Homes Bill

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The Chairman: Before we move on, I wish to comment briefly on the points of order made earlier about the accommodation of officials, the public and the press in Committee Rooms. Broadly speaking, officials sit on the dais, the press in the part of the public gallery set aside for them, and the public in the remainder of the public gallery. Should the public gallery be full, I would expect members of the public to have priority there. Should the press bench be full, I would expect members of the press to have priority there. However, if those parts of the Room are not full, I have no objection to officials sitting in them, just as I would have no objection to a member of the public sitting on the press bench—if there were room. However, any Member seeking to communicate with someone in the public gallery should not do so in a way that distracts the Committee. I should therefore expect any communication between a Member and someone in the public gallery to take place outside the Committee Room.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): Further to the earlier point of order, Mr. O'Brien.

The Chairman: I am not minded to continue with that matter. I have ruled on it. That is the end of the matter.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a different point of order, Mr. Stevenson.

Since we are creating a precedent here today, I notice that the Clerk is using a computer. Would you rule whether it is in order for members of the Committee to use their computer, and if so, whether facilities will be made available to every member of the Committee so that the computer can be used on-line?

The Chairman: I am advised that the Chairman's Panel has decided that Clerks can use such equipment. The other issue has yet to be formally decided.

Clause 2

Responsibility for marketing a property which is on the market

Mr. Don Foster: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 2, line 11, at end insert—

    `( ) A sale where a property is advertised for sale by a seller who has not instructed an estate agent, and in which the property is explicitly advertised as being ``sold without seller's pack'' shall be exempted from the legislation in Part I.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 34, in clause 3, page 2, line 41, at end insert

    ` , unless the property is explicitly advertised as being sold ``without seller's pack''.'.

I am supposed to stand up when making such comments—I have been in and out of that pub so often that I am getting a bit tetchy.

Mr. Foster: Given your remark about your being in and out of the pub so much, Mr. Stevenson, which might of course be defined as ``premises licensed for the purposes of entertainment and the sale of intoxicating liquor'', I hope that before our next sitting you will have a further opportunity with your co-Chairman to look again at amendment No. 17. I note that it has not been selected for debate, although it specifically refers to those premises which you just mentioned.

The debate on this amendment follows on from our debate on possible exemptions to the need to operate the system of seller's packs. All members of the Committee will be aware that, on Second Reading, the Minister received requests from his hon. Friends for possible exemptions, particularly in those areas where house prices are particularly low. The Minister and the Under-Secretary said that they were willing to look at ways in which that concern might be addressed, although the Minister rightly pointed out that he would be unwilling to do so if it were to lead to further complications and anomalies.

The purpose of amendment No. 16, by way of a closing amendment, is to address two issues. First, it aims to provide an affordable alternative for home sellers living in areas where properties values are very low, or where they are in financial difficulties. Secondly, it aims to address what could be argued as a civil liberties issue, one that the hon. Member for Eastbourne has described more graphically as relating to the nanny state of new Labour—whether it is appropriate for criminal law to be used to intervene in the making of civil contracts. The amendment proposes that in certain circumstances the seller's pack scheme should become optional.

The Minister's approach is to argue strenuously that there are enormous benefits to be gained from the seller's pack approach. Broadly speaking, and subject to getting right those details with which we are currently not happy, I would admit to agreeing that the seller's pack idea could enormously benefit people purchasing properties. I will accept the argument, even if the hon. Member for Eastbourne will not, that it could play a part in reducing the period of sales, and therefore help, to some extent, to relieve the problem of gazumping.

That does not necessarily lead me to believe that it should be axiomatic that everyone must operate the seller's pack approach. The amendment tests the Minister's views and questions whether it would be sensible for people engaged in a private sale, who were not using agents of any sort and who stated clearly that their home was being sold without a market seller's pack, to be exempted from the proposed requirement. Clearly, in those circumstances—as when a seller's pack was in use—the usual caveat emptor warnings would apply. A similar approach has been adopted in other cases. Increasingly, we see advertisements for second-hand cars being sold without an MOT. That clearly draws potential purchasers' attention to the circumstances in which the item is sold.

