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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that it is of great benefit to the public to know the prices achieved for properties. The noble Baroness will know that much has changed in the past two years. The Land Registration Act 2002 will help to bring in e-registration. That will increase the availability of appropriate information to members of the public.

Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, is not the problem with the Land Register that the prices recorded in it do not reflect the money that has been invested in any particular property? Surely, if people want to pay what some others may regard as a silly price for a property, that is their business and theirs alone.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that it is for each individual to decide the price he or she wishes to pay.

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However, it is vitally important that the register's information should be as up-to-date and as correct as possible. I am glad to say that that is the case.

Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, is the Minister aware that following Gordon Brown's fourth separate increase in stamp duty since the previous election, on top of the purchase price, average buyers of properties have had to pay four times as much stamp duty—nearly 2,000 compared with 500 after the previous election? How much of that money has vanished into the Chancellor's coffers and how much is being put back into desperately needed affordable housing?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that matter is truly wide of the Question on the Order Paper. As tempted as I am to reply to the noble Lord, I shall decline to do so.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, will my noble friend consider ways in which the information could be made more readily available than through people having to pay money to access it, the argument being that when people bid for a house they normally do so in ignorance of the going rate in that area? Easy access to the Land Register would help prospective buyers to make more realistic bids and would therefore be a good move in terms of consumer protection. Easy access to the information is required.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I reassure my noble friend that efforts are being made. Officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are leading a working group comprising a representative from that office, the Office for National Statistics, Her Majesty's Treasury, the Bank of England and Her Majesty's Land Registry. By the summer the group hope to have produced a definitive monthly national house price index that will meet user needs by being timely, reliable and representative of all house purchases whether cash or mortgage based.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is the Minister familiar with the New South Wales system? I do not know whether it applies in the whole of Australia. In the past we have held long discussions on commonhold and leasehold. Therefore, I believe that the Minister is well informed on the matter. But is she aware that if I wanted to buy a flat in a particular block, I would be able to find out the price paid and the date of purchase of every flat in the block? That would not prevent me making my own assessment of whether improvements had been carried out, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Buscombe. Each property is individual. In the Horbury Mews case that I mentioned the estate agents were fined for not telling the vendor that another property in the same road was on the market at a higher price.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am aware of the excellent example of the New South Wales system. The Land Registry already offers an online

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service to business customers allowing them direct access to the computerised Land Registry. From spring of this year the Land Registry intends to pilot an online service in which individual land registers may be viewed and downloaded by members of the public in return for a small credit card payment. We believe that that will greatly assist members of the public and business in a way that I am sure the noble Baroness would endorse.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the Valuation Office Agency in the Inland Revenue is about to undertake a revaluation of all properties, both domestic and commercial—certainly domestic—in the fairly near future? If it does so, we shall have up-to-date information on the valuations of domestic properties. Will that list be available to the public? Will there also be e-access to that information?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I am not able to tell my noble friend whether it will all be available, but I am sure that the group that I mentioned which has been involved with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will take that information forward. We hope that we shall have reliable data upon which everyone will be able to rely with confidence.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, will the Government consider legislation to make gazumping illegal as it is in France?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I regret to say that that matter too is somewhat wide of the Question. However, I should be delighted to answer my noble friend in full should he table his question on the Order Paper on another occasion.

Palestinian Reform: London Meeting

3.7 p.m.

Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether Israel's settlements will be on the agenda of the Prime Minister's conference on Palestine.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the specific aim of the Prime Minister's meeting was to help the Palestinians make progress on reform, preparing their institutions for statehood. So Israeli settlements were not on the agenda. But they were raised. Her Majesty's Government have made it clear on many occasions that a settlement freeze is essential. Her Majesty's Government remain committed to working with the parties and international partners to revitalise the peace process.

Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar: My Lords, I congratulate the Government on the success of the

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London conference despite Mr Sharon's attempt to wreck it. But surely it is, indeed, the settlements which are the key to this matter. Cannot the Prime Minister persuade President Bush that to go on allowing this continuous robbery with violence of Palestinian lands not only makes peace impossible but also makes the American Administration reviled and despised throughout the Middle East?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his congratulations. We are pleased with the progress made at the London meeting despite the difficulties that we faced as regards being able to have everyone present that we would have wished. Of course, the issue of settlements is an enormously serious one. I hope that it will be addressed when the quartet route map is published. That process involves the United States as well. Delegates who discussed the matter are due to meet again in London at the beginning of February. We hope that we shall then have a date for the publication of the route map.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, did the conference agenda include a recognition that since 1967 successive Israeli governments have attempted to withdraw from areas of the West Bank as part of an overall peace agreement with the Arabs? Was the offer made by Ehud Barak some three years ago raised? I refer to the offer not only to concede 95 to 97 per cent of the Occupied Territories, as they are described, but also to help the Palestinian people and the authority achieve a sensible administration of their lands. As the record shows, sadly, it was rejected by the Palestinians at that time.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, that matter was not on the agenda, because the meeting was specifically about internal reform within the Palestinian Authority. The issue of settlements was raised by the Palestinians because they felt that the recent surge in settlements—there have been 34 in the past year or so—has seriously curtailed their ability to move towards a reform agenda as they would wish. Sadly, the offer put forward by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is no longer on the agenda.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I add the congratulations of these Benches on the advances made in moving towards a Palestinian constitution. That is welcome. Do the Government intend to develop an EU policy towards the Middle East crisis, especially in the light of the fact that an additional role for the EU might be very much welcomed at present? With regard to the settlements, must any solution be found on the basis of the evacuation of some, but the resettlement of Arab refugees involving the co-operation of Arab governments? Would the Minister agree that building a fence on the West Bank that now comprises some 7 per cent of West Bank territory will

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create a new line between the two states, and raises the issue of compensation for Palestinians for land involved in the erection of the fence?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the points that she raised and for her congratulations. The conference had several outcomes. Among them were not only the commitment to draw up a constitution, but issues relating to commitments on violence and preparing for free and open elections, and other issues of enormous importance. It is important that the EU develops a policy, but it is also important that it does so in the context of the discussions taking place in the quartet. We believe that that offers the best way forward, and we hope that we shall have some dates for publication.

As for Arab refugees, that is one issue that will have to be addressed. On previous occasions, we have addressed the problems that have arisen as a result of the security fence and taking land for that purpose.

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