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None of them could be tested because there were not enough people to test them. Although there were 250 such packs, only 189 people participated, and only 90
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sales were completed under the scheme, of which only 30 involved new properties. It was a shambles from beginning to end. I am sorry, but for the Government to say that they did a proper test is completely false. The words I quoted are those of Baroness Andrews, who was then—and still is—Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government.

The situation has got out of hand. There is no doubt that it is getting ever more difficult for people to see the truth. Hon. Members have made some good interventions and speeches pointing out that there is total mistrust in the system. What Government in their right mind would suggest to people that they spend £4,500 to £8,000 getting a qualification when they know that it cannot be implemented, just because they have carried out a test in Bristol? The test was carried out under Government guidance—they put £320,000 into it for good measure—to see whether the system worked, and it did not. Surely the Government should not only compensate the people involved but apologise to them.

I was staggered to hear what the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) said, because I know perfectly well that last year he praised the quality of the teaching, saying that everyone who got the qualification would definitely get a job, and would earn a considerable amount of money—we have heard a figure of £70,000 bandied about, but in reality I do not think that anyone knew what the amount would be. For the Government to be stuck in this way is ridiculous.

I would also like to take up the point on what the housing market has done. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) spoke about his experience. According to the latest Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors survey, which was done in September, prices have continued to fall in England and Wales, when compared with prices in the same month in 2006. Some 73 per cent. of the respondents indicated a decrease in the number of three-bedroom or larger properties coming on to the market. The biggest decreases were in East Anglia, where there was a decrease of 87 per cent., and in the west midlands, where there was a decrease of 82 per cent. I am sorry to tell the Government that claiming that this scheme has not affected the market is fundamentally flawed, and they cannot have it both ways. They were warned by the Oxford Economics forecast in 2006 that this situation would occur and, to put it crudely, the chickens have come home to roost. It is fundamentally wrong for Labour Members to say that that is not the case.

The history of the scheme has been a catalogue of disasters because nobody on the Government Front Bench could agree what should be in the packs in the first place. I am not fundamentally against having some form of energy test on my house, and I am perturbed that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold said that he did not think it was right. My property is double-glazed throughout. It has solar panels and water butts to collect rainwater. I happen to believe in such a test, but how do I get somebody to be responsible for the report? As things stand, if one sues a HIP provider, one has no recourse.

It has been rightly pointed out that it is up to the buyer to make up their mind and not for the seller to
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tell them what the case is, because there is no recourse against the seller. If they leave the country, divorce, split up with someone or go on to benefits, how would the buyer get any money back? They would not be able to do so. We should examine how to provide a report on energy efficiency, but we should not do it in a way that costs more and more money.

The other thing that I find iniquitous is the fact that this scheme started in August, with no recourse to Government or Parliament. The Opposition have been forced to demand this debate to bring it to the Government’s attention. They have sneaked it out when we were all on holiday—the rugby had not even started then—and that is fundamentally wrong. They cannot sneak out a flawed system pretending that it will work when everything says that it will not.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) made a valid point that the housing market is not perfect. I know that because I used to build houses, but I do not believe that the right approach is to make the system more complicated. I fundamentally disagree with him, because his method would make it far more complicated.

One of the things that I have always admired is the Scottish system of missives. When buying a house one goes to one’s advocate and signs an undertaking. One is not allowed to gazump or break that, because if one does, one loses 10 per cent. of the contract value, whatever that may be. That is a sensible approach—I have bought and sold houses in Scotland for various family reasons and have found that it works well. There is no leeway in that market. Why can we not explore that approach? Instead of imposing more conditions on people, we could use an existing system. I believe, although I may be wrong about this, that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) said that the system in Germany works well. Let us explore what we can do, without trying to reinvent the wheel.

