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We therefore intend to make provision for the introduction of home information packs. That is a further manifesto commitment. We have thoroughly researched such a system and a number of voluntary home information pack schemes are already operating successfully. We are clear that making key information available right at the start of the process makes home buying and selling easier, more transparent and more successful.
I am delighted that our home information pack reforms have the full support of the Consumers Association, which welcomes the inclusion of the packs in the Bill. The late Dame Sheila McKechnie was a strong advocate of the home information pack, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to her memory. We have also had support from a significant number of industry stakeholders, including the Halifax building society and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
Keith Hill: If I may say so to the hon. Gentleman, on this occasion the Liberal Democrats have got it spectacularly wrong. Traditionally and historically the self-proclaimed defenders of the consumer, they are in this regard, like the official Opposition, simply playing to the game of the vested interests. They have got it wrong, and we will demonstrate in the course of proceedings on the Bill how wrong they have got it.
The fact is that these interests, these stakeholders, recognise with us that changes are needed in the way in which homes are bought and sold. Home information packs will make a difference, but we will address other aspects of the process as well. We are on the side of the consumer and we are confident of consumer support. If the Opposition remain in any doubt about consumer support for the proposals, I refer them to the excellent briefing prepared by the Consumers Association for today's debate, entitled "Home Truths". It is time that the Opposition learned those on this issue.
The main components of the pack are likely to be local searches, a home condition report including an energy efficiency certificate, and other legal documents such as evidence of title. We are continuing to work closely with industry and consumer stakeholders on the detailed components.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I accept that some people are very enthusiastic about the home information pack and that very reputable professional organisations and other experts are opposed to it. The Minister has prayed in aid the fact that various organisations support him. If the system is
Keith Hill: I can certainly give the hon. Gentlemanwho has, I know, great expertise in such mattersan assurance about the removal of criminal sanctions and the introduction of civil penalties in the present proposals. However, for reasons that I propose to set out very shortly, I cannot accept the arguments for continuing the scheme on a voluntary basis.
Claims about the costs of the pack have been wildly exaggerated. Most of the documents have to be provided in any event. Only the home condition report is new, and even commissioning a survey is hardly novel. In most cases, the costs will be transferred from the buyer to the seller, who, in turn, will usually also be a buyer. What is very important is that first-time buyers will benefit the most as they will not have to pay those costs up front to get on the first rung of the property ladder.
We recognise, however, the Select Committee's concerns about the industry's readiness. As we have said before, home information packs will be introduced only when we are fully satisfied that all conditions are in place to make the scheme a success, including sufficient numbers of trained home inspectors and satisfactory insurance arrangements. We are consulting consumer and industry partners on the possibility of a phased introduction of home information packs as part of a national roll-out.
I do not agree that further piloting before the introduction of the packs would be useful. We have already had a voluntary local pilot to test the scheme's mechanics. Packs are being trialled successfully through several voluntary schemes in Britain and we know that the packs work successfully elsewhere in the world. I do not believe that further pilot testing would tell us much more than what we already know. We know what is required, so the task is to deliver that at a sensible pace after the proper scrutiny that good project management secures.
Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend have any views on the preparedness of local authorities for the operation of electronic land and property records to support the introduction of the new approach?
Keith Hill: My hon. Friend is right. We must ensure that work on e-conveyancing and online information from local authorities is in place at the earliest possible opportunity so that we achieve part of the purpose of the processto have as rapid a house transaction process as possible. I thank him for his intervention because he is absolutely right.
Finally, the Bill contains two further measures to end inequalities. It will give unmarried different sex partners and same sex partners who do not enter into a civil partnership the same rights in relation to tenancy succession. It will also extend eligibility for disabled facilities grants to all those who occupy caravans as their only or main residence.
The Government have done much to create sustainable communities. We are addressing both supply and demand issues in the housing market in a way that has not been seen for many years. However, more needs to be doneand can be doneto create a fairer, more efficient housing market, and to protect the most vulnerable in housing. The Bill is central to the Government's agenda and will put in place the legislative framework necessary to deliver decent homes and decent places. I commend the Bill to the House.
