Mr. Don Foster: I am still pondering the answer given by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) when he was asked whether a Conservative Government, if there were ever to be another, would rescind the Bill. The answer was that the Conservative party would take a long, hard look at it. I recall that those were the words of either Eeyore or Winnie-the-Pooh.
It is clear from the debates so far that we were absolutely right to question the programme motion. It is absolutely clear that there has been inadequate time to discuss the large number of very important issues before us tonight. However, we could have made more effective use of the time that was made available. Nevertheless, the debates in the Chamber and in Committee have provided an opportunity to discuss not only the issues dealt with in the Bill, but a wide range of other related issues. That has been helpful.
We have had an opportunity to discuss the need to speed up the provision of affordable housing. We have discussed the need to tackle the absolutely disgraceful fact that there are 750,000 empty homes in this country. We have discussed the need to improve support for those who tragically often suffer from the neighbours from hell. We have even discussed the proposals to run trials to determine the ways in which different local authorities can develop greater choice for the various people in need of housing. I hope that the bid from my local authority--Bath and North East Somerset--will be considered very favourably by the Minister. We have also had an opportunity directly to consider important issues in the Bill, such as buying and selling housing and the development of homelessness reviews and strategies by local authorities.
On Second Reading, the Minister accepted that the Bill was, at that stage, work in progress. I genuinely believe that our deliberations have resulted in significant progress. For example, I am delighted that Ministers have been prepared to accept Liberal Democrat proposals for improvements to the reintroduction of reviews of eligibility and of the priority given to homeless people. I am delighted that some of our proposals on energy efficiency have been accepted tonight. Hon. Members from both sides in Committee and in the House have backed our proposals to improve the advice and guidance that local authorities give to homeless people. Ministers have also been willing to reconsider certain aspects of new clauses 5 and 7. I am grateful for the improvements that have been made.
The Bill contains many important and beneficial measures. Despite that, it continues to contain a number of weaknesses. They include the inadequately defined and certainly inadequately financially supported role that trading standards officers will have to play. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly said, insufficient attention has been given to the issues of gazumping and gazundering. There is certainly not enough in the Bill to link the important work of registered social landlords and local authority housing departments. The Minister will be the first to acknowledge that we have still not found a solution to the question of whether a seller's pack should be required in areas of low-value properties. In addition, we have not yet done enough to link together at the local authority level the development of homelessness strategies and the housing strategy.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly referred to the Bill's biggest weakness, which is the sanctions that the Government propose to introduce against those who fail to meet the requirements of a seller's pack. We are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of criminal sanctions. It is wrong to make it a criminal offence to fail to meet the requirements of the seller's pack. That would mean that someone who had not met those requirements could find that their character had been diminished in the eyes of their neighbours and others. Their job might be put in jeopardy and their credit rating and their ability to obtain a mortgage could be put at risk. Some countries, such as the United States, will not accept people with criminal records, so the ability of those people to travel could also be put at risk. If there is to be a sanction, it should be a civil sanction, not a criminal one.
The Bill is work in progress, and progress has been made during our deliberations. I do not want to do anything that will prevent further progress from being made in another place. For that reason, we shall not vote against the Bill's Third Reading.
Mr. Love : I welcome the Bill, not least because it implements two of the Government's manifesto pledges. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning on taking the Bill smoothly through all its stages in the House, and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), on his appointment as a Minister.
Funnily enough, I pay tribute to both sides for the measured and sensible debates that we had in Committee. They were in marked contrast to the Second Reading debate, which sounded very much to me like an election rally for the Opposition. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) suggested, we had a surreal debate tonight when two Liberal Democrat homelessness policies were on show. There was also the amazing spectacle of the Welsh Nationalists coming to the aid of those on the Opposition Front Bench when Opposition Back Benchers were chiding them about Conservative principles.
The Bill will significantly improve the process of buying and selling a home. The need for the measure is clear: 1.5 million to 2 million sales are made a year. Although the process is among the cheapest, it is also the slowest. Twenty-eight per cent. of all sales fail, even after terms have been agreed, and dissatisfaction is high. Frankly, action was required.
