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on some estates and that some subcontractors hired to carry out work had not been up to scratch.
One might think that that is perfectly fair and reasonableuntil one looks at the directorships held by Greenbelt directors. Alex Middleton holds 15, in Greenbelt Group Ltd, Greenbelt Energy Ltd and other companies. Greenbelts main subcontractor is MG Contracting Ltd. Guess who the director of MG Contracting Ltd is? [Hon. Members: Alex Middleton.] Quite correct.
The other director of Greenbelt is Anthony Burton. He holds 21 directorships, including various Greenbelt directorships. What do we find among them? MG Contracting Ltd. He is a directora Greenbelt company is subcontracting to a company in which its directors hold shares. Mr. Richard Taylor holds 19 directorshipsagain, Greenbelt this and Greenbelt that. Guess what is among them? MG Contracting. The company clearly is Farepak for home owners.
I should like to address the serious bullying. One of my constituents, Paula Hoogerbrugge, set up a support group to help people affected by Greenbelt. She has now been in touch with more than 30 estates throughout the United Kingdom, from Invernessthe hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) wished to be here but, sadly, could not owing to other commitmentsright down to Leeds. It is exactly the same story articulated by other hon. Membersmoney charged and service not given, threatening letters sent and the like.
We are writing to you at this stage to draw these matters to your attention. You will no doubt give careful consideration to any comments which are made in relation to our clients and ensure that they are properly founded in fact.
That was on 11 July. They also wrote to Paula. I e-mailed them back and told them to withdraw their bullying letter to my constituent or I would raise the matter in the House of Commons. I mentioned the company during business questions on 12 July. Greenbelt then wrote to the Mr. Speaker in a clear attempt to silence me.
As they say in my part of the country, I am big and ugly enough to take on that sort of threat. [Hon. Members: Hear, hear!] Unanimous applause. But it is totally unacceptable to write a similar letter to my constituent. The letter is addressed to Paula and othersI am clearly one of the othersand complains about her press release. I place on record that not only did I see the press release in advance, but I amended it. I will address each of the allegations that Greenbelt made about Paula.
We are instructed by Greenbelt Group Ltd. We have been given sight of a press release which bears to be prepared and
presented by you entitled West Lothian politicians win praise for efforts to tackle land maintenance company. The press release contains a number of statements and notes for editors. Our clients are concerned by a number of claims... Taken individually or together, they are clearly intended to damage the reputation and goodwill
It is our understanding that you have distributed this press release. The gravity of this matter should not be underestimated. It is also clear that anyone who repeats any information which is not true or defamatory will also repeat the defamation complained of and will also be liable in damages.
The following examples have been extracted from your press release, although they do not represent all of the criticisms or complaints which our clients have in relation to your press release.
You allege that our clients are causing problems for thousands of landowners.
You are asked to substantiate
and to identify the thousands of home owners to whom you make reference.
It is stated in terms that Fergus Ewing,
is to investigate the company. That is not correct. Mr. Ewing is not carrying out an investigation into Greenbelt. This statement clearly seeks to imply some form of parliamentary or other investigation, which is not true.
You state that our client takes ownership
Your press release makes reference to what you describe as an appalling level of service. This is not correct. Our clients have a significant level of communication.
We just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) that Greenbelt admitted to him that it had only improved it, and Greenbelts own director said in this weeks Scotland on Sunday that
in the past its communications with its customers had not been of the best,
Your press release states that our clients are responsible for the management of 600 sites, which is factually incorrect. They manage 241 sites.
You state that these 600 sites involve 36,000 residents... They involve 20,000 residents. These are wildly misleading statements and either are made without making the most basic checks on the factual situation or are made recklessly in an attempt to support or otherwise sensationalise an ill-founded set of allegations.
The press release further states that our clients ignore the bulk of their contractual obligations.
The press release goes on to state that our clients perform the bare minimum.
I have heard constituents say at public meetings that they have been trying to contact the company for six years and have been ignored. A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) sent Greenbelt recorded delivery letters and eventually cut a bunch of weeds and went down to the head office. It is unbelievable. The letter continues:
Furthermore, the press release goes on to state that the practices adopt by our clients are so poor
Finally, you make the allegation that our clients routinely send letters to non-paying customers telling them that their name will be added to a credit blacklist.
All of the above, either individually or taken together, constitute a serious and concerted attack on our clients...The gravity of this matter should not be underestimated by you. It is recommended you consult solicitors without further delay, and that you meantime desist from further utterances, whether written or spoken, where the intended effect is to further damage the reputation of those we represent.
Let me tell hon. Members where the company crossed the line. Paula is a single mum who works for BT. The companys representatives contacted her employers behind her back in a clear attempt to have her either silenced or sacked. That is despicable bullying behaviour, which is why I am pleased to be here to condemn that group and its behaviour and to ensure that we consider appropriate legislation to rectify the situation.
It is totally unacceptable that a company can have a monopoly. Home owners cannot sack the company. Tomorrow, I shall write to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and to its English equivalent. I shall include in my letter the contributions from hon. Members in this debate and the file that we have on the company. I shall ask local authorities whether they really want to deal with a company that behaves in such a despicable manner.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), not only on securing this debate, but on the passionate way in which he has expressed his concerns on behalf of his constituents, not only today, but in business questions, in a question to the Prime Minister and elsewhere. His constituents can be assured that, in him, they have a true fighter for their cause.
The maintenance of open spaces and housing developments is an important issue, not only for the individual residents concerned, but for the environment.
The deterioration of such open space has a detrimental effect both on the environment and on the value of individual homes.
