Orders of the Day — Homes Bill

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 8th January 2001.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

I have imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches and have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions) 3:34 pm, 8th January 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill was published on 13 December alongside our policy statement, "Quality and Choice: A decent home for all—The way forward for housing." That statement sets out our strategy for ensuring that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. It followed our housing Green Paper—the most comprehensive review of housing for more than 20 years, which was widely welcomed—and our spending review announcement in July, which confirmed our commitment to more than double the capital investment in housing that we inherited in 1997, improving the quality, affordability and supply of housing and the choices available to all.

Those measures are all fundamental to tackling the serious housing problems that we inherited. Capital investment in housing was halved between 1993 and 1997. By 1996, there was a £19 billion backlog of renovation and modernisation work in council housing.

Boom-and-bust policies had created a crisis of confidence in the housing market, with the highest ever levels of negative equity, mortgage arrears, home repossessions and homelessness in the early to mid-1990s. It is rich of the Conservative party, given its lamentable record, to criticise this Government for not doing more to tackle homelessness. In the 18 years that the Conservatives had to do the job, the number of households accepted as homeless more than doubled. Their record is a disgrace. They are wrong again to say that the number of homeless people has increased under Labour. [Interruption.] No, that is not right.

Let me remind Conservative Members of the figures, as they seem to be so keen to argue. I will be generous to them and use their last 12 months in office. In the 12 months to the end of the first quarter of 1997, 110,800 homeless households were accepted by local authorities. In the latest 12 months, 108,000 have been accepted. I accept that that figure is far too high. We know that it is far too high, but it is a lie for the Tories to say that there has been an increase in homelessness under Labour. It is typical of the way in which they peddle untruths to try to conceal their shabby record. They should be ashamed of themselves. They should be ashamed of their record.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Will the Minister confirm that priority homelessness is at its highest level since 1996 and that, since the election, 3,000 more people are homeless and in urgent need?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

The hon. Gentleman has obviously not listened to the figures. I have just told him that, at the time of the last election, 110,000 households had been accepted by local authorities in the previous 12 months. I went on to give the current figure: in the past 12 months, 108,000 have been accepted. I said that it was too high. I accept that, but it is the product of the neglect and failure of housing policy under the previous Government. They should be ashamed. I am sorry that Conservative Members have not had the decency to apologise for their lamentable record.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I have never known a Minister, when introducing his own Bill, to launch an intemperate attack in the first three or four minutes, instead of describing the Bill. What is the Minister scared of?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, I am reminding the House of the record that we inherited, which is the background to the policies that we are introducing to tackle problems in the housing market; it is the background to the Bill. I remind him that I am referring to items in the amendment that has been tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which is also before the House for debate.

It is all the more surprising to see Conservative Members putting their names to a reasoned amendment criticising the Government for not including measures to regulate houses in multiple occupation. I am very surprised by that criticism. In June 2000 my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) tabled early-day motion 876 on the subject, but not one Conservative Member backed it. That is an indication of Conservative Members' commitment to that cause.

The Government remain committed to licensing houses in multiple occupation; legislation to enable such licensing will be a priority for a future Session. We are not back-tracking. However, it now makes more sense to link our HMO licensing proposals to our other measures aimed at improving the quality of housing generally. The Bill forms an important part of our housing strategy, which aims to improve the home buying and selling process and to provide better help for people who face homelessness in England and Wales. I shall deal with those reforms in turn.

Every Member will have had direct experience of the failings of the current house buying and selling system, and probably all of us know someone—through our surgeries or through personal acquaintance—who has suffered frustration, heartache and, often, financial loss. There is rich anecdotal evidence of what is wrong. The delays and uncertainties in the current system put home buyers and sellers under enormous pressure. Planning with confidence is impossible, and too often the end is dejection as the deal fails. However, anecdotal evidence alone is not a sufficient basis for legislation.

Two years ago, therefore, we embarked on the most extensive research ever into the house buying and selling process. The results were shocking. Our research found that the home buying and selling process in England and Wales is one of the slowest and most inefficient in the world. Although the process might seem to be cheap compared with those of other countries, such a conclusion ignores the huge costs to buyers and sellers of the high failure rate among transactions.

Perhaps the most devastating of the findings was that 28 per cent. of transactions failed between acceptance of the offer and exchange of contracts. Therefore, each year, literally hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing the misery of broken dreams and abortive costs that can run into thousands of pounds. On top of the 28 per cent. of failed transactions are many more transactions that are delayed. It is a problem of huge proportions and, not surprisingly, the public are vocal in their criticisms. The fact is that 40 per cent. of those who go through the process are dissatisfied. That damning statistic confirms that existing arrangements do not adequately safeguard the interests of the public. We are determined to change things for the better.

