(3 months ago)Commons Chamber
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is a pleasure to introduce this Bill. It is a two-clause Bill, but the second clause covers only the Bill’s extent, commencement and short title, so it essentially has only two provisions. It arises directly from my long-standing interest in the welfare of park home residents. I have been privileged to be the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on park homes for more years than I can recall.
Mobile and park homes provide residential accommodation for about 85,000 households on some 2,000 sites in England. Most of those residents are of pensionable age. They normally own their own home, and they pay rent to the site owner for the land on which the home is stationed. Let me put it on the record that they are not bungalows. Some rogue firms out there are marketing new park homes as bungalows. I have written to the Advertising Standards Authority on the subject but have yet to receive a satisfactory response.
The Bill will make two changes to the Mobile Homes Act 1983 that will help all residents. The changes were set out by the Government in their response to their own call for evidence in their 2017 review of park homes legislation. On page 6 of the response, which was published on 2018, it says at paragraph 12:
“Some site owners pass on their repair, maintenance and other ad hoc costs to residents by requiring them to pay variable service charges in addition to the pitch fee.”
The Government response goes on to say, in a subsequent paragraph, that the
“Government wants to ensure that residents only pay for services that they are required to pay for through the pitch fee and will introduce legislation in due course to amend and clarify the definition of a pitch fee and prevent the use of variable service charges in written agreements, when parliamentary time allows.”
Well, parliamentary time does allow; it needs the will of Government. I hope we will hear from the Minister that the Government do have the will to implement what they said they wanted to do.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the charges that are made; does he agree that quite often those charges are made but the work is not actually carried out? Many owners are just interested in cramming as many mobile homes on to sites as possible.
The tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is that there are a heck of a lot of rogues out there and they are up to no good, and he is absolutely right. There are, however, quite a lot of good park home owners, and it is important that we try to support them and to prevent the rogues from taking over the whole industry. That is why it is so important that the Government take seriously the changes—albeit quite modest—in the Bill to try to improve the lot of residents on park homes sites.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we want to help the good park owners. Changing the index of calculations from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index will obviously reduce the income for improvements. I am sure we will consider the matter in Committee, but will he assure the House that he will allow good park home owners the latitude and finances necessary to make necessary improvements to the site?
I do not think the good park home owners have any problem about trying to make ends meet. It would be much more difficult for them were we to, for example, change the 10% commission that is payable on the sale of any park home. My right hon. Friend refers to the matter going into Committee; let us hope that in due course that will be possible.
I have made the point about the service charges sometimes including repairs and maintenance that should already have been paid for in the pitch fees, and that is dealt with in clause 1(2)(a). The second issue—the change to CPI indexing to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred—is dealt with in clause 1(2)(b).
On the pitch fee review, the Government concluded, in their 2018 response, that they had
“considered all the arguments put forward including concerns about affordability for both residents and site owners. We also considered the merits of using CPI or RPI as the pitch fee review inflationary index and have concluded that CPI is the most appropriate inflationary index…The Government will introduce legislation in due course to change the pitch fee review inflationary index from RPI to CPI, when parliamentary time allows.”
That is exactly what the Bill does: it enables the parliamentary time to be found to make that change.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this Bill forward. It is a matter of regret that there has not previously been parliamentary time. I sincerely hope that the Minister, with her good civil servants working hard behind the scenes, will find a way to do a write-around or whatever is needed to move forward on this issue. The important thing is that there are really good mobile park owners and there are absolute rogues. Our first interest is the consumer protection of our constituents, so I wish my good friend all the best with the Bill.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is a long-term champion of park home residents and I hope that, with her encouragement, the Government will give the Bill their support. They are not going to allow the Bill to go through today, but they have said to me that there will be a write-around because they are supportive of its principles. I hope the Opposition are supportive, too—[Interruption.] I am grateful to see that they are nodding. If that is the situation, there is no reason why, if the debate is carried over to another day after this short debate, the Bill may not then get its Second Reading. I am grateful to the House for its indulgence and look forward to having the opportunity to hear briefly from the Opposition spokesman and our Minister.
Labour welcomes the chance to debate this Bill. We would have welcomed sight of it sooner in order really to understand the implications of the measures it contains and to ensure that relevant stakeholders could have made their views known. We would like a full impact assessment of the proposed changes, to understand why they are needed and to ensure that this is a fair deal for all involved. It is important that people pay fair fees for their pitches each year and that there is no chance they can be taken advantage of.
