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Mr. Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair.

8 Jan 2001 : Column 708

Orders of the Day

Homes Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I have imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches and have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.34 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill was published on 13 December alongside our policy statement, "Quality and Choice: A decent home for all--The way forward for housing." That statement sets out our strategy for ensuring that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. It followed our housing Green Paper--the most comprehensive review of housing for more than 20 years, which was widely welcomed--and our spending review announcement in July, which confirmed our commitment to more than double the capital investment in housing that we inherited in 1997, improving the quality, affordability and supply of housing and the choices available to all.

Those measures are all fundamental to tackling the serious housing problems that we inherited. Capital investment in housing was halved between 1993 and 1997. By 1996, there was a £19 billion backlog of renovation and modernisation work in council housing.

Boom-and-bust policies had created a crisis of confidence in the housing market, with the highest ever levels of negative equity, mortgage arrears, home repossessions and homelessness in the early to mid-1990s. It is rich of the Conservative party, given its lamentable record, to criticise this Government for not doing more to tackle homelessness. In the 18 years that the Conservatives had to do the job, the number of households accepted as homeless more than doubled. Their record is a disgrace. They are wrong again to say that the number of homeless people has increased under Labour. [Interruption.] No, that is not right.

Let me remind Conservative Members of the figures, as they seem to be so keen to argue. I will be generous to them and use their last 12 months in office. In the 12 months to the end of the first quarter of 1997, 110,800 homeless households were accepted by local authorities. In the latest 12 months, 108,000 have been accepted. I accept that that figure is far too high. We know that it is far too high, but it is a lie for the Tories to say that there has been an increase in homelessness under Labour. It is typical of the way in which they peddle untruths to try to conceal their shabby record. They should be ashamed of themselves. They should be ashamed of their record.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Will the Minister confirm that priority homelessness is at its highest level since 1996 and that, since the election, 3,000 more people are homeless and in urgent need?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has obviously not listened to the figures. I have just told him that, at the time of the last election, 110,000 households had been

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accepted by local authorities in the previous 12 months. I went on to give the current figure: in the past 12 months, 108,000 have been accepted. I said that it was too high. I accept that, but it is the product of the neglect and failure of housing policy under the previous Government. They should be ashamed. I am sorry that Conservative Members have not had the decency to apologise for their lamentable record.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I have never known a Minister, when introducing his own Bill, to launch an intemperate attack in the first three or four minutes, instead of describing the Bill. What is the Minister scared of?

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, I am reminding the House of the record that we inherited, which is the background to the policies that we are introducing to tackle problems in the housing market; it is the background to the Bill. I remind him that I am referring to items in the amendment that has been tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which is also before the House for debate.

It is all the more surprising to see Conservative Members putting their names to a reasoned amendment criticising the Government for not including measures to regulate houses in multiple occupation. I am very surprised by that criticism. In June 2000 my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) tabled early-day motion 876 on the subject, but not one Conservative Member backed it. That is an indication of Conservative Members' commitment to that cause.

The Government remain committed to licensing houses in multiple occupation; legislation to enable such licensing will be a priority for a future Session. We are not back-tracking. However, it now makes more sense to link our HMO licensing proposals to our other measures aimed at improving the quality of housing generally. The Bill forms an important part of our housing strategy, which aims to improve the home buying and selling process and to provide better help for people who face homelessness in England and Wales. I shall deal with those reforms in turn.

Every Member will have had direct experience of the failings of the current house buying and selling system, and probably all of us know someone--through our surgeries or through personal acquaintance--who has suffered frustration, heartache and, often, financial loss. There is rich anecdotal evidence of what is wrong. The delays and uncertainties in the current system put home buyers and sellers under enormous pressure. Planning with confidence is impossible, and too often the end is dejection as the deal fails. However, anecdotal evidence alone is not a sufficient basis for legislation.

Two years ago, therefore, we embarked on the most extensive research ever into the house buying and selling process. The results were shocking. Our research found that the home buying and selling process in England and Wales is one of the slowest and most inefficient in the world. Although the process might seem to be cheap compared with those of other countries, such a conclusion ignores the huge costs to buyers and sellers of the high failure rate among transactions.

Perhaps the most devastating of the findings was that 28 per cent. of transactions failed between acceptance of the offer and exchange of contracts. Therefore, each year,

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literally hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing the misery of broken dreams and abortive costs that can run into thousands of pounds. On top of the 28 per cent. of failed transactions are many more transactions that are delayed. It is a problem of huge proportions and, not surprisingly, the public are vocal in their criticisms. The fact is that 40 per cent. of those who go through the process are dissatisfied. That damning statistic confirms that existing arrangements do not adequately safeguard the interests of the public. We are determined to change things for the better.

In 1998, we launched a major consultation exercise to seek views on options for reform. The consultation produced an almost unanimous view on a very central issue--the need for greater transparency in the house buying and selling process. To achieve that objective, more information has to be made available from the very start of the process. That is the aim of the first part of the Bill.

The Bill will help to ensure that most of the information needed by both parties--buyers and sellers--is on the table when marketing begins. It also complements various non-legislative initiatives to improve the speed and efficiency of the process, such as encouraging greater use of information technology and "in principle" mortgage offers and speeding up local searches.

The Bill requires sellers to arrange for the key information about their homes, including searches and a mid-level survey, to be prepared up front, in the form of a seller's pack, before marketing starts. The pack will enable sellers and their agents to have the information that they need to set a realistic price, and buyers will be able to make a well-informed offer safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely later to encounter any nasty surprises.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): In the Bristol pilot scheme, free packs were provided. Recently, however, it has been trailed in the press that it will cost between £500 and £700 to prepare a seller's pack. Although such a sum may not be much when dealing with a property that is worth £250,000, in some of the places that I represent houses go for as little as £15,000 or £18,000. Therefore, such a sum could be a very large percentage of the total outlay.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which I shall deal with later. I hope that he will bear with me if I continue and undertake to address the issue later.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I do not want to delay my hon. Friend, who might deal with the point later, but, as he knows, the housing market has collapsed in some parts of the country. In those areas, some houses are not "cheap" at £18,000 but are being off-loaded because their owners can no longer tolerate living in them. When dealing with houses selling for £5,000, or even for £1,000, such a sum for a seller's pack would be an intolerable burden for people who are already suffering enormous loss.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a fair point about issues relating to areas of very low demand, and areas in which confidence in the market has collapsed. He will be the first to admit--I want to stress this point--that

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changes to the house buying and selling process are not an adequate solution to those problems. We have to tackle the problems of deprivation and low demand in many areas of the country, such as those described by my hon. Friend, and we are doing so. I have visited his constituency, and others.

I shall come to the house buying and selling process later, because I intend to cover it in detail rather than give a piecemeal response now.

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