Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 2, line 42, leave out

    `shall have in his possession, at all times during that period'

and insert

    `upon reasonable demand shall make available'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 38, in page 3, line 6, leave out `as it stands'.

No. 39, in page 3, line 8, leave out `at that time'.

Mr. Waterson: By good fortune, we move straight to the point that the hon. Member for Bath has been champing at the bit to debate. There are three amendments. Subject to your discretion, Mr. Gale, Conservative members intend to deal with them in a narrow fashion because there are issues that we wish to raise in the stand part debate. We have not had a stand part debate, apart from the accidental one that just occurred. I hope that you will weigh that in the balance when the time comes.

The Chairman: That is perfectly in order.

Mr. Waterson: Amendment No. 35 replaces the requirement for the seller to have the pack in his possession at all times with what we think is a much more sensible provision, namely to make it available upon reasonable demand. Otherwise, the responsible person—usually the estate agent, but possibly the seller himself—would have to take his seller's pack into this fictitious pub, no doubt on the corner of Acacia avenue, which is becoming rather overcrowded. No rational person would dream of visiting it for a quiet, relaxed drink because of the frenzied buying and selling of properties. Do Ministers really suggest that the seller should have the pack, which will become ever more voluminous with all the stuff that they insist on putting in by law, in his possession or about his person at all times during that period? Should the seller have the pack by his bedside table at night on the off chance that what I termed the conveyancing gestapo might ask to see it during one of its regular trawls through the pub?

It is ridiculous that the seller should have to have the pack with him at all times. It is sloppy drafting and I want to know what the Minister thinks. I cannot, for the life of me, see any objection to our amendment, which is a sensible departure from the text of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 38 and 39, which delete the words ``as it stands'' and ``at that time'' respectively are probing amendments. They are both curious groups of words that leap off the page. The responsible person's obligation to provide a potential buyer with the pack is fine as far as it goes, but why ``as it stands'' and ``at that time''? The Minister needs to tell us more of what he envisages. Presumably, the words mean that the seller's pack will not be a static document but will be changed and updated as time goes on. If that is the case, and I assume that it is because the Minister is nodding, it opens up a series of possibilities that number among our objections to the Government's proposals.

We made the point—as did professional bodies and organisations—until we were all blue in the face, that the concept of seller's packs is not objectionable. A lot of people provide them already, but we do not think that they should have the force of law. We also debated new properties, and developers putting together seller's packs. It makes sense for those who want a rapid sale to put together some of the basic documents that they know they will be asked for anyway, sooner rather than later.

The practical difficulties arise with the local search—we will say more on that later—and the home condition report. Both documents have a definite shelf life. The local search might have a life of about three months. If applicants were particularly unlucky, the local search in the seller's pack could be rendered out of date if, shortly afterwards, a massive new development were approved by the local planning committee. That information would be found in subsequent searches.

10.15 am

Perhaps more importantly, there is the home condition report. It is far from being a full structural survey, but it is something, Ministers presume, on which most buyers will place great reliance in making such large purchases. However, the report will become out of date, for many reasons. A very hot summer can produce problems with subsidence; a wet spell can also cause trouble. Some areas, and not only those that recently experienced major flooding, have had problems with the rise in the water table and old springs coming to life, sometimes after centuries. Properties that were perfectly sound four or five months ago might present problems, if surveyed now, to a potential buyer. Those are some of the reasons why seller's packs are a neat concept on paper but are far removed from the real world.

We share the view of various professional bodies that we should exclude at least those two items; we will debate that in detail. The drafting of the clause implies that the Minister accepts that seller's packs will be amended and updated, which is fine in the practical world. Are Ministers not persuaded that, in the real world, seller's packs will not be as beneficial as the Government think and not worth the extra time, effort and expense involved? The last two amendments are probing ones and I am keen to hear what the Minister—or any other member of the Committee—has to say.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale.

I support the Conservative amendments. In relation to amendment No. 35, I was going to spin a detailed story about a sole estate agent on holiday abroad who goes to the beach, where he meets the trading standards officer to whom reference has been made, who recognises the local estate agent, approaches him and asks to see all the seller's packs for the properties currently advertised in that agent's window. I will not elaborate on the story because the Minister has said that although agents will be required to have a seller's pack in their possession at all times, they will have 14 days in which to deliver it. However, those two requirements seem contradictory. How can an agent be required to have a seller's pack in his or her possession at all times while having 14 days in which to provide a copy? I hope that the Minister will be able to explain what appear to be two highly contradictory requirements placed on agents.

Turning to amendment No. 38, of course it is important to discourage sellers from delaying a sale by embarking on a series of possibly spurious searches or inquiries that might delay the handing over of a seller's pack. However, what if the seller is a pillar of the community—a Member of Parliament, doctor, accountant, or even an estate agent—who becomes aware that a significant change is about to occur in the local area, such as the local authority having granted permission for one of the many new incinerators that are to be built to be located close to the property that is being sold? I am sure that that person would want to reflect the changes in the seller's pack, so that the buyers would not come knocking on the door in a few months' time or get in touch with the local press about the dud that had been sold to them.

There will be circumstances in which the people providing the seller's pack will want to be able to update it, which would be to the benefit of the person purchasing the property. Will the Minister make clear whether that will be allowed or whether the seller's pack must be handed over as it stands, irrespective of changes such as work of a major structural nature having been carried out to enhance the property,? I hope that it is not the case that the pack cannot be changed.

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): To help the Committee, I shall start by explaining the structure of the clause, particularly the two separate obligations correctly identified by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) which are laid on the person or persons responsible for marketing the property. They are necessary and complementary, not contradictory, as he implied. I hope that when he understands the logic behind the clause, he will accept that.

The first of the obligations, set out in clause 3(2), is that the person responsible for marketing the property should have a seller's pack in his or her possession at all times when the property is on the market. The second obligation, set out in clause 3(3), is to make available to a potential buyer, on request, and subject to a payment of any reasonable fee required to cover the cost, a copy of the seller's pack or any document from the pack.

Clause 3(5) allows up to 14 days to comply with the second obligation. That is necessary to allow reasonable time for a copy to be obtained, or for the photocopying operation to be undertaken if necessary—that answers the question that the hon. Member for Bath asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—and to allow for sickness and holidays. A sole estate agent who went on holiday would put his business at risk if he did not make arrangements to cope with customers' requirement during that period. One assumes that a sole estate agent would not desert the office for a period of greater than 14 days, as he would endanger his business as well as risk not complying with the requirement.

Mr. Brake: Will a sole estate agent be required to arrange for someone to be present on his premises at all times who will have access to the seller's pack if a request is made for one?

Mr. Raynsford: No. Let me distinguish between the two separate obligations. A sole agent will be obliged to ensure that he can meet the requirement to provide a copy of the pack within 14 days. He will be subject to the obligation to have in his possession—I will come on to the definition of that in a moment—a copy of it at all times.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have a simple question. Will the Minister make clear whether 14 days means 14 working days, or does the period include bank and public holidays?

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