Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, while he may regard some of the items on the list as being less significant, they are of a different nature to issues relating to the physical condition of the property. The physical condition of the property is covered by clause 7(5)(d) and we are satisfied that it covers energy efficiency. The hon. Gentleman will also accept that, if we were to identify energy efficiency as one characteristic of the physical condition of the property, it would be difficult to resist arguments that we should also include other physical conditions such as noise, insulation, adaptability for disabled people and so on. That was the nub of the argument.

Mr. Foster: We could trade lists of things of differing significance, but my point is that it has been accepted by the Committee, and, more importantly, more widely in the House, that energy efficiency and energy efficiency surveys are important and significant. Notwithstanding the importance of some of the other measures that the Minister has referred to, some of which are in the Bill and some of which are not, many members of the Committee consider that energy efficiency and energy efficiency surveys are so significant as to warrant inclusion in the Bill.

It is clear from his earlier remarks and from that intervention that I have not yet persuaded the Minister of the importance of putting this issue in the Bill. I will come to the seller's pack in a second, but it may be sensible for me to agree not to press my amendment so that the Minister has time to reflect on whether he might wish to change his mind and accept it, and to allow him the time to reflect on whether he can have his cake and eat it by making modest changes to clause 7(5)(d). He may find a form of words—perhaps I might give him suggestions later on—to tie in energy efficiency within the wording of a home condition report, which might solve everybody's problem.

Although, I think that that is important, and an issue to which I hope to return at a later stage, I will not press the amendment. However, I assure the Minister that, if we cannot find a way forward by agreement, I will seek to bring the matter back on Report.

My second proposal is to have an interim set of procedures between the time when the seller's pack is introduced and now. I said when I began that I was aware of the response that the Minister would make. Long before he gave that response, I had outlined what his response would be: that there would be a relatively short time between the two and that my proposal would not be as effective as his own. In addition, some training costs would be involved and some people would argue that it was not worth it. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that, long before he made those comments, I had made them for him. On the point that I sought to make earlier—not with enough force—those arguments were invalid because of the large number of people who would benefit, at relatively small cost, from the introduction of the interim measures.

The Minister pointed out that not all home transactions happened through mortgages. The 1.5 million homes to which I referred had been transferred with mortgages, which would be affected. I understand that those are the latest figures. The Minister may correct me if he has different figures, but 75 per cent. of house purchases, as he rightly pointed out, do involve mortgages. Whatever the figure, a large number of properties would profit from my proposal, even if we are dealing with just one year. The Minister has already acknowledged that I may be right, and that the period would be longer than a year. He suggested 18 months. I would argue, based on the example that I gave of the building regulations, that it might be longer than 18 months because of the complexity of these proposals. Either way, the large number of people who would benefit are worth more serious consideration than the Minister is giving. He said that my proposal would be a nightmare to introduce and that it would be difficult to train all these people. If that were so, why, such a short time after my hon. Friend the Member for West Devon and Torridge (Mr. Burnett) introduced his Energy Efficiency Bill and the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) introduced his version of that Bill, did the Minister say that it would be possible to introduce legislation within 12 months? Presumably, he was acknowledging that all the necessary training could be done within that period. I hope that he will acknowledge that that is what he is saying. If he has different information, perhaps he will tell us?

Mr. Raynsford: What I referred to as a nightmare was not the training requirement for the seller's pack scheme with the energy efficient report as part of that, but two separate training and accreditation schemes running in parallel. The new scheme for the seller's pack will be integrated with the energy efficiency report while the other scheme, which is the subject of the hon. Gentleman's new clause, would not and would have to involve a separate commissioning body, notably the lender. That duplication of effort would create the nightmare.

Mr. Foster: I am surprised that the Minister uses that argument, which I suspect should be consigned to the bottom end of arguments as argument Z. His argument has been about the bureaucracy applying to the scheme, not the issue of the training of people. I make no bones about the fact that there would be two different approaches. However, the key issue is the fact that the people who would carry out those surveys would be the same as those who, under my proposal, would be trained perhaps 18 months earlier than they would under the Minister's scheme. The great problem that the Minister claims training all those people would cause simply would not occur—as is demonstrated by his acceptance of the proposals of the hon. Member for Eltham.

The Minister is shaking his head; again, I have not convinced him on the issue. That is a pity because more than 250 Labour Members of Parliament have indicated their desire to see the measure introduced. Not pushing the matter to a vote would at least allow not only the Minister to reflect but those 250 Labour Members of Parliament—and no doubt many Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members—to talk to him about the issue. Maybe, with a bit of time on our side, we may persuade him to change his mind.

I will, with deep regret, withdraw the amendments, but I hope that it is understood that if we do not receive satisfaction from the Minister at a later stage we will bring similar amendments back on Report.

Mr. Loughton: On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. I am that sure we will find the Committee as enjoyable as we did this morning.

