Homes Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Foster: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I have noticed that

the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope), the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, has been making signs to a lady on the Press Bench who is wearing a red sequinned dress. I have noticed also that he has been giving her in-depth briefings outside the Room. I may be wrong, Mr. Stevenson, but I do not recognise the lady—[Laughter.]

The Chairman: Order. I hesitate to speak while the hon. Gentleman while is making a point of order, but he should not be interrupted.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful, Mr. Stevenson. I shall start that point of order again because it is important.

I have noticed that, throughout the Committee's sittings, the hon. Member for Corby has been making signs to the lady on the Press Bench wearing a red sequinned dress. He has also been giving her in-depth briefings outside. That would be fair enough if she were a bona-fide member of the press, but I do not recognise her as such. I ask you, Mr. Stevenson, to confirm who she is and what organisation she represents and, if you do not know, I would ask you to cause inquiries to be made. If it turns out that she is not a genuine member of the press, would you confirm that she is not entitled to sit on the Benches reserved for the press?

The Chairman: I am not clear what the rules of the House say on the matter. I take note of the hon. Gentleman's point of order, and I shall have the matter checked. Once I have clarification, I shall make a ruling.

Mr. Raynsford: Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. It may help the Committee if I clarify the precise status of the first—

The Chairman: Order. I have responded to that point of order. If the Minister can help the Clerk in his investigations, I ask him to do so without taking up the Committee's time. Once the matter has been clarified to my satisfaction, I shall make a ruling. I wish to leave it at that, but anyone who wants to offer assistance to the Clerk should do so as quickly as possible.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 49, in page 1, line 18, leave out `or may become'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in page 1, line 22, leave out

`it is taken off the market'

and insert

`the agent's instructions shall be terminated in writing'.

No. 52, in page 1, line 22, after `or', insert `it is'.

No. 50, in page 1, line 24, leave out

    `or to a section of the public'.

Mr. Waterson: While the Minister is assisting you with your inquiries, Mr. Stevenson, I shall move this group of amendments to clause 1. We are beginning to strip away the hype and salesmanship.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. For the record, I notice that the lady has left the Room rather quickly. I notice also that the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary and the Government Whip have left. I am now even more concerned that my suspicions are right and that she may be the Minister's special adviser.

The Chairman: Order. I have responded to that legitimate point of order. I do not wish the Committee's time to be taken up by pursuing the matter on the Floor. Once I have clarification, I shall rule accordingly—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with that response. However, I take his point that we need to deliberate the issues before us with due seriousness, and I am sure that the Committee will want to do just that.

Mr. Waterson: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson. I hope that, before any more Committee members leave the Room, I can impress upon them the advantages of the amendments. We are now coming to the detail of the Bill, and, like a bad play, it is falling apart in the first act. The Government, who are never knowingly undersold, are selling the Bill as a marvellous consumer protection measure and are trying to persuade the people, whom they assume will be gullible enough to fall for it, that it will improve their lot when it comes to buying and selling houses. However, as we know from even the most cursory examination, the Bill will add to the cost of moving home, bureaucratise the system of buying and selling homes and criminalise those perfectly law-abiding, decent citizens who are trying to go about the simple business of entering freely into contractual relations.

Amendment No. 49 would remove from the definition of

    to put on the market

the fact that the property

    may become available for sale.

We cannot understand what those words add to the definition and we believe that it would be impossible to enforce. It would be interesting to hear the thought processes behind that. What exactly are the Government driving at?

Many people suggest that they might intend to sell their property at some time in the future, but do not do so. The Government are masters of the law of unintended consequences, and one of the side effects of the Bill is that many properties that might have been placed on the market will not be. We will deal with that in a little more detail later. The sad truth is that many people will think twice before putting properties on the market and incurring the sort of front-loaded costs that the Government are trying to impose on them.

The phraseology is incredibly vague and ambiguous. Would clause 1(4) be triggered if David Frost or some other interviewer were to ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he was selling his flat, and he replied that it ``may become available'' at some time in future? Are not the words ``fact'' and ``may become'' contradictory in the context of clause 1(4)?

We were encouraged to table amendment No. 33 by the National Association of Estate Agents, which was clearly worried at the implications of the current wording. We are attempting to clarify the definition of the phrase,

    is taken off the market.

One of the strange aspects of this part of clause 1 is that it is vague about what constitutes putting something on the market, and almost equally vague, if not more so, about what constitutes taking it off the market. It seems a perfectly sensible precaution to add to the Bill a proposal that, when estate agents are involved, there should be written instructions to the agents formally requesting them to take a property off the market.

Let me be the first to accept the suggestion that the amendment is not necessarily watertight. If the parliamentary draftsmen can do better, they are welcome to try, but it is a useful probing amendment.

