Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on moving the motion today. As the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said, everyone who has spoken so far has supported her views in one way or another. Like the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I have been dealing with this issue for a long time. When I spoke in a debate in the House nearly 30 years ago, I told the story of how my closest friend had gone to prison for possession of pot—cannabis—in the late ’60s. He was in prison for six months and he came out a heroin addict. Within six months of his

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coming out of prison, I went to his flat to call for him one day, only to find him dead on the floor. He had died of a heroin overdose. From that day on, I have done everything I can to fight the scourge of drugs and to bring to people’s attention not only how evil and destructive drugs are but how senseless the policies to combat them are.

The report on so-called legal highs is an interesting document, and the Government’s response to it is equally interesting, but they do not mention how we are going to solve the problem. It is proposed that we talk and think more about it, but we need to look at the overall picture of how we are going to help people by dealing with drugs in prisons and in the community generally.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) spoke eloquently about the late Jim Dobbin. Jim dealt with this issue not only in this country but abroad. I sat on committees with him in the Council of Europe, where he persistently got the issue on to the agenda, against the odds, and got it discussed. We owe Jim a great debt of gratitude for his courage in tackling this issue and for having the strength of character to keep fighting for it. We are doing him justice by keeping the debate going. I was delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Jim; we are sad that he is not here today.

What we do know about drugs is that we have spent billions of pounds and we have a policy that, by common agreement, has failed; it has taken us not a step forward. That is why I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention on having the courage to persevere and the commitment to see this report through on the comparisons that need to be examined seriously. The hon. Member for Reigate said that it contained few conclusions. There are no conclusions in it, but there are ideas of where we could go. The Members who have talked about a royal commission are going in the right direction; the sooner that can be done, the better.

We have to examine the situation in Portugal, which has been mentioned a lot. The report says clearly that not only has cannabis use there been reduced, but heroin use and cocaine use have been reduced dramatically. The way in which the initial possession has been treated as a health-related matter and not a criminal one is a major step in the right direction. If we can do no more in the life of this Parliament, before it ends next year, than get the royal commission set up and get the idea that we treat the possession of very small amounts of drugs, in some cases, as a health-related matter rather than a criminal one—

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I want to support the excellent speeches I have been hearing. As a commanding officer in the Army, I had far too often to rid myself and the Army of outstanding young men and young woman because they had just touched a drug. Things have got better, but think what will happen once we deal with this as a medical and not a criminal situation. Of course if someone is high on drugs and leading a patrol, they have to be brought before the commanding officer. But if we are talking about just possession and just usage, our current approach is just too wrong.

Mr Hancock: The hon. Gentleman is for ever bringing us his experience and the House should welcome that. Once again, he has touched on a very important point: careers are being thrown away because of the attitude of

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the Army, in his case, and of other organisations, which have taken draconian measures against people for the very minor crime of carrying or smoking cannabis. We have to look seriously at this issue. We owe it to the people outside this place because, as other Members have said, they are now ahead of Parliament on this matter. We should not be playing catch-up; we should want to find a way of leading on the issue. The report on comparisons is a step in the right direction, but I hope that the strength of the support in the Chamber today will carry forth that message to our colleagues, including the Prime Minister, who should be continuously reminded of his stance in 2002. He should be reminded of it daily, because when he talks about this issue he seems to forget what he might have said before.

Zac Goldsmith: The hon. Gentleman might like to know that today’s Guido Fawkes quote of the day is the one on drug laws that we have heard cited by a number of hon. Members.

Mr Hancock: I am delighted to hear that Guido Fawkes is talking about something other than me. We have an opportunity now and we squander it at our peril. We should look forward to this Minister getting the backing of his boss, the Home Secretary, and of the Prime Minister to make sure that we have the opportunity to do something positive, for once, on the issue of drugs. Let us not just continue to know that we have failed.

1.34 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Finding myself simultaneously in agreement with the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) is a first since I entered this place in 2010. When I came down to the Chamber this morning and I was thinking about the speech I was going to make and the notes I had made, I thought I was going to be committing political suicide. However, it is apparent from the contributions made by Members from across the House today that there is unanimity of view within the House: the current position, enshrined in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, can no longer prevail. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Newport West, who, as he rightly reminded the House, has been speaking, with one voice, on this issue for the past four decades. I have to tell him that the end is in sight and he is going to win in due course.

I wish to start my observations by setting out three startlingly simple propositions, with which this Minister would agree. The first is that the so-called “war on drugs” has been lost. My right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—

Crispin Blunt: Honourable.

Stephen Phillips: Just honourable—that is a great shame.

My hon. Friend made reference to all the political leaders from across the world who have, in effect, made that point since they have left public office. He is no longer on the Front Bench and feels able, as I do, from the Back Benches to make the point that the war on drugs has been lost. That is a strong indication that we are getting policies completely wrong.

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The second proposition is that existing drugs policy, focusing principally on criminalisation, is detrimental to health outcomes for individuals and damages society as a whole. The third proposition can now be made with confidence, given the report published by the Government this morning—I will come back to the issue of whether or not it contains any conclusions—but the report on comparative experience in other jurisdictions makes it clear, especially in relation to Portugal although the evidence from a number of other jurisdictions is the same, that decriminalisation not only leads to better outcomes for individuals but lessens the bill for the criminal justice system and provides greater benefits for society as a whole. One of those benefits, which I mentioned when I intervened on the hon. Member for Cambridge, is that it leads to respect for the criminal law.

One problem we have at the moment is that a large number of young people who are using psychoactive substances do not regard that as a crime. For them to be criminalised by the laws of this country leads to a general disrespect on their part for the criminal law and for this place. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made an important point in her earlier intervention: we are, or we are perceived by many of our constituents, to be behind the curve on this issue. We are perceived not to be in touch and not to be living in 2014. That is because successive Governments, of all colours, have been held back from doing the right thing, and I want to congratulate this Minister on having, for the first time, what my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate describes as an “intelligent debate”. This is the first time I have heard the House discuss this issue in an intelligent debate.

I intend to return to my three propositions, but it may be of assistance if I say that I come at this matter not only as an MP but as someone with experience of the criminal justice system, not really from practice but from having been a Crown court recorder. Any criminal justice professional in this country we speak to, be they a judge, a police officer or someone working in the probation service, will tell us the same thing: not only is our current approach to the use of illegal drugs in this country not the right one, but it is not based on evidence. Furthermore, it is detrimental to individuals and to society as a whole.

Nobody has been speaking for young people on this issue. They regard us in this House as dinosaurs when we consider the use of recreational drugs. They consider us to be living in a different age, one in which they are no longer living. They have no respect either for the criminal law or for this House, as a result. We have to move on. We have to recognise that times have changed. We must recognise the broad array of recreational psychoactive substances that are now available to young people and have an intelligent policy that does not just say, “You are a criminal if you use those substances.” Instead, we should say, “There are very significant risks to your health and very significant costs potentially to society. Although it is a matter for you whether you use those drugs, there will be consequences, but they will be consequences that we will principally deal with through the health system rather than through the criminal justice system.”

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Bob Stewart: You are of course a criminal—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): I am not a criminal.

Bob Stewart: Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, you are certainly not a criminal, but others may well be criminals if they take drugs or alcohol and put members of the public in danger as a consequence. They are criminals, but just taking a drug or drinking something does not make them criminals.

Stephen Phillips: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. If we look at the difference between recreational drug usage and smoking, we will see that the harm is so much greater with smoking. For every 1,000 smokers who are admitted to hospital, 123 of them are suffering from health problems directly caused by smoking. If we look at 1,000 drug users who are admitted to hospital, only two of them are there because of the use of illegal drugs. We have at least one drug in this country—we could add alcohol to the list —that is far more dangerous than anything that anybody uses by way of recreational drugs or other illegal drugs. We must focus our attention on dealing with that as a health problem rather than as a criminal problem.

Let me come back to one of my opening propositions, which is that the war on drugs has been lost. A survey of the public earlier this year proves that that is not just my view. It is the view not just of the world leaders who used to hold office to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate referred, but of 84% of people in this country. It is true that only 39%—up from 27% in 2008—of those in the same survey believed in the widespread decriminalisation of illegal substances. The likely reason for that is the hangover from the debate that we have not been having in this country for the past four decades. We have not had a national debate on this issue, which is why people have not turned their minds to the question of whether some form of liberalisation, some different approach, taking into account the detrimental health effects, is the right way forward.

As the hon. Member for Newport West said, what is the point of this war on drugs? If it is to prevent people from taking substances that may harm them, plainly it is not working. According to the most recent crime survey for England and Wales, 2.7% of adults had taken class A drugs in 1996 compared with 2.6% now—statistically not significant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who is no longer in her place, referred to the fact that there has been a seeming reduction in cannabis usage among young people. There are many reasons for that, one of which might be the tougher line that has been taken on cannabis by the Government, which has driven people into using so-called legal highs, on which the Minister has today published his report.

If we talked to criminal justice professionals—judges, the police and probation officers—we would learn that they do not support the war on drugs. It is a war that has been lost. If we acknowledged that fact and looked at the experience of Portugal and the other jurisdictions that have liberalised their drug regimes and taken away criminal penalties for small amounts of possession, we would free up enormous resources for the police. More importantly, we would free up enormous financial resources

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for the treatment of those who are addicted to these substances. Therefore, I venture to suggest that I am correct in my first proposition—I think the Minister will agree with me—that the war on drugs has been lost and that we must look very carefully at a new policy.

My second proposition was that the health outcomes of existing policy are at best poor. In fact, what also happens is that society is harmed by existing policy. We know that funding a drug habit is not a cheap business. It increases crime, particularly acquisitive crime. Drug dependency is therefore one of the drivers of crime in this country. Home Office figures for 2003-04 show that the annual cost of drug-related offending is £13.9 billion, £9.9 billion of which goes to the victims of crime. The other £4 billion of public money is being poured into the criminal justice system every year to deal with the issue. If that £4 billion were taken away from the criminal justice system and put into the health system to try to encourage better outcomes, we would not only get something better for those who use illegal substances and for society, but achieve a reduction in the total amount that has to be spent.

If existing policy is not deterring drug use and drug dependency, it is leading to crime, and that cannot be in anybody’s interests. A great deal of money is evidently being wasted, and it is money that, in these times of austerity, should not be wasted.

Let us turn now to the health of those who take illegal substances. By criminalising them, are we dealing adequately with them? Many young people who take drugs have no idea not only what they are taking, but what the effects might be. Those who are standing in a nightclub at 1o’clock in the morning having consumed, no doubt, a large amount of vodka are much more interested in getting the pill than they are in what is in the pill. What is in the pill is not always what people have been told. They might be told that it is MDMA when it is some other entactogen that has not been tested on humans. It may be rat poison, or it may even be harmless. Even if someone does know that the pill they are about to pop is ecstasy, there is no guarantee that they are aware of its potential effects. Although there are admirable websites such as Talk to Frank, not many young people necessarily go on them. Not everyone knows about the risks of these drugs or how to mitigate those risks. We know that from some of the tragic cases that we have seen in the past of users taking excessive amounts of drugs in clubs and elsewhere.