I am not convinced by what the Minister said. The hon. Member for Bath said that he would withdraw the amendment reluctantly, but the logic of what the Minister said this morning is that such matters have to be left to regulation and that the Committee and the House have to rely on the good will and the good sense of the Secretary of State of the time to ensure that the energy efficiency requirements, of which the Committee apparently unanimously approves, will be included in the seller's packs at some stage after 2003, by which time a further 3 million properties will have changed hands without an energy efficiency requirement as part of the sale. As I said, that is an enormous lost opportunity.

The logic of the argument is that nothing can be made an exception, even though, as the hon. Member for Bath has said, certain specifications are, notwithstanding, listed. The two examples of other lobbies that might ask why they were not represented in the specifications for seller's packs in the Bill—the disability lobby and those with an interest in flooding—are both important. As the chairman of the Conservative disability group I agree on the importance of disability considerations in housebuilding and related matters. Nevertheless, surely other aspects of the law—certainly with respect to disability—cover the building or adaptation of homes, or making them available for public access. Those matters are already covered—although some might say inadequately—and can be improved within existing legislative frameworks.

Mr. Raynsford: I confirm the hon. Gentleman's point that part M of the building regulations sets the regulatory framework for standards of disability access. Of course, he will know that part L covers energy efficiency, so an exactly comparable set of building regulations exists for each area of concern. We are considering not the building regulations but the obligations with respect to the contents of the home condition report in the seller's pack. It would be inconsistent to refer to an obligation relating to one set of building regulations but not another.

Mr. Loughton: Indeed, but building regulations apply to new buildings, rather than to existing ones. The vast majority of the properties affected by the Bill will be existing properties changing hands, not new or recently-built properties that have been subject to the regulations.

My point is that disability considerations can and should be dealt with in other measures. As to flooding, the Minister knows—these developments have been debated in the House—that the Environment Agency has, since December, had a computerised flood map so that any prospective buyer can tap a postcode into the website and see the area's susceptibility to flooding. I agree that the specifics—whether No. 3 Acacia avenue may be more susceptible to flooding than No. 7 or No. 9—may not appear, but a general idea will be available. Indeed, there is a question whether greater duties of disclosure should be included in the Bill, in preference to the rather more prescribed surveyor's report, requiring sellers to make clear what damage might have been caused by flooding in the past.

Of course, the damage that might have been caused by flooding would not be revealed in a survey if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made clear this morning, that survey was conducted for a seller's pack before the serious flooding. Without any duty to establish the shelf life of a survey, or to conduct a refresher survey, the Minister is condoning the purchase of a house on a seller's pack that could contain an out-of-date surveyor's report. That is the logic of what he said this morning.

I am glad that the Minister mentioned the many energy efficiency promotional schemes that have been continued under this Government, but which originated and were much promoted under the previous Government. It was a shame that, yet again, the Minister resorted to a distortion of the truth, by repeating the oft-quoted, but rather misleading fact about the pension that the next Conservative Government will pay to all pensioners. It will include the winter fuel allowance, which will be available to all pensioners, and for which the tax allowances will be raised, so that nobody will suffer any additional tax liability. Pensioners will receive it as cash in hand on a week-by-week basis.

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It will be up to those individuals to spend the money as they wish. They will have dignity, and Government's trust. Conservative Members trust pensioners to spend money as they see fit, and pensioners will receive more money than the sum of all the component parts that they currently receive on an annualised basis. They will receive that, and more, on a week-by-week basis and spend it as they wish. The Minister knows that those are the details of the policy and it does him, and the Committee, no service to repeat that distortion time and again. The fact that he tried sneakily to insert it into the debate on the amendments relating to energy efficiency smacks of desperation.

We are induced by the Minister to trust the Secretary of State. We are to trust a future Secretary of State, after 2003, whoever it may be, although it is highly unlikely that it will be the present incumbent, whether or not the Labour Government are still in power. We are to trust that that Secretary of State will include in the regulations the energy efficiency requirements that we want. Energy efficiency is probably the most relevant of all the considerations that the Minister has listed in terms of disabilities and flooding potential, and it applies to the fabric, running costs, affordability and sustainability of a building. It should be placed right at the top of the list for inclusion in the seller's packs, if we are to have them at the point of sale. The failure to do so strikes me as the most enormous lost opportunity.

The Minister, and so many of his colleagues, has supported similar measures in various Bills, and now, at the last post, he has decided that such measures are not to be included in the Bill. However, we will not give up, because there is pressure from Labour Back Benchers and from the Opposition, who want the measures. We have already made workable proposals, which would not require much effort to implement.

Reluctantly, like the hon. Member for Bath, we shall not press our amendments. In not doing so, we hope that the Minister will think the matter through, and return on Report agreeing to a multi-party approach to place the energy efficiency considerations at the heart of the Bill. In his heart he knows that he supports the measures. Let us see his actions reflect the words he used while in opposition.

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