Standing Committee D
Thursday 18 January 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I seek your guidance. First I declare an interest as one of the co-chairs of the all-party group on homelessness. I do so on behalf of the approximately 250 Members of Parliament who are members of that group. We have so far reached clause 3 and I understand the natural enthusiasm, if not exuberance, of other members of the Committee to explore all the nooks and crannies of the legislation. A motion passed by the House suggests that we must conclude the Bill by the beginning of February and that it should be taken in two equal halves. With the progress we have made to date, I fear that that the Committee cannot properly scrutinise and hold the Minister to account on part II. Can you reassure me about that?
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale.
The Chairman: Let me deal with the first point of order. If the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) still wishes to raise an issue after that, he may do so.
First, the programme resolution is in accordance with a motion that was passed by the House a few weeks ago. Secondly, while I appreciate that the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) was not present at the sitting of the Programming Sub-Committee on Mondayalthough he could have been present as an observeran end date was agreed but there was no decision on internal dates or timings. The hon. Gentleman was probably in the Room when we discussed this on Tuesday. I have made my ruling on this abundantly plain. I am prepared to listen to representations from the usual channels with a view to reconvening the Programming Sub-Committee if that becomes necessary. So far, no such approaches have been made. No fixed points have been determined within the sitting period. The expectation has been, and this is common knowledge to all hon. Members, that the first part of the Bill will be concluded on Tuesday, but that is a matter to be determined by hon. Members, not the Chair.
Mr. Waterson: Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. I agree entirely with one point made by the hon. Member for Edmonton, not least as another member of the all-party group to which he referred. We believe that part II is also an important part of the Bill. The suggestion that the Bill should be completed in six sitting days has come from no other source but the Government, possibly with some agreement from the Liberal Democrats. We have consistently made a case for more time. We have put down markers that if there is significant slippage we could always return to the Programming Sub-Committee. There is no agreement, Mr. Gale and nor, to use your phrase, is there an expectation among Opposition Members. We think that part I is important too. If some hon. Members have signed up for this Committee with an interest in part II but little interest in part I, that is a matter for them. Millions of people are affected by part I
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposedly raising a point of order with the Chair, not making a speech.
Mr. Waterson: Those are the points that I wish to make. This is a complex Bill. Both parts are important and both deserve proper scrutiny. The solution is in the hands of the Government's business managers.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. I am the other co-chair of the homelessness group. I took the Housing Act 1996, which is amended by part II of the Bill, through the House. For the record, it has 233 sections, 19 and 19 schedules and at no stage was a guillotine ever suggested or imposed.
The Chairman: First, the right hon. Gentleman has now pointed that out and it is on the record, but it is not a point of order for the chair. Secondly, I stand by the rulings I have given and the offer I have already made. I remain at the service of the Committee in general, and of the usual channels in particular, if they wish to discuss this with me further. Thirdly, I had better state clearly that, as is my custom when I the Chair, I have ensured that the debates so far have been entirely in order, and no one, so far as I am aware, has attempted to filibuster. Just in case anyone feels minded to do so, they should be aware that I would take a very dim view.
Clause 3Duties of a responsible person where a property is on the market
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in page 3, line 28, leave out subsection (8).
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are considering amendment No. 2, in clause 4, page 4, line 12, leave out subsection (5).
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): At our previous sitting I referred to the fact that on a number of other comparable issues involving housing law, criminal sanctions do apply as a means of enforcing what are, in effect, civil duties. I was referring to the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, where obligations to provide rent books and to provide information about service charges to leaseholders are important and are, essentially, civil duties that are backed by criminal sanctions when there is a failure to comply. In those circumstances, it seems entirely appropriate to adopt a similar approach in this legislation. Another important reason for doing so is that the duties of estate agents under this legislation are, in many ways, complementary to the obligations under the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who seemed to be pre-occupied by this matter earlier, should be reminded that that Act, which imposed criminal sanctions with unlimited fines, was passed by the Government he supported.
Hon. Members also raised the interesting question of what happens overseas. New South Wales was the first area to pursue the idea of a seller's pack. It felt it necessary to provide for sanctions in the event of a failure to comply. My understanding is that any seller in New South Wales found guilty of concealing or falsifying any information required to be disclosed shall be liable, at the discretion of the supreme court, to suffer such punishment by fine or imprisonment for any time not exceeding two years, with our without hard labour, or both, as the court awards. I am only astonished at our own moderation.
Mr. Waterson: I shall resist the temptation to talk about the possibility of transportation back to England. The legislation to which the Minister referred talks about concealing or falsifying. That is not what we are talking about. We are talking about when people do not have their tackle in order, as it were. Surely, such biblical penalties are not to be visited on people in those situations in New South Wales.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will know how I intend to respond to that because, as I have pointed out several times, it is important that the response is proportionate. Clearly, we do not anticipate a draconian response to an individual who has, often entirely unknowingly, failed to provide a basic piece of information. However, where there is deliberate, wilful and persistent failure to comply with the law, it would be appropriate for that type of sanction to be pursued.
Mr. Waterson: What the Minister has just said chimes in with something his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, the law graduate, said the other day. In reality, this is a matter not for the Minister. It is for the trading standards officers and the courts to decide whether they will take a view on proportionality. That is why it is important that we get it right before it gets into their hands.
Mr. Raynsford: We agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the sanction must be proportionate. The trading standards officers will, of course, be working within the concordat that governs the way they operate. That is the right way to achieve the desired effect. We want to avoid unnecessary court proceedings and avoid unsuspecting home-owners being caught up in sanctions. The Bill confers the duty of enforcement on local trading standards officers, but those officers retain discretion as to what to do in performance of that duty. Local weights and measures authorities, like all prosecuting authorities, have considerable discretion as to how they operate. Their role involves providing help and advice. The commission of an offence does not automatically lead to a prosecution. Where the offence is sufficiently serious to warrant a fixed penalty notice, the service of such a notice does not bring about a criminal record.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) raised concerns regarding the cost of this activity for local authority trading standards. He will be pleased to know that, following the concerns he raised on Second Reading, we have taken further advice from the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading StandardsLACOTS. We are informed by LACOTS that it stands by its view that the activities involved are complementary to its existing duties in relation to the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 and that, therefore, it envisages only a very notional additional expenditurethis is an average figureof about £5,000 per authority. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken his comments seriously. If he chooses to check with LACOTS, I am sure it will give him the same advice.
Trading standard officers will have the discretion to vary their action with regard the circumstances of the case. For example, they will be able to provide help and advice where a person is genuinely unaware of the requirements. They will be able to give a warning, perhaps for a first or minor offence, and they will be able to offer a formal caution or serve a fixed penalty notice where the offence was deliberate and more serious, but even that will not attract a criminal record. In the most serious cases, where there has been deliberate and persistent flouting of the law, they could commence proceedings in the magistrates court.
I hope that, on reflection, hon. Members will recognise that the enforcement arrangements set out in the Bill are proportionate and do provide the appropriate way forward. I hope that the hon. Member for Eastbourne will withdraw his amendments.