Homes Bill

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham gave an excellent exposition on amendments Nos. 14 and 15, but rather glossed over amendment No. 30, although the compliance costs of the Bill are highly germane to the clause. Will the Minister tell the Committee exactly how many extra weights and measures officers he expects will be needed to police the Bill and who will be responsible for training them in their new duties? They will have no experience in property matters. Presumably, therefore, their existing work will have to be covered while they are being trained.

How much will the extra officers cost and will local authorities be fully reimbursed for that extra cost? Might we find, as on so many occasions, that local authorities are given an extra statutory burden but are not fully recompensed by central Government for it? If so, the extra burden will fall on council tax payers, many of whom are likely to face a settlement this year that is way above inflation and who will be howling from the rooftops at the Government's treatment of them even before additional costs are imposed by the Bill. So that local council tax payers may have an idea of what the Bill will impose on them, the Minister should give the answers to my questions.

Mr. Mullin: As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham says, amendments Nos. 14 and 15 would remove the references in the clause to local weights and measures authorities, but would leave intact the associated provisions relating to fixed penalties. The amendments would remove any practical means of enforcing the seller's pack obligations. We have not chosen to impose a criminal sanction lightly. We believe that that is the only truly effective way in which to ensure that everyone complies with the new requirement. The vast majority of people abide by the law, but there will always be some who seek to take advantage if given half a chance. That is why effective sanctions are necessary.

6.15 pm

Under our proposals, local weights and measures officers will be responsible for enforcing the seller's pack requirements. The hon. Member for Cotswold said that they have no experience of property matters, but that is nonsense. They are ideally placed to carry out that function. As has been noted, they are already responsible for enforcing the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991 and parts of the Estate Agents Act 1979. Enforcing the seller's pack obligations is in many respects complementary to the activities of trading standards officers under those Acts. Our proposals will therefore provide an experienced and cost-effective means of enforcement. I shall discuss in a moment some of the details to which reference was made.

Some Opposition members of the Committee have tried to paint a lurid picture of sellers being dragged through the courts by jackbooted trading standards officers on the basis of a casual conversation in a public house, in which they happened to mention that their house was up for sale. To be fair, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has not drawn that comparison on this occasion, but on two others he has used the word ``Gestapo''. Trading standards officers are public servants who do a very good job, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman might like to take this opportunity to put on record an apology, or at least to make it clear that he was talking about someone else. I can think of no other candidates, so it seemed to me that he was indeed referring to trading standards officers.

Mr. Loughton: I am delighted to put it on the record that we do not intend to insult or besmirch the names of any of the hard-working, hard-pressed and under-appreciated members of trading standards offices throughout the country. In the heat of Second Reading, perhaps the word ``Gestapo'' was taken out of context. I might say instead that the tactics that we will debate in respect of schedule 1—the powers that will be given to trading standards officers—at the very least have something of the night about them.

Mr. Mullin: I am not sure to what extent that constitutes an apology. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks were made in the heat of the moment. I accept that explanation in relation to Second Reading, but his repeating them in Committee rather suggests that they were premeditated. If a Labour Member were to make such a comment, mass hysteria would be organised by the Opposition. As on many past occasions, the Prime Minister would be asked to dissociate himself from the Member concerned. We have been through this many times before—it is a little game called ``denounce'', which the Opposition when in government used to play often and with considerable success.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister is playing a very mischievous game on my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. He used the term because Conservative Members wholly deprecate the giving of yet another group of criminal sanctions to civil servants. Criminal sanctions are unnecessary, because the civil procedure of fixed penalty could perfectly well be adapted for the Bill.

Mr. Mullin: It is possible to make that point without calling trading standards officers gestapo, as the hon. Member for Cotswold—although not his colleague, unfortunately—has demonstrated. I am sure that you do not want me to labour the point, Mr. Gale. I thought that I should give the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham the opportunity to apologise, but it is clear that he does not want to.

The truth is less sensational. In most cases, no offence will have been committed, as there will have been no marketing to the public or a section of the public. However, even if a technical offence is committed, enforcement officers will have a range of options to go through before anyone is taken to court. In the vast majority of cases, in which someone has made an honest mistake in marketing a home without a seller's pack for example, trading standards officers will be able to provide advice or a warning, which will be the end of the matter.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that there had been only 60 prosecutions under the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991. Incidentally, hon. Members may be interested to know that there are criminal sanctions attached to the legislation, and I think that it was introduced by one of the hon. Gentleman's former colleagues. The reason for the small number of prosecutions may be that trading standards officers have employed the large range of other sanctions, ranging from advice to slightly more direct measures, and it has not been necessary to go round prosecuting lots of people. Trading standards officers are sensible people, and they do not prosecute lightly. They may have managed to enforce the Act without difficulty.

