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Mr. Loughton: This is not an easy debate to which to respond. I am bitterly disappointed, because I have never seen such a volte face by a Minister executed by the use of the phrase, "Time has moved on." Many of the Minister's colleagues will also feel bitterly let down. The measure that he and other Labour Members supported in Committee--and which the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) introduced in a private Member's Bill--was acceptable to him and to the majority of hon. Members. Under cover of the phrase, "Time has moved on," it has been completely cast aside.

The Minister made no attempt to respond to the points that I made, because he was still trailing the nonsense, which I thought I had pre-empted, about parallel schemes running together. He merely read out the notes that had been prepared for him before the debate, not having listened to a line of the objections that I made. The Government's mind is utterly closed on this issue and I fear that we shall get no further.

The great tragedy is that virtually none of part I has been debated on Report, yet we now have just one minute left. Bearing that in mind, I shall sit down so that we can move on to the next group of amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

7 Feb 2001 : Column 1020

Clause 1

Meaning of "residential property" and other expressions


Amendment proposed:
No. 28, in page 2, line 3, leave out--
'a freehold interest or a long leasehold interest in the property'
and insert--
'the freehold interest or the interest under a long lease'.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 4, in clause 3, in page 2, line 41, at end insert--


'unless the property is explicitly advertised as being sold "without seller's pack".'.

Government amendments Nos. 29 to 40.

Amendment No. 7, in clause 7, in page 5, line 45, at end insert--


'save that these shall not include local authority searches.'.

Amendment No. 6, in page 6, line 2, at end insert--


'save that these shall not include a survey report or home condition report.'.

Amendment No. 8, in page 6, line 2, at end insert--


'and the term "characteristics" shall include information about risk of flooding.'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 6, line 2, at end insert--


'( ) an account of the suitability of the property for occupation by people with disabilities.'.

Government amendment No. 42.

Amendment No. 9, in page 6, line 24, at end insert--


'(9) All the documents and information contained in the seller's packs shall be confidential to the seller, a person acting on his behalf as an estate agent and any bona fide buyer or potential buyer.'.

Amendment No. 3, in clause 13, page 8, line 38, leave out subsection (3) and insert--


'( ) A statutory instrument which contains regulations under this Part is not to be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

Government amendments Nos. 44, 45 and 48 to 50.

Mr. Waterson: In the 30 seconds that remain, I wish to speak in favour of our eight amendments--

It being Nine o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Order [this day] proceeded to put the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Amendment made.

Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Clause 3

Duties of responsible person where a property is on the market


Amendments made: No. 29, in page 2, line 42, after "possession" insert "or under his control".
No. 30, in page 3, line 4 leave out "contained" and insert "included".

7 Feb 2001 : Column 1021


No. 31, in page 3, line 23, leave out "contained" and insert "included".--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 4

Other duties of person acting as estate agent


Amendments made: No. 32, in page 3, line 41, after "possession", insert "or under his control".
No. 33, in page 3, line 42, leave out "copy of the".
No. 34, in page 4, line 11, leave out "contained" and insert "included".--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 6

Defences


Amendments made: No. 35, in page 4, line 40, leave out "copy of the".
No. 36, in page 4, line 40, after "possession" insert "or under his control".
No. 37, in page 5, line 15, leave out "copy of the".
No. 38, in page 5, line 15, after "possession" insert "or under his control".--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 7

Contents of sellers' packs


Amendments made: No. 39, in page 5, line 20, leave out from beginning of line to "must" in line 25 and insert--
'(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations prescribing--
(a) the documents to be included in a seller's pack required for a residential property by section 3(2) or 4(2); and
(b) particular information which is to be included in or excluded from any prescribed document.
(2) A document prescribed under subsection (1)'.
No. 40, in page 5, line 34, leave out--
'in relation to a residential property'.
No. 22, in page 6, line 2, at end insert--
'(dd) the energy efficiency of the property;'.
No. 41, in page 6, line 13, leave out subsection (7) and insert--
'(7) The regulations may require a prescribed document--
(a) to be in such form as may be prescribed; and
(b) to be prepared by a person of a prescribed description on such terms (if any) as may be prescribed.
(7A) The terms mentioned in subsection (7)(b) may include terms which enable provisions of the contract under which the document is to be prepared to be enforced by--
(a) a potential or actual buyer;
(b) a mortgage lender; or
(c) any other person involved in the sale of the property who is not a party to that contract.'.
No. 42, in page 6, line 24, at end insert--
'( ) In this section "prescribed" means prescribed by regulations under this section.'.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 8

Home condition reports


Amendments made: No. 23, in page 6, line 26, leave out from "document" to "which" in line 27 and insert--
'dealing with matters mentioned in section 7(5)(d) or (dd) (reports on physical condition or energy efficiency)'.

