment to reforming the sector, specifically in the field of site licensing. However, we are not starting from a low base and, in a moment, I shall outline the improvements that have already been made to the sector.

It is right that I now address the central matter of the debate, site licensing. I recognise that there is a need to bring forward a comprehensive and effective system of site licensing to replace the scheme introduced under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960. The comments of hon. Members have reinforced my conviction that something needs to be done to prevent unscrupulous individuals from operating in the sector. Action also needs to be taken where an individual has acted in a criminal manner that is relevant to their fitness to be engaged in the management of a park home site. Therefore, let me make it clear to hon. Members that I intend to introduce a licensing regime that requires managers of park homes and other caravan sites to be confirmed as fit and proper persons, and to have the relevant competencies to manage a specific and, as hon. Members have said, in some cases unique type of accommodation.

As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), I also want to ensure that local authorities have the right tools to enforce licensing requirements and that they are properly resourced to do so. We need to ensure that any regulation is light touch, that it is clear and easy to understand and that it will neither drive good owners out of the market nor discourage suitable other persons from entering it, which is a point well made by the hon. Member for Wycombe.

A new licensing regime must meet the needs of all, be comprehensive and work in the 21st century housing market. Park homes could have in increased role in addressing the need to supply suitable and affordable housing in the years to come. Therefore, before we embark on any detailed proposals, I think that hon. Members would agree that we need to consult on such proposals and assess their potential impact. I want to hear from residents, site owners, local authorities and their representatives about how we should take matters forward.

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We cannot stand still on this issue. There is need for reform and although I fully understand that hon. Members are concerned that people’s patience has been stretched, I want to get it right. Knee-jerk or ill-thought-through legislation is rarely successful and often compounds the problem. We need to consider the specific details on matters such as licensing, the procedures to grant a licence, the fee regime, whether or not a licence can be transferred or assigned, how licences can be revoked on transfer of ownership or management, and other such detailed and technical matters. I hope that the hon. Member for Wycombe agrees that we should try to avoid unintended consequences or unworkable solutions.

I aim to get my response to the issue right, rather than having a race to Royal Assent. With help and support from residents and the industry, we will get it right, but it will take time. For that reason, the amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, which are due to be considered on Monday, are not the appropriate vehicle to take the matter forward. However, I hope that he and other hon. Members will accept my clear commitment to deal with the issue.

Richard Younger-Ross: With that reassurance, I am happy to withdraw my amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill.

Mr. Wright: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. As I have said, I hope that he is clear about the commitment that I have made. I will keep him, the all-party group and the House informed on this matter.

In the short time available, I want to discuss my proposals on site licensing. As I mentioned earlier, they include a requirement that site owners or managers are fit and proper persons and that acceptable management practices that have been agreed with the council are in place. I wish to include a requirement that sites are or can be made suitable for the number of homes specified in the licence. I also want to introduce measures to increase the level of fines for breaches of a site licensing condition and, importantly, to give local authorities powers to refuse or revoke licences granted. I want to place a duty on local authorities to monitor compliance with the licences they have granted—my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has mentioned that point—and require them to grant such licences subject to appropriate conditions. If sites are licensable and no licence is in place, either because it has been revoked or because an application has been refused, I want to introduce special measures requiring the authority to put effective and proper management in place.

Of course, the powers and duties on local authorities will need to be funded, and I intend to give them a power to charge a reasonable fee for the licences they grant. Again, close discussions need to take place about how much of that fee would be transferred to park home residents and whether that is appropriate. We have had an important debate about pitch fee reviews, and it is crucial that the burden is not passed solely on to residents. We want to make sure that the right balance is struck.

On the timetable for my proposals, I intend to consult on the matter later in the year. Again, I hope that the hon. Member for Teignbridge and the whole House are reassured on my absolute commitment to the issue. As I
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said earlier, however, I am sure that hon. Members will acknowledge that we are not simply starting from scratch. Significant changes to enhance the protection given to park home owners have taken place in the past few years.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the park homes working party, which was established in 1998. The working party is comprised of members from across the sector who consider the operation of the existing controls on park homes. It made 30 recommendations designed to achieve a fair and workable balance between the needs and interests of home owners and park owners. The Government responded in 2001 and an in-principle commitment was made to take forward 25 of the working party’s 30 recommendations. We have delivered on 20 of those, and the remaining five relate to site licensing reform. As I have mentioned, primary legislation is required to bring that reform into effect. The revision of the model standards for sites, which was also recommended by the working party will be published next month.

As has been mentioned, I appreciate that many park home residents have been frustrated with the pace of change and think that the October 2006 changes have not had the intended effects. Therefore, they have asked for further legislation to address some of their concerns. I ask hon. Members and park home residents to allow time for reflection and bedding-in so that the initial problems relating to the creation and enactment of legislation are identified and addressed. As I mentioned with regard to site licensing, short-term and knee-jerk legislation very rarely works and often compounds the problem.

Mr. Benyon: I understand that the Minister’s desire to get this right means that we should not be precipitate in our approach. However, there is a sense of urgency in relation to this issue. I have been dealing with the problem for nearly three years, but it goes back further than that. There is a degree of urgency, so can the Minister give us more of a commitment on when these matters will be resolved?

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Mr. Wright: In direct reference to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I was about to say that we need to be clear about our communication methods. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) made a first-class contribution, in which he mentioned the importance of transparency. We are pushing further on that. It is important that residents are clear about their rights on who they can sell to, pitch fee reviews and the process of negotiation—the owner should not simply bestow changes from on high. They should also be made aware of residents associations, and I shall refer to that in a moment.

