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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister has virtually admitted that what I said to him a few minutes ago is true. He says that the Government will use this information for statistical purposes. Is it not true that that will enable them to use it to obtain a revaluation of the entire nation's housing stock at very little cost, and without involving valuers?
The hon. Gentleman is getting over-excited about a possibility that the Government are not contemplating. We have made no final decisions on this matter, but we do take into account the possibility that
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the register could be of value in making broad assessments of the condition of the nation's housing stock. The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in this issue, and he surely will not regard such an approach as disadvantageous, should we decide to pursue it. However, this is a matter for consultation and open discussion in due course.
Mr. Kidney: I hope that my right hon. Friend finds my intervention helpful. Is it the Government's intention to make it a criminal offence for people to disclose information from the register that should not be disclosed, and is that the purport of subsection (7) of amendment (c)? Moreover, is there a typographical error in that subsection? It states:
Keith Hill: Can the House be surprised that I describe my hon. Friend as my guru in these matters? Not only has he anticipated exactly the point that I was about to make on disclosure, but he has also made a typically shrewd point about a typographical error in the amendment. I can confirm that there is indeed such an error, and it will of course be put right. I am most grateful to him for drawing the House's attention to it, and I am sure that he is grateful for my immediate and positive response. That certainly demonstrates the listening character of this Government and this Minister.
I was about to say that any disclosure, except as provided for in regulations, would be taken very seriously and would amount to a criminal offence. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is absolutely right about that. Anyone committing such an offence, for instance, by passing on data from home condition reports to a building firm or to the proverbial double glazing salesman, would be liable on summary conviction to a fine of up to level 5 on the standard scalecurrently a maximum of £5,000. That is equivalent to the penalty for offences relating to infringing the Data Protection Act 1998. The Home Office has confirmed that criminal offences for the unlawful disclosure of information are the norm in legislation and has approved this particular offence.
Clause 153 provides that the Secretary of State may make grants towards expenditure incurred in connection with the development of proposals for the contents of home information packs or of potential home inspector certification schemes. Amendment (d) is consequential on the introduction of the new clause and provides that the Secretary of State may also make grants towards expenditure incurred in the development of a register of home condition reports.
There are legitimate sensitivities surrounding disclosure of informationI fully concede that to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)we will not know for some time which certification scheme will get approval. We will need to begin work on developing the technology for a secure register of home condition reports as soon as possible in order to address
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those issues, and that work will require a grant. We also need to ensure that the register is not specific to a particular certification scheme so that it is possible for the keeper of the register to be changed, if necessary, without resulting in practical difficulties.
It is important that consumers and lenders can trust the home condition report and be able to rely on it with confidence. Together with the provisions for home inspectors' certification schemes already in the Bill, these amendments should provide that confidence. In moving these Government amendments, I draw the House's attention to my support for amendments Nos. 142, 145, 147, 148 and 149.
The proposal to have a register of approved surveyors or inspectors is sensible because people can check the register to see whether the person is qualified. One of the major concerns in Committee was whether the supply of surveyors or inspectors would be sufficient, so having a register also seems reasonable on those grounds. My question is whether the register will be broken down into regions or counties. There could be a surplus of surveyors in the north-west, with other areas having a deficiency, which could affect the ability to produce home condition reports within a reasonable time frame. It would be helpful to have a breakdown of surveyors and inspectors, including where they live.
The Minister made several points about the home condition reportfor example, whether it should have a reference number or be put on the internet and what the controls should be. My hon. Friends have raised a number of concerns about those issues. If the information is too restricted, there is a danger of missing some opportunities. Will the register of home condition reports be made available to those who are registered inspectors or surveyors? If a home has been sold four times and had four home condition reports, the logical starting point for a surveyor would be to look at the last four reports on the home to see whether there had been any problems in the past. It seems silly to start from a blank sheet of paper when, first, there is a shortage of surveyors and, secondly, the home to be inspected has already been inspected many times.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: May I suggest a simple way around that problem? My hon. Friend might want to press the Minister on what I am saying. If the home condition report and home seller's pack become the property of the purchaser on completion of the purchase, the purchaser will then have full property rights and would be well advised if he wanted to sell the house subsequently to make the information available to his surveyor because it would reduce the cost of producing a new home condition report.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that reasonable suggestion. I am sure that what he says will be heard. When a house is modern and has been sold a number of times, it would be illogical to deny information about it to registered surveyors or inspectors.
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The Minister also referred to lenders having the information. The standards of building on estates in certain parts of the country are not particularly good, so is it not a matter of concern that, if lenders have access to the register, they might blight certain estates? Accusations are already sometimes made about lenders, particularly when certain areas have a bad reputation. How free will access to lenders be? Will they be able to look at individual reports or at the register in its entirety? I suspect that many lenders will build up a picture, which could lead to decisions being taken on the basis of the postcode. That could be a problem for some people. How will the proposals operate in practice? It is important to get the balance right between having reasonable access so that we do not always have to reinvent the wheel and protecting the privacy of the homeowner or home seller. As the Minister said, we do not want the double glazing salesman or building company to have full access to the information.
If the Minister has enough time, will he say more about whether the insurance scheme for home condition reports is in place? I know that concerns have been raised about that. Insurers are also worried about problems of flooding, underground drainage and so forth. Has a final decision been taken about what type of report will be used for the register? We have only a few more minutes left, so I will end there to allow other hon. Members to ask a few questions.
Matthew Green: I will be brief. We broadly welcome the amendments in the group, including the Government amendments, which go a long way towards dealing with the concerns of the House of Lords, but I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions about the administration and security of the system.
From what the Minister described, it would appear that, under the system, people producing the reports could post them on to a register via a remote server somewhere. The difficulty arises in controlling access to it. The Minister says that buyers will be given a unique number for a particular property, allowing them to look into that single property alone. Even with a good random generator of numbers, given the sheer number of properties available on the market at any one time, it would be possible for someone to guess the numbers and be able to look at other properties. That will be a problem if the register is accessed through a single number, however large. In reality, there are likely to be patterns in the numbers; they are not purely random. From what the Minister described, it would be possible for people to view other properties.
The question of security raises another potential concern. As we saw last week, online banks can have problems with unauthorised access to some of their systems. Can the Minister be confident that no one could hack into the system holding the details on, say, the house that the Prime Minister has just purchased and sell the information or publish it on the internet? Can the system be secure at the same time as being flexible enough to allow access to all the users who need it? The Minister seems to have much more confidence in the ability to set up a foolproof system than I have.
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The amendments have gone a long way towards addressing the issues raised in the other place. We do not support home information packs, but if they do go ahead the amendments will be necessary. On that ground, we will not oppose the Government on this issue tonight.
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