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Lord Bassam of Brighton: This group includes two government amendments. I shall speak to those and pick up the points arising from Amendments Nos. 120 and 131 which are, to all intents and purposes, the same in effect.

I turn to the government amendment first. Amendment No. 130 clarifies why the disclosure of drug test results from testing carried out in police detention should be undertaken. The main purposes of disclosure will be several-fold: to inform any decision taken about granting bail in criminal proceedings; to inform any decision regarding supervision where the person is in police detention, remanded, committed to custody or released from custody into the community or has been granted such bail; to inform any decision about appropriate sentence or supervision where a person has been convicted of an offence; or for the purpose of ensuring that appropriate advice and treatment are made available.

Clarification for the purposes of disclosure will ensure that the sensitive nature of that information is respected and that the individual's rights are preserved in line with the Human Rights Act. It will provide for appropriate disclosure to ensure the safety both of the individual and of the public.

Research has shown that there is a clear link between drug misuse and acquisitive crime. The Government are absolutely determined to take all necessary steps to break that link. Drug testing will be a primary tool in the identification and monitoring of drug misusers. In order to maximise the benefits of drug testing, it is essential that appropriate disclosure is provided across the criminal justice system and relevant external agencies to inform sentencing and supervision and to allow for appropriate treatment to be made available to the individual.

We believe that, while an offender is within the criminal justice system, we have a duty of care towards both him and the wider community. We feel that we

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would be failing in that duty if we withheld relevant information which could impact on the safety of individuals, those responsible for their supervision and the general public.

As the drug testing programme develops, particularly during its pilot phase, the circumstances in which it is appropriate to disclose a drug test result will be assessed very carefully. We have defined disclosure by purpose to ensure that full disclosure provision is available in all appropriate circumstances in the future.

Our Amendment No. 140 establishes the authority of the Secretary of State to regulate the provisions of samples for the drug testing of offenders released on licence. We see drug testing as an integral part of monitoring compliance to licence conditions.

It is our intention to pilot drug testing, including the testing of prisoners released on licence, in three areas from spring 2001. Drug testing technology continues to develop and we shall use the pilot phase to determine which systems are most effective. It seems to us to be appropriate that the authority for issuing rules for regulating the provision of samples is held by the Secretary of State. That will ensure that the rights of the individual are protected and that effective and consistent drug testing systems are in place across the criminal justice system.

The amendment brings the regulation of arrangements for testing on licence into line with the authority required for regulating the provision of samples at other points in the criminal justice system already set out in the Bill.

I turn to opposition Amendments Nos. 120 and 131. As a result of Amendment No. 120, courts would be prevented from ordering a pre-sentence drug test to inform a decision on the most appropriate community sentence unless notified formally that provision for treatment was available within that area. In our view, pre-sentence drug tests will help to identify offenders with a propensity for drug misuse and will assist the courts in deciding on the appropriate community sentence. Here, treatment availability is not the only issue.

It is important that, if necessary, the courts have the power to require an offender to undergo a drug test for specified Class A drugs prior to sentence. However, court decisions to order pre-sentence drug testing should be comparatively rare. Drug testing on charge will already have helped to identify offenders who are misusing drugs, and steps will have been taken to encourage them into treatment at that point.

It is also likely that the pre-sentence report provided by the Probation Service will comment on the part played by drug misuse in an offender's criminal activity. However, on occasion it will be useful to ascertain whether an offender is currently using Class A drugs. A pre-sentence drug test will also provide for occasions when a drug test at charge was felt to be inappropriate. That may be particularly relevant where the offender was deemed to be unfit. A drug test

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result could help a court to decide whether a drug abstinence order or abstinence requirement is the most suitable disposal.

A pre-sentence drug test should not depend on a declaration to the court that treatment is available. The two are not necessarily linked. Enabling a court to order a drug test is an integral part of the new regime and, we argue, should be retained. In cases where a drug treatmentand testing order is considered appropriate, treatment will be provided through a service level agreement agreed and funded by the Probation Service.

