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That said, it is a pretty worrying state of affairs that is indicative, perhaps, of the Government’s situation, that the Minister for Housing— [Interruption.] I am delighted to see her return to the Chamber, dead on cue. It is pretty worrying that she felt obliged to begin her defence of the Government’s policy by recycling a joke that she had told before. That is becoming standard for the Labour party as far as this issue is
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concerned. With respect, it is indicative of the enthusiasm that Government Front Benchers feel for the policy; it is probably the same enthusiasm there was on the Australian rugby team’s flight home. They are trying to defend something that they know does not have any legs.

We have had some useful interventions from Members of all parties, who made specific points based on a great deal of experience and strong feeling, on both sides of the argument. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) made a valid and legitimate point at the beginning of his speech regarding the importance of putting the results of the market testing and surveys in the public domain. That links to things that were said later on in the debate. It is quite impossible to have the sort of rational consideration that Labour Members, including the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), called for without putting that information into the public domain. The only conclusion one can draw about why the Government have consistently failed to do so, and why, even after the Minister’s speech there is still no timetable for it, is that they know that that evidence will undermine their case. One is forced to ask what they are hiding.

Thereafter, the hon. Member for Chesterfield performed the well-known Liberal Democrat trick of sitting on the fence and getting splinters in uncomfortable places. With respect to him, it is no good simply saying that we wring our hands about the affordability and costs of home ownership for first-time buyers. The simple truth is that our proposals on stamp duty would assist something in the order of nine out of 10 first-time buyers. Until his party comes up with something that would have that degree of impact on first-time buyers, it is better for him not to criticise—at least until he has something constructive to say.

Paul Holmes: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could explain in some detail exactly how he would refute the arguments of the economists in The Daily Telegraph on Monday who said that the Conservatives’ proposals would drive up house prices to the detriment of first-time buyers, and not help them at all.

Robert Neill: It is often said that if one puts any number of economists from end to end, one can get a different answer for each day of the year, and probably each hour of the day. The average first-time buyer would save about £1,700. That is real money and a real saving, and until the hon. Gentleman comes up with a real answer, there is not much point in having the argument.

Mr. Betts: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he did not answer the question. Has he got any evidence at all from any independent experts—we know that his party is very fond of those—showing that there will be no impact on house prices by cutting stamp duty in the way he proposes?

Robert Neill: If we assist and encourage first-time buyers, of course that will be beneficial to them. It is a
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bit rich for Labour Members to talk about independent evidence when, as I pointed out, they are the ones withholding independent evidence on this issue.

Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our party is talking about giving £1,700 back to first-time buyers. Your party is talking about taking hundreds and hundreds of additional—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I will not be referred to and drawn into this debate.

Robert Neill: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point, which is, as ever, well made.

I know that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, for whom I have every personal respect, feels passionately about this issue, and he has been very much involved with it. I have to say that I come to a different conclusion from him. He knows that, and it will not come as any great surprise. It was interesting that he made the point, which is perfectly true, that to start with, the home condition reports were at the heart of this scheme. His gripe is really with his own Government on this matter. The reality is that once the Government scrapped the home condition reports, they took the heart and guts out of the scheme and made it an empty shell. If he has an understandable grievance, it lies with his Front Benchers rather than anyone else here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who again has great knowledge and experience in these matters, made a thoughtful and constructive speech, and I was grateful to him for the points he made. As someone who comes from London, I especially take on board his point about making better use of existing stock. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich and I were having a discussion about that elsewhere earlier on today, and it is a timely reminder of the importance of that issue.

With respect to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), he appears to have a slightly schizophrenic view of the market. He said that the housing market was free but urged more regulation on some matters. My hon. Friends have already made the point that the market cannot be efficient if it is over-regulated.

My hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) made useful and well-thought-through contributions. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is one of the last remaining true believers in HIPs. It is touching to watch him and the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich trying to defend that line.

