§ 10.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)
It is my pleasure first to congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) on his appointment as Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, and to welcome him in making what I understand will be his first speech from the Treasury bench.
I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the subject to which I am drawing his attention, and to which I hope he will apply his skill and judgment, is an extremely suitable matter for a Minister who might have a comparatively short tenure of office. It is one where a considerable and worthwhile improvement could be made.
The problems of mobile home and caravan dwellers concern a number of hon. Members, as is borne out by the numbers who have spoken to me about it since they saw that I was lucky enough to have secured this Adjournment debate, and by the attendance in the House now, which is startlingly large for an Adjournment debate.
Mobile homes and caravans are becoming an increasingly popular form of residence, particularly at a time of rising house prices. There are all over the country, in many constituencies, large sites with mobile home dwellers in them. A high proportion of those living there are the elderly or young couples, who increasingly find them an attractive way of having a reasonable home in the countryside at a much more modest price than they would pay elsewhere.
Sometimes the idea of caravan or mobile home living conjures up the vision of scruffy estates of caravans which are an eyesore. There are such sites, but the vast majority, certainly the ones that concern me most, are good, well-run sites.
The mobile homes are in reality not mobile at all. In most cases the wheels have not moved for many years. The 991 caravans are on brick-built footings, and are in every respect bungalows, usually well cared for by their occupants. They are normally pleasant developments in pleasant parts of the countryside, such as those at Radcliffe-on-Trent, Shelford and Gamston in my constituency.
They may look like dwellings, and they are bought by people who might otherwise buy themselves a bungalow in the country or a small house. But the position of the occupiers, who buy the caravan but rent from a site operator the site on which it stands, is by no means the same as that of occupiers of any other dwellings or any other form of accommodation.
In an Adjournment debate it would be out of order for me to recommend changes in the law. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) had a private Member's Bill which fell at the General Election.
The background against which the Minister must consider the problems is that the Landlord and Tenant Acts and their consequences have not applied to occupiers of caravans vis-à-vis their sites. The Rent Acts security of tenure provisions and restrictions on rent increases do not apply. Therefore, the latest surprise for residents of caravans is that the rent freeze declared by the incoming Government has no effect. I understand, upon the ground rents of caravan dwellers. They now find themselves subject to demands for increased rent. It comes as a startling discovery to many residents when they go into occupation to find that the protection which successive Governments thought it right to give those who rent or even buy their own homes does not apply to them because theirs are mobile homes.
There are other problems which residents tend to discover when they have lived in the caravan sites for some time. Unfortunately, one reason why they discover after some time that their position is somewhat unusual compared with that of other home dwellers is that often no written contract or document worth giving the name to is exchanged between the site owner and his tenants when they take up the tenancy of their caravans. When the new purchaser of the caravan moves in, important things about his security of tenure—the terms on which he can live 992 there, the contractual period in between demands for rent increases, liability for maintenance, liability for acts of negligence, rights of access for those providing services or even for visitors—are left undefined and tend to be sorted out when disputes arise between the site owner and the residents.
It is clearly undesirable that so many matters remain undefined. This gives rise to constant disputes in some cases. In the worst cases—I emphasise only in the worst cases—irresponsible or even almost dishonest site owners exploit this lack of a clear definition of the relationship between the owner and his caravan dwellers, and considerable harassment and abuse of the position of the tenants takes place. I should like to believe that it is the desire —I am sure that it is—of both those who live in the homes and the best site owners to try to improve the situation.
During the tenure of the Conservative Government the Department of the Environment, under the previous Minister, lent its good offices to further discussion between the National Federation of Site Operators on the one hand and the Mobile Home Residents' Association on the other. At first the discussions between those bodies representing substantial numbers of owners and tenants made slow and sticky progress. Therefore, I would very much welcome any indication from the Minister tonight whether any real progress has now been made in terms of producing a recommended contract to be exchanged between site owners and caravan-dwelling tenants. I should also like to see normal methods of contact between owners and tenants on well-administered caravan sites to get rid of these constant complaints.
