Housing and Regeneration Bill

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Clause 243

Meaning of sustainability
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Lembit Öpik: The Minister may treat this as a rhetorical point. In light of what he said and the potential confusion that I think will persist, given the framing of the legislation, he might want to revisit clause 243 and subsequent clauses between now and Report stage, in order that he can be confident that the structure of the clauses will not lead to the type of confusion that we have just discussed. We do not need to have the same debate again, but I counsel him to reconsider this group of clauses. I might even do some research myself between now and Report stage to see whether his optimism about people’s understanding of stars versus alphabetic labelling is as straightforward and robust as he claims.
Mr. Wright: I look forward to seeing a copy of the Liberal Democrat Focus sheet about that. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Although I was reluctant to discuss clause 243 because I thought that an accusation might be levelled at me with regard to a list, I think that it is important to have as clear a definition of sustainability as possible to try to avoid uncertainty in the market. I take on board the manner in which he asked the question, and I will certainly go away and look at it again.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 243 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 244

Authorised assessors
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Alistair Burt: Is it the Minister’s assumption that those currently charged with handling HIPs will also be the authorised assessors? Have the Government an idea yet of the sort of fee that will be charged for the services of those who will provide sustainability certificates?
Mr. Wright: The assumption is that domestic energy assessors could provide these certificates. That is perfectly possible. It could be part of another package that the developer or the builder provides in respect of the new buildings. I do not want to dodge the question about costs, but the cost of a sustainability certificate would vary, depending on the size of the development, the services provided and so on. So I cannot provide a great deal of reassurance to the hon. Gentleman in that respect. We expect the average cost of a certificate to be about £210 or £220 per home, but we have forecast that it could be as high as £1,600 for a single home on a single site that was built in isolation. I imagine that, as the information becomes clearer to the industry and there is greater awareness of what needs to be taking place, costs will be driven downwards, but I hope that what I have said provides a ballpark figure for the hon. Gentleman to criticise me with.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 244 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 245

Register of certificates
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Alistair Burt: Again, this may be more germane to the Minister himself. I call his attention to subsection (4), which states:
“The regulations may require a person wishing to enter a document onto a register to pay such fee as may be prescribed.”
Presumably, the fee will be within the control of the agency or the Government. Does the Minister have an idea of what sort of fee we might be talking about in these circumstances?
Mr. Wright: No, I do not, but I can certainly look into the matter on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf. I will ensure that I do so.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 245 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 246

Enforcement authorities
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Lembit Öpik: Do the enforcement authorities as outlined in the clause already have the necessary skills and competences to carry out their new responsibilities? If not, what process does the Minister envisage to ensure that those authorities are not left vulnerable to a failure to carry out the duties that they are being charged with? I am particularly concerned that the authorities themselves may say that this is yet another additional burden for which they do not have sufficient resources.
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. We have provided additional resources to compensate local authorities for the extra burdens that they may have, certainly in relation to home information packs. We are consulting closely the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services—LACORS—about EPCs, HIPs and so on. We keep the matter under constant review. If there is any additional burden or any additional complexity with regard to training or expertise in this respect, LACORS will highlight that to us and we will amend resources funding accordingly.
Lembit Öpik: That is a helpful response from the Minister. I hope that he recognises the consequences of what he has said. As I understand it, the certificates that we were previously discussing incur a fee for the vendor, but the Minister has said that the Government will resource the authorities for the extra burden. I suspect that he may not have thought through entirely the relative sharing of cost between the vendors, who require the enforcement authorities to carry out the work, and the authorities. If he is honest and says that he has not thought about it, that is fair enough, but we need some clarity on the issue. This is important because it is unquestionably at the cutting edge in the eyes of the public. The answers to my questions will to a large extent define the cost of the certificates to potential vendors. The more the Government pay, the less the certificates will cost vendors, and vice versa. I highlight this matter as being of strategic importance to vendors, if only of tactical importance to the Government.
3.15 pm
Mr. Wright: I will check in Hansard, but I think that I said that we would keep it under close review and would monitor it, rather than providing a blank cheque to local authorities. I also said that we have provided additional resources for the extra burdens on local authorities from HIPs.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about this matter being at the cutting edge. However, trading standards officers, who are named in the Bill as the enforcement authority, will not need any technical knowledge when looking into it. All that they will need to know is when a code certificate should be given and what it looks like, and they will need to be familiar with the provisions in this chapter on disclosure and offences. I suggest that they will not have to go on long courses to gain technical knowledge about sustainability. I calculate that the burden will not be too onerous, but LACORS will keep us informed on that.
Lembit Öpik: I understand, therefore, that this element of the cost of certificates is a public burden, which makes a lot of sense. Other burdens, such as getting someone to do an evaluation, may be the vendor’s burden, but this element is a burden on the public purse. If that is what the Minister is saying, it is a useful clarification.
Mr. Wright: Yes, I confirm that.
Grant Shapps: Will the Minister reflect on the experience gained from introducing legislation on houses in multiple occupation, which required local authorities to provide the enforcement? I am aware that many local authorities around the country have struggled to enforce HMO legislation through a lack of resources in the town hall, and I am concerned that the Bill should not end up creating yet more requirements that cannot be enforced. Will the Minister consider that experience in relation to how enforcement might be applied?
Mr. Wright: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I shall take on board the notion of HMOs and the possible problems of definition; I shall keep that on my desk and have a look at it.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 246 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 247

