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Mr. Hammond: I should probably draw the attention of the House to my registered interests. One of the great flaws in the condition survey involved in the seller's pack is that it may not be acceptable to lenders, so buyers may have to commission a further report. Did the Minister tell the Committee whether any serious progress had been made on persuading lenders to agree always to accept the condition reports in the seller's packs?
Mr. Waterson: I can tell my hon. Friend that the Minister had a fairly disastrous appearance early last December at the annual conference of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. One of the things that he tried to do was to bully its members into accepting that very principle. The CML takes the view rather robustly, although a little less robustly than it used to thanks to the Minister's pressure on it, that it is for lenders to decide what evidence they need in order to advance money for property transactions.
My hon. Friend has brought me to the next major issue. Who will benefit from the proposals? We know already that many people do not have full structural surveys done. It is important to remember that the home condition report is nothing like a full structural survey; it is fairly limited in scope and detail. I appreciate that the final form is in a state of flux. We have seen at least two draft versions. It is far from being a structural survey.
I was talking to people last night at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors annual presidential dinner. Anyone in the business will say that unless a property is relatively new, one is advised to have a full structural survey. That is not to say that many people do not take a chance and do not have one done. So, as a matter of law, people will have a home condition report. They may well have a full structural survey as well. Even in the Bristol pilot scheme, a third of the people involved had their own
So, leaving aside the updating issue that I mentioned a moment ago, we have the potential for a series of surveys on a given property. Those in the business have estimated that up to £700 will be added to a transaction.
Mr. Waterson: The Minister argues that broadly those costs would be incurred anyway. I hope that I do not do his argument an injustice. Whether that is right or wrong, there is no doubt that front-loaded costs will, for the first time, be imposed on the seller, not the buyer.
One of the main concerns of organisations such as the CML is that there will be a significant effect on the supply of property on the market. It is perfectly true that some people test the market by putting their property on it and seeing what happens. If they get no interest, they take it off and no one is any worse off and no harm is done. There is real concern that speculative would-be sellers will be deterred by the front-loaded costs of putting a property on the market.
The Minister referred to the separate but related issue of what happens in low-demand, low-value areas. A significant number of Labour Back Benchers expressed concern about that on Second Reading. In fairness, I recognise that the Department has done some work in Bradford and Burnley on the problem. The Minister mentioned a moment ago today's Government press release, which says that the Government intend to consult on the options. Of course, that means that they have still not thought of the answer. They cannot take out a council tax band--during our debates in Committee, we eliminated that possibility. It is difficult simply to draw a line on a map.
In his press release and indeed in his speech, the Minister for Housing and Planning has, with breathtaking cheek, adopted the word used on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)--"stigmatising". I make no complaint about that, because the word is the right one. My right hon. Friend pointed out that, in some parts of the country, one might produce the very result that one was trying to avoid by telling people that they did not need a seller's pack, thereby stigmatising the area--perhaps, for example, a former mining village. It is clear that Ministers still have no solution to that problem, so they are putting it out for consultation. In Committee, we suggested all the possible options--more than once. None of them seems to have commended itself to Ministers.
Lest it be thought that those are merely scares thought up by the Opposition, or by the Law Society, estate agents or mortgage lenders, we should consider the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) on Second Reading. He was in the Chamber earlier, but some prescience has made him disappear. The hon. Gentleman has practised as a conveyancing solicitor for many years. Possibly, for that reason, he did not make it on to the Standing Committee.
Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for that intervention, but I thought that I had already pointed out that the hon. Member for Upminster was in the Chamber earlier. I am sure that the legal dinner is most interesting. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, he will be impressed. He can skip over some of the earlier passages, but when he reads my speech, he will be pleased that I took so seriously what he had to say--obviously, so did his own Whips.
Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have hesitated to intervene, but I really could not let that go on. He will know well, because I raised the matter in Committee and made it clear to him, that, following the Second Reading debate, I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) to discuss the whole issue with me. We had a most useful and constructive discussion and I am sure that I put to rest many of the concerns that my hon. Friend voiced on Second Reading.
Mr. Waterson: I hope that the Minister will not take it amiss when I point out that we have only his word for that--we do not have the hon. Member for Upminster, although I am sure that the bruises have started to go down.