There will be a number of cases where, although an offender tests positive for Class A drugs, treatment is not appropriate. In such cases, the requirement may well be to monitor behaviour by random drug testing as part of a community sentence, and treatment availability will not be an issue.

It is perhaps worth reminding the Committee how much the Government are investing in the treatment of drug misusers. Research has shown that effective intervention can be made at each stage of the criminal justice process. Initiatives include the introduction of arrest referral schemes, with joint funding providing £20 million over three years. Arrest referrals will be available in all custody suites from 2002.

Evaluation of drug testing and treatment orders is now complete and a national roll-out has already begun. The Government will be investing £54 million over two years towards drug treatment costs. The Government are also providing £28 million for development of the CARATS scheme within prisons in order to support the rehabilitation of offenders. It is intended that by March 2002 20,000prisoners per year will be assessed and that 5,000 will undergo drug treatment.

However, drug treatment is not yet complete. Although considerable resources are being put into treatment, there is still a shortage of capacity. Those difficulties are being addressed. Both the Department of Health and the Home Office are co-ordinating a recruitment campaign for drugs workers. By April next year up to 685 drugs workers will have been recruited and trained. We shall, of course, ensure that a major change in our delivery of treatment to drug misusers is established with the creation of the national treatment agency. That agency will be set up in April 2001.

By 2003-04 we shall be investing more than £400 million annually in drug treatment services--an increase of more than 70 per cent over the amount being spent in the current year.

I believe that I have made a powerful case for what we are endeavouring to achieve. For many years I have travelled around the country and met workers in agencies which attempt to help drug abusers. Those workers have said that there is an insufficient supply of services and support for drug abusers. We believe that pre-court testing, testing later through the criminal justice process and, of course, in prison and on release for those who are on licence is most helpful in this regard. We believe that our package is the most

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comprehensive and coherent to have been put together to help drug abusers and misusers. We see a better future for those people so that we can turn them away from a world of involvement in crime.

Amendment No. 131 would prevent the police from ordering a drug test at charge for the purpose of identifying those offenders who misuse specified Class A drugs unless notified formally that provision for treatment is available within that area. The arguments against Amendment No. 131 are much the same as the arguments against Amendment No. 120.

I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: Before the noble Lord decides what to do, I want to congratulate the Government on what they are trying to achieve. It is a difficult task.

Lord Dholakia: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 agreed to.

Lord Bach: I beg to move that the House do now resume. I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.31 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Park Home Owners

7.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take following the publication of the findings of the ministerial working party on the welfare of park home owners.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to raise what, to many people, is an interesting matter. To 250,000 people who live on park home sites it is a significant matter. I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, in her place. Over many years she has journeyed with me to many places in relation to this issue. She takes a keen interest in the subject, as is recognised outside the House.

First, I want to express appreciation, not least to the residents' associations, for the progress that has been made. In Parliament there is an all-party group on the subject. In the early part of 1998--two-and-a-half years ago--I was part of a deputation that went to see the Minister, Hilary Armstrong, who was very receptive to the problems of park home owners. Those problems primarily came from the kind of areas where such sites exist, mostly in the countryside but also near to towns.

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At the end of July, 20 Members of Parliament attended our annual meeting. Those who know Parliament well will understand that for 20 Members to attend anything is impressive. The Minister will be delighted to know that 25 Members have said that they intend to engage in a discussion with the Minister, Nick Raynsford, on 24th October. He will receive a warm reception. There is an appreciation that after some delays and some difficulties at last we are succeeding in achieving a solution to a great problem.

Of course, the problem does not only affect those who live in park homes. About 1,200 sites are recognised as park homes on which 250,000 people live and about two-thirds or three-quarters of them are members of the body that seeks to represent the site owners. Site owners are affected as are park residents, communities, local authorities and health and environmental officers. This issue is not a narrow one. If there are 250,000 people who have chosen to live on the parks because they are nice places and the kind of places to which they want to retire, we should take account of this sector of society.

For me this journey started in 1983 when the legislation that affects this issue was created. At that time I was in the other place representing my party on the committee that created the 1983 Act. It was made with the best of intentions, but over the past 18 years a number of blemishes have occurred. In my experience those who live in park homes have not received the kind of respect or attention given to many other groups of people. For owner occupiers, council tenants and private tenants there is legislation of a substantial nature which affects their lives. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that the department will move forward.

I have spoken to residents' representatives recently and they are delighted about one matter. One of the biggest bones of contention has been the provision in the 1983 Act that provided for the ability of the site owner to take up to 10 per cent of the sale of a home. However, invariably it has not been "up to" 10 per cent, but 10 per cent of the sale price. When it was put to them that that amount should be reduced, site owners said that if that happened they would have to increase the pitch fee. There is a great deal of anger about this matter.

I am delighted to be able to tell the House--no doubt the Minister will reinforce this--that while the working party was unable to resolve the matter, the department has commissioned a survey by an independent, qualified, respected body whose responsibility it will be to serve the communities and to advise on the right kind of relation between the commission and the pitch fee.

Over the years, evidence has come to me that while undoubtedly there are many good site owners who faithfully try to make a good living--as they do--and to be fair to their tenants, sadly there are a number of site owners who have a bad reputation. Noble Lords will be appalled to learn that in the year 2000 there are men who do not fulfil their responsibilities to look after their tenants. I believe that there is a great deal of

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fear and concern. Many people who become park home owners are elderly or infirm. They are not looking for a fight, but they are capable of being bullied and frightened. Up to now the mechanism whereby they could indicate fairly what was wrong has been lacking.

One thing that is wrong is the cavalier way in which many local authorities grant licences to people to operate parks and then fail to monitor the carrying out of the conditions attached to those licences. I am a local government man, so I know of the pressures, the shortages of capital and the difficulty in finding properly qualified individuals. However, many local authorities have a great responsibility for the aggravation caused because they simply issue licences, renew them, and do not take sufficient care and attention to ensure that the park is properly looked after.

On 19th July, my honourable friend, Hilton Dawson, the chairman of the all-party group, took part in a debate in the other place. I was delighted to see that Members of all parties took part in that debate. In varying degrees they welcomed the working party report, as I do now, and expressed their views. Some were more strongly expressed than others, but it was an all-party affair.

A lady called Sam Hart from the Big Issue was in the middle of a campaign and was approached by many people. I congratulate her on her efforts. There was TV, radio and local press publicity. Sadly, in the main it was not helpful publicity from the point of view of the industry. It generally came about when a terrible situation arose which ought to be put right.

Many people gravitate to park homes and find that, because they have what I call a "bad" landlord, their dream is blighted; it turns sour. What we want to try to do tonight and in the coming period is to give to those people and others, whom I welcome becoming park home owners, the prospect that the Government, local authorities and all the agencies will take seriously the problems that can arise.

I spoke to the annual meeting of the British Holiday and Home Parks Association--a body with 800 members--and the National Park Homes Council. I am delighted to say that their response to the report came in a letter to me from Mr Spencer saying that there had been a meeting of the residents and industry sub-group on 20th September to review a crucial part of the written statement. Mr Spencer told me that 20 areas of consensus had been agreed, others had been identified and further meetings were planned.

So it is all good news and I do not want to spoil it. But it is important for the record that we indicate to the Minister--she will be no stranger to this--some of the problems. I should say that two excellent civil servants, Mr. Faulkner and Mr Davis, served the working party.

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I want the House to listen to two or three illustrations. The first comes from a residents' association which said:

    "We the undersigned, believe that the site owner ... abuses his position as our landlord in accordance with our complicated and varied agreements in that his companies ... [first] claim that they are entitled to and do make charges for a] A £30 charge per person for photocopies of contractors invoices".

So merely for asking for a copy of the contractor's invoice they were charged £30; that has since been increased to £50.

The complaints included,

    "b] interest charges (on some agreements)

    c] overdue reminders (£50)

    d] A £15 charge for letter reply to letters of query (now £30)".

The letter goes on to say that the site owner says he is entitled,

    "to add the legal charges incurred by the 'Company' as part of the maintenance clause.

    b] entitled to prohibit traders from providing services or carrying out work on resident's plot or home unless authorised by the 'Company'.

    c] entitled to impose contractors' agreements with the 'Company' to carry out communal and 'capital' work and impose charges without consultation with the residents who foot the bill".

