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Mr. Campbell-Savours: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument against the proposals, which I support in principle. If by any fluke of circumstance a Tory Government were to be elected, would they immediately rescind the legislation or remove its compulsory requirements?

Mr. Waterson: We are here to discuss the Government's proposals. However, as the hon. Gentleman has asked me that question, I tell him that it is possible--even likely--that at least this place will finish consideration of the Bill before the likely date of the next general election and that it is even possible that the legislation will be enacted. However, the Minister has told us--so it must be true--that it will not be implemented until 2003. By that time, a Conservative Government who will already have a couple of years under their belt will be best able to take a view on whether the legislation should be implemented.

I was dealing with the results of the Countryside survey--I can only assume that it is a wholly different Countryside survey from the one relied on by the Minister--that talked about 20 per cent. of sellers with properties worth less than £60,000 abandoning plans to sell if they had to produce seller's packs. However, in some areas--many of which are of genuine concern to Labour

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Members--a value of £60,000 is unheard of. What will happen in areas where properties are worth only £10,000 or £20,000, or in which people have negative equity?

The issue was aired in advance of our debate--as such matters often are--on the "Today" programme this morning, on which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the Minister went head to head on the matter. The Minister is clearly under pressure from some of his Back Benchers, and has hinted at the possibility of exemptions and discretion being used. Powers to achieve that have already been incorporated in the Bill. Would it not, however, be outrageous if Labour areas around the country were singled out to be deprived of the so-called benefits of seller's packs? The Minister was characteristically honest about this, saying that it would be very difficult to draw lines on maps or to work on council tax bands.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to the problem that could arise if such exclusions were drawn too widely. People's worst nightmare could be brought about, with the value of properties that were already undervalued, or in low-demand areas and with very low values, collapsing completely as a result of the stigma of their being in an area where there was no obligation to use seller's packs.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Bearing in mind that the hon. Gentleman says that most people are both buyers and sellers, and that, presumably, during a transaction, at least one survey--or the equivalent of a buyer's or seller's pack--is taking place, will he explain how the dynamics of the exchange process that he describes would lead to the end of life as we know it? I cannot quite follow his argument.

Mr. Waterson: I cannot quite follow the hon. Gentleman's intervention, so perhaps we can call it a draw.

Mr. Hammond: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a plausible argument for excluding properties at the top end of the market--for example, properties in central London--where it could be argued that buyers and sellers are perfectly capable of looking after themselves and do not need the intervention of the state?

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I shall not follow him too far down that road, but his point illustrates the absurdity of any attempt to exclude particular areas or types or values of property from the Bill or from the requirements for seller's packs.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in constituencies such as mine, which has more than 3,000 empty houses, the bottom end of the market has totally collapsed? I know that the Minister understands that, because he has been to Burnley and seen the problem at first hand.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Gentleman illustrates graphically the problem with which we shall have to wrestle, no doubt at greater length, in Committee.

To return to the intervention by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), there is a practical problem because a front-loaded cost is being transferred to the seller. I shall deal with some of the other implications of that in a moment.

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One might be forgiven for thinking that the Bill has not a friend in the world apart from the Minister. Who will benefit from the Bill? Surveyors will benefit, because all seller's packs will be required to contain a home condition report, although these will be very limited in scope. I accept the Minister's statement that the provision has still to be subjected to some fine tuning, but my impression is that the reports will be limited in scope. They will be fairly basic documents, dealing with a few basic issues that affect all properties. Reference was made to the possibility of customising the reports to particular properties, but that is very unlikely to happen.

The Minister was forced to concede, in response to an intervention, that he might well think twice about relying solely on the home condition report when buying an older property.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: How old is older?

Mr. Waterson: It could be 20 or 30 years old, or older--I was not trying to pin the Minister down to a particular category. Some people live in properties that are 500 or 600 years old, but that was not my point.

Many buyers will still obtain a full structural survey in addition to the report--we should not call it a survey, because it is not one in any real sense--to be contained by law in the seller's pack. A third of those involved in the Bristol scheme--remembering always that many of the properties were brand new--still got their own survey carried out. Even if people are reluctant, the lender may insist, and will certainly still require a separate valuation.

Mr. Wells: My hon. Friend mentioned the lender's survey. We now have three surveys, all of which have to be paid for, eventually, by the buyer. Is it not absurd to leave us in that position? Surely at least one of the surveys should be valid for both buyer and seller?

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the burgeoning number of potential surveys.

Survey reports also become out of date, of course. If there is not a rapid sale, the surveyor may have to update the report after six months or so. There must be many thousands of homes affected by the recent severe floods whose condition has altered significantly even in the past two to three months.

What is to happen about the legal concept of privity? If the seller's surveyor makes a mistake, can the buyer sue? We shall have to go into that in much more detail in Committee.

Under the pilot scheme, the Government bore the costs. Under the new system, more will have to be done, with at least two surveys, extended liability, higher premiums and more training. I understand that, in meetings with professionals, DETR officials have said that they expect costs to increase to European levels. In Europe, commission runs to between 6 and 8 per cent., so that is hardly a great step forward for the consumer. The Minister was right to say that we are slower on average than other countries, but we are also cheaper. If he is to put the pros and cons to the consumer with total fairness, he must accept that there will almost certainly be higher costs, not only to pay for the packs but in higher commissions.

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Is it any wonder that so many surveyors support the legislation? The head of policy at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Mr. Michael Chambers, has estimated that an additional 2,000 to 3,000 surveyors will be needed simply to produce the packs, and some believe that to be an underestimate.

Although the Bill is of little if any benefit to most people buying or selling a house, the Government want to impose some massive changes. They clearly intend, in effect, to reverse the rule of caveat emptor, which has served the English legal system well for centuries--although, curiously, the Bill itself contains no such provision. They want to interfere in free contractual relations and to impose serious criminal penalties on ordinary people trying to buy and sell properties.

The president of the Law Society said:


The Government are trying to turn people into criminals.

The Bill would impose penalties up to a £5,000 fine for the failure to provide a pack within 14 days. If people in areas of low value and low demand have problems in finding the money for the seller's pack, how are they to be expected to pay fines if they are in breach of the regulations? Could they face a prison term instead?

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me; he is being generous in taking interventions. I am puzzled, so may I put a simple question to him? He has been remorselessly negative about the proposals for the seller's pack, and has given not one indication that the Opposition have the least support for it. Yet if I heard correctly what he said at the beginning, the Opposition do not intend to vote against Second Reading, despite the fact that their reasoned amendment says that they decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. Why have they changed their minds?


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