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It is important that people have up-to-date information. Shops such as Comet or Currys make sure that their fridges carry energy efficiency ratings. The introduction of those ratings means that it is hard to find a fridge or washing machine that is not A rated. Those certificates have been important, as they have
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provided people in the market with information and an opportunity to make decisions accordingly. Given the serious climate change challenges we face, it is right that we provide people with such information. It is deeply unfortunate that Conservative Members are so opposed to the measures and have tried to water down energy performance certificates, which is why organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature and Friends of the Earth have been so critical of their approach.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps)? Why have the Government done things differently in Northern Ireland?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Lady may be aware that a different approach is being taken not only in Northern Ireland but also in Scotland. It is right that we provide people with proper energy performance information that they can use to cut their carbon emissions and to reduce their fuel bills. They can also use the information to get access to grants and additional help—to install loft lagging or cavity wall insulation. When we look at houses, not many of us think about whether there is cavity wall insulation. For the first time, the certificates will provide people with that important information.

It is unfair that people are denied such information, which is why we support its provision, and it is deeply disappointing that Conservative Members are so hostile to it— [ Interruption. ] They have been hostile; they have tried to water down energy performance certificates. Indeed, the party chair did not want the certificates to be introduced at all because she is opposed to energy assessors visiting homes to carry out the work.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield suggested that an easier way to do the work would be to ask Centrica to provide energy performance certificates. I have to inform him that Centrica is already putting energy performance certificates into the market because it believes that they are a good thing.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) rose—

Yvette Cooper: I give way to a huge champion of measures to tackle the environment.

Mr. Redwood: How right the Minister is, but I like effective measures, not imposed measures of questionable value. We do not like the element of compulsion. If energy certificates were valuable, people would buy them.

As the Minister says that she wants more affordable housing, will she tell us how far house prices will have to fall before she thinks houses will be affordable?

Yvette Cooper: I shall be happy to have a discussion with the right hon. Gentleman about affordable housing. I intend to say more about it shortly. The problem with house prices over the past 30 years is that they have risen so much faster than earnings, as a result of the lack of house building or insufficient house building. Even the houses that have been built were
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strongly opposed by the Conservative party and by Conservative MPs across the country.

I want to complete my remarks about energy performance certificates, as they are important. The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield revealed the view of the Conservative party: the Conservatives do not believe in energy performance certificates, do not want them introduced and lack commitment to them. The hon. Gentleman told the Conservative conference that he wanted to abolish home information packs. He did not say that he wanted to retain energy certificates. He was challenged by Building magazine, which reported:

That reveals the Conservatives’ approach. They are not interested in action on the environment or in the energy performance certificates that are making a huge difference by giving people throughout the country proper information.

Grant Shapps: I hope the Minister will accept that as EU law is not optional energy certificates have to be part of it. We are simply arguing that the process is much less bureaucratic in Northern Ireland and she still has not answered the fundamental question why the same thing cannot happen in England.

Yvette Cooper: In other words, the hon. Gentleman grudgingly accepts energy performance certificates because he believes that he is being forced to do so by Europe. That is his approach. We think we are right to put energy performance certificates in place. They have been implemented earlier than in many other European countries because of the decisions we have taken.

Members have also made points about the impact of the measures on the housing market and about stability in the housing market, which is an important issue. However, they are wrong to say that everything that has been happening in the housing market is the result of HIPs—although we understand why they are doing so. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) has already pointed out, the housing market was quiet in many areas even before HIPs were introduced. Things were quiet throughout the market, even for one or two-bedroom properties.

Stability in the housing market is important, and the Government have to do what they can, through their areas of responsibility, to support it. That means doing what they can to support low mortgage rates through good macro-economic management and sound public finances. The measures in the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield would put that at risk. We know, of course, how the Conservatives screwed up in the past: mortgage rates hit 15 per cent. and remained at over 10 per cent. for many months at a time. As a result, 75,000 people lost their homes in one year alone. Part of the mismanagement that contributed to the recession was down to the Conservative Government’s complete lack of control over the public finances.

