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Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the noble Baroness give us some more information about how the present moves are being received by the different sections of the Iraqi public? We hear about the United Nations, but not how everything is progressing within the country. Also, has there been any improvement in the security situation? Will she assure us that neither of the main parties will withdraw troops—indeed, that they should supplement troops—until the situation is resolved?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the security situation remains extremely volatile. It is important for noble Lords to remember that security is not at a dangerous level throughout Iraq, but it can erupt in a number of different places. We have discussed problems many times before about the Sunni triangle. Noble Lords will know about the difficulties in Najaf, which have been very different in character from those in Fallujah, but have none the less been highly disruptive. We have had some difficulties—of a very short-lived nature, I am happy to say—in Basra.

The incidence of security problems currently runs at a somewhat lower level than it did a few weeks ago. However, I remind the House that my right honourable friend's Statement made it clear that we expect the next few weeks to be very difficult in terms of security. That is because there are groups who inevitably still look for opportunities to get their slice of the action. I hope that the announcement of a government will to some extent mitigate such activity. However, as the Statement made clear, many people still do not wish Iraq to be a success. For different reasons of their own, they would like Iraq to be a failure for the future. That is not what the Iraqi people want; it is not what the Government of Iraq want. We will support them in their endeavour.
 
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The noble Lord asks how everything has been received by the Iraqi public. I cannot tell him what public reaction has been so far, but I remind him that the recent opinion polls have shown that the Iraqi people want to end the period of occupation, which will come to an end on 30 June, and want to take control of their own affairs, which will happen on 30 June, and that more than 70 per cent of them believe that they will have a better future than they would have had under Saddam Hussein.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, my noble friend said that sovereignty would be transferred. I take her back to the specific words of the Statement. Will the 100 elected members of the interim national council have the power of veto over executive orders, as referred to in the Statement, relating to decisions taken by Iraq's own security forces—decisions taken in conjunction with the multinational force? If they do not have that power, we may end up with a major row in the new interim national council.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I see the point that the noble Lord makes, but I am bound to say that the matter is now one for the Iraqi Interim Government and the elected interim national council. They must sort it out on their internal basis. We may be able to add something more, because the Security Council resolution has still not been finalised; it is hoped that it will be over the next couple of days or so. The wording of questions around the precise nature of the relationship between the Iraqi Government and the multinational force is still under discussion. The Statement is very clear about the interim national council having veto over executive orders, as the noble Lord mentioned, but the detail of that is a matter for the Interim Government and interim national council to settle between themselves.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the way in which she has dealt with Iraq matters with great intelligence and dexterity. I have not agreed with much of what the Government have said before, but I agree totally with my noble friend Lord Howell that the time has come to look to the future. I have already declared my Iraqi interests, but I hope that the Minister will not mind if I share a few other recent experiences.

I had the pleasure of sitting with Dr Allawi in what I would call a non-aligned country not so long ago, to talk with him and other friends about what the British could do to help Iraq. I said that, personally, because of my relationships, I would do all that I could. As the Minister pointed out, the principal problems that he raised then were security, security, security.

We discussed the role of the Iraqi army—I have raised it in debate in this House—and why the British today did what they never did before. In the past, we always kept the army, and we paid it. The Iraqi army was not paid. We can argue about why people were members of the political parties in Iraq or not, but I have heard recently—it is nothing to do with the current relevant people in Iraq—that troops and
 
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others in Iraq are being offered bounties of 100 dollars for each American soldier that they kill. I have no reason to believe that that is true or untrue; that was the statement made to me earlier this week.

What can we do to get the Iraqi army back, equipped and loyal to its country, as it will be? Suggestions have been made that NATO should be involved as a peacekeeping force, in order to take the pressure off the United States. What can the Minister say about the steps that the British can take to improve and increase the security of Iraq? What else could we do to help that country? It is a great country with great potential, and we should put the past behind us.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support, and I am glad that he had the opportunity to have that discussion with Dr Allawi. Of course security lies at the heart of the issue. If security is not improved to the point at which people feel that they can participate in civil society—at which they feel that they can reconstruct their country—the difficulties for Iraq remain enormous. As I indicated, I hope that the security situation is improving. I do not want to make dramatic claims because, as night follows day, there would surely be some reason to regret that in the next few days.

