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Mr. Raynsford: A process of training took place in which many people, including the one to whom I referred, enrolled and for which they paid good money. With proper implementation, they could have benefited from that training in full. As it is, they are benefiting from the introduction of the limited scheme and the work on energy performance certificates. Some of them are working on home condition reports, but the scale is not what was originally anticipated and hoped. It is the
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Opposition who are responsible for that, because it was they who called for the scrapping of the scheme, not this side of the House.

Another thing that is not required is scaremongering about the impact of HIPs, in which the Opposition have also indulged. Claiming that HIPs have single-handedly led to a decline in the market is economic nonsense. As I pointed out in an earlier intervention, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has published a survey showing that new instructions to sell property fell in August for the third consecutive month. Most people who were against HIPs said that there would be a rush to get properties on to the market before their introduction as people would not have to pay for one, and a decline when they were introduced. According to that analysis, there should have been booms in June and July and a fall-away in August. Not a bit of it: the fall began in June and it continued in July and August. There is not a shred of evidence to support the scaremongering from the Opposition.

I regret the Opposition’s economic illiteracy. If they did a little more homework and looked at the detailed analysis, they would see that the pattern varied regionally. It was not a uniform pattern; in fact, the RICS said that in August there had been “marginal increases” in instructions in London and Yorkshire and Humberside. Why were there increases in instructions in London and Yorkshire and Humberside following the introduction of HIPs? There was a uniform national introduction of HIPs. Why was there regional variation if HIPs were the entire reason for those decreases? Once again, there is clear evidence that the Opposition’s case is completely unfounded and fanciful.

What is required is calm rational analysis and support for ways to progress the implementation of HIPs until they deliver the benefits that they have the potential to deliver. That requires ensuring that we get as much information up front to buyers at the start of the process. That has already begun, but there is a long way to go. We must also realise the benefits for first-time buyers, who are the sole gainers from HIPs. HIPs have no downsides for them whatever. First-time buyers do not have to incur any costs at all in commissioning a HIP, but they receive the benefit. At a time when we are concerned about the interests of first-time buyers, that should surely be a pertinent consideration.

We also need to continue to apply downward pressure on the time and the cost of various elements in the process. I am thinking particularly of searches, in which too many slow and inefficient processes are still involved, and valuations, where I have referred to the unreasonable demands imposed on potential buyers because of the requirement that they should pay for an expensive survey and valuation, when in practice an automated valuation could in most cases give the information much more cheaply and quickly.

So far I have not mentioned energy performance certificates, which are hugely important, because we all recognise that climate change is the biggest challenge that our society faces. However good we are at improving the energy performance of new properties, the poor energy performance of many existing homes is a fundamental problem. That is why it is essential that house buyers purchasing an existing property are given
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accurate information at the outset about the energy efficiency of that home and about what cost-effective measures they can take to improve it. They can thereby see, for example, that there is a relatively short pay-back period for certain improvements that they could make cost-effectively and thus both reduce their own costs and help to reduce carbon emissions.

That is common sense. It is absolutely correct and proper. To suggest, as the Opposition do, that the HIPs scheme should be scrapped and that there should be a different introduction of energy performance certificates seems crazy. Energy performance certificates are in place now. We need to extend them, not talk about scrapping the system. That requires, ultimately, the implementation of the whole scheme, which must be extended to all house sizes. I hope that my right hon. Friend will introduce measures as soon as possible to extend the application of HIPs to all houses in the market. Also, to repeat what I said before, it will be necessary to extend the scheme in due course to include home condition reports as well, because that will bring the full benefit of the scheme to the consumer.

I have made it clear that I was not happy with the way in which the scheme was introduced. There were problems and weaknesses, but the situation is not irretrievable. There is a basis on which we can build, and our determination now should be to ensure the benefits to the public and a real improvement in the house buying and selling process.

5.25 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): This is not the first debate that we have had on home information packs, and I doubt that it will be the last. This one is going to run and run. As the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) has just said, the genesis of the matter goes right back to the beginning of the Blair Government. Indeed, I served on the Committee that debated the 2003 Housing Bill, which became the Housing Act 2004. I find it amazing that, having had such a long lead-up, the Government did not get more of their ducks in a row to produce the scheme in good time.

I am not sure that the Government understood what they needed to do to establish the scheme. They needed to build capacity, to get people trained, and to give a degree of certainty of the outcome, yet every time it came to the crunch, they seemed to duck the issue and move away. The abandoning of the home condition reports, which were such a central part of the pack, largely undermined the existing scheme. We on this side of the House take a different point of view from the Government in that we do not think the scheme is salvageable.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich mentioned the losses incurred through transactions not proceeding. There are several reasons why transactions do not proceed, but we do not believe that the solution is to impose costs on the whole selling industry in order to offset the cost of those lost transactions. The cost of the scheme to the industry will in fact be rather higher than the cost of lost transactions under the previous system.

