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5.30 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I wish you a happy new year, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I join the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in congratulating the Minister on his elevation to the Privy Council.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who painted a worrying picture of the housing market that, sadly, affects far too many people. If he will bear with me, I hope to pick up on a couple of his points. He is right to say that something needs to be done, but I do not believe that the Bill alone will provide the solution.

There are two ways in which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw could work with others to press the Government to help. First, the regeneration projects to which he referred contain too many overlaps and there is too much bureaucracy surrounding them. If we can find a way to put those different regeneration programmes into a single programme and create easier access to the fund, that will address some of the problems that he mentioned.

Secondly, there is no doubt that Housing Corporation money is increasingly being funnelled towards those areas of the country where there is a major shortage of all types of housing. That is understandable. However, as a result, that money is not readily available in parts of the country where there is no shortage of housing, but where the quality of housing needs to be significantly improved. I have had private discussions with the Minister on that matter and perhaps the hon. Gentleman might want to join me in voicing such concerns.

Unlike the hon. Member for Eastbourne, I can say with some confidence what I expect my hon. Friends to do: I want them to support the Bill on Second Reading. It contains many measures that are worthy of support. We especially like the aim of speeding up and simplifying the arrangements for house sales and purchases, which are recognised as being as stressful as divorce. We are delighted that there are measures to repeal some of the worst aspects of the Housing Act 1996 in respect of homelessness. We are also delighted that there will be opportunities for increased flexibility in the way in which

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local authorities can determine their lettings policies to suit local circumstance and to respond to homelessness needs in their area, not least through the important requirement to draw up a homelessness strategy.

Like the hon. Member for Eastbourne, I am not entirely happy with all aspects of the Bill. Many hon. Members have revealed the large number of concerns about the proposals for a seller's pack, which have not been fully thought through. It was revealing to hear the Minister, in response to an intervention, say that the Government would address that point as they work up their proposals. It is clear that work is in progress, but I hope that by supporting the Bill on Second Reading and taking the issues into Committee, we will help him to work up the proposals, and I shall suggest how they can be improved.

It is one thing to draw up a homelessness strategy; it is another to put in place measures to ensure that it is properly implemented. It is vital that local authorities are given the tools to do that.

There is one ghost at the feast. I hope that all hon. Members recognise that the key issue to be resolved is the need to ensure that far more affordable housing is made available throughout the country. The Bill contains nothing that will improve that situation, although the Minister rightly pointed out that the Government are, somewhat belatedly, increasing the funds to build more social housing.

In this country there has long been a requirement that someone who is selling a product must ensure that it is defined as "merchantable", unless it is specifically defined as being otherwise. It is rather odd that the requirement does not apply to one of the biggest purchases that people make, and a measure to include houses in that category is vital. We can debate whether the seller's pack is the best way to do that, but at least it is a strategy for moving in that direction. Although the Bristol trial was not necessarily the fairest means of finding out how the scheme will work throughout the country, the Minister rightly pointed to the example of Denmark, where similar proposals appear to be working satisfactorily.

Concerns have been expressed about the need regularly to update the seller's pack. It is accepted that after three months local authority searches at least will be deemed no longer to be valid. In his response to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, the Minister seemed bizarrely to imply that even if that is the case--I believe it to be so--it does not mean that the seller's pack will have to be updated. Presumably, he is suggesting that after three months the information in the seller's pack can no longer be relied on, which would negate the value of the process. If I misunderstood the Minister, perhaps he will put me right.

Mr. Hammond: Surely, in the hon. Gentleman's example, when the sale eventually takes place, the buyer will have to pay again for a further local authority search to complete the transaction. That contradicts what the Minister said about there being no additional costs.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has followed the debate and participated in it well, but the situation is even more complicated than he suggests because a key point in making the seller's pack a success is that reliance can be placed on it in law. If we are now being told that information contained in the pack may be out of date, the whole issue of where legal liability will lie is called into

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question. Bearing in mind that three groups of people--sellers, purchasers and, very likely, mortgage providers--will have to rely on the strength of that legal underpinning, we must ask questions about the legal issues surrounding the seller's pack and whether it contains up-to-date information. Matters other than local authority searches might invalidate the information, including events such as the recent storms to which the Minister referred.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne devoted a great deal of his speech to the argument that the Government are doing nothing to deal with gazumping. I failed to hear him make a single suggestion about what his party would do, although, to be fair, he referred to a number of possible proposals. To put the Liberal Democrats' position on the record for the hon. Gentleman, I can say that we are attracted to the system in Scotland, where the requirement to ensure that a deal has been struck, and a commitment made, applies at a much earlier stage than in this country.

Another point that has not been mentioned is that the checking of such a procedure will be the responsibility of local authority trading standards officers. I have already asked the Minister whether he could assure me that any additional costs incurred by local authority trading standards officers would be covered in the local government finance settlement. He pointed out in a letter in response that it was his view, and that of those who advised him, that the total cost of the exercise would be less than £1 million--less than £5,000 per average authority.

I accept the Minister at his word--that that is the advice that he has been given--but very much hope that he will question the advice. I am amazed that he is telling us that an average local authority will spend only £5,000 checking whether the huge new procedure has been introduced, introduced correctly and so on. Perhaps he will come back to us if he receives different advice.

I should like to deal with the point made in an intervention by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford). The Minister rightly referred to the hon. Gentleman's efforts in respect of energy efficiency. The Minister will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) also tried, under pressure from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to introduce legislation to require an energy efficiency audit of each house sold.

The Minister said that the energy studies conducted would form part of the seller's pack--currently that is not stipulated in the Bill--and that they would be, to use his word, tailor-made to each property. I hope that he can confirm that. In fact, I would be grateful if, in a second, he intervened specifically to confirm that that is the Government's intention.

The day before the Christmas recess, the Minister said in a written answer:

Clearly, generic advice is always welcome, but for those whose house already has an insulated boiler, advice on insulating it is not needed. Will the Minister confirm that

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it is the Government's intention that there will be tailor-made energy efficiency reports as part of the seller's pack?

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, even though he did so with the intention of getting an answer. I assure him that the intention is that the energy efficiency element of the home condition report will be specific to a property. However, the number of factors that can be taken into account are limited. That is the purpose of mentioning a generic approach, in which a number of indicators are likely to be covered.

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