According to my hon. Friend and to the companys report, which is where I got my information, the Greenbelt Group is involved in some 750 developments involving around 50,000 homes in the United Kingdom. Its activities, whether positive or negative, therefore impact on a large number of people in a number of ways, not least of which is the cost to individual home owners who have to pay for the upkeep of the open spaces. As my hon. Friend pointed out, those costs might well run into hundreds or thousands of pounds. He said that some of his constituents are being asked for up to £400 to pay for such maintenance. Companies that take on such work have an important role to play in the preservation of the quality of life and the value of the assets of the home owners on the estates. Where that relationship breaks down, a serious problem occurs.
My hon. Friend described how his constituents see the Greenbelt Group charging home owners for services that it either does not provide or provides very poorly. He went on, amusingly and wittily, to show that there are several limited companies within the group, which I understand are all registered in Scotland. I do not know whether he has had time to look at the website of the Greenbelt Group, which describes the company as
the only UK-wide company that owns and manages greenbelt land formed as part of new housing developments,
is now caring for more than 750 locations across the country. Its team of landscape professionals are experienced in managing environmental, horticultural, forestry, wildlife, drainage, play and leisure facilities. Greenbelt provides tailored plans for each location, giving customers the reassurance that their shared landscapes are managed and maintained in a way that will sustain the local environment, its attractiveness and the marketability of their area. Planning guidelines, new legislation and increasing concern to protect sensitive areas require local authorities to ensure that residential and commercial landscapes are properly planned, managed and maintained in a financially sustainable way. Greenbelt works actively with residential and commercial developers, to create landscapes that look good and suit local conditions. Greenbelt aims to grow its business and expand its range of services across the UK by working closely with customers, planners, developers and local communities.
I appreciate that that is probably not the language that my hon. Friend or his constituents would use, but it is the language that the Greenbelt Group uses on its website. As another avenue down which he could take his campaign, he may want to consider whether that is in breach of the rules of the Advertising Standards Authority.
In response to the comments that my hon. Friend made about the lawyers letter to his constituent Paula, I say that those are serious allegations. His constituent is clearly a robust person, because she has been campaigning on the issue, but I can perfectly understand why she might be very concerned indeed about receiving such a letter. I suggest to him that he
and his constituent take legal advice from a law centre or other such organisation to ensure that she is properly represented when responding to that level of intimidation, as he called it.
This issue clearly has particular impact in Scotland. I have been told that the Scottish Executive are looking into it, and that Fergus Ewing, Scotlands Minister for Community Safety, is taking up the matter. I hope that that is true. If it is not, I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that Mr. Ewing takes forward the issue, because it has to be dealt with within the Scottish Executive. I also gently suggest to my hon. Friend that, when he is taking up the matter with the Scottish Executive, he might suggest to them that they look to England and Wales, where a better policy has been developed.
A few months ago, I dealt with claims management during the passage of what was to become the Compensation Act 2006. In that area, Scotlands system was better than that in England and Wales. On this issue, in a similar situation, exactly the reverse applies. In England and Wales, we now have commonhold, which is called the third way. It ensures that the community of owners on the estate owns the common parts and arranges for their maintenance. The division of ownership between home owners and the management company is therefore avoided. That system has not yet been widely adopted in England and Wales, but it represents a long-term solution to the problems of the maintenance of common facilities and open space on freehold estates. That is one of the reasons why the Government want to encourage its use.
Commonhold involves the creation of a limited company known as a commonhold association, so it might not suit some of the smaller estates. Nevertheless, I hope that my hon. Friend will consider whether it could be adopted in Scotland and that, if the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs decides to investigate the case, it might consider including that scheme in the recommendations that it makes.
Mr. David Hamilton: I recommend that, if the Scottish Affairs Committee looks into the matter, it also has discussions with Scottish Building Federation contractors, who give out the contracts when houses are to be built. Massive house building is taking place throughout Scotland, including in Midlothian. One of the issues that that has raised is the need for discussions with the federation, so that it can consider other opportunities for giving out contracts.
I should briefly like to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston that publicity, through TV and the media, is always a good way of bringing people to account. As well as going to the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Affairs Committee, I suggest that he might use the media and some of the consumer programmes on TV
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an important issue. I was inspired to seek this debate following the disappointing response that I received from the Prime Minister during Question Time a few weeks ago. In a moment, I shall explain why I believe that it was disappointing and why I believe that the Government have a moral duty to introduce a step change in the support provided to such victims of state action.
I understand that the responsibility for miscarriage of justice victims in Scotland lies primarily with the Scottish Executive, and I shall also take the issue up directly with them. However, I am raising the issue in this Chamber because I believe that the situation in the rest of the UK is equally unacceptable and that there should probably be joint action between the devolved Administrations of the UK and the UK Government.
Victims of miscarriages of justice are victims; just because they are victims of the state does not make them any less so. Yet the state and the public often consider them, at least in private, still guilty: No smoke without fire, is often said. Why do we have such faith in the justice system when it finds people guilty, but not when it finds them innocent? Those are the fundamentals that result in the innocent being dumped in the street after years of state incarcerationno apology, little support and years upon years before they receive compensation.
My interest in after-care support was sparked by my constituent Steven Johnston, who was released from prison last year after 10 years behind bars. His murder conviction was quashed. Since then, despite some assistance from the council, he has received no specialist support, even though it is clear that he needs it. Such lack of support is not confined to Scotland. Gareth Pierce, the solicitor who represented the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six defendants, said:
They come out with no money and no counselling. They have no references, it is difficult to open a bank account, you cant get a mortgage. They have no GP. You dont belong.
Judith Ward, wrongly convicted of the M62 coach bombing, was refused a £5,000 bank loan while she waited for an interim compensation payment. Michael Hickey, one of the freed Bridgewater Three, told a court that he had stolen a ring from a Birmingham jeweller to highlight his case. He said:
I did it to say Ive been given no money, nowhere to live, what am I supposed to do?
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