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Session 2000-01
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Standing Committee Debates
Homes Bill

Homes Bill

Standing Committee D

Thursday 18 January 2001


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Homes Bill

9.45 am

The Chairman: Good morning. Before we move on, I believe that there is a point of order.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. It has started, by which I mean that Government amendments have started seeping on to the amendment paper. On more than one occasion, both in Committee and on the Floor of the House, I have mentioned my apprehension that the tabling of Government amendments may undermine the programme resolution. The Government have had an entire Parliament and—18 years before that—to think about the Bill. We have started the Committee stage, yet a raft of amendments appeared yesterday. I accept that a couple of them are drafting amendments, but some are more substantive and one or two are wholly incomprehensible to us, and bodies such as the Law Society.

I am putting down a marker. More amendments may be seen and, as we gauge the size of debate that they will generate, we reserve our right to raise the issue of reconvening the Programming Sub-Committee.

The Chairman: I appreciate the marker, but what is the point of order?

Mr. Waterson: I am merely drawing attention to the point.

The Chairman: The Committee heard what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I restate what I said at the start of proceedings on Tuesday. I shall consider reconvening the Sub-Committee, as its Chairman, if it becomes apparent to me that that is necessary. That will become only apparent when I have heard representations through the usual channels, in the normal courteous manner.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Would you make an announcement on jackets to avoid any confusion about secret deals?

The Chairman: I thought that I had made it clear at the start of the previous sitting that, as far as I am concerned, hon. Members have blanket consent to remove jackets as they wish. I cannot speak for Mr. Stevenson, who must make his own judgment.

Clause 2

Responsibility for marketing a property which is on the market

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 2, line 25, at end insert—

    `(5A) The seller does not become responsible under subsection (5) by marketing the property to an individual who is known to him or by virtue of any informal conversation with any individual.'.

I ran to ensure that I was here on time this morning but, in view of the time wasting, perhaps I did not need to bother.

You were privileged, Mr. Gale, to hear the use of argument A in the first sitting. Unfortunately, Mr. Stevenson, who was in the Chair for our second sitting, had not been acquainted with it, so we had to explain its ramifications to him. To avoid any difficulty for you, I should explain that during your absence, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) introduced a new character into our proceedings: the owner of 74 Acacia avenue.

Mr. Waterson: As this shadowy character is obviously going to become a close friend of and regular attender of the Committee, should we give him a name? Mandelson perhaps?

Mr. Foster: I have not yet been notified of the chap's name. I know that he is a regular recipient of ``Focus'' newsletters but rarely receives copies of the ``In Touch'' newsletter, which was a point raised during our second sitting.

The important point is that the occupier of 74 Acacia avenue, Mr. Mandelson or whoever, is a regular habitue of his local public house.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): That is tautologous. Such a person can be a regular or an habitue but he cannot be a regular habitue.

Mr. Foster: I apologise to you, Mr. Gale, to the right hon. Gentleman and to the entire Committee for wasting time with tautological phrases. I will try to do better.

The chap goes to the pub regularly. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Eastbourne and others asked what would happen if, during conversations in the pub, the chap announced that he planned to sell his house—74 Acacia avenue. I had hoped that you would select amendment No. 17, Mr. Gale, which states:

    after `action', insert `excluding casual conversations in premises licensed for entertainment or for the sale of intoxicating liquors'.

However, you selected amendment No. 26, which would insert

    `The seller does not become responsible under subsection (5) by marketing the property to an individual who is known to him or by virtue of any informal conversation with any individual.'.

That stands whether that conversation takes place in a pub or elsewhere.

Our concern is that there remains a lack of clarity as to when it can be deemed that the sale process has begun. Once it is deemed that the sale has begun, clause 3(2) states:

    The responsible person shall have in his possession, at all times during that period, a seller's pack for the property which complies with the requirements of any regulations under section 7.

