While no doubt the Minister wishes to pay tribute to the honesty of the vast majority of estate agents, can he confirm that the main purpose of any legislation that the Government may choose to introduce would be to protect purchasers of properties against loss of deposits, either through fraud or through the company going out of business? If that is correct, does the Department prefer a system of bonding, or a compulsory contribution to a compensation fund, or perhaps a little of both?
Mr. Alan Williams:
The hon. Gentleman is correct—our prime intention is, of course, to ensure the safety of deposits in the event of bankruptcy and also to protect depositors from fraud. The whole purpose of the consultative document is to establish which is the best method to achieve the purpose. The trust account is one possible formula and the guarantee bond is another. We also feel that possibly a central compensation fund could meet both possibilities of fraud and bankruptcy. We shall now consider the replies that we have received, though we still have not received one from the area in which the hon. Gentleman is interested-insurance. At the end of the day, most people accept that there is a need for licensing, and that, too, will be a protection for the consumer.
My hon. Friend will recall that in the late 1960s there was a scheme whereby local authorities experimentally gave lists of houses for sale in their areas. Will he therefore consider with the Department of the Environment the possibility of reviving and extending that scheme so that there is some serious competition with the operations of estate agents?
Mr. Alan Williams:
That is a matter for the Department of the Environment. My rôle is to ensure protection for the consumer who chooses to go through the normal services of estate agencies. Let me now confirm the point made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) in his supplementary question. The Government recognise that the vast majority of estate agents act with integrity, but for the individual who loses his deposit there is a massive loss, and therefore we have to see that we extend protection as widely as possible.