Mr. Betts: Does the hon. Gentleman understand that one of the problems with the Scottish system, about which there are complaints, is that because people have to put in a bid for a property that they must stand by if it is accepted, everyone who puts in a bid must do a condition survey in advance? That multiplies the amount of surveys being done and the cost to people, particularly to those whose bids are not accepted and who have simply wasted their money.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting point, which was eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold. It is up to the buyer, the mortgage lender and the solicitor to satisfy themselves. I would not sell or buy a house unless I was totally happy with the system and with what I was doing. Nor would I allow anyone else to do it. I do not think that the Government should hold the hands of every person in this country when they buy or sell a house. We should let the market decide—that point has been made—but let us have a system that works. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I do not think that the House would want to be misinformed. The Scottish system has recently been upgraded, so that now one must put
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in an expression of interest. All those expressions of interest are then sifted by the buyer, who accepts one offer. That offer is binding, subject only to survey, and so the system of all the buyers having to do a survey is no longer current in Scotland.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank my hon. Friend for pulling me up. The system has changed. It is a little while since I bought a house, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clearing that up. I still disagree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, but I take my hon. Friend’s points on board. He is qualified.

In conclusion, the Government have a responsibility. HIP providers say that if the scheme goes, people will be made redundant. People have already lost money. Estate agents still do not know what is going on. There is uncertainty in the market, which has changed. All that is the Government’s responsibility. I hope that the Minister will make it clear tonight that it is not acceptable for the Government to have got a sector of our community into such a situation. The scheme is fundamentally flawed and has no legitimacy at all. If hon. Members do not think that I am right, they should listen to people such as solicitors and mortgage lenders, who all say the same—it is not working.

6.15 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): The evidence is so overwhelming that I shall be brief. Home information packs are a monument to incompetent government. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the National Association of Estate Agents, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, and even the Government’s own Better Regulation Commission have been critical of HIPs. Even the Consumers Association, which was originally a supporter of the packs, said that

which lacks a home condition report—

In evidence to the House of Lords, the National Association of Estate Agents stated:

The big problem in housing is constraints on supply. Anything that further constrains supply will only exacerbate the problems that we have with housing.

Recent research carried out by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors draws a direct link between the introduction of HIPs and the decline in instructions. Respondents to the RICS survey recorded an average fall in new instructions of 37 per cent.

The Government have done more than anyone to build roadblocks to home ownership. They have restricted the right to buy. They have driven up council tax by turning it into a stealth tax. Now they have introduced HIPs—a further constraint on supply. How can Ministers claim that HIPs will improve home buying or home selling, when they will do nothing to
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address issues such as gazumping? If the Government wish to be creative about solving the problems, they should look, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) suggested, at some of the ideas north of the border. HIPs are not the answer to the problem.

The HIPs debacle, which is still unfolding, has been a test case of how not to legislate. It has been a brilliant illustration of how not to improve home buying and home selling. Home information packs represent yet another Government initiative desperately searching for a rationale. Like that other huge, monstrous Government extravagance, ID cards, HIPs are a solution looking for a problem. It is right and proper that the Conservatives are committing to the abolition of HIPs.

6.19 pm

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), who made an excellent speech. It is also always a pleasure to follow an Essex MP.

The motion refers to both stamp duty and HIPs. Government Members may be interested to know that following the Conservative party’s announcement on stamp duty, I have not received a single letter supporting the Conservative party’s position. That is, of course, due to the Government’s mishandling of the postal strike, so I have received only e-mails of support. One young couple stopped me on Sunday morning—I am sure that hon. Members will sympathise with this—when I was out and about trying to do my business with a young child in tow. One of them said, “You don’t mind if I have a word.” I hesitated before saying, “Of course, carry on.” They explained how they had been Labour supporters but not Labour voters—they had not bothered to vote—and how, because of the stamp duty change, they had decided to vote for the first time. I am looking forward to receiving my mailbag from the Royal Mail in Southend, once the situation returns to normal.

I have received a lot of correspondence about HIPs. I shall begin by returning to my intervention on the Minister for Housing during her opening remarks. She wrote to me on 26 June 2007 following some correspondence from my constituent, Anthony Bennett of Southend, about energy performance certificates:

In replying to my intervention, the Minister seemed to indicate that that consultation had not even happened. Will the Under-Secretary confirm whether the letter of 27 June was inaccurate or whether the Minister’s comment was not a fair reflection of what happened? Was the consultation over the summer abandoned and kicked into the long grass because of other problems with HIPs, or did it take place and reveal something that the Department needs to spend more time working on?