That means that if the occupier of 74 Acacia avenue indicates in a casual pub conversation with somebody who is not a friend or relative or is little known to him that he intends to sell his property, he is not only covered by the Act but, more importantly, must have a copy of the seller's pack in his possession. If the conversation involved more than one person, presumably the occupier would have to have more than one copy on his person. As he is such a gregarious character, and might speak to many people in the pub, he would have to possess numerous copies.

This is a probing amendment that seeks clarification from the Minister on the point at which clause 2, and the rest of part I, will come into effect. As it stands, the wording is seriously ambiguous, which will affect its interpretation. Failure to comply with the Act will lead to criminal prosecution, so it is a very serious matter and we need to be clear about precisely when the sale is deemed to have started.

Although the Minister may not be prepared to accept amendment No. 26—I suspect that he would have preferred amendment No. 17 with its direct reference to the pub—I hope that he is willing to provide much greater clarity on the issue.

The Chairman: Before we continue, I appreciate that we have to brighten our dull lives, and that a certain amount of levity in the Committee is therefore in order—but only a certain amount. Some jokes wear thin, and the gentlemen of the press have been known to make hay at the expense of the dignity of the House. Although 74 Acacia avenue and argument A are acceptable shorthand, we should draw the line there.

Mr. Waterson: Right. Mr. Gale, I promise that the word ``Mandelson'' will not pass my lips again during the sitting. However, it is helpful to be able to refer to an address, and your ruling allows that.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) obviously has a sentimental attachment to amendment No. 17 and bitterly resents that it was not selected, but, effectively, we debated it when the Committee discussed amendment No. 26.

The Committee supports the thrust of the hon. Member for Bath's argument, but the Minister shot his fox, or at least wounded it—if that is not too topical an analogy—when he said on Tuesday that he would introduce regulations to deal with sales to friends and close family members; I was desperately trying to find that part in Hansard.

The Committee will recall our long and learned debate about what constitutes a family or a trust and so on. However, with specific reference to friends, does the Minister think that such points will be swept up in the regulations?

The hon. Member for Bath raised an important question: would the proposed regulations set the machinery of justice moving if the seller were to have an informal chat with someone in a pub or elsewhere? Will the Minister make clear whether the legislation would apply to someone selling in such circumstances?

On Tuesday, the Minister used the word ``friend'', and I wait agog to discover how the departmental draftsmen will define the term. Their definition might not encompass mere acquaintances or drinking buddies, but the legislation should not apply to such informal relationships. It is bad enough that the panoply of the criminal justice system is to be wheeled out to deal with ordinary people engaged in free contractual relations in the buying and selling of property, but to apply it to people making such transactions freely and informally is anathema. Will the Minister assure me that the term ``put on the market'' will not catch friends of the seller or people introduced to the seller through friends? Will that be made clear in the legislation?

As the Committee stage progresses, I fear that the Bill will shrink while the mass of regulations grows. Given what the Minister has said, it seems unlikely that the Committee will have an opportunity to consider even some draft regulations.

I support the thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Bath, and look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I seek your guidance, Mr. Gale. I want to make a narrow but important point about clause 2 that is tangential to the amendment. Are you minded to have a clause 2 stand part debate, or should I make my point now?

The Chairman: Curiously enough, the Clerk and I have been discussing that. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am relaxed about such matters. The issues that would be raised in a clause stand part debate can be covered during the main debate on the amendments or there can be a separated debate the end. If it would help the Committee, the hon. Gentleman can raise his point now, on the understanding that it is likely that I would therefore be minded not to have a clause stand part debate at the end. The decision is for him and his colleagues.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: There is a weakness in clause 2(3). It refers to

    A person acting as estate agent.

The Committee knows that sometimes, more than one estate agent is appointed to sell a property, and I can envisage many situations where there might be a muddle about which agent is responsible for ensuring that there is a seller's pack. That aspect of the clause needs to be tightened up

In our previous sitting, the Minister mentioned introductory agents. An agent might know that someone is about to put a property on the market, and might introduce a purchaser to that seller, even though another agent has been instructed. In such circumstances, who is responsible for ensuring the production of the seller's pack—the introductory agent or the agent already instructed? The Minister should clarify those two important points.

10 am


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