Previous Section Index Home Page

19 Feb 2008 : Column 56WH—continued

19 Feb 2008 : Column 57WH
1.17 pm

The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) and for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on speaking today about the problems faced in their areas and the initiatives in their constituencies for thinking creatively about tackling different housing needs. As a Yorkshire MP, I am pleased to be joined by two Yorkshire colleagues who are making the point that housing is not just an issue for London and the south-east; it is an issue throughout the English regions. My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), is in the Chamber and I know housing is an issue for our colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, too.

It is important that the Government strike the right balance when identifying national challenges and problems. We must try as hard as possible to ensure that our planning guidance and legislation are in tune with a policy that sets challenges and targets while providing the flexibility for local authorities to work in partnership with others at local and regional level to identify and pinpoint more accurately the problems and needs of different communities. There is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. However, it is fair to say that for decades house building has been insufficient, which has contributed to some of the price and affordability problems.

We are increasingly recognising the need to consider the changing demographics of our communities. We are all living longer—thank goodness—but that raises challenges about the type of homes we want. Furthermore, we recognise that for some young people relying on the bank of mum and dad is not enough for them to get on to the first step of the housing market. Within that is the need to secure quality as well as quantity in social housing provision both for those who rely on it entirely and for others who need it as a springboard to other forms of home ownership or housing. I am glad, therefore, to have the opportunity to discuss such matters today.

In areas such as Calderdale, in which my hon. Friends’ constituencies lie, house prices rose by about 130 per cent. between 2001 and 2006 and one in nine families in the area are on the waiting list for social housing—far higher than the national average. Between 2004 and 2026, it is predicted that 526,000 new households will be formed in the region, and almost half are likely to be in West Yorkshire. Owing to that, and to the fact that what is happening in West Yorkshire is a challenge nationally, we have committed to deliver 3 million new homes by 2020. As my hon. Friends have said, the issue is not just a numbers game in terms of more homes, but crucially about building better homes—more sustainable, better designed and more suitable for the needs of communities—and examining existing stock, including where it fits into communities and how it will work and deliver for families. It is about delivering the homes that people need, including larger properties for families when appropriate, and affordable housing for first-time buyers and, most important, about giving a choice to older people to downsize and move into more appropriate accommodation as their needs change. As the experience of Calderdale shows, those homes are needed throughout the country, not just in the south-east.

It is really positive to see the commitment from people working on housing throughout the region—from all the partners and stakeholders who are helping to
19 Feb 2008 : Column 58WH
shape the regional housing strategy. I shall single out the work in Calderdale, which is an authority that has made housing a central priority. It is one of the few authorities in the country with an affordable housing stretch target in its local area agreement, and I congratulate it on that ambition, and others on supporting it. The authority is working to ensure that new homes better reflect the needs of local families, with bigger houses in more convenient locations.

We have changed some of our policies to strengthen people locally. Housing needs assessments deal much more with the types of accommodation required, and offer flexibility to tackle the issue. In the past, a site might have been allocated for certain housing, and one could not change it if the community’s housing needs changed. I have been in communication with Councillor Grenville Horsfall—I think he is the planning committee chairman—who wrote to me regarding the concern about the flats that have been built. We hope that the new planning guidance strengthens people locally by using housing needs assessments to be much clearer about numbers, and by relating the guidance to the type and location of housing that is needed. There is nothing to gain in the commercial market from people building flats or houses that they cannot sell or let, but there is an opportunity locally to engage with local developers and say, “Look, you may have built these a few years ago, but they are lying empty, so isn’t it time to look at how you might market them?”

One of our tasks is to consider how we can market apartments or flats to older people, and reassure them about the block. I know and have visited some of the mill houses in parts of Yorkshire. Housing presents a great opportunity to revitalise those wonderful structures, but there is a marketing challenge regarding older people and whether they think that such places could become a home, because they want to be reassured about safety and to know who will live there. Older people are concerned about those issues, as we all are as we grow older.