As we pointed out in Committee, when the Minister made that point, it would have been nice if the rest of us had been privy to what the hon. Member for Upminster had to say. When it comes to practical conveyancing, I prefer his comments to those of the Minister.
Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the Minister seems to be a bit selective about which hon. Members who took part in the Second Reading debate he wants to discuss this matter with, because I wrote to the Minister after that debate, asking him whether he could clarify some unanswered questions, and I have not yet had a reply.
Mr. Waterson: That is very worrying, because I know that my hon. Friend knows about these things. I do rather resent the Minister because, as a result of his systematic denigration in Committee of almost every organisation and lobbying group that has a connection with
We now come to the question of criminal sanctions. The Minister said that he was confident that sanctions were necessary. He then undermined his position by saying--it was an ever louder theme in Committee--that he did not think that essentially innocent people would find themselves in trouble with the weights and measures officers, hard pressed as they already are, who will have to try to enforce the legislation.
We disagree with the Minister now, as we did in Committee. It is simply not open to Ministers, even in the Government, where they have an extremely exaggerated notion of their own importance, to say that people will not be pursued or prosecuted for breaches of the law. If we are creating a new law, the breach of which is in theory subject to criminal sanctions, Ministers cannot wave their hands and say that people will not be prosecuted except in extreme situations.
One aspect is really worrying. Even if the Government really believe, against all the advice and evidence to the contrary, that seller's packs will make all the difference, why impose criminal sanctions? The Law Society has been outraged at that suggestion, and so are Conservative Members. We think that ordinary people, going about in their law-abiding fashion, entering, or not entering, into free contractual relations, should not be threatened with criminal sanctions--criminal sanctions which, as we discovered in Committee, are the equivalent of those for someone carrying an offensive weapon such as a flick-knife. We strongly believe that if the Government are having second thoughts about any aspect of part I, they should drop the idea of criminal sanctions.
I shall deal more briefly, for reasons that I have explained, with part II, which deals with housing and homelessness. As Ministers know, we have consistently not voted against the principle of the Bill. We did not do so at Second Reading and I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House against the Bill on Third Reading, because there are some good things in part II, some of which we agree with, but some of which have not been thought through enough.
The Bill arrives at the eleventh hour of the Government, after four years in government and 18 years in opposition. I suspect that during every month of that time, the current Minister for Housing and Planning had some sort of responsibility for housing policy. The Bill is missing things such as a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation, which has caused much comment in the housing press. The Bill must be viewed against the background of a general failure in housing policy.
Every time that we discussed the homelessness figures in Committee, the Minister would rise to his feet to rubbish the very figures issued by his Department, so I am risking provoking him again. I believe, however, that we can at least agree that we established painfully in Committee that between 1997-98 and the last year for which figures are available, the figure for total priority
The figure for the total number of empty homes has fallen only marginally, to 762,700. All that, together with the massive extra pressures caused by the Government's comprehensive failure to tackle the problem of asylum seekers and the sharp fall in the supply of new social housing, shows that there is a crisis in housing and homelessness under the Government.
I discovered the other day that the Labour administration in Basildon has had to impose a special service charge of between £7.50 and £17.50 on homeless people. That is referred to locally as the homeless tax. It is argued that, as most homeless tenants are on benefit, the tax will not be paid from their incomes. The housing chairman, Paul Kirkman--a Labour councillor--said that he
This country's homeless and housing figures paint a very disturbing picture indeed, and the Bill must be judged against that background. We are mystified as to why the Government have taken so long to produce the Bill and why its scope is so limited, given that they have purported to give such a high priority to housing in the run-up to the election and thereafter.
There are major problems with some of the proposals in part II. As I said earlier, supply and demand is the major issue. The Government have not addressed the fact that there is an excess of supply over demand in some parts of the country and vice versa in others, which undermines choice-based allocations.
In a nutshell, part I will cause enormous problems; it will criminalise ordinary law-abiding folk and make the job of buying and selling houses more expensive and more difficult. Part II is riddled with contradictions. The Bill does not tackle some of the big issues in housing, which should have been tackled by now, but, as I have said, I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against its Third Reading.