Let us consider those who inject their drugs, and look at the comparative treatment in other places, and the experience of the criminal justice system in Georgia. Georgia reduced its prison population from 24,000 to 10,000 by taking out of prison those who had been put there for possession of small amounts of drugs. The first result of that was a massive saving to the taxpayers who fund the Republic of Georgia. Much more importantly, there was an incredible improvement in the health of the prison population. Deaths in prison fell, and there was a significant reduction in the hepatitis C and HIV infection rates among the prison population. I am not sure whether that experience is included in the Minister’s report, but it is another strong indication that we are not doing this right and that if we focused on this as a health issue rather than as a criminal justice issue, we would serve our constituents and our society a great deal better.

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Untrammelled use of drugs, especially recreational drugs, fuels disinhibition in those who take them, and that in itself leads to criminal behaviour. We know that that is a significant part of organised crime. The Association of Chief Police Officers has estimated that 50% of all organised crime in the UK involves illegal drugs, mostly class A drugs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has said that drugs are the most profitable sector of organised international crime, with a total turnover of $2 trillion in 2009.

My third proposition is that other countries are doing this much better, and that is why the Minister’s views and the report that he and his predecessors, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, have pushed for so hard, are so important. In the limited time available, I will deal only—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am glad that the hon. and learned Member referred to the limited time. Mr Deputy Speaker asked Members to confine their remarks to about eight minutes, so that everyone who wished to speak would be able to do so. The hon. and learned Gentleman has now been speaking for fifteen and a half minutes. I would be grateful if he came to a conclusion.

Stephen Phillips: I am extremely grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will be quick.

The experience in Portugal is absolutely clear: liberalisation of the regime for small amounts of possession is the way forward. I know that the Minister believes that, and while other hon. Members have pointed to the fact that there are no conclusions in the report, I venture to suggest that that is because they have looked only at the section on Portugal. If they go to page 51 of the report, they will see a section entitled “Observations”. I dread to think of the negotiation that went on in the Home Office to replace the word “Conclusions” with “Observations”. There are four bullet points there. All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate and anyone who is interested in the issue need to look at the experience of Portugal and those four bullet points, because they are essentially the conclusions of the Portuguese experience. The most important is the second one, which states:

“There is evidence from Portugal of improved health prospects for users, though these cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone.”

Whether or not they cannot be attributed to decriminalisation alone, what is clear, from all the contributions in the debate, is that the existing regime, contained in the 1971 Act, is not working, and that we need a different approach. That approach, which the Minister is championing today and which is the subject matter of the debate, is a great thing, which I urge the House to think about deeply. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.

1.51 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on bringing forward the debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for making it possible. I was a Member of the House before that Committee came into existence and I cannot stress enough to Members who arrived in 2010 how much it

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has done in making this sort of debate possible—debates that perhaps neither Front-Bench team wanted to happen, but on issues that the public want debated.

I agree about the importance of having a thoroughgoing review on UK drugs policy. First, we must put this in its international context. Most of the leaders of some of the countries that have been at the heart of the international war on drugs would say now that it is not working. More people are taking drugs than before. The harms caused by drugs in some countries—in South America, the Caribbean, Afghanistan—have got worse, so there is an international context, in which people are recognising that an essentially punitive and criminalising approach to drugs is not working. As I said in an intervention, individual American states are moving towards decriminalisation, notably Colorado. Given that the decriminalisation in Colorado has boosted its tourism trade, I put it to the House that it will not be the only US state that goes down that road.

On the question of decriminalisation, I am by nature a libertarian, but I have always taken seriously the arguments of good friends and people with whom I work in Hackney. Their argument has always been that the skunk that young people smoke nowadays is a much more serious matter than the marijuana that some of us may have come across when we were young, and that it is one thing for a fully grown adult, such as a student, to smoke a spliff at a party at a weekend, but when pre-pubescent children smoke skunk, hour after hour when they are out of school, it must, of necessity, have an effect on their growth, educational development and so forth. There was also some concerning research about the links between marijuana and schizophrenia. Therefore, although I have had libertarian instincts since I was a student, as in inner-city MP I take seriously some of the arguments about the possible harm, even of smoking marijuana, and the signal that is sent by decriminalising it.

The fact remains, however, that if we are about anything in the House, we should be about evidence-based policy. This latest report, which the Government have belatedly released, shows that there does not appear to be evidence internationally that a more punitive, criminalised response brings down levels of consumption. On this issue, Members of Parliament have been unduly timid in the past. I can remember my own Home Secretary, a wonderful man, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who sacked his adviser because they told him something that he did not want to hear: that alcohol was a much more harmful drug than cannabis, not only physically but in terms of the social disorder, domestic violence and so on that it promotes. I am sorry to say that my right hon. Friend’s response was not to say, “Gosh, isn’t that interesting. I must look into these facts,” but to sack the man concerned. Members of Parliament have been timid and have not taken an evidence-based approach. It may well be that Members are behind the opinion of our constituents—

Crispin Blunt: The hon. Lady should distinguish between Members of Parliament and Ministers, who have responsibility for the positions of their party. I think she will find that when Members of Parliament have looked at this properly, as the Home Affairs Committee has done repeatedly, they have been properly courageous.

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Ms Abbott: I stand corrected on that. Certainly Ministers in the two major parties have been increasingly behind the opinion of their constituents, who, after all, could be eminently respectable figures but might just possibly in their youth have been in a room with someone who was smoking cannabis. They will know that young people growing up in London today cannot lead a life where they never come across, never see or never hear of people smoking cannabis. Our constituents may be more realistic about these issues than some Ministers have been able to be in the past and even now.

This has been a difficult issue for MPs and Ministers, but speaking as someone who represents a constituency that sees the very worst of drug harms, and on the basis of the evidence, past reports and today’s Home Office report, there is an unanswerable case for a review of UK drugs policy.

1.57 pm

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): Most of the things that I wanted to say have been said, so I will be brief. I just want to put on record my admiration for the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for having secured this debate, and for having raised the profile of the issue considerably in recent weeks and months. I also want to pay tribute to the Minister. It is true that the report out today has no clear, firm conclusions, but I have no doubt that it is pushing the discussion in a very healthy direction.

At the risk of being repetitive, I want to quote one aspect of the report, which is essential. It states:

“We did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country.”

It goes on to cite recent evidence in the Czech Republic where tough laws coincide with relatively high use of cannabis, but then, dealing with Portugal, it states:

“Although levels of drug use rose between 2001 and 2007, use of most drugs has since fallen to below-2001 levels. It is clear that there has not been a lasting and significant increase in drug use in Portugal since 2001.”

If that is the case, and it certainly syncs with many other reports on the same issues and the same case studies, there is a serious question to answer. If the law is not acting as a disincentive to drugs use, and therefore, logically, drugs use will continue at more or less the same levels, with other factors knocking it up and down in various places, the question is whether we want that trade to belong to the criminals or to be under the umbrella and regulatory regime of some sort of government. For me, the answer is obvious.

There is also a practical issue. This is not an ideological or philosophical issue. According to the figures I have seen, in 2012 14% of people in jail were there for drug-related offences, and last year there were 87,871 convictions on the back of drug offences in this country. Obviously, not all of them ended up in jail, so the question is whether the present policy offers value for money. It comes with a multibillion pound price tag, and the cost goes well beyond the money. We have to ask ourselves who wins from this policy. My hunch, and the hunch of many Members who have spoken today, is that the laws in place have little effect other than to create a black market and therefore opportunities for the very worst people in society. We have laws in place

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that enrich the bad people while doing very little, if anything, to protect those whom we all have a common interest in protecting.

The present policy does not seem to me to offer great value for money. I know that there is a growing consensus outside this place on this matter, and this debate shows that there is a great consensus in this place, too, which I was not expecting to hear. The motion seems to be unarguable. We need an evidence-based policy system, and the first step is the review for which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is calling. I very much support it, and I am thrilled that everyone else in the Chamber today has supported it.

2 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Like every other Member here today, I welcome the opportunity to debate this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. It has been a high-quality and wide-ranging debate. We have heard from two Select Committee Chairs. We have talked about prescription drugs, prisons and the international issues that we need to address.

I welcome the international comparators report which was published today. It received a lot of media hype overnight. I found it quite difficult to get a copy of the report until the Home Office provided a link to the Table Office at about 11 am, so I have not had a chance to digest the contents of the report fully. It has been a long time coming and it is a shame that we could not have had it a few days earlier so that we could have reflected on it in full.

I was rather bemused this morning to hear the Minister on Radio 4. I was not quite sure whether he was speaking as the Minister or as a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, as the Home Office later put out a contradictory statement. Perhaps he can clarify whether he is speaking on behalf of the Government today. I know that he has had difficulty in the past in speaking on behalf of the Government, and that he had to absent himself from the khat debate because he did not agree with the Government’s policy on khat.

The report on legal highs has also been published today alongside the international comparators report. Again, we welcome this, but it has been a long time coming. We on the Labour Benches called for the issue to be tackled much earlier; the growing market in legal highs has been allowed to flourish over the past few years. We are pleased to see the report. I pay tribute to Maryon Stewart and the Angelus Foundation, who have pushed the issue of legal highs and the need for legislation to deal with the problems that have developed.

Three key issues on legal highs emerge from the report, on which I hope the Minister will be able to reassure me. First, I hope there will be a comprehensive prevention and awareness campaign on legal highs. Secondly, we need a clear legislative framework to try to disrupt the supply of new psychoactive substances and stop headshops proliferating on our high streets. Thirdly—perhaps this should have been the starting point—we need a proper framework for assessing the scale and the danger of legal highs. We need to know when legal highs enter the UK and what dangers they pose. I hope the Minister may be able to assist with that today.

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Of course, we all want to look at the evidence. In the Home Affairs Committee report, one of the first bullet points in the key facts section states:

“England and Wales has almost the lowest recorded level of drug use in the adult population since measurement began in 1996. Individuals reporting use of any drug in the last year fell significantly from 11.1% in 1996 to 8.9% in 2011-12. There was also a substantial fall in the use of cannabis from 9.5% in 1996 to 6.9% in 2011-12.”

Let us consider all the evidence and see what is happening.

I want to focus on treatment and all the comments that have been made today about the situation in Portugal, which is a key part of the international comparators report. Little has been made of the fact that the trends in Britain are very similar to what has happened in Portugal. It is important to remember that the changes in drug laws in Portugal were accompanied by significant investment in drug treatment, as we have had in the United Kingdom. When we examine drug harms and what has had an impact, it is not clear that a change in legislation is the driving force.

Caroline Lucas: I want to make sure that there is no risk of complacency creeping into the hon. Lady’s remarks. It is important to know that there were 2,000 drug-related deaths in England and Wales in 2013 and a 32% increase in heroin and morphine-related deaths. The number of deaths involving both legal and illegal drugs last year was at its highest level since 2001. There are different ways in which we can look at the figures, but the bottom line is that we need a review of the evidence. Will she support that?

