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If we can develop a system that avoids at least some elements of the duplication that can, although not in every transaction, occur, we should do so. At present, it is obvious that some transactions involve more than one request for a search and that some individuals seeking to buy a house have a search done on more than one property. If we can avoid that duplication by providing the search in the pack from the beginning, that seems to be a sensible principle. Some properties may have been on the market for so long that a second search must be done. The likelihood, however, is that there will be fewer
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searches and less expenditure under the HIPs proposals than under the current arrangements. No one has ever really tried to dispute that.

If information about the energy efficiency of homes can be incorporated into the system, I would hope that everyone would welcome it. I take the point, however, that if someone is to visit the home for the purpose of ascertaining its energy efficiency, it would be the best use of time and expenditure were an examination of the state of the property and a structural survey also done. That leads me to my next point. The House has a responsibility, as do the Government, to protect people from themselves to a degree. I find incredible the number of people in this country who still buy homes—the biggest financial transaction in their lives—without having a survey done. The only surveys that they have done are by the building societies, and we know how peripheral those can be. If we ask people to engage in a process with that amount of financial commitment, without also requiring them to have a survey completed, we would be failing in our duty as parliamentarians, and the Government would also be failing in their duty. Therefore, a system that requires a survey to be done is sensible.

For those reasons and good principles, a system of HIPs, with HCRs as part of it, seemed to me an appropriate way forward. As well as agreeing to the principle of the Government’s proposal, I also believed that it was right to consider how it would be implemented. Throughout the process, especially in the Bill’s Committee stage, I engaged the Minister in debate and asked for proper pilots to be carried out. If the Government’s statement today means that we will have a proper dry run, a proper look at what will happen, and an opportunity to iron out some of the wrinkles inevitable in any scheme when it is first implemented, I will welcome that. I will not, however, welcome a decision that ultimately means that we do not get the principle of HIPs with HCRs as part of a mandatory process. I will accept the Government’s proposal if an eventual move to mandatory HCRs is still very much on the table, and if the Government are prepared to give serious consideration—as the Minister has committed to do, although she has not committed to introduce the system—to including in the pilots, at least in some cases, an element of mandatory HCRs.

There will be some potential difficulties when the scheme begins. Unlike Conservative Members, however, I have some faith in markets. The people engaged in the process will adapt and change, and all the complaints from the Council of Mortgage Lenders about the dual cost of valuations will melt away. Magically, valuations will appear in most cases and will be co-ordinated with surveys done as part of HCRs. Ultimately, we will find that there is one process, and that lenders who refuse to accept that the introduction of HIPs and HCRs has changed the way in which we buy and sell houses in this country will go out of business. Those who want to stay in business will adapt to the new system, and we will not find that there are two charges up front for valuations.

We have heard all the scare stories about £1,000 upfront, but we know that those are nonsense. What will happen is that HIP providers will come forward who will only charge people when the house is sold.
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How do we know that that will happen? Maria Coleman, who ran the trial scheme in Bristol—which, I understand is still running— came to a deal with all those engaged in the process and the charge was made only at the end of that process. As I said, I have some faith in markets—I am surprised that Conservative Members do not—and they will adapt when the changes come about.

Mr. Wills: There have been a good many scare stories about the effect that HIPs might have had on the housing market. As my hon. Friend well knows, a number of different factors affect the state of the market, including real interest rates, nominal interest rates and disposable incomes. How important does he think the effect of HIPs would have been in comparison with those of all the other factors?

Mr. Betts: I think that the most important factors are the stability of the economy, and confidence that that stability will be maintained in the future. The finding from the Oxford survey that HIPs would have a massive effect on gross domestic product and jobs was entirely predicated on a 10 per cent. fall in the number of housing transactions. The figure was dragged out of thin air; there was no proper assessment. What was said was simply that if there were a 10 per cent. fall, that would be the consequence—which is fine, but it does not mean that HIPs would bring about the 10 per cent. fall in the first place.

We must ensure that the content of HIPs is as useful as possible to both seller and buyer. I have some sympathy with what Opposition Members say about that in their motion. If they really fear that the content is not adequate, and if it is true that more information about electrical installations is needed, I support them. If we are to introduce this document, it is important that we get it right.

I think that HIPs should also include information about the security of homes. Even if that were not mandatory, sellers could state: “This is the information that we have about the security of our homes.” They could say whether burglar alarms and locks had been installed and whether their homes met standards set by the Association of Chief Police Officers. If they chose not to include such information, that would say a fair amount about the state of their homes as well. There could be a section dealing with fire safety, which again would not need to be mandatory. Those who wanted to include the information could do so very clearly, and buyers would observe either that it was there or that it was not.

If a trial helped us to get the content right, it would be beneficial. I am not sure where the Opposition stand on the matter, because their motion states that they want HIPs to contain even more information. If we ensured that the content was right, would they support HIPs? That is the implication of their motion, but it is not what they have said today. At the breakfast meeting that I attended last week with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), he agreed that there should be a paid-for dry run in a part of the country for the introduction of HIPs on a mandatory basis, with mandatory home condition reports. If that is still his position I support him, because I think that it would be quite a good idea to try out the system to see if it worked, and I believe that the markets would adapt to it.

