Previous Section Index Home Page

As I was pointing out, we Conservatives welcomed the report by independent lenders GMAC-RFC, which pointed out that, unfortunately, the introduction of
19 July 2006 : Column 348
home information packs could—if the Government had gone ahead with them—have had profoundly destabilising effects on the housing market. That report took the Government’s own projections of the likely effect of home information packs—a 10 per cent. reduction in the number of properties for sale—and fed the figures through the Treasury model. The report showed that, as a result of pressing ahead, there would have been a deleterious effect not just on economic stability, but on gross domestic product and unemployment. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) laughs, but the silence from the Treasury at that point was notable. It did not utter any criticism, as it so often does when independent economic reports and forecasts are made, of that report. Indeed, shortly after it was published, the Treasury made its feelings known and, sure enough, the Minister for Housing and Planning, who keeps in close touch with Treasury thinking, ensured that it was taken proper heed of and that a voluntary scheme was introduced.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Was not the sad reading from the Whip’s brief that we heard earlier evidence of the Government’s considerable embarrassment at having got the worst of all possible worlds? My hon. Friend is being far too kind to the Minister —[Interruption.]

Emily Thornberry: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not reading from the Whip’s brief, but from my own fair hand. I have many notes and pieces of paper here—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair; it is a point of debate and the answer is now on the record.

Tony Baldry: Does not the hypersensitivity of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) at my pointing out her reading from the Whip’s brief demonstrate that the Government are greatly embarrassed? As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is being far too kind to the Minister, and we are ending up with the worst of all possible worlds. The chief executive of the Association of Home Information Pack Providers says that the energy performance certificates will cost £200 each, which is a ludicrous price for people to have to pay when moving home, on top of everything else. My hon. Friend is being far too gallant today in his comments to the Minister.

Michael Gove: I am flattered by the generous words of my hon. Friend; it has always been my intention to forge a consensus, wherever possible. Under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), we have said that, when the Government do the right thing, we will agree with them. Belatedly, the Minister has done the right thing, so it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; his perspicacity and astuteness has led to the Government changing their mind. It is not as if we did not warn them. When this matter was debated in
19 July 2006 : Column 349
Committee during the passage of the Housing Act 2004, we told them that home information packs would be a disaster, because they would end first-day marketing, add costs to the system and put pressure on those already facing difficulties in selling or buying. We also pointed out that they would not get enough inspectors. All those things have come true. Why did the Government not recognise that then, and why have they pursued this policy with such vigour ever since?

Michael Gove: I thank my hon. Friend very much for his intervention and he is quite right. He and my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) exhibited rare prescience during the passage of the Housing Bill, pointing out precisely the dangers that the Government have only now recognised. The question that we have to ask is why it has taken the Government two years and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to realise the folly that was clearly pointed out to them by my colleagues.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Gove: What an embarrassment of choices! I give way to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am listening carefully to what he has to say. Is he aware—I speak as a former domestic conveyancing solicitor—that there is profound concern at the huge costs involved for consumers, about whom I know he is very concerned, in proceeding to purchases that inevitably fail because of vendors’ failure to disclose? Is it not right that we should try to improve what is a defective conveyancing system?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I am grateful to him for declaring his interest. We should certainly seek to improve the conveyancing system, but nothing in the Government’s proposals would have done so. It was clear, particularly from the comments of smaller solicitors directly involved in conveyancing, that by proceeding as the Government planned to do before yesterday’s written statement, specialist conveyancing solicitors would have lost out. Family firms that provide diversity and competition would have been swallowed up by a move toward conglomerates, which would have provided a poorer and shoddier service.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Gove: Now, the embarrassment of choices is slightly smaller. I give way to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster).

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he is looking for consensus, can we decide what we do agree about? Does he believe that energy performance certificates are an important element, or does he oppose them, as well?

Michael Gove: I agree that energy performance certificates are very important; indeed, we—like, I think, every party in this House—are happy to see the EU directive
19 July 2006 : Column 350
in question implemented. But I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that his own Government have specified that people do not need home information packs in order to comply with that directive. The Northern Ireland Office made that perfectly clear in 2004 and 2006, and I am sorry that the briefing supplied by the Government did not enlighten him on that fact.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Gove: Now, I give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts).

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He believed last week that vendors, when selling their property, ought to provide information on electrical safety, flood risk and contaminated land. Does he still believe that they should provide that information up front when selling a property, and does he still believe—as he also did last week—that, in order to ascertain the precise effect on the markets of the move to home information packs, there should be a paid-for, dry-run pilot scheme in certain parts of the country?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman has gifts of clairvoyance or second sight even greater than those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there was no debate last week on this issue, so there was no opportunity for me to make my views clear. He very helpfully makes a point that we have been trying to make—that the home condition reports that the Government were going to introduce would not have enlightened people as to flood risk, contamination or the threat of radon gas in properties that they might have purchased. As a result, clearly deficient information would have been provided.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said earlier that, in order to operate effectively, markets have to give people adequate or appropriate information. The home condition reports simply would not have done that, as the Council of Mortgage Lenders pointed out. As the Prime Minister made clear at the Dispatch Box not two hours ago, that was one of the reasons why the Minister had to execute the U-turn that she did.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Gove: I am delighted to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being most generous. This knockabout is all very well, but will he address the plight of home inspectors? Some 232 have qualified so far, having paid about £7,000 to do the course, and many more are in training. What are they going to do? Are they going to be left to hang out to dry as a result of this Government’s further U-turn?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. One question that we must ask is, what is going to happen to all those people who were encouraged to invest up to £8,000 of their personal fortunes in training for a scheme that will not now be implemented?
19 July 2006 : Column 351
They have all been marched up to the top of the hill, only to be marched down. In contemplating the Deputy Prime Minister’s translation to the upper House, it is a great pity to note that the title of grand old Duke of York has already been taken. His position on this issue fits him adequately for that title.

