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Mr. Waterson: The Minister has been in the House longer than me, and he knows the form: the reasoned amendment is designed to set out our specific objections to the Bill. None the less, there are some good things in it--I am talking about part II rather than part I--and we shall not throw the baby out with the bath water. That is why I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the reasoned amendment.

I was talking about penalties. An estate agent is not allowed to start marketing a property unless he has a copy of the pack. Some of the possible defences in clause 6 are pretty strange, not least the idea that the seller can get out of the legal penalty by proving that the person involved was not "genuinely interested", or

How bizarre. How might a court be satisfied that someone was not genuinely interested? Should the Commission for Racial Equality be concerned about the second leg of that defence?

What about the problems of enforcement? We all know that local authority trading standards officers are under great pressure. The Association of London Government and the Local Government Association have both expressed their concern about that.

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The Minister has also tried to interfere by saying that people should have a prior mortgage offer before they start the process of buying a house. That may make sense in some circumstances, but not in all. Why would the Minister try to bully mortgage lenders in that fashion?

We are not all fortunate enough to have access to the sort of interest-free housing finance that was available to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We ordinary folk have to go cap in hand to our bank or building society--at least, most of us do. It is up to us and our lenders to decide such matters; it is not for Ministers, who do not have to face the tedium of filling in forms and so on.

We should be in no doubt that the Bill will deter some potential sellers from putting their homes on the market in the first place. It could therefore have a serious effect on house price inflation, and I hope that the Minister has made that clear to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Is it not ironic that, just as the "for sale" signs will be coming down throughout the country, the "for sale" signs are going up outside Labour headquarters, as millionaires queue up to buy friends and influence the Government with their donations.

In short, the Bill ignores many of the underlying causes of homelessness, and it will not benefit people who are buying and selling houses either. Worse than that, it demonstrates two of the Government's least attractive features. First, it is all spin and no substance. After all this time, and all their empty promises, the Government have failed to tackle the problem of gazumping. Secondly, it shows their inability to resist interfering in people's lives. If seller's packs are such a good idea, why not leave it to individuals to choose to use them? Why seek to impose them on everybody?

The Government are an interfering, nannying, over- regulating, hectoring, bullying, lecturing, bossing, finger- wagging, patronising bunch of know-alls. I therefore invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the reasoned amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a time limit of 12 minutes on all Back-Bench speeches. That limit will apply from now on.

5.19 pm

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw): I will take 12 minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will be quick.

The Bill has 99 per cent. support in the House and throughout the country, but there are obviously anomalies in any wide spread of housing. There are two problems. First, ex-council houses were sold at great haste by the Conservative party and people were encouraged to buy homes, especially flats, that are now unsaleable. The second problem involves houses that were owned by the National Coal Board.

I shall deal with council houses first. I shall quote what The Star--a Sheffield newspaper--says about a council and a ward that, along with Roy Hattersley, I used to represent 30 years ago. The Liberal council is pulling

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down tower blocks because they are half empty; no one wants to live there. The newspaper says:

but the council has offered one gentleman £7,000 for his home because no one wants to live there. That is all that the council says his house is worth. The headline is "Home and away", but the poor old pensioner wonders where he will find anything for £7,000 if he is evicted.

There are places in all cities that have gone so far down market because of crime, drug peddling, vandalism and poor schools that no one will even rent a house from the council and half the houses stand empty; no one will buy them. That often happens where people have inherited council flats and other properties that the Conservative party sold irresponsibly. I know of a man who inherited a home from his pensioner mother, who paid £5,000 for it. She bought it with her life savings as security for herself. He has offered it back to the council for free, but the council does not want it and he is saddled with all the roof repair costs and so on. That is happening in many inner cities.

When the Tories decided to sell off British Coal in 1987, it owned 178,000 houses, in which miners had traditionally lived, in probably 60 or 70 villages. The word immediately went out to sell the houses; otherwise, British Coal could not be sold. The houses were sold in a disgraceful way. Some 158,000 of them were offered to miners at prices as low as £2,000 or £3,000, but about 20,000 could not be sold. Some of them were made from concrete slabs with rusting ironwork inside, and building societies would not give loans. Others were inhabited by elderly pensioners who did not want to buy their houses. So British Coal, pushed by the then Government, put those houses up for auction and spiv landlords bought them in job lots.