There is also the question about whether flats should be knocked through to create bigger properties, such as four-bedroom flats. Leeds charges full council tax on empty properties. I do not know whether that happens in Calderdale, but it might be one way of incentivising developers to sell properties or put them on the rental market. The issue is about delivery—people seeing our words, and our ambitions for housing; it is about being realistic, through something that people can reach out to and touch. We are in constant dialogue with all the people involved in the West Yorkshire partnership to ensure that the local strategy reflects the national agenda as well as local needs.

In 1997, housing investment for West Yorkshire was about £65 million. In the past two years, it has averaged more than £181 million, excluding four private finance initiative schemes that are under consideration. Some decisions about funding for West Yorkshire have still to be taken, but on the regional housing pot, we have announced overall investment of £559 million in the Yorkshire and Humber region, which by 2010-11 will represent an increase of 32 per cent. on the figures in 2007-08. I cannot say what that will mean for West Yorkshire, but my hon. Friends will agree that it is a significant amount. It is important to engage in a debate
19 Feb 2008 : Column 59WH
about how best that money can be used, and to what end, to meet the challenges in local communities.

Building on that measure, we have invested a great deal through the Housing Corporation to deliver the affordable housing that is needed locally. With large numbers of people attracted to the new jobs that are being created in areas such as Leeds, there will be additional pressure on the housing market, and some people who live in the constituencies that my hon. Friends represent travel or commute to Leeds. That is why we expect the region to set its sights higher by providing about 2,500 affordable homes per year by 2010-11. The target is undoubtedly challenging, but given the funding available, it is realistic. If the West Yorkshire partnership can identify suitable sites, it is likely to benefit significantly from the available funding, so there is no question of resources being pared back. It is a question of examining strategically what one can deliver locally, and discussing the issue together.

Over the past two years, West Yorkshire has also benefited from funding through the housing market renewal programme, which, as my hon. Friends know, was set up to address the problem of severe market failure in some areas of the north and in the west midlands. There has been real progress across the areas chosen for intervention. As the National Audit Office found last year, all pathfinder areas have started to close the gap in prices in their regions, and there have been clear physical improvements in many neighbourhoods. We recently announced a further £1 billion investment in the programme over the next three years, but decisions have not been taken about the allocations to each pathfinder, and we will target areas with the strongest and most persistent need. We are considering all the available information, including the business plans and housing strategies for all areas concerned, and I hope that we can make an announcement in the not too distant future.

I hope that my hon. Friends feel from today’s debate that we understand housing problems throughout the country, and certainly in their part of Yorkshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax said, the cup is half
19 Feb 2008 : Column 60WH
full, not half empty, but I realise how much more we must do. Local authorities can be empowered to do much more. Through their local development frameworks, they can assess and specify housing need. As planning authorities, they are fully empowered to reject inappropriate developments, and the new PPS3 also encourages use of section 106 agreements to deliver affordable housing. All those measures can be used with discretion as local tools. However, we must engage the commercial market and make it understand that there is no point in building if it cannot sell the houses. No one wants empty homes in our communities.

Although I cannot confirm today the total funding that West Yorkshire will receive over the next three years, I hope that it is recognised that our track record of investment demonstrates our commitment to change. The latest allocations through the regional housing pot alone will make a real difference to local residents.

On the points about warm and secure homes, our Warm Front programme has been important. We have ambitious zero-carbon targets for new-build homes by 2016, but again, in the few weeks that I have been in the post, I have realised that we must analyse existing stock, too. The issue is not just about numbers, but about quality and whether homes meet the needs of local communities.

I shall think about the points made about minimum space standards. The Department is examining overcrowding and suitable homes in the commercial and social housing sectors for larger families, and I take on board the point about the link with rural housing agendas. In my constituency, none of which includes Doncaster town, there are many rural villages, and there is a need for affordable and social housing in those communities, too. They are vital to keep schools and services open in rural communities. I look forward to working with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other partners in that regard, because the lack of housing in those communities neither serves many people nor keeps families close together. I welcome today’s debate and the contributions from both my hon. Friends, and I look forward to discussing the issue further at a later date.