It is scandalous that a body of people who are living quietly in their homes have a landlord who treats them in that way.

A further letter says,

    "As many of you are aware Malcolm and myself had the 'privilege' of meeting ... and his manager on the day after he took over [the place]. After introductions we were having an amicable conversation with them until that is we told him that we had a Residents Association ... then lost his temper and made it very plain that he did not allow Residents Associations on any of his Parks and in his words 'It would be stamped on and wiped out'".

One of the great benefits of the report, for those who are interested to read it, is that it strongly recommends that there should be the freedom to create proper residents' associations on the parks. It is, after all, not only a benefit to the residents, but also to the site owner.

Another letter states,

    "As I explained to you there is no negotiation with the site owner whatsoever over any of the terms of the contract, and none of the residents on the site were allowed to negotiate any of the terms, which in our view is an unfair contract".

I am conscious of the time and I am grateful for this opportunity to debate this matter. Another group of residents wrote,

    "For many years mobile home residents have had cause for serious complaint about the results of their peculiar situation--living in homes they owned on land they did not own. Dubious agreements, huge rent rises, overcharging for gas, water and electricity, the 10 per cent payment to the site owner as commission on a unit's changing hands, compulsory removal of units to make room for new and more expensive ones, dangerous conditions, particularly in relation to fire and roads, harassment, the prohibition of residents' associations and lack of involvement by local authorities are among the commonest grievances".

The final excerpt I should like to read into the record states:

    "There is no vetting of prospective site licence holders. Site licence conditions are not sufficiently stringent. The environmental health department have not ensured even those

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    minimum standards that it has imposed or adhered to. Site licences are not subject to review and they are extremely difficult to revoke".

I plead with the Minister to accept that it is not just one department in the local authority that has responsibility here; there is more than one department. But my evidence is that there is a lack of co-ordination within the council to ensure that environmental, planning and health bodies and others work together.

I am grateful for the time I have been given. I shall be delighted if the Minister will go back to her department and tell her colleagues, not least Hilary Armstrong and Nick Raynsford, that we give the report a general welcome. But more needs to be done, and soon. The people who are affected are elderly or frail and before they obtain relief from some bad landlords they may not be here. I warmly welcome the report and look forward to what the Minister has to tell us.

7.45 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for the opportunity to debate the Report of the Park Homes Working Party on the welfare of park home owners. This report arrived thanks to the persistence of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and of many others over a number of years. Those of us in both Houses of Parliament who have an interest in this area have invariably become involved through casework with constituents at various levels of government. Indeed, that certainly happened when we developed an interest and knowledge of this sector of housing.

When I was a Member in another place, my constituency was Christchurch and it had a high proportion of park home owners in it. Indeed, I am grateful for my successor's speech in another place, which informs me that up to one in 10 of the constituents in Christchurch now lives in a park home. The majority of my constituents at that time living in park homes were very satisfied with their choice. But there were ongoing worries; there were uncertainties, many due to the nature of the tenure but particularly financial worries.

For quite a short period of time I had been approached by park home owners and owners of parks on a number of issues. As a result I carried out my own survey among the park home owners in my constituency. What is interesting is that the issues they raised, the areas in which they wanted to see changes, were not dissimilar from the issues raised in the report we have before us today.

The general areas of concern were security surrounding the tenure and also the ongoing costs of the tenure. People were worried about clarity, about the rights and responsibilities between home owners and park owners, and about fairness of treatment. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Graham, explained to us today some of the difficulties that many elderly people face in dealing fairly with the person who owns their park and the unfairness of not being able to meet together as a group and talk together with their park home owner.

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When we look at these issues, we see that they have been set against the background of legislation that was enacted in a completely different world from today. One of the first pieces of legislation was the Caravan Site and Control and Development Act 1960. Next we had the Caravan Site Act 1968 and, more recently, the Mobile Homes Act of 1983, in which the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, was involved. However, over the years, technology has influenced the whole nature of the homes in which people live. The modern park home bears little resemblance to the 1960s caravan. It is not mobile in any normal sense of the word; it is a prefabricated home built to a high standard and often better insulated and easier to maintain than much of our mainstream housing stock.