There is another point that has emerged from the discussions. I hope that the Minister can deal with it for it is a bad abuse and is a serious problem affecting caravan owners. I refer to the difficulty that faces an owner when seeking to resell his caravan and obtaining an improved capital gain when selling it. Almost all caravan owners assume that when they sell their mobile homes they will be able to take advantage of the rising property market—and certainly this was the situation in the past—to make a profit to go towards investment in a further home. However, I regret to say that in the vast majority of cases 993 this does not happen to caravan owners. The caravan owner finds that he has acquired the right to sell the caravan, but the site on which it stands remains at the disposal of the site owner. In practice it is useless to try to sell the caravan without the site on which it stands. In theory one can sell the caravan and somebody will tow it away, but since many mobile homes have to be put on the back of a lorry the process of moving is very expensive. Furthermore, it is difficult to find a site on which a casual owner may move his own caravan. When this happens heavy fees are charged, and at the moment it is almost impossible to find sites.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
Does my hon. Friend not agree that one difficulty is that the site owner with a vacant site insists on a new caravan being purchased, so that in such a case the usury is double?
§ Mr. Clarke
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. The position is, as I was seeking to explain, that when a caravan tenant comes to sell his caravan, he finds that he cannot sell it to a purchaser whom he has approached, say, through a newspaper advertisement because the site owner will not allow the ownership of the site to be passed on to any casual purchaser, or indeed to any purchaser at all. The site owner makes it clear to the caravan owner that if he sells the caravan to the first-corner, the caravan will have to be removed. This enables the site owner to insist that the caravan is sold to the site owner. In many cases the site owner insists on a sale at a marked down value, and this amounts almost to a forced sale.
§ Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Cam-borne)
I must declare an interest as parliamentary adviser to the National Federation of Site Operators. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the Federation deprecates the practice outlined by my hon. Friend. This matter is covered by a code of conduct that is binding on federation members. The federation hopes to introduce that code of conduct as mutually acceptable to its members, and it is hoped that it will lead to an end to this disgusting practice.
§ Mr. Clarke
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend, in the capacity which he has described to the House, refer to this 994 as a "disgusting practice". I hope that his federation will take steps to ensure that it does not admit any members who indulge in that sort of activity. My experience is that the vast majority of caravan site owners follow this practice. I have had experience of situations in which the site owners have insisted on knocked-down values for caravans. The fact is that the market price of caravans has been such that caravans are bought in at a reduced price by the site owner and then sold by him at a considerable profit to an incoming purchaser—a purchaser who comes in quite unaware of the fact that there are restrictions on resale. It has tempted far too many site owners in recent years.
It must be a major item in the profitability of some sites that the capital value of the caravans on the site will accrue to the site owner rather than to the unfortunate owner-occupiers of them. The result is that many caravan owners, especially more elderly people, find it almost impossible to leave a site because the knock-down value of their caravans is not sufficient for them to acquire properties elsewhere.
This is all legal, of course. I do not suggest that there is anything illegal about it. However, it is what might colloquially be termed a fiddle, and it is an abuse of the relationship between site owners and caravan dwellers.
I accept that any increase in the value of a caravan on a site is partly an increase in the site value, in much the same way as the increase in values of houses is in part an increase in land values. Perhaps a 10 per cent. share of the profit on the re-sale of a caravan going to the site owner is defensible as being almost legitimate, but I do not think that anything beyond that is legitimate or defensible.
I hope that the Minister will deal with the practice that I have described and that he will shed some light on the progress of the discussions taking place between the two bodies concerned in dealing with this practice.
Some time ago I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), who was then the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs, to draw the attention of the Director-General of Fair Trading 995 to this practice. It seemed to me that the Fair Trading Act might provide some opportunity for this practice to be examined. In a letter to me dated 1st August 1973, my right hon. and learned Friend told me that he could neither predict the attitude of the Director-General nor anticipate what action he would recommend but that his attention would be drawn to the problems which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim) and I had raised with him.
Although I know it is not the departmental responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, I hope that he will be able to tell us how the Department of Trade is getting along and whether the Director-General of Fair Trading has yet come to any conclusion about whether his powers are wide enough to stamp out this unfair and illegitimate practice.
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. As this is a new Parliament, I think that I must redefine the rules. When an hon. Member raises a matter on the Adjournment, the Minister is entitled to the full time that he wants to reply to it. Any other hon. Member intervenes with the permission of both the hon. Member raising the matter and the Minister. It is important to see that the hon. Member initiating the debate has time to develop his case and that the Minister has time to reply to it. In those circumstances, if I call the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), he must confine himself to about three minutes, and no more.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker and I undertake to keep within that time. I am gratified that the lion. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) sat down in order to allow me this brief intervention, and I hope that he in turn will be gratified when I say that I agree with all that he said.
I add my congratulations to my lion. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). I am glad to see that it is possible for a member of the National Union of Journalists, of which 996 I am one, to gain preferment in this House.