We cannot criticise the Government for lack of research. An enormous amount of consultation and research was carried out before the measure was introduced. A long study took place in 1998, followed by a consultation process. It showed strong support for the seller's pack and even for making it compulsory. The consultation was followed by a pilot study. We are considering trust and confidence in the survey form, which was discussed at length. The provisions should establish that confidence before the form is introduced in 2003. The Bill will achieve more stability and predictability in the process of buying a home.
I have a direct constituency interest in homelessness. Almost one in three constituents who come to me have housing problems. Most of them are homeless or in the process of becoming homeless. That reflects the Tory legacy. The previous Government's neglect of social housing has led directly to such problems; indeed, their legacy is symbolised by rough sleepers. That will haunt the Conservative party for a long time.
I welcome the Bill. It provides a settled housing solution for people who are in priority need, but it also does much more than that. It provides for local authorities to devise homelessness strategies, and establishes the need for them to put prevention at the top of their agenda.
Although Opposition Members have criticised them, I welcome the provisions for strengthening advice and assistance. When we are unable to provide a settled housing solution, we should give homeless people advice and assistance. It is clear that that currently does not happen.
I welcome the Minister's important reassurance that blanket exclusions, which have formed a large part of some local authorities' activities, will be outlawed. I join the hon. Member for Eastbourne--although I do not ask the Minister to select Eastbourne as one of the pilot authorities--in welcoming the extension of choice to social housing. That is long overdue and will lead to local authorities gaining a better reputation for their provision of housing for those in need.
Mr. Robert Ainsworth: The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) complained that there had not been sufficient time to discuss part I, and he blamed the programme motion. The Bill has 33 clauses and it has been allocated a full day for Report and Third Reading. That was not unusual in the House even before the time of programme motions. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on the debate, he will probably realise that there was no time to discuss all the issues that are relevant to part I, mainly because one or two Conservative Back Benchers were so offended by the proposals of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) that they decided to take him by the scruff of the neck and shake him for an hour or so.
Mr. Waterson: The Minister chooses to work on the basis of the number of clauses, which is rather like a "Never mind the quality, feel the width" approach to politics. Will he remind the House of the number of clauses in the Bill that led to ratification of the Maastricht treaty?
Our procedures for buying and selling homes are the slowest and most inefficient in Europe. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people endure the frustration of delays and failed transactions, often incurring substantial costs. We are determined to do something about that and to improve the lot of consumers. An efficient housing market benefits everyone. We are pursuing a range of measures to increase certainty in the process and reduce delays. The Bill, which requires sellers to prepare a seller's pack before marketing a property, is at the heart of these proposals.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne complains that the Bill will do nothing about gazumping. Surely one of the main reasons for gazumping is the time that a transaction takes in a moving housing market. If the hon. Gentleman does not appreciate that, it is obvious that the commonsense revolution has not reached all the parts of the Conservative party.
Homelessness, or the threat of it, can be one of the most stressful experiences in life for families and individuals, especially if they are vulnerable as a result of, for example, their age or health. The legislation introduced by the previous Government failed to provide adequate
The hon. Member for Eastbourne spoke of his objection to the issue of criminal sanctions. If the issue of seller's packs is to be effective, we need a mandatory scheme, and that requires appropriate sanctions. There is plenty of scope within the Bill for a tough line to be taken on estate agents who deliberately flout the law, and for discretion to be applied when a private seller makes an honest mistake. Estate agents market the vast majority of homes.
Civil sanctions would not offer effective safeguards. They would rely on the buyer suing the person who had marketed the property without a seller's pack. That would involve buyers in delays and uncertainty, and the expense of legal proceedings to recover the money that had been lost.
Criminal sanctions would not have to rely on the actions of the buyer. Local trading standards officers--they are not members of the Gestapo--will be able to initiate enforcement action as is appropriate to meet the conditions that they face and individual circumstances.