People choose to live in park homes for a variety of reasons. They offer low-cost home ownership, easy maintenance and relatively low running costs. As we have heard, they suit many retired people not only for the reasons I have outlined but because they may enable people to free up capital from previous permanent housing and because a park home site is often a safe and secure environment. People know who is coming in and out, neighbours are near and there is a feeling of security.

Another factor which affects this sector, as it does many other areas of life, is the changing age profile of our population. With more people living longer, often with special needs later in life, we see many elderly people living in park homes who are not only vulnerable to harassment and the difficulties outlined earlier but who find it difficult to transfer into sheltered accommodation. Sometimes people need disabled adaptations which are not normally undertaken by local authorities in park homes.

There are discrepancies because they can apply for assistance towards the cost of insulation to make their homes more efficient. Under the Home Energy Conservation Act, which I steered through another place, local authorities have responsibilities for energy efficiency in domestic properties, and that includes park homes. Yet, despite the fact that park homes have become important providers of low-cost housing, the sector remains outside mainstream legislation.

The report before us makes recommendations some of which will require the enactment of primary legislation. The Housing Green Paper was recently published and we shall debate it in the future. We understand that there may be a Housing Bill in the next Session of Parliament and we should use that opportunity to end what I and perhaps others would describe as the "Cinderella status" of park homes.

I know that many of the park owners are not in favour of such moves. Indeed, I received a briefing from the National Park Homes Council and it raised various concerns about what would happen if park homes came under mainstream housing legislation. I shall raise only one or two. It states that,

    "simply moving park homes within housing will not only do little for the plight of those on rogue operator parks but also hurt those on the many well run parks around the country".

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I understand those concerns and believe that it is not beyond us to create legislation which does not have that effect.

The council also states that,

    "A new regulatory regime would have to be invented or will reliance be simply based upon that presently governing the private rented sector?".

We may have to have another regulatory regime but it can be based on current best practice. That is not insurmountable.

Another main concern is that park homes have their roots in caravan legislation and to remove them will see the sector wither and die. Caravans which people use for leisure time and holidays are different from the park homes we are discussing. I welcome the fact that they come under different legislation and believe that there is no reason why both sectors cannot exist. There is a demand for both.

However, interestingly, that organisation points out that more than 2,500 park home owners benefit from free access to the independent housing ombudsman. That is part of mainstream housing and proves the point that we should not be afraid of the change. It will not be simple and things will be different but we should not be afraid of it. It is not necessary to change everything overnight. Some changes must take place gradually.

Some of the other objections which were raised could be accommodated in legislation. The National Park Homes Council is worried that,

    "There is no mechanism for defining the unique form of tenure that provides the very nature of park home living".

It is right but there is no reason why that cannot be framed in legislation; we do it in respect of many other issues. Although in this Session we have had difficulties in writing legislation I do not believe it is beyond us to do something.

The council is also worried about local authorities losing their ability to control conditions via site licensing. The Government are talking about licensing houses in multiple occupation. I understand the concerns, which might be worded badly, but the changes are possible and I should like to see them take place.

When the matter was debated in another place, Members from all parties took part and there was agreement on a number of issues. Very importantly, elderly and vulnerable people should be protected. I therefore support recommendations which will clarify the existing legislation and ensure that we have a standard of service provided by park owners evenly across the country.

Perhaps the issues of greatest controversy are pitch fees and the commission of up to 10 per cent on the sale of site homes to which site owners are entitled. I welcomed what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said because, like others who took part in the previous debate, I strongly urge the Government to set up some kind of commission to consider an independent study

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into the economics of the industry. That would enable a system of commission and pitch fees which could win the support of both home owners and park owners.

Likewise, I support fair practice for the resale of utilities. That should be dealt with urgently. When I was a Member of Parliament, my postbag from park home owners consisted of more letters on this subject than on any other. Park home owners always found it difficult to deal with the issue.

One issue not covered in the working party report has been raised by many people who work in this area. It is the thorny issue of the council tax banding of park homes. It has moved on a little because of house prices but that depends on the part of the country in which you live. People in many areas have to pay council tax on a value far above the value of their home and I still have ringing in my ears park home owners saying, "And, what's more, we were paying in our pitch fees for the upkeep of the roads and the lights and for the removal of litter, so why do we have to pay again?". I hope that the Government will respond to that concern, although I realise that it was outside the remit of the report.

In conclusion, I support many of the recommendations of the working party and all the work that went into it. However, park homes have become a vital part of the supply of affordable housing in this country, particularly in rural areas. We should move towards including park homes in mainstream legislation in order not only to ensure that the legislation is in line with the social and technological changes of the past 20 to 30 years but also that park homes can thrive as a form of decent, affordable housing.

Most park homes are warm and safe and very environmentally friendly. They use fewer raw materials, less land and are often better insulated. I see no reason why they cannot flourish to the benefit not only of the people who live in the homes but also of those who own the parks. I hope that we can move towards a situation in which that happens within the national housing framework.

8 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, during a debate in the other place on park homes earlier this year, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, was described as knowing more about park homes than all Members of that place and this House put together. Having heard the noble Lord today, I am sure that none of us disagrees with that.

It is over two years since the working party on park homes was first set up. I understand that the consultation period is now well advanced and is to be completed by the end of this month. Despite the hopes of some to the contrary, it is unlikely that there will be sufficient parliamentary time left to deal with any of the recommendations unless they are taken up in primary legislation which is currently on the stocks, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. There may not even be time to amend the existing relevant legislation, such as the Caravans Act 1963 and

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the Mobile Homes Act 1983. However, the development of codes of good practice, amendments to the voluntary model statement, and general guidance on the observance and implications of the current law can be done on a much shorter time-scale, and we would welcome that.

It is obvious from the report and previous debates that the concerns which brought this working party together relate to a minority of park site owners. By common consent, the majority are members of respectable organisations which ensure that owners adhere to good management ideals and provide parks which have excellent services where residents, who are often elderly, can live in secure and attractive homes in pleasant surroundings without hassle, harassment or excessive charges.

It is worth noting a survey which was referred to in the working party's report. It records that 90 per cent of park home owners are satisfied with their homes and 80 per cent with the parks in which they live. They appear to be pleased with the conditions and the arrangements which surround them. Having seen some of them, one understands why that is so.

As always, when decisions come to be made it is important to strike a balance which recognises those facts as well as the unsatisfactory situations which are referred to in the working party's report. Unfortunately, as always, it is the minority which has brought about the whole package of concerns which the working party addresses, some of which have already been debated: the fairness of the pitch fee charges and the agreements which surround them; the sale of homes to third parties; the justification for the commission charged by the park owners; the rights of owners and tenants who are faced with an application to end an agreement; harassment; unsatisfactory standards, and so on. All these matters and others are treated with great care by the working party. I hope that during the consultation period the extent of the problems will become clear and those who are affected by them will respond.

I turn briefly to the 10 per cent commission charged on sales. I am delighted to hear from the noble Lord that something is being done about this. As to the level and annual uplift of pitch fees, at the moment that is justified as a necessary means to enable the park owner to obtain an income and provide a viable business. Clearly, that is a necessity, but the working party's recommendation that the Government should commission an independent study of the economy of the park homes industry--this may be the matter to which the noble Lord referred--is seen as a constructive way to examine this matter in more detail.

However, it seems fairly obvious that no owner will provide any standard of quality of site without obtaining some form of income. Therefore, there needs to be clarity about charges and commissions, and the principles behind them, and about pitch fees. Undoubtedly, there must also be some means of recompensing the site owner or contributing towards the costs. There are debates about council tax banding and the role of local authorities in monitoring and

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enforcing site conditions and helping with renovation grants. All of those matters are relevant to this important debate.

From this side of the House, in general we welcome the report which seems measured and thoughtful. It requires, and one hopes that it will receive, much further discussion during the consultation period. I hope that many of those affected will respond so that their views can be taken into account. I am aware that the noble Lord and others have spent a great deal of time ensuring that this matter is brought to the attention of Parliament. If that response is not made, it will be a missed opportunity.