Power to require production of certificates or statements
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Alistair Burt: I am slightly puzzled as to who, apart from a potential purchaser, will want or need to see the certificates. The clause is all about how to deal with someone who will not produce one. If a certificate is not produced when required, surely the buyer will not complete the sale, so I am puzzled as to why the clause is necessary, particularly as we shall go on to talk about enforcement and penalties for people who do not produce certificates as required. In what circumstances will the power be needed?
Mr. Wright: As we are making it mandatory to provide information on the sustainability of new homes, we need an arm to enforce that.
Alistair Burt: But my point is that if I were a purchaser and I knew that I needed a certificate, my lawyer would not let me complete the sale unless I had received it. Why would anyone else need to be involved? If the vendor did not produce one, I would not go ahead with the sale, so it is in their interests to produce one. Who else needs to be involved?
Mr. Wright: I accept that it is in the vendor’s interests to produce it, but not all information is always provided. Given that it is mandatory to provide a certificate, we need to have an enforcement element. It is similar to the situation with HIPs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants to lead me down that route, but I shall go down it anyway. Home information packs are mandatory on all properties now, but in some cases they are not provided and we need enforcement. It is a natural part of business, and it seems reasonable.
Alistair Burt: The Minister is doing well, but he is struggling on this issue. If, when buying a property, I need to see the HIP or the sustainability certificate before I complete the transaction, but it does not happen, I will not go ahead, so it is at the vendor’s expense if they do not comply.
However, the clause talks about
“an authorised officer of an enforcement authority”.
Who is the authorised officer, what is he authorised to do, and why? I am not trying to harass the Minister or chase him down the HIPs route. That job is usually done spectacularly well by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield—and has been for several months. Genuinely, who will turn up on the doorstep of a new house, as an authorised officer in a uniform, like Deryck Guyler in “Please Sir!”, if the Minister remembers it from days gone by, and say, “I am from”—whatever it is—“and I demand to see your sustainability certificate, and if not I have these powers”?
I am intrigued as to how far the measure goes, because as the Minister knows, there are national newspapers that are very concerned about the increasing powers of people who would do just what I have described, and it may be that a word will have to be had with those papers, because they might be very interested. That is not a threat at all, but I am genuinely puzzled about the circumstances in which the Minister sees an authorised officer wanting to do what I have described. Who would ask them to do it?
Mr. Wright: I do not want to labour the point, but enforcement is a natural and necessary arm of such a mandatory measure. I shall use the risk-based approach and suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if a buyer complained to the trading standards officer, and said, “I have not got a certificate,” the officer would investigate.
Alistair Burt: I would not buy the property.
Mr. Wright: That might be true. I do not remember “Please Sir!”, as I am far too young for that, but I do not foresee armies of people with peaked caps knocking on doors or getting people out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning to look at their sustainability certificate. I do not anticipate that—certainly not in such a liberal democracy as the one in which we live.
The approach will be risk-based and prompted by the buyer perhaps complaining to trading standards. It will be based on the risk-based weights and measures approach that trading standards takes. There could be spot-checks, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be knocked out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning by somebody from “Please Sir!”
Alistair Burt: I have listened intently, and the Minister has reassured me about what will not happen; however, he has not yet given me a concrete example of what might happen and why. If a buyer cannot get hold of a certificate, he will not complete the purchase, so it is the vendor’s problem, not the buyer’s. I should not go rushing off to trading standards office in those circumstances. I remain to be convinced that there is a purpose in an authorised officer seeking the certificate in certain circumstances, but if the Minister were to find, on reflection, one or two examples and he wanted to send them to the Committee, I would be interested. However, I have no wish to press the case any more.
Mr. Syms: My hon. Friend has got me interested. One is just trying to think of circumstances in which a certificate would not be given, and one can think only of a repossession, in which a house might be sold, although the certificate still might be available; an estate; or a situation in which somebody had died and the executors were selling on something. It is difficult to think of circumstances, different from those described, in which it is the interests of the seller to provide a certificate.
Mr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman talked about two specific situations: a repossession and somebody dying. However, they would probably involve existing stock, and we are discussing new homes, so the situation would be slightly different.
I return to my point about my risk-based approach on trading standards. Somebody who is buying a property may complain to trading standards, as happens on a daily basis on a whole range of matters, such as the service provided in a shop or by a door-to-door salesman. Such complaints can be initiated and will not mean that we are living in a police state where people are knocked out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 247 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 248 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 8 agreed to.
Clauses 249 and 250 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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