Diana Johnson: I do not want to be considered complacent, but we need to get all the evidence on the table so that we can assess it. There is some merit in looking at what has happened regarding treatment in this country over the past 10 to 12 years. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction says that this country is well ahead of comparators. In 2010 60% of opioid users were in treatment. That compares with 12% in the Netherlands and 25% in Sweden, so I am not sure that I agree with the motion that the status quo is failing. Drug-related deaths among the under-30s have halved in a decade, and it has been calculated that getting people into drug treatment has prevented 4.9 million crimes being committed, saving the economy £960 million. This is evidence that we should all consider.

Keith Vaz: My hon. Friend has always been very thoughtful and careful in the way in which she has dealt with this issue. I agree that we need to get all the evidence out and examine it. Will members of the Opposition Front-Bench team commit to establishing a royal commission to look at the issue in detail so that we can base our policy on the evidence?

Diana Johnson: I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee. What worries me about the idea that a royal commission will solve the problem for us is that there are issues that we need to tackle now—for example, legal highs. I am pleased, as I said at the outset, that we now have a plan from the Government for legislation in relation to legal highs. I am not discounting a royal commission, but we need to keep abreast of the issues that are developing now. We need to put in place ways of tackling legal highs and other issues.

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It is important to remember that access to treatment is a key issue. In 2001 it took nine weeks to access treatment; in 2011 it took five days. We should be mindful that that was because of the investment in health services. Once people are in treatment, it is important to make sure that they complete it. In 2005-06, 35,000 people dropped out and only 11,000 completed treatment, whereas in 2011-12, 17,000 dropped out but 29,000 completed treatment. We should be aware of such evidence when we debate the drugs situation.

Crispin Blunt: I acknowledge that, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Lady is in a difficult position. She is calling for evidence. Whatever her comments on the early part of the motion, it concludes by calling

“on the Government to conduct an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to publish the results of those studies within the next 12 months.”

It would be of immense help if the Opposition proposed such a motion on an Opposition day so that it could be voted on in the House. It would then carry greater authority and they would achieve exactly what she wants—to get the evidence out there.

Diana Johnson: I recognise that it is important for the House to have these debates, and it is good that the Backbench Business Committee granted this one, but I think that the hon. Gentleman is right and that the Government perhaps need to ensure that such issues are debated in Government time, with clear options for what they feel should be taken forward.

Ms Abbott: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Diana Johnson: I will give way one last time.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for whom I have the utmost respect, but when she says that the status quo is not failing, I do not understand what world she is living in. It is failing young people in London. I think that her faith in the statistics on access to treatment is misplaced, because young people in the east end of London have great difficulty accessing treatment. The status quo is failing. Young people of all classes—not just the underclass—are continuing to suffer from drug harm because Members of this House are too frightened to look at the recent evidence.

Diana Johnson: I am not frightened to look at the evidence, but we need to look at what is happening today in the round; we must not cherry-pick. I have the same concerns as my hon. Friend about treatment now, because of the Government’s misguided reforms of the NHS. There is fragmentation in the treatment services across the country, which is something that many people are genuinely concerned about. [Interruption.]

Several hon. Members rose

Diana Johnson: I am going to carry on, because it is important that these issues are brought to the House’s attention. They might not be what everybody wants to hear, but I think they need to be recognised.

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One of the key issues raised in tackling drugs policy in this country is the link between criminal justice and health. That resulted in the establishment of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, which brought together the Home Office and the Department of Health, recognising the social harms that come from drug abuse and from people breaking the law by engaging in acquisitive crime as a result. There was a recognition that in order to tackle that we needed to get them into treatment. Huge investment was made, but it was a combined effort from both Departments. It is important to remember that that has been successful, because crime has been dropping. One of the reasons for that was the commitment to getting people into treatment so that they were not committing offences.

I want to mention France, because there drugs are seen as a health issue, not a criminal justice one. We know that France tends to invest less in treatment as a percentage of GDP—about one fifth of the investment that this country makes. Saying that it is just a health issue and thinking that that will solve the problem is not reflected in the facts.

Several hon. Members rose—

Diana Johnson: I am going to carry on, because I am conscious that time is short and the Minister has still to speak. [Interruption.] Well, I think it is important not just to have a one-sided debate in which we all say that the war on drugs has failed. The UKDPC has said that this country is a world leader in treatment, and I think we should recognise that as something very positive.

I am concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), about what is happening to the spend on treatment. Health and wellbeing boards do not need to have criminal justice representation. I think that is a problem, because it means separating health and criminal justice. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that concern.

Local authority budgets are under enormous pressure. Their public health budgets—the majority of the funding comes from the pooled drug and alcohol treatment moneys made available—are being raided. John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, has referred to this asset stripping of public health by local authorities. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point.

I am also concerned about the role of police and crime commissioners, because they had responsibility for £120 million that went into treatment through drug and alcohol partnerships. They now have no incentive to spend the money in that way, and I am concerned that because of their lack of representation on health and wellbeing boards, a real problem is developing.

I want to make a few final points. On recovery, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—I know and respect him as a former Prisons Minister—talked about the complex needs of drug addicts, particularly those in prison. I think we need to have a much wider debate on what recovery means and how we support people recovering from drug addiction. That means how we support them into housing, how we shore up family relationships, which are very important, and how we secure employment opportunities. Those are all key issues that have to be part of a bigger debate on drugs.

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I think that it is absolutely right that the police’s focus must be on disrupting the supply of drugs, disrupting organised crime and ensuring that addicts get treatment. It is very disappointing today to see that there has been a 60% drop in the amount of heroin seized by police over the past year, because that is another important part of tackling this problem.

On prosecuting for possession, the previous Labour Government introduced the penalty notices that were used for the possession of cannabis, and the Government have adopted them for khat, so it is not the case that someone in possession of drugs will get a custodial sentence. However, I think that the Liberal Democrats have now said that there should be no prison sentences at all for possession, so I want to check with the Minister whether that is the new Government policy. As I understand it, that is for repeat offenders, not one-off offenders.

I think that we have a lot of work to do on how we deal with criminal records. The hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) mentioned the fact that someone with a drugs conviction can be prevented from entering the Unites States. We need to look at what simple possession means for criminal records, especially for young people who might be found with a pill or an assortment of pills on one occasion. That will result in a caution, which will then result in later problems for employment and travel. That is another issue that we need to include in a wider debate.

I feel that it is important that we do not just have a one-sided debate. We need to look at what has worked in this country and around the world and base the debate on evidence. Some of the evidence that I have tried to present has in effect been queried and shouted down, and that is absolutely fine, but we need to have the debate. We cannot just say that it has all failed without recognising some of this country’s huge successes in drug treatment.

2.17 pm

The Minister for Crime Prevention (Norman Baker): I had felt that I was in a somewhat surreal debate, hearing all Members on both sides of the House agree about the need for reform and a different approach, all making coherent arguments about why the present arrangements need to change. But I woke from my dream when I heard from the shadow Minister, who appears to be the only Member of the House who wishes to defend the status quo absolutely.

The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said that he has waited 43 years for this report. I think that it is a very good report and that people can take from it what they want; they can look at the evidence and draw their conclusions from it. I think that the Home Office deserves credit for having the courage to issue it, and I hope that it will be the start of a debate.

My view, which is drawn not only from the report but from the public opinion polls that have been referred to, is that the genie is out of the bottle and it is not going back in. I think that the days of robotic, mindless rhetoric are over, because the facts and the evidence will no longer allow that. We now have to base what we do as a country on the facts and the evidence that we can accrue, and the issuing of this report is part of the attempt to do that.

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I welcome the efforts of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and many other Members—many of them are here today—who over the years have made brave comments that have not always been welcomed by the Government of the day. I sense that there is a public mood now for a proper debate on these matters, and what could be wrong about a proper debate on a matter of such importance? It is much better than trying to shut down debate and pretend that everything is all right.

The coalition Government has made lots of progress over the past few years, which I am very pleased with, and there was progress in some regards under the previous Labour Government. However, it would be arrogant to say that we have everything right and that we can learn nothing from other countries. Of course we can learn from other countries, and it is right that we should seek to do so. The report seeks to highlight some of those lessons that can be learned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and the hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) referred to the Portuguese experience. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) drew attention to the fact—he quoted the report in full—that we have learned from Portugal for more than a decade that there is no correlation, at least in that country, between the level of penalty available and the extent of drug use. That is an important finding that we ought to bear in mind as we go forward.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who is not in his seat, made an interesting case for legalising cannabis. That is not Government policy, I have to tell him, but his case was coherent and others may or may not want to take it forward. The report’s stated position—its “observations” as the civil servants put it—is that we ought to keep a watching eye. Of course we should keep a watching eye on what is happening in the world. Does anyone argue that we should not?

These are experiments and it is far too early to say what the outcomes will be. They may be negative or positive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said. We do not yet know the consequences, but we should certainly watch with interest to see what they will be for public health and crime—and public finances, indeed, if we are to see a regulated market such as that in Colorado or Uruguay.

Bob Stewart: We have not touched much on the subject of crime. If we legalised drugs, the business would be less lucrative to the criminal world and that would stop some of the criminal gangs killing one another. We would have the bonus of fewer young people being killed on the streets of London.

Norman Baker: I shall take that as a comment in support of our right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden. As I said, it is not Government policy to legalise drugs—nor, I think, is it the policy of any party in the House. However, my hon. Friend has made his point. Those sorts of discussions ought to be taking place and people ought to be able to argue the whys and wherefores in each case.

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I turn to the question of new psychoactive substances, sometimes unhelpfully called “legal highs”. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion wanted more detail about what we were doing and was not entirely sure whether our policy was correct. I should say to her that in some ways it mirrors the approach taken in the international comparative study: it recommends that we get very tough on the suppliers of these dangerous substances, which cause immense harm to our constituents and, unfortunately, the deaths of young people. We are trying to rid our high streets of headshops, which are not an asset, but we do not seek to criminalise the users of the substances. That approach seems entirely appropriate—hammering down on those causing misery and helping those who use the substances.

Stephen Phillips: Does the Minister share my concern that a blanket ban on new psychoactive substances may result, first, in driving young people to take illegal drugs and, secondly, to continue to take so-called legal highs but without anyone being able to analyse what they are taking? Those products would no longer be marketed lawfully on the high street, petrol stations or anywhere else. Has the Department looked at that issue?

Norman Baker: On the latter point, I do not believe that what is sold now is accurately described anyway on the packet; the information is not available to young people now, although the substances are legal at present.

There is no simple answer that will solve all problems. Every potential solution has drawbacks as well as advantages. That is why I set up a review panel with the best brains in the country to look at the matters in great detail. They came to the unanimous conclusion about what should happen, and that is what we intend to take forward.

In fact, to pick up a point made by the Opposition spokesperson, we are already taking forward some of the panel’s recommendations. For example, Public Health England is launching a toolkit to support local treatment and prevention work in November 2014. It is piloting a new adverse event reporting system, akin to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency yellow card system for medicines, and this month it is launching its “Rise Above” campaign to build young people’s resilience to risky behaviours.

Action is already being taken as a result of the review. That will give comfort to many Members on both sides, including my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who has always campaigned heavily on this issue on behalf of his constituents and others. The measures are right and should be welcomed across the country.

