Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Under-Secretary is once again being rather mischievous and cursory in his remarks. Does he agree with the LACOTS estimates? Does he believe that they are too large or too small? Will he give the Committee a cast-iron guarantee that, whatever costs local authorities incurthey will incur different costs, as some will have more difficult cases with which to deal than othersthose costs will be met by the Government in full? Otherwise, local authority treasurers will be scratching their heads and worrying about how much provision to make to offset the cost of the Bill.
Mr. Mullin: I shall not give guarantees, but I hope that any sensible person will realise that £5,000, in the overall context of a trading standards officer's budget, is a rather small sum. That is not my estimate; I am not qualified to make one, but I believe that LACOTS is. If the hon. Gentleman knows of a more reliable source of information, we shall take it into account. As I said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, and if a bid needs to be made for increased resources, it will be dealt with in the usual way.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: That is simply not good enough. The Government should have produced realistic cost estimates. Do they agree with the LACOTS estimate? Is it too high or too low? As they are imposing obligations on local authorities, they have a duty to tell them what costs they expect the Bill to impose.
Mr. Mullin: I have absolutely no reason to doubt the LACOTS estimate. However, if, by some chance, it was 100 per cent. wrong, and the figure was £10,000 not £5,000, that would not devastate local government finance.
We are serious about enforcing the Bill. If compliance is optional or extremely difficult to enforce, not many seller's packs will be used. There is no middle wayone is either in favour of enforcement or against it, and we have sound reasons for favouring it.
The hon. Gentleman's argument is undermined by the fact that the previous Government introduced several pieces of property legislationincluding the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 and the Estate Agents Act 1979which contain precisely the same sanctions enforced by precisely the same people.
Mr. Loughton: It is a shame that the Minister dismisses so complacently the points that we have made, which are perfectly genuine and were made to us by the people who will have to enforce the regulationssome of which are highly unenforceableregardless of whether they have the resources to do so. We did not invent these objections to undermine the Bill; they are based on the comments of council employees in our constituencies who will have to enforce it.
I have provided perfectly feasible examples of problems arising from existing legislation in terms of property descriptions that fail to have the effect that the 1991 Act was fashioned to achieve. The Minister acknowledged that only 60 prosecutions were made in its first five years, but he does not care about that. On top of the failure properly to execute the terms of 1991 Act, the entire private residential house selling industry is to fall into the lap of trading standards officers.
The Bill does not merely give staff a little more work to do or a few more areas to regulate. In my county, under the scheme to be introduced in two years' time, 65 staff will be responsible for 1.5 million properties a year. The Minister has not said whether, if more staff are required, additional resources will be provided to enable them properly and adequately, within the letter and spirit of the Bill, to carry out the additional job that has been given to them.
The Minister was woefully complacent in responding to our concerns. Moreover, he completely failed to deal with the point about standard disclaimers on literature that may be included in seller's packs.
Mr. Mullin: I am advised that the inspector is liable, regardless of any disclaimer that he places in his literature.
As for the hon. Gentleman's accusation about my attitude to the figures produced by the West Sussex trading standards officers, it is not true that I did not care about them. Indeed, I acknowledged the figures in my remarks, but interpreted them less extravagantly than he does.
Mr. Loughton: The Minister danced around the gestapo issue, which he regularly regurgitates to deflect attention from the serious shortfalls in the Bill. If he thinks that an apology is necessary, I unreservedly apologise for any misrepresentation that he sought to make of my earlier comments. However, my postbag and telephone have been bereft of communications from trading standards officers. Many trading standards officers are more sensible than the Minister thinks, because they know not to take those comments personally or professionally. If anyone is acting like the gestapowhatever that may meanit is the Government, who give trading standards officers their orders. They are only obeying orders that the Minister gives them through the legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold put his finger on the key issue, namely, that the existing civil penalty procedure can deal with the problems that the Government are trying to address. The Minister is right to say that this argument goes to the heart of the legislation. In many cases, he could achieve more on a voluntary basis. We certainly do not need the full criminal law coming down on people who are going about the legitimate business of trying to sell their house. On that basis, I urge my hon. Friends to support the amendments, which go to the core of whether the problem should be treated as a criminal matter, to a vote.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has heard the Minister's replies to my questions about the costs that will be imposed on local authorities and how many extra trading standards officers will be needed to police the Bill. We have an estimate from a body that the Government do not control, so we do not know whether they have any idea what the costs are. Furthermore, we have had no information as to how many extra officers will be required to police the Bill. Given those circumstances, the Government are not living up to the standards expected by the House. They have introduced a Bill, but they are unable to answer basic questions about itall that we get is snide comments from the Minister.
Mr. Loughton: I fear that my hon. Friend is right. I fear that the standards that the House expects from the Government have been on a slippery slope since 1 May 1997. The complacency with which the Minister treated these important points, which will affect people in the Government's employ who will have to enforce these unenforceable provisions, is scandalous. On that basis, we shall press the amendments to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 9.
Division No. 5]
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Question agreed to.
Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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