What is the definition of taking a property off the market? I am sure that we have all come across situations—we may have even had to endure them—in which a property is put on the market and languishes there for weeks or months with no great interest, no one coming to see it and certainly no one making an offer. At some point during that period, the would-be sellers might tacitly decide not to proceed any further, but they might leave the advert for the property in the estate agent's window.

It is not unheard of for adverts for properties that have been sold or on which an offer has been accepted to remain in an estate agent's window. Similarly, it is not unheard of for agents to keep their ``For Sale'' and ``Sold'' boards outside properties long after it can be justified. I recall that, during our time in government, we had to legislate simply to deal with the nuisance of far too many such boards being up in a certain locality. From memory, I think that we changed the law to say that only one board could be outside a property at any one time.

When people instruct an agent to take a property off the market, it should be a requirement in law that they give notice in writing of that intention, to avoid uncertainty. It also seems that competent estate agents should probably already require notice as a matter of good practice. My amendment does not even try to deal with the problem of someone not using an estate agent and trying to sell a property privately, which also needs tackling. It would be interesting to hear what the Minister or those advising him have to say on that issue.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It might save the Committee time and me having to make a speech if I say that, as well as the question of selling privately, we must also consider the issue of private individuals doing swaps, which is not unknown. If a private individual swaps a house with another private individual, would they both have to prepare seller's packs?

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend raises a separate issue, but it is related and important. I do not think that the Bill, from my reading of it, even begins to deal with that situation, which is not uncommon these days. The Minister clearly has the answer, judging from his expression, so I shall await his comments.

5.15 pm

I was about to say that one might look to the explanatory notes for guidance, but paragraph 39 states somewhat unhelpfully—I mean no disrespect to the officials who drafted it—that ``taken off the market'' is

    an ordinary expression which should be given its usual meaning.

That is the sort of phraseology that lawyers love to see. I do not know what its ordinary meaning is. Lawyers could and no doubt will spend a long time arguing about it. On my cursory attempts, I have been unable to find any examples of parallel legislation in which such expressions are use. I am not saying that are no such examples, and if there are, it would be important to try to make the Bill consistent with them.

Some examples are given in the explanatory notes, such as

    putting up a sign which says...``sold''.

As I suggested, in the real world rather than that inhabited by the drafters of the Bill it sometimes takes a while for a ``For Sale'' sign to be replaced with a ``Sold'' sign, let alone for a ``Sold'' sign to be taken down. The Bill does not even contain a definition of the word ``sold''. Does it mean sold subject to contract, or where contracts have been exchanged?

Other examples have come up in discussions among our team on the Committee. Some estate agents publish a monthly magazine containing properties on their books, but sometimes, in a fast-moving market, one might ring up and find that almost before the magazine has gone to print, and certainly before the end of the month, some of those properties will have been sold or are under offer. The basis on which properties are taken off the market is something that must be made much more apparent in the Bill, and we hope that the Minister will have something constructive to say about it.

The third main amendment—amendment No. 52 is a drafting amendment—is amendment No. 50, which would take out the concept of

    a section of the public

when advertising a property for sale. If I may make a general point, subsection (6) is a most curious piece of draftsmanship. In its entirety, it states:

    A fact is made public when it is advertised or otherwise communicated (in whatever form and by whatever means) to the public or to a section of the public.

I do not understand why there has to be a reference to a section of the public, which is why we tabled the probing amendment. The expression seems redundant, but it raises some interesting issues in the general law.

The issue came up in a different field of law, in the case of the Race Relations Board v. Dockers' Labour Club and Institute Ltd, which went to the House of Lords in 1974. It is perhaps an example of old Labour rather than new Labour. I see that one of the Ministers is familiar with the case. Working men's clubs belonged to a scheme enabling their million ``associate members'' to visit other clubs. A gentlemen called Mr. Sherrington was an associate member who received what their Lordships called the ``deplorable affront'' of being asked to leave the dockers' club because he was ``coloured''. A county court action ensued under race relations legislation and, quite properly, their Lordships took a dim view of the matter.

The significant point for our purposes is that their Lordships held that associate members—some 1 million individuals—were not a ``section of the public'' under the Race Relations Act 1968. Could this Bill cause a similar situation to develop, whereby large numbers of people are made aware of something under clause 1, but they do not amount to a ``section of the public''? That is worrying. We shall never know whether the parliamentary draftsmen examined the case of Race Relations Board v. Dockers' Labour Club and Institute Ltd., but if a significant phrase used in other legislation is adopted, it is important to assess the read-across to the present Bill.

Someone shouting ``I'm selling my house'' in a pub could, on the face of it, trigger the requirement for a pack—but the same words shouted in a working men's club would not. That curious problem must be resolved. The amendment is probing, but it raises an important point that the Minister must address.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 16 January 2001