There is a distinction between how we are treating those who are peddling the substances and those who are using them, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) accurately said. I agree with the Opposition spokesperson that we should congratulate and thank Maryon Stewart and her organisation for the superb work they have done over the years to push the agenda and highlight the importance of prevention and education.

Key to the new psychoactive substances report is the fact that there will be prevention and awareness campaigning

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and a proper legal framework. No doubt we will take that forward as and when we have a full response from the public to what we have produced so far. We intend to take action; I give the hon. Lady an absolute assurance that we are not just publishing a paper.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes and for Cambridge, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and the Opposition spokesman all referred to the need to ensure that we take account of health, and that is absolutely right. In my view, the issue is predominantly one of users’ health; it is a criminal issue for those who peddle the substances, but a health issue for those who end up taking them. We should frame our actions accordingly. The Government has done a great deal to help—through its recent heroin-assisted treatment programmes, for example.

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee rightly referred to prescription medicines, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). I commissioned the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to look into the whole issue and the evidence gathering is under way. We recognise that the issue is serious. Others taking action include the Department of Health and Public Health England. The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have published a consensus statement of good practice to prevent and treat addiction to medicines. We are taking action on that front as well.

The Opposition spokesman asked whether I was speaking on behalf of the Government. The fact that I am at this Dispatch Box perhaps gives a clue to the answer, as well as the fact that the document issued this morning bore the Home Office logo.

The issue of prescription drugs in prisons was also raised. The Justice Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is aware of the issue and considering it seriously, as, I am sure, is the prisons Minister. There is a serious issue in prisons; there is no point in denying that, and the Ministers are seeing what they can do to reduce dependence on prescription drugs in particular in prison.

I tell the House today that the Home Office is taking steps to make available Naloxone, which can prevent heroin overdoses. It is already available on prescription, but we are amending regulations to make it more widely available from next year. That will help people who come out of prison from over-using heroin and suddenly dying. That is a good public health measure, and it is going forward.

I hope I have covered most of the large number of points that have been raised. I genuinely think that this has been a really good debate; I know that Ministers generally say that, but it has been. It has been thoughtful, and Members have spoken from the heart and the head. I am grateful. The debate has now been opened; we can no longer rely on the stonewalling about drugs policy in this country that we have so often heard. There is a genuine debate to be had about the proper way forward and it has started today. The genie is out of the bottle, and it is not going back in.

2.28 pm

Caroline Lucas: I simply want to thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this incredibly powerful debate. My only regret is that colleagues who perhaps

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not yet been persuaded of the arguments were not here to hear them; those arguments were made in such a compelling way that we could probably have brought many of those colleagues with us.

Several Members spoke about a feeling of optimism and a sense that the tide is turning. Notwithstanding the slightly less optimistic speech from Labour’s Front Bench spokesperson, I think that is absolutely right. I feel excited about the announcement today that Naloxone will be more widely available. That is incredibly positive and I thank the Minister for that, as well as for his response to the debate as a whole.

We recognise that public opinion on the issue is changing: a poll today showed that 71% of the public think that the war on drugs has failed. Our responsibility now is to make sure that politicians catch up with the public and recognise that we do not need to be afraid of the debate. If we look the evidence in the face, there is an awful lot that we can work with. We can put in place a much more effective drugs policy regime.

I started this debate by referring to Martha, whose 17th birthday it would have been today. Our laws let her down. By failing to review our drugs laws, we would be letting down future Marthas as well. I want to end by paying tribute to her extraordinarily brave, eloquent and tireless mother, Anne-Marie, and to all the other campaigners who are urging all of us here to review and reform our drugs laws. I hope very much that we will show we have listened to them by passing this motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that drug-related harms and the costs to society remain high; further notes that the independent UK Drugs Policy Commission highlighted the fact that Government is spending around £3 billion a year on policies that are often counterproductive; believes that an evidence-based approach is required in order for Parliament and the Government to pursue the most effective drugs policy in the future; welcomes the recommendation of the Home Affairs Select Committee in its Ninth Report of 2012-13, HC 184, that the Government consider all the alternatives to the UK’s failing drug laws and learn from countries that have adopted a more evidence-based approach; notes that the Government has responded positively to this recommendation and is in the process of conducting an international comparators study to consider the effectiveness of national drug policies adopted by a range of countries; and calls on the Government to conduct an authoritative and independent cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and to publish the results of those studies within the next 12 months.

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Sale of Park Homes

2.30 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House calls on the Government to set up a review of the current fee of up to 10 per cent of the sale price of a park home payable to the park home site owner.

I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate. I am reminded of a previous Back-Bench debate on park homes that I led in 2010. That debate was attended by a very large number of Members, and it was an important step in achieving the passage of the Mobile Homes Act 2013, ably piloted through the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). Although our numbers are smaller today, I have received messages of support from several MPs who are unable to attend and speak for various very good reasons.

On many occasions over the years, the House has heard about how mobile park home owners have been exploited and badly treated by some site owners. It is a matter for some celebration that appalling practices can now be prevented through the implementation of the 2013 Act, and there is also the ability to make use of the residential property tribunals. However, there is still work to do to protect and ensure fairness for a fairly vulnerable population.

Today we are focusing on the 10% commission charge that is payable to the site owner on the sale of a park home site. Well over 30,000 park home residents from 975 parks have signed a petition against the up-to-10% commission on the sale price of their homes that is payable to the site owner.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady know of any other circumstances in which residents would have to pay this iniquitous charge of 10%, particularly when it often applies to an older and vulnerable group of people?

Annette Brooke: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is difficult to think of anybody in a leasehold property who would have to pay such an additional charge. We need to look at what the money is used for, and I shall expand on that later.

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I have had representations from residents of Garston Park caravan park about their concern that 10% is indeed a very high figure. The Mobile Homes Act says that the charge on the sale of a home can be up to 10%. Does the right hon. Lady have any statistics—or perhaps the Minister can give them when he responds—on how many park home owners are charging 10% as opposed to a lower figure?

Annette Brooke: I think we will have to rely on the Minister being informed of that number. It has not been drawn to my attention that anybody charges less than the maximum, as is usually the case when a maximum is set.

In July, over 200 park home owners travelled to London to lobby their MPs. That is an amazing number given the distance and the age of many park home owners. It is important to note that their campaign has no funding whatsoever.

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There are at least three elements to a site owner’s income, including the initial siting of the mobile home, the pitch fees, and the commission payment. On the siting of a new home, a site owner may purchase a new unit at a wholesale price and will incur further costs such as transportation and connection to services. However, it is reasonable to assume that the final selling price will exceed all costs incurred, and perhaps produce a significant return. As soon as the home is re-sold, the commission clicks in. In another scenario, a park home owner could replace their home, meaning that they will be charged for connections to services and landscaping, leading to more potential profit through re-charging—and again, when the unit is sold, the commission will click in.

On pitch fees, research by the National Association of Park Home Residents in November 2013 revealed that monthly pitch fees in 1,075 parks varied from £40 to £382, with an average of about £150 per month—quite a lot for people on fixed incomes. The 2013 Act will introduce some accountability, with an annual review of pitch fees, an opportunity for park home owners to challenge pitch fees on the basis of lack of maintenance or deterioration of the site, and a requirement for site owners to justify increases above the retail prices index. I hope that there will also be fully published audited accounts for these transactions.

On the commission itself, it is sometimes argued that this payment provides an important income stream to the site owner, and it is equally argued that the payment is essential for site improvements. A case is also put forward that it is not in the interests of park home owners, who are often on low incomes, to pay higher pitch fees out of current income, as would be required without this sales commission. In that sense, it might be seen as a deferred payment. I do not want to create unintended consequences, and hence I am not following the wording of the petition in asking that the commission be scrapped or reduced, but calling for a review. I think we need some facts.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I was at the rally in the summer and saw the strength of feeling about this issue, which we are right to bring to the Floor of the House. I completely concur with the right hon. Lady’s view that we must not legislate in haste and repent at leisure. She will be aware of the report from the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office back in 2002, which sounded a note of caution about abolishing the 10% charge, saying that pitch fees could rise to between 20% and 32% if we did that. Having a review is absolutely the right way to go, and I back her on that as a fellow officer of the all-party group on mobile homes. I also congratulate her on securing this debate.

Annette Brooke: I will refer to the 2002 report later.

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (Ind): Another issue is whether site owners that are local authorities use the same policies. Any review should encompass local authorities that own parks and also have the 10% rule, because they certainly do not justify the fee they take for the pitch in terms of work carried out on sites.

Annette Brooke: I was not aware of that. We could demand transparency in that regard and find out how much of the commission fee was ploughed back into improvements on the site.

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Alok Sharma: Will the right hon. Lady give way on that point?

Annette Brooke: I will, and then I must make some progress.

Alok Sharma: The right hon. Lady makes an interesting point about transparency. A lot of these park homes are owned by individuals and private companies, so there is not the level of transparency in the accounts that one would expect. Does she agree that as part of a review, we should ask park owners to be a little more open to demonstrate whether a reduction in the 10% charge would really hit their bottom line as much as they say?

Annette Brooke: I absolutely agree. Transparency is the key to finding the right answer for everybody in this scenario.

Obviously, a site owner must get a reasonable return on capital, and we want to encourage good site owners to remain in the industry. Park homes are an important part of the housing supply and should be encouraged. The Government acknowledge that the park homes sector plays an important role in the provision of low-cost housing for the elderly, and that it frees up under-occupied homes that are much needed as we face a housing crisis. However, with pitch fees, other overheads and the 10% commission, many residents worry that the costs of owning a park home are becoming unviable. The 10% commission charge is undoubtedly a matter of concern. Although it is now paid by the purchaser, it does reduce the sum of money paid to the seller.

Park operators have argued that they cannot remain in business without the 10% commission charge, yet our petitioners have pointed out that it would be foolish for a business to rely on an income that is unpredictable. It is difficult to predict how many new homes will be purchased, or used homes re-sold, in a year. Many residents reported feeling trapped in their homes and unable to sell. Owing to park rules, many sites are only for people of retirement age, and so the need to move into a nursing home or some other form of residential care is a real possibility. Having to give the park operator such a high percentage from the sale of their home reduces the amount the seller has to put towards their care.

Park home owners feel discriminated against and ask, “In what other leasehold property arrangement would a payment be made to the leaseholder on the sale of the property?” They cite examples of poorly maintained sites and no real improvements over time, and a perception of a luxury lifestyle for some site owners. Clearly, there are counter-examples of exemplary site owners, which I welcome, and I would like them to showcase their best practice. Transparency and published accounts would be helpful, to encourage all site owners to follow best practice.

Park home owners also point out that the value of the property is influenced by their contribution to the home’s value via its upkeep and maintenance, and argue, “Why should the site owner benefit from this contribution?” That is a good point.

Steve Brine: The Department put together an excellent document, “Park homes: know your rights”, following the legislation promoted by my hon. Friend the Member

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for Waveney (Peter Aldous). In the past, site owners were part of the sale, because they had to approve it, but the 2013 Act has taken them out of that equation. Did the right hon. Lady take that into consideration when preparing her speech?

Annette Brooke: The park home owners say that that gives even less justification for the 10% commission, because the site owners are not involved any more.