In 1998, we launched a major consultation exercise to seek views on options for reform. The consultation produced an almost unanimous view on a very central issue—the need for greater transparency in the house buying and selling process. To achieve that objective, more information has to be made available from the very start of the process. That is the aim of the first part of the Bill.

The Bill will help to ensure that most of the information needed by both parties—buyers and sellers—is on the table when marketing begins. It also complements various non-legislative initiatives to improve the speed and efficiency of the process, such as encouraging greater use of information technology and "in principle" mortgage offers and speeding up local searches.

The Bill requires sellers to arrange for the key information about their homes, including searches and a mid-level survey, to be prepared up front, in the form of a seller's pack, before marketing starts. The pack will enable sellers and their agents to have the information that they need to set a realistic price, and buyers will be able to make a well-informed offer safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely later to encounter any nasty surprises.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

In the Bristol pilot scheme, free packs were provided. Recently, however, it has been trailed in the press that it will cost between £500 and £700 to prepare a seller's pack. Although such a sum may not be much when dealing with a property that is worth £250,000, in some of the places that I represent houses go for as little as £15,000 or £18,000. Therefore, such a sum could be a very large percentage of the total outlay.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which I shall deal with later. I hope that he will bear with me if I continue and undertake to address the issue later.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

I do not want to delay my hon. Friend, who might deal with the point later, but, as he knows, the housing market has collapsed in some parts of the country. In those areas, some houses are not "cheap" at £18,000 but are being off-loaded because their owners can no longer tolerate living in them. When dealing with houses selling for £5,000, or even for £1,000, such a sum for a seller's pack would be an intolerable burden for people who are already suffering enormous loss.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about issues relating to areas of very low demand, and areas in which confidence in the market has collapsed. He will be the first to admit—I want to stress this point—that changes to the house buying and selling process are not an adequate solution to those problems. We have to tackle the problems of deprivation and low demand in many areas of the country, such as those described by my hon. Friend, and we are doing so. I have visited his constituency, and others.

I shall come to the house buying and selling process later, because I intend to cover it in detail rather than give a piecemeal response now.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister said a few moments ago that one of the purposes of the Bill was to help sellers to set realistic asking prices for their properties. Why is he proposing that no valuation will be included in the condition survey that is to be part of the seller's pack?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

The hon. Gentleman is jumping the gun, because the details of what will be prescribed for the seller's pack will be the subject of regulations. As he will know, having read the Bill assiduously, there is provision for us to make such regulations under the relevant provisions of the Bill. That will be a matter for full discussion with all the interested parties over the next two years. We do not intend to introduce the provisions of the Bill until 2003, and in the intervening period there will be a lengthy process of negotiation to ensure that we produce the best possible pack to meet people's needs and give confidence to all interested parties. I shall return to this matter later.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Presumably, the regulations will prescribe that a seller's pack is to be time-limited, because surveys and local authority searches can become out of date. It is likely that areas that have low-value houses are precisely the areas in which it will be most difficult to sell a house. It is, therefore, likely that seller's packs will become out of date, and that additional seller's packs will have to be prepared, thereby increasing costs. Will the Minister say something about that?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I will, with great pleasure. The hon. Gentleman is jumping ahead. There will be no obligation to produce a new seller's pack. The obligation will be to produce a seller's pack at the time the property is put on the market.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

As I was saying, the obligation will be to make the seller's pack available when the property is put on the market. [interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I am trying to answer his question. I can see that he is a little over-excited about the issue.

Most of the information contained in the seller's pack will continue to be valid for a very long time. There will be no need for further updating. On certain issues, such as local authority searches, there might be a requirement for updating, and it will be open to the buyer to seek updated information on that point. However, the idea that there will be a need for a new, second seller's pack is entirely fanciful, as are the cost estimates for the production of the packs that we have heard from the Opposition.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. I have answered his question twice, and I now want to make some progress. I can tell that hon. Members want to raise many issues, but I shall cover them later in my speech. I ask the House to bear with me.

The Bill requires sellers to arrange for the key information about their homes to be prepared up front to provide information that should ensure that people know, before they make an offer, what they are making an offer for. Under the current system, problems are often uncovered well after a price has been agreed and after buyers have started paying solicitors' fees, mortgage fees and so on.

Last year, we commissioned a pilot scheme in Bristol, which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) mentioned, run by independent consultants. It was designed to rest the mechanics of putting together a seller's pack, to find out how helpful the pack would be to buyers, sellers, agents and conveyancers and to identify whether any parts of the pack caused problems and how items could be improved. The pilot has shown that seller's packs can normally be assembled reasonably quickly—typically, within mine days—but we believe that there is scope to improve on that and we expect that time to reduce.

