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Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): Can my hon. Friend confirm whether the Government are minded to provide for information tailored to a specific property rather than generic information about any measures that might be taken to improve the energy efficiency of a property?
Mr. Raynsford: I reassure my hon. Friend that the home condition report, which forms part of the seller's pack, is to be tailored to an individual property, and its purpose is to provide advice that will be useful. I hope that I have given him the answer that he seeks.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Will the Minister be careful not to create a class of stigmatised, economically excluded properties for which a seller's pack is not required? If he is not careful, a small group of properties at the bottom of the range will encourage transactions over a pint of beer in the local pub. They will be sold at very low cost with no guarantees for either the seller or the buyer.
Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman will have heard me say carefully in response to several interventions from my hon. Friends that, although I understand their concerns about the problems in low-value areas, I do not want exemptions to exclude significant numbers of people who would benefit from the seller's pack. We want to tailor the measure carefully so that the benefits of the seller's pack are extended as widely as possible. At the same time, we recognise the real problems that have been voiced by those Members who represent constituencies that contain areas of great deprivation. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is familiar with such areas--although his own constituency is a little more affluent, it is not far from areas of great deprivation. He will therefore understand the points that have been made.
Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate of the cause of people living in park homes. I met him and colleagues on the all-party group just before Christmas to discuss progress on our review and consultation on action to tackle the problems of park homes. The position of people living in park homes is different in many respects from that of people living in other properties. It would therefore be inappropriate to extend the provisions for the seller's pack to park home residents. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are considering carefully, as part of a separate review, the needs of people in park homes.
I wish to make a final remark on the cost issue. Experience with existing seller's pack schemes suggests that most people will probably not have to pay for the seller's pack up front, just as many people do not pay their estate agency fees up front now. We will encourage the development of more of the voluntary schemes in the run-up to the compulsory implementation of our reforms. That will help us to obtain the benefit of the practical experience of those operating voluntary seller's pack schemes and to ensure that we get the content of the seller's pack absolutely right when we introduce it.
Fourthly, it is argued that the seller's pack will not outlaw gazumping. That it is true because it is not possible to do so without at the same time introducing undesirable consequences or additional costs. Making it unlawful to entertain any other offer after accepting the first one would leave sellers with no remedy against a buyer who deliberately drags his feet. However, the introduction of the seller's pack will dramatically reduce the time between accepting an offer and exchanging contracts--the window during which gazumping can occur. The seller's pack will also reduce the scope for confusion, argument and the breakdown of trust between the parties during that period, which so often prompts a seller to look for another offer, or a buyer to seek another property or reduce the price originally offered.
Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford): No one would argue that preparing for the sale of a property in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes is not desirable, as it would speed up the sale and put the proposition on the table. However, it would be better to impose the normal procedures of this country, whereby an agreement to buy a property at a price is enforceable in law. Although it is necessary with property and, indeed, any other product, to have the capacity to abort a sale when necessary, it would concentrate everyone's mind if a seller's pack were legally enforceable. That would avoid the bureaucratic nonsense that concerns the Minister's hon. Friends.
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman must appreciate the difficulty of making an unconditional offer. If a buyer finds that it is impossible to proceed because his own sale will not take place, he is left in the impossible position of either having to take out expensive bridging loans, which he may not have the means of servicing, or breaking
We are seeking to reduce to a minimum the time between the initial offer and the exchange of contracts. In Denmark it has been shown that that can be reduced to as little as two to four weeks, compared with the 13 or so that it takes in this country. There is enormous scope for reducing that period, thereby reducing the likelihood of gazumping. That is the essence of the proposals, which make good sense. The seller's pack is a practical and effective response to the problems implicit in existing arrangements which allow gazumping and gazundering to thrive, and it will greatly reduce the opportunities for such behaviour.
Finally, there is the key consideration of whether marketing with a seller's pack should be made a statutory obligation with criminal sanctions. It has been suggested that we should let voluntary initiatives develop which, with developments in e-conveyancing, would achieve the improvements that we seek. I am wholly unpersuaded by those arguments, which sound like cover for those people who want the current system to continue. A seller might be tempted to attempt to save money by refusing to assemble a pack, while hoping that the person from whom he is buying has done so. Six weeks later, a problem might emerge with the condition of his property and the whole chain would be delayed, depriving several other people of the scheme's benefits. The scope for problems and sharp practice are so wide that such arrangements are undesirable and unrealistic. That is why we need a mandatory scheme, which means appropriate sanctions.
We have looked closely at the scope for relying on civil sanctions, but have concluded that they do not offer effective safeguards. We have therefore opted for criminal sanctions, but those must, of course, be proportionate and able to differentiate deliberate and wilful breaches of the law from minor or unintentional errors. The Bill allows for that. There is plenty of scope for a tough line to be taken with estate agents who deliberately flout the law. There is also scope for discretion to be applied by trading standards officers to give advice or to issue a warning in the case of a private seller who makes an honest mistake. There are precedents for using the criminal law to enforce what are, in effect, civil duties.
The Bill is designed to help the consumer. It is based on thorough research and experience from voluntary schemes. Our proposals have been developed in consultation with industry and consumer groups. They will remove much of the worry of moving home that is experienced by hundreds of thousands of people each year, and will bring enormous benefits to very many home buyers and sellers. First-time buyers will gain particular benefits from our reforms. They are the least experienced and most vulnerable house buyers, and the availability of a seller's pack, with a condition report, will provide a new layer of protection. In addition to measures such as our starter home initiative, it is one more example of the steps that the Government are taking to help people to realise their aspirations of home ownership.
Mr. Raynsford: At the very least, I would want a home condition report. It is one difficulty of the current arrangement that many people buy properties without that benefit and then find that they have taken on problems that they do not have the means to deal with. That is one purpose of a home condition report. For certain older properties that are likely to have serious structural problems, most professionals would also advise a full structural survey. However, that would be limited to cases where there was a real justification for the additional expenditure. In the meantime, the availability of a home condition report will enable the vast majority of people who currently purchase without the benefit of such knowledge and information to identify the likelihood of problems. It will do a great deal to underpin confidence in the market and help consumers get a bargain.