I am aware that professional trade bodies operate in the sector and that there are active residents groups. People involved with such groups give freely of their time, because they are committed to improving the lot of their members. Residents, site owners and local authorities need to engage with each other more effectively. In the first instance, the primary role for enforcing standards must rest with the local authority, and it should work with site owners to ensure they are complying with their site licences.

There are an awful lot of issues that I want to discuss, and I am disappointed that I will be unable to do so.

Bob Spink rose—

Mr. Wright: With the greatest of respect, I am unable to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I have only a few seconds left. I will write to hon. Members on changing the law on property to ensure that park home sites have the same responsibilities as fixed dwellings. I shall also write to them on the Government’s policy on sales commission.

In conclusion, I condemn outright the bad practices about which we have heard today. I recognise the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Teignbridge on enforcing better standards. I hope that I have reassured hon. Members with my commitment to bring forward fit and proper persons in respect of site licensing. The Government and I are committed to ensuring that we have a vibrant park homes sector.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next subject.

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Southwest One and IBM

11 am

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Jones. I am very grateful for the chance to bring the subject of this debate before the House. I shall raise extremely urgent matters that involve the public interest and may have grave implications way beyond the county of Somerset. I believe that public money is being misappropriated and I fear—I do not mince my words—corruption.

My concern relates to the creation of a new company designed to take over important responsibilities from local authorities and others without any proper scrutiny or accountability. The company is called Southwest One. People will not find it listed in the Somerset telephone directory. It has not yet submitted any company reports. It describes itself as a joint venture exercise between two councils and the multinational computer giant IBM. Its registered address is IBM’s UK base in Portsmouth.

A joint venture implies a partnership, but this partnership is far from equal. It is my clear understanding that IBM will continue to own 81 per cent. of the operation. There are nine members of the interim board, seven of whom are high-powered IBM executives. The company did not get where it is today through charity. Last year, IBM turned over $98 billion and made a $10 billion profit, so where is the democratic balance in the new joint venture?

Did the two Somerset councils bring their sharpest business brains into the fray? Did they heck. In fact, there are only two potential defenders of the public interest on the board, but I am afraid that they are woefully inexperienced and gullible Liberal Democrat councillors. Their forensic ability to tackle a global concern such as IBM is severely limited. One of them is nominally in charge of Taunton’s car parks. The other strums in a Yeovil jazz band and, I am reliably informed, can sometimes get a tune out of a didgeridoo. Half a million council tax payers are now represented by two rank amateurs. That is a joke. Both would be baffled by a balance sheet. They are the patsies of this bizarre outfit. It is tacky tokenism in the name of accountability.

When dealing with the delivery of local council services, top-class accountability is vital. The Government know that and we know it. Do not take my word for it: the Audit Commission has real concerns about shared service partnerships such as Southwest One. In January, it published an important report that stated:

Effective management ought to mean an awful lot more than two well meaning volunteers on the board of the organisation.

The Liberal Democrats run Somerset county council and Taunton Deane borough council. Their leaders pay lavish lip service to working for the people, but if their words were worth a row of beans, they would have stopped this nonsense—this madness—in its tracks. Already Southwest One has taken over the employment of 800 staff formerly on the payroll of Somerset county council and Taunton Deane borough council. Interestingly, the payslips for those employees still come from the
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councils, but their long-term employment rights are now stunningly vague. They have been “guaranteed” that their jobs are secure, but the small print of the guarantee—believe it or not—is not available for inspection, even if they knew what was going on.

Southwest One is an outfit born in secrecy and reliant on secrecy. Trade unionists who ask responsible questions are branded traitors. Joe Stalin would have been proud of the company. Southwest One is destined to gobble up more than £400 million of public money providing just two councils with services over the next 10 years.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): My hon. Friend has mentioned investment. Is he aware that the county council explanation of the scheme mentions Project Taunton, which is a regeneration project for that town? This is at a time when the county council is denying funding for much-needed improvement to the Somerset coast road, which serves the holiday industry north of Burnham-on-Sea up to Brean. Does my hon. Friend believe that there is a danger that the scheme will lead to more investment by the county council—based in Taunton—in Taunton, at the expense of the peripheral areas of Somerset? Does he believe that the county council is being open enough about its investment intentions following the project?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He is, as usual, perceptive and to the point. Yes, I agree. The county council has always been Taunton-centric. His experience is greater than mine: he has been an MP for much longer. We all know that the council has stifled investment in other parts of Somerset. MPs such as me and many others, including, dare I say it, Liberal Democrats, have had concerns about that. My right hon. Friend is right. Why should the council be Taunton-centric? Surely Southwest One is part of the answer. They want to keep the money in the centre and not give it to the peripheries, such as Brean, Highbridge and Wells.

The creators promised that the scheme would save a lot of money—£200 million, which is the equivalent of a £20 million cut from existing budgets every year. Last night, I was bombarded with documents from Somerset county council hoping to convince me of the savings. I read them all. They all mentioned the magic word “guarantee”, but it is all aspiration; it is not an explanation of what is going on. Somerset people are being asked to believe in fairies, and we do not. Painless savings cannot be made unless there are real economies of scale, and they certainly cannot be guaranteed. In other words, many public authorities need to be on board to justify the cost, and even then some brutal job cutting will be needed as well.

Assuming that the instigators of the scheme were not complete idiots, there had to be a viable plan to get several local authorities involved at once. There was: Somerset county council’s bid to become a giant unitary authority. Last year, the council appealed to the Government for permission to take over the responsibilities of five district councils. It was a half-baked and stupid idea. The sums had not been done. It was said that there could be a saving of £27 million and that only 65 jobs would be got rid of—lunacy. The plan would have left Somerset people democratically unrepresented at local level and created the most unwieldy local government monster.

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