The pilot scheme showed a much higher satisfaction rate with the pack. Eighty per cent. of buyers were satisfied with the pilot scheme, compared with only 45 per cent. under the present system. The success rate was higher using the pack.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

Once again, we hear entirely bogus figures from Opposition Front Benchers. No, there were not three. There were many more: there were 189 seller's packs. [interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is showing a little hysteria over this issue. The packs in the survey in Bristol were designed to test the mechanics of putting together a seller's pack. They could not test how the system would work with a compulsory seller's pack, because only people acting voluntarily used them, and they were often part of chains involving many other sellers, which inevitably affected the speed of the process. The survey was not a test of the demand for packs.

Given the advantages of the seller's pack, there will be huge interest when the scheme comes in. [interruption.] The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) seems to think that the word "free" is especially interesting. The answer lies in the fact that the information required on every issue except the home condition report is exactly the same as that required under existing procedures. The idea that there is a huge additional cost is bogus and fanciful, as are all the Opposition's figures.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister says that the Opposition's figures are bogus, but does he agree with the estimate of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors of £500 as an average cost for the condition survey? That was in a briefing that it issued last week.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

As a matter of fact, I do, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that it was talking about the cost, not the additional cost. Very similar costs are incurred under the existing process. I will take him through those, if he would like, but perhaps hon. Members would prefer to go to the Library, where I have placed copies of a table that we have produced showing the comparative costs for sales under the current and the new system. The overall costs are broadly comparable, and all the talk about large additional costs is simply scaremongering and not based on fact.

The pilot showed that 80 pet cent. of buyers were satisfied, compared with only 45 per cent. under the present system. The success rate was higher with the pack: 87 per cent. of accepted offers resulted in a completed transaction, compared with only 72 per cent. recorded in our earlier study. The indications on speed of transactions were also encouraging, even though we were not trying to test that, and the pilot could not achieve optimum performance, as many of the sales were part of chains involving transactions without seller's packs.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

The Minister says that the costs under the old and new systems are comparable, but is not the problem with the new system that so many of the costs are front-loaded—payable in advance—so the old principle of no sale, no fee goes out of the window? That front-loading could put a terrific burden on some sellers.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

There is a partial element of truth in saying that the costs are front-loaded, in the sense that they are the liability of the seller, but the implication that there will always be a requirement for the seller to pay at the outset is not correct. The evidence from Bristol, where several estate agents are using voluntary seller's packs, is that payment is sought only after the sale has been completed, so the individual seller does not incur expenditure at the outset. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that, although he is partially right, he came to an over-pessimistic conclusion about the impact of the process.

Since the results of the Bristol pilot were announced, a number of concerns have been expressed. Some are legitimate and will need to be addressed as we work up our proposals. Some arise from the natural reluctance of professional bodies and others to change things that they have done in a certain way for generations, but change must come, because the current system does not meet the needs of the consumer, who expects to be able to make well-informed decisions and choices quickly and efficiently.

Let me address the main concerns one by one. Most important is trust: how can the buyer rely on a pack prepared on behalf of the seller, and in particular how can the buyer depend on the home condition report? We intend that home condition reports should be prepared by professional inspectors who are certified by an independent body. The Bill makes provision for the Government to fund the development of a certification regime, and we will not bring the new arrangements into force until we are satisfied that there is a sufficient body of suitably qualified inspectors certified to do the job. The inspectors will be made liable not only to the seller but to the buyer.

We will work with the industry to develop a home condition report format that meets as many needs as possible. For instance, there is no reason why, in most circumstances, lenders should not be able to rely on the report as a key part of the valuation process, and thereby reduce their valuation charge, typically £180, to a fraction of that price.

Secondly, there is cost. A number of rather exaggerated claims have been made about additional costs. Most of the documentation required in a seller's pack needs to be assembled at some point in the transaction in any event. We know that the only additional cost in the transaction, for those who currently do not commission a survey, is the home condition report—a vital part of the information that should be available to people committing themselves to what is probably the biggest financial transaction in their lives. For those who currently commission a survey, overall transaction costs will be about the same—and that takes no account of a reduction in the huge abortive costs produced by the current system.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that the up-front costs of seller's packs would deter people from putting their homes on the market, especially in low-value areas. However, research undertaken last year by the United Kingdom's largest estate agency chain, Countrywide, demonstrated that that suggestion is unfounded, as does the experience of countries such as Denmark, which have introduced mandatory seller's packs—

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not read the Countrywide survey. Although it anticipates a 13 per cent. reduction in the number of properties put on the market as a result of the introduction of the requirement, it goes on to say that currently, 15 per cent. of properties put on the market are eventually withdrawn. The conclusion, which is perfectly sensible to anyone who can read the figures, is that, broadly, there will be no change.