I repeat that the approach that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members take to stamp duty is to set out a completely unfunded proposal, and that is part of creating a huge black hole in the public
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finances, which is irresponsible. There are unfunded proposals on inheritance tax and on tax cuts for the married, and the sums do not stack up. It does actually matter that Opposition Members’ sums do not stack up. It matters to real people—to mortgage holders and homeowners. If the public finances do not stack up, and if one blows a hole in the public finances, interest rates and mortgage rates go up. It is not a game; it actually affects people in the real world. Serious parties that are interested in government have to take such matters into account. That is why the hon. Gentleman’s approach is so irresponsible.

Opposition Members chose the subject for debate. They talked about home information packs, and only marginally about stamp duty, because their views on HIPs are all that they have as housing policy. They are not prepared to face up to the serious decisions that have to be taken to promote housing market stability and help first-time buyers.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that her Department has invested a substantial amount of money in research on producing eco-friendly housing, and housing that is a net negative user of electricity, and which can indeed even export it? One of the reasons we need energy performance certificates is so that we can start with existing housing stock and produce a far better environmental and carbon footprint. A consequence of that is investment in research and businesses that are interested in the environment.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right, and there is a lot that we can do with new and existing homes to help to cut the carbon emissions from housing. It is right to do so, and irresponsible not to, given the carbon emissions that come from housing.

We must recognise that if our aim is to promote stability in the housing market, and to help first-time buyers, that means building more homes in the long term. We understand that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield always feels a bit traumatised when we speak about building more homes. We have teased him before in the House about his local “No way to 10K” campaign. Let me remind the House what his local website said on the day he was appointed Conservative housing spokesperson:

A week later, he changed it, so that it said

The hon. Gentleman was asked by Inside Housing to explain his views, and particularly to say whether his local “No way to 10K” housing campaign made him a nimby. He answered:

We thought it was bad policy, but it is just bad poetry.

Opposition Members are campaigning in every corner of the country against increased housing. I do not criticise Tory MPs who oppose individual developments, because we all know that there are atrocious developments that should be blocked at local
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level, but the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield knows that Conservative MPs across the country oppose increased housing.

Grant Shapps rose—

Yvette Cooper: I shall let the hon. Gentleman intervene if he will join me in condemning, for example, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who summed this up when he was asked on BBC radio whether he supported more homes in his constituency and he said:

Grant Shapps: I am grateful to the Minister for citing a popular local campaign in my constituency; we are willing to build 6,000 houses, but 10,000 is too many. Incidentally, the campaign is supported by the entire local Labour party. Will the Minister comment on the behaviour of six of her Cabinet colleagues who are opposing development in their constituencies?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman was clearly not listening, because I said just 30 seconds ago that I do not criticise Tory MPs who oppose individual developments, as they might well be atrocious and inappropriate. However, I do criticise Conservative MPs who oppose overall increases in housing because they think that there should be fewer homes in their constituencies and across the country. They are not supporting the additional homes that the country needs— [ Interruption. ] The Labour party supports having 3 million more homes by 2020 and I challenge the Conservatives to do the same —[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the sedentary chorus from the Opposition Front Bench is becoming a little intrusive.

Yvette Cooper: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I challenge Conservative Members to support the increased housing that we need in Britain. They should support having 3 million more homes by 2020 and the fact that 1 million of those must be zero carbon. They should join us in signing up to support the additional housing that first-time buyers and people on council lists need. We need those homes. No matter what else the hon. Gentleman says, as long as they oppose the increases in housing that we badly need, they are betraying first-time buyers and people on council waiting lists, and their housing policy is a sham. He should forget the policy and stick to the poetry.

4.52 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): It has long been clear that the introduction of home information packs was a shambles. That argument has been rehearsed many times, not only today, but back in the summer in this House and in the other place, and many times before. I shall not go into all the details again because we all know them.

Suffice it to say, the introduction of HIPs is emblematic of this Labour Government and of a lack of transparency. Where are the reports that they carried out on the pilot studies before the introduction
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of HIPs? Why have they still not been shared with us and with the public? It is also emblematic of sheer incompetence. The introduction of this bungled scheme has cost the taxpayer about £20 million to date, and since the summer of 2006 we have seen three sets of regulations, a legal challenge from the professionals and the scrapping of the compulsory home condition reports.

