Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: We recognise that there are circumstances in which a seller, perfectly justifiably, would not want information about his property to be disclosed to anyone who is not naturally and correctly involved in the house buying and selling process. We believe that those interests are already covered adequately in the Bill. The amendments would result in a series of unfortunate consequences. I hope that when the hon. Member for Eastbourne thinks about it a little more, he will recognise that the amendments are undesirable and should be withdrawn.

As I mentioned on the afternoon of 18 January, clause 6(3) enables sellers to refuse to show the seller's pack to someone who they believe cannot buy or is not genuinely interested in buying the property, or to whom they would not wish to sell. I pointed out that that complies with anti-discrimination and human rights legislation. It is an important safeguard and we believe that it is the right way forward. However, there is unlikely to be anything in the seller's pack that would cause problems if disclosed to parties other than those directly involved in the transaction.

11.15 am

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raised two issues. Security systems will not be part of the requirement for disclosure in the seller's pack, as they are not part of the structure of the building but are incorporated into it. The presence of bars to be drawn across a window would probably be covered, but disclosure of that would not cause any anxiety, whereas disclosing the presence of an electronic security system might. The other issue he mentioned was price. He will be aware that price information is publicly available and is obtainable via the Land Registry, so confidentiality cannot be secured.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I must probe the Minister a little more about security. Some houses have fairly sophisticated safes that were built into the property at the time of its construction. Security is an important issue. The Minister dismisses my point about price, but local authority searches can make available more than price information; they may list previous owners, who might not want to have their names generally linked with a particular property.

Mr. Raynsford: If a report simply states that a safe is built into the property, I am not sure that making such information available would be prejudicial. If the combination lock were revealed, it would be a different matter, but we certainly do not intend that to happen. Indeed, there might be a beneficial effect if the fact that a building was secure were in the public domain: it might put off the likes of Kenneth Noye or others who might use a seller's pack as a means of casing a joint. I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's argument. On the issue of price, I have already made the point that it is already public information that is available through the Land Registry. There is a general move away from a culture of unnecessary secrecy and toward greater transparency and wider availability of information. One example is that information about the price paid for homes in previous transactions is now publicly available from the Land Registry.

The amendment would be harmful to consumer interests. It would expose the potential buyer to the risk of breaking the confidentiality provision if he wanted to discuss with a friend or colleague whether, in the light of the contents of the seller's pack, the property was worth the price that he was thinking of paying for it. It does not seem sensible to prevent someone from having such a discussion, especially if the friend or colleague has expertise in the market.

The amendment would have very undesirable consequences. The hon. Member for Eastbourne readily accepts that lenders might have an interest in the information. We intend that lenders should be able to rely on the home condition report; to refuse under confidentiality provisions to let them have access to it would be wholly counter-productive. Lenders will be bound by procedures to ensure that such information is not disclosed more widely, but they should have access to it. The amendment is not helpful as it would have unfortunate and unforeseen consequences.

The hon. Members for Eastbourne, for Bath and for Cotswold raised some specific issues to which I shall respond. No change is proposed in the position on copyright; we shall simply retain the existing copyright provisions in respect of home condition reports. The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned privity; the Contracts (Rights and Third Parties) Act 1999 established that third parties have a right to that information, which is fundamental if lenders are to rely on those reports, and rightly so. Therefore, there is no problem in that respect. I have already answered the hon. Member for Cotswold's questions about security and price.

The amendment is unnecessary as the confidentiality issue is already well covered. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Waterson: If the Minister thinks that my amendment is unhelpful, the bottom has fallen out of my world, but I shall soldier on none the less. It is curious that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, including the Minister, agree that only people with a proper interest should have access to seller's packs. Apart from the fact that some parts of the pack are slightly odd, the existing defences do not go far enough to deal with the matter. There are concerns about confidentiality, which we have little doubt will be borne out in practice.

I am sorry that the Minister is not prepared to reconsider the amendment. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Waterson: I beg to move amendment No. 29, in clause 7, page 6, line 24, at end add—

    `(8A) The regulations may specify that a property may be marketed with an incomplete pack in circumstances where reasonable efforts have been made to gather the missing information.'.

The amendment is a blatant attempt to widen the defences available to hapless and otherwise law-abiding citizens who fall foul of the measure. The amendment would make it possible under regulations to continue to market a property that had an incomplete pack if reasonable efforts had been made to gather the missing information.

Last week, we discussed what would happen if there were a delay in obtaining certain documents or if documents never showed up, thus delaying the process. The pertinent example used time and again was of damp-proofing and other guarantees, which may, in any event, be academic because the company that did the work has gone out of business so the guarantee, even if it can be found, is not worth the paper it is written on. We want to go further: when the seller has made reasonable efforts to obtain the documents, he should be exempted from liability and marketing should go ahead.

In support of the amendment, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors stated that

    the marketing of properties with an incomplete pack should be allowed only if it is clearly the case that the agent/provider has been unable to gain the information that they have sought,

adding that

    Strict controls will be required to prevent abuse.

I agree. Whatever the Minister may think, the official Opposition are not in the business of providing routes in the Bill through which coaches and horses can be driven, which is why the regulations would have to be specific. RICS made the sensible suggestion that there should be a definition of core and non-core information. There is a case for the Bill or the regulations being clearer about peripheral papers that are not particularly important, and which may not be found despite all reasonable efforts being made. Sometimes, a seller makes every possible effort to assemble a pack, but cannot complete it because, for example, some deeds or parts of deeds have been lost. The Law Society stated that it was common for details of an old covenant referred to in the deeds to be lost, and that it would be unfair to penalise a seller who, through no fault of his own, could not produce all the documentation. We endorse that view.

Some matters cannot be dealt with satisfactorily by producing documentation at any time in the transaction. For example, when I bought a new home in my constituency a year ago, there was a detailed discussion between solicitors about a right of way across the access to the property. The seller's solicitors could not produce an unbroken line of people to give evidence that they had used that right of way without hindrance for a number of years. I was required to take out an insurance policy against future problems—something that I believe is common in such situations—and the difficulty was resolved for a modest premium. Such matters often arise, especially with older properties. The Minister must understand the logic of not further delaying a process that will, in any event, be held up at the start by compulsory seller's packs.

This is a sensible, probing amendment. ``Reasonable efforts'' has a track record as a legal definition; alternatives would be ``best endeavours'' or ``reasonable endeavours''. I shall be interested in what the Minister has to say on the subject.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Member for Eastbourne described his proposal as a blatant attempt to widen defences, but then slightly rode back from that position. There is no need for his blatant attempt because we are entirely satisfied that the regulations will provide exactly the defence that he wants: when a seller, or a seller's agent, has, in good faith, assembled all the material that can be assembled and is prevented from including in the pack one or more items because they are not available in time, he will not be prevented from proceeding to market the property. The seller and his agent must use their best endeavours to obtain the information subsequently, but, as discussed in a previous sitting, some documents will never become available, even if it is desirable to find them.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned core and non-core information, which is an interesting concept, but it would not be helpful to incorporate it in the Bill or in regulations. It would be unduly restrictive to prevent marketing from taking place if core information were not available at the time that marketing should begin.

The hon. Gentleman quoted RICS, which was closely involved in our discussions. That body is happy for the matter to be dealt with in the regulations that the Secretary of State is empowered to make. We are minded to use that power to enable properties to be marketed with an incomplete seller's pack when, through no fault of the seller or his agent, one or more of the prescribed documents are not available or cannot be supplied within a reasonable period. In such cases, the missing item or items will be required to be indicated in the seller's pack and inserted when and if they become available.

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