I thank the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) for her comments and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) on securing this debate. I also thank him for his tireless work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on park homes. He should not have admitted to being the chair for so long, but all Members of the House recognise his work in this area and he has been a consistent and powerful voice on these issues.
As my hon. Friend outlined, the Government are committed to effective reform of the park homes sector. As he has outlined, I have been unable to support the Bill’s current drafting, but I have agreed and am keen to work with him, and other members of the all-party group, to explore options regarding how we can bring forward these priorities and deliver on the ambition that we all share, which is to better protect park home residents. I hope that he will commit to working with me in the following weeks to do so. Before addressing the specifics of the Bill, I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) for the role she played and the work she did when she was the Minister responsible for this area.
I am grateful to the Minister for her kind offer to work with me to try to make the Bill into workable legislation. Does she mean by that that, if the Bill does not progress to Second Reading today, we can hold discussions and perhaps have a write-round to see whether it could get a Second Reading on the basis that, when it gets to Committee, various things will or will not be done?
I am willing to work with my hon. Friend and my officials over the coming weeks, so that we can bring something forward and support something, so that is entirely correct. But as I have said, there are certain parts of the Bill that at this point I am unable to support Bill. However, I hope he will take my assurances from the Dispatch Box as a commitment to do that because when I say things I generally mean them, and I hope that even Opposition Members agree that, if I agree to do something for them, I follow through.
My hon. Friend outlined some of the Bill’s specifics, and I want to move on to those, but the park homes sector plays a vital role in housing, especially for older people. As he said, it provides valued homes for around 180,000 people.
I wish to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) and the Minister’s point about the elderly. As a GP looking after them, I can say that my experience of dealing with these parks is that elderly people often choose the homes as retirement homes and places to downsize. The danger is that they are vulnerable and if there are unscrupulous people in the parks using technical terms to bolster rates and services, that can be a real worry. Has the Department carried out any impact assessments of what that may look like and how prevalent it is? What can we do to make sure people are informed, so that they understand the information they are given and are not bamboozled by clever salesmen?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is true that many owners and users of park home sites will be elderly and vulnerable. I have many in my constituency, so I am well aware of some of the challenges for the individuals living there. However, I will caveat that by saying that, although we are talking about malpractice today, a large proportion of park home operators operate their sites in a good way, and have care and respect for the residents. We are talking about a minority today, but I absolutely understand the prevalence. We had a review in 2017 and the Government made a commitment to take forward certain things. That is why I am pleased to stand at the Dispatch Box this afternoon and agree to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention because that is exactly right: we do want transparency and we do want to work with the sector to remove those rogue traders from the environment in which we operate. One reason why the pitch fee part of the Bill needs further work is that there was no consensus on a proposal. We want to work with the sector. One of the most important points is that, as with any changes to regulations, we do not want unintended consequences and we do not want to make it harder for those operating park home sites well and carefully. We must be careful not to brand every owner and operator as being rogue.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and commend him and anyone who would want to change RPI to CPI. The Minister is making a good point: we need to be bringing forward our good providers and work with them through consultation. Does she agree, however, that now is perhaps not the right time, as a lot of the sector is on its knees because of the pandemic, so we need to consult them, to make sure there is a sector to go back to post covid and to do everything we can to support them?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is right to say that we are living in unprecedented times with this coronavirus pandemic and many businesses are struggling. As a Government, we are working hard to support them. We want to carry out those impact assessments. On the pitch fees, that is why I said we need to consult the industry further to come up with a proposal that has consensus. In my second day after being appointed—I have been in post only a couple of weeks—I was lucky enough to take through the draft Mobile Homes (Requirement for Manager of Site to be Fit and Proper Person) (England) Regulations 2020. In that Committee, I outlined that the Government had already committed to delivering and working to bring forward these elements in primary legislation when time allowed. That is why I have been really clear from the Dispatch Box today that I am willing and absolutely looking forward to working with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and my officials to take opportunities where we can to protect individuals, while keeping it in mind that we must be sensitive to the challenges and pressures that people who run park homes and all businesses are facing. With all types of legislation and regulation, it is always a balancing act with regard to making sure that there is fairness across the piece, and that obviously relates to—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 6 November.