7 Feb 2001 : Column 1022


No. 43, in page 7, line 3, leave out paragraph (c) and insert--
'(c) for facilitating the resolution of complaints against members of the scheme;'.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 15

General interpretation


Amendments made: No. 44, in page 9, line 34, at end insert--
'(2A) A document which is not in electronic form is only to be regarded as being under the control of a person while it is in the possession of another if he has the right to take immediate possession of the document on demand (and without payment).'.
No. 45, in page 9, line 36, after "possession", insert "or under his control".--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 24

Application of Part VI of 1996 Act


Amendment made: No. 46, in page 14, line 25, leave out Clause 24.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Clause 26

Applications for housing accommodation


Amendment made: No. 47, in page 16, line 37, leave out from "person" to "to" in line 40 and insert--
'is an applicant for an allocation of housing accommodation shall not be divulged (without his consent)'.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Schedule 1

Fixed penalties and enforcement


Amendments made: No. 48, in page 21, line 29, leave out "forming part of" and insert "included in".
No. 49, in page 21, line 35, leave out "forming part of" and insert "included in".
No. 50, in page 21, line 39, leave out--
'comprised in the seller's pack'
and insert--
'included in the seller's pack in question'.--[Mr. Raynsford.]

Schedule 3

Repeals


Amendment made: No. 51, in page 25, line 39, column 3, leave out "Section 159(5)(b)".-- [Mr. Raynsford.]
Order for Third Reading read.

9.1 pm

Mr. Raynsford: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Unfortunately, our debate has been attenuated because of the divisions in the Conservative party over the issue of energy efficiency, but it has nevertheless covered a number of important issues.

The Bill fulfils important Government commitments to improve the home buying and selling process, and to strengthen the protection available to homeless people. It is an important part of the Government's strategy to

7 Feb 2001 : Column 1023

ensure that everyone has the opportunity and choice of a decent home, as has been set out in our housing Green Paper and widely welcomed.

The Bill improves the housing market for the benefit of the public when they are selling or buying homes, when they seek help because they are at risk of homelessness or have become homeless, when they are in housing need and are applying for social housing, and when they are existing tenants of social housing seeking to move within the social housing sector.

The proposals in part I form part of a wider package of reforms to help up to 2 million individuals and families who buy and sell their homes each year. We are introducing a modern, more streamlined system that is easier and faster for consumers, avoids unnecessary stress and disappointment and offers value for money.

In Committee, it was suggested that sellers' packs would add to the cost of selling homes, that buyers and lenders would not trust home condition reports commissioned by sellers, and that it was unnecessary to impose criminal sanctions on those who market homes without sellers' packs. Those concerns are not well grounded. There will be a small additional cost for people who would not normally commission a survey, but we believe that that cost will be more than outweighed by the benefits of a speedier transaction process and reductions in the huge abortive costs of the current inefficient system, which are about £350 million a year.

In developing the home condition report, we will set up a certification scheme to ensure consistent and high- standard inspections and reports. As we have made clear in recent amendments, inspectors will be liable to sellers, buyers and lenders. We believe that everyone will have confidence in the inspections, will rely on them, and will be able to take action in the event of any defect.

Sanctions are necessary. Without them, the temptation would be too great for freeloaders to sell their homes without a seller's pack, while reaping the benefits of a pack for the homes that they bought. Just one weak link would break the chain, thus perpetuating the misery of the current system.

We have looked carefully at the appropriateness of criminal sanctions. As we pointed out repeatedly in Committee, they are consistent with similar sanctions--for example, those in the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991, and others applying to landlord and tenant law. Currently, 95 per cent. of home sales are conducted through estate agents. Estate agents would be responsible for having sellers' packs when they were marketing a home, and in the vast majority of cases it would be estate agents who faced sanctions if they failed to comply with the law.

Additionally, local trading standards officers will have clear discretion--I emphasised this point repeatedly in Committee--to take the action that they regard as appropriate where they find a person marketing a home without a seller's pack. They will have scope and discretion to offer advice, to give a warning, to issue a fixed-penalty notice or, ultimately, to prosecute. Only the option of prosecution would lead to a criminal record.

We are absolutely clear that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, where an honest and simple mistake had been made, there would be no obligation for trading

7 Feb 2001 : Column 1024

standards officers to do more than offer advice or give a warning. In the case of any individual householder, there would be little or no purpose, unless there were exceptional circumstances, in doing more than issuing a fixed penalty notice, so the concept of large numbers of innocent individuals being dragged before the courts to face criminal charges is an exaggeration and not properly founded.

We must, however, have sanctions, including criminal sanctions, to cope with the risk of what I hope would be a very small number of unprincipled estate agents seeking to subvert the whole purpose of the scheme by marketing properties persistently without a seller's pack and paying no heed to initial warnings from trading standards officials. I hope that I have made it clear that we have provided a range of responses to allow a proportionate response depending on the circumstances, and that the fears that have been expressed about sanctions are misplaced.

I have listened to the concerns voiced by a number of my hon. Friends about low-demand areas and low-value properties. I have made it clear that we are prepared to consider measures where seller's pack requirements would cause particular difficulties. The Bill provides us with a power to make such exemptions, but we must consider that issue carefully. Our research indicates that seller's packs would offer benefits in low-value areas and we must avoid further stigmatising properties in areas of declining demand and value. We are working up a number of options in a paper that I hope to issue for consultation shortly. That will allow us to have a thorough and considered debate about the best way in which to balance the conflicting pressures on that important issue.

The proposals in part I are based on extensive research and piloting. We will continue to work with the key professionals and consumer representatives in developing the details of our proposals, especially the home condition report and the supporting certification scheme, so that seller's packs can be introduced as planned in 2003.


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