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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness because she shares with me a deep interest in housing matters, based upon the same experience as mine. It has been 45 years since I started as a councillor, then a Member of Parliament and subsequently came to this House.
I know that the Minister has his heart in the right place. He started by saying that this was the second most important, interesting Bill that he has dealt with. I cannot think of any other aspect of our lives more important than the possession of or ability to occupy a home.
As a constituency MP in Edmonton in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980sand, speaking to colleagues, their experience was a similar onenight after night, one would listen to people who one knew were genuine but who had drawn the short straw. By virtue of circumstance they had found themselves living in either inadequate accommodation or in what in the old days would have been called slum accommodation. They were ready to be evicted; they were victims of circumstances, and it made my heart bleed. As I have told the House before, on two occasions I left my surgery on a Friday night, sat in my car and cried, because I knew that I could do nothing about it.
The Minister and his colleagues should earn the undying gratitude of untold thousands if not millions of people for whom this Bill might be the answer to their problems. Over the past few months, the Minister and his colleagues have been persistent in making sure that this Bill has reached its present stage and, in particular, have come along later with provisions for park homes.
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I would like to say a word or two about the right to buy. I strongly opposed the right-to-buy principle when it was introduced, because I knew that in Edmonton there were thousands of homes built by direct labour, which were solid, reliable and well worth the money. Inevitably, however, with the prospect dangling in front of them of making £5,000, £10,000, sometimes £20,000, it made it very difficult for peoplewho had been desperate to get that house when they had been homelessnot to capitalise on it.
One of the things that has stuck in my craw over the past 20 years has been the argument put forward then: that people had the right to buy the house in which they had lived all their lives and in which they wanted to continue to live. We now see from surveys that 48 per cent or more of the people who exercise the right to buy immediately sell the property at a profit. This is a profit which takes the ratepayer and the taxpayer for granted. The party opposite has always said, "We are not in favour of wasting ratepayers' or taxpayers' money". Yet the beneficiaries of the right to buy were being given a grant. All of a sudden, council tenants were specially selected people: people who deserved this opportunity.
I have read the research papers in the Library and, without going into the detail, there have been an absolutely scandalous number of scams growing out of the right to buy. I do not know whether the Minister and his colleagues are able to stop them. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was quite right that the right-to-buy principle will not be breached, but the manner in which it has been operated and abused needs to be tackled. I suggest that the Minister should continue to try to deal with that.
One reads the briefs that one receivesand I have never been so well served in preparing for a Bill as I have been for this oneand generally, of course, they are to be welcomed. As has been referred to, Which?, or the Consumers' Association, welcomed the introduction of the Housing Bill. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that they were the only ones who welcomed the Bill. Quite frankly, I do not know of anyone who does not welcome the Bill in general terms.
Clearly there are some criticisms of the Bill's content and omissions, so the Minister should be under no illusion that it will have an easy passage in general. But I feel a great deal of warmth towards him and his colleagues because at long last they have been able to do something.
Over the past seven or eight years the problems of park homes have been debated. We first went to Hilary Armstrong, who set up a working party in a genuine attempt to help. Nick Raynsford, Sally Keeble, Keith Hill, Yvette Cooper, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lord Rooker have all played a part in keeping the ball rolling. As parliamentarians, we know that we have to be very lucky in respect of timing and opportunity, and I am very grateful to them. I am certainly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for her continuing support on the park homes front.
Let me rehearse some of the provisions in relation to park homes which were spatchcocked into the Bill in the other place. It now requires a written statement of terms to be given to a prospective purchaser before the sale of a park home. That was not there before, but it is so simple. The Bill creates a power by which the Secretary of State can add additional implied terms to the agreement and repeal and vary those in the Mobile Homes Act. One of the things to my credit is that I am the only living Member who served on the Mobile Homes Act in 1983. I have lived to pay the penalty because everyone comes to me and says, "What a rotten job you made of it".
The Bill will also help to deter a site owner from unreasonably withholding approval of a prospective purchaser. It will remove the age of a home as a criterion for ending an agreement and give discretion to courts to adjourn termination proceedings on the grounds of the condition of a park home to allow for repairs to be carried out. And it brings protection from eviction to park homeowners up to that for tenants of houses, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Park homeowners have felt inferiorand certainly they were in terms of protection from the law.
The Minister and his officials have had to be persuaded and pushed, but they have recognised the problem and I am very grateful. They have consulted about the model standards and will be undertaking some work on the statutory instruments in the Housing Bill which relate to park homes. It is the good news that we have been waiting for. If I knew how to spell "hallelujah" I would say it properly. It is "hallelujah" for the people who live in park homes. We have come a very long way and we are very grateful to the Minister and his colleagues.
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Before I sit down, I should like to mention Roy Waite, a man who has carried the burden of ensuring that the case was made for people who live in park homes. He is not well and I just wanted to mention his name. I should also like to mention Frank Jagger, who has resigned as secretary of a group. Both of them have worked very hard for almost 20 years and are now beginning to see progress.
The Minister can count on my support, not only in general but almost without exception. These aspects of living need the spotlight of Parliament turned upon them. It is our job to reflect upon and revise what was said in the other place; it will be put to good purpose here. I thank the Minister most sincerely for what he said.
Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Graham, but if he will forgive me, in view of the time available, I shall concentrate on Part 5 this evening. Whenever we introduce major new regulations and regulatory requirements, with new regulators and inspectors usually following to monitor and police themI suspect that that will happen in this case toowe need to be fully convinced that the benefits justify the costs and outweigh the difficulties involved and the burdens imposed.