The evidence from Denmark, where a similar scheme has been in force for a couple of years, is that there has been no adverse effect on the market. Equally, in New South Wales, where seller's packs were first introduced, there was no adverse effect on the market. On the contrary, the market is working more efficiently, so the evidence is very much in favour of the seller's pack.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am sure that the Minister will agree that we must always be slightly careful when making international comparisons. Is it not the case that in New South Wales the one thing that is not included in the seller's pack is a survey report?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I am happy to concede that; it is one of the weaknesses in the New South Wales arrangements. That is why more recent developments of the seller's pack, notably in Denmark, have incorporated a survey. We look at international comparisons, see what has happened and then try to build on the best and improve it. In Denmark, we have seen an improvement, whereby the home condition report is an integral part of the pack. The scheme is working successfully, with no adverse effect on the market.

There are concerns about areas of low demand. We carried out research in two areas of low value and low demand—Burnley and Bradford—because we genuinely wondered whether packs might prove unpopular with sellers at the cheaper end of the market. However, we discovered that the seller's pack was seen as a means of creating a better functioning market. The point was forcefully made that house condition reports are all the more vital in low-value areas, where the potential costs of unforeseen repairs could be disproportionate in relation to the value of properties. For example, someone buying a property for £15,000, who did not realise that it would have to be entirely reroofed, would be in a different position from someone who recognised that he would have to spend about £10,000 reroofing such a property. Such problems are particularly acute in low-value areas, and that is why the home condition report is important in such areas.

The Government recognise, however, the concerns that have been voiced by a number of my hon. Friends who represent areas where house prices are very low. We have considered the possibility of exemptions from the requirement to prepare a seller's pack in respect of low-value properties in certain areas, and the Bill gives us discretion to do that by regulation, if we feel that it is necessary. However, we are reluctant to adopt that course of action unless it is the only way of tackling the problem, because it would inevitably create scope for anomalies and definitional problems round the borderlines, and would deny the benefits of a seller's pack to buyers who may be particularly vulnerable in the absence of good information about the home that they propose to acquire.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw

I welcome what my hon. Friend is saying, but surely those areas could be designated as those with assisted area status that are having to undergo regeneration, with good plans for roads and jobs being dealt with by the regional development agencies, but where the housing is pitiful. Those areas could be clearly defined as needing some help.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising that issue on behalf of his constituents. I am pleased to say that I have visited one of the areas in his constituency that suffers such problems, and I can testify to the fact that those problems are very real. He will recognise that his suggestion represents one option. I have told him that we are prepared to consider several options, but he and several of my right hon. and hon. Friends must recognise that there might be anomalies because areas with similar problems might not qualify under the assisted area status arrangements. It is precisely that sort of anomaly which has led to my reluctance to adopt the exception arrangement, unless it is proved that there is no alternative. We are happy to consider the matter, but it is only right to tell the House that this is not a problem-free solution.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

Will my hon. Friend consider the related issue of an area that has suffered from coal mining subsidence in the past? I have had experience of mortgage lenders or insurers who, at a late stage in a transaction, have refused to offer a mortgage or provide insurance for a property simply because it is an area of historic mining subsidence. Thankfully, that subsidence has now disappeared but the reluctance remains. In areas such as mine, will the seller's pack have to contain a mining subsidence report or some reassurance about such matters? That would represent not an exemption but an addition to the pack.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are specifically considering whether the seller's pack should contain precisely the information about which he is concerned in areas of mining subsidence, but there are other issues. Obviously, vulnerability to flooding would be an important issue, about which many hon. Members will rightly be concerned in the light of the recent floods. My hon. Friend will recognise that if that information had been available at the outset—as, of course, it will be with the seller's pack—people would not have had to incur expenditure and build up their hopes for a sale only to find those hopes dashed because a mortgage was refused. That is precisely why the seller's pack can be very helpful indeed in areas such as that represented by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

There are many low-value properties in my constituency, and we must find a way around the problem. I put it to my hon. Friend that many of our problems would be solved if we were to use the council tax banding system.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend speaks from experience of a constituency that has problems with low-value properties. Although I have not visited it for several years, I know at first hand about those problems. The problem with using council tax band A is that it would be a broadbrush measure, which would take in certain properties that might be sold without difficulty under existing arrangements with a seller's pack. I am therefore reluctant to adopt such a broadbrush approach. My hon. Friend has heard me say that we are open to ideas and suggestions. We shall carefully consider such issues and we want to ensure that the scheme works for everyone, including those people in low-value areas, who are in many ways most vulnerable and will benefit most from the packs if they can be made available.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

