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7.31 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): The comments that have been made in the debate show that the Bill has two aspects, and I shall touch on both of them. The publication of the housing Green Paper was surrounded by the usual spin and hype to which we have become accustomed from this Government, and in my opinion the publication of the Bill got the same treatment. However, as with many glossy Government documents, hype is followed by disappointment. The Bill has missed many opportunities.

In his speech, the Minister could not tell us when we are likely to see legislation to introduce a licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), said recently:

Is this not that opportunity? It has taken the Deputy Prime Minister long enough to get this Bill, and I should have thought that he would use it to honour all his commitments. Clearly, that will not be the case--but that is a debate for another day.

I shall now deal with the issues concerning buying and selling houses. As my hon. Friends have already said, a central feature of buying and selling homes in this country is that neither the buyer nor the seller is legally bound to go through with the transaction until unconditional binding contracts have been exchanged.

The Minister decided to cite Denmark as a good example of how a seller's pack has worked, but I remind him that the housing market in Denmark is about one tenth the size of the market in this country, and that Denmark's tax and interest rates are totally different. I am sure that if we had another debate on the euro, the Minister would be loth to use Denmark as an example. We cannot compare apples with pears. It is the situation in this country that needs to be addressed.

A MORI poll taken in 1999 by the ITV programme "Tonight with Trevor MacDonald" revealed that more than one third--34 per cent.--of home owners said that they would renege on a promise to sell if someone bid an extra £5,000 before contracts were exchanged. More than half--58 per cent.--said they would do so if the offer was more than £10,000 more, and two thirds--68 per cent.--admitted that they would switch if an offer was £20,000 more.

More than a quarter--26 per cent.--of people living in houses worth £200,000 or more--[Interruption.]--would sell to a gazumper offering £5,000 extra. More than half--55 per cent.--said that they would do a deal for £20,000 more than the original offer. I think that I heard a Labour Member say something about my constituency just now, but the poll was not held in my constituency; it was an ITV poll covering the whole country. It is interesting to see how people approach the issue.

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The Bill will do nothing to solve the problem of gazumping. In fact, it would make things even worse. The seller's pack is apparently supposed to improve the situation, but it brings many problems in itself, many of which my hon. Friends have described. For one thing, it does nothing about gazumping.

The Bristol & West, one of the main lenders involved in the pilot study, denied that it went smoothly. It did not manage to achieve the target of 200 transactions to test the scheme, and Dominic Toller, the head of lending marketing, said:

He said that he could not see how the seller's pack could stop gazumping--and he is in a senior position in one of the organisations that participated in the trial.

Critics of the scheme have pointed out that it would cost sellers £500 to produce a pack, which would have to be completed before they put their homes on the market. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, that figure could be as high as £700. Any saving for buyers would be cancelled if they were selling a property at the same time, and vendors whose houses failed to sell would be left, as Members on both sides of the House have said, with a bill for £700.

Trevor Kent, former president of the National Association of Estate Agents, the leader of the campaign against the packs, who has already been quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), said:

That is telling, because Trevor Kent is at the leading edge of the industry involved and he is highly critical.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders has stated:

I, like other Members, have also had other evidence sent to me about people who are concerned about issues connected with the Bill. Michael Coogan, director general of the CML, has said:

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Those are genuine concerns, yet I do not think that the Minister referred to any of them. Perhaps he and his colleagues can tell us how he would seek to address those fears. If he fails to do so, it will be a missed opportunity. The Bill fails to address the real issue of gazumping, and there are better ways of speeding up the process of conveyancing than seller's packs, such as making searches and Land Registry information more available on the internet. I know that the Minister referred to that subject, and I am sure that as our proceedings on the Bill progress, we shall hear more about it. I hope that what we hear will be robust enough to meet some of the concerns that we are raising tonight.

The second part of the Bill concerns homelessness and social housing. Five years ago, in 1996, the Prime Minister promised that Labour would

However, homelessness has risen under Labour, and the Bill does not go far enough in tackling the problems. The Prime Minister said that five years ago, just before going into an election campaign; he has now come out the other side, and the figures do not stack up in the Government's favour.

Official figures show that the number of priority homeless people has increased by 3,000 since Labour came to power. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne so beautifully articulated--[Interruption.] The Minister clearly did not hear what my hon. Friend said, and he does not want to listen to what I say either, but the facts are the facts.

Acceptances of those deemed to be priority homeless increased to 27,330 in the second quarter of 2000, compared with 24,290 in the second quarter of 1997--an increase of 13 per cent. The latest statutory homeless figures for the third quarter of 2000 show that, in the September quarter of 2000, local authorities accepted 28,710 households as meeting the statutory criteria of being eligible for assistance, unintentionally homeless and falling within a priority needs group. That represents an increase of 1,380, or 5 per cent., on the previous quarter, when the figure was 27,330, and is 990--4 per cent.--higher than the total number in the corresponding quarter last year. Those are the facts, and I hope that the Minister's people sitting under the Gallery will pass him messages to confirm them.

At the end of September 2000, the number of households in accommodation arranged by local authorities under the homelessness provisions of the Housing Act 1985 and the Housing Act 1996 was 71,890--some 5,860, or 9 per cent., higher than at the end of the previous quarter. The total number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation was 9,530 at the end of September. That represents an increase of 1,150 households--14 per cent.--on the previous quarter and the same period a year ago. At the end of September, the number of homeless households in hostel accommodation, including women's refuges, was 9,960--an increase of 430, or 5 per cent., since the end of the previous quarter and 740, or 8 per cent., compared with a year ago. I put those points to the Minister because it is important, as he is not taking notes, that he hears the actual figures.

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Housing groups, such as Shelter, have warned that we need to provide more than 100,000 affordable homes a year for the next 10 to 15 years to meet demand. Chris Holmes, the director of Shelter, said:

There are many reasons for the increase in homelessness, and they have been discussed in detail in this debate. The Bill may make some progress towards tackling homelessness--not before time--but I am disappointed by the lack of provisions, including measures to introduce a licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. That most definitely takes something away from its overall thrust.

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