Although security is vital, when I have talked to Iraqi interlocutors, I have also found them asking over and again why we cannot get out more positive messages about Iraq. Why it is that the messages about the reopening of schools and hospitals—the fact that electricity and water supplies are working in many parts of the country with literally hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Iraqi workers being created as a result of reconstruction—are not reported? My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said only this weekend that here is an economy that has recently imported 1 million cars. An economy that has imported 1 million cars cannot be struggling so badly. Indeed, those are positive messages.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked me to be more robust with the doomsayers—but I shall not be alone in my robustness in dealing with doomsayers. I hope that many of your Lordships, including those on the Opposition Benches, will also be robust on these points. The Iraqis themselves feel that they are not getting a fair crack in the media. That is what it comes down to: they feel that they are not being recognised for the substantial steps that they have themselves made to reconstruct the country both politically and commercially. I hope that that will also change and that a more positive attitude will be adopted.

I saw some coverage about the bounty offered for individuals; I think that it was bounty offered by individual militias for servicemen and servicewomen, whom I understand commanded a higher price. None the less, that is a reasonably contained activity that we need to ensure that we deal with very robustly. As for the question of NATO, in the short term, there is not a prospect of NATO taking over a role in Iraq. What we can do to help improve security in Iraq is to go on with what we are doing in Iraq—namely, training their
 
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police and their armed forces and ensuring that, as far as we can, we involve Iraq's neighbours in that process; indeed, many of them are already becoming involved.

Business

Lord Grocott: My Lords, as we are about to start the Second Reading of the Housing Bill, perhaps I may say a few words about timing. As your Lordships know, the normal rising time on a Monday is about 10 o'clock; I fear that we are unlikely to hit that this evening. But we would not do too badly if Back-Bench contributions were restricted to eight minutes and the Front Benchers were to use their customary brevity and incisiveness.

We should then manage to complete our proceedings within three hours, which is not too badly past the target rising time, considering that we have had a Statement and that we took rather longer than anticipated to deal with the immigration Bill. I repeat: eight minutes, my Lords.

Housing Bill

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I assure my noble friend and the House that I will turn over a new leaf for brevity. It is Second Reading. It is the second most interesting Bill that I have introduced to the House in the three years I have been here—the first being the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001. It is full of good things, all of which we can discuss in detail in Committee.

The Bill before us is improved. It is a large Bill: it comprises seven parts and 230 clauses. By consent and a Statement in the other place, which has been widely acknowledged, it has had good scrutiny—not every paragraph and every clause, but, nevertheless, good scrutiny. More clauses are to be added to the Bill for reasons that I shall explain. We think that the Bill will create a better and fairer housing market and protect the most vulnerable people in housing. It contributes to the Deputy Prime Minister's sustainable communities plan— launched in February 2003—which is a long-term programme of action backed by £22 billion of investment.

I shall briefly go through most parts of the Bill, but it will be a snapshot of each part and I shall not go into great detail, save for one area of the Bill.

We consider the private rented sector to be a key part of the sustainable communities plan. We want a vigorous and responsive private rented sector. The vast majority of private landlords are decent, responsible and professional. We will introduce licensing only where the risks are the greatest. The Bill will provide local authorities with new powers to license private landlords in areas of low housing demand and in areas suffering from anti-social behaviour, but they will not be able to
 
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go out on a spree, licensing willy-nilly for ideological or other reasons. They must be specific. That is made clear in the Bill.

As for houses in multiple occupation, the Bill will introduce mandatory licensing for larger—that is, the highest risk—houses in such occupation. They often exhibit some of the worst housing conditions in the country. Where management problems are widespread, local authorities can extend licensing to other, smaller houses in multiple occupation. There is a definition in the Bill; but, in certain circumstances, it is not practical enough to cover all of those at risk. As I say, where the management problems are widespread, there is a constraint and it is simply not possible to continue extending licensing for other reasons.