An air of unreality pervaded several contributions from Labour Members. Some interventions from hon. Members who are not now present suggested that they had never looked at a set of deeds. Trying to rubbish our proposals for first-time buyers does not therefore hold water, as any trainee solicitor would tell them. It is as simple as that. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) for his observations. He prayed in aid a gentleman whom we both know to be a respected member of his profession—someone who has probably
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seen far more deeds than most of the parliamentary Labour party and therefore speaks with rather more authority on the topic.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: It is also notable that the mortgage lenders, solicitors, banks and everybody who is involved in house-buying are anti the scheme because they know full well that it is unsustainable. As time goes on, it gets increasingly complicated and the Government get into more of a mess.

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend is right. The Government are culpable for the effect on the market—no amount of flannel gets around the destabilising effects—and for the position of those who bought a pig in a poke and took a commercial risk by setting up firms as HIPs providers. I regret the fact that the Government misled them, but that is what happened. If there is, regrettably, a commercial consequence to abandoning the scheme—which will doubtless happen in due course—the Government must shoulder the responsibility for leading them up the garden path. We will take no lectures on that from Labour Members.

Every supporter of the scheme has crept away from it. It is a little like the Haydn symphony in which all the musicians blow out their candles and disappear, with only one left at the end—two in the case that we are considering. Even the Consumers Association, which was originally a great supporter of the scheme, makes the point that, without the home condition report, it

That comment was made by the Government’s chief ally in the initial stages.

The Government have not allowed the House to scrutinise the secondary legislation adequately or revealed any of the material on which we could reach a considered view. The House did not get a chance to consider and vote on the extension to three-bedroom homes until after the measure had been pushed through. Why are the Government scared to put the material before us? It is because the emperor—even the rather new emperor—has no clothes. It is surprising that the Government did not take the opportunity of a change of some personnel in the Department to bury the scheme before it became an embarrassment to them. That is their error because we do not intend to let them off the hook.

The tragedy is that HIPs are a distraction from the real task of creating houses. They will not get a single new home built for anyone. They are a side show of the worst and most dogmatic kind.

James Duddridge: Is my hon. Friend as worried as I am that some elderly people in large houses, who would otherwise consider downsizing, thus putting more accommodation on the market for hard-working families, will not do that because of the complexity of the proposed legislation, which will do the opposite of what the Government suggest?

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is all very well for Government Members to laugh—perhaps they should go and speak to some elderly householders. I know that my hon. Friend does in his constituency, as I have in mine, where we have
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exactly the same situation. The scheme is a potential block on mobility. It is in the interests of the efficient use of the housing stock to remove barriers to mobility rather than imposing extra costs.

The debate comes back to that air of unreality, which suggests that somehow there is a free lunch and no cost to the scheme. Ultimately, the cost of the HIPs is going to be passed on. Never mind where it falls legally, at the end of the day it will be passed on in the transaction costs one way or another. HIPs are another barrier to home ownership. We shall sweep that barrier away and, with our stamp duty proposals, remove a separate significant barrier.

Mr. Betts: The hon. Gentleman is talking about costs. Will he identify a single cost in the HIP arrangement that would not have to be met as part of the buying and selling system for houses under the previous arrangements? All the costs, on the searches and the energy performance certificate, would have to be met anyway.

Robert Neill: What about the duplication of surveyors’ fees for a start? The hon. Gentleman ought to understand that—his party is good at double counting. He should have recognised that when it was coming.

The simple truth is that the Government seem to be wedded to a piece of dogma, when all the evidence goes to the contrary. It flies in the face of belief that the Government should have the gall to rubbish anyone who happens to disagree with them as being a vested interest, yet be perfectly happy to pray in aid those who might have a vested interest on the other side. That is not honest politics.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman is interested in double counting, will he tell the House what the costs are to the individual who is unable to proceed with a house purchase because it falls through after he or she has commissioned surveys and searches and paid legal fees, when those costs are all aborted? What is the hon. Gentleman’s party going to do about the £1 million a day that is lost by consumers because of the inefficiencies in the current system?

Robert Neill: The sadness is that the right hon. Gentleman forgets that the scheme that he was so fond of does nothing about gazumping or those vendors who do not have the wherewithal. Those costs are an element of the flaws in the current scheme.

