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Sir John Butterfill : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It may have come to your attention that the timetabling of the debate on that group of amendments was such that not only did no Back Bencher on either side of the House have the opportunity to speak, but even the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen were obliged to curtail their speeches on probably the most contentious clauseindeed, possibly the only contentious clausein the Bill. Perhaps you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could rule on that, and those in another place may wish to take it into account when the Bill goes back to them.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot rule on that matter now; those arrangements were agreed by the House earlier. However, he has got his point on the record and no doubt it will be read by those who are interested in such matters.
It may be for the benefit of the House if I explain that amendments Nos. 123 to 127, 129, 131 to 134, 136, 138, 139, 141, 146, 150 and 260 are technical amendments that clarify or remove ambiguities or
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repetition in the Bill, and improve the definition of the word "marketing". Amendments Nos. 142, 145, 147, 148 and 149 would make provision for an estate agents redress scheme. I do not propose to dwell on those amendments at great length, as there seems to be a high level of agreement about the proposals in themalthough I shall, of course, be happy to return to them if they are raised by other speakers.
Amendments (a) to (d) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 140 would ensure that adequate safeguards are placed on the register of home condition reports. If the House will forgive me, I shall say a few words about those, because this is new matter for this Chamber.
It will be vital for the public to have confidence in the new home condition reports, and a register for home condition reports will help to ensure that. The register will prevent unscrupulous people from tampering with home condition reports once written, because paper copies can be compared with the register. The register will also ensure that the home condition report can be prepared only by a member of the certification scheme. Someone fraudulently passing himself off as a home inspector or, indeed, a former home inspector who has been expelled from the schemewill be unable to register a home condition report.
To guard against the possibility of a seller "shopping around" and obtaining a number of home condition reports from different home inspectors, we propose that the home information pack include copies of all home condition reports obtained on the property within the previous 12 months. The register would ensure that that requirement could be enforced. It would be an important resource to help the certification schemes ensure the competence and probity of home inspectors, and that the inspectors were properly insured. Taken together with the checks and balances already in the Bill, this should enable buyers and sellers to rely with confidence on home condition reports.
Provision is already made for such a register in clause 145(5)(d). The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that that register is kept in a proper way. Amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment No. 140 strengthen the provisions for approved certification schemes for home inspectors producing home condition reports. The scheme is required to make provision for the registration of all home condition reports. That will greatly enhance the ability of consumers and others to use the home condition report and to trust it, for the reasons that I shall explain.
Certification schemes would be approved by the Secretary of State. They are likely to be run on a not-for-profit basis by private companies owned by stakeholders. We had initially intended the control of access to information on the register to be left to the terms of approval. However, that might not be legally effective, and might not be sufficient to ensure that appropriate and adequate safeguards are placed on the creation and use of the register.
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Amendment (c) inserts after clause 145 a new clause that will ensure that the Secretary of State can make regulations allowing any private keeper of the register to restrict access to it to certain limited and prescribed circumstances and purposes. It requires that the onward use of information obtained from the register should respect privacy considerations, and that as far as possible, any conditions imposed by the seller on the use of information in a home information pack, in accordance with clause 139, be respected. It also makes the unauthorised disclosure of information a criminal offence in order to deal with someone who, for example, sells details to a double glazing salesman, or the selling of information on the home of a public figure to a newspaper. Finally, the amendment allows the Secretary of State to maintain the register if the private operator proves unsatisfactory.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : Can the Minister say in what form the register be kept? Will it be kept electronically and who will have access to those records? Will the Government have access to them? There is the suspicion that they could use home condition reports to do the next council tax revaluation for nothing. How will the Data Protection Act 1998 protect people's privacy, given that there will be a lot of very private information in the packs?
Keith Hill: It is precisely because I anticipated that the hon. Gentlemanwhom I know well, and with whom I have jousted on many previous occasionswould take an interest in these matters that my speech includes what I hope will prove persuasive answers to those issues.
Dealing with these important issues administratively when approving a certification scheme involves doing so behind closed doors, but we feel that it is in everyone's interest that they be dealt with openly and on the record through regulations. The amendment should ensure that the register is kept in a proper way, while respecting privacy considerations. An electronic register of home inspectors and of home condition report data is essential to ensure authenticity and trust. I should emphasise that access to the register will not be a free-for-all and will be strictly controlled.
We envisage that access will be available to the seller and potential buyers, and to their professional advisers and agents, so that they can, for example, check the integrity of copies of home condition reports supplied to them. We also intend to enable access to certification schemes in order to assist with their operation, and to ensure that proper standards are maintained. We envisage that certification schemes will use the register of home condition reports to monitor, or to undertake, spot checks on the work of home inspectors to ensure that they maintain the required standards.
Allowing mortgage lenders online access to the register of home condition reports will assist with valuation assessments and help to avoid unnecessary valuation inspections. It will enhance the efficient operation of the home buying and selling process, and reduce costs for home buyers. We continue to work with the Council of Mortgage Lenders and other stakeholders to ensure that
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lenders can use the home condition report as a source of information from which a valuation can be derived, without the need for a separate valuation inspection.
Matthew Green: Much of what the Minister is saying is welcome, but I am concerned about what happens when someone chooses to market their property without going through an estate agent, as they have the right to do. When they produce their pack, how will they check who has access to such information? Will a prospective buyer gain access to the register? If so, will they access such information only in respect of the property in question, or will they be able to peruse information on all properties online, simply because they have said that they are interested in buying a particular property? I am slightly confused as to how the process will work.
Keith Hill: It will be for the seller or their agent to make the home condition report available to the potential purchaser. Provision will be made to ensure that access to the report is restricted to those potential buyers to whom the would-be seller wishes such information to be made available. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall spell the situation out in a little more detail in due course.
The expected content of the home condition report has already been discussed in detail with lenders to ensure that it incorporates the data that they will need to create valuations, using automatic valuation models or other innovative valuation methods. We therefore envisage that access to the register will be allowed to lenders and others involved in carrying out valuation assessments on behalf of lenders.
I should point out that no final decision has been taken as to whether one of the proscribed uses of information from the register will be as a source of statistics on the condition of the nation's housing stock and its energy efficiency. If such a use were permitted, it would be subject to data protection and privacy considerations. Amendment (c) provides for regulations that restrict access to prescribed circumstances or purposes, and to prescribed descriptions of persons. We intend that access will not be indiscriminately available. For example, a potential buyer would need to have the HCR reference number in order to access a home condition report on the register. That reference number would be available only from the seller or their agent, which will ensure that data on the register is not available to any person who cannot satisfy the seller or their agent that he is a bona fide potential buyer.
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