Part of the Bill is quite technical. We will hold a briefing in this respect on Wednesday for Members of your Lordships' House. It concerns the housing, health and safety rating system—a new rating system that will replace the current housing fitness standard both as an element of the decent homes standard and as a basis for enforcement of better conditions in the private sector. It will place health and safety at the forefront of a drive to improve housing conditions in all stock. That approach is welcomed by the British Medical Association, and others.

It is quite technical. There has been much consultation, going back to July 2000. A range of about 29 hazards are to be considered. It deals with the property and is person-based, unlike the present system, which is only property-based. A fairly technical, but nevertheless, substantial consultation has been undertaken and reports and guidance issued. Obviously, we have more work to do on that between now and the time that the Bill is enacted.

There are some modest measures to tackle exploitation of the right-to-buy option and to reduce the scope for profiteering, which have been widely welcomed; for example, we have extended the initial qualification period from two to five years and from three to five years the period during which the discount must be repaid where the property is resold.

I have no doubt that one part of the Bill will have substantial debate in Committee—it would be quite wrong to do so tonight—namely, grants to non-registered social landlords. The intention of the Bill is to increase the supply of affordable housing by enabling the Housing Corporation and the National Assembly for Wales to provide grants for organisations other than registered social landlords. Basically, they will operate under the same criteria as registered social landlords, such as the scheme standards and rents. The conditions set by the Housing Corporation will ensure that public money is fully safeguarded.

I turn now to one part of the Bill in a little more detail, which concerns the home information packs. I hope that all of your Lordships tuned in to the "PM" programme this evening and listened to the feature on home information packs. I only caught the second part of it myself; I was not aware that it was on, because I was coming into your Lordships' House to find out what was happening and what progress had been made.
 
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There is an issue, which is obviously one for substantial debate in Committee. Surveys show that almost nine out of 10 people are unhappy with the home-buying and selling processes in England and Wales. I emphasise that it is the "processes" with which people are unhappy. They usually love their solicitors and their surveyors and think their estate agents are the bee's knees. Overall, it is the whole process with which people can be quite unhappy.

The high cost of transaction failure means additional cost to almost everyone involved in buying and selling a home. The main problem is that key information is not available until after the terms are negotiated. I suspect that noble Lords, and certainly Members of the other place, will know that, in some cases, people spend less time buying a house than they do when looking for a summer dress or a winter overcoat. That is the reality for some people.

The home information packs will make key information available at the start of the process, because we think that it is nonsensical that key information is made available after the offers are made and accepted. We believe that it will make home-buying and selling easier, more transparent, more successful and, I must say, much less stressful.

The pack system works well in other countries. A number of schemes already operate successfully here. There is some evidence on that, which we can deploy in Committee. Evidence shows that packs must be compulsory so that everybody benefits. At the genesis of the Bill, when it was part of my responsibility as housing Minister, I was very aware of the implications of making packs compulsory all at once, but there are substantial reasons why it has to be that way. I shall be more than happy to debate and deploy those reasons in Committee.

Most transactions, although not all, involve chains, so delays affect almost everybody. One property in the chain marketed without a home information pack would negate the benefits of packs provided for all the other transactions. The Office of Fair Trading report makes it clear that those benefits are the most evident.

The home information packs manifesto commitment was fully supported by the Consumers' Association, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the major mortgage lenders. Buyers and sellers will negotiate from an informed position—that is important. Any problems will be identified and addressed early on, before the sale is put at risk. The packs will help the seller and the estate agent to decide on a realistic asking price that reflects the true condition of the property, and will greatly reduce the risk of transaction failure, which in some areas runs as high as one in four or one in three, and the hassle of having to renegotiate terms.

Packs will also shorten the period of uncertainty between the offer acceptance and the exchange of contracts. We are not legislating to eliminate gazumping, but the space available for gazumping will be shortened by the process in the Bill.

We do not think that there is a reason for a significant increase in costs. Apart from the home condition report, everything in the pack must be
 
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provided at some stage in the process now. Industry accepts that costs will generally be deferred until completion, and we genuinely see no reason why packs should prevent homes coming on to the market.