I readily agree that there are arguments in favour of the scheme. I have no doubt that there is much frustration and stress for both buyers and sellers because of some aspects of the present system. I do not think that the present system is a "shambles", as the Minister in another place put it, but some of the delays and uncertainties could surely be eliminated or shortened.
I attended the other day a seminar of an organisation called CHIPS, or Consumers Home Information Pack Supporters, in Portcullis House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I was particularly impressed by evidence provided by that organisationit has a voluntary schemethat in the period between the offer subject to contract and the completion and exchange of contracts, all the transactions in which those particular estate agents were involved were completed. There was no one-third drop-out rate in that period and transactions were completed much more quickly. However, it was a small sample.
I was concerned about imposing a new cost on the seller, but I accept that most sellers are also buyers and benefit from that. I accept also that first-time buyers will benefit most from a scheme of this kind. However, a surprisingly large proportion are sellers only. I was struck by a sentence in the Government's regulatory impact assessment document, which states:
Therefore, I am prepared to consider the scheme, but as I looked furtherI was not involved in the original debatesand considered both the Government's regulatory impact assessment document and the many representations that we have received on Part 5, many of my original doubts remained. My noble friend Lady Hanham and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, have already referred to some of them and the Minister is aware that this is clearly a major part of the Bill to be explored in Committee, but I shall refer to a few that most strike me.
The Government originally announced the scheme in 1998. That was six years ago. In this rapidly changing world, six years is quite a long time. I was struck by a survey conducted recently by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, to which it referred in its submission to us. Research that it undertook last year highlighted the fact that there have been "significant improvements" in the past five years, with many more to come. We know that one of the main reasons for introducing Part 5 was the delays that occur between the offer subject to contract being made and the ultimate completion. There is much that is happening now that will reduce those delays anyway. The average 12-week delay should come down substantially due to the technological developments in relation to local authorities, mortgage lenders, the Land Register, the National Land Information Service and so on. The regulatory impact assessment states that those developments,
My next point relates to the key additional costs, which are quantified in the regulatory impact assessment. The major additional cost is the compulsory home condition report. The Government argue that that will replace the existing survey for many and therefore the cost will not be as great. However, the Consumers' Association states on page 10 of its report to us:
I thought that was a very interesting sentence, but I suspect that that meansthe Government will have to make it clear in relation to HIPsthat many people who currently conduct a search of their own will still wish to do so, so there is a considerable additional cost for them. More importantly, the Council of Mortgage Lenders states at various points in its representations that, as matters stand now, lenders will often still have to have a physical valuation of their own. That is one aspect of costs that has been underestimated.
I am particularly struck by the fact that we cannot properly assess the costs until the outcome of what we know will be prolonged consultation on the details of the scheme. Clearly at the moment, as the Council of Mortgage Lenders and others have pointed out, many costs to lenders, local authorities and so on have been left out of the current cost assessment. I am doubtful about some of them; for example, I am sure that the
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assumed cost to local authorities and the trading standards officers of £2.2 million will be a considerable underestimate in practice.
I am interested in who has the title to the home improvement pack because it is clearly relevant to who can be sued. Who owns it? I presume that it is the person who paid for it; or is it the home inspector, estate agent or lawyer? I would like an answer to that question, because, bearing in mind the Consumers' Association's point about caveat emptor, there will be considerable issues. In particular, if there are concerns about the home inspector's report and it turns out to be inaccurate, can the home inspector be sued or how is the issue to be resolved?
The Minister in the other place made brief reference to a resolution of disputes procedure, as does the regulatory impact assessment document, but at the moment I am not at all clear what that disputes procedure and what the costs would be. I hope that the Minister will be able to fill us in with considerable details.
As has already been mentioned, home inspectors are a key issue. Is the qualification good enough at NVQ4? Clearly the Council of Mortgage Lenders does not think so, because it says that that level of training is significantly below that of a chartered surveyor. The problem is that if the lenders are to rely on the information collected within a home condition report for use in valuations and underwriting, they must be persuaded that the training and ongoing monitoring of home inspectors is of a sufficient standard, otherwise there will be additional costs.
The sufficiency of inspectors will clearly be crucial to a national compulsory scheme. Who will pay the costs of training? I was glad to hear the Minister guarantee that the introduction of this part of the Bill will not take place until he is fully satisfied that all the conditions are in place. One of them, critically, must be a sufficient number of fully qualified inspectors in place, taking into account that many are expected, indeed intended, to be part time.
One of the key issues in that context is insurance, which is a crucial part of the schemeand not only for consumers and lenders. No home inspector in his right mind should take on the job if there is not professional indemnity insurance. At this stage I understand that that issue is still unclear; indeed the Consumers' Association is saying that if there is no clear indemnity for home inspectors, the Government must be insurers of last resort.
I was glad to hear the Minister say that he would not proceed with this part of the Bill unless there was an assurance that all the many areas of doubt and difficulty had been resolved. The starting date looks optimistic, but I hope that it will be possible for us to return to these issues not only in Committee and on
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Report, but as so much will happen in regulations after the Bill becomes an Act. I hope that a revised and more realistic regulatory impact assessment available to both Houses is made before proceeding.
That leads me also to the conclusion that the Government should revisit the idea of a voluntary scheme. I did not find convincing the Minister's answer on that point in another place, nor was I convinced this evening. I can see that there are some difficulties in having a voluntary scheme alongside the home improvement pack scheme, but nothing like as many difficulties as with a compulsory scheme without all the problems that have been drawn to our attention having been satisfactorily ironed out.
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