Although park homes may be a small part of the total sum of housing in this country, there is no reason why those who live in them should have a lower quality of life than that expected by any other home owner. However, it is obvious that in some places that is what happens. But let us not forget that there are very many operators who provide accommodation on good sites, and homes which are valued by the people who live in them. I hope that they also take part in the debate so that any measures ultimately adopted do not discourage them from continuing and expanding their business.

Although there is a rather small number of participants, we have had an interesting and informative debate. I thank the noble Lord for giving us this opportunity to debate this important matter.

8.6 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I begin by joining in the congratulations to my noble friend on tabling this Question. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that a small number of noble Lords had taken part in the debate. However, I can assure her that from where I stand the quality of the debate is exceptional. The knowledge that all three speakers bring to this matter is very high.

The report of the park homes working party was published on 11th July. I am happy to set out the actions that we are taking, and propose to take, on those proposals. Copies of the report have been placed in the Library of the House and distributed widely. The report proposed a range of changes to the control regime for the mobile homes sector. We are consulting on the proposals and will give serious consideration to the responses received and take action in the light of those responses.

Like other noble Lords, I commend my noble friend for his active interest in the mobile homes sector. Through his role as secretary of the Parliamentary All-Party Group for the Welfare of Mobile Home Owners, he has raised awareness of mobile homes issues and the concerns of residents. It was as a result of a suggestion by his group that the park homes working group was set up. I share his concerns about the position of some residents of mobile homes, particularly those who are retired or on fixed incomes or who find themselves in dispute with their park owners.

As to the experience of those who have developed knowledge in this field, I commend the work carried out by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, during her

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time as a Member of the other place and since. I hope that she, too, will respond during the consultation period and draw on her experience and knowledge. The park homes sector can play a useful part in providing decent affordable homes. Many park home owners live in good quality, attractive accommodation on well-run parks and enjoy the park homes lifestyle. However, I also appreciate the concern expressed by my noble friend that it is necessary for park home sites to have an appropriate control regime which balances the needs and interests of residents and those of park owners. The wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, must be borne in mind: the aim is to ensure a fair balance of interest between the parties. Improvements to the control regime should target rogue operators and practices while keeping bureaucracy to a minimum for the responsible operator.

When we set up the working party to look into the existing legislation and make suggestions for changes it consisted of members of residents' bodies, park owners' bodies and local authorities. The report makes 30 recommendations for change. Those include changes to the arrangements for the sale of homes, issuing written agreements, harassment and site licensing.

We will consider those recommendations carefully. In doing so, it would be helpful to have the views of a wider constituency of residents, park owners or other interested parties, who did not have an opportunity to make a contribution to the report. For that reason, we are consulting on the proposals, with a deadline of 31st October for any comments that such interested parties may wish to make. We will consider our response to the recommendations in due course after that date.

An important aim of the working party, as all three noble Lords have recognised, was to reach consensus between residents' and park owners' bodies. An impressive degree of consensus was achieved on a range of issues. I congratulate the working party on its work.

It may be helpful if I make a few general comments on some of the working party's recommendations and the timetable for further action to take them forward. Most of the recommendations are for legislative change. The aim is broadly to provide greater clarity to the rights and responsibilities of residents and park owners and to improve the level of protection available to residents.

For example, there is a proposal for the resident and the park owner to sign a written agreement at the time of the sale of the home, so that both parties are aware of their obligations at the outset. There is also a proposal to tighten up arrangements which currently allow park owners to exploit their power of veto on the proposed purchaser of a home. My noble friend Lord Graham referred to the proposal that a new statutory requirement is placed on local authorities to impose and monitor conditions to mobile home site licences, and to consult residents on those conditions. That would require authorities to carry out their

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responsibilities for site licensing more methodically and consistently. We recognise that. There is criticism that in some cases local authorities do not do a good job of monitoring.

