Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: Portillo. [Interruption.]

Mr. Waterson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman finds that amusing. However, many people will find the debate rather chilling, to put it mildly. He wheeled out his old chum, the president of the Bristol Law Society. As I said on Second Reading, of course the Bristol Law Society and Bristol estate agents, were over the moon at the one-off shot in the arm from the taxpayer, which amounted to some £370,000. If the Minister would like to do the same for Eastbourne, I can almost guarantee that the president of the Eastbourne Law Society would be similarly appreciative and enthusiastic. Also, if the estate agent mentioned by the Minister has been a beneficiary of the same process, she will be expanding. It is genuinely worrying and an affront to the whole process to talk about taking what the Law Society says with a pinch of salt. I am a member of the Law Society and I do not always agree with what it says on a range of issues. However, it does represent over 80,000 solicitors in England and Wales, and the Minister could be a little more open to the points it is trying to make. It does have a legitimate interest, not only financially, but in getting the legislation right.

The Minister said that what I said about the CML was entirely groundless, which on the facts alone cannot be right. It was bad salesmanship to refer to his speech to the CML on 4 December 2000, which seems to have gone down like the proverbial lead balloon. There are some unhappy people in the CML as a direct result of the Minister's remarks. He took a very narrow view when he tried to paint himself and his colleagues as champions of the public interest. With a sweep of the hand he discounted the views of all the professional bodies and professionals involved as somehow unreliable and not worthy of our consideration, because that is how they make their living. That is outrageous. Those professionals have concerns that go beyond their own narrow professional and financial interests. They are concerned about the effect of the proposals on consumers in the real world. They are particularly qualified to make those comments, because that is how they make their living. It is obvious that there has been arm-twisting of the CML and who knows what other organisations behind closed doors by Ministers, and by others at Ministers' behest. The Minister said that he had only one meeting with CML; it would be interesting to know who else met its representatives. As I said, we shall table questions to try to discover the relevant dates, names and times.

It is bad enough that the Government are trying to reduce the opportunities for debate in the House, without their terrorising organisations that have a legitimate interest in commenting on the barmy nature of some of the Government's proposals. When an organisation such as the CML talks about behind-the-scenes activity, it suggests that it can have come only from the Government side of the Committee.

If people such as Mr. Holt, whom I quoted extensively, take the trouble to write to the Committee with their sensible and detailed thoughts, it is unacceptable for the Minister to talk about extraordinary people and people who write in green ink. We all have our share of such people in our constituencies, but sadly the Labour party also has them in its own ranks. The Minister is one of those people who thinks that everyone but him is out of step; not only is everyone else wrong—the Law Society, the CML, the Independent Association of Estate Agents, Mr. Holt and so on—but it is an outright impertinence that they tell us their views.

Mr. Raynsford: I do not expect to persuade the hon. Gentleman, but comparing the Government's actions with those of Mussolini is not a helpful contribution to a serious and rational debate, especially in view of my observations about the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991.

Mr. Waterson: I would not compare the Minister to Mussolini, but people are entitled to express their frustration, alarm and surprise that criminal sanctions such as those imposed for carrying a flick knife are to be applied to people who cannot get their seller's packs sorted out. What kind of world is the Minister living in? The foundations of our civilisation will not be threatened if people do not sort out their seller's pack in time.

The Minister met the CML once—did not that go well?—and his officials will no doubt continue to have meetings with that organisation. The hon. Gentleman claimed not to be against small business, but he is happy to countenance smaller agents going out of business and large agents, usually owned by the big financial institutions, dominating the market. The Bill will distort the market in two ways: first, it will reduce the number of properties being put on the market and, secondly, it will disadvantage smaller, independent agents. It is no good the Minister saying, ``Oh well, they don't give the same kind of service; they are all in the age of the quill pen.'' The Minister may have made a startling revelation about how he spends his off-duty hours, but that is another matter.

Mr. Raynsford: Will the hon. Gentleman please accept what I have said clearly in Committee and on other occasions, that there is no question of small businesses going out of business as a result of the measures? I spoke specifically about a small business that was thriving and about how innovative businesses, whether small or large, which developed services for the public would thrive. Those businesses, large or small, that did not would probably go to the wall, as that is the nature of business. Will the hon. Gentleman please not misrepresent me as saying that somehow that would be disadvantageous to small businesses? I do not believe that and I have never said it.

Mr. Waterson: I am happy to accept that the Minister was misquoted in respect of the meeting in Bristol, or the Bristol scheme, and to move on. However, that does not alter the more important fact that the small agents think that they will be under threat as a direct result of the proposals.

We struck a sensitive chord with the Government; the Minister's answers were not remotely satisfactory and some were downright derogatory to people who made legitimate, responsible representations. I urge my hon. Friends to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division No. 8]

AYES
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Foster, Mr. Don
Loughton, Mr. Tim
Waterson, Mr. Nigel

NOES
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Buck, Ms Karen
Hope, Mr. Phil
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Love, Mr. Andrew
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Raynsford, Mr. Nick
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Turner, Mr. Neil

Question accordingly negatived.

THE CHAIRMAN being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendment proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 69, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Home condition reports

12.30 pm

Mr. Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 44, in page 6, line 24, leave out `may' and insert `shall'.

The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 45, in page 6, line 31, leave out `may' and insert `shall'.

Mr. Loughton: These probing amendments cover some of the same ground as those in the previous group, which included amendment No. 22, so I will not go into too much detail.

Amendment No. 44 would clarify the drafting of the first paragraph of clause 8, which appears to make optional, rather than mandatory, various provisions of the home condition report. It is essential that the regulations made by the Secretary of State are as clear as possible, and that is why the amendment replaces the word ``may'' with ``shall''. Will the Minister explain what the clause is trying to achieve?

Amendment No. 45 would also replace ``may'' with ``shall'' because it is essential that the scheme, which gives approval to certification of the surveyors or their equivalent who carry out the home condition reports, is, to use the Minister's phrase, absolutely rigorous and clear, thus keeping their integrity is intact.

The Minister quoted various organisations that expressed an interest in becoming part of the scheme; I am not convinced that the numbers add up to the 9,000 personnel who will be required to carry out the home condition reports for what may be 1.5 million properties a year before the various exemptions. The proposals seem to provide that persons registered and accredited as being suitable to carry out home condition reports may not be qualified valuers, therefore reports prepared by them, as unqualified personnel, would contravene the building societies legislation, as well as being unacceptable to mortgage lenders when granting mortgage offers. I should be grateful for the Minister's clarification of that point.

How will the Minister prevent conflicts of interests from occurring within what are likely to become property supermarkets? House transactions have three distinguishable components: marketing by a estate agent, conveyancing by a lawyer and surveying by a surveyor. Those three elements are increasingly combined within a single firm. A company such as the Countrywide Assured agency—one of the largest, if not the largest chain of British estate agents—aims to take 10 per cent. of the conveyancing market over the next few years.

In the past 15 years since the big bang, the financial world has witnessed financial supermarkets being set up at an increasing rate; they offer a range of financial products, advice and so on. There might be conflicts of interests in the one-stop shops of the property world if the surveyor or surveyor equivalent who produced a home condition report came from the same firm as the agent marketing the property, who, in turn, provided the details to another colleague in the same company who dealt with the legal transactions. The vague details of the accreditation scheme provide no assurance that there will be a watching brief for any overlaps causing conflicts of interests between the three component parts that are currently separate.

By imposing a degree of compulsion through the use of ``shall'', the amendment probes how watertight the integrity of the scheme will be and how the Government will monitor it. I should be grateful for clarification.

 
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