The Government’s defence is about as credible as when the late George Davis stood up and told the Old Bailey that he happened to be minding his own business walking past the Bank of Cyprus one day, when a chap he had not seen for five years ran past and stuck a sawn-off shotgun in his hand. That defence did not have any credibility as I recall, and neither does the Government’s, which is shot through with holes.

Mr. Walker: Government Members may think that £400 is not a lot of money, but my constituents think that it is a great deal of money. HIPs are another
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Labour tax on hard-working men, women and families, so is it not about time that the Government admitted it?

Robert Neill: The point is well made and shows the lack of contact between Government Members and the outside world. Yes, for my constituents £300 is a lot of money. The £1,700 to £2,000 saving that we will introduce through the stamp duty reduction is also a lot of money, especially for young couples trying to get on the housing ladder.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): The other thing is the disproportionate effect of having to pay the whole cost on people who have shared equity in a home. They might own only part of a home, but they have to pay the whole cost on selling it. That is also a disproportionate cost and possibly stops mobility.

Robert Neill: The point is exceedingly well made. Mobility is a key issue, as we have already discussed.

I want to give the Minister time to reply. The Government have stuck to the policy, despite all the contrary evidence, with a degree of rigidity and dogmatism that would have done the Bourbons of 19th century-France proud, and we all know what happened to them. The way the Government refuse to accept reality is like a cross between Pius IX and Chairman Mao’s red guards. The tragedy is that the people in this country who find hurdles set in the way of home ownership will have to wait longer than we would wish them to before a Conservative Government can get rid of this impediment to home ownership.

6.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): This has been a fascinating debate. I greatly enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). This is his first Opposition day debate as a Front Bencher, and mine as well. Watching him and the Minister for Housing clash was rather like watching Hartlepool United thrashing Lincoln City 5-2 last night, with my right hon. Friend as the hat-trick hero Joel Porter. I am afraid that we are not going to see a Tory victory here this afternoon—rather like in Ealing.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield said that HIPs were harshly implemented, and another hon. Member who is no longer in the Chamber said that their implementation had been botched. In fact, we have seen a smooth and measured roll-out of the process on three and four-bedroom properties since August. I can do no better than quote a number of people who have been involved in the process. Tim Barton, of the estate agents Drewett Neate, said on 24 August:

Anne Main: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wright: No, I will not, because the hon. Lady has not been in the Chamber throughout the debate.

To give the lenders’ viewpoint, Jeremy Russ, head of marketing for Beacon Homeloan Group, says:

Mr. Walker: If the Minister does not think that £400 is a lot of money, what does he think is a lot of money?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman has made this point a number of times during the debate. Three hundred pounds is a lot of money, but that is already being paid in the house buying process. HIPs will stop duplication, improve efficiency and ensure that the house buying process is smoother than it would otherwise have been.

Mr. Walker: If the increase in cost is marginal, where is it coming from?

Mr. Wright: I shall deal later with energy performance certificates, which were sadly lacking from Opposition Members’ contributions this afternoon.

HIPs will help to reduce the risk of problems emerging later—the problems that can cause chains to collapse, wasting money, time and energy—by providing timely information such as local searches at the beginning of the home buying process.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield tried to give the impression that the housing market had come crashing to a halt with the introduction of HIPs, but that is simply not right. If the evidence were consistent with the Opposition’s argument, we would have seen a high jump in the number of properties being put on the market in June and July—much higher than in the comparable period last year—prior to the introduction of HIPs for four-bedroom properties, and it would have been followed by a sharp fall in August. That did not happen, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) pointed out when he most effectively exposed the Opposition’s economic illiteracy.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I read out the statement from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which showed that house buying had dropped. That was its latest statement. Would the Minister care to comment? Has it got its figures wrong? Are the Government saying that it has done its survey incorrectly?

Mr. Wright: No, I am saying that most serious commentators are clear that interest rate changes, house prices, stock market uncertainty, concerns
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about sub-prime lending across the Atlantic and the Northern Rock issue have determined the housing market over the summer. Against that background, it is to be expected that property owners might think twice about putting their property on the market, and that buyers might think twice before making substantial investments.

I can do no better than quote Martin Ellis, the Halifax chief economist, who said on 15 September:


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