One of the recommendations is to make the setting of conditions for site licences a duty on all authorities. Good practice guidance should help to improve the consistency of operation of the rules.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, raised the issue of the campaign supported by the Big Issue on behalf of mobile home owners; that their mobile homes should be included in housing legislation. We share the general concern to provide residents with adequate protection against exploitative treatment. However, the proposal is not one which won any consensus with the members of the working party. Some members of the working party were in particular concerned about the imposition of unnecessary, bureaucratic controls, which could drive park owners out of the industry.

We also need to bear in mind that mobile homes are fundamentally different in tenure from anything currently covered by ordinary housing legislation. Nevertheless, I can assure noble Lords that we are willing to consider a wide range of suggestions in developing an appropriate control regime for mobile homes. Points which were raised as points of detail--including the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about the current role of the housing ombudsman--ought to be considered as part of the review. Those proposals and many others requiring amendments to the legislation need to be further developed and their impact assessed. A legislative opportunity would then need to be found to implement them.

We recognise that many people would like to see urgent action for reform. I am sure, however, that a careful and thorough approach to these issues, including a wider consultation with interested parties and scrutiny of the effect of legislative changes, is the right way forward. For proposals where legislation is not required, action will be taken forward straightaway on a number of fronts.

All three speakers referred to the recommendations for good practice guidance. The report recommends that we accept the working party's view that there are wide variations between authorities in the way they operate their responsibilities. We are issuing good practice guidance following the findings of recent departmental research. Our aim in disseminating good practice is to improve the quality and consistency of the service which authorities provide to residents and park owners on harassment and site licensing. Guidance on harassment was published this summer. Guidance on site licensing should be published next week.

The working party also identified a willingness on the part of residents' and owners' bodies to consider further the provisions which are included in the industry's voluntary agreement between the parties. I commend the parties for the willingness they have shown to take the issues further.

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The issue of pitch fees and sales commission was also raised. That was perhaps one of the most controversial areas on which the working party sought to reach agreement.It was inevitable that where money has to change hands, as in the case of pitch fees and the commission, there would be particular sensitivities. On the residents' side, there is concern about whether the amounts being charged are fair. On the industry side there is concern to maintain income and investment levels, and retain the viability of park home businesses.

The working party recommended that the department should carry out research on the economics of the industry, which would assist in considering any future control regime for pitch fees and the commission. DETR officials are considering the possibility of commissioning such a study, and have now drafted a specification for the research. Members of the park homes working party have been given the opportunity to make a contribution to the specification, and we will take the research forward as soon as we are able.

Also raised was the issue of concern that was recognised in the working party's recommendation on the subject of utilities. The working party recommends the setting of a maximum resale price for utilities and the provision of full information on charging. It believes that it would assist residents who feel they are being overcharged by the park owners.

We are therefore willing to consider action--both the possibility of legislation when a suitable opportunity arises in due course and good practice guidance--across a broad front, following the publication of the working party's recommendations. To help us in this, we are keen to hear views from a wider constituency. I congratulate noble Lords on the contributions they have made to that consultation and the debate today. We have already received more than 500 responses to our consultation exercise on the working party's recommendations, with nearly a month of the consultation period still to go. Many important issues need to be considered and raised as part of that consultation--for example, the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, on the need for ensuring proper recognition of the need for adaptations for those people with disabilities living in park homes. We will consider all the issues at that stage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, touched on the issue of council tax. We both have a long connection in the field of local government. She knows that the Government have no proposals at the moment to consider changing the way that council tax is banded. I am quite sure that there will be those who, as part of the consultation, will offer a point of view on that subject.

In general, I would not want to rule out anything in the recommendations of the working party. We are keen to take forward particularly those issues where there is clear consensus support from the working party and other consultees. We will of course need to look carefully at the costs and benefits of any change

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and the impact the recommendations may have, particularly on the park homes industry and local authorities.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Graham on his contribution to this debate and on the contribution he has made on this issue over many years. The introduction to the consultation document rightly recognises and praises his dedication to the needs and serious problems facing what may be a minority of people living in park homes. We shall look carefully at the case made for change in the report. We shall take into account the comments made today and in another place and in the responses received to the wider consultation exercise. I thank my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to respond on this subject.

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