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Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): I noticed that, in answering the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) concerning the murder of Denis Donaldson, the Secretary of State was very particular in talking about the leadership of the Provisional IRA. Does he have any information or intelligence from the police or the security services that members of the IRA were involved in that murder? If that information comes to light in the next few days or months, what will he do about it?

Mr. Hain: As I say, we will have to see what the police say when they have completed their investigations. We are fully and actively supporting the police in the Republic and our own police—who are co-operating on this matter—and our security services in trying to track down those who are responsible. When we find that out, we will obviously be prepared to acknowledge it, whoever they are.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I, too, welcome you back, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you are very happy to be released from what I think that you described as your medical house arrest.

May I ask the Secretary of State about the contradictory message that comes from this statement? He says that the Assembly will have opportunities to prepare for government and discuss crucial issues such as education. A couple of paragraphs later, he says that he will not delay in implementing vital reforms. Indeed, we have heard today that some of those are being pushed through later this afternoon. Will he make it clear what it is to be? Is he going to put on hold those parts of Government policy, such as the education reforms, which are opposed by 62 per cent. of people in    Northern Ireland, and the changes in public administration, or are we going to see a disgraceful flurry of activity as he pushes through legislation that he knows does not command widespread cross-community support and would never be accepted by a devolved Administration were one up and running in Northern Ireland?
 
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Mr. Hain: On education, if the Assembly can reach a cross-party consensus that seeks to change in some fundamental or other way what the Government are doing, I will obviously have to listen to it. I must return a question to the hon. Gentleman: will he get involved in the serious process of beginning to build trust and share government? Without giving offence to anybody, it sometimes seems that the political debate in Northern Ireland is conducted as though the world is standing still. I have just returned from India on a trade mission for Northern Ireland. We see big companies in India, such as the Tata Group, recruiting 6,000 graduates a month in order to drive forward their competitiveness. Northern Ireland cannot stand still. In particular, we cannot stand still with an unreformed education system that palpably fails at least a third of its children. We must have reforms to have high skills for everybody. That is what the debate is about.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): The Secretary of State said in his statement, "Ministers will naturally be willing to take account of views on such matters, if they are provided on a cross-community basis." Can he explain what that means? Would he stake his house on the Government implementing changes recommended by the Assembly?

Mr. Hain: The statement, which the hon. Lady has just quoted back at me, made it clear that, if there was a cross-community vote, I and my ministerial team would want to take account of it on a range of issues. I hope we can achieve a situation in which such cross-community votes would be possible on all the concerns that she has, and on other matters.


 
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Housing Act 2004 (Amendment)

4.31 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I beg to move,

May I say how delighted I am to see you back, Mr. Speaker? The wonders of Irn Bru, perhaps—a Glaswegian beverage, I am sure.

The purpose of the Bill is to remove section 5 of the Act, thus preventing the introduction of home information packs, which are due to come into force next June. In doing so, my Bill matches what the House demands of all ten-minute Bills—that there will be

My Bill will do much better. It will save the people and, more importantly, the public purse, tens of millions of wasted pounds every single year.

Home information packs are not intrinsically bad. It makes sense for anyone who wants to sell a house to have the information that buyers need readily available in advance. There is nothing to stop sellers getting local authority searches done long before anyone makes an offer. There is good reason for making comprehensive lists of fixtures and fittings. That is fairly standard. Searches and lists have to be completed before legal contracts kick in, so why not get on with it?

The trouble with home information packs, commonly known as HIPs, is that we cannot stick a For Sale board in our front garden unless we have already paid for a glossy information pack before we even start. We need not waste time ringing the man from Snipcock, Sidewinder and Winge. He is not allowed to market our des. res. unless our HIP is in order. The Government claim that HIPs will speed up house sales. Virtually all estate agents disagree and since they make money only when house sales are completed, they probably know what they are talking about.

A HIP will include local authority searches and land registry checks, which old-fashioned solicitors—there are one or two in this place—used to do, plus one or two brand-new elements, unfortunately. There is to be an energy rating for every home in the market, demanded by our friends from Europe, and a home condition report—a sort of survey that is not conducted by a surveyor, believe it or not. Needless to say, the home condition report is the most controversial element of the whole process.

Home condition reports have to be prepared by home inspectors—a new breed of instant professional invented by the Government. People may prefer their houses to be examined by a qualified surveyor with 30 years' experience—who would not? However, unless he or she chooses to take an expensive and much less rigorous course, he or she will not be permitted to prepare home condition reports.

