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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill will put criminal sanctions at the disposal of yet another group of civil servants--weights and measures officers. Is not that a highly reprehensible way forward in a democratic society?
Many other questions have arisen, such as for how long surveys and searches will be valid. The Minister was particularly weak on that point. He seemed prepared to allow a sale to go ahead--perfectly legitimately in his view--with a survey or search many months out of date. That would be particularly worrying after a hot summer, when land under the house would be subject to contraction, or after six months this year during which the house was subject to flooding. Will surveyors be liable for negligence or breach of contract to the potential buyer? What happens to private sales not involving an agent, where the buyer does not want a pack, or to those between connected parties? I gather that friends and family are being considered as exemptions. How on earth does one define "friends"? I hazard that everyone will become a new-found friend of house sellers who want to get round the rules.
Will time-wasting buyers be encouraged to make bids, given that they are not committed to the expense of a survey, which at least shows some serious intent? What about the impact on business property transactions? They are supposedly exempted, but what about corner shops that are sold with a flat above? We shall raise all those questions and many more in Committee.
All of this Bill is based on a pilot study in Bristol that involved just 60 private transactions. Not surprisingly, it elicited a high satisfaction rate among vendors, who were given free packs--a point which the Minister seemed to have some trouble understanding. It is not surprising that 82 per cent. of them thought that such a freebie was a good idea. I am surprised that the Government did not offer to throw in the house free as well in order to get a 100 per cent. satisfaction rate. The pilot was conducted during a buoyant period in the property market in a relatively economically buoyant area, yet a third of buyers still commissioned their own separate survey.
Then we had the great example of Denmark, a country with less than a tenth of the population of this country, where last year there were 133,119 private house sales--8 per cent. of this country's total. Is not it extraordinary how much attention this Government are prepared to pay to Denmark when it suits their purposes, while on the rather more major issues, such as standing up to the supertanker of European federalism, Denmark is cast aside as a nonentity?
The Government have done well from the property market by milking buyers of an additional £1.5 billion in stamp duty since 1997 alone. They now want to add yet further costs to house transactions, but the real winners will be surveyors, for whom it will be Christmas all over again.
As the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) said from considerable experience, the Bill is not the universal panacea that it has been cracked up to be. He rightly made important points about the yet further impact of negative equity on house sellers.
The first part of the Bill is an ill-thought-out gimmick that raises more questions than it answers. The system in England and Wales is far from perfect and needs to be speeded up and improved. That is happening with the help of innovation and technology. However, it must be recognised that we have one of the cheapest systems in Europe, which has led to the highest level of house ownership in Europe. We shall be ending a no-sale, no-fee system that has worked well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said. In its place, the Government propose a much more expensive and more bureaucratic system, which can work against house sellers, particularly in lower-value areas, and will do nothing to outlaw the determined gazumper.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, the Bill is hype followed by disappointment and confusion. It is a missed opportunity, and the coupling of more worthwhile and necessary provisions on homelessness is particularly cynical. We shall be raising many questions and tabling many amendments in Committee. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for our reasoned amendment to show their indignation at this ill-thought-out gimmick of a lightweight Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) cheered us all up with his reference to the Gestapo. Is it not wonderful how the mention of foreigners brings Conservative Members to life, or most of them?
Seriously, we have had a good debate. I am grateful for the widespread support from hon. Members on both sides of the House for our proposals on homelessness. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his constructive and intelligent approach to the entire Bill and for his support. I am grateful also to hon. Members on both sides of the House who made constructive and intelligent suggestions, sometimes on the basis of personal experience. I think particularly of the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) and that of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), but there were others.
I am sorry that some of my hon. Friends sat through the debate and did not have the opportunity to contribute to it. Having spent 13 years on the Back Benches, I understand the frustrations of life there.
The contribution of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) betrayed a certain shamelessness, albeit delivered with characteristic good humour. He pushed several of the most cynical pre-election buttons--
The hon. Member for Eastbourne made much of the professional bodies that are opposed to the seller's pack, which predictably represent some of the major vested interests. In fairness, however, it must be said that many estate agents and lawyers are in favour of it. I think particularly of the National Association of Estate Agents.
The hon. Gentleman failed to acknowledge that the Consumers Association is in favour of the pack, and the Bill is one for consumers. We make no apology for that. Ashley Holmes, head of legal affairs at the association, said of the Bristol pilot:
Mr. Efford: I shall raise two points because I did not manage to catch the Speaker's eye. My hon. Friend will know that I have introduced my Energy Efficiency Bill on several occasions, but it has been blocked for three years by the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). During the intervening period, 4.6 million houses have been sold without any energy efficiency measures being in place to give information to purchasers. If there is a two-year delay, at least another 2 million properties will be sold without any energy efficiency information being available. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing an interim measure on the lines of my Bill to deal with the situation? Will he ensure that energy efficiency is mentioned in the Bill?
Mr. Mullin: No. I regret that we cannot consider any interim measures. However, my hon. Friend's commitment to energy efficiency is a legend, even in his own lunchtime. I do not want to trivialise his point because it is a serious one which I share an interest in.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne was at his most cynical with his allegation that homelessness had got worse under Labour. I shall not trade figures with him, but suffice it to say that I can recall a time not so long ago when a vast shanty town grew up in the centre of Lincoln's Inn Fields at the height of the Thatcher decade. I remember the homeless camped in every doorway from Kingsway through the Strand up to Victoria. I acknowledge that we still have serious problems, and I do not think that there is any scope for complacency, but we are taking steps--rather more robust ones than those taken by the previous Administration--to tackle them.
I am grateful in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for reminding us of the approach that Westminster council took to the problem of homelessness