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Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. Like other noble Lords, I have received enormous amounts of briefing, the majority of which has welcomed the Bill. Of course, the devil is in the detail, as always. I also welcome the not unexpected statement from the Minister that he looks forward to a robust debate, because parts of the Bill will bring that.
There have been many contributions about the home information pack. Mine is probably one of the few voices in the debate thus far to welcome itit is a good thing. The fact that the Consumers' Association is the only organisation to have welcomed it in no way discredits either the standing or the quantity of its briefing. It conducted a survey last October of more than 1,000 people who had bought their homes. The disgraceful figures to come out of that were that more than 50 per cent were unhappy with the transaction, 70 per cent felt that the estate agents had given them misleading information, and 82 per cent thought that the home information pack would be very useful to them. All that I have read has led me to one firm belief, which is total agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that we should look at licensing or regulating the estate agency sector. It is the only group in the house-purchase chain that does not have either a professional or a regulatory backing.
The issue of rural housing is very fraught. It is a real issue in rural areas, and I am sure that we shall have a debate on it. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was a bit unfair to the Government, who have more than
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trebled the number of houses built in rural areas since they came to office. So desperate are we to get houses builtit is difficult to reach the targetsthat the Housing Corporation, with the Countryside Agency, funded the employment of 20 people for three years up and down the country looking for sites or buildings that could be converted for rural housing. Such is the commitment behind trying to improve it. I accept that it is nowhere near what is needed, but it is certainly much better than it was. It is unfair to criticise the Government as strongly as the noble Baroness did, but I look forward to the debate on the issue.
I want to concentrate on Part 6. It has the rather innocuous title of "Other provisions about housing", but I believe that it is part of the beef of the Bill itself. It is a substantial part of the Bill and deals with a number of areas, not least of which is disabilities. Because of time, I shall not speak on that subject; I think that my noble friend Lady Wilkins and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will concentrate on that in their speeches.
Last year, I was asked by the Deputy Prime Minister to chair a group of what turned out to be 16 people, to look into how we could increase the number of people in this country who could afford to buy their own homes. Currently, 70 per cent do and 90 per cent would like to. How do we increase the market for low-cost home ownership? The Barker review is a major contribution to that. My review was submitted to the Deputy Prime Minister last October. It received nowhere near the publicity of the Barker review; it was not so high-pitched. However, I was delighted a few weeks ago to receive a letter from the Housing Minister, Keith Hill, confirming acceptance of the majority of the 45 recommendations in that report, many of which are in the Bill. I place on record my thanks to the Government for that.
The Minister said in his opening address that some small changes had been made to the right to buy. That was a recommendation of my small working group, which comprised not only housing officials but private developers and a range of others outside housing.
I welcome the changes in the Bill, but they do not go far enough. Among other things, the working group conducted a series of meeting with people who lived in rented property or had shared ownershippart rental, part buyingbut who wanted to buy their own home. What came through was the unfairnessthey are so rightof the difference between the discount in the right to acquire from housing associations and that given by local authorities. The blunt fact is that it depends where the dice falls for an individual: if you are in a local council house, the discount and what you get is far better than if you are in a housing association property. We felt that that should be rectified. The Government have not done that; nor have they dealt with the variation between the regions. Nevertheless, I welcome without reservation Clauses 157 to 165, because they reflect my task force's recommendations. We want to see good value and improvement in affordable home ownership.
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One of the other areas that the Government did not accept related to increased value when a shared ownership tenant of a housing association property sells and moves on. We wanted to see the housing association share of that profit recycled within affordable home ownership. I hope that the Government will look at that again.
I welcome Clause 87, which deals with overcrowding. The standard was last set in 1935, I think; so the Government's commitment to review it is very welcome. It would be very helpful if the Minister could indicate the timescale for the consultation and what the Government are looking at on the issue of overcrowding. He might not be able to give the answer today, but perhaps he could do so during the course of the Bill. As with overcrowding, the issue of decent homes is so big that it must be dealt with in a timescale; you cannot do it overnight. It would be good to have within the Bill, which the Government intend to make active at the beginning of 2005, a timetable for dealing with overcrowding. That would certainly help local authorities. It would be helpful if the Minister could give some indication on that.
Until last year, I was chairman of the Housing Corporation, so I welcome the Bill's updating of the corporation's powers and the improvements on the present arrangements, but there is an omission. The Housing Corporation has the sanctions of either gentle persuasion or, at the other extreme, what I used to call the nuclear bombstatutory inquiry. It needs some intermediate sanctions by which it can bring housing associations along when they are not meeting the standards needed. Yes, you can put people on a board under supervisionyou have them there part time. It would be good to have intermediate powers and a special manager. I gather that the Treasury rejected that recommendation because a special manager would remove housing associations' independence. However, that is not the case in Scotland, where the proposal has been accepted, so I question why we cannot have such provision here.
Like other noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, I am concerned about the issue of grants to non-registered landlords. There are lots of questions on that, and I am sure that it will take some time in the Bill. It is not new; it has been tried before and it failed.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, like other noble Lords, basically I welcome the Bill. I want to concentrate on Part 5. I declare my interest as a surveyor and as having set up an estate agency in 1995.
I fear that Part 5 replaces light-touch regulation with heavy-handed, socialist bureaucracy, which will at least lead to the stigma of a two-tier housing market. In Denmark, which the Government have often quoted as having home information packs, the size of the pack has risen from 100 pages to 800 pages. They have a small housing market in comparison to ours.