I have taken an interest in these problems for some time and, but for the premature election, I had hoped on 1st March to have moved the Second Reading of the Bill which I introduced under the Ten Minutes Rule on 16th January.
The point which was brought home to me very forcibly after I introduced my Bill was the wide extent of the problem. Many of my hon. Friends from all parts of the country have made the same point to me, including my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Roderick) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon). Like the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, we in the Midlands are deluged with complaints about this kind of practice, which is on the increase.
The people being victimised are those least able to hit back. They are not travelling freebooters moving from site to site. Most of them are young married couples or elderly people who have seen their savings depreciate. The amount of money which they thought would buy them a house no longer does anything of the kind. It buys them only one piece of property—a mobile home. However, when they get into it they often find that it is not even a property, because it is treated not as a home but as a depreciating asset like a motor car by site owners who have dealings with new residents and those residents are not protected by the law in the way that almost all occupants of furnished and unfurnished rented premises are.
When it comes to sale and resale the owner of a mobile home, after he has been subjected to some threat, can be told that he will be taken off or evicted from the caravan site or that an application will be made to the courts unless he is prepared to buy a new caravan, because that is the way that some site owners make their money. The caravan dweller then takes a cut of perhaps £1,000 on his caravan and the following week probably sees it advertised for more than he originally paid for it. The caravan, plus site, is an appreciating asset, but the caravan without the site is a depreciating asset.
997 At the moment the site owners are in a monopoly situation. Of course, not all site owners indulge in these practices. The National Federation of Site Operators and the Caravan Council are, in their own ways, moving towards an agreed system of new leases to afford better protection for those who live in mobile homes. We are dealing with almost a quarter of a million people, many of whom are victimised by those many site owners outside the National Federation of Site Operators and on the fringe of this rather dubious profession.
By way of conclusion I should like to ask my hon. Friend to consider certain points which are made most strongly to all hon. Members who have become involved in the matter.
First, there is the question of the control of rents. We have the absurd situation that it is possible to get the courts to pronounce on rents only if one is placed under notice of eviction, because then the courts can judge.
Secondly, we must have the courts intervening more often in threatened evictions and actions for possession. I believe that the courts should be able to set aside such orders.
Finally, the Government's views on the question of leases on sites for fixed periods and on the greater availability of local authority sites should be made known, so that if people are evicted local authorities will be able to provide alternative sites for them. That will remove a large part of the element of blackmail in what is going on.
§ 10.17 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)
I thank the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) for his kind remarks about me on taking up my appointment. In return, I should like to congratulate him on so effectively recovering his voice after being immured in the Trappist cloisters of the Government Whips' Office.
The hon. Gentleman was eloquently supported by a notable champion of caravan dwellers, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), a fellow member of the National Union of Journalists, whom I also thank for his kind remarks. This is a problem in 998 which he has taken a great interest, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) and Mansfield (Mr. Concannon).
The problems and worries of residents in mobile homes and caravans are very real. It is right that the scandals which certainly exist and the roguery which takes place should be brought to light, particularly as those who live in such residences are extremely vulnerable members of the community—the old, the newly-wed trying to find some kind of a home, and others with special problems who feel that living in a caravan can help to solve them. It is desirable to provide such people with the maximum possible protection against harassment and exploitation.
The 1960 and 1968 Acts alleviated and improved the position somewhat. The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 made it necessary for a residential site to be licensed, and Part 1 of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 gave residents protection from eviction. But at the same time neither of those Acts of Parliament has come near to solving the problem. Otherwise, there would not be such regular demands by hon. Members on both sides of the House for further action, demands which are echoed and reinforced by the highly articulate NMHRA which represents the caravan dwellers.
One of the problems with helping these residents is the need to define them. That is most difficult. For example, in spite of the strong grievances which they voice and with which I have considerable sympathy, about what they describe as their rent, the residents in these mobile homes are not tenants, except for approximately 8 per cent. of them who live in caravans which they rent and do not own, caravans which are fixed to the occupied plot.
They cannot be tenants, because they own the dwellings in which they live. Many of the complaints are about the purchase and resale of these dwellings. That is why, except for the 8 per cent., the residents in these homes do not benefit from the rent freeze which was imposed by the Government on 8th March. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe described that as a startling discovery. He is a little belated in discovering it and in being startled since the same people 999 were not covered by the freeze on rents imposed by the Conservatives under their counter-inflation legislation. There was an absurd anomaly under which their rents were not frozen but the charges made to holiday-makers living in caravans perhaps literally next to them, were covered by the Government's legislation. Therefore, although we may not have been kinder to these people, at any rate we have not been as unfair to them as they might have thought of the Conservative Government.