I received an interesting representation from a park home owner, who wrote:

“I am not personally in favour of abolition of the sales commission. This would remove an opportunity to improve the sector. Linking a reduced sales commission to site owner performance will improve site maintenance, sustain home values and assist mobility.”

That is an interesting idea and perhaps we could work it through.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The residents of Brickhill Farm and Downlands park homes in my constituency would welcome the right hon. Lady’s general approach to the debate. Clearly, the 10% commission is having a behavioural effect on whether people are able to move and how they do so. Surely that should be the major point to consider when it comes to reviewing the effectiveness of any legislation or legislative change.

Annette Brooke: The 10% commission has wide-ranging impacts and they need to be considered. It is only now we are hearing about some of those impacts, as the voices of park home owners grow louder. If we had a review, their input would be vital.

Given that the commission is an unpredictable income stream depending on how many units are resold over a period of time, the question remains of whether it is a windfall gain or an essential source of money for site improvements. It is very difficult to answer that question without a review.

The Mobile Homes Act 1975 limited the commission to 15% and the Mobile Homes Act 1983 limited it to 10%. Is it not time to have a proper independent review to establish whether the current situation is justified or whether there is a case for a change? I am absolutely sure there is a case for more transparency.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): I was delighted to support my right hon. Friend’s application for this debate. She knows that there are a number of park homes in the north of my constituency. I thoroughly endorse all the points she is making. Put simply, she is sensibly and correctly asking for a review—a very modest request—and I have noticed the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), nodding in agreement with some of her remarks. She is approaching the issue in a sensible way and I hope the Minister, when he responds, will grant that review, which would be welcomed by all.

Annette Brooke: I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that intervention. Obviously, we are mutually aware of the issues that occur on the park home sites in Poole, Bournemouth and Dorset.

In 2012, the Communities and Local Government Committee concluded in favour of retaining the 10%, but did we have the review I am asking for? I do not

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think we did, because the sequence of events shows that the Committee relied heavily on the conclusions of a 2006 Government consultation published in 2007, which in turn relied on a report published in 2002. National associations for park home owners feel that the 2007 conclusions were heavily biased towards site owners and their trade bodies. I believe that, in total, there were only 1,250 responses to the consultation. I would be interested if the Minister could confirm that. If we had a consultation today, I think the response would be very different. I believe the responses came from only 230 parks, which is a limited number.

The park home associations did not accept the conclusion that the majority of park home owners wanted the commission to remain. Questions have also been raised with me about the independence of the 2002 report. It is only in recent years that individual park home owners have made their voices heard in very large numbers and accessed democratic processes via petitions and lobbying, led by my amazing constituent Sonia McColl and others, complementing the work of their excellent national associations, including the National Association of Park Home Residents and the Independent Park Home Advisory Service. The situation is different from 2006. Our park home constituents are aware of their rights and know how to make their voices heard, but we as MPs need to respond.

We need a review that looks at the viability of the industry and that listens both to site owners and to park home owners. I do not prejudge the outcome of any review. It might conclude that the situation is best left as it is, but with openness, fairness and transparency to ensure no bias either way, all parties will understand the conclusions.

Interestingly, I have looked at what has happened in the Welsh Assembly. Following a short debate in July 2014, it agreed to review the data and evidence contained in the 2002 publication “Economics of the Park Homes Industry” and the 2006-07 consultation. A review has been undertaken and the Assembly awaits the report. This month, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty wrote in a letter:

“I feel a further review of the economics of the mobile homes business is necessary before a decision on amending the 10% commission rate can be considered. I do though feel the Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013 needs time to be embedded before a further review is conducted. It is, therefore, my intention to commission further research into the economics of the park home industry and the implication of amending the commission rate, in late spring 2015.”

I do not think we should be embarrassed about following the lead of one of the devolved nations.

I would like to see the review process started shortly in England, with the setting of the terms of reference, the processes for looking at the economics of the industry and the commissioning of a study. Detailed consideration of the retention or alteration of the 10% could be dovetailed a few months later into a review of relevant aspects of the Mobile Homes Act 2013.

I emphasise that I do not want unintended consequences that would increase burdens on vulnerable people on low incomes with increased pitch fees. I want a viable park home industry, but I also want to be sure the system is fair to park home owners. The review process should start sooner rather than later.

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2.49 pm

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on bringing this issue to the House’s attention once again. She has been a sterling campaigner on it for many years, and we should congratulate her on some of the successes and advances that have been made for our constituents in mobile homes, for whom the legislation has changed for the better. I want to place on the record my thanks to her.

This issue affects many Members, and I know that quite a few of them cannot be in the Chamber today. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who would have liked to speak but is in a Public Bill Committee upstairs.

Today, I am here to represent the residents of Carter Hall park in Haslingden and Harwood Bar park in Great Harwood in my constituency. Like residents in park homes across the country, those in my constituency are up in arms about the 10% point-of-sale fee that is still levied on static and mobile park homes sales. Much action has been taken in Parliament in the past few years that park home residents can be pleased about—the right hon. Lady highlighted the gains that have been made—but the 10% levy, which is a source of much anger and frustration, still has not been addressed.

The reason park home residents are frustrated, if not angered, is that no other form of property ownership is subject to this form of exit charge—set at an arbitrary level—at the point of sale. If a similar charge affected bungalow owners or those in terraced properties, I am sure that the House would seek measures to redress such a matter. That point was raised by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who is not now in her place.

Legally, park homes are mobile homes, but in reality they are permanent and stationary. Moreover, such park homes are my constituents’ primary residencies, and regulations need to take account of the fact that they cannot choose simply to up sticks and move to a park home with a better contractual offer. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) made that point when he mentioned behavioural effects.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): My constituents’ feelings on this matter are very similar to those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. What makes it worse is when a park home owner has not helped their investment in the park home to grow, because they then feel that they are being hit twice as hard.

Graham Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. I will move on to transparency, which is crucial, as is the contractual relationship between the park home owner and the residents, tenants or owners. It is important to have transparency so that people can see how their money has been allocated and how it has been spent, because part of what they pay, via the park home owner, is for maintenance. That is one of the missing elements in this debate.

Many of my constituents who live in park homes are elderly, and to lose 10% of the capital in their property is a huge financial blow at a point in their life where they may be looking to fund their retirement or even their care. Frankly, even if they do not intend to use the

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money for any particular purpose, it is their property, and in my view an exceptional 10% charge requires an exceptional justification.

Mobile home owners are clearly not people of significant means. Is there not a disconnect here? Is it not obvious, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that there is a gap between the interests of the owner of a site and those of the residents on it? The key point in the argument about the 10% levy is to ask why and for what purpose the money is raised, and how it is allocated. There is such a lack of transparency.

Everyone accepts that park home owners need a revenue stream to manage and service the park, which is the source of their livelihood. I accept the point made earlier that that may lead to a rise in site fees, but it is done as part of a transparent process. Such transparency otherwise seems to be lacking at the moment, which is one of the key issues.

There are key concerns about the transparency of the legally defined and arbitrarily set 10% fee. The residents in my constituency can see no evidence of how the money that is taken is used to improve the park in which they live. I suggest that the Government look again at the fee, and explore ways in which to inject transparency and confidence into the system.

If the Government regard the fee simply as an income stream that is guaranteed to the park owner regardless of any service provided, that will come as a great disappointment and even a source of anger to my constituents. In their view and mine, the revenue for park owners can be taken only in exchange for services provided. Residents need to be able to audit the fees, and have confidence that they are properly used.

I reiterate that I completely understand that park home owners need to have an income. However, sales are not constant and cannot be predicted year on year, so the argument that fees are vital is shaky at best. I know that my constituents simply regard the fees as greed. Indeed, they provide an incentive for park home owners to encourage a churn of residents, because they gain the 10% fee each and every time there is a transfer, and therefore become better off. The incentives in the process are a cause of deep concern. It is worrying that the single 10% fee is payable on each transfer of property, because an accumulation of transfers leads to greater wealth for the park home owner. It may also provide a disincentive for them to maintain the site, to look after owners on the site and to have longer tenancies or permanent residents.

As I mentioned in relation to the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, we have had huge success during this Parliament—I must say that that has been on a cross-party basis—in undoing some of the historical unfairness for park home residents, and it is vital that we continue in such a vein. Park home residents are well organised and have legitimate grievances. The issue of this 10% fee will not go away with well-meaning words and expressions of understanding from the Dispatch Box. They need to have confidence in the fact that steps are being taken to address the lack of transparency with regard to the fees.

My constituents simply want some confirmation that the issue will not be allowed to go away, but that the Government will continue to address and consider it, and that there will at some point be some redress or a

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change in legislation so that there is more transparency on the 10% anomaly and so that there are far clearer transactions between owners and residents, with people understanding what they are getting into and able to move from one site to another should they so choose, rather than being stuck in a particular site because they are bound by the 10% fee.

2.57 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate. I am very much aware of the significant amount of work that she does for park home owners, for whom she is very much a champion. It is right for the House regularly to consider issues that the park home sector faces, and this debate provides us with such an opportunity.

The background to this debate is that my right hon. Friend’s constituent Sonia McColl—she runs the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign and is likewise a stalwart champion for park home owners—has delivered a petition of more than 31,000 signatures that calls for a debate on reviewing the 10% commission. I have considered the motion carefully. Although I welcome this debate and understand the reasons and sentiments behind the motion, I am not able to support it. I shall explain why briefly.

As has been said, I had the good fortune to pilot the Mobile Homes Act 2013 through the House. It was a privilege to do so and I pay tribute to the other Members who had campaigned for many years beforehand, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), as well as Lord Graham of Edmonton and Lord Best.

The 2013 Act addresses the appalling practices that have emerged in the sector in recent years, such as park home owners being bullied, intimidated and driven out of their homes by a minority of owners who are, in effect, gangsters. It also puts in place a framework under which park home sites can be better managed in a more transparent way.

In presenting the Bill, I was fortunate that a great deal of research had been done on the way the sector worked, identifying the problems that needed to be addressed and coming up with solutions. In many respects, the cornerstone on which the 2013 Act was built was the report on park homes by the Communities and Local Government Committee that was published in June 2012. The Committee considered the 10% commission on sales and heard evidence on the matter. It concluded that the right of site owners to receive up to 10% commission from the sale of park homes should remain. The same conclusion had been reached by the previous Government as a result of their 2006 consultation on park home commission rates.

I am mindful of the findings of the research carried out by Consumer Focus, which was published in its report, “Living the dream? An investigation into life on park home sites in England”, in October 2012. It concluded that the issues that needed to be addressed as a priority were improving local authority licensing, addressing the

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poor maintenance arrangements that prevail on some parks, introducing greater transparency in the process of paying utility bills and, above all else, tackling the problems of sale blocking and intimidation. Its research did not identify the 10% commission rate as a major problem that needed to be addressed as a matter of priority.

Annette Brooke: I congratulate my hon. Friend again on the Mobile Homes Act 2013, which addresses the very worst problems, but there is still a lot to be done. Does he not agree that we should look at the issues that concern park home owners in a balanced and unbiased way?

