Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Does my hon. Friend agree that seller's packs could be of particular benefit to potential purchasers in the residential leasehold sector, who currently face service charge and insurance demands that they find baffling and by which they often feel cheated? When looking at the regulations on the content of seller's packs, will he consider, particularly in the light of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, which we will examine soon, whether, for example, the last set of certified service charge accounts and information about agencies providing reliable advice to leaseholders and potential commonholders might form part of the packs?
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He has been assiduous over recent years in pursuing the interests of leaseholders, who form a significant proportion of the residents in his constituency. Like me, he will be pleased at the progress of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, which has had its Second Reading in another place and will bring extensive benefits to leaseholders.
Part II will enable local authorities to provide better help in finding a settled home for those who each year face homelessness through no fault of their own. Our proposals require local authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling the causes of homelessness and preventing its recurrence. The Bill will require local authorities to review homelessness in their area at least every five years and to put in place a multi-agency strategy for preventing homelessness, ensuring that adequate accommodation and support are available.
The Bill will encourage a more co-ordinated approach by requiring housing and social services authorities to take the homelessness strategy into account when meeting their responsibilities. We are also removing unnecessary restrictions that can limit local authorities' abilities to find sustainable housing solutions and offer real choice to homeless people, to others in housing need and to existing tenants, thereby helping to create more sustainable communities and tackling social exclusion.
Evidence demonstrates that a high proportion of homeless people who end up sleeping rough come from institutional backgrounds, and we are adding to the priority-needs groups some new categories of vulnerable people, including young children who have come out of care and others who have an institutional background and are homeless and vulnerable. That is a sensible and humane policy. I am glad that the Opposition did not pursue at great length today their unfounded claim that we are seeking to give ex-prisoners housing priority over other applicants. As has been well established, that was never our intention, and it is certainly not the implication of the Bill.
Taken with the Government's sound economic policies, our substantial increases in capital investment in housing and the wider policies set out in the housing Green Paper, the Homes Bill will help us ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. It is important reforming legislation, and I commend it to the House.
Mr. Waterson: There has been a surreal note to today's debates which graphically demonstrates the dangers inherent in the Government's regular use of guillotine motions. The House will readily understand why most of my remarks on Third Reading will deal with part I, on seller's packs. As I said at the start of the programme motion debate, to the public, part I is every bit as important as part II--I see the Minister nodding in agreement--and although part I may affect different categories of people from those affected by part II, it is just as important.
We have not had the opportunity to debate all the groups of amendments and new clauses dealing with seller's packs duties, seller's packs offences and home condition reports. Although we have had a lengthy--some might even say exhaustive--debate on energy efficiency reports as a part of seller's packs, the vast majority of seller's packs issues, on which we spent more than half our time in Committee, have not been addressed at all in our debates today. I think that I had about 20 seconds to speak to our amendments in the sixth group, and that was it. Of course Ministers do not care, but I think that those who send us to this place will care that an issue that is important to very many people has simply not been debated.
On the subject of seller's packs, it is important to remember two preliminary issues. First, we must consider part I of the Bill against the background of the clear promises made by the Labour party in opposition. Labour Members do not like to be reminded of what the party said on this issue as on so many others, but it is clear that it promised people that it would tackle gazumping.
Whether tackling gazumping is ever likely to be a practical proposition is a matter for argument, but that is not the issue. The issue is that the Labour party led people to believe that that was what would happen. It was a surprise to find, therefore, when we tore open our mint copies of the Bill before Christmas, that that was the one matter that was not addressed.
I am sure that the Minister will say that the Government are trying to tackle gazumping by making the process of house buying quicker. However, we do not accept that the new system will make the process quicker. Moreover, if gazumpers are people who find that they can get more for their homes than they thought--to put it as neutrally as possible--why should the fact that the process is quicker make a difference? I have never received a satisfactory answer to that question.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I did not have the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee, although I spoke on Second Reading. Will my hon. Friend say whether the Minister gave any indication in Committee that he would consider rescinding this measure--in the event that he is still in a position to do so--if it does not reduce the average time that transactions take to complete?
Mr. Waterson: We did not get that far. Most of the significant elements in the Bill will be implemented by regulation. We have not seen the draft regulations yet, although we have had some hints of what they might contain. However, the Government do not propose that the new rules will come into force until 2003. When we win the election, we will have a long and hard look at whether they will make any difference. The betting is that
When he was shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) published a pamphlet on gazumping. He wrote that the Labour party was proposing a system under which a seller or buyer who went back on an agreement would be obliged to meet the costs that the other party had incurred in progressing to exchange of contracts. In its 1997 election manifesto, the Labour party said:
As for the contents of the seller's pack, no one would contest the fact that it makes sense to put together, at the beginning of a transaction, a bundle of documents that one has to get together sooner or later, to try and shorten the process. Indeed, if one is buying a new property, the developer usually puts the basic documents together.
Our concerns are threefold: first, criminal sanctions should not be imposed. Secondly, to require a home condition report to be included in the pack is unrealistic and unhelpful. Thirdly, to require local searches to be included is also unrealistic and unhelpful.
Surveys, as we know, can be out of date. Some properties in the parts of the country worst affected by the recent flooding could have had a survey six months ago, but the condition of the property might be very different now.
Local authority searches have a relatively short shelf life--a maximum of, say, three months--and it would be prudent to renew them. We have never fully understood why local searches should be an issue. It has always been possible to carry out what is called a personal search, which means effectively paying a bit extra for the articled clerk in one's solicitors to go to the local authority offices and carry out the search then and there.
The basis for the entire structure set out in part I is the alleged success of the pilot scheme conducted in Bristol. We dispute that for a variety of reasons, all of which will be familiar to Ministers who were in Committee. The sample was supposed to consist of 250 people. The figure eventually was 180 or thereabouts, of whom 90 completed. As if that were not bad enough, of that 90, a third were brand new properties--Beazer Homes, although that company is probably called something else now, as it has been taken over since then. So we are looking at a terribly small sample in one city in England as the basis for this scheme.
The Minister will no doubt say that in Bristol everyone thought that it worked fine. The president of the Law Society--the Minister's new best friend--thinks that it is wonderful, the best thing since sliced bread. I explained during the debate on the timetable motion why I thought, with the greatest respect to the president of the Law Society, that he might be enthusiastic. Even more so, no wonder that the level of satisfaction discovered among the participants of the pilot scheme in Bristol was pretty high.
We question, as do people intimately involved in buying and selling property, how anyone can rely on the results of that scheme. It also came to light in Committee that the local authority was giving priority to searches connected with the pilot scheme over and above those that came before it in the usual way.
I complained in the debate on the timetable motion that Ministers were unwilling to accept advice from those who ought to know. I spent some time describing the Minister's dismissal of these people. Let us remember what certain organisations have said. Mr. Michael King, chairman of the Law Society's conveyancing and land law committee, said: