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Mr. Hayes: I will address both those points, on speed and the quality of information that people receive, in my brief remarks. The hon. Gentleman's point on the Consumers Association is a fair one, and as ever, he
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makes a good argument. It is a great pity that the Minister, in the full half an hour for which he spoke, was not able to cite it himself, as it was considerably more persuasive than any that he made.

The Minister said that the sellers packs are in response to popular demand, and that the market is not working. I am not convinced. The amendment goes to the heart of the contention over sellers packs. What is the position of the other place, and what is the Government's position? The Government say that everyone will be obliged, by law, despite the run-in period to which the Minister refers, to spend up to £1,000 when selling a house, regardless of the value of that house. In return, they will gain a sellers pack. Let us imagine someone who puts a modest house worth, say, £60,000 or £70,000 on the market, and who must then withdraw it from the market and re-market it some time later. We have no assurance from the Minister that the sellers packs will last any great time. We are told, as the other place debated at some length, that they may be valid for as little as three months. In the scenario that I just described, the person would have to purchase two sellers packs costing up to £2,000 for the sale of a £60,000 house that they might not sell anyway.

Mr. Gummer: Has not my hon. Friend noticed that the Minister prayed in aid the perfectly reasonable statement that an energy audit of a house is needed? He did not mention, of course, that that would last significantly longer than the pack, and that it had a rigour that meant that it was of use to the purchaser, whereas the sellers packs are so lacking in rigour that they will more often lead purchasers astray than be likely to give the kind of information that they would want?

Mr. Hayes: As ever, my right hon. Friend makes an apposite point, with his usual skill and charm. The picture, however, is even worse than he paints it.

I suspect—and the Minister has yet to convince us otherwise—that people will commission additional surveys to supplement these inadequate reports. I invite hon. Members to imagine that they are buying a property and are presented with a sellers pack containing basic information, and to imagine their suspicion about the paucity of that information—and their desire, in the case of an older property or one featuring particular difficulties, to obtain information that is as detailed as possible. I suspect that they would arrange their own survey. Not only will there be a sellers pack floating about; for the reasons my right hon. Friend has given, additional surveys may well be commissioned. Indeed, I suspect that the sellers packs will prompt additional surveys rather than replacing surveys.

Mr. Edward Davey: Many lenders have not said that they will rely on home-commissioned reports. Many will have their own valuations carried out. Moreover, it should be noted that house sales fall through mainly because of valuations done by lenders, as opposed to surveys undertaken by buyers.
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Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I shall return to his point if I have time.

Sir John Butterfill: Is there not a great danger that some large firms of estate agents that claim they will co-operate will do so because many poorer vendors cannot afford packs up front? The estate agents will say, "We will supply you with a pack, and when we have sold your property, we will knock the cost off the proceeds of sale." The poor vendors will then be locked into the clutches of estate agents who, in some instances, are quite unscrupulous. They will not be able to change from an estate agent who does not perform properly, because they will have a debt to the agent who supplies the pack.

Mr. Hayes: That is a good point. As was mentioned in Committee, in other countries there are strict regulations—indeed, laws—preventing such a possible conflict of interests. In this country, that does not apply, and the Minister has given no guarantee that it is likely to. I think that there may well be real issues of probity. Such issues were raised in the other place, and they were raised by Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen in Committee. Once again, however, we hear nothing from the Minister, despite the length of his speech.

The Government say that the proposal will speed up the process, and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr.   Kidney) repeated that claim. But the Lords, including Lord Donaldson, say that it may have the opposite effect—that it is likely to slow down the process.

Let us imagine another scenario. Someone may want to put his house on the market quickly. He has in mind a potential buyer, perhaps a person he knows in his locality. He will not even be able to begin the transaction until he has commissioned and put into effect a sellers pack. If neither party has demanded that, it is nonsensical to suggest that it is likely to speed up the market and make it more efficient.

The Government say that sellers packs may cost only £600, but we know that they will not be introduced until 2007. We know that by the time they have become compulsory, things will have moved on. We know that there is no cap on the total price of the packs. The Minister's blithe statement that competition will drive the price down flies in the face of all our experience of buying and selling houses, and of commissioning reports of one sort or another concerning the condition of those houses.

7.45 pm

The Government say that sellers packs will remove the need for other surveys, but as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, mortgage lenders have given no assurances of their willingness to accept them as an alternative to their own surveys. Indeed, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has made clear that it is not prepared to give any such guarantee on behalf of its members. The Minister could not name a single lender that had given an equivalent guarantee. He said that they were all geared up to writing them and were starting businesses in order to roll them out, but
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that is no surprise, is it? No doubt sellers pack millionaires will emerge from this. That will be the Minister's legacy.

The Government say that sellers packs should be compulsory. In the other place, Lord Hunt described the compulsion issue as the key question. If the packs are such a good idea, why do not the Government trust the people and allow them to say whether they want them or not? If the packs are to replace any other surveys, including those required by the companies offering mortgages, why do the Government not allow them to be voluntary?

The case made by peers throughout the other place was convincing. They said, much as we did, that the Government had failed to persuade anyone of their argument, and we heard the reason for that at the very end of the Minister's long speech. He said that they were obliged to do it because it was in two manifestos. For once, the Government are sticking to a manifesto commitment. That is an unusual and welcome change from common practice.

The Government said that they would do this, and despite all the evidence they intend to do it. In effect, they are saying, "We don't know for how long the sellers packs will be valid, we don't know who will accept them and we don't know what they will cost, but we will impose them on you anyway." They are wrong, the Lords are right, and we will support our noble Friends and other Members of the other place who have championed the cause of sellers and buyers in opposing these silly packs.

Mr. Edward Davey: In the three minutes that remain, may I try to be helpful to the Government?

Lord Rooker said in the other place:

I believe that the Government should be a little more cautious. They should think about the risks not just to them but to the millions of home buyers up and down the country. This really is a gamble. The Government have more or less admitted that they will arrange pilot schemes and a voluntary period, but they need to go much further.

The real danger is that the housing market could grind to a halt in some areas, and purchase costs could rise significantly. That could damage not just the economy but many individuals.

Lord Hunt of Wirral quoted comments by the late Earl Russell in one of his last speeches in the other place:

Earl Russell was right. There is no need for compulsion. There is no demand for it. It will be a costly mistake if the Government push ahead.

I hope that the Government can, through the discussions in this and the other place, put into the Bill the notion that it will keep the home information packs
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voluntary until another order comes before Parliament. The Minister made great play of the promises in the manifesto. If he reads it again, he will find that the Labour Government promised only to introduce home information packs. Nowhere in the manifesto does it say that they should be compulsory. With the support of the Opposition, the Government could meet the manifesto pledge by keeping the proposal voluntary. Then they will get the support of all parties and of both Houses.

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