Homes Bill

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Mr. Love: We are getting it from you.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman is certain getting good press from Opposition Members.

I have a letter from a Mr. Rendell, who works for a company called Convey Direct. The letter is sent from an address in Bristol and, of course, Mr. Rendell talked about the Bristol pilot scheme. Rather fascinatingly, he says of the scheme that:

    The trial was in my view, carried out on a misconception i.e. that by the time the scheme was launched all Local Authorities would be on line. If that were the case i.e. so that searches could be obtained ``at the click of a mouse'' then frankly there seems little to be gained by making a search weeks, months, in advance of the sale. Besides, the Local Search is a highly technical document.

He says that

    it is unrealistic to think that the searches will be on line before 2003—

the date by which the Minister hopes to implement the legislation. His letter continues:

    What we will therefore have is a situation where the searches alone may take two to three weeks.

Then—this is a fascinating observation from one who was there—Mr. Rendell says

    This was ``massaged'' in the Bristol Pilot because Bristol Council agreed to give priority to all Sellers Pack searches, returning them within 48 hours.

I was not aware of that until I saw that letter. If that is true—and I have no reason to believe that it is not—it puts another twist on the pilot results. Rather fetchingly, Mr. Rendell notes:

    This is not the real world but it helped to contribute to the suggestion that Sellers Packs could be prepared in the space of 10 days.

He makes the further important point that

    The pack will have no value unless the Condition Report is acceptable to Purchasers.

He goes on to say that, even in the pilot scheme, houses were

    surveyed not once or twice but three times i.e. once for the Sellers pack, once for the Lender and once for the Purchaser.

Mr. Rendell also talks about speeding up conveyancing. We all know that electronic technology will speed up the process and make it more effective, but it is rather worrying, to say the least, that he does not believe that it will be possible to implement the scheme within the proposed time scale.

5.15 pm

I have talked about local authority searches and the home condition report. Our position on those matters is clear and amendments Nos. 5 and 7 touch on that. The only other amendment to which I need to speak is amendment No. 40, a probing amendment that seeks to establish what warranties or guarantees on property are involved. We want it to be clear that only warranties or guarantees relating to the physical state of the property—structure, repairs, damp work and so on—are involved, not those relating to equipment.

Mr. Don Foster: In the light of those comments, does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be helpful for the seller's pack to give information about documents that are not available—for example, damp guarantees, dry rot guarantees and so on? Might a checklist of the information deemed necessary be included so that it is clear whether such information is available in a particular pack?

Mr. Waterson: That is possible but we are again getting into the famous list argument. If the documentation included a long list of what one should expect to see, it could be worrying to see an ominous set of unticked boxes. That is a clause 8 issue.

The Bristol scheme involved specific reports about subsidence and so on, owing to former mining works. That obviously makes sense in certain parts of the country but would not be relevant in Eastbourne. We are by the sea, so information about flooding risk might be more relevant. Our cliffs are disappearing at a rate of knots—I blame the Government. On that note and in my usual desire to be constructive, pithy and concise, I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Mr. Foster: I rise to speak briefly to amendments Nos. 19 and 20, even though members of the Committee can probably guess the Minister's arguments against both. I suspect that he will deploy the famous argument A—the list argument—against them, although he may have other arguments to advance against amendment No. 20.

We are debating an issue that goes wider than the specifics of the amendment: what sort of information should be included in the seller's pack and should that information be detailed in the regulations or in the Bill? The purpose of the amendments is to ensure a clear undertaking from the Minister that such matters will be covered in the regulations, if not the Bill. I hope that the Minister will accept the spirit in which the amendments have been tabled.

On Second Reading, the Minister, in responding to his hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), who had raised the issue of the possible inclusion in the pack of information relating to subsidence in mining areas, said:

    My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are specifically considering whether the seller's pack should contain precisely the information about which he is concerned in areas of mining subsidence, but there are other issues. Obviously, vulnerability to flooding would be an important issue, about which many hon. Members will rightly be concerned in the light of the recent floods.—[Official Report, 8 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 716.]