Peter Aldous: I agree with my right hon. Friend that there is an awful lot of work to be done in the sector. As I complete my remarks, she will see that I do not think that now is the right time to look at this one issue in isolation. The 2013 Act was one of the biggest changes in the sector in 30 years. I think that it needs to bed down and that we should then carry out a full review.

I have learned a great deal about the sector in the past two and a half years. One message that I have very much taken on board is the importance of achieving an equilibrium—a balance whereby park home owners can enjoy a high standard of living, a peaceful environment and quiet enjoyment, while responsible site owners can manage their parks efficiently and properly, and make a reasonable living and a return on their investment. In the feedback that I have received from responsible and good park home owners in my constituency, the concern has been expressed that if the 10% commission were removed, that equilibrium would be lost.

Given that there are fewer opportunities for new developments on sites and that the lifespan of homes is increasing, site owners are very reliant on pitch fees and sale commissions for their income. The majority of their income is derived from pitch fees—the figure of 70% has been mentioned to me—with sales commission providing much of the remainder. In many cases, the income from sales is the difference between profit and loss. I have seen figures to confirm that. Changing the 10% commission rate might therefore lead to some businesses becoming financially non-viable. That could result in cuts being made in the management of parks, with less money being spent on investment in infrastructure such as roadways, footpaths and communal areas. The result could be that parks take on a more run-down, down-at-heel appearance, which would have a negative knock-on effect on the value of the homes.

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend speaks with authority, given his long-term commitment to this matter. However, I take issue with his point on the deterioration of standards. Is not the issue the bundling of costs? As a fellow Conservative, I would have thought that he would be concerned at the bundling of costs into an overall price, which means that the sale price and the 10% commission do not reflect the services that are being offered. The review will deliver greater transparency on what services are being offered, what the price of those services is and what competition might be introduced in respect of those services, so that there is not just an overall 10% figure that may or may not have a bearing on what the park owner is delivering.

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Peter Aldous: In the fullness of time we need to consider the whole way the industry operates, but if we rush to take away this income stream, there is a danger that we may affect viability and cause problems on good parks.

Research undertaken under the previous Government in 2002 by Berkeley Hanover Consulting was considered by the Communities and Local Government Committee in 2012, and viewed as still being valid. It suggested that if the 10% commission was abolished, pitch fees would rise by 20% to 32%, which could impact on the attractiveness of the sector. In summary, there is a legitimate worry that changing the rate of commission could have unintended consequences. It could lead to higher pitch fees, which would in effect be robbing Peter to pay Paul. At worst, it could lead to a significant decline in the standard of parks, and their maintenance, state of repair and appearance.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Would an increase in fees be fairer than a 10% cut when someone is trying to sell? It seems to me a fairer proposition.

Peter Aldous: I certainly take that on board.

The Mobile Homes Act was the biggest shake-up in the park homes sector for 30 years, and it will take a few years to settle down and be implemented fully, properly and effectively. The feedback I have received is that the legislation is providing local authorities with the means of working with park home owners to bring rogue site owners to account, ensure that parks are properly managed and run, and ultimately to drive those bad apples out of the sector.

There remains much work to be done to make the new sale process work better. On good, well-run sites, in the past home owners have relied on responsible site owners—the good apples—to do much of the work for them when it came to selling their homes. Now that site owners have been removed from the sale process there is a vacuum to fill, and I am afraid that the legal, conveyancing and estate agency professions are not coming forward quickly enough to fill that void. That problem needs to be addressed now.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentions estate agents. A 10% charge is taken by the site owner, but residents also pay estate agent fees, so that is one injustice. This measure is not being done in haste; as he said, this has been 30 years in the making. His Bill was important because it dealt with the most serious injustices, but it left out the 10% commission because it was so complicated and contentious. Why is the hon. Gentleman fighting against a review? We are asking to look at all aspects of the 10% commission, specifically in a review. Why is he so hesitant to have such a review and consider those aspects?

Peter Aldous: I am not opposed to a review, as I will say when summing up my remarks, but it is about the timing of that review and the way it takes place. I understand —I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed this when he sums up the debate—that the Department intends to carry out a comprehensive review of the sector in 2016, three years after the Mobile Homes Act received Royal Assent. One of the main tasks in that review will be to assess whether the fit and proper persons test should be applied to those seeking to manage parks, and I suggest that at the same time the whole sector

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should be reviewed, including the commission rate. I believe that is the right way to consider this matter, not on its own ahead of that comprehensive review.

Those are my findings on this situation, and as I said, we must seek to maintain an equilibrium and ensure that responsible site owners get a fair return. When introducing the Bill it was important to maintain understanding and consensus on all sides, but I fear that we are perhaps in danger of losing that consensus. That is the basis on which I hope we can proceed.

3.9 pm

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): I add my thanks to those of other hon. Members to the many campaigners who have gone before us in the previous three decades—at least—who have sought justice for people who live on park home sites. I thank Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has done so much work on park homes over many years. The right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has led the charge for many years and I thank her for her work. We have got to know her heroic constituent Sonia McColl extremely well. She has become the park home owners’ agony aunt, answering e-mails and phone calls into the night, dealing with some very distressed individuals. She also set up the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign. She has done magnificent work.

I thank my predecessor, Harry Barnes, who led the campaign in the 18 years he was in the House before me. Many of the people who live in North East Derbyshire’s park home sites would like to thank him. Most of all, I thank all the tireless campaigners in the eight park home sites in North East Derbyshire. Hundreds of people live in the park home sites in Riverdale, Millfield, Brookfield, Ponderosa, Sunningdale, Poplar Drive, Grasscroft and Bramley.

The 2011 census showed that something like 160,000 people lived in 84,000 park homes in about 2,000 UK sites. Those figures might be out of date, but more people and not fewer live in park homes. Most park home sites have a rule that people must be 50 or over to live there. Therefore, by their nature, they are places where people go when they have sold up in order to live off the money they have released from their homes. They are on low incomes, and they tend to be elderly and vulnerable. They live in isolated areas, because the sites are on the edges of communities. As the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, many of them are very frightened.

Stephen Barclay: I concur with that. Is not a further problem that those people cannot possibly have an idea what the charge will be, because, by its very nature, it will be decided in future? They will not know what the sale price is, and therefore even an informed consumer cannot consent to it.

Natascha Engel: That is a key element, and the Park Home Owners Justice Campaign group has made exactly that point. How can the charge be such a fundamental part of the necessary profits of site owners—it is necessary according to the site owners—if they cannot say when the profits will come? I will go into more detail on that.

Hon. Members are enormously grateful to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for promoting as a private Member’s Bill what became the Mobile Homes

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Act 2013. It has and will make a huge difference. The Act is bedding down. He is very lucky to have so many good apples as site owners in his constituency. All the bad ones have come to mine. As a result of the Act and other legislation, the intimidation has stepped up a level. As campaigning MPs, we need to ensure the involvement of the local authorities.

I do not recognise the picture the hon. Gentleman paints. I understand the importance of consensus, and as hon. Members have said, we do not want to deny park home site owners a good living. They have a very good living at the moment. All we are fighting for is justice. The 10% commission is a fundamental injustice in the sector and I will go into detail to explain why.

The 10% commission is a flat fee. It was initially intended as a maximum commission, but it is a flat fee of 10% no matter the value of the home, how long somebody has lived there, and what improvements people have made to their homes. The homes in my constituency are absolutely beautiful. There is a reason why the report mentioned by the hon. Member for Waveney is called “Living the Dream”. It is absolutely idyllic living on a park home site with like-minded people. It is quiet and beautiful and on the edge of beautiful countryside. It should be absolute heaven in retirement, but improvements are paid for and done at great cost to the people who live there, not to the site owners themselves.

The biggest reason the site owners give, as the hon. Member for Waveney said, is profit margin. With the profit margin, 70% comes from pitch fees and 30%, as the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole mentioned, is from income that is not secured—residents do not know when it is coming. They are told that it is an essential revenue stream for the maintenance of park home sites. I can hear almost every single one of the 600 residents in North East Derbyshire sighing and saying, “If only”. On the sites we go around, there are loose cables and tree roots growing into water pipes that are not being repaired. Massive costs are incurred where there are leakages. As we all know, utility bills are collected on the whole of the site—there is one bundled-up price. Therefore, if the site owner does nothing about the burst pipes, it is the residents who pay.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that there are numerous examples—certainly on pitches in my constituency and probably on those in the constituencies of other hon. Members—of site landlords simply refusing to act? They are challenged; something is pointed out to them but they simply do nothing.

Natascha Engel: Yes, and I go back to the point about the type of residents. There are some brilliant campaigners, but all of them are very elderly. What can they do if a site owner is never to be seen, especially when there is work to be done and something has to happen? They are either left to do it themselves—a lot of people are just not able to do it themselves—or they have to live with the fact that there are lots of dangerous things lying around and things are just not sorted out.

We hope that enforcement on the part of the local authority can now happen, but it is very difficult to do in practice if a park home site owner is reluctant to do anything because it costs them money and bites into their profits.

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Peter Aldous: The image that the hon. Lady is portraying is the view I have of the one bad park home site in my constituency. Does she not agree that the Mobile Homes Act 2013 provides the means to address the problem?

Natascha Engel: We hope it will address the problem. One of the really big issues previously was that there was nobody to enforce the licence unless it was a matter for the police, in which case it was a criminal matter and out of everybody’s hands anyway. We hope it will be a very important change, but certainly in North East Derbyshire the legislation needs to settle down. The 10% flat rate seems enormously unfair when site owners are saying it is absolutely essential for the maintenance of the park and no work is ever done. On the contrary, residents are doing all the work and having to pay out for everything.

Bob Stewart: This is the first I have learned of the problem. I have listened to the debate and I am absolutely appalled. The 10% fee sounds like daylight robbery. It is fair to charge a rent for a pitch; it is grossly unfair to charge 10% for nothing. It is robbery.

Natascha Engel: Absolutely; in fact Rick and Bill, from one of the park home sites in North East Derbyshire, made a T-shirt with “Daylight Robbery” on it, which is selling like hot cakes. It is a funny point, but about something serious. This is daylight robbery from people who cannot afford it. That is the really awful aspect. It is exactly as the hon. Gentleman describes: it feels such a terrible injustice that people pay out and get absolutely nothing in return.

I have mentioned this before in a debate, but it is also interesting to remember that when park home sites first started, the type of people who owned them had a social conscience. Part of the reason why utilities are bought in bulk now is that the site owners used to do that and then pass on the savings to the residents. Now the absolute reverse is true, certainly in many of the sites in my constituency, where although utilities are bought in bulk, everything is completely un-transparent. No one can see what they have used or how much money is being charged, and the site owners tend to add a little administration fee, on top of the pitch fees, on which a lot of them are making a disgusting amount of profit. That really should not be allowed, and it is also something that should be taken into the calculations.

As we have said before, what we are asking for is very reasonable: a review of just one thing that was not included in the private Member’s Bill of the hon. Member for Waveney. That would also be an opportunity for those who disagree with us to make their case. The most interesting thing in the speech by the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole was the fact that the evidence relied on, certainly in the consultation for the private Member’s Bill and under the Labour Government, is from previous research that has never really been updated. As the sector is now much more organised, the people taking part in consultations are ever increasing in number and, thanks to Sonia McColl, have a proper focal point. I therefore urge the Minister and the shadow Minister—the Minister in what I hope will be an incoming Labour Government—to commit to having a review, simply in recognition of the fact that there is a problem. It is not a problem for the site owners, but it is for those who live on the sites.

