Homes Bill

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Mr. Curry: I support my hon. Friend. I shall begin by telling an absolutely true story, which relates to my cottage in a village called Fearby, near Masham, near Ripon, in North Yorkshire. My next-door neighbour is a charming lady who keeps rather a lot of cats. My daughter and her boyfriend stayed in my cottage over Christmas and the new year. My next-door neighbour said that she had heard a rumour that I was not going to stand again for Parliament. My daughter immediately refuted that and, being very loyal, said to the neighbour that she surely would not want to lose such an outstandingly good constituency Member of Parliament. My neighbour replied to my daughter that that was not what was on her mind: she simply did not think that anyone else who moved in would take such a tolerant view of her cats.

I tell that story to ask whether that would it would be a defence to say that I was not prepared to sell my property because I did not think that the purchaser would be sufficiently tolerant of the cats in the neighbourhood. Curiously, as I went home last night, just a mile from the House, in Kennington, a large dog fox was raiding the dustbins, supremely indifferent to the vote that had just taken place here. Could one say that any purchaser would have to be an animal lover? These are the Del Boy clauses—the ``any excuse'' clauses. Would one want to sell one's house to a Member of Parliament? The neighbours might be very upset at the prospect of the neighbourhood being brought down quite so low.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne made a serious point about a person being black. Related legislation exists, but how can one demonstrate that the person being black was the reason for reluctance to sell? Could one not think that the purchaser had insufficient means, or was not genuinely interested in buying a property of a general description? Such a defence is easy to advance, but difficult to unravel or, indeed, to sustain under interrogation. I do not understand how the defences are going to stand up in practice.

May one take exception to people's accents or to their clothes? I do not mean to insult Members of Parliament and I am sorry to use them again as an example, but some of them do not look as though they have just stepped out of a bandbox—I except, of course, members of the Committee, who are sartorial models, but have in mind some old Labour Members, and perhaps even one or two Conservatives. If they turned up to view a property, one might suspect that they did not have the means to purchase it. Will the Minister tell us, not the intention behind the proposal, but how he thinks that the defence, whether justifiable or not, can sensibly be analysed in practice?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I want to ask the Minister just one question. Has he considered whether any form of letter or certificate from a financial lending institution could be supplied or whether, in its absence, it would be a defence to argue that someone did not have the wherewithal to purchase a property? I ask because—

The Chairman: Order. The sitting will be suspended for a Division in the House. When we return, Mr. Stevenson will be in Chair so I wish all members of the Committee a productive weekend. I hope that when we return on Tuesday the brakes will be back on.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.30 pm

On resuming—

[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It is very nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Stevenson. The record will show that the last word that I uttered before the bell tolled for me and we suspended was ``because''. The suspension has given me some time to think about the matters that I had begun to elucidate.

Clause 6 is a bit of a dog's breakfast, as it can provide an excuse for all sorts of people to be denied a seller's pack on all sorts of spurious grounds. It would be much better to produce legislation in which there was more certainty. One way to provide that certainty would be for the seller to be reasonably reassured that the buyer has the financial wherewithal to complete the purchase of the property—at the asking price, or the agreed price. Has the Minister considered requiring some form of financial evidence to be supplied by a prospective purchaser asking for a seller's pack? That could come from an accountant to say that the interested party had the means already to complete the purchase or from a financial lending institution that would, subject perhaps to quite severe conditions, was in a position to be able to complete the purchase. That a reasonable and sensible point, to which I hope that the Minister will be able to respond.

Mr. Raynsford: I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who cannot be with us for the rest of this afternoon's sitting because of a longstanding commitment to enlighten the boys of Harrow school. There is no limit to New Labour's ambition and I wish him every success.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As my son is one of those boys being enlightened, I wonder whether I will be able truly to testify whether he has been.

Mr. Raynsford: I will not be tempted to down that route because I fear it might be ruled out of order. I look forward to hearing privately the judgment of the hon. Gentleman's son on my hon. Friend.