Is my hon. Friend prepared to say from the Dispatch Box that he would welcome representations from local authorities in support of the principle of band A exemption?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

That is a good try, but I will welcome representations from n all interested parties—professionals in the field, local authorities and members of the public—on how that problem can best be cracked. We are more than happy to discuss the matter constructively in the two years before the scheme will be introduced. However, the principle must be to try to get the considerable benefits of the seller's pack to as wide a range of people as possible.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that for vulnerable buyers the cost of heating new homes is important. Is there any evidence from the Bristol pilot scheme that the seller's pack could include information not only on the energy audit—the standard assessment procedure rating—but on the grants that might be available in low-income areas?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I confirm that the Bristol pilot showed the advantages, particularly for the public—they welcomed the idea—of having a proper energy appraisal in the seller's pack. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) was particularly keen to pursue that point through the Bill that he promoted in the previous Parliament. He and I have been in discussion about the way this Bill can help to achieve the objectives that he tried to put into practice. Providing the SAP rating, and helpful advice on what changes would improve energy efficiency and on the pay-back period of those changes, is useful for members of the public. We believe that such information will be greatly welcomed.

The Bristol study told us that such information is important, and that the format in which it is accessible is important, too. The Bristol study might have been a little too technical and not user-friendly. We are working on the presentation to ensure that such information is as user-friendly as possible.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, 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?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

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.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, 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.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

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.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Just before Christmas, I asked a parliamentary question about park homes and the answer suggested that they would be excluded from the benefits of the seller's pack. There can be few more discriminated against minorities in housing than the residents of park homes. Such homes constitute an important and affordable sector of housing for which we need complete transparency. Will my hon. Friend reconsider the provisions for park homes?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

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.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, 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.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

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 the contract. That is the basis on which, under current arrangements, offers are conditional until the exchange of contract.

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.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Before the hon. Gentleman moves from this part of the Bill, may I ask a question? If he were buying a house that was, say, 20, 30 or more years old, would he rely on a home condition report or would he be tempted to commission a full structural survey?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

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.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I intend to make progress. I have already given way to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Conservative, Eddisbury

Is the Minister aware that we in this country have the slowest demolition rate in the western world? That has been a unique problem, as we have very old housing stock. Therefore, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) is very important and should not be dismissed lightly. Older properties will form the majority of housing transactions, and structural surveys will therefore be critical and an additional cost to that of the home condition report.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

The hon. Gentleman should not misinterpret what I said. I made the point that for some older properties with a likelihood of a serious structural problem, most professionals will advise a full structural survey. However, I stressed that the availability of a home condition report will enable the provision of a great deal of additional information to most buyers who currently do not have it. In some cases, it will pinpoint a problem that could be resolved only by a full structural survey and will therefore inform people as to whether it would be appropriate to incur such additional expenditure. In all events, the public are to be provided with much more information on what is generally the biggest financial transaction in their lives, on which at present all too many do not have good information.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I intend to make progress. I must cover the second part of the Bill, which deals with the problem of homelessness.

Each year, more than 100,000 families and individuals are rehoused by local authorities because, through no fault of their own, they have become, or are about to become, homeless. No Government can eliminate entirely the fundamental causes of homelessness, but this Government's broad social agenda, which includes our housing and regeneration programmes, the work of the social exclusion unit and our welfare-to-work programme, is tackling the root problems.

The legislative framework for the relief of homelessness has been in place since 1977 but was significantly weakened by the previous Government in the Housing Act 1996. In our election manifesto, we promised to rectify that and to increase the protection available to homeless people. In 1997, we took early action to restore homeless households to the list of groups that should be given reasonable preference for housing by local authorities. It was a scandal that they should ever have been without some priority over households that are adequately housed. The change was effected by regulations, but the provisions in the Bill are necessary to remedy other weaknesses.

Under the provisions introduced by the 1996 Act, local authorities may fulfil their obligations simply by satisfying themselves that suitable accommodation is available in the private sector. Even where the authority provides accommodation, its legal responsibilities end after just two years. To make matters worse, authorities are restricted in how they can use their housing to accommodate homeless people temporarily while such people look for a settled home. The provisions add uncertainty, put homeless families and individuals under greater stress and discriminate against them at a time when they are most vulnerable and in need of support.

The Bill will require local authorities to ensure that everyone in priority need who is unintentionally homeless has somewhere suitable to live while they look for a settled home. That requirement will continue for as long as it takes to secure accommodation, and without the two-year restriction. The Bill will also allow local authorities discretion over how to use their homes to provide short-term accommodation for homeless people until settled accommodation becomes available. The measures are important, but more needs to be done to try to prevent homelessness occurring in the first place and to ensure that local services are up to the demands that are likely to be placed on them.