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I hope that the Government have not walked away from HIPs completely. If they are signalling that there is to be a delay, that there are to be trials, that the mandatory scheme is still on the table and that there is a possibility of mandatory dry runs and pilots for HCRs in some parts of the country, I am prepared to go along with that. During the debate, I have heard nothing from the Opposition parties about how they would reform the process of buying and selling houses. If they are telling the country that the current process is perfect, my constituents and many others would be interested to hear their defence of a system that most people would not be prepared to defend.

I want HIPs and HCRs to be introduced because I think that they are right in principle. I want them to be implemented properly and to operate efficiently and effectively before too long, because I believe that that would benefit all our constituents.

3.48 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am grateful and relieved to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to be able to make my first speech in the House during this debate. Indeed, after last Wednesday’s events I am grateful and relieved that there is a debate for me to speak in.

I begin my speech with mixed feelings—in particular, feelings of both humility and sadness. I say that, of course, in relation to my predecessor, the right hon. Eric Forth. It is not easy to follow someone who became a legend in the House in his own lifetime. He was an exceptional parliamentarian, someone who was passionate about the House and passionate about the defence of its rights, as he was passionate about the rights and freedoms of the individual. He was passionate about the integrity of the democratic and legislative process. If he sometimes made himself less than popular on Friday mornings in that regard, it was because he believed in the importance of making any measure presented to the House subject to the most rigorous scrutiny. It would be interesting to know what he might have said had he been here to contribute to this debate.

I must also express a measure of sadness, because Eric was a good friend to me, as is his wife, Carol, who many hon. Members will know was a great support in all that he did. He had many friends among right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House. He also had many friends in the constituency of Bromley and Chislehurst. Despite the myth that he assiduously cultivated to the contrary, he was a very dedicated constituency MP.

It is very difficult for me to fill his shoes and stand in his place. I can endeavour only to do my best. Members will have their own recollections of Eric and his endeavours in the House, and many of the tributes paid to him were accepted on all sides. I particularly liked one tribute to the effect that Eric

He would have liked and appreciated those sentiments and the spirit with which they were expressed. It sums up what he believed was his duty as an MP—to say what he believed without fear or favour. We all know that he certainly did that throughout his entire career here.

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By way of a final tribute to Eric, I can say two further things. He was a legendary debater, as I know from observing some of his debates on television. Many Members will recall his sparring across the Chamber with the late Robin Cook. Many people I spoke to during the by-election campaign commented on the ironic tragedy of those two great parliamentarians being taken from us prematurely. Secondly, in summation, my ultimate tribute to Eric is to express my sadness that I am here in his place rather than joining him here.

Given the past few weeks, Bromley and Chislehurst may not be wholly unknown to right hon. and hon. Members and I am certainly grateful to my hon. Friends who took the opportunity to make their acquaintance with the constituency. The area is described in a well known reference book as a classic piece of London suburbia. I might take issue with that a little, because it does not do justice to the diversity of the constituency or to suburbia itself. The truth is that it is part of Kent and many of my constituents regard themselves as inhabitants of Kent as much as of London. Over the years, the area was eaten up by the growth of the metropolis and the advance of the railways.

A range of communities live within the area. To the north is the village of Mottingham. Moving down towards Chislehurst, originally a village on one of the main roads towards Maidstone and we move through the former garden suburb of Bickley to the old market town of Bromley, which was once a summer residence of the bishops of Rochester. It grew into a major commercial centre, as it happily remains today, based on the main railway line to London. We then move on to the suburbs of Hayes and the village of Keston.

Over the years, the area has attracted a variety of residents. I am told that W. G. Grace lived in Mottingham and, while I was canvassing, I discovered at the northern tip of the constituency the house in which he lived. I also discovered that he had a total score in first-class matches of 55,213. Now that is a result! I am conscious that I am going to have to up my run rate a little if I am to match that.

Chislehurst was at one time home to Emperor Napoleon III during his exile in this country. He was attracted, apparently, by its easy rail access to London—plus ├ža change, some might say. A later inhabitant was Richmal Crompton and many people say that characters and places in the “Just William” books can be identified in Chislehurst to this day. One story was entitled something like “William Gets By” and, after the by-election, I have some sympathy with that sentiment; indeed, I remember thinking that I should re-read that story.

Bromley was home to H. G. Wells who, happily from my point of view, did not have as lasting an impact on the political philosophy of its residents as he might have done. Even more dramatically, the place was home to Prince Peter Kropotkin, author of the theory of anarchism.

On a different tack, William Pitt the Younger had his home at Holmwood in the southern end of the constituency, and it is particularly relevant, with the anniversary of the abolition of slavery coming up, that it was in the gardens there that he and William Wilberforce talked about Wilberforce’s proposals to abolish the slave trade.

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So my constituency has had a pretty varied and lively past—not entirely typical of suburbia, I would submit. Of course, its present-day occupants and residents come from a diverse background, too. What they have in common, as well as that dual identity between London and Kent, is that they are the people who through their skills and hard work are the engine that keeps London the economic powerhouse and centre that it is. That is true of all suburbia, and the contribution of its inhabitants to the capital and the nation is therefore often seriously underestimated.