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There were trials, but, as we pointed out in Committee, giving someone a pack for free is rather different from making it compulsory and charging them for it. That was always going to be a difficulty. The Bristol trials were thrown at us on a daily, if not hourly, basis in Committee, and we were told that they were terribly popular. The reality, however, is that this country is somewhat different from Australia and some of the other countries that use this system. When I served on the Housing Bill Committee, I started off by feeling unsure about home information packs, but the more I heard about them, the more convinced I became that the idea would not work in the way that the Government said it would.

The other approach we took in Committee was that if this was such a wonderful idea with such marvellous consumer benefits, and if people wanted it so much, why should it not be a voluntary scheme? Why make it compulsory? We argued that people would pay for it if it would result in an efficient market. The Government responded that they had to make it compulsory so that everyone would have a home information pack in order to speed up the chains and get a more efficient market. At the moment, however, only some housing is in the scheme, so we have a system in which only the buyers and sellers of certain types of houses have HIPs. We do not have a properly working scheme at the moment.

We need an assessment of whether the scheme is working or not, but at the moment it is too early to tell, as we do not have a properly implemented scheme. We will not see the benefits—if there are benefits, as stated by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich—unless we move to a system in which all houses are in the scheme and everyone has to have a pack. The logic of that argument is that we have to speed up the system, which is why I intervened on the Minister to ask when this would happen. If the Government are going to persevere with this, they are going to have to move quickly to include the other houses so that the logic of the system can work properly and effectively.

There are problems. It is all very well for the Government to throw at us the fact that we are against the scheme, but what about the poor inspectors? Many people looked at the websites and saw a business opportunity. They spent £7,000—sometimes £10,000 or £11,000—to train. The proposition on which they undertook that training has changed, however. If they take the optimistic view of the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, the scheme as originally intended might be implemented at some stage in the future. Between now and then, however, the potential marketplace for those people presents a problem. It has been pointed out that they did not get a grant. Some of them set up small businesses, websites and goodness knows what else. I am not sure that an apology would be worth very much, but I certainly think that the Government should give some thought to it. There are many people out there who took the assurances at face value and are now struggling. If the Government are not careful, those people will not do what they were trained to do but go into some other business because they do not see the prospects that they wanted coming to fruition. The capacity in the system will start to
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decline, so the ability to spread the scheme to smaller homes will be less. The Government have got themselves into a bit of a pickle.

A debate on energy performance certificates has taken place across the Chamber and the Minister has talked about savings of up to £300 a property. What we need to remember is that only a small percentage of all this country’s properties come up for sale and that a large percentage of those that do are new build, so they have some environmental benefits within them. About 96 or 97 per cent. of property does not come on to the market. At the moment, only four-bed properties—and we are soon to move to three-bed properties—have a home information pack with the energy performance certificate, so we are talking about only a percentage of a percentage. The vast majority of British housing stock does not have an energy performance certificate.

If we are serious about tackling climate change—we are also going to have to face difficult decisions on what to do about nuclear power and increasing the generating capacity of our nation—the logical approach would be to look at the whole of the housing stock, perhaps over a period of years, to see whether efficiency savings could be made. It is sometimes the homes that are not sold for 20, 30, 40 or 50 years that are most in need of energy performance certificates. On the Government’s approach, yes, it has been implemented early, but it covers only a small percentage of our housing stock. Substantially more could be done if more thought were given to how to spread the benefit throughout the entire housing stock—even to those homes that do not actually come on the market. We would then be able to make much greater and better progress.

Paul Holmes: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that we have to start somewhere? In Germany, the process started a few years ago. The Germans attempted to cover 5 per cent. of existing houses every year in order to bring them up to acceptable energy standards. In San Francisco, it was started 20 years ago. The fact is that we are abysmally behind on environmental measures in this country, but we have to start somewhere. Is this not one of the first steps?

Mr. Syms: I agree, but the Government should have some sort of target for doing the whole housing stock over a period of several, perhaps 10 or more, years. There might be a role for local government here. Why not fund some local authorities to ensure that the housing stock in their areas has a high percentage of energy performance certificates? Those with the highest percentage of housing with certificates should get some kind of benefit. If the carbon footprint and the environmental agenda are important, we have to deal with those aspects in homes, where so much energy is generated and wasted. At the moment, we are considering only a small percentage of the problem, so we can afford to broaden the argument and do substantially more by covering the whole housing stock.

On the question of stamp duty for first-time buyers, we know that there are many concerns about young people not being able to get into the housing market. It is a great fear among many of my constituents, and we all know about the difficulties that youngsters face. We
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also know that many of them are buying at a rather older age—rather than the later 20s, it is the 34s and 35s who are buying—and some of that is down to lifestyle. People get married later; they want to do their own thing by going to Nepal or other places; they do not necessarily want to get into the housing market straightaway.

I would say that even though the Conservative proposals are not the only answer to the problem, they are a help. As we all know, buying a home comes with all sorts of associated expenses—carpets and curtains, for example—and people who are buying a home for the first time because of a relationship or marriage often end up with children. We know that poverty usually hits those families with one or two children in the first years of marriage, often because one of the household incomes goes down if the wife has to give up work. Our proposals offer some help to people who are struggling at the beginning of their adult lives. Insofar as we can pick bits apart, that is fine; it is a debating point. Ultimately, most of us, as politicians, would hope that we can address the problem and help people who want to get on to the housing ladder. What we are doing is helping. I therefore commend what was proposed today by our shadow Minister for Housing and at our party conference. Even if the other parties in the House do not agree with the proposal, let us hope that it engenders public debate about how to address the issue. There is not an easy answer, but the matter is of real concern to our constituents and many young people.

