Homes Bill

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Mr. Raynsford: The Opposition's weakness is their tendency to criticise from a particular angle, regardless of whether their criticisms are consistent. [Interruption.] To answer the hon. Member for Cotswold, it is right for the Opposition to oppose, but that need not mean criticism irrespective of consistency. One expects a degree of integrity from Oppositions, and that they will pursue a consistent line. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for East, or rather for Shoreham—

Mr. Loughton: At least we are consistent about our constituencies.

5.45 pm

Mr. Raynsford: I confessed in a previous sitting to my terrible problem with double-barrelled constituencies. The words East Worthing and Shoreham have at last reached my lips, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for getting his constituency wrong.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham began by saying that the home condition reports would be too limited and inadequate, and that leitmotif returned at the end of his remarks. He also said that they would lull buyers into a false sense of security. Early in his speech he came up with the simple fact, which we endorse, that a great majority of buyers now obtain no survey or home condition report at all. They enter into what is almost certainly the biggest financial transaction of their life with no information. Far from agreeing on the advisability of encouraging people to obtain some information, the hon. Gentleman took the opposite view and said that the idea was wrong. He then resorted to attacking the proposal on the ground that it would increase cost. However, following his logic and obtaining a more thorough and rigorous survey would cost even more.

What do the Opposition want? Do they want people to be well informed when they take a decision, or ignorant? Do they want them to have a reliable and informative report on which to base a judgment about the need for a further survey? If several important matters in a report received a rating of 4, clearly, any potential buyer would be well advised to obtain further information, but at least the preliminary information would be available.

Mr. Loughton: At the moment every person—few as they are—who obtains a survey of a building is guaranteed to receive one that is up to date, because it is commissioned when a sale is likely. The assurance of the impartiality of the report is that it has been commissioned by the would-be purchaser. Is not that the big difference?

Mr. Raynsford: No, it is not. I notice that the hon. Gentleman immediately tried to sidle away under a different argument, namely the shelf-life of the survey. The key point is that the buyer must be able to rely on the home condition report. We discussed that issue in detail earlier this afternoon, and because it is so important we are setting up a framework that will provide buyers with reports on which they can rely, in contrast to the present state of affairs, in which the vast majority have nothing. It is rich to be accused by the Opposition of foisting unsatisfactory and insufficiently informative reports on the public, when they admit that most people now obtain little or no information.

As to the shelf-life, we have always made it clear that there will be an obligation to produce a first seller's pack and that in general it would be possible to rely on it for a period but that after a time some items might need renewing. In particular, local authority searches would probably require a check after perhaps three months, but, as I have mentioned several times, with the introduction of new electronic communications systems and with NLIS coming on line, it should be possible to carry out a check for a tiny sum of money, to ascertain the validity of the original search. That would be a way of keeping up to date at minimal cost and would be compatible with what we are proposing.

If a property is on the market for a long time, there maybe a need for a further check—particularly in circumstances such as flooding, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. However, the basic information will generally be valid for a significant time and will provide buyers with information that they currently do not have.

Mr. Loughton: Surely the point is that it is only a basic search. Given new problems, such as flooding, sensible buyers will have further questions that go above and beyond the scope of the basic search. Further to my earlier point, from which I did not wish to drift, is it not true that if a buyer chooses a property that has been on the market for 12 or 18 months, he will have to pay a premium in commissioning an additional survey because the old one's shelf life has expired? Why should he be prejudiced simply because the seller's property has been on the market for a long time, while someone who bought it after a short time would not have to commission a further report? Why is the Minister so biased against the buyer of such a property?

Mr. Raynsford: That is a preposterous argument. It is not a question of bias against individuals. We have clearly said that the home condition report will be available to them. We have indicated where it maybe necessary to update it and, in the case of searches, that is likely to be a cost-effective operation. Flooding that affects a property is a serious matter, and someone considering buying a property that has been subject to flooding would be well advised to have further checks made, whatever period had elapsed since the original survey.

If nature sends a flood, it is not the Government being biased against someone who chooses to buy some time after the survey, it is life; it is an act of God. I can tell the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that that is indicative of the Opposition's approach, which is to seek carping criticisms rather than to recognise that the Bill attempts to remedy a fundamental weakness in our current framework. At present, many people spend money on probably the biggest financial transaction of their lives without any reliable information on the value or condition of the property or the potential cost of any repairs.

Mr. Loughton: It is not the Government but the system that is biased against those people that buy properties that have been on the market for a long time. Whatever the Minister may say, they would be well advised to commission their own surveys if there is a threat of flooding or circumstances change. The difference is that the cost of their survey would be on top of the cost of the vendor's home condition report, which would be reflected in the price. The difference is that we have had one impartial survey at the point of sale, which would satisfy all those concerns, and we are now to have two surveys—one HCR and a survey.

Mr. Raynsford: That is indicative of an Opposition who are focusing on the detail rather than seeing the big picture. I have had cause to chide the Liberal Democrats for not being conscious of the realities of business, and I have to say that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into the same trap. If a property has been on the market for a year or more, it is likely that the vendor will reduce the price in order to secure a sale. To suggest that the person who buys six months, a year or 18 months after the property was put on the market is landed with an additional cost without any potential off-setting saving shows that he is out of touch with reality. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that when properties are on the market for a long time the vendors tend to reduce the price in order to make a sale. The Opposition should ``Get real''. They should think about how the market operates and recognise that this is an important additional provision that will ensure that people are better informed and better able to make rational judgments on something that is hugely important to them. That is the result of the Government's determination to attack the problem instead of trying to justify the maintenance of the status quo, which, sadly, is the Opposition's position. They spent 18 years presiding over a housing market that went through extreme fluctuations of boom and bust, and did nothing about it. Now, they can only carp at and criticise our attempts to put matters right. It is a sad reflection on the Opposition that they are not able to take a more constructive position, and the judgment of history will find them wanting.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Enforcement

Mr. Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 7, line 15, leave out subsection (1).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in page 7, line 19, leave out

    `by officers of local weights and measures authorities.'.

No. 30, in page 7, line 21, at end add—

    `( ) The Secretary of State shall provide resources to cover additional training and operational requirements that local weights and measures authorities may require for the enforcement of this Part.'.

Mr. Loughton: The Minister's final comment on the previous amendment reminded me of the old saying by a Member of this House that now is not the time for cliches, but I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.

Clause 9 deals with the enforcement of the penalties that the Government seek to impose on innocent house sellers, who are to join the ranks of people who pursue country sports as criminals. The amendments would decriminalise the faults specified by the clause and take the weights and measures trading standards officers out of the equation. Amendment No. 30 represents a fall-back position. If the Government insist on making such behaviour a criminal offence, with the full force of the trading standards officers to enforce their diktats, we want at least to ensure that those officers are suitably resourced to carry out their duties.

Conservative Members are surprised that the Government are relying on weights and measures officers to carry out their bidding—one would have thought that they already have their work cut out in pursuing sellers of bananas in imperial measures. The metric martyr, Steven Thorburn, will no doubt be the first of many honest tradespeople in this country whom the Government intend to fine and give a criminal record.

 
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