To this end, the Bill will require local authorities to review homelessness in their area at least every five years, and to put in place a multi-agency strategy for preventing homelessness, ensuring that adequate accommodation and support is available. The Bill will encourage a more co-ordinated approach by requiring both housing and social services authorities to take their homelessness strategy into account when carrying out their responsibilities. The Bill will also authorities greater flexibility to provide accommodation for homeless people who are not in priority need but where suitable housing is available.

We believe that homeless people should be offered the same opportunity of a decent home that most in this country are lucky enough to enjoy. That is why we are taking steps in the Bill to ensure that local authorities are able to offer homeless people and others in housing need greater choice when they apply for long-term tenancies in social housing.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Choice within the private sector is usually the preferred option in my constituency, and New Forest district council runs a scheme to assist with deposits. Under the Bill's provisions, accepting a private sector tenancy will be punished because the tenant will, in so doing, effectively sign away his rights to further protection by, and support from, the local authority. That will lead to an increase in bed-and-breakfast provision rather than a reduction, and to a reduction in choice.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

No. On this issue, as on so many others, the hon. Gentleman has it completely wrong. The Bill will not reduce choice. Instead, it will extend choice and opportunities and contribute to reducing homelessness.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

Is there not a need for a specific reference to older people who are homeless? Of those who are most disadvantaged, older people who find themselves homeless have to overcome many barriers. I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about social care. However, unless there is provision—often specialised provision—people can fall at the first hurdle. Does not that need to be taken into account in the Bill?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend rightly raises concerns about older people. Under existing legislation, older people are defined as automatically in priority need if they become homeless. The question is what provision the local authority makes for them. Through our code of guidance, which we are revising, we shall be issuing good practice guidance on how local authorities should best discharge their responsibilities to the elderly and all other groups. Our aim is to ensure that the most appropriate and effective assistance is made available to people, depending on their particular needs. The elderly have special needs, which my hon. Friend highlights.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I support the principle of a multi-agency approach to dealing with homelessness. However, is my hon. Friend aware that one of the great problems in London is the massive increase in house prices? There has also been an explosion in private sector rents and a lack of ability on the part of local authorities and housing associations to build and provide new homes. In effect, homeless people will end up in private sector rented accommodation at extortionate cost while we are creating millionaires every week out of the housing benefit system. Would it not be better if we had a strategy of investing public money in good-quality housing that homeless people could move into permanently, rather than passing so much to private landlords?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend will have noted the spending review 2000, in which we have literally doubled the provision for investment in new social housing by registered social landlords. He will be aware that we have substantially increased investment through local authorities with our ambitious programme to tackle the entire backlog of substandard council housing within a 10-year time scale. It is a huge Government investment programme that is designed to ensure a proper supply of affordable housing to put right the terrible problems that we inherited as a result of years of neglect under the Conservative Government.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Does my hon. Friend agree that empty homes are an underused resource? Does he agree also that homelessness strategies, if they are to be respectable, should deal with putting empty homes back into use? Will he say that local authorities should adopt that approach?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend has been an assiduous campaigner for action to tackle the problem of empty homes. He will know of the work that we have undertaken, the action that we have taken and the measures that have already been put in place. He will be aware of the continuing work that we do, with the support of the Empty Homes Agency, to tackle the problem. As part of a comprehensive housing strategy for their area, local authorities should have in place a proper arrangement for reviewing and taking action on the problem of empty homes.

The Bill will remove the need for local authorities to maintain a housing register—a bureaucratic requirement introduced by the 1996 legislation, which can hamper approaches that offer flexibility and choice to potential and existing tenants. It will strengthen the rights and entitlements of existing tenants and new applicants for social housing. It will require local authorities to publish a clear policy that explains how they will let homes and offer choice. Finally, it will require them to provide help for those who need assistance when applying for housing, ensuring that vulnerable families and individuals who are least able to fend for themselves are not disadvantaged.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

In a moment.

Those measures are being backed by an £11 million fund for pilot lettings schemes under which local authorities and housing associations can test choice-based approaches that put applicants and existing tenants first as customers. We shall evaluate the pilot schemes and promote the most successful approaches. I now give way, for the final time, to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Will he clarify what his review of the regulations on priority need will mean to young people leaving care?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

My hon. Friend is prescient because I am coming to precisely that issue.

We propose a further important change, on which we consulted in our housing Green Paper: extending the groups of people that local authorities should consider as having priority need for assistance under the homelessness legislation. The existing priority need groups exclude a number of particularly vulnerable people who should be better protected. We propose to add to the priority need groups, for the first time, two additional categories of young people: homeless 16 and 17-year-olds and 18 to 21-year-olds leaving care. I hope that my hon. Friend is pleased with that announcement.

