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Mr. Simon Thomas: All too frequent.

Mr. Davey: As the hon. Gentleman says, that has happened all too frequently.

The fitness standards needed updating, but we have some concerns about whether what is proposed will work. The Government went through a good pilot process, in which local authorities were involved in assessing whether the new housing, health and safety rating system would work in practice. Version one appears not to have worked in practice. Version two is

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now published and we have the guidelines, but it has not been piloted or trialled, so the House is being asked to accept a new system of regulation for fitness standards in housing without knowing whether it can be made to work. The House should think carefully about that.

The Minister will be aware that others—from the Local Government Association to various lobby groups for people with disabilities—are concerned that the rating system does not go far enough with respect to fire sprinklers or access for the disabled, so that is another issue for debate in Committee.

Selective licensing, as I have already said, is the right way forward and we are very pleased that the Government have dropped their proposals to cut housing benefit to people accused and found guilty of antisocial behaviour. The Liberal Democrats believe that that would have made antisocial behaviour worse. It would have seen people thrown out of their homes with no due regard to where they would have to go or how their problems could be dealt with. We are glad that the Government have dropped that proposal and believe that the Bill probably provides the right way forward.

On selective licensing, has the Minister considered selectively licensing individuals rather than areas? Many of us know from our constituency work that selectively licensing all landlords would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when only one or two landlords might be the serial offenders who are causing the real problem. If licensing were not just about areas, but individual landlords, we could perhaps have a slightly lighter-touch regime. It may cause problems, but we should debate whether it might be a different way forward that could achieve the Government's aims with less of a regulatory burden.

On the measures that I have described, the Liberal Democrats will enter into constructive debate with the Government in Committee. Regulation is sometimes needed, but we must ensure that we get the balance right.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon complained that this is a cluttered and confusing approach that will prove to be a regulatory web. He may have a point, but there is a balance to be struck, and I look forward to debating with him and his colleagues whether the Government have got that balance right. It is clear that to try to regulate the whole of the private rented sector would be to go over the top; such regulation is not needed. In targeting regulation, we should not create a burden and penalise good landlords. Indeed, it is worth acknowledging that there are some very good landlords in the private sector—a point that has yet to be made today. If we are to avoid having to regulate them, we may have to create regulation that does not look pretty, but actually gets the job done.

After describing all those good things, I want to spend most of my speech pointing out the ways in which we disagree with the Government; indeed, there are some serious areas of disagreement. The first problem and major criticism relates to the home information packs, and it is the main reason why we will vote against the Bill tonight, although we will do so in the hope that we can vote for it on Third Reading—if we can persuade the Government to improve it. We are surprised that the Government are persisting with the packs, given the amount of opposition to them not just from

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professional bodies, but from the people who actually buy and sell houses. [Interruption.] Labour Members are muttering about vested interests, but the only body that they seem capable of quoting is the Consumers Association, as if it had some biblical significance. I shall seek to argue that consumers will be badly affected if the legislation goes through, in terms of cost, delays and lack of choice of affordable housing. Indeed, the Government will experience a real political backlash from consumers.

Andrew Bennett: The hon. Gentleman prayed in aid the Select Committee's preliminary scrutiny, but has he read the evidence from Maria Coleman, who demonstrated beyond doubt that a progressive and effective estate agent can make the seller's pack work to the benefit of a great many people who are buying and selling properties?

Mr. Davey: But many of those who gave evidence to the Select Committee, which the hon. Gentleman chairs, argued differently; indeed, the Committee's own report was hardly complimentary about home information packs. Paragraph 93 states:

Much of the evidence that the hon. Gentleman heard backs up that view.

Let me be clear: the problem is not home information packs themselves. The Government could go ahead with legislation setting out what home information packs are, and could make them available for the market to take forward. They could also legislate to make energy audit compulsory before sale, as the directive states. The problem with the Government's approach is that they are making such packs compulsory before marketing. If they could address that issue, they might be able to persuade us that the provision has some merit.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am listening to what the hon. Gentleman says, and he is absolutely right to point out that specialist professional organisations are divided on this issue. However, if the Government are minded to put home information packs on the statute book, is it not all the more important that they should at first be used on a voluntary basis, to see how the system works? It is a complicated and complex system, and we should see how it works in practice across the whole country before making it a statutory requirement.

Mr. Davey: Absolutely—indeed, we should let the market decide. If consumers value the packs, they will roll out automatically and the market will take them up. So there is no need for the Government to impose this burdensome and costly regulation on the sector, thereby creating all the problems that I am about to allude to.

Matthew Green: Is not the essence of the problem the fact that such packs are mandatory at the point at which people market their house? If someone puts their house on the market and nobody views it within six months, they will still have coughed up £600—in some cases, £1,000—in order to produce a pack. If they want to put

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the house back on the market a little later, they will probably have to update the pack, which will cost even more. People could shell out a lot of money and never sell their properties.

Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is of course exactly right.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I tend to agree with the Liberal Democrats on most housing issues, but not on this one. I should declare an interest, in that I am £400 out of pocket, having had a survey done on a house and then been gazumped. Is it not the case that one third of sales fall through and that home information packs could help those who are losing out as they try to buy houses? I would not be against some form of voluntary scheme to start with, but is there not a good idea in the Bill that needs teasing out?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments, but if he looks at the matter in detail, as I have done, I think he will change his mind. I originally had some sympathy for the idea, but the more I looked into it the more ludicrous it seemed and I questioned my initial gut feeling.

When one looks into the Government's rationale, it begins to become clear why this is a bad measure. The Government argue that the change will speed up the transaction process. First of all, however, we have to ask whether there is actually a problem that needs solving. A lot of transactions go through effectively: we have a thriving owner-occupied housing market, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said, and between 1.2 million and 1.5 million homes change hands every year without Government regulation. That does not suggest to me that there is a significant problem that needs the heavy hand of Government regulation.

Let us accept for a moment, however, that there is a problem and that perhaps 10 per cent. of home sales do not go through as smoothly as they might. What is the best way forward in that case? It is not necessarily the Government's approach. As has been said, many other things are happening that will speed up the process. The Law Society's transaction scheme will enable information to be provided far more effectively to all parties. Improvements to the National Land Information Service, e-lodgement at the Land Registry, e-conveyancing as it develops, and efforts at local authority level are all practical things that the Government need to address, and are addressing. When those developments come into place, home information packs will be redundant.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Government's first argument is not that these proposals will speed up the process but that they will give more information to the consumer? Will he also acknowledge that the figures that he has just given are wrong? The Government's research shows that about 1.8 million properties are offered for sale on the market each year and that about 580,000 transactions fail before they reach exchange of contract, which is a rate of about 30 per cent.

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