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9.30 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): This has been a useful and constructive debate, conducted without political rancour. In that spirit, may I start by saying that the Bill, like the Minister for Housing and Planning, is good in parts? Most Bills, indeed, are good in parts. [Interruption.] Well, I suppose that it is true to say that most Ministers are good in parts, too.

Large parts of the Bill, however, are uncertain in purpose and unclear in method. I shall start by concentrating on the Bill's central element: licensing, on which most contributors have focused. It is true, in the words of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the hon. Members for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), that we need to deal with unscrupulous landlords. We have no truck with people who exploit tenants, run bad homes or hostels, or target the most vulnerable of our countrymen and treat them appallingly. It is appropriate that we deal with that problem in a sensible and reasoned way.

The Government's response, however, is a licensing regime that is, variously, mandatory, discretionary and selective. It is sometimes based on area of the country, sometimes on type of house, sometimes on the behaviour of tenants and sometimes on the behaviour of landlords. At best, it is confused and messy; at worst, it is inconsistent and ineffective. I do not say—I noted the words of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on this—that the licensing system should be universal. We call not for universality but for consistency in a system that is clear, easily understood and workable. In my judgment, it is entirely inappropriate that, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), a small landlord with five houses could be subject to five different, separate, regulatory regimes.

That would discourage the private rented sector at a time when the Government are telling us:

The Deputy Prime Minister, no less, has said:

That was repeated by the Minister for Housing and Planning in his opening remarks today. If we need a vibrant and vigorous private rented sector, we must not load it with additional burdens that would not have the effect, for which we all wish, of dealing with that small minority of rogue landlords.

Several contributors to the debate mentioned fitness standards. It is important to adopt standards that are enforceable, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) said. I hope that when the Under-Secretary winds up, she will tell us what the cost of implementing the standards will be to local authorities. I understand that some £4.5 million or £5 million has been mentioned. Will she tell us what extra manpower resources will be required and how long they will take to put into effect? Will there be retraining? In some cases, new staff will be needed. Will she also tell us what account has been taken, in assessing risk and fitness and in measuring vulnerability, of the particular needs of disabled people?

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Will the Under-Secretary mention fire hazard and fire precaution, on which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) commented? My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) mentioned fire precautions and suggested proposals for smoke and fire alarms. I understand that such alarms are now quite advanced and could be implemented practically—I think that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East also made that point. What specific measures will be put in place to deal with such matters?

The modernisation—we must assume that that is a euphemism—of the right to buy is noted by Conservative Members, but we have doubts about the Government's real commitment to the scheme. After all, the Labour party took 15 years to reach the conclusion that the right to buy was a good idea. We reached that conclusion quickly, and it was articulated with verve and enthusiasm, as ever, by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). I noted that one or two Labour Members, especially the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), were reticent about acknowledging that sound truth. Let us have an assurance that amending the right to buy will not have an adverse effect on the number of people who take advantage of it. We shall examine the proposals in detail and raise our concerns in Committee.

The seller's pack is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Bill, in public terms. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) became misty-eyed when he spoke about the packs. He was excited by the prospect of the effect that they would have on the market, but I do not share that boyish enthusiasm. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, which is a difficult business since I usually regard Liberals with a certain distaste, because I suspect that the packs may well slow down the process by loading up-front costs on the market and that they might well be uninsurable. The Minister for Planning and Housing said that much of the information that the packs will contain is already necessary. He told us that surveys are not novel. Nor will they be novel in the future, because if packs were to suggest that there might be problems with properties, I suspect that a substantial number of people wishing to invest in such properties would commission an independent survey anyway. Only people who could not afford to do that would have to rely on a seller's pack, which would not be indemnified by the insurance industry. I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), suspect that it would be better to tighten up and improve the existing process to deliver the intended objective, rather than introducing additional bureaucracy.

