I cannot see that it would cause hardship to anybody merely to amend the law to bring it into line with what is the fact in regard to options in other areas. One can have an option contract in regard to other matters not involving an interest in land. There are no great difficulties in evidencing it. In any event, the hardship that would be caused by a change in the law could be as nothing compared with the hardships that are involved when people deliberately breach an undertaking.
One does not look too closely for morality in contract, but if a bargain is a bargain in a whole host of other situations, and if a person can be acted against for ratting on a bargain, as he can, it would be perfectly feasible and right for that to be implemented in this respect.
I go a stage further and say that although an element of punitive damages has rarely featured in the law on contract, except in regard to bounced cheques—and there it applies because that is a form of constructive defamation—it would be reasonable if it were possible for some element of that to be involved in gazumping.
I am at a loss to see how the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) can make the points he does about evidence. Letters are always exchanged in these matters. One rarely comes across the sale of a house where there is nothing in writing. But that would not provide any difficulty. It would also act as an element of restraint upon the estate agents' profession, which is wholly in need of regulation. Whether the current Bill is the most appropriate way of doing that I know not. It is certainly a profession which needs regulation in relation to that matter, because estate agents are very often privy to the mean and unfortunate situations that arise time and again. As has been pointed out, in an inflationary situation the propensity for this abuse to occur is the greater.
I want to raise one other matter which is, in a sense, of a quasi-constituency character. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will have time to refer to it in his reply. When a house is demolished under a compulsory purchase order, as part of a slum clearance or for any other purpose, and damage is done to an adjoining property, as far as I can see, unless there is evidence of negligence in regard to that, there is no claim that the owner of the adjoining property can levy on the local authority. Indeed, I had such a case in the Aston ward, in my constituency, where not only was this deemed to be the case, and the advice given to the local authority was to that effect, but when, rather honourably, the authority offered to make an ex gratia payment to compensate for the damage that had unavoidably been done to an adjoining terraced house the city's solicitor promptly advised that such a payment would be ultra vires and that if it were made there would be dangers of a surcharge from the district auditor.
I cannot think that that can be right. I should have thought that this problem would arise quite often. In the particular instance that was drawn to my attention some time ago, the person concerned was well able, financially, to provide for the repair, but the fact remains that there will be many instances where that will not be so, where hardship can be caused, and in respect of which I think it is only reasonable that there should be some amendment of the law so as to provide against that kind of injustice.
I want to make one or two general observations in regard to the debate. The Minister deserves to be commended for many things that he said in the debate, not least with regard to the desirability of a tenants' charter. Also, I was very pleased to hear that the Government are taking a stand against the sale of council houses, though not as strong a stand as I would wish them to take.
I should like to hear a little more about what the Minister thinks of the default behaviour of certain local authorities. Where a Conservative-controlled local authority has flatly refused to build housing on anything like a reasonable scale, is that not the kind of situation in which the default procedures might reasonably be brought into effect?
I remember, years ago, when the Coventry City Council was brought to book by a Conservative authority for failing to spend money on what we comically call civil defence, its powers in respect of civil defence were withdrawn. I should like to know whether the Minister would be prepared to face the row—I think that he would do so with equanimity—that might be involved in withholding funds from a local authority which persistently failed to build houses and persistently indulged in a policy of selling off local authority houses notwithstanding the fact that it had a long waiting list.