So much about HIPs remains clouded. When will the Minister release the results of those pilot tests? Why has there been such a delay? Since the legislation came into force, how long has it taken to put the packs together and how does that compare with the four to five days envisaged by the Government? The Minister said that the answer is seven to eight days. The scheme has been running for nine weeks, so for how many of those weeks and on how big a sample is that figure based? How much have the packs cost in reality, and how does that compare with the £400 average predicted by the Government? The Minister suggested that the answer is £300 to £350 on average so far, but on how many weeks and on how big a sample is that based? Given that this legislation has been so controversial, surely she should share this information and research with the House, so that we can reach an informed decision on HIPs and their future.

The motion concentrates not so much on HIPs but on their effect on a fragile housing market. It seems to ignore the fact that a struggling housing market is the result of many other factors, including the lack of social housing to rent, which puts a huge upward pressure on house prices; the moratorium on council house building over the past 10 to 13 years; the lack of affordable housing, which also forces up house prices; the housing investment frenzy, whereby housing is increasingly seen as a speculative investment rather than as a home; the effect of, and crisis arising from, cheaper money generally; and the effect of the sub-prime market. When that hit the US, we were told that it would not be a problem in this country, yet a week later the Northern Rock disaster happened. How much more of that is still to feed through into the housing market?

The Conservative motion does not mention any of that, and it seems to blame a fragile housing market on HIPs. It provides an answer by suggesting the scrapping of stamp duty for first-time buyers on houses up to £250,000. One obvious question is how to define a first-time buyer. If, for example, a divorced couple buy a house separately later, is either of them a first-time buyer? Is one of them a first-time buyer? If separated partners go on to buy a house with a new partner, and the new partner has never bought a house before, are the new couple first-time buyers or not?

James Duddridge: Would it not be possible to establish whether those people’s names were on a mortgage paper or on deeds? If not, they would be first-time buyers.

Paul Holmes: That ignores the point that I just made. If a married couple or a couple living together separate and sell their house, and if one of those partners goes on to buy a house with another partner who has never bought a house before, does the new couple with a joint mortgage count as a new buyer or not? There are dozens of other examples that would confuse the system and create a bureaucratic nightmare.

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Dr. Starkey: May I add a couple of other examples that are not dealt with by the helpful intervention from the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge)? First, an individual who was extraordinarily rich and had bought a house cash in hand would not have a mortgage but would be able to masquerade as a first-time buyer. Secondly, what if someone got their child to buy a house, which they then bought from them? They would not really be a first-time buyer. The scope for defrauding the system is enormous.

Paul Holmes: I agree. Many other examples could be cited to show the confusion that would arise from trying to define a first-time buyer under the scheme.

Does the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) think that abolishing stamp duty would, for example, help a 24-year-old earning £20,000 to buy a home in London or many other urban areas? How would the proposal help young families? It is irrelevant for many first-time buyers.

More alarming is what was not in the motion. How would the Conservatives provide for the long-term affordability of housing, as the motion does not deal with that? Would they build genuinely affordable homes, and how would they end the emasculation of council housing? The hon. Gentleman’s speech was full of buzz words and aspiration, but answers were absent.

The stamp duty announcement had more than a hint of Blairite spin. It was a good headline-grabbing initiative but will it do any good? Even if we leave aside the questionable economics, there are innumerable problems. For example, a Halifax survey in December 2006 stated that the average salary necessary to afford a house was just under £30,000 a year, so there is a genuine affordable homes crisis. Teachers, nurses and postmen, to name a few, all earn less than that. How will a token measure on stamp duty help those people and help the market as a whole?

Moving on to the questionable economics, perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not read The Daily Telegraph on Monday, in which three economists all discredited the stamp duty proposal and stated that rather than helping home buyers, it would benefit sellers and increase house prices.

Mr. Goodwill: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the north of England, in places such as Scarborough and Chesterfield, the stamp duty proposal would help many people?

Paul Holmes: I fail to see how, in places such as Chesterfield and much of the midlands and the north, scrapping stamp duty would help many first-time buyers. Although the average first-time house buyer pays about £169,000, that is not remotely the position in my constituency or in many areas in the north and the midlands. I do not see how it would help there.

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