Several hon. Members rose—

Michael Gove: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson).

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I wonder whether hope is in sight for inspectors who are partly trained or hoping to train. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the conclusion of yesterday’s statement says:

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point in saying that the Government are attempting to cover their nakedness in their retreat by saying that they retain the right to introduce mandatory home condition reports. One of the questions we all have to ask is, given how few people trained as home inspectors and given how the Government have already reneged on the deal that they implicitly entered into with those people who did train, who now would be foolish enough to invest £8,000 to become a home inspector? I think it extremely unlikely that we will see any return of mandatory home condition reports.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend have a sense of déj vu? Only a little while ago we had the home computer initiative, which seemed to encourage people to invest in their own training, only for them to find the Government pulling the rug from under them. To me, those inspectors seem to be in exactly the same position.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and might well have pointed out the scandal of the Government’s U-turn on self-invested personal pensions, where they encouraged people to make a series of investments only suddenly to pull the rug from underneath them. One of the key things that makes markets work is stability and certainty. One of the key aspects of the way in which the Government have operated has been their encouraging people to make investments then changing the rules so that those investments trickle into the sand. For a Government who seem to be committed to prudence, they are remarkably improvident with other people’s money.

Emily Thornberry: For certainty, could you help me? We are obviously slightly slow on this side of the House, but are you in favour of energy performance certificates, or are you not? If you could just say yes or no—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I might remind the hon. Lady of the convention of the House that means that “you” is the occupant of the Chair. I do not declare what I am in favour of.

19 July 2006 : Column 352

Emily Thornberry: Would the hon. Gentleman enlighten those of us on the Labour Benches on whether he is in favour of energy performance certificates? Would the hon. Gentleman help us by simply saying yes or no? [Hon. Members: “He has.”] He seems to have said yes and no today, so might he give us one definitive answer? Is it yes, he is in favour of them, or is it no, he is not? We would really appreciate an answer.

Michael Gove: I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Lady, who gives me the opportunity to repeat the point that I made to her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster). I absolutely believe that we should comply with the EU directive, as I mentioned in response to her hon. Friend. The Government—her Government—have made it clear that we do not need home information packs in order to comply with that directive. They have made that clear in Northern Ireland, and what is sauce for the Ulster goose should be sauce for the rest of the UK gander.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on his sustained comments on this matter and on making the Government make a U-turn in their statement yesterday. Is he aware that the gestation of this issue lies as far back as the Labour party manifesto of 1997? Since then, they have had three general elections and two Bills in Committee, and numerous eminent bodies have told them their proposal would not work. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government need to become slightly quicker learners?

Michael Gove: I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I pay tribute to him for being one of the most dogged and persistent interrogators of the Government in this regard. It is thanks to the questions that he has asked and the speeches that he has made that the Government have been forced to conclude where they have.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) indicated dissent.

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman tries to make a sedentary intervention. If he would like to rise and make an argument, I should be more than happy to counter it. If not, I suggest he listens and learns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) offered a stricture on my concern for the Minister for Housing and Planning. However, I sympathise with her. She, as much as any of us, is a victim of the serial incompetence of the late Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. In 2004, the then Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), argued that home information packs would end a shambolic home-buying and selling process. The right hon. Gentleman is now parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister, so he is well qualified to talk about shambolic home-buying and selling processes.

During the passage of the Act that brought the packs into force, when the right hon. Member for Streatham held the post of Minister for Housing and Planning, the case for making the packs voluntary—the case that the present Minister has now accepted—
19 July 2006 : Column 353
was made forcibly and eloquently by my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings, for Poole and for Cotswold. As we have heard, that was all to no avail. The Minister heard the arguments; she was on the Committee. But she was honour-bound to follow where the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) led, and that, as we know, is always a dangerous path to follow.

The ODPM is now no more. The Minister is free from that encumbrance and has at last found her voice. It has taken a little time, though. As recently as two months ago, she was hailing home information packs as a welcome reform that would transform the home-buying and selling process. Only last month, she trumpeted the improved efficiency that HIPs would bring. We tried to point out the flaws in the scheme to her, but she denounced us—all of us—for being in the pocket of vested interests. Now, though, she has accepted our case that the scheme is flawed at its heart and needs a fundamental review. It would be, I have to say, churlish for us to do anything other than express our delight. As I am sure the Secretary of State will have told the Minister, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has had to say and he has had a lot of cheap laughs. But the home improvement pack has been introduced to safeguard the interests of first-time buyers, so while he has his cheap dig at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister he might remember that the Deputy Prime Minister has introduced a number of significant safety measures to homes that have meant less people losing their lives in their homes. The hon. Gentleman has dismissed the home condition report, but applauded the energy saving instrument. That is fine, but to get energy saving, we need some of the instruments available in those home condition reports. He said no to that, and what he is actually saying is no to better home efficiency—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady knows that interventions must be brief.

Michael Gove: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady’s intervention might perhaps be better directed to her hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. If she is such a great fan of home condition reports, she should concentrate her strictures on the Minister responsible for torpedoing that flagship.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas indicated dissent.

Michael Gove: One thing I should say is that we are actually debating home information packs, not, as the hon. Lady implied, home improvement packs. There is a clear distinction between the two. Home information packs are the legislation that we are discussing; home improvement packs are merely a solipsism to which the hon. Lady fell prey.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that references to first-time buyers bring to mind the fact that first-time buyers are often short of money? They have enough stress as it is and the need to produce extra cash for these useless packs—[Hon. Members: “They do not!”] Perhaps Members on the other side—

Next Section Index Home Page