19 Feb 2008 : Column 61WH

Will Writing Industry

1.30 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): In the years between being selected to fight and winning my seat, to earn money in a flexible way that could fit in with campaigning I worked as a part-time, self-employed will writer with a company called, strangely enough, the Will Writing Company, which did what it said on the tin. I was not legally trained, but I was trained by the company and sat exams set by the Institute of Professional Willwriters, which were marked externally.

Will writing is a good job for a nosey person, because by the time one has left the client, one knows all about them—their means, family arrangements, property situation and so on. A will writer needs that information to be able to make their client aware of the viability of what they want to do with their will and the most tax-efficient way to do it. Once the instructions were taken, the wills went to our head office to be scrutinised by legal professionals to ensure that I had given the best advice, and to be written up in a watertight legal form.

To give proper advice takes time and training. Until the late 1980s, will writing was the sole province of solicitors, who were the only people who had access to training for the skills required, so they effectively retained the activity within their own regulated environment. That effective monopoly of solicitors was ended in the late 1980s, when Simon Francis Harris, a serial fraudster and undischarged bankrupt, was jailed at Liverpool Crown court. He served part of his sentence with Keith Best, a discredited Member of Parliament—he served for Anglesey from 1979 to 1987—and struck-off solicitor, who had written a book on will writing. On his release, Harris founded the Quill Group, a non-solicitor will-writing franchiser. It provided rudimentary training in basic will writing to its franchisees. By 1992 there were more than 400 franchisees, who had paid anything from £6,000 to £15,000 for their franchise areas. Quill Testamentary Services Ltd, the group company that sold the franchises, was wound up by the High Court on 5 May 1993 on a petition of the Department of Trade and Industry, as it was then. That came as a devastating blow to the franchisees, many of whom lost their life savings or had borrowed money to buy a franchise, but also left tens of thousands of clients without access to their wills.

The story continued. In the late 1990s, Gerald Barton founded JHD Associates and sold franchises in a manner similar to that of Quill Wills. It mounted a major national advertising campaign offering to write wills

Despite that unviable yet permanent price, JHD promised its franchisees minimum incomes in excess of £20,000 per annum. It achieved that seemingly impossible feat by making additional charges for any variations required by clients’ circumstances, which resulted in bills for up to £500 for a pair of so-called £19.50 wills.

In February 2001, Which? magazine highlighted the case of a couple who were charged a total of £287 for two wills, lifetime safe storage at

19 Feb 2008 : Column 62WH

and legal advice for their executor. In 2000, the JHD offices closed and Gerald Barton was eventually traced to Gibraltar. Thereafter, 10,000 wills were discovered in boxes at a storage company in Wincanton, Somerset—hardly Somerset house. Barton subsequently returned to the UK and started an identical operation called Willmakers Ltd., offering “affordable peace of mind” for £23.44 including VAT. By 2002, Willmakers had become National Legal Services, from the same address and with the same freephone number. It was wound up on a petition of the DTI in late 2007. Evidence showed that, once again, it had been formed for the purpose of selling franchises rather than actually writing wills.

That is the state of the so-called professional will writing industry. Independent financial advisers are regulated and required to be qualified, and solicitors need to be qualified and closely controlled, but someone could be a convicted fraudster, set up as a will writer tomorrow with no qualifications, experience or professional indemnity insurance and proceed to dispense advice on tax, inheritance laws and so on. Most consumers are unable to judge the quality or value of the service that they are getting, so it is no exaggeration to say that will writing has become a happy hunting ground for the incompetent, the dishonest and the fly-by-night operator.