People choose to live in the outer-London suburbs because they believe that doing so gives them and their families and children a better quality of life. They are prepared to tolerate journeys on the railways that are probably marginally less stately or comfortable than those that Napoleon III enjoyed, precisely because they want to live in a community that has greenery and space. It was clear during the by-election campaign that that feature is threatened: people are concerned that the qualify of life in those suburbs is undermined by the pressures of building. They are not nimbies—they want their own children to have homes to live in—but they are concerned that the development of those new homes should be in the right place and should not take place at the cost of the existing environment.

People are concerned about the cost of living in suburban London—for example transport costs, but also the costs of council tax and housing, which is why I wanted to speak in this debate—but above all they are concerned that a one-size-fits-all planning policy, coming from the Mayor of London, threatens to undo the benefits of the suburbs and not offer the advantages that might have been intended. That is a key issue for them, and they fear that they will see more and more in-fill development, which cannot be sustainable in the long term for anyone.

One of my predecessors as the Member for the Bromley part of the constituency was, of course, the late Earl of Stockton, Harold Macmillan. Although I appreciate that I am more mature than some new entrants to the House, I cannot pretend that I remember him when he was Prime Minister, other than as a black-and-white figure flickering on the television set in my parents’ home. However, as I became involved in politics as a student, his legacy was still a fresh and cogent one, which has remained with me for a long time.

I have re-read Alistair Horne’s remarkable biography of Macmillan, and he made the point that, among Macmillian’s many qualities, those that stood out were his ability to think forwards—to relate the basic principles of his philosophy and of his party, when he was its leader, to the challenges both of today and of tomorrow—and his great skill in restating those principles in terms of the issues of today and in the language of today, tackling at that time the growth of the post-war mass consumer society. That need is as relevant now as ever, so I am glad to say that I think that the spirit of Harold Macmillan lives on among my right hon. and hon. Friends in the House and elsewhere.

Of course, Macmillan’s first great contribution in redefining the post-war Conservative party was in housing. It was Macmillan who set out practical and
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deliverable means of increasing the supply of housing and of advancing home ownership. That is something about which my constituents feel very passionately indeed, and that sentiment applies right across the breadth of society.

The London assembly, of which I currently have the honour to be a member, carried out a survey of key public sector workers as long ago as 2001. That survey identified that some 77 per cent. of the people who drive our buses, who are our police officers, who are our teachers and who work in the medical profession, such as nurses—those who keep the city ticking along—had an aspiration to own their own homes. It was the inability to purchase in London that often caused those people to leave the capital. When considering the home information pack proposal, I asked whether it would make it any easier for those people to achieve that aspiration. I will adhere to the convention and attempt to be as non-controversial as possible, but I regret to say that the evidence that I have received does not persuade me that that would be the case.

In particular, I have, for obvious reasons, had more opportunity than most to talk to members of the general public in the past few months. Whenever the issue was raised—more often than one might think—on the doorstep, not one person had anything to say in favour of the proposals. They were not at all backwoodsmen but ordinary members of the public who aspire to encourage home ownership for their children and feel that the home information packs will be a hindrance, rather than a help. I take the point that there is always room for improvement in how we deal with home purchase and selling, but it is not an advance to identify the problem and come up with the wrong answer. That is what concerned the people I met about the Government’s original proposals. They are concerned that inevitably—and despite all that we have heard in this debate—the costs will be passed on to the purchaser, which will bear especially harshly on first-time buyers, who will often have to commission their own surveys because they are likely to borrow more than the 80 per cent. of the value of the property that is likely to be the cut-off point, and will need greater comfort because they will not have a track record with the financial institutions. The changes will make the task of first-time buyers harder. Those in Bromley already have to raise more than the normally accepted rate in terms of the earnings to borrowing ratio and the proposals will make that harder.

It is also clear that the proposals will not assist in the matter of structural subsidence. There was much publicity in my constituency recently when some homes in the centre of Bromley disappeared into a hole in the ground. The incident also caused the main line out of Victoria and the Eurostar to be suspended for some time. The proposals would not have assisted those people. They will, however, pose an additional bureaucratic burden.

I have considered the regulations and the explanatory notes, which run to more than 104 pages of text. I accept the genuineness of the desire to make home purchase less stressful, but I am not sure that ploughing through this legislation would make it less stressful for anyone. As well as speaking to ordinary residents, I have taken the opportunity to speak to
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professionals, and I would not sneer at their views. Those who have had 20 or 30 years of experience as conveyancing or trust solicitors say that they have a real fear that the proposals will cause fewer houses to come on to the market. They are not whipping up a froth in support of vested interests: those to whom I talked struck me as persons of integrity who gave me the benefit of their own empirical experience. That should be of value in deciding the best approach to this issue.

I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. Eric Forth’s favourite word was “why”. I suspect that he would have applied that test to these proposals and I fear that he would have drawn the conclusion that he had not had a satisfactory answer. From all that I have heard, I have not had one either.

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