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We have made little progress in the six years of discussion with the Government on the sellers pack, or home information pack as it is now called. The only notable achievement is to have moved them away from criminal penalties to civil penalties, and I welcome that. The idea of a home information pack is admirable. It is agreed that there is a need to speed up the housing market, but the Government's proposals are not a solution to our problems. Let us look at the cost. The Minster said that the alleged cost of aborted transactions is about £350 million. We will come back to that on Report, but that figure is wildly out of date and it is misleadingit is much less than that. However, the cost of a home information pack will add about £650 million annually to existing selling costs. The average cost of a home information pack will generally be over £600, or more like £1,000 in London.
As my noble friend Lord MacGregor pointed out, the regulatory impact assessment is a flawed document, as it does not take into account many of the additional costs. The Government have seen fit not to include those. The result will be that extra costs will go up, and some estate agents will be able to push up their fees as well. That happened in Denmark, where fees have practically doubled since the introduction of their equivalent of the home information pack.
A home condition report is a pretty worthless document if it is not accepted by the mortgage lenders. The lenders will always want the right to commission their own valuation and survey. Contrary to what the Minister implied, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has not welcomed the idea of home condition reports. The survey has the wrong name; it is not a survey of a house, it is an inspection by a partially qualified person. That person will not be qualified up to Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors standards, and that inspection will not reveal any of they key information that a house buyer wants. It is a surface inspection; it does not look at the expensive things that are always hidden, the drains, the electricity, the gas, the damp, the subsidence. They are totally ignored, so it will not help in the way that the Government want.
My noble friend Lord MacGregor also raised the question of surveyors and insurance. That is a huge problem. Let us look north of the Border, where a similar scheme is under way, except that it is voluntary. The whole scheme is grinding to a halt because the insurance companies are terrified of what will happen. At the moment, one gets a survey carried out by a professional. That person will probably be RICS certified, which will not be the case in the future. The survey goes to one person; that is one insurance claim. Now, the insurance companies will be faced with a home condition report going to perhaps 50 different people, all of whom can sue. That problem is by no means resolved yet.
Let us look at the shelf life of the property. The Government state that the home condition report should not be more than three months old at the time marketing commences. At the moment, 25 per cent of open market sales take about six months, so that inspection will be at least six months out of date. Whose responsibility will it be to update that? In the
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past few years, we have been used to a strong, bullish market. There is no question that that will end. By whatever means, the market will slow down, back to what it used to be when properties took a long time to sell. The home information pack will be out of date, the searches will be out of date, and the home condition report will be out of date. Having spent a vast amount of money preparing it for the beginning of the sale, whose responsibility is it to update it, and how are they going to find the extra costs? It is going to have a big impact on the housing market, far more than the Government give it credit for.
There is also going to be a conflict of interest between the surveyor and the home condition report inspector. They can sit in the same office, at adjacent desks. If that home condition report has got to be accepted by the vendor and the purchaser, there is no way they should be allowed to be in the same building, and agents should not be allowed to own or take part in a firm that is producing home condition reports. There is too much of a conflict of interest, which would not be allowed in any other line of business.
Let us look at the qualifications for estate agents. When the Minister is looking for a new job after the next election, he can set up an estate agency the next day and sell a £10,000 house, or even a £10 million house. He needs no qualifications, nor does he have to meet any threshold, but if he wants to sell £100 worth of stocks and shares he has to go through every hurdle the FSA can produce for him. It is nonsense, and I strongly support my noble friend Lady Hanham. She knows I have been banging this drum for many yearsus estate agents need to be properly regulated, along with the rest of the financial sector.
I want to ask the Minister what has happened to SAVA, that great institution that was launched with such a flourish. In 2001 the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was telling us all about its goodness. Who owns it now? What happened to the house that was suddenly found among its assets?
The Minister has said absolutely nothing about how he is going to monitor Part 5. What are the Government's plans for monitoring? How are they going to assess whether this has produced value for money and improved the market? How are they going to differentiate what the Bill does, as opposed to all the other changes that have been mentioned that are coming through in the housing market?
There are a lot of problems. I hope the Minister gives us enough time to debate this in Committee. We started today at 7.53 p.m., exactly the same time as we were allowed to start the Bill in 2001. I fear we are going to be horribly squeezed in Committee.
At Second Reading in 2001, the Ministerthe noble Lord, Lord Whittysaid that the seller's pack or HIP, as it is now going to be called, was going to be ready for 2003. Yet in July of that year the Select Committee looking at the draft Housing Bill in another place savaged the Government's proposals, and said that a great deal more work needed to be done before they could be introduced. They were not convinced that HIPs were going to solve any of the problems that the Government have identified.
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Let us be absolutely clear; England and Wales are stepping into the unknown so far as this part of the housing market is concerned. No other country in the world is going to be doing what the noble Lord proposes, and therefore we need to get it right.
We have ludicrous situations; I shall give your Lordships one last example. Gone will be the freedom to market a house at day one, when you want to market it. If your office is in England or Wales, you will not be allowed to market the house. However, if you sell the house from Scotland or market it from France, you can tell everybody. If you have a multinational firm, it will be easy to let people know beforehand that a house is going to come on the market, which will be a civil offence in England and Wales. That is going to be a nonsense. Will the Minister clarify that if I was part of a multinational and I was based in Edinburgh, my other partner in England could not mention that a house was going to come on the market, but being in Scotland I could tell that to anybody in England? That is one of the many nonsenses that this Bill, as drafted, leads us to. We are moving into uncharted territories that need a great deal of examination.
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