There are currently only 30 trained home inspectors in England and Wales. By next June, the Government want to have 7,000—a tall order by anybody's standards. The Government claim that there are 4,000 in training but the true figure is much smaller. We cannot blame those who have embarked on that new
 
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career path—they have been promised lucrative futures. The price of a home information pack is £1,000 plus VAT and every house on the market will have to have one. So that is the territory of big new money, with big new VAT returns for—guess who—the Treasury, and very big bucks for those companies that already undermine high street solicitors and chartered surveyors. Those are the guys who will really clean up, selling the pack programmes to eager new home inspectors.

Every hopeful home inspector has already parted with £3,000 to learn the basics. I have two packs with me—they are large. Every hopeful home inspector will need a good quality laptop, broadband access, annual certification costs and a public liability insurance fee, which remains unknown. Nobody can tell us how much it will be. That is the trouble with the existing legislation—too many things have yet to be settled.

Let me give an example. Lawyers pay £5,000 a year each for insurance, and, because there are 55,000 lawyers, they get a discount. It therefore stands to reason that insuring 7,000 brand-new untried home inspectors is likely to cost much more. Maybe that is one reason why there are not enough recruits. In Wales, there are so few that the scheme can hardly start. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) will testify to that absence.

The training providers are getting twitchy too. Courses are now being offered cut-price for qualified surveyors. How would we feel if we had poured our redundancy money into a costly training course only to discover that surveyors were being fast-tracked? How would we feel if we suddenly learned that there would be five completely different certification schemes instead of one? The introduction of home information packs is being made up as it goes along. There are enough moving goalposts to make Wayne Rooney dizzy.

The Government promised details of an experimental dry run by now. We assumed that they would organise it. Silly us. The dry run will be undertaken exclusively by the home information pack industry. Estate agents, lawyers and surveyors will not even be involved. As a realistic test bed of how the system might work, it is a guaranteed failure. How can one replicate the stresses and strains of the housing market if one leaves out the people who actually deal with it?

I said that I was not against home information packs—I am not. I am not even against home condition reports if they offer buyers and sellers realistic alternatives, but they do not. Let us suppose that one wants a mortgage. One cannot simply wave the home condition report at the building society. The Council of Mortgage Lenders assures me that formal valuations will still be demanded at extra cost. Let us suppose that someone is worried about the condition of an outside wall—are not we all, with Westminster Hall? A home condition report will state that it is made of brick, stone or concrete and give a basic impression of wear and tear. The problem is that it is a matter of ticking boxes—hundreds of them. Hon. Members can borrow the reports if they like. However, one is not getting a proper survey from a properly qualified surveyor. Unless the
 
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transaction is incredibly simple, one will want to get a lawyer to take a look at the home information pack. The Government are forcing on us a way of selling our houses: this is yet another charge. If this new law was meant to save anyone any money, I cannot see how that is going to happen. Perhaps it was meant to speed up house transactions and stop gazumping, but it simply will not do so. The financial evidence suggests quite the opposite.

In Denmark—the only other country to have embraced this system—home condition reports were introduced in 1996. The Deputy Prime Minister of our country says that any fall in Danish house sales was insignificant, but I asked the House of Commons Library to investigate. It obtained figures from the Danish Parliament showing a 10 per cent. fall in house sales in three years. The chief executive of Denmark's estate agents association puts the cost higher still. He says that there are 25 per cent. fewer houses now on the market as a direct result of the introduction of HIPs. Can buyers, sellers and the economy of this nation afford to risk such damage?

Yes, there are many things wrong with the existing system of buying and selling houses. And yes, as in any organisation, there are unscrupulous estate agents, just as there are—from time to time, believe it or not—dodgy politicians. But that does not stop us. What is the point of substituting an untried, untested and largely uncontrolled new regime that will end up costing everyone extra?

I would like publicly to thank one of my constituents, Mr. Nick Lacey. Mr. Lacey is an enlightened estate agent who wants to see his industry properly licensed. He has pointed out to me the pitfalls of this new law and offered the only plausible explanation for why it was introduced: prejudice against the professionals. Someone in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister must class estate agents, lawyers and surveyors as some form of dodgy pond life, because the law that they have introduced is designed to take house sales right out of traditional hands. That is the ultimate aim. The future belongs to a new generation of Arthur Daleys, and an industry of greedy pack providers we have never even heard of. Even their own trade association admits that the structure is wide open to criticism and to cowboys. Let us stop this. Let us look again at the provisions before they come into force and ensure that they do not get through the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Peter Bottomley, Mr. Mark Hoban, Mr. Roger Gale, Anne Milton, Angela Browning, Mr. David Wilshire, Tony Baldry, Mark Pritchard, Ann Winterton and Mrs. Eleanor Laing.


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