Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: The Committees' debates will be enlivened by the arrival of the Under-Secretary with responsibility for aviation, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I am grateful for what the Minister for Housing and Planning said. I made it clear at the outset that this was a probing amendment, and indeed it is. I take on board his point about new properties and the National House Building Council or Zurich schemes. The Minister has ruled out the band A option in terms of low-value, low-demand areas, and has pinned his colours to a maximum value of £10,000 for a property. We still think that that will lead to anomalies and problems. It is an arbitrary, suspiciously round figure. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is waving his hand around, which makes me wonder whether I have misrepresented him.

11 am

Mr. Raynsford: I have made this crystal clear time and again. That is not a figure that we propose. I gave it simply to show what we were looking at, because other, wildly different figures were being bandied around. I would urge the hon. Gentleman not to treat this as a figure cast in stone. It is not a proposal. It is simply an indication, to be helpful to the Committee, of the territory that we are exploring.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. He says that it is not set in stone; it is part of the shifting sands on which this unfortunate edifice is based. It remains to be seen whether his attempts to talk down the extent of properties that can be exempted will chime in with the requirements of Labour Back Benchers. We shall soon find out. Whether it is £5,000, £10,000 or £20,000, whatever figure the Minister eventually settles on, it will be arbitrary. There will be unfairness and problems with the up-to-date nature of valuations. As he accurately said, what we are mainly talking about is properties that have no value, or indeed have a negative value when one tots up the cost of repairs and maintenance, where the market has collapsed.

The Minister has not entirely addressed the stigma argument. He has ruled out postcode blight of the sort expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and that is right. However, an element of stigma will be attached to these properties if the Department or the Minister decides that their value is £10,000 or less. That in itself will set them out as different from other properties.

The Minister overstated the conclusions of the report into Burnley and Bradford, and the enthusiasm that engendered for the seller's packs. However, these are all useful issues. Like so much in the Bill, this is a continually moving target. On that basis alone, I beg to ask leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: We are all aware of the pressures on Members of Parliament, and know that life goes on outside the Committee Room as well as inside it and that hon. Members from time to time have to leave. I gently remind all hon. Members that if they arrive to raise points of information, or to question a Minister, custom and courtesy dictate that here, as on the Floor of the House, they should be present to hear the reply.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 6, line 24, at end add—

    `(9) All the documents and information contained in the sellers' packs shall be confidential to the seller, a person acting on his behalf as an estate agent, and any bona fide buyer or potential buyer.'.

The amendment would add new subsection (9) to clause 7, dealing with the vexed issue of confidentiality. It would make clear that a seller's pack will be confidential to the seller, a person acting on his behalf as an estate agent and any bona fide buyer or potential buyer.

We touched on that issue last week. In that context, the Minister accepted that it is a defence under the Bill for a seller to refuse a seller's pack in certain circumstances. The seller may consider that a potential buyer does not have the money or is not the sort of person to whom he would like to sell. On the other hand, he may charge a reasonable amount. We went around that course and did not reach a conclusion. We debated the issue of celebrities selling high-value properties and requiring people to pay a substantial fee before they could view them or before they could have a seller's pack.

This is a probing amendment. The Minister will almost certainly talk about difficulties of enforcement, a point that the Law Society made to me, and of definition. The lender is encouraged to rely on a home condition report, but is the seller entitled to some confidentiality in respect of the report? We think it important that a potential seller has some protection and privacy, particularly on the HCR, and that only those with a genuine interest in seeing a report should do so.

The Minister has already accepted that principle in a different context. It would be helpful to have his assurance that he accepts the principle in this context, and that he will seek appropriate safeguards to ensure the same result. No one wants seller's packs to be available to all and sundry, particularly in the age of the photocopier. What regulations are already in place to control access to the information in reports stored on computers? Perhaps the Minister will say that I am excessively apprehensive about the way in which people behave. I touched on what I call the Madonna example in a different context. People in the public eye, perhaps even the Minister, are entitled to filter out idle viewers of their property or, at the other end of the scale, potential stalkers, to protect their privacy.