We also propose to add people who are vulnerable as a result of their fleeing domestic violence or harassment or who come from an institutionalised background—for example, people leaving care, the armed forces or prison. Studies into the causes of homelessness and into the backgrounds of people who end up sleeping rough have consistently shown that a very high proportion come from an institutional background. Such people will be regarded as being in priority need where local authorities consider that they are vulnerable. We shall extend the priority need groups shortly by making an order under the existing legislation.

The Conservatives have attacked the measures on the grounds that they will allow prisoners to jump the housing queue, but they are wrong—the measures will not allow prisoners to jump the queue, but will provide an emergency safety net for vulnerable people who would otherwise be on the street. There can be few worse examples of the facile, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction that, along with bandwagon jumping, has become the trademark of the Conservatives. They complain in their amendment about the Government not doing enough to tackle the fundamental causes of homelessness, but also criticise measures specifically geared to prevent homelessness among those most at risk. The Conservative party complains about the Government not doing enough to tackle crime, but criticises measures designed to help those perhaps most at risk of being lured back to a life of crime to re-establish themselves as law-abiding citizens.

Those are the reactions of a party that has no understanding of the causes or consequences of homelessness and no integrity in respect of recognising the importance of pursuing policies that are right, even if they can be distorted and misinterpreted for cheap party political advantage. In contrast, the Government are committed to tackling the fundamental, underlying causes of homelessness and to ensuring that more effective help is given to the homeless.

We shall provide extra resources for local authorities to ensure that they can better meet their responsibilities and can implement effective policies to help homeless people. We shall revise our code of guidance on homelessness and allocations and produce best practice guidance to underpin reforms.

The Bill is an important measure that addresses two of the most important housing issues of our time: how to make it easier for people to buy and sell homes and how to tackle the evil of homelessness more effectively. The Government are committed to ensuring that every member of our society has the prospect of a decent home. The Bill is an important element in our strategy to achieve that objective, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne 4:29 pm, 8th January 2001

I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: this House, whilst supporting the principle that everyone should be able to enjoy decent housing, declines to give a Second Reading to the Homes Bill because it fails to tackle the problem of gazumping whilst increasing the cost for potential vendors and seeking to impose onerous penalties upon those entering freely into contractual relationships; because it does not do enough to tackle the fundamental causes of homelessness at a time when there are 3,000 more people homeless and in priority need since the last General Election, with the number of people in bed and breakfast accommodation having risen by over 75 per cent.; and because it does not include measures to address other pressing priorities in housing, not least the Government's promise to regulate houses in multiple occupation. I begin by wishing you, Mr. Speaker, an extremely happy new year and by passing on my good wishes to your secretary on his knighthood. I also offer my congratulations to the Minister on his forthcoming elevation to the Privy Council. He has come a long way since we were councillors together in Hammersmith and Fulham. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, although I make it clear that I have never practised in conveyancing matters.

It is a sad feature of this Parliament that we have spent endless hours debating gay rights and foxhunting, but much more serious matters affecting the daily lives of what Lord Falconer would grandly call ordinary people are relegated to the back of the queue. Instead, we have been obliged to follow the priorities of the liberal elite, who drive so much of the Government's agenda. [interruption.] Nowhere is that truer than on housing policy. Now, in the dying months of the Government, we finally have a Bill on housing.

The last Labour manifesto had a great deal to say on the subject of housing. In particular, it promised that there will be a proper system of licensing by local authorities which will benefit tenants and responsible landlords alike. That is the most significant omission from the Bill, and one which has disappointed people right across the housing sector. That is a manifesto promise that the Government have manifestly failed to keep. Why?

The Bill also promises to deal with the problems of homelessness. Why were the proposals not introduced earlier? As a Labour Member commented from a sedentary position, Labour had 18 years to think about the matter in opposition. At the serious risk of becoming typecast, the Minister has pursued the issue of housing for many years.

Some of the proposals in the Bill are welcome, which is why I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against Second Reading. Other proposals, we believe, are unnecessarily burdensome on local authorities, and much of the detail will need to be scrutinised carefully in Committee.

The Prime Minister promised in opposition that Labour would do everything in our power to end the scandal of homelessness, to tackle the spectacle of people sleeping rough on the streets and to end the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation. He added: In today's Britain no one should have to sleep rough on the streets. However, the Government have presided over a growth in homelessness. Despite the Minister's attempts to spin the statistics, that is the honest truth. Almost all the figures that I shall quote are from his own Department. The number of families in bed-and-breakfast and other temporary accommodation had risen to 66,030 a year in the second quarter of 2000, compared with 43,650 in 1997—an increase of 51 per cent. The increase in the number of those in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is more than 75 per cent.