Of course, there are many ethical operators, and there are two professional bodies for will writers. I have mentioned the Institute of Professional Willwriters, and the other main body is the Society of Will Writers. The problem is not with them, or with the vast majority of their members, but with those who operate without proper training, professionalism and insurance.

Writing a will is probably unique, in that a defect will almost certainly not be found until after the person making it has died, by which time it can be too late to do anything about the problem. It is essential to get it right first time, otherwise there will be an ever-increasing number of invalid or ineffective wills. Many of those making wills with untrained writers will not die for another 20 or 30 years, and only then will the problems being created today come to light, when redress will be unavailable. History is littered with problems created by short-term sales of long-term products and services, whether endowments, pensions, equity release or wills.

Many consumers do not appreciate the difference between a will writer and a solicitor. In fact, many assume that a will, being a legal document, can be drafted only by a solicitor. A survey carried out for the Institute of Professional Willwriters by Taylor Nelson Sofres in March 2007 found that 92 per cent. of consumers did not know that someone with no training or regulatory provisions could offer a will-writing service. When asked whether they thought that that was wrong, 77 per cent. said yes. Customers trust the person who turns up to write their will. Those customers are often elderly and easy meat for the unscrupulous will writer.

The citizens advice bureau has provided me with several examples. An elderly couple from Nottinghamshire responded to an offer of will writing for £20 plus VAT. With joint assets below the inheritance tax threshold, they were charged more than £1,000 for services that they discovered that they had bought only when the paperwork arrived in the post. The irony was that they already had wills, which could easily and cheaply have been amended. CAB clients in Lincolnshire, who were receiving benefits, responded to an advertisement offering wills for £23.50. A representative came to their home
19 Feb 2008 : Column 63WH
and charged them £705, including storage costs. Another worrying matter is what happens to wills that clients have paid to have stored when a company goes bust or ceases trading.

What are the Government doing, and what steps should they take? In March 2005, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, announced that his Department would

Both the professional bodies that I have mentioned met officials of the then Department for Constitutional Affairs, and a White Paper, “The Future of Legal Services: Putting the Consumer First”, was published in October 2005. It states, on page 79, that

For the past 18 months, the IPW and the Society Of Will Writers and Estate Planning Practitioners have been drafting their own codes of practice that meet the requirements of the Office of Fair Trading’s consumer codes approval scheme. That is all well and good, but the CCAS requirements do not lend themselves fully to will writing. For example, there is no requirement for competence: the CCAS accepts that failure is inevitable and requires a robust mechanism of redress. But how can consumers complain, given that defects will probably become apparent only after they are dead? I am hardly a great fan of regulation—indeed, I believe it should be avoided where possible—but I wonder whether there should be an approved code of practice incorporating a system of redress, professional indemnity insurance and minimum qualification.

Estate agents are bound by the OFT’s estate agency guide and the Estate Agents Act 1979. Recently, a measure was introduced requiring them to belong to an independent, approved ombudsman scheme after voluntary regulation similar to that proposed for will writers conspicuously failed. I am a veteran of the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007, and in our debates on the Bill, I argued that a basic professional qualification should be a prerequisite to practise as an estate agent, but I failed to persuade the Government on that occasion. Here, we have an even stronger case for ensuring that services are right from the outset.

If a will is written badly and does not reflect the interests and desires of the person who made it, the fault might not be discovered for 20 or 30 years. Indeed, it might never be discovered by the person who made it, because they will be dead when the problem arises. Learning that a will has been badly drafted is a huge blow to bereaved relatives who are trying to work their way through the complex system of obtaining probate—if they ever find out. Can a voluntary regime be enforced? If not, the untrained and unethical will still provide will-writing services, and those who are trained and acting ethically will be at a commercial disadvantage as they will be subject to the costs of the regime.

Consumer awareness of the importance of making a will is incredibly low. Estimates indicate that only 30 per
19 Feb 2008 : Column 64WH
cent. of the population leave a valid will when they die. The Government have stated that their

Next Section Index Home Page