More seriously, there is also a potential for burglars and terrorists to get their hands on the reports. The existence of a viable burglar alarm system may be covered in the HCR. That could prove to be of great interest to a potential criminal. Terrorists, as we know, are ingenious in finding out information about the homes of their potential targets. As we approach the election period, political opponents may be interested in getting their hands on a seller's pack for a Member's or political candidate's home.

Mr. Loughton: Or homes.

Mr. Waterson: Yes. I appreciate that, in the case of some Ministers, that may require a lot of homework—for some five or more homes.

Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is a serious point to the probing amendment. Has he reflected on the ownership of the seller's pack and the issues of copyright relating to its contents? Who has the copyright of the home condition report? Who has ownership of the information provided by local authorities as a result of searches? The issue is even more complicated that the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. To be honest, I have not considered the copyright implications. I am not sure whether copyright does or could apply to the seller's pack. The Minister will undoubtedly receive notes on the subject, so he can enlighten us. I should have thought that there was an argument about copyright attaching to the surveyor who carries out the home condition report, at least until he is paid.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Client confidentiality.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend mentions the main point—confidentiality. There is also the related issue of privity—lawyers refer to privity of contract when a buyer commissions a surveyor and the passing of payment is based on the contractual relationship—which makes it difficult under existing law for someone else to sue on the basis of a mistake in the survey or home condition report. That may be an issue for debate on another occasion.

I have the impression that the Committee shares a common concern about confidentiality. The seller's packs containing much detailed information about a given property may be circulated freely, but they could be used by people who are evilly disposed. We must deal with that important issue. At the other end of the scale is the problem of time-wasters—people who have neither the intention nor the means to buy a particular property—asking for seller's packs and insisting on their rights. To some extent, the Bill already deals with the problem under the defences in clause 6, but I should like to hear what the Minister has to say. He would, I am sure, accept the need for confidentiality and I am open to suggestions about approaching the problem in a different way.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I raised that matter during the afternoon sitting on 18 January when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne and said:

    The seller's pack contains a lot of private information, particularly at the more expensive end of the market. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has considered the fact that the seller, or indeed the buyer, might not want such information to be generally available to a lot of other people. How will that impinge on these defences? It could be a defence for a seller to say, ``I only want one or two people to have the seller's pack. I don't want it to go to those who I believe are not genuine purchasers''.— [Official Report, Standing Committee D, 18 January 2001; c. 144.]

We need to probe the Minister on the defences. It is a tangled approach to have to rely on a defence for something that is common sense. As I said to my hon. Friend, all professionals acting for a client owe him a duty of care and of confidentiality. How will the Bill change that? Certain information would not usually be imparted to a purchaser—precisely for reasons of confidentiality—until fairly late in the negotiations, when one could be almost certain that the transaction was likely to go through.

The Minister should explain how the amendment relates to the defences under clause 6(3)(a) to (c), which refer to a person who

    was unlikely to have sufficient means to buy the property in question... was not genuinely interested in buying a property of a general description which applies to the property... or was not a person to whom the seller was likely to be prepared to sell the property.

We need to probe those three defences carefully to ascertain the circumstances in which the seller can withhold information. Can he withhold partial information? Would it not be reasonable to withhold from the home condition survey information about security? Another example might be information in a local authority survey about people who had previously bought the house and at what price. There could be many reasons why such information should not be generally available.

In my experience of the property market, a certain class of people—particularly at the more expensive end of the market—will intentionally not put their property on the market because they do not want too much information to be made generally available. In some circumstances, they are prepared to accept a lower price on the basis that an agent will put their property to only one or two people who he knows are genuinely in the market, and on condition that confidential information will not be made generally available. How will the Bill impinge on that sort of marketing? I shall be grateful for the Minister's comments.

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