Mr. Loughton: To use the phrase used by the Minister for Housing and Planning, if the Under-Secretary gets out into the real world and talks to trading standards officers, he will find that they are frustrated, although not because they have mitigated criminal proceedings to the lesser course of action that they are allowed to take. They are frustrated about the impossibility of making convictions stick so that cases never get near a court in the first place. I was making the point that that is the real weakness with the Act.

Mr. Mullin: Of course one needs evidence to make a prosecution stick, but in the overwhelming majority of cases of infringements that I anticipate under the Bill, prosecution will not be necessary. In cases in which the offence is considered to be a little more serious, trading standards officers may issue a formal caution. The next option is a fixed penalty. We have it in mind that that penalty will be about £150 to £200, in line with the general level of fines commonly imposed by magistrates courts for offences under the 1991 Act. That form of sanction may be considered if someone continues to market a property without a seller's pack, despite receiving a formal caution. Payment of a fixed penalty does not mean that someone will have a criminal record, which is a rather important point.

The ultimate sanction is a summons to a magistrates court. A court will hear a case after service of a fixed penalty notice only if a person chooses not to pay the fixed penalty. That may happen if the person believes that they are not guilty of any offence. It is an important provision, which means that everyone has an effective opportunity to challenge the service of the notice. In other cases, proceedings may be started without the service of a fixed penalty notice. That option may be considered if an estate agent has consistently flouted the law by continuing to market properties without seller's packs, despite repeated warnings and fixed penalties.

We want to avoid unnecessary court proceedings and avoid unsuspecting home owners being caught up in sanctions. The Bill gives local weights and measures authorities considerable leeway to exercise discretion in the use of the sanctions available, and I have every confidence that they will do so, especially where private citizens are concerned.

We have consulted the Local Authority Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards, and the only concern relates to our decision to impose the seller's pack duty, backed up by criminal sanctions, on home owners who market their own homes. As the vast majority of homes are marketed through estate agents, we considered restricting the seller's pack requirement to people marketing homes in the course of a business. However, there are fundamental drawbacks with that option. Sellers seeking to avoid the cost of an up-front seller's pack would be tempted to market their homes themselves, rather than through an agent, to avoid the seller's pack requirement. That would lead to the two-track system and the chain problems mentioned earlier, and would undermine the Bill's objectives. People are naturally worried that imposing on private individuals criminal sanctions that are enforced by local trading standards officers will have a detrimental impact on public perception of those authorities and hamper their efforts to ensure the adequate protection of consumer interests. That is not our intention, as my Department has made clear to LACOTS.

In enforcing the seller's pack duty, trading standards officers will have extensive discretion within the principles of good enforcement detailed in the enforcement concordat. We shall consult LACOTS and others on the best means of ensuring that trading standards officers can provide effective help and advice to consumers and avoid unnecessary sanctions. We envisage the trading standards officer's role as protecting the interests of consumers, by which I mean responsible home buyers and sellers.

Amendment No. 30 would require the Secretary of State to provide the resources that local weights and measures authorities need to carry out their enforcement duties—additional resources to cover the additional training and other operational requirements imposed by the Bill. The cost implications of enforcing the duties will be considered, and the additional funds that are considered necessary will be taken into account in the appropriate local government financial settlement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has already been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions about the matter.

Bids for additional resources will be treated in the usual way, but to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Cotswold, preliminary signs from LACOTS suggest that such bids are unlikely to be significant, given the complementary nature of the work and trading standards officers' existing duties under the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991. When the matter arose a few days ago, the hon. Member for Eastbourne described our figure of £5,000 as the average cost per authority—what we believe is likely to be the increase in cost to each authority on average—as ``amazing''. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who is not now present, also queried it.

I emphasise that the estimate was not ours but was provided by LACOTS, which has since confirmed it. It is totally bogus to suggest that the proposals will cost too much money, that no one will be able to afford to implement the proposals and that overworked trading standards officers will simply not have the time. The estimate was made by LACOTS, which says that the proposals are liable to cost an average of £5,000 per authority. That body represents the interests of trading standards officers, and is responsible for, among other matters, consideration of issues arising in connection with consumer protection matters. If, however, hon. Members have a more reliable source of information than LACOTS, perhaps they could share it with me and, indeed, LACOTS, as I expect that it would be interested.

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