Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for expanding the argument beyond an arid debate on the merits of ``may'' and ``shall'', which, as the hon. Gentleman knows and I have conceded, is an approach that Oppositions often adopt—indeed, I pursued similar lines of argument when I was in opposition. I shall first deal with the technicalities of why we use ``may'' and then deal with the more substantive points that he raised.

It is appropriate to use ``may'' rather than ``shall'' in this instance as there is no requirement for the regulations empowered by clause 7 to be made. However, as I explained when dealing with amendment No. 43, ``may'' does not imply that the regulations will not be made. The other provisions in the Bill cannot work unless the contents of the pack are prescribed in regulations and we are therefore wholly committed to using them. Legally, the Secretary of State cannot be bound to make regulations that are not otherwise absolutely required. As soon as we have completed our consultation with interested parties and we are satisfied that a sufficient number of appropriately qualified inspectors is available, we intend that the Secretary of State will make regulations under clause 7 to deal with the provisions in clause 8.

On the number of inspectors, I have said that sufficient general surveyors are practising to meet the target figure of 9,000. In addition, some 3,000 others are engaged in valuation and others who are qualified in different disciplines may have an interest—I mentioned several professional institutes whose members might be interested in becoming accredited inspectors. The important point is that they must have the skills to carry out an inspection.

Currently, not all valuers have all the necessary skills. Last week, we had an interesting debate on energy efficiency. Inspectors will need to be familiar with the standard assessment procedure—the SAP rating—for a property. Not all valuers will necessarily have that skill and they will need training. A degree of training will therefore be necessary for all those who want to be accredited as inspectors, whatever their current professional discipline. It is our intention that the arrangements will ensure that all those who are accredited have all the skills necessary to complete all the work contained in the home condition report.

We hope that lenders will be satisfied that those arrangements ensure that they have the information necessary to complete the valuation, but they will probably, as is increasingly common practice, depend on a degree of desktop valuation conducted in their offices by experts in the particular field. The new system will not necessarily entirely supplant the process of valuation by the lender, but it will considerably reduce the requirement to visit a property and carry out an expensive additional inspection so that the valuation can be agreed. That is where the potential saving will be made.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to property supermarkets, and I agree that we will see a trend toward the provision of a more seamless service that covers a range of different disciplines; in particular, I believe that a number of solicitors will move in that direction. Rather than simply adopt the position that they are concerned solely with conveyancing, solicitors will recognise that they have a good basis for preparing the seller's pack themselves, providing the information necessary for it and offering that service. No doubt, there will be circumstances in which individual professionals are engaged in other activities. That is not a bad thing if it provides the public with a better quality of service, but important issues of conflict of interest might arise, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out.

Mr. Waterson: Does the Minister accept that the cost to people involved will rise? In particular, does he agree with the prediction of those who say that commission levels will rise to a level nearer to those that pertain in other European countries, which I gather are between 6 and 8 per cent?

Mr. Raynsford: No, I do not accept that. It is typical of the scaremongering tactics adopted by people who are opposed to the scheme and who have been unable to find rational arguments to challenge it. They have caused various scares and alarms. There is no basis for that conjecture about percentage fees increasing to 6 or 8 per cent. It is precisely to ensure that the public receive a high-quality service that we are keen to establish an efficient, modern, competitive system in which a range of different organisations bid for the work and thereby ensure that the prices charged are competitive.

Conflict of interest is a genuine issue, which I undertook to address. The certification scheme will deal with that by close monitoring and inspections. For example, there will be procedures for monitoring a sample of all inspections—I referred to that issue in response to a question asked by the hon. Member for Cotswold in a previous debate.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have been reflecting on what the Minister said. Does he mean that we are moving away from a self-disciplining arrangement for the professional bodies to one that is put on a statutory footing, and that trading standards officers will be responsible for policing home condition surveys?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate elements of the scheme. The trading standards officers' role is to ensure that there is compliance with the legislation's requirements, whereas the certification scheme will have its own arrangements for monitoring performance. Part of that scheme will involve ensuring that certified inspectors continue to meet the standards necessary to justify their certification. Continuous review and monitoring will help to identify potential weaknesses.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I want to be crystal clear about this point. Will the certifying bodies carry out certification and trading standards officers have no role? Will professional bodies rather than trading standards officers deal with complaints about the home condition report?

12.45 pm

Mr. Raynsford: There will be a single certification body, which will be brought into existence to ensure the certification of inspectors who carry out the function. The inspectors will be drawn from several different professional institutes, all of which will be involved with the Government in framing the detail of the certification scheme and will undoubtedly have much to say about the proper constitution of the new certification body. That body will deal with the certification of inspectors to carry out the home condition reports; it will monitor performance and deal with any complaints. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, trading standards officers may make complaints, but it is not for them to form a judgment on the professional qualifications for certifying inspectors.

Mr. Don Foster: Let us get it on the record. The Minister said previously that the costs of the certification body would amount to about 50p for each survey report. Assuming 1.5 million such reports, the cost would be total approximately £750,000. Is that right?

Mr. Raynsford: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his good memory—I supplied the figure in a previous sitting—and on his mental arithmetic skills.

I believe that I have now covered all the issues and I urge the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Loughton: I take the Minister's point about amendment No. 44; he has helped to make clear the first part of the clause. I also take his point about amendment No. 45. We shall have to wait and see: so much that is relevant and so much detail is lacking from the Bill that even if the entire scheme is introduced as scheduled, we shall have to wait until at least 2003 before we know how the Government intend to carry it out.

Serious concerns remain about the preparation of home condition reports. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold drew attention to the problems created for people on the ground. We are to debate the weights and measures officers in connection with the next clause, but I should like to ask what are they to do if they encounter bad practice by surveyors? We are told that such matters will be for the professional bodies—in a self-regulatory role—to determine, but we do not know how the panel for self-regulation will be constituted. The Minister says that personnel will be drawn from all sorts of interested parties, including those outside the 120,000 members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The more fragmented the groups who provide the surveyors or surveyor equivalents—an important caveat—to carry out home condition reports, the more diluted will be the high standards that we have come to expect from surveyors who have the initials MRICS after their names. We are greatly concerned that standards pertaining to home condition reports in future will be greatly diluted from the standards currently practised.

Mr. Raynsford: The logic of that argument, if pursued, implies a serious slur on the competence of professionally qualified members of other institutions, for example architects and engineers. Members of the Institution of Civil Engineers may not be pleased by the hon. Gentleman's remark implying that their qualification to carry out the work would mean a dilution of standards. We have insisted that the highest standards be required for accreditation for the purposes of the inspections. That is our commitment and that will maintain the confidence of the public.

Mr. Loughton: There is no slur, as the Minister well knows. It is purely a question of suitability, a word that he too has used. Those people who may now be adding to the army of surveyor or surveyor equivalents carrying out home condition reports may be vastly more authorised in certain other qualifications than members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. My comments in no way demean their qualifications in other semi-related areas; my point is that they will bring other experiences to the surveying practice, which may or may not be a good thing.

In using the word ``dilution'', all I am saying is that it is likely that the requirements will be factored down rather than up. That must be so if the Minister is to achieve the numbers that he will inevitably need to provide home condition reports on the 80 per cent. of the 1.5 million private properties that are sold each year without a surveyors report. The amount of additional work is considerable and can only be done if the level of detail and specifications in the home condition report are significantly less than those in most normal surveys today.

 
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