It strikes me that there is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. The individual who was trying to sell a property of relatively low value—the person about whom the Minister's colleagues were concerned—would be able, if he or she chose, to sell the property without recourse to the seller's pack, thereby reducing the upfront costs of that transaction. That might be a very important factor to the type of person described. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to auctions in south Wales and Northumberland where properties were sold for sums as low as £3,000, and other hon. Members gave examples of even lower amounts. The addition of an upfront cost to the seller of between £300 and £700 in those circumstances would create significant difficulty.

Under the proposals, a person might chose not to go for the Rolls-Royce approach by incurring agency fees on top of the cost of a seller's pack, but do the work himself or herself. Of course, in those circumstances, the Minister would say that there was perhaps an even greater need for the protection for the purchaser that would come from the seller's pack. That would have to be balanced against the argument as to whether the sale would be able to go through if a seller's pack were imposed.

A further point has been drawn to the entire Committee's attention by the Local Government Association. I suspect that, in the past 24 hours, most—if not all—hon. Members have received the association's up-to-date brief on this issue. It says that it is

    sympathetic to the amendment to exempt individuals from the responsibility of providing a seller's pack. There is concern by local government that individuals would face criminal proceedings for breaching these responsibilities, which would have to be enforced by local authority trading standards officers.

The LGA believes that, although there is already a well-established procedure for local authority trading standards officers to deal with breaches of law by organisations and by companies, a different set of circumstances applies to the individual. Certainly, many changes would have to be made to the procedures adopted by trading standards officers if, under the criminal proceedings arrangements that pertain, an individual failed to use the seller's pack. Many changes would have to be made to the procedures adopted by local authority trading standards officers if, under the criminal proceedings arrangements that pertain, an individual failed to use the seller's pack.

The point is a simple one. Many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides have expressed genuine concerns about the arrangements as they affect low price properties. The amendment provides a way around that difficulty. There have been concerns about civil liberties, around which the amendment also provides a way because if an individual did not wish to adopt the approach of the seller's pack, he or she would not have to do so, provided he or she did not use an estate agent or any other agent and provided he or she marketed the premises as being sold without a seller's pack.

The amendment therefore kills two birds with one stone, although it is a probing amendment which enables the Minister to tell us what further reflections he has had on the concerns raised by several of his hon. Friends, in particular on the issue of low prices. I therefore very much look forward to the Minister's response. The hon. Member for Eastbourne has an associated amendment that would take the proposal a stage further and remove the requirement for everyone to adopt the seller's pack.

6.45 pm

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Member for Bath has made many of the arguments that I would have made, and I agree with his basic thrust. However, we would like the amendment to go further, because it falls, yet again, into the black hole that is opening before us—the attempt to draw a distinction between private sales and sales through estate agents. Real life is not like that.

Some people following our proceedings might be confused that amendment No. 34 amends clause 3. It has been grouped with amendment No. 16 because it deals with the same issue. Our amendment would make the seller's pack optional whether a property is being sold by a seller or by an agent on his or her behalf. It is a crucial amendment that has the support of the Law Society. Allowing sellers to opt out of using the packs would not put buyers at a disadvantage because it will have to be made clear at the outset that the seller's pack is not available or attached to the transaction. Buyers will be aware and on guard and they will, accordingly, be able to proceed under the principle of caveat emptor—which the Government do not appear to have tried to replace in the Bill. If on the other hand they have concerns about the property, they will be able to proceed with a different property.

I shall not reiterate all our concerns about the seller's packs, with which we dealt at some length on Second Reading and to which we will return, no doubt also at length, in Committee. I commend amendment No. 34 to the Committee and hope that we will have the support of the Liberal Democrats if we press it to a vote.

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