An amendment in relation to subsidence or flooding has not been moved, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity of commenting on both of those issues. While doing so, perhaps he could he comment on another issue that it would be appropriate for the regulations to refer to.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has drawn my attention to the problem of radon gas. Much concern has been expressed in the newspapers about the threat to soldiers of inhaling depleted uranium but it is easy to forget that as many as 2,500 people each year die from the effects of inhaling radon gas and its decay products, which lead to lung cancer.

One of the problems is that the issue does not affect all parts of the country. It predominantly affects a swathe running from the west of the country through to the east midlands. It is important that reference is made to this problem, but I recognise that, were a test for it to be required in all parts of the country, that would create difficulties. For example, in London, were it to be a requirement to demonstrate that there had been a test for radon and what the test results had been, that might lead to anxiety and a great deal of delay, in an area where we know that there is no such problem. The difficulty, and I appreciate it entirely in raising this issue, and those of with mining subsidence and flooding, is that these are area-specific issues.

The Committee will note that the Minister has said that he is prepared to look at the issue of whether low-value properties should be excluded, and that too will generally be an area-based issue applying in some parts of the country and not others.

These variations add some additional complications, which need to be addressed, to the way in which the seller's packs are produced. What will not vary in different parts of the country is that enormous benefits will be gained in buying and selling houses—in particular doing what the Minster wants, and speeding up that process—if the seller's pack could have an additional purpose, that of assisting mortgage lenders in speeding up their part of the operation.

Amendment 19 suggests that, in addition to the other items included in the seller's pack and which are referred to specifically on the face of the Bill, there should also be a valuation of the property done in a way that would be acceptable to a mortgage lender. That addition would be beneficial in speeding matters up and would go a long way to addressing the problem of gazumping, which the Committee knows is not significantly addressed by the Bill.

Hon. Members who have read amendment No. 20 will agree that it would be useful to ensure that information about disabled access to the property was made available. However, I acknowledge the difficulty of doing this, since the particular needs of one disabled person could be very different from those of another. I acknowledge that the wording of my amendment does not recognise that, but I should be interested to hear the Minister's response to the problem that it highlights.

I realise that I am asking the Minister perhaps to go against his own determination to stick to argument A, the list argument. I hope that, if he looks at all the proposals in the group of amendments, he will note that there are nearly as many deletions as additions. That might persuade him that we will end up more or less where we started and he might be slightly more sympathetic than I suspect he is about to be.

Mr. Raynsford: We have had an interesting debate on the specific requirements of clause 7, which is a particularly important clause because it defines the contents of the seller's pack and sets the parameters for the detailed specification that will be carried through in regulations. I shall not weary the Committee by repeating the reasons for using regulations. The only restriction is that the documents must be relevant to the property being sold and concern matters that are of interest to a potential buyer. They are specific and common-sense restrictions on the exercise of the power and what is to be included in the seller's pack.

The clause states the sort of information that would go into the pack. It is essentially the information that is provided by or on behalf of buyers and sellers now. For reasons that I have explained, we want to prescribe the contents of the pack in secondary legislation. That will allow time for the components to be drawn up in consultation with consumer and professional representatives. It also provides important flexibility to make changes more speedily if changes in the housing market make some items redundant or if new sources of important information come to light. One need think only about the specification of the average house today compared with 30 or 40 years ago to know how important it is to have the flexibility to update. A whole series of electronic equipment in the house, not to mention central heating, would have been rare 40 years ago, yet is now commonplace.

Amendment No. 43 would substitute ``shall'' for ``may''. I am familiar with that, as I have myself moved similar amendments. I probably moved one on the Housing Act 1996 when the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon was in the place that I now occupy and I was where the hon. Member for Eastbourne sits. I fully understand the reason for tabling the amendment. Just as our best efforts were rebuffed by the then Minister, I shall disappoint the hon. Member for Eastbourne, although perhaps I will not as he is a realist and he knows that I will be offering him a clear explanation of why we need the wording.

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