Homes Bill

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The Chairman: Before we proceed, one observation arises out of the remarks of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). He asked under what circumstances I would consider reconvening the Programming Sub-Committee. Such representations—from both sides, and made through the usual channels—will be considered courteously and a decision will be reached. I am happy to tell the Committee that those decisions will be final and may not be debated.

Lord Commissioner to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. May I ask you to check the result of the Division?

The Chairman: I announced that the Ayes were nine and the Noes were four. However, on checking, it seems that the Ayes were 10. The Clerks' Department is on its way to the Tower of London.

I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill. Copies are available in the Room. I also remind hon. Members that adequate notice must be given of amendments. As a general rule, which pretty much means always, my co-chairman and I will not call starred amendments.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. At this stage, I will make my habitual intervention. On a sunny day, when the Minister sits in that position, his face dissolves into a blur. That may have advantages, but it makes it difficult to hold a sensible conversation. The alternatives are to bring down the blinds, which would be ridiculous when there is precious little sunshine around, or for the Minister to move one seat along, which would not remove him irremediably from the succour of his civil servants and would help us all. [Interruption.] I am grateful that my tangible suggestion has been adopted.

Mr. Chairman: The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not strictly a point of order for me, but the Minister has complied.

Clause 1

Meaning of ``residential property''and other expressions

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 1, line 15, leave out `or intended to be occupied'.

Mr. Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 32, in page 1, line 16, leave out

    `(and includes one that is being or is to be constructed)'.

Mr. Waterson: I hope that I will have similar success in persuading the Minister to do my bidding as the Committee stage progresses, but something tells me that will not be the case. We are grateful to our right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for making our deliberations more comfortable.

I assume, Mr. Gale, that you wish to follow previous practice and that, if you allow a wide-ranging debate on amendments to a clause, we may do without a clause stand part debate at the end. I also assume that it will be helpful if I flag up the approach that I propose to adopt as we come to such amendments and clauses rather than have anyone—least of all yourself—taken by surprise when we reach the end of a group of amendments.

Mr. Chairman: I should have pointed out that that is what I normally do. Those Members who have served under my chairmanship will know that I am perfectly prepared to accept what is, in effect, a stand part debate at either the start of the debate or at the end, but not both.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful, Mr. Gale. I will remind myself to indicate the way in which my remarks will develop.

I begin with amendments Nos. 31 and 32. Unusually, clause 1 contains a raft of definitions. We will have to look at some of those in some detail because they underpin much of what follows in the Bill and its schedules. Amendment No. 31 would exempt unoccupied homes, which would include derelict homes, from the requirement to have a seller's pack. That would not exclude new homes, to which I will return in the context of the next amendment. The Minister may wish to intervene to confirm that that is the Government's intention.

Clause 5(1) states that the Bill will not apply to properties that, at the time of sale, are not available with vacant possession. That is taken up in paragraph 26 of the explanatory notes. Clause 5(2) states that the manner in which the property is being marketed will indicate whether there is vacant possession. That could imply that derelict property or property in need of renovation is to be exempt, but the Bill is not entirely clear.

The amendment is the first of several designed to establish what the Government have in mind. Perhaps they intend such properties to be exempt. If the straightforward answer is that that is their intention, perhaps the Minister will assure me that it will be made more clear than it is now. If so, I shall be happy to give way.

We do not want to do anything that has unintended consequences. I have in mind the fact that imposing the ludicrously inappropriate requirement of seller's packs on derelict property will only add a wholly unnecessary expense; in addition, attempts at regeneration might be hampered. We cannot see how anyone could be interested in a home condition report that merely reported faithfully the fact that the property was derelict, perhaps lacking a roof, windows or walls. Clearly, in such cases, the requirement for a seller's pack should not apply. Again, that may be the Government's intention, but they have not made it clear, so I hope that the Minister will deal with it.

Amendment No. 32 would entirely exempt new homes from the requirement to have a seller's pack. We see no benefit in producing home condition reports on a new property or one that has yet to be constructed, as that would be superfluous and a waste of money. More importantly, there would be a danger of duplicating the National House Building Council certificate issued to new properties. That certificate is valid for 10 years and deals with all the obvious main concerns of a buyer of a new property. I commend the NHBC scheme, which has operated effectively for many years. It gives considerable reassurance to people buying brand new properties, given all the problems that they might expect to encounter.

I might be knocking on an open door, given that paragraph 27 of the explanatory notes states that new homes sold ``off-plan'', to use the jargon, are included. Paragraph 51 suggests that they could be the subject of an exemption authorised by the Secretary of State using regulations made under clause 7. I hope that I am not the only person who finds that a little confusing and contradictory. Should new homes be within the provisions of the Bill or outside them?

We shall, no doubt, have further discussions on the subject. At an appropriate moment that is convenient for the Committee, I intend to raise a point of order about draft regulations made under the Bill, but it would be extremely helpful if the Minister would give us some indication of his thinking. In due course, might he want to make regulations under clause 7 to exempt new homes altogether? Is that being actively considered in his Department? If that is his intention, such an exclusion from the Bill is too important to be left to mere regulations, to be made in due course.

Although we intend to ensure that they do not have the opportunity to do so, the Government do not intend to introduce the new system until 2003, so there is plenty of time to get things right. However, if they have decided or are on the brink of deciding to exempt new homes in principle, why not make that clear now? It would dispel many concerns and doubts in the surveying, estate agency and legal professions and throughout the housebuilding industry.

One has only to consider the Bristol pilot scheme, about which you will probably hear a great deal more than you ever wanted, Mr. Gale. One reason why it is unreliable is that 30 of the 90 homes on which sales were completed during the pilot were brand new Beazer homes. They were all sold by exchange sale within the short period of 28 days, not sold and marketed in the same way as other houses in the scheme, which suggests that, in the context of the pilot, they were hardly typical sales and that they really had no need of seller's packs.

I think that I am right in saying that those 30 homes did not have seller's packs, although I am open to correction by the Minister. He nods, indicating that they did. I am happy to accept that, but even if they did, what knowledge could the purchasers have obtained from the packs beyond that which they would already have gathered from the NHBC certificate? It might be useful to compare the two documents.

11.15 am

If buyers of brand new properties are seeking reassurance about physical condition, there is nothing better than an NHBC certificate. It should give buyers all the reassurance that they need—indeed, it has been developed over the years for precisely that purpose. Buyers of such properties do not have to deal with the legal complexities, such as problems with rights of way or other delays to the conveyancing process, which might arise in connection with an older house. The sales of the new Beazer homes involved in the Bristol pilot went through very quickly, which, presumably, skewed the average speed of the transactions in the scheme.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the essential differences between new and older houses is that new houses are usually built by developers? Developers differ from private individuals in that they have an incentive to sell the houses quickly, whereas private individuals face all sorts of problems, such as being part of a chain—trying to sell their house while trying to buy another house. Because developers want to sell their houses quickly, it is unnecessary to require them to produce a full seller's pack that includes information on the condition of the house, as that should be covered by an NHBC certificate.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. He is absolutely right: any developer will want to improve cash flow by disposing of properties as quickly as he can. That is why show houses and so on are set up. Not only will developers have glossy sets of drawings to aid the process, but they will put together their own version of a seller's pack. Why on earth a developer should be interested in any delay is a mystery to me. Whatever the differences between the official Opposition and the Government on the benefits of seller's packs, one thing on which we can agree is that they have no role in the selling of brand new homes.

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