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Transparency and clarity are enormously important. Under the last Labour Government, a regulation was proposed to make any changes clearer and to require site owners to make it clear to those buying park homes that they would face not only pitch fees and utilities bills but the 10% charge at the end their time. That should have been a requirement, but unfortunately it was never implemented. It is all there in the Department; perhaps that regulation needs to be brushed down, so that we can have a look at it before the general election.

As I have said, we do not want to deny site owners a living; it is just that, certainly from anecdotal evidence and the kinds of cars they drive, we can make quite a safe assumption that the profits they are making, on the backs of vulnerable people, are extremely high. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to have another look at this extortionate commission of 10%. The right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole mentioned this, but it would also be a good idea for the review to look at minimum maintenance standards on site, so that if people are paying 10%, the site owner has to commit in return to maintenance up to a certain standard and within a certain timeframe. That would go some way to addressing the injustice that people feel. We could look at that in the review, and there would then at least be a proper justification for the site owners to take that 10%. At the moment, it is daylight robbery; people are getting nothing in return for it.

It was interesting to hear about park home sites that were council-owned. Bramley Park site in my constituency used to be council-owned and is now in private ownership. It does not charge the minimum 10%. The same owner charges the 10% at another park site in the constituency, but he seems to manage perfectly well without charging it on the former council-owned site. Perhaps we could look further into that in the review and assess the profit consequences to a park home site owner if the 10% commission were to be abolished.

Some people think of these mobile homes as caravans, but they are not mobile; they are entirely static. As mentioned earlier, there is one set of rules for people who live in bricks-and-mortar homes, and a different set of rules for these static caravans. Yet these are people’s homes; it is where they live. It is where many of them will live for the rest of their lives. Some have quite a high value. Some of these homes go for between £150,000 and £200,000—often reflecting how beautiful they are. We are not talking about peanuts.

Annette Brooke: When the commission first began to be charged, we were talking about home prices of between £10,000 and £20,000, yet now we are up into the realms of £250,000 for a new park home, and even trading prices can be at least £150,000. These are very large sums of money, yet we do not know exactly what the commission is used for.

Natascha Engel: That is an important intervention. One of my constituents has written:

“Under the new rules a Site owner has no dealings with the sale of properties, not even to notify the provider of essential services…Water, electricity etc. We do that. All he has to do is get his secretary to delete one name and enter another. A huge commission for a two minute job.”

I think that rather makes the hon. Lady’s point.

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The review should look at another problem about which residents have written to me. On one park, an elderly resident had gone into a care home before she sold her home. We need to note that none of my constituents were happy for me to use their names. They wanted to remain anonymous because they are absolutely terrified of the consequences that might follow from their site owners. I would like the Minister to listen to this letter, as it reveals a really serious problem. It states:

“In respect of the new Mobile Homes Act 2013 particularly on the sale of homes, it appears that problems are occurring on properties that are for sale and empty due to either the home owners moving to another property or into a nursing home. Although the ground rent is continuing to be paid, our site owner is claiming that if the property is empty then the home owner is breaking the law within the implied term which states that the home must be kept in a sound state of repair and must be the sole residence of the occupier. It appears that our site owner then sends a solicitors letter to that effect to the seller and also sends out surveyors to check the exterior of the property who obviously find many major defaults and state the property is not worth anything! This then means that any prospective purchaser cannot purchase the property because it is in the hands of the site owners solicitors pending court action!”

That was not the first time I had heard about that problem, which relates to the wider context of the 10% commission issue. We really must have a proper and careful look at this. One positive consequence of setting up an independent review is that many such examples, which I have become aware of only recently, would be brought to our attention. Many of these real injustices, which simply would not be tolerated for homes of bricks and mortar, could be highlighted. That would be most useful.

I hope that when the Minister and the shadow Minister wind up the debate, they will commit to setting up a review and will ensure that the review is independent. We would very much like to help out with the review, but what is most important is for it to be independent of not just site owners, but any other pressure groups. We must ensure that its findings are regarded by everyone as fair and justified. It is high time that we updated what is, by now, quite ancient research.

Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Waveney, I think that time is of the essence. One of the tragic aspects of this issue is that many people have died since I started the campaign: they have died waiting. Many of those who are alive are elderly, and time is clearly of the essence for them. This is an injustice that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.

It is unfortunate that many of the changes for which we have been lobbying have got lost between general elections. I should dearly love to see a review set up now, with a definite timeline and involving cross-Bench consensus, so that we can ensure that something happens, and happens very quickly. I should be very grateful if the Front Benchers would be specific about whether there will be a review, how independent such a review will be, and, above all, what the timeline will be.

3.31 pm

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), and, indeed, all who have spoken so far. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on instigating the debate, and on making such a powerful

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case. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on all the tremendous work that he has done in piloting his Bill through the House.

I will not repeat the arguments that have been advanced so powerfully this afternoon. I will, however, quote briefly from an e-mail that I received from a constituent who lives in Lodgefield park in my constituency. He writes:

“Home owners are having great difficulty in selling partly because of the 10% which in effect makes their homes over-priced on the market. This means that owners are trapped in their homes and unable to move unless they drop the price to a level where they are unable to purchase anywhere else.”

He also makes the interesting point that if home owners are selling to fund care, the state, if they come to rely on it, will lose quite a large sum through the 10% commission. That point may be tangential, but I think that the Government should bear it in mind none the less, given that in such cases there will ultimately be a cost to the Treasury.

The only other point that I want to make concerns transparency, to which many Members have referred. There are three elements of the income that comes to park home site owners. First, there is the income to cover their current costs, the year-by-year costs of maintaining the park. Secondly, there is the income to cover capital improvements to the site. That is very important, not least to those who live in park homes, because they want to see improvements to their properties which will increase their value. Finally, quite rightly, there is a surplus or profit element.

Every Member who has spoken has acknowledged that site owners have a right to see a return on their investment, but I, like others, would like to see more transparency. We are told that the commission is needed because, without it, pitch fees would rise substantially—by 20% to 30%, or even more. I am not sure that I entirely understand that. The corollary is that, in a year in which a number of homes have been sold in a park, the site owner would be expected to say “We can reduce pitch fees this year”, or “We will not apply for an increase, because we have received so much income from the 10% commission.” I have yet to hear of such instances. There may have been some, but they have not been brought to my attention.

I agree with what was said earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay). We need to see an unbundling—a transparency —in regard to both revenue and capital costs. Those who live in park homes would then be able to see clearly what had been spent on maintenance and on capital improvements, and what remained as a surplus. I am sure they would welcome that information being made clearly visible, because these matters have an impact on their quality of life and on the capital value of their home.

Such transparency would take a lot of the heat out of the debate. For example, people would be able to see that there might be cases in which a fee of 10% was reasonable in a particular year, just as a fee of 0% might be appropriate at other times. There could also be a strong case for transferring most of the cost to annual fees, or for introducing a mixture of a capital fee and a revenue fee. This is the opportune time for the review that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole has proposed, and I hope that those

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on the Government and Opposition Front Benches will concur with that view, as the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) requested, because many people living in those homes are coming to the end of their lives and a solution needs to be found. Transparency is what we need.

3.36 pm

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I apologise for coming late to the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I had to deal with an urgent constituency matter, and I want to put on record my apologies to you and to the previous Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has been a doughty campaigner on this issue for many years and I congratulate her on securing this debate. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for introducing his private Member’s Bill. It took 30 years to enact legislation on this matter, and I should like to express my tremendous appreciation to him for enabling that to happen during his first term in the House. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) as I agree with all he said about transparency. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) passionately evoked the issues.

I have mobile home owners in my constituency. I supported them as best I could as a candidate before I was elected, and it was then that I came across their astonishing lack of power over their own homes. It was absolutely incredible. As the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire said, these homes are not caravans; some of them are absolutely amazing. They are meticulously kept, with beautiful carpets, for example. They are beautiful homes.

Significantly, the vast majority of the mobile home owners are elderly. Having discovered the lack of power that they had, I then discovered the astonishing influence and sheer maliciousness of some park home landlords. I simply could not believe it. As a naive young—or perhaps middle-aged—candidate, I went to the council, but I was told, “Stephen, what can we do? We don’t have the power to do much about this.” That is how I first learned about the process. I have been a close colleague of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for many years, and under her guidance I have since learned a lot more about the iniquities of the system.

On behalf of my constituents, I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for his private Member’s Bill. I hear his suggestion that we allow it to bed down for a few years, and that we should perhaps step back and take a little heat out of the process so that we can see how it is working—I have tremendous respect for my hon. Friend, with whom I have worked in a number of cross-party contexts—but I disagree with him on that point. I will tell him why.

If I were to sell my house tomorrow, I would be charged between 1% and 2%. Estate agents’ rates are very competitive at the moment. The last time I sold a house, it was valued at about £230,000, so a fee of 2% would have been a couple of thousand pounds. If I had been selling a mobile home, however, it would have cost me £25,000—£2,300 in estate agent fees, plus an extra

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£23,000. I would have been paying that to the landlord or leasholder, and that is mind-blowing. That would not be so bad if I had tarmac that was always swept and looked after, lights that were kept on and repaired whenever they were broken, bushes and shrubbery that were cut and a landlord who treated me and all the other park home owners with respect. I would still resent it, but I would probably manage my resentment. However, if I was treated with the absolute contempt with which, as I have discovered over the years, some, but not all, park home leaseholder owners treat their tenants or mobile home owners, it would go beyond what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) described as “daylight robbery”; it is theft. If the wider world knew that this was common practice and estate agents, who are not popular at the best of times for charging 2%, were getting 10% on top of that, it would just be unacceptable. Why has it gone on for 30 years? It is because this is a small sector; it is a niche. Sadly, before the involvement of the doughty Sonia from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and the other amazing people who brought this practice to our attention and to that of the public, it went on for many years. Not only were people treated very badly, but they were losing a fortune. It is disgraceful.

So where are we at? The Welsh recognise that the review needs to happen sooner rather than later, so they are going through the process right now. What I say to both Front Benchers is that this is a cross-party issue; there is no problem here. I pay tribute to some of my colleagues who have been pushing this issue for years. We all now understand that the current situation is wrong and it is time that we did something about it. The review should be independent, involving actuarial specialists and estate agents and so on. People who really understand this sector should, independently, have an input to the review and come up with a number of recommendations. They may well say, “Actually, we should keep a commission because of the uniqueness of park homes. Let’s make it 5%, but for that you get X,Y and Z. You get the lawns cut and you are looked after. It is a service rate, like the one that people pay in an apartment block. If you don’t meet that service rate, there are penalties.” This is not difficult, it can be done and there is a cross-party consensus. The first step is to have the review, with robust independent lay people on it, plus specialists and representatives from each of the areas. It will then come up with recommendations, and I am as certain as I can ever be that once the recommendations are made, be it under the coalition Government or whoever the Government are after the general election, there will be a consensus in the House and they will be passed quickly. I hope to receive that commitment from both Front Benchers at the end of this debate.

3.43 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): May I begin, Madam Deputy Speaker, by apologising to you, to the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and to the House for not being present for most of the debate? I have been in Committee considering the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill and have just hot-footed it from Committee Room 10.

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I want to pay tribute to the Minister there, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has allowed me to come here, and to the Labour Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is holding the fort at the moment. However, my constituents come first when I am dealing with matters in this place, which is why I wanted to contribute in this debate.

I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee considered this matter to be worthy of debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for her work and her strong interest in this matter and to the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for pursuing her case so professionally and with such tenacity.

I wish to make representations on behalf of my constituents who live in Elmtree Park, which is close to the coast at Seaton Carew in my constituency. Comprising 100 park homes, the site caters for people without children who are over the age of 50, and it has a vibrant community life. Indeed, it is a great community, and the people who live on that park are its greatest assets. It is always a pleasure for me to visit the residents, eat their scones, drink their coffee and discuss matters relating to the ownership of their homes.

It is clear, from speaking to the residents of Elmtree Park over many years and from my time as a Department for Communities and Local Government Minister with responsibility for park homes, that the current business model is broken, as it provides far too much power to site owners at the expense of park home owners. Although there are many good site owners who invest for the long term and who want a good and mutually beneficial relationship with residents, far too often the sector sees malpractice, a lack of investment, poor if any maintenance and unscrupulous and often criminal site owners who are content to make a fast buck and fleece residents. Time and again I hear of unfair fees that are opaque and subject to no challenge, poor maintenance of the land, and site owners either making it difficult for home owners to sell their homes or hounding people out so that they can consolidate pitches. Either way, the owners often take a whopping profit when park homes are sold.

During my time as Minister, I was particularly keen to reform the licensing regime to ensure that we incentivised the good park home site owners and punished the bad, to the point of driving them from the industry. I wanted to push the concept of fit and proper persons for site owners so that the sector encouraged responsible owners, good behaviour and good conduct, and to ensure that this responsibility was reinforced through effective regulation. I also wanted to make the fee regime transparent, so that park home owners knew precisely what they were paying for. I also wanted them to have the opportunity to negotiate and discuss the fee with the site owner before it was finalised.

It is the fee regime that most concerns my constituents on Elmtree Park. A balance needs to be struck between allowing site owners to raise enough revenue to maintain the site, provide amenities and produce a reasonable return while, at the same time, protecting residents from unfair costs. As a Minister and a constituency MP, I have always been struck by the lack of consensus on whether the 10% commission on sales should be reduced. Some people see their park homes as homes for life and

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so would rather see a reduced annual pitch fee than a reduction in the commission on sales; conversely, others would like to ensure that the commission was reduced or even eliminated, maximising their income on any sale.

Despite the lack of consensus, it is clear that too much power lies in the hands of the site owner, at the expense of the park home resident. The current regime allows for site owners to benefit twice from any sale, which is very wrong. It allows them to coerce a park home owner, through fear and intimidation, to sell their home to them for a reduced price—the so-called site blocking. The site owner collects 10% on that sale. He or she can then bundle up sites or sell the home, often at a huge profit. All the upside and none of the risk is with the site owner and that cannot be fair.

Peter Aldous: The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate speech with which I wholeheartedly agree. However, does the Mobile Home Act 2013 not provide local authorities and park home owners with the ability to stop those problems?

Mr Wright: I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but my main point is to do with that 10% commission on sales as part of the overall fee regime. With his permission, I will elaborate on that, as it is an incredibly important matter. Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being here at the start of the debate when this issue must have been touched on time and again. I am keen to push the idea that the fee regime should be as transparent as possible.

I want to preserve the unique character of park homes that attracts older owners to want to live there. In many respects, therefore, there is possibly an argument that the site owner should be able to vet potential buyers. However, it cannot be right that the home owner is unable to sell his or her asset, in most cases the biggest asset they have, without first seeking approval from the site owner and then paying 10% for the privilege of doing so. I cannot see how that is fair at all.

Stephen Lloyd: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is almost feudal to expect park home owners to go through that process?

Mr Wright: I came into the debate during the hon. Gentleman’s excellent contribution, and I agree with him. I was going to touch on that. He used the word “feudal”; I have the word “archaic”. It is so old-fashioned in the 21st century, and not appropriate these days. We need to ensure that the balance of risk and reward is pushed more firmly towards home owners than site owners. That is why the Government should look again at the 10% commission on sales, as part of the wider review of all costs and fees relating to park homes. I really liked what the hon. Gentleman was saying as I came into the Chamber, which was about ensuring that any commission was linked to proper clarity on maintenance and improvement of homes. At the moment, we do not have that relationship, so the costs of maintaining and improving sites and how that will be paid for are not clearly stated and understood. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right, and I would like to see that.

There are long-standing problems within the sector, and, as I have said, far too often the balance of power tilts away from the home owner. When I was in office,

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I was keen, on behalf of the residents of Elmtree and others throughout the country, to ensure that they received fairness as part of a well-functioning park homes sector. That 10% commission now needs to be driven down as much as possible, if not eliminated. Greater transparency on fees needs to be considered as part of that wider regime. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and wish to advance those aims on behalf of park home owners everywhere.

3.52 pm

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and other Members who have secured today’s debate. The right hon. Lady deserves particular recognition for her long-standing and determined campaign on behalf of 165,000 park home owners and residents to secure better protection for them. It is a cause that has attracted a number of contributions from Members who have park homes in their constituencies.

The basic principle is that park home owners deserve just as much protection as other home owners. That is why the progress that has been made during the past decade or so, including, I freely acknowledge, under this Government, to provide greater protection for park home owners has been so important. The last Labour Government established a park homes working group in 1998, and its recommendations led to not all but many of the shortcomings being tackled in the Housing Act 2004. Further proposals to amend the law were set out in 2005 and implemented later that year, and in May 2009 further consultation was published on options for improving the management of park home sites.

Significant progress has been made in this Parliament, and I pay tribute, as have many other hon. Members, to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for his Mobile Homes Act, which was put on the statute book in 2013. As he would acknowledge, it drew on the work of the Communities and Local Government Committee and it had cross-party support. It is worth reminding ourselves that the reason for that was the injustices that were so clearly rife in the sector, as we have heard today, and that still continue in some places to this day. It reformed the licensing regime that applied to park home sites, it removed the ability of unscrupulous operators to try to block lawful sales by residents of their homes, and it ensured that pitch fee increases were transparent. It also included provision for the Government, should they so wish, to introduce a fit and proper person test through legislation. As I think we have heard, the reputable park home site owners, apart from anybody else, deserve not to have their reputation undermined or damaged by the rogues—the word “gangsters” was used—who sometimes act shamefully towards their residents. We have made real progress.

Today we have focused on the question of the 10% commission payable to the site owner on sale of a park home. I want to explore the arguments that have been made today, and in the previous studies, on that question. On the one hand, it is forcefully argued by mobile home owners that the site owner does nothing, in effect, to earn the commission, so they do not see why they should be paid it. As we have heard—this point was made most forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel)—when residents have spent their own money on improving

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their home, and therefore its value, it is particularly galling to see 10% of the increased value paid to someone else for work that they have not funded.

On the other hand, the argument has been made—we have to acknowledge it—that the income from commission is part of the income that site owners depend on, along with pitch fees and the sale of new mobile homes to new owners coming to the site, and that it is therefore important for making their business viable. Were the rate of commission to drop or disappear—the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole was perfectly frank in acknowledging this argument—would there need to be an increase in pitch fees to compensate?

There have been other changes that I strongly welcome. For example, commission can no longer be applied to the gift of a mobile home to someone else. The previous Labour Government looked at this matter, as we have heard. Reference has been made to the research carried out by Berkeley Hanover Consulting, which concluded at the time—I acknowledge that it was 12 year ago, as the right hon. Lady argued clearly and forcefully—that pitch fees would rise significantly if the commission paid to site owners was reduced. It argued that pitch fees could increase by about a third as a result.

Indeed, when the Communities and Local Government Committee looked at that recently, it pointed to the case of a residents association that was offered a reduction in commission in return for an increase in pitch fees. It was reported to the Committee that one in 100 of the residents so approached agreed to such a move. The Committee’s report also pointed to the previous Government’s consultation in 2006. We have to acknowledge that it would be in the interests of some residents to move in the direction of the commission disappearing, but others would prefer the status quo.

The difference is this: those who favoured a reduction in, or abolition of, the commission rate accepted that it might well result in a higher pitch fee. The residents who intended to sell their home at some point in the future thought, “Well, that’s okay.” However, the residents for whom that will be their home for the rest of their lives were, understandably, much more anxious about an increase in their pitch fee, because they could be paying it for a long time.

With people’s budgets already stretched, and as many of the people who live in park homes are on low incomes, as we have heard, I think that that is a reasonable consideration to take into account. In that sense, would we want to take a step that might result in people facing fees that they would find difficult to pay? There is genuinely a balance to be struck, and we have to consider that.

One of the ways we could help to answer that question—there has been strong consensus on this point—is by having greater transparency. It is self-evident. The right hon. Lady made that point at the start of the debate, and it has also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) and the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy).

Let us look at the example of leaseholders. Where service charges are levied for works that the freeholder of the building undertakes, whether cutting the grass, cleaning or external painting, they have a right under legislation—the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, I think—to

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see a cost summary and then the underlying documents. However, park homes were not included in that legislation, which was introduced some years ago, and I simply do not think that can be right. Why should park home owners not be able to see where the money they have paid goes and what it is being spent on? That is a matter of principle if a fee is being paid to someone else, who may or may not be providing the services in return. It would also help us answer the question raised in the argument made by site owners—that if they do not have commission income, they will not be able to continue operating sites as viable entities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) made a point about the business model, and that is important. If someone is not entirely sure how many homes are going to be sold, how can they hope to run their business, which is dependent on something they do not control? With pitch fees, of course, there is control. We recognise that there is a balance to be struck. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) described one possible option: that of lowering fees. Others have argued for their removal.

There seems to be a consensus across the House in favour of a review. As the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made clear, a review would not say, “We’ve reached a decision about the sensible thing to do.” There is a very strong feeling on the part of home owners that the 10% commission is unfair. We could ask them whether they would be able to cope with higher pitch fees if the commission disappeared; people will have to express a view. I think it would be sensible to have a review. As I understand it, the only issue across the House is its timing. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten us on that.

I conclude by congratulating the right hon. Lady on bringing this debate to the House. I hope that the Government will respond sympathetically to her points and those of other Members.

4.1 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate on an important issue. As others have said, she has worked hard for many years for residents in park homes across the country. I represent Great Yarmouth, where there are a large number of park home owners, so I appreciate the importance of the issue. I was delighted that one of my first appearances at the Dispatch Box as a Minister back in October 2012 was to respond to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), during the debate on his Mobile Homes Bill. Both Members have campaigned tirelessly for better protection for park home owners. My right hon. Friend was instrumental in securing the passage of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which is now the Mobile Homes Act 2013.