Homes Bill

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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Welcome to the Committee, Mr. Stevenson. I look forward to our proceedings continuing under your chairmanship and that of Mr. Gale.

I explained before lunch why the proposal in the clause for an energy efficiency report to form part of the home condition report applying to all sales is preferable to new clause 4 and new schedule 1, whereby such reports would be limited to properties that are the subject of a mortgage valuation. I accept the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) that new clause 4 and new schedule 1 could provide an interim arrangement. He agreed that our proposal is more satisfactory in the long term, but said that he wanted some progress made in the interim. That is a valid point of view, but I hope that my explanation will convince him that the option that he proposes is not feasible.

It would be costly and complicated to introduce the measures in the schedule for a short period only and it might cause difficulties for the surveying profession. Many valuers working for lenders do not have the training or expertise to conduct energy efficiency surveys, so there would inevitably be a training need. It is likely, given the concerns that have rightly been voiced about the importance of people being able to rely on the competence of those carrying out the surveys, that a form of accreditation similar to the arrangements that we propose for home condition reports would be needed. It would be a nightmare to try to train a large number of surveyors and introduce and operate a separate accreditation system in parallel with the arrangements for training all the surveyors who will become inspectors for the purpose of the home condition report. There is real scope for problems to arise, for duplication and for cost overruns, which would be a wholly unwelcome distraction at a time when the focus should be on training the inspectors who will be fundamental to the operation of the main house condition report which, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, will provide a better, more fundamental and more lasting solution.

Introducing the interim arrangements for the sake of a year—or perhaps 18 months if the hon. Gentleman's pessimistic view is right and it takes as long as that to introduce home condition reports and seller's packs—cannot be justified financially or in terms of the upheaval, potential chaos and confusion. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I should like to the Minister to clarify his remarks, which are contrary to those which he offered on Second Reading. He said that to satisfy the conditions of the home seller's packs would require a raft of new surveyors whose training would cost money, which cost would fall on the home seller's pack business. Yet he claimed the other day that there would be no extra costs. Is he suggesting that those surveyors will do the job for free out of good will, or does he admit that a large cost will be involved?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is confusing different issues, the first of which is the adequacy of the number of surveyors. There was a question on Second Reading about whether there would be enough surveyors. There are about 9,000 surveyors with general qualifications and it is estimated that approximately that number will be required to carry out the inspections.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I hesitate to interrupt the Minister when he has just got back into gear, but does he not accept the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' estimate of another 2,000 to 3,000 surveyors being needed? If the top end of that estimate is anything like accurate, the number of surveyors will have to increase by one third.

Mr. Raynsford: Other professionals could well become inspectors—indeed, the members of a number of other professions are interested in becoming qualified inspectors; there will certainly be more than the 9,000 who are currently available. My point is that is no shortage.

The second issue is training. Of course there will be a training need if inspectors are to perform the functions according to the regulations that we will publish—that is essential to provide a scheme that commands public confidence. However, the estimate of additional costs given by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) is somewhat wide of the mark. The RICS estimates that the approximate cost per inspection carried out for the introduction of the accreditation arrangement will be 50p. I accept that that is additional expenditure, but it is not of the order of magnitude that the hon. Gentleman suggests. To suggest that huge additional costs will result from the introduction of the accreditation system is wide of the mark.

However, there will obviously be a need for training, both initial and on-going, as professionals need to keep in touch with changes in software, for example. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there have been changes in the technology since the introduction of home energy ratings in the late 1980s. I was a member of the National Energy Foundation, which was responsible for one of the ratings, and I am well aware that there has been progress in technology since that time. Obviously there will be a need for continuing training, but that is a normal part of the process of providing a professional service.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Government's record on reducing emissions. He made a gratuitous and unwarranted attack on my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who has done substantial service on that issue—for example, by agreeing the Kyoto agreement, which gave a real boost to the reduction of emissions and showed that Britain was in the lead in terms of reaching international agreements to reduce unwanted emissions. In addition, this country has made enormous progress internally. We expect to achieve a 15 per cent. reduction in UK emissions between 1990 and 2000, which puts us well on track to achieve our domestic goal of a 20 per cent. reduction by 2010.

Further measures are being introduced from April with the climate change levy and the new home energy efficiency scheme. That scheme is particularly important to low-income households, which are especially vulnerable to the problems of high energy costs resulting from inefficiently insulated housing and inefficient heating systems. The Committee will be aware of all the measures that we have taken to tackle the scandal in this country of far too many old people suffering and dying from the cold in winter, because of a combination of low incomes and houses that are difficult or expensive to keep warm.

The winter heating supplement, which the Conservatives are pledged to abolish, shows the Government's commitment to tackle the scandal. We will take no lessons from the Conservatives on energy efficiency measures. We have the right policies to help people, to improve the condition of the housing stock and to establish a proper system for giving information at the point of sale of a property, so that new home owners know what can be done to improve their home's energy efficiency, the costs and the payback period. That is all part of a key strategy to tackle the problem of energy inefficiency, and I warmly commend the Government's position. I urge Opposition Members to withdraw their amendment. If they do not, I urge my hon. Friends to vote against it.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I seek your guidance. This morning, Mr. Gale allowed Committee Members to remove their jackets. Unlike Conservatives, we seek your guidance before removing ours.

The Chairman: In the interests of accuracy, I point out that Conservative Members did seek my guidance privately. They have my permission and so have other hon. Members.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. You may already be in some confusion about what is going on in Committee, with talk of secret deals. Conservative Members alleged earlier that the Liberal Democrats had done a secret deal with Labour Members on the timetable motion. It is now being alleged that there is a secret deal on the removal of jackets. No such deal was made, Mr. Stevenson, so I apologise for failing to seek your permission to remove my jacket, notwithstanding the fact that you had already given it to Conservative Members.

In responding to some of my amendments in our earlier deliberations, the Minister said that he would use argument A in his defence as to why he would not persuade his hon. Friends to support them. He was good enough to explain that argument A is the now infamous list argument: it is bad to have a list of items in the Bill, because some people would argue that anything not in that list would not be considered a significant issue. When the Minister raised that argument, I am afraid that I rose to my feet rather rapidly and said that I intended to use argument B to refute it. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to unveil argument B later. However, I want to apologise to the Committee, because I was a little hasty in my earlier reflections and now wish, perhaps strangely, to use argument A to persuade the Minister that he has misused argument A rather badly. I hope that, on reflection, he will see that argument A is, in fact, a good reason why he should accept our amendment.

The Committee will be aware that the Minister said—I repeat what I said a minute ago—that argument A was simple and that, if a list was provided, an item not on that list would be deemed insignificant and not something that the Government had thought it important to include. I draw the attention of the Minister and all Committee Members to clause 7(5), which we seek to amend. Rather surprisingly, it already contains a list of a number of items that the seller's pack must contain, including details of the interest for sale, title, the items kept on a register or records kept by certain classes of people, warranties, guarantees and details of taxes or service charges. There is already a list of seven items. According to the Minister's own argument A, if we do not include energy efficiency among the items on the list, it will be deemed insignificant. I hope that he will accept that a large number of people may deem some of the items on the list to be less significant than energy efficiency.

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Prepared 16 January 2001