Greater transparency will mean a significant reduction in wasted money. The estimate, which we can deploy in Committee, is that some £350 million a year is wasted through failed transactions. But, not to put too fine a point on it, some people are making a living out of that waste. We expect the packs to be cost-neutral overall and to result in significant savings in many cases. The Government considered the then sellers' packs at Second Reading of the Homes Bill in 2000 and have listened to the issues raised then. There are crucial differences between those provisions and the ones before us today.

Several noble Lords present today expressed concern about criminal sanctions. That has been reconsidered and is now subject to civil sanctions. We have also followed the advice of noble Lords opposite for buyers to be able to recover costs incurred when obtaining documents that should have been in the pack but were not there.

Other noble Lords raised concerns about the effect of the packs on low-value homes. We have taken powers in the Bill to deal with that in Clause 144(9)(c). The issue has been consulted on, and we believe that it is best left to the market to provide solutions. We look forward to hearing reports as the Bill progresses. I also have some personal experiences to share from the past 12 months in using this system for a property transaction.

The pilot was carried out successfully. The home condition report will provide energy efficiency information required by the EU energy performance of buildings directive.

We can concentrate today on the principle of home information packs. Concerns have been raised elsewhere about the practicalities of how they will be implemented, but I offer this House the same assurance as offered by the Minister in the other place, Keith Hill. The Government will not introduce the packs before the necessary pieces of the jigsaw are in place. Much of the detail will be in secondary legislation. The target date for introducing the compulsory home information packs is January 2007. It is demanding, but we think that it is realistic and achievable.

I shall outline briefly the other parts of the Bill. Part 6 introduces measures to tackle anti-social behaviour in social housing, to extend eligibility for a disabled facilities grant to all those who occupy caravans and to establish a social housing ombudsman for Wales. There are a few other provisions in the Bill that show that the Government have listened carefully to representations and responded.

Many noble Lords have urged action to strengthen the rights of park home owners. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, who lobbied me earlier on the matter, led a working party on park homes. We
 
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do not have all the answers in the Bill, but we are delighted to report that the Bill now includes six key measures recommended by the working party.

The Bill also provides for statutory overcrowding standards to be amended by secondary legislation. After the Bill had completed its passage in the other place, the Government announced their intention to add two further measures. Both have been widely welcomed and will be debated in this House. If I can, I shall bring forward proposals for Committee rather than wait. If I cannot bring them all forward, I shall present what is available—certainly enough to have a debate on the issue.

First, there is much support for measures to protect tenancy deposits. Twenty per cent of tenants say that landlords have unreasonably withheld their deposit. We will bring forward amendments to tackle this. We seek to guard against only the worst abuses; given the timescale, we cannot deal with everything. Tenants need assurance that their deposit will be safeguarded and that they will not face difficulties trying to enforce judgments, even in the small claims court.

The other issue is empty homes. There has been a lot of support to allow local authorities to make empty homes management orders on long-term empty homes. There was a limited debate on the matter in the other place; we will have a much wider debate in this House. We consulted on the issue last year, so it is not new; we received a positive response. Now is the right time to legislate to deal with the hard core of long-term empty homes.

Local authorities will be able to make management orders on empty homes similar to provisions already in Part 4, with certain modifications. This is not sequestration; it is not taking over the ownership of homes. The government amendments will set out the precise scope of intervention. The intention is to apply to genuine cases of housing vacancy. Of course we will build in the obvious exceptions, such as where the property is occupied, albeit irregularly. If further meetings are required after those held this week, we will be more than happy to offer facilities for those outside the normal Committee process.

We are currently considering the 10th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has an impact in looking at the Bill, and we look forward to receiving the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships' House. We will consider other government amendments as necessary. We have just given the committee a further memorandum.

We have done much to create sustainable communities. It is a panacea; we have a lot to do, and these are very early days. That is part of addressing the supply-and-demand issues in the housing market, but we need to create a fairer and more efficient housing market. Some 1.5 million homes change hands; there may be 2 million marketed per annum in this country, so there are a lot of people involved and a lot of stress.

There are people living in unsafe properties—we know that from the occasional tragedies that occur, and we are trying to address that. I am not trying to
 
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short change anyone whatever. My noble friend Lord Bassam will try to deal with as many points raised as possible when he replies to the debate. Certainly, we will have full and detailed debates in Committee, which I more than welcome. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)


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