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9.22 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate; I apologise for the fact that I could not be here for the opening speeches. I quite understand the Minister's objective, and I listened to him, as others did, on Radio 4 this morning. I do not wish to be unduly contentious, but I thought that he slightly oversold the package.

I shall talk briefly about one of the problems with the seller's survey. The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), who has a great deal of experience in this field, made a number of important points, and I hope that they will be carefully considered in Committee. His experience as a solicitor is much more relevant to this subject than is mine as a barrister.

The seller's pack has some merit, in its attempt to deal with the searches comprehensively in advance. However, it will be up to the Minister to ensure that local authorities provide the information swiftly and cheaply. Houses often go on to the market, do not sell, come off the market and then go on again. If every time a house, especially a

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low-cost house, goes on the market, several hundred pounds have to be spent on a seller's pack--and in particular, on a sellers' survey--that could be deeply counter-productive. I see the Minister shaking his head, and I hope that he--or the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), when he winds up the debate--will find a moment to allay our fears.

My principal fear concerns the seller's survey. Like most hon. Members, I have bought houses from time to time during my life. I happen also to have bought houses in France. The only great advantage of the French system is that because everything is under the control of the notaire, what is being bought and sold is carefully registered. We hope that the national land register, coupled with the local authority electronically recorded land search records, will go far towards matching those standards. In other respects, the French system is very expensive and requires much caution.

I shall return to the seller's survey. Anyone who has read a surveyor's report knows that it has to be hedged around with caveats. When surveyors look at houses, they examine the points of possible danger, usually those where damp can enter, but they cannot hack off plaster or enter every cavity. Consequently, they can only warn potential purchasers of the possible risks. The house condition report that will appear in the compulsory pack will, no doubt, contain a generalised warning, but anxiety has been expressed about such reports by the Council of Mortgage Lenders following the Bristol pilot scheme.

We know perfectly well that mortgage lenders always require their own surveyor to visit properties, although we sometimes think that they do so in a very cursory manner. The point is that today the person who commissions the survey report relies on it. The Government suggest that in future the vendor must produce a report, which potential purchasers will be able to rely on. That is much more dangerous. At least if people ask their own surveyor to write a survey report, he will tell them how much it would cost them and how much more they are likely to pay for a comprehensive survey report. When buying a property of considerable value, whether old or new, the extra amount that may be paid--perhaps up to £1,000 or £1,200--may be money extremely well spent. People may be warned of matters that affect the price, or they may get a builder in as soon as they have bought the property and spend extra money taking precautions.

Our complaint is that such costs should not be foisted upon the seller in every case. That will be deeply damaging to the housing market and will frighten off many sellers of modest properties. Again, such proposals are unlikely adversely to affect the significantly rich--they can afford to carry such costs--but ordinary people with houses of about the national average value of £85,000 will be adversely affected.

Huge improvements have taken place in conveyancing costs during the past 15 years. Labour Members complained about mentioning the market, but, as the hon. Member for Upminster will confirm, what really caused conveyancing costs to decrease was the removal of the Law Society's prohibition on advertising. As soon as solicitors could advertise that they would convey properties more cheaply than other firms, the costs came tumbling down and what had, frankly, been a ramp in the

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past became extremely good value. In fact, it became almost too good value and solicitors did not charge quite enough.

I recognise that the Minister is trying to do something valuable. As he will get his Bill, I ask him to be extremely cautious about how much he puts on the seller. Let us try to have a sensible little pack, but let us not run up the costs excessively so that what is intended to be helpful becomes counter-productive.

9.29 pm

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I, too, congratulate the Minister on his forthcoming elevation, which was announced during the Christmas recess.

We have had a very interesting debate, helped by the time limit, with many contributions from hon. Members with first-hand experience of the subjects under discussion.

In many respects, the debate has not been about the Bill. Notwithstanding the individual importance of effective measures to streamline house buying and to tackle the rising tide of homelessness, it is not a Bill that tackles the shortage of affordable housing. Indeed, all its provisions are demand, not supply-side, measures and it is a not a Bill that takes forward the new structures for social housing provisions that were outlined in the housing Green Paper. It does nothing to streamline, monitor or add transparency to lettings policies by registered social landlords and nothing to fulfil Government promises to raise standards for houses in multiple occupation.

I thought that it was faintly absurd for the Minister to bait Conservative Members for not having signed an early-day motion that was signed by Labour Back Benchers, but which has resulted in precisely zero action by those on the Government Front Bench. The Bill does nothing to promote leasehold law reform despite last year's draft Bill, which took four years to produce after the previous Government left a Bill on the table. We still have no timetable for a new Bill before a likely election.

The Bill does not tackle the worsening waste of property, with a 3 per cent. rise in empty council properties since 1997. It does nothing to tackle the scandal of waste and disorganisation in the housing benefits system, which in many places is in a state of collapse exacerbated by a Government who have made no fewer than 85 regulatory changes to the administration of the benefit and introduced new rules at the rate of one a fortnight. It will not prevent gazumping. Arguably, it has produced a costly, ill-thought-out gimmick that could exacerbate the problem.

The whole Bill is a last-minute, ill-thought-through and desperate attempt to cover the blushes of a Government who made elaborate promises before the last election that they have singularly failed to keep. There was the promise of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who, as shadow environment spokesman, commissioned the imaginatively titled consultation paper "No to Gazumping". He said:

The Bill does nothing to remedy that problem.