I hope that the House will not think that I am eccentric if I devote my speech to the Bill. It is complex and will merit serious discussion in Committee because its outline raises an enormous number of questions. Parts of the Bill are welcome, subject to their effective implementation and full discussion of their implications, such as the new housing health and safety rating system, which extends to housing the hazard analysis at critical control point principles of risk assessment that apply in other parts of the economy, such as food processing. Further welcome aspects of the Bill are the introduction of the housing ombudsman for Wales and the fact that it includes an acceptance of the need to do more to tackle antisocial behaviour by, for example, strengthening the introductory tenancies that were introduced by the Government in which I served.
Other elements of the Bill need urgent clarification and, I suspect, simplification if they are to be capable of effective administration and enforcement, especially the licensing provisions. Other parts of it are simply unnecessary, obstructive, ill-conceived and burdensome, like the seller's pack and the intervention in the housing market.
Parts of the Bill are virtually incapable of assessment because it is an enabling measure and no details are given of how the provisions will work in practice, especially private sector access to the social housing grant. Finally, some clauses are presented as intending to tackle abuse, but, when taken in combination with earlier steps, seem set to challenge the operation of well-established policiesfor example, the right to buy.
The most important part of the Bill is, by common acceptance, licensing. No one will object to measures clearly aimed at reducing loss of life and injury in premises that may often house vulnerable and insecure poor people and families, perhaps with low levels of competence. The measures must, however, be subject to sensible tests of their practicality and effectiveness. Are they as light as possible to deliver the job that they are supposed to do? Are they easily understood, clear and well defined? Are they properly enforceable on a consistent basis? Will they raise expertise, confidence and standards among landlords, especially in the private sector, to encourage them to place property on the market? We all talk constantly about the need for the private sector to play a fuller part in housing provision in the United Kingdom even though it is such a poor provider on any comparison with other western countries in terms of what it can do.
The problem is that the licensing element tries to tackle too many objectives in too many ways. We risk ending up with a cluttered, confusing and congested landscape of regulation that may not even protect the most vulnerable. The Bill proposes mandatory licensing of houses in multiple occupation containing five people and of three storeys. It proposes discretionary licensing of a wider range of houses in multiple occupation. It also proposes selective licensing of all private landlords in designated areas of low demand, in areas that are likely to decline into areas of low demand or in areas that suffer from antisocial behaviour. Those powers may also be used outside areas of low demand to tackle bad landlords and antisocial behaviour. As the Minister said, enforcement is effected by interim management orders or final management orders, with the costs of licensing to be met almost entirely by the licensing fee.
The panoply of powers inevitably raises a host of questions. Who decides who is a good or bad landlord? On what basis is that decided? Against what test is the decision made? Is it objective, intuitive or, as the Minister said, generic, whatever that might mean? When can selective powers be used, and for what? In what circumstances would the Deputy Prime Minister expect to authorise licensing of all private landlords, and how extensive will the use of the new discretionary schemes be? What is the degree of antisocial behaviour that will trigger licensing? How is that to be demonstrated? Is it true that the Bill will apply licensing to some owner-occupied self-contained flats for which the duty to license and enforce would fall on freeholders or managers, who have no right to enter the premises to which the regulations apply?
The danger is that the Government are creating a complex, fuzzy-edged, overlapping and differently enforced heterogeneous patchwork of schemes, which will be a deterrent, not an incentive, to landlords and lead to situations in which, for example, five properties that are owned by one person are each under a different regulatory regime. I have no principled or ideological objection to licensing if it delivers a specific, defined, achievable and measurable benefit. I fear that the Bill is about to create a regulatory web in which all the playerstenants, landlords, regeneration agencies and local authoritieswill become hopelessly enmeshed. We look to the Minister to unravel its operations in Committee before it unravels in the country at large.
The Minister reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the right to buy. We never quite believed their commitment because they forced it out through clenched teeth and took an awful long time to make it. It is worth recalling, as is stated in the Housing Corporation's report on affordable homes, that 1.5 million people and families have managed to own their own home through the process and 50,000 people a year are still doing so. The merits of the scheme, as spelled out by the Housing Corporation, are that it is accessible, simple and easily understood and that it operates easily.
The Barker report, which is a systematic indictment of the Government's failure to deliver even minimum levels of affordable and social housing, should perhaps be delivered in juxtaposition to the Minister's 20-minute prologue to his remarks about the Bill. I notice in this Government a wonderful tendency to elide the notions of affordable housing and social housing. They are not the same. Affordable housing is generally designed for people who want to purchase, perhaps through shared ownership, and social housing is for people who want to rent from a registered social landlord. I hope that the Government will maintain that distinction, rather than pretending that they are the same thing.