Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: It means 14 days.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: So it does include bank and public holidays?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes, there are no excluded days.

Perhaps the best way to explain the need to require a responsible person to have the seller's pack in his possession is to describe the sort of loophole that would arise if the first of the two obligations did not apply. Let us assume that a property in Penzance is put on the market by a responsible person living in London. That can and does happen, say, if the seller is selling the home of a deceased relative or an agent is acting in respect of a property located some distance from his office. If there were no requirement to have a seller's pack in his possession, a responsible person, in the strict clause 2 sense, might be tempted to begin marketing without a pack, in the knowledge that if anyone asked for a copy he would have 14 days to put one together and could not be easily approached because the property was a long way away from the agent's office. We want to avoid such a loophole.

The objective is to ensure that the seller's pack is compiled and is therefore available when the property is being marketed. That is the reason for requiring the responsible person to have a copy of the pack in his possession. The ancillary reason relates to enforcement, to which we shall return later. A trading standards officer can check that the requirement is being complied with simply by visiting the agent and asking for a copy of the seller's pack. Without that obligation, it might be difficult to establish that there has been a breach of the legislation. The aim is to ensure that the obligations in the legislation are met. I shall come on shortly to possible misinterpretation of the requirement to have a pack in one's possession at all times, which I know has aroused concern.

Mr. Waterson: Before the Minister leaves that point, given that an estate agent can take a full 14 days to produce the seller's pack, with the result that that a potential buyer can be deprived of it for 14 days in any event, why does it add anything to have the separate obligation he describes?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman cannot have heard what I was saying in response to the earlier intervention. That will enable the trading standards officer to call on the agent's premises and ask for a copy of the seller's pack, which should be available because the property is being put on the market. It is simply a reinforcing measure, designed to ensure that the Bill's provisions are put into effect.

10.30 am

Mr. Curry: Let us pursue the Minister's analogy. Let us say that in a couple of months' time, the electorate make a horrible mistake and I have to sell my constituency house in North Yorkshire. In the light of the Minister's improbable scenario, I may decide to entrust it to an estate agent and put it on the market in Kennington. Why should that be a better option than putting it on the market in Ripon? Is the Minister seriously suggesting that the trading standards officer of Lambeth council is going to investigate whether a seller's pack is available in an estate agent's office in Kennington for the sale of a small cottage in North Yorkshire? That seems implausible. If a potential purchaser asks for the details but the agent does not have the seller's pack, is he going to head off to Lambeth town hall to complain to a trading standards officer? It is a belt-and-braces approach, but it is not very practical.

Mr. Raynsford: I hope that I can satisfy the right hon. Gentleman by explaining how profoundly practical it is. The provision is designed to cover circumstances in which evasion might otherwise be covered up. I suspect that his feared scenario may well be forthcoming after the next general election, although I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for many years and for whom I have considerable respect, does not himself have to face the scenario he describes. However, if he did, he might find it easier to put his Ripon property in the hands of a national estate agent whose offices are in London.

Mr. Curry: Or countrywide.

Mr. Raynsford: I shall not pursue the analogy any further. In those circumstances, it might be difficult for the potential buyer of the Ripon property—which might be desirable, despite its former use—to obtain the necessary documentation that the seller's pack would provide. I accept that that will not happen in the vast majority of cases, but it will in some, so safeguards should be in place. The key safeguard is that an aggrieved person can ascertain whether the law has been complied with simply by visiting the agent responsible for the marketing to establish whether a seller's pack is available. If not, the law has not been complied with.

Mr. Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Raynsford: In a moment.

All sorts of interesting defences based on speculation and the theoretical mislocation of the seller's pack could be resorted to, which is why the person responsible for the marketing must have a copy of the seller's pack in his or her possession at all times.

Mr. Curry rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I will give way to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, but I shall give way first to the right hon. Gentleman who wants to follow up his previous point.

Mr. Curry: To return to the trading standards officer, under best value regimes through which the effectiveness of local authority services are tested, should trading standards officers be proactive and therefore descend from time to time on estate agents to verify whether the seller's packs are in place, or should they act only in response to complaints?

Mr. Raynsford: Trading standards officers will act in accordance with the concordat that governs their general operations. They will tend to act on complaints, except when they have reason to believe that one particular person is breaking the law, in which case they may decide to visit. I would expect a reasonable trading standards officer not to behave in the wholly fanciful way suggested by the hon. Member for Eastbourne—arriving in jackboots to investigate whether seller's packs are available. A good officer would respond to complaints: if a complaint were received that a property had been put on the market without a seller's pack, the officer would call on the agent to find out. If a series of complaints were received that a particular agent was not complying with the law, the officer may well choose to make an unannounced visit to ascertain whether properties being advertised by that agent had seller's packs. That is how I assume trading standards officers are likely to behave.

Mr. Brake: I apologise for returning to the same point; perhaps it is because of our late nights. The Minister referred to the aggrieved person who might request the seller's pack. Let us return to the beach scenario and say that the estate agent takes a three-week, not a two-week, holiday. To judge from what the Minister said, a sole estate agent will be required to arrange for someone to be present in his office so that when the aggrieved person or the trading standards officer turns up asking to see the seller's pack, someone will be there to receive him and to produce the documents. The defence that the estate agent is on holiday will not be good enough. I thought that the Minister said that it would not be a requirement for a sole estate agent to have someone on the premises; in fact, on the contrary, that will be a requirement, so that, when the trading standards officer turns up on the first day of the estate agent's holiday in Benidorm, the person present can give the seller's pack to the aggrieved party.

The Chairman: Order. The interventions are becoming shaggy dog stories. Interventions must not be speeches.

Mr. Raynsford: I fear that the hon. Gentleman does not have a deep understanding of the way in which businesses operate if he thinks that an estate agent, a sole practitioner, can go on holiday for three weeks without making provision for his office to be staffed during that time. If such a person does not make such an arrangement, he is unlikely to have a business when he comes back.

The obligation is on the agent to have a copy of the seller's pack in his possession and to respond to a request for that pack within 14 days. If he were to be abroad for some time, to satisfy the second obligation he would have someone able to deal with the business in his absence, which is a normal, common-sense business arrangement. The proposal will not require a person to be on his premises with a copy of the seller's pack at midnight on Sunday evening. That would be taking the matter too far.

The formulation proposed in the amendment—an obligation to make the pack available on reasonable demand—is another way of closing that loophole. We considered that solution but, on balance, concluded that requiring a responsible person to have a copy of the pack in his possession was a more appropriate option. Having gone to the trouble and expense of compiling a seller's pack, it is reasonable to assume—without making it a legal requirement enforced by the criminal law—that a responsible person would make the pack available for inspection by a potential buyer. That is why we did not follow the route suggested in the amendment; our alternative is a more satisfactory way of achieving our aim. I do not denigrate the Opposition's reasonable approach, but hope that they accept that there are good reasons for preferring our option.

We are considering the wording of clause 3(2), as

    in his possession, at all times

could be interpreted as the agent having to carry a pack with him wherever he goes. That is not our intention. We will introduce an amendment at a later stage to clarify the position. The matter is complex, as we do not want to open another loophole; equally, however, we do not want people to be subject to an unreasonable misinterpretation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that as an indication of our good intention to achieve the purpose without opening another loophole.

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