Given the shouting across the Dispatch Box earlier, it seems that housing will probably be a battleground of the future. Building millions of homes is not the answer; we have to manage our existing housing stock. A lot of houses are empty, and a lot are sub-standard and can be done up. One million flats over shops are not in use. Many people live in homes that are too large for them, and tax incentives could be used to bring some of the unused bedrooms and other rooms back into the system and offset some building.

A report by the Town and Country Planning Association, with which the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich has been associated in the past—as president, I think—found that one of the factors in the need to build more houses is longevity. People are living longer not just in the south but in the north and across the UK, so if more houses have to be built to deal with that, they will have to be built across the UK.

Management of our housing stock is just as important as building. Whatever figures Ministers use—2 million or 3 million—we must remember that it is one side of a complicated equation for the provision of decent, environmentally friendly housing stock for our electorate. Using existing stock more effectively is an important part of that.

5.36 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who made a thoughtful speech. I hope that he allows logic to prevail and joins the Government in the Lobby tonight, because his conclusions do not lock into his thoughtful contribution. I feel sorry for the
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hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who had to read the conference speech of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) three times; once would have been a punishment, but three times is far too much for anyone.

I have taken a particular interest in this subject. I accept that there is a constituency interest, and it is not improper to argue the case for one’s constituency in the Chamber. The new, revived Ellesmere Port and Neston constituency has changed dramatically from having an unemployment rate in the mid-teens under the Conservatives to having very low unemployment and exciting, vibrant new companies moving in. One of the companies to move into the Cheshire Oaks business park is LMS, which provides about a fifth of HIPs across the country. I have been following its fortunes with great care, as it not only employs several hundred of my constituents but its product has been controversial in the House. As with any company that has a controversial product, I want to make sure that I am on the right side of the argument, and not just because the company is in my constituency. I am firmly convinced that its product is good not only for the consumer but for the lender, and is beneficial for the whole market, which needs to develop some momentum.

In a moment, I shall make some observations about the lower end of the housing market, which needs a stimulus. I want to encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to drive forward the policy to its logical conclusion.

Figures have been bandied about, but HIPs from LMS—if I can do an advertorial for it—start at just £249, including an energy performance certificate, and people can have them within a few days. An interesting consideration is that lenders can add their margin to the cost. The Department needs to reflect on how far it is reasonable for them to mark up the cost of the HIP product provided by a third-party company.

An extremely good relationship has developed between LMS and the local further education college. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing can pass that information on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The energy aspect of the product and, indeed, the whole package are new, and the technology that supports it is by necessity, if it is to be efficient, very sophisticated. A partnership has developed with the college to provide training to people who work within the company. That new technology training is most welcome in a traditional manufacturing constituency. Although it benefits hugely from the retail and leisure sectors, it needed some modern service industries, at the cutting edge, to support its economy.

Some of the world’s leading names support the LMS platform and it has provided important work for my constituents. I asked its managing director, Andy Knee, what effect the motion would have— [Laughter.] The Opposition think it is funny to make people redundant. Andy Knee said:

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That is just one company. Others have also taken a perfectly honourable position and adopted new businesses in a new field. The Conservatives are happy to scrap their jobs. They are laughing. They always think that unemployment is a joke. They thought that it was a joke when 3 million were unemployed—when unemployment was in the mid-teens in my constituency; it is now at 2 per cent. and falling.

I want to press the Under-Secretary on why the Government are delaying the roll-out of HIPs for the whole property market. What estimate has been made of the level of unnecessary carbon dioxide emissions produced by one and two-bedroom properties? Having looked at the Government’s amendment, which I support, it is axiomatic that there must be a figure. It would help if the Under-Secretary could let us know whether work has been done on that. It would be hugely beneficial if we could get that figure into the public domain and help people to understand that there are real benefits, not just for them as individuals, but for their families and society, from driving HIPs forward.

There is no evidence that HIPs have adversely affected the market. My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) made that point extremely well. All agents report that stock levels of all property types are rising. There is plenty of property for sale; the problem is that there are not enough buyers.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’s own figures are worth looking at. They suggest that listings of one and two-bedroom properties are down by almost 30 per cent. Surely if HIPS were distorting the market, the number of properties listed in that sector would be up, not down, as sellers rushed to beat the next commencement order. We cannot have it both ways, save for the Opposition. Their argument was false earlier this year, and it is false now. Many factors affect the market, and downturns happen from time to time.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Who is responsible?

Andrew Miller: It is a market, and markets fluctuate. During other debates on this subject, I have heard people say, “It will be different in different months of the year, because of the holiday season.” It is a market fluctuation. The pattern governing one and two-bedroom properties, and the fact that listings are down by 30 per cent., has nothing whatever to do with HIPS

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