Homes Bill

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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 incur—they will incur different costs, as some will have more difficult cases with which to deal than others—those 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.

6.30 pm

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 way—one 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 legislation—including the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 and the Estate Agents Act 1979—which 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 regulations—some of which are highly unenforceable—regardless 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 gestapo—whatever that may mean—it 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 it—all 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]

Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Loughton, Mr. Tim
Waterson, Mr. Nigel

Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Buck, Ms Karen
Foster, Mr. Don
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Love, Mr. Andrew
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Raynsford, Mr. Nick
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Turner, Mr. Neil

Question accordingly negatived.

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.

Schedule 1

Fixed penalties and enforcement

Question proposed, That this schedule be the First schedule to the Bill

Mr. Loughton: We have already discussed part of the schedule, which concerns fixed penalties and enforcements. I do not intend to rake over previously covered ground, but I have about half a dozen points that I would like the Minister to clarify. Paragraph 4(1) states that there is a facility for withdrawal of a fixed penalty notice. In what circumstances does he envisage that withdrawal notices will be used? Under paragraph 6(4), a weights and measures officer who has reason to believe that documents might be required is empowered to

    seize and detain them and . . ., if he does so, inform the person from whom they are seized.

If the fault is deemed to lie with the estate agent who has the documents necessary for a seller's pack, and if that agent has jumped the gun and commenced marketing without first assembling the component parts of the seller's pack that the Secretary of State has deemed appropriate, it is the vendor of the house who could be most inconvenienced. If weights and measures officers were to seize documents from the estate agents Bloggins & Co., would the sale of the house be left in limbo? Given that it might take time to establish what action will be taken, and to pursue what might prove a criminal action, the vendor could be left sitting on a house that he is not allowed to sell. Would the vendor be able, for example, to end his contract with the potentially criminalised estate agent and move the sale—lock, stock and barrel—to another agent? If so, how will the seized documents be resecured, so that they may form part of the alternative agent's seller's pack? We must address that practical problem, so that we can protect the vendor.

The word ``reasonable'' appears several times in paragraphs 6 to 8. Weights and measures officers are empowered to make reasonable inquiries and to secure documents that are reasonably relevant. What safeguards exist to ensure that reasonableness will not be stretched to its limits by a trading standards officer who, for example, has a grudge against a firm of estate agents whom he failed to convict for reasons that we have discussed? How will ``reasonableness'' be defined? I can find no definition of it in this context.

6.45 pm

Under section 7—and, indeed, under section 6—weights and measures officers who have seized documents are obliged to

    inform the person from whom they are seized.

Again, that person is most likely to be an estate agent, but there seems to be no requirement for the weights and measures officer to inform the vendor of the house. Surely the vendor should have an equal right to know that there is a potential problem with the sale of the house. A particularly unscrupulous estate agent—if such a person exists—could choose not to inform the vendor that he was the subject of an investigation by a weights and measures department, and that the documents that formed part of the seller's pack had been seized. The vendor could be under the impression that the estate agent was marketing the house, and wondering why no callers are viewing it, only to discover that marketing had technically been suspended because an investigation was under way. The Bill should surely require that the vendor be notified of any seizure of documents or action against an estate agent. I am surprised that I can find no reference to such a requirement.

Paragraph 7(4) states:

    The powers of an officer under this paragraph may be exercised by him only at a reasonable hour and on production (if required) of his credentials.

Again, there is the question of the definition of reasonableness. Reasonable hours as kept by the Under-Secretary might be rather different from those kept by the estate agent Bloggins & Co. Can the Under-Secretary provide more detail on what constitutes reasonable hours?

This is a long schedule with many technical and, if I may say so, vague references. I have asked a mere soupccon of the many questions that practitioners will ask themselves when faced with this terminology. Given the time and effort that the Under-Secretary has spent on fashioning what he sees as foolproof legislation, I trust that he will be able to answer my questions immediately and off the top of his head, without referring to any notes that might be handed to him.

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