I have also received a number of letters from people who are training to become HIPs inspectors. I have not got this constituent’s authorisation to mention their name, but they stated:

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Some of the anger related to all politicians, but the Government introduced the initiative. There were certain EU directives around the EPC that were absolutely essential, but the Government added to the problem. The situation is an unnecessary disaster of the Government’s creation. One of my constituents spent more than £10,000 training as a home inspector, which is significantly more than the sums mentioned earlier.

I have also received correspondence from local solicitors. Charles Latham is a partner in Tolhurst Fisher. He is a respected gentleman who has served as mayor of Southend, although he is no longer directly involved in local political life. He wrote to me and stated:

He has 25 years’ experience of conveyancing, and he has experience as an estate agent. He continued:

The Government have done neither one thing nor the other, and we have the worst-case scenario—a fudge between the two, which will not work. The energy report could have been done separately, which would have been simpler than gold-plating EU directives and adding to regulation. Both Government and Opposition Members care passionately about the environment, but there are different elements to it. For example, the environmental impact of flooding is especially important in Southend. Even if we were to introduce a home information pack, different people want different things in it. In Southend, environmental protection is, perhaps, more important than energy efficiency.

The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) clearly has a vested interest in the subject both through his entry in the Register of Members’ Interests and, more importantly, through his experience as a Minister. He pointed out that the housing market system has grown organically over a period of time, which is how any changes should have been introduced. If there is a market value to energy certificates, and if there is a market value for the buyer in providing a home condition report, why were people not buying such things to start with? It would be much better for the market to lead the change than for the Government to do so.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said that the survey done by the seller could be used by the buyer. I have experience as a retail banker in the UK—admittedly four or five years ago; legislation might have changed—and the hon. Gentleman’s recollection of advice given to the Select Committee is certainly not my recollection of the legal position in the United Kingdom. For there to be legal recourse to the survey, it would be important not only for the buyer to have paid for it, but for it to be addressed also to the mortgage provider, if it were to have any validity. Of course, the home condition report refers only to a particular type of survey; many people will want to do a much wider survey, so will end up having to pay double anyway. That does not make any sense whatever.

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While looking at the BBC website, I came across one provider of HIPs called It is poetically named, but given that HIPs have been a disaster rather than a cause for celebration, perhaps that provider should be taken to trading standards for implying that they are anything to be happy about. The HIPs process, managed by this Government, has been a complete and unmitigated disaster that will continue. There is still an awful lot of uncertainty.

Mr. Walker: Does my hon. Friend share my view that there is no appetite left in Government to bring the issue forward? If they were honest and up front, they would ditch the disaster now and get on with other things for the next two and a half years.

James Duddridge: If they were a bolder, brighter Government looking forward not backward, they would certainly ditch the idea. The only problem is that that would be simply too embarrassing—but the people who suffer are our and their constituents.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)—or should I say for Ellesmere Port, Neston and LMS; if the company has not been mentioned in the House of Commons before, it will be pleased with its number of mentions in this debate—suggested that we found it laughable that jobs might be lost. The suggestion that hon. Members of any party would think that someone losing their job was a laughable matter is horrific. What is laughable is the belief that sustainable jobs are created by overburdening Government regulation. The Government set up HIPs and encouraged people to get the qualification, which was demanded not by the market but by the EU and Government bureaucrats; those jobs were not sustainable. If there was laughter on the Conservative Benches, it was due to the lack of a grip of basic economics rather than the terrible situation of the LMS employees, who I am sure are trying to make a good job of a very bad situation.

6.28 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): This debate has been lively and interesting—particularly interesting to me because HIPs figured large in the by-election that brought me to this House not too long ago. By way of preliminary, I should say that I could not find a single person on the streets of Bromley and Chislehurst who thought that HIPs were a good idea then, and nothing has happened since to suggest otherwise. I spent Saturday morning on the streets of Bromley and Chislehurst, and I might add that the view remained firmly the same. There was, however, a great deal of support for my party’s proposal on stamp duty and making home ownership more accessible for first-time buyers.

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