The people who live in these homes own what they occupy, but what do they occupy? Is it a dwelling or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North said, is it a vehicle? It is regarded as a dwelling, and it often, though by no means always, looks like a dwelling, but in terms of its commercial value it depreciates more like a vehicle. That is why there is a justification which can be offered for even the most spurious resale swindles. But it is also like a leasehold property. The occupier pays a ground rent and service charges in the way that the leaseholder does, but not many leaseholders have to pay their ground landlord for being connected to the basic services. Therefore, there is this tangled undergrowth of definition which it is extremely difficult for the mobile home dweller and those who wish to help him to hack through. Nevertheless, there are certain glimmers of light through the foliage. The first is that dwellers on sites which are subject to compulsory purchase orders can qualify for the home loss payments and re-housing facilities under the Land Compensation Act 1963. I immediately concede that this does not cover many of them, but it is a gain which the previous administration provided.
There are certain aspects of caravan transactions which come under the Fair Trading Act 1973. Under that Act the Director-General of Fair Trading has a duty to keep under review commercial activities which involve the supply of goods and services. He may propose regulations to be made by the appropriate Secretary of State to control these practices and I know that the Director General is well aware of the general problem we are debating.
1000 The measures cannot be used to influence the relationship between landlords and tenants on caravan sites because these are neither goods nor services as described by the Act. But the Act does cover practices relating to the promotion of the supply of goods—for example, caravans—the terms and conditions subject to which goods are supplied—for example, that the purchase of a caravan will assure a purchaser of the renewal of his lease of a site—and methods of salesmanship in dealing with consumers, those who buy caravans from commercial suppliers.
So some of the worst abuses of sites can be covered—those which arise when tenants are threatened with eviction unless they buy a new caravan from a site operator, or when the use of a pitch in the first place depends on the purchase of a caravan from the site owner at an inflated price. But the situation which has caused concern, involving the return of a residential caravan or mobile home by its owner to a site operator for substantially less than its market value and its resale to another tenant at its full retail value, appears to be outside these provisions, except in the case of its resale contravening any regulation made against the situation where the use of a pitch depends on the purchase of a caravan.
But there is another promising feature. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe referred to the tripartite talks, of which the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) knows a good deal, which have been going on between the National Federation of Site Operators, the National Mobile Home Residents' Association and the National Caravan Council. Those talks hung fire for a long time, but there have been two meetings this year. The second was held only last Thursday, 14th March, and I understand that at that meeting an agreement was reached on what are perhaps the two most contentious issues affecting caravan dwellers—security on site and resale of caravans. A further meeting among these three parties is to be held at the end of May to consider a document embodying an agreement which, with luck, will be arrived at.
It is not possible for me to disclose the contents of that agreement, but I get the impression that what is being moved towards involves substantial concessions on 1001 both sides and springs from a genuine willingness on both sides to compromise. Of course we must await the details and vie must recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North said in the previous debate, that the bodies involved are not fully representative. At the same time, the Government look forward to the outcome of these talks both because the talks themselves represent desirable progress and also because their outcome and whatever document emerges could be the basis for the Government's consideration of their own attitude to a problem which is recognised as genuine and serious.
In that spirit, I once again congratulate the hon. Member on raising this important problem.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (Bodmin)
As yet another member of the NUJ, may I extend my congratulations on the Minister's appointment? Can he confirm that it is the case that the resident of a caravan who pays a ground rent is not eligible for a rent rebate? Low income groups are to a great extent the people who occupy caravans.
§ Mr. Kaufman
As I said, the problem is that with the exception of the 8 per cent. I mentioned those who live in caravans are not legally tenants. They are 1002 owner-occupiers living on land owned by someone else. Therefore, they cannot receive a rebate of rent if they are not paying a rent. What they pay is not a rent within the definition of the rent rebate legislation.
§ 10.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
My hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has stated the problem clearly, but the Minister has given no hope to the hundreds of thousands of people concerned. I have had details of two attempted suicides in the last six weeks because of the activities of a site owner named Pring, who has used Rachman-type methods of squeezing tenants who are in an unfortunate position. If the Minister could circularise local authorities with the suggestion that alternative sites he made available, this blackmail element would be removed. He did not discuss that at all in his reply to this debate.
§ The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question' put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.