Homes Bill

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Mr. Waterson: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I seek your assistance. There are a number of points, in addition to those that I have already made, that I was proposing to make in the context of amendment No. 22. Am I right in thinking that we will not now be having a separate debate on amendment No. 22, as we have had it already, or will we have a narrow debate on it when we get to it? I am happy to make the points now if you would prefer, but it breaks up the routine.

The Chairman: I thought that I had made it plain, but let me clarify the position. I offered the hon. Member for Bath the opportunity to raise his points in this debate in view of the breadth of the argument that he deployed. I intend to call amendment No. 22 formally. If the hon. Member for Eastbourne wants to debate it, he should do so now.

Mr. Waterson: In that case, I shall proceed with the second half of my remarks. I have already dealt with the issues that are particularly relevant to amendment No. 27.

We say that amendment No. 22 is a bit of double-edged sword. If the report is not acceptable to lenders, the buyer will have to pay for a further report, but if the seller is likely to have to pay even more for it to meet the needs of the lender that simply adds to the cost. It is important that we know where lenders stand on the question of the acceptability of the report itself. If they do not accept it, half the purpose of the exercise will be lost. If the lender starts making unreasonable demands about the nature of the report, the seller will incur yet further expense.

What is the position on valuations? I understand that the Minister had something to say about them when he addressed the CML annual conference in December, but his comments were not that well received.

Mr. Foster: For the benefit of the Committee, will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether, when he preceded his remarks with ``we say'', he was referring to the Conservative party or to the Law Society, whose briefing, he has just read out almost word for word?

Mr. Waterson: Both—and well spotted by the hon. Gentleman. I am glad to see that he is doing some of his homework, but if it assists him, I am now turning to the briefing from the Council of Mortgage Lenders. It is keen to ensure that lenders can rely on the home condition report. It says:

    This can only be achieved if Home Inspectors—

we will come on to them in more detail under another heading—

    are liable to lenders, as well sellers and buyers.

They must also have proper threshold indemnity insurance. It then talks about certification, which again we can leave for the moment.

The only other point that I would have made in the usual way concerns an interesting attachment from our friends at the CML about comparisons with other countries. I do not intend to go through it in detail, but I commend to those hon. Members who have not yet had the chance to read it, the table set out there, making international comparisons. We have heard a lot about Denmark. The document states:

    It is the only country identified in the DETR study of practice overseas where the seller is required to include a property condition report in the pre-marketing information pack.

Differences between this country and Denmark are listed, demonstrating conclusively that it is dangerous to draw international parallels. Those differences include significantly lower level of home ownership, a dramatically lower average number of transactions per annum—89,000 in Denmark and 1.4 million in the United Kingdom—and different approaches to financing house purchase and to the liability of the seller for property defects. If we are to hear even more about the Denmark experience, it needs to be put in that context.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I have got off my chest not only my concerns, which would have arisen naturally under amendment No 22, but those of other organisations.

12 noon

Mr. Raynsford: I well remember those happy days on the Transport Bill Committee, when the debate went from crystal balls in the early stage of the Committee to golden balls at the end. You are right, Mr. Gale. There is a linkage between amendments Nos. 22 and 36. I am pleased that you suggested that we consider the two together. I shall respond to both debates.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne expressed various views about consultation. I can tell him we are absolutely at one with him about the importance of consultation. I hope that he will understand why his amendment is not acceptable. The farrago of innuendo and speculation that formed the bulk of his speech had absolutely no substance. Let me deal with that quickly, to put it out of the way and put him out of his agony.

We have heard criticisms from the Law Society. The hon. Gentleman always studiously ignores the point that the person best placed to understand the working of the seller's pack—the chairman of the Law Society in Bristol—has been one of the most fervent advocates of seller's packs. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the closer people are to understanding the workings of the seller's pack, the much more likely it is that they will be supportive. I would take the wider issues of the Law Society with a slight pinch of salt. It may have been preoccupied with different things in recent months and perhaps has not focused enough on the local experience of the seller's pack.

The NAEA has been extremely supportive of the seller's pack proposals, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Eastbourne acknowledged that fact. He then turned to the CML, on which his comments were entirely groundless. Let me give him the information that he sought. How many times have I met the CML? I have met it once—my speech on 4 December, where I made the merits of seller's packs clear. I also made it clear that the Government were interested in the public interest, not in the professional interest of any group of professionals. That has always been, and remains, our stance.

I am delighted that the effect of my speech appears to have been to persuade the CML to change its slightly ill-thought-out opposition to the seller's pack. Mortgage lenders charge £180 for a valuation, which the buyer pays. In many cases, that is a rather large and unreasonable charge. If there is scope to reduce it, that will be widely welcomed by the public. It is in the public interest that we are pursuing this approach. I am delighted that a number of lenders now recognise that and are talking of working with the Government to take forward the seller's pack proposal.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne read all sorts of suspicious connotations into the document from which he quoted, which are largely unfounded. Mr. Coogan, the director general of the CML, had referred to the number of members in the context of making best use of the opportunity to advance their interests through the seller's pack. In that respect, the CML is rightly listening to the views of some of its members.

The hon. Gentleman also cited a particular individual, Mr. Holt. Opposition Members often dredge out some extraordinary people who have written long letters, possibly in green ink. They quote them at great length, as if it added further substance to their arguments. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Mr. Holt's comparison of the Government with Mussolini is truly extraordinary, given that the first attempt to introduce criminal law in this sector was the previous Conservative Government's Property Misdescriptions Act 1991. In that legislation no limit was placed on the fine, so the charge of being like Mussolini applies more to the Conservatives than to us.

Mr. Loughton: Without wishing to enter into a debate about wartime fascists, was not the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 introduced because of the loopholes and mess left by the previous Labour Government's Estate Agents Act 1979?

Mr. Raynsford: It is rather a long time between 1979 and 1991, so why did the Conservative Government take so long before getting down to it? I repeat that the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 introduced criminal sanctions, so the suggestion that we are acting in a dictatorial way reminiscent of Mussolini is wholly wide of the mark. That would also be an appropriate comment on the judgment of Mr. Holt.

I made it clear earlier that the CML was closely involved in the Department's discussions from the outset. Officials have met and will continue to meet the CML regularly to ensure that all issues of mutual concern are properly discussed and dealt with.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne suggested that we are against small businesses. He misquoted the remarks that I made in Bristol, where I pointed out that all businesses—small or large—that did not modernise and failed to recognise that consumers wanted a better, more up-to-date and efficient service would suffer. That is the nature of the market. We cannot and it is not our role to protect inefficient businesses whose customers leave them.

I am surprised that the informant who wrote to the hon. Gentleman did not mention it, but I also said that small estate agents who seized the opportunities of modern technology, new ways of doing business and providing better services to the public were doing extremely well. The strongest evidence comes from the Bristol estate agent who has been the most imaginative and progressive in adopting the seller's pack approach: as a result, it can no longer be regarded as a small estate agent, but a large and expanding one.

Providing a high-quality service, offering seller's packs and utilising electronic communications to speed up the process are clearly attributes of modern, efficient business to which customers respond. Such businesses will do well. Good luck to them. Our proposals will act as a spur to encourage efficient businesses—small and large—to provide a better standard of service to the public. Those who want to continue as they have in the past and live in the quill-pen age—to make an inappropriate reference to a film currently in circulation, and I shall certainly make no further reference to it—will go out of business.

 
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