Clause 2 sets out who will be responsible for marketing and property, and who is therefore responsible for the seller's pack obligations. It establishes that the seller is not responsible for providing a copy of the seller's pack where an agent is marketing on his behalf. We want potential buyers to be able to have a copy or part of the pack if they want it and are prepared to pay a reasonable fee for copying costs. Potential buyers will often want to show a copy to their legal representatives for example, or to look at the contents at leisure in the privacy of their own homes. That is fair enough, but we can foresee circumstances in which the seller or his agent should be able to turn down such requests without incurring a penalty.

Clause 3(3) sets out three possible reasons for so doing. The first defence allows the seller, or the seller's agent, to refuse to provide copies if there are reasonable grounds to believe the person could not afford the property in question. That relates to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold. The agent might know, for example, the financial circumstances of the person in question as a result of a previous failed transaction, and would therefore be quite clear that there was no possibility of this person being able to proceed.

The Chairman: Order. I thought I heard the Minister refer to clauses 2 and 3. If that is the case, can he confirm it?

Mr. Raynsford: We are, of course, on clause 6, but in my introduction I referred to the cross reference between the clauses. Clause 6 provides defences against potential sanctions where someone who has a responsibility under earlier clauses, might be considered to have committed an offence. I am sorry if I confused the Committee with that cross reference.

I was describing a situation where the agent might know, from personal experience, that the financial circumstances of the potential buyer were such that there was no practical possibility of the purchase taking place. Equally, the seller might want to clinch a quick deal, and so would specify that only those who could demonstrate their ability to proceed quickly should be considered.

In such cases, the agent might exclude people who could not demonstrate that they had an in-principle mortgage offer or the wherewithal to proceed to a quick purchase. Those are the kind of circumstances that we envisage under the first of these three grounds.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The estate agent might know that a prospective purchaser is part of a chain and cannot possibly have the financial means to proceed quickly until they have sold their house—and there may be other people further up the chain. Would that be a ground on which to refuse to supply a seller's pack?

Mr. Raynsford: I am always a bit cautious in these circumstances because there is an interface between this and other legislation, which might involve a discriminatory practice. I will come to that later. There could be grounds for challenge in certain cases if the fact that someone was engaged in a chain was used as the pretext for denying them any opportunity to even see the property. The whole purpose of the reform is designed to speed up chains. Therefore, that circumstance is less likely to be a ground for refusal. In certain circumstances, an inability to proceed quickly, where a quick sale is the seller's instruction, could be a ground for refusal.

The second defence applies if it is believed that the person making the request is not really interested in buying the property, or one like it. For example, it could be a journalist posing as a buyer in order to gain access to the seller's pack relating to a celebrity's home or it could be an individual who has a curious fixation with visiting a celebrity's home but who has no interested in buying it and has no means to do so— the Madonna example that the hon. Member for Eastbourne raised earlier. Another example would be the serial time-waster who is known to the estate agent. Those are all circumstances where the seller might reasonably have grounds for suggesting that such a person should not be given a seller's pack.

The third reason allows someone to refuse to provide copies if they believe that the potential buyer is not a person to whom the seller would wish to sell the property. This is a complex and difficult issue on which I should like to spend a little time. There are human rights implications, and this defence simply reflects the current position where someone can refuse to sell his house to a particular person if he wishes to do so, providing that that is not in breach of other legislation. It does not override race relations legislation or other anti-discriminatory legislation, but it reflects the current position. An individual may, for example, have a long-standing grudge with a neighbour and would not want that person to purchase the property under any circumstances.

A different and more benign example might involve someone acting as executor for his deceased parents, who had been keen gardeners and who, over a lifetime, had created a particularly fine garden. Such a person might not want the property to go to someone who was likely to neglect the garden. It would be an entirely understandable human reaction to want the lifetime work of one's parents to be cherished by a potential buyer.

I think that we can all accept that those grounds would be entirely reasonable. Having said that, the second example is entirely reasonable, but the first one—hatred of a neighbour—may be irrational. That is a situation we can accept. It happens in real life and does not involve a breach of anti-discriminatory legislation.

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