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The Prime Minister also made promises. When he was in opposition, he said:

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) has articulated well, the numbers in temporary accommodation stand, according to the Department's own figures, at 71,890 in the third quarter of 2000, which is up from 41,236 in the first quarter of 1997--a rise of 74 per cent. Those figures, along with the real-life experiences in the New Forest about which we heard and the rise in priority homeless by 3,000 since May 1997--in London alone, the figure is up by 14 per cent.--show that the Government's promises patently ring hollow. Four years later, we have a thin, half-hearted Bill that has appeared rather late in the day.

That is a shame, because many of the provisions for homelessness in the Bill will find support among Conservative Members. That is why we shall not vote against its Second Reading. However, we want to see much more detail on the mechanics and not the wish list that the Bill appears to contain. We certainly support measures that will help people to escape domestic violence, and, as hon. Members have said, we want the racial abuse provisions to be more clearly drawn.

We welcome a preventative approach to homelessness rather than the crisis management to which it has increasingly become subject. We also welcome a co-ordinated approach between different agencies. However, placing the onus on local authorities to come up with strategies may all be very well in tackling the demand side, but it does nothing to deal with the supply side. The amount of social housing built under this Government has fallen sharply, with 59,000 new dwellings built between 1997 and 1999. That compares with the 91,200 new properties that were built between 1994 and 1996 under the previous Government.

Conservative Members and many homelessness organisations welcome any increase in choice in social housing. However, as several Labour Members have said, in areas of heavy demand and especially in London, choice will be limited. We risk raising people's expectations unrealistically as the Association of London Government has clearly stated. Instead, some measures run the risk of bringing much more pressure on temporary accommodation and the natural tendency will therefore be to look for lower-quality properties to fill the shortfall. Resources will obviously be further stretched when the Government extend the priority need categories by the order that we are promised soon. We will want to look closely at the measures. No matter how much the Minister tries to weasel out of the commitment to give former convicts a degree of priority, the legislation will give them some priority over law-abiding citizens, who will be pushed lower down the list for temporary accommodation.

The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) mentioned the more contested parts of the 1996 Act. The two-year duty on local authorities certainly raised many arguments, but it did not turn out to be the horror story that opponents suggested it would be. Most authorities have chosen, at their discretion, to carry on that duty beyond two years. On what basis have the Government decided to revert to the earlier position? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) so

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eloquently demonstrated--he is an expert on such measures--the Bill risks creating more of the problems caused by the north-south divide.

We also want to consider the Bill's effect on housing allocation policies and sustainable communities, and the risks of concentrating the most vulnerable people in one place. Such people are often in transit and have little attachment to an area. That can create the problems of systemic decline and of antisocial neighbours, on which the Bill is silent, and we have a duty to the great majority of people who are law-abiding and community-minded good neighbours. We want to hear far more from the Government about promoting neighbourliness and looking after the families of those good neighbours.

Opposition Members obviously concentrated on the seller's pack because it is the most contentious aspect of the Bill. We support many of the measures that deal with homelessness, but we have all agreed that we need to speed up the process of selling homes. Everyone in the Chamber probably has a personal experience of that. It is a unique transaction because 80 per cent. of the participants play the dual role of buyer and seller.

We support any moves that would genuinely speed up the property transaction business and genuinely deter gazumping, but nothing in the Bill will prevent the determined gazumper, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) said. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) spoke about the increasing use of the auction system and there are other innovations, such as speeding up local authority searches on the internet through the use of the national land information service, the use of the Law Society's transaction scheme, the availability of voluntary insurance schemes that are offered by agents and lenders to cover losses and failed transactions, the use of mortgage guarantee certificates and greater duty of disclosure by sellers and agents. Such schemes can speed up the process, and some are already operating.

Part I will add anything up to £700 to a property sale that might not happen. It could even deter vendors from placing a property on the market, especially in weak market conditions and weak areas, and encourage vexatious or time-wasting buyers. It will also criminalise yet another set of people. House vendors or their agents who fall foul of the rules will become criminals. Some people might say that penalties against estate agents are long overdue, but estate agents are hardly a danger to society. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, the measures are heavy-handed.

Before Christmas, the Government instigated measures to criminalise the hunting fraternity and now members of the house-selling fraternity are to become criminals if they fall foul of the rules. When will the Government do something about cracking down on the real criminals who menace society, including the thousands whom they have let out on early release?

The seller's pack raises many questions. Many people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), explained that some houses will require three surveys--a home condition report, a full structural survey and a mortgage lender valuation report--even if the house is new and under guarantee or is being bought by someone who has lived in it for years.

We have heard much about the lower values of houses in northern cities, such as Bassetlaw, Workington or Burnley. Let us not forget that last year, more than 40 per

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cent. of all private house transactions were for sums of less than £60,000. What exactly will be in the seller's pack? An awful lot is left to the Secretary of State to prescribe. What will it do to speed up the solicitor's input or that of freeholding companies that have no interest in meeting performance targets? Will the whole pack be held up, and therefore the sale, for the sake of a single missing document or query over, for example, a damp-proof guarantee from a company that has long since gone bust?

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