We have heard a lot about the seller's pack and the Consumers Association. Given the way in which it was spoken about this evening, I thought that it was going to appear on Mount Sinai and give us another set of commandments. I see that Labour Members know their "Exodus" as well as I do and can no doubt quote it chapter and verse. However, many organisations are rather less impressed with the prospect of the packs. The Empty Homes Agency believes that it is vital that exceptions be made for areas of low demand, which was a call repeated in the useful contribution made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew

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Bennett). The Council of Mortgage Lenders is worried about the way in which the provisions will be implemented and says that the Government have failed to address adequately several of the issues associated with that. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is supportive of the packs, in principle, but thinks that issues such as the packs' influence on market slow-down and the need for proper definitions of marketing, enforcement, pack provision and insurance must be addressed. The House Builders Federation suggests that the initial sales of new homes should be exempted from the requirement to provide a home condition report. There are, indeed, reservations.

Mr. Kidney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I shall happily give way. I think the hon. Gentleman is about to become misty-eyed once again.

Mr. Kidney: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we can deal with every objection that he mentioned in Committee?

Mr. Hayes: I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's important and, no doubt, erudite contribution to the affairs of the House on that occasion.

The truth of the matter is that the need for a seller's pack has yet to be persuasively made. The Minister says that the market is shambolic, but no one else seems to believe that that is so.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will explain phased implementation in more detail. What is the time period over which that will occur, and how and when will it happen? As for opening up social house building to the private sector, will the Minister give us a little more detail? Will the private sector be at an advantage over registered social landlords? What regime will be employed? How will standards be maintained?

All of those who argue for more affordable houses—the hon. Members for City of York and for Telford (David Wright), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger)—were answered by the Minister merely by referral to the communities plan in his opening remarks. If the Government's only response is to point to the communities plan every time affordable housing is raised in earnest by Members, their argument will not persuade people in many parts of the country that are unaffected by the plan. We want more vision in the provision of social housing and more investment, as the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) said.

So we have a Bill that is good in parts. As so often, however, what the Government say and what they do are different things. They want to make it easier to buy and sell houses, but they slow down the process by introducing the seller's pack. They want to stimulate a vigorous private rented sector, but they regulate, control and add costs to the point at which landlords are discouraged and expansion is likely to be frustrated. They support the right to buy, but they choose to make it more difficult.

The Government want to provide more affordable homes, but they have no empty homes strategy. That is a particular omission. After extensive consultation and

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the raising of expectations, it is not surprising that the Empty Homes Agency was profoundly disappointed by the absence of an empty homes policy. Similarly, despite raising expectations, there is no attempt to deal with fuel poverty. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson), who always speaks in a measured and considered way, made that point persuasively.

The Bill does not concentrate adequately on fire precaution as part of the risk strategy that is at the heart of the business of raising standards, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown. There is no mention of park homes. Once again, the Government raised expectations and were expected to deliver, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). There is no mention of rural housing and the particular problems of affordability in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater spoke powerfully, and with his usual commitment, on the needs of rural areas. He raised the interesting and important issue of the specific problems affecting national parks. There is also nothing to deal with the sharp practices by developers, again mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden.

The Minister claimed that the Bill is big in vision. If it is, he is not looking at the right picture. It is right that we deal with inadequate housing. Bad housing is frequently linked to bad health and a poor quality of life. Opposition Members speak with great energy, passion and commitment on the business of dealing with the disadvantage and poor quality of life that derive from bad housing, bad health and bad living conditions—[Interruption.] Labour Members chide us and laugh, but they should remember that no political party has a monopoly on compassion or care. We care just as much as they do about the vulnerable and those living in the most difficult situations.

The Minister is not looking at the big picture. It is not fair to say that the Government are wrong in detail. We have too little detail to come to that view conclusively. What is true, however, is that the Bill lacks the imagination and coherence necessary to make it the landmark Bill that is called for by a variety of Members on both sides of the Chamber. It is piecemeal, limited and uninspired. The Minister is a good man—he is genuine and I think that he will listen carefully in Committee. He can do better; the House needs something better; and Britain deserves better. I urge my hon. Friends to support the reasoned amendment.

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