I have a cutting from January 1987, which states that my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and my friend Geoffrey Lofthouse, the then hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford, and I proved in an Adjournment debate that I initiated that houses in south Wales and Northumberland were being auctioned in job lots at the Savoy hotel for as little as £3,000 each. They were bought with sitting tenants, only to be put back on the market for £6,000 within three days. People came from Athens and around the world to buy them.

The cutting states that my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) alleged that

to another slum landlord, making a quick profit. Spivs--there is no other word for them--who paid an average of £2,000 to £4,000 for terraced houses, got their money back in a year. Sixteen years later, some of those houses are still being rented at £55 a week. About £40 of that money comes from housing benefit, paid to people in desperate circumstances who responded to local newspaper adverts. The landlords packed those pit houses with people who were perhaps homeless, who had been evicted from their homes, who had split from their families or whose cases involved social exclusion, but the landlords never did any repairs.

In the past few years, some pit houses have been done up and modernised. Couples live in them. The houses have central heating and double glazing and have attracted

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grants for improvements, but the people living in them cannot sell them for £22,000 or £19,000. They have been on the market for two or three years, but there are no buyers for them because slum landlords in such areas refuse to do any repairs.

When the problem families left, the councils said that the landlords should rewire their houses and make them safe, but they did not do that. The landlords would board up the houses and gangs would move in, smash the windows and take out all the radiators, sinks and taps within two days of the houses becoming empty. I would not be surprised to learn that some of those gangs had been organised by slum landlords, who instructed them to wreck the place and take all the stuff out. The landlords would then say, "I'm not putting another tenant in. If the council wants the house, it can have it, but it must pay me £17,000 for a house that is derelict."

When people drive down the streets in mining villages, they see lovely little terraced houses and then two that are wrecked and three that have "gas off" painted on the door. Four of the houses might have rats and others might have bedspreads chucked in the back garden. The council has to organise skips and the people who live there are in the pits of despair. They feel trapped. They say, "No one has even knocked on the door in three years. They drive down the street and see that it looks like Kosovo or Beirut."

I am talking about Warsop and Warsop Vale in my constituency, Pleasley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and at least 25 other coal mining and textile areas near the M62, which runs from Hull to Bradford and then on to Leeds and Liverpool. As my hon. Friends know, that coal mining and textiles belt contains thousands of houses that nobody can sell. We do not blame my hon. Friend the Minister for that, because he has done a good job generally.

Parts of Wales and Scotland have been regenerated, and now areas of England are at long last being regenerated. New jobs are coming in and new roads are being built. English Partnerships is doing a first-class job, but housing is a total mess. Council houses that the Tories sold off and have ignored ever since stand empty. Tower blocks should not be half full, because they cost as much to maintain, to run the lifts and to heat as they do when they are full. Therefore, councils face the problem of people decanting and of elderly people not wanting to move.

We can almost draw a ring around places in the country that have assisted area status, where there are no buyers for houses in band A. Not even estate agents are interested in such properties. If the people in such houses asked an estate agent to provide a seller's pack, they would probably be told to go somewhere else. The houses cannot be sold, and there is no profit in it for an estate agent to advertise them and to keep them on his books for two or three years.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that, in 1998, the coalfields taskforce produced a report on places such as Warsop Vale. It said:

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Although those issues appeared in the report, they were not covered by the Government's response to it.

The law has to change. The compulsory purchase system must return. Positive action must be taken against landlords who refuse to do anything with the property that they own, and prefer, instead, to leave it with smashed windows or boarded up, so that other people in the area cannot sell their property. If that does not happen, the seller's pack, even with the best will in the world, will be of no use to huge pockets of land.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that clause 7 allows him to make exemptions, but in the two weeks over the Christmas period we have been unable to discuss that with our colleagues in the coalfield communities and the House. I hope that in Committee--certainly before the Bill becomes law--we shall address the problem of owner-occupiers who cannot sell their houses.

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