Priority homelessness is at its highest level since 1996. The figure in 1997–98 was 102,650 for total priority acceptances, and in 1999–2000 the comparable figure was 105,520. In other words, under the present Government 3,000 more people were homeless and in urgent need.

As if that were not bad enough, in London the problem is particularly serious. We have the highest homelessness figures for 20 years, with 48,000 households in temporary accommodation, including 6,000 in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

The problem is made worse by the chaos in dealing with asylum seekers. In 1999, there were 71,160 applications. By the end of November last year, that figure had already been exceeded. That has meant that less social accommodation is available for others.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the reason why the London housing situation is so precarious—I accept that it is—is not, as he is obliquely suggesting, the increased demand from asylum seekers, but the reduction in the supply of housing as a result of the severe problems of the London housing market? In fact, there were 10,000 fewer homeless acceptances last year in London than under the Conservative Government in 1990.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am not suggesting any more than the hon. Lady that there is one single reason for the problems in London. Indeed, it is only fair to say that the Association of London Government made a point similar to that of the hon. Lady in its briefings. However, the ALG's housing panel has called the increase in asylum seekers "a significant contributory factor" in rising homelessness. The London Research Centre attributed a substantial part of the increased use of temporary accommodation in London to the need to accommodate asylum seekers.

Under the Bill, the Government propose to give priority for social housing to applicants with an institutionalised background. The Minister managed to whip himself up into a lather as he reached his peroration on that issue. However, the plain fact is that the Government want convicted criminals to jump the housing queue when they are released. What sort of message does that send to law-abiding people who wait patiently to be rehoused, often for years?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is quoting from a comment that he made to Conservatives.com—presumably one of the dotcom companies about to go into receivership? The reality is that there is no change in the priorities determining the allocation of permanent council housing. It is untrue that prisoners are jumping the housing queue. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that and withdraw that remark?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

As far as the first part of the Minister's intervention goes, I never knowingly quote myself. As for the second part, if he proposes to give priority to people with institutionalised backgrounds, including ex-prisoners, logic demands that that means giving them priority over somebody else. Perhaps that is so in the case of temporary accommodation alone, but that is still the message that he proposes to send. It should be said that we support giving priority to vulnerable groups such as ex-forces personnel and those fleeing domestic violence.

Another feature of the Government's policy is the dramatic fall in the provision of new social housing, which has fallen from 91,200 in 1994–96 to 59,000 in 1997–99. That is at a time when private sector building has been increasing. The number of empty council properties has risen by 3 per cent. under Labour. At times, it seemed as if Labour's flagship policy was the Conservative one of large-scale voluntary transfers, which have accelerated quite sharply in the past four years.

We hear a great deal from the rough sleepers' unit, which makes extravagant claims about its success. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) achieved considerable success in reducing the number of rough sleepers without the benefit of a £90,000 streets tsar. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) for their excellent work on housing when in government. One leading homelessness charity recently accused the rough sleepers' unit of "beggar bashing". The highly respected Simon community has discounted the RSU's claims that it has cut street sleeping by one third.

One top of all that, the Government have made home ownership less accessible by scrapping mortgage tax relief, reducing right-to-buy discounts for council tenants and cutting support for shared ownership schemes. At the same time, the average home for a first-time buyer now costs 23 per cent. more than it did in 1997. In London, the average first-time buyer will need to find an extra £40,000 to buy his or her own home. To try to deal with that the Government have come up with their scheme for so-called key workers, who are to be given help in buying their own homes. In areas—especially London—where accommodation costs are high, they would receive help with discounted mortgages.

There are two major problems with that scheme, and we shall be looking closely at its details. First, on what basis will the Government draw lines on maps to mark the areas that will receive that help? Secondly, which key workers do they propose to help? The indications given so far suggest that they are talking about teachers, police officers, nurses and other fairly limited categories, but what about ancillary workers in the national health service, for example? They will be on even lower salaries than nurses and doctors. What about civilian workers in the police force, who form a far higher proportion of the police establishment than they did a number of years ago? What happens with regard to ancillary workers? What will happen if a nurse marries a police officer and their joint income can comfortably service a mortgage? Will the help suddenly be taken away from them? What happens when a police sergeant becomes an inspector or a nurse is promoted to a higher grade? There must be some way of removing the benefits or of ensuring that they are tapered off.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

Perhaps I can put the hon. Gentleman out of his agony. We have made it clear that the scheme is designed to assist key workers and that we expect bids to be approved by local authorities in the light of their experience of their areas' needs. The question of priorities on categories of key worker will be determined locally. We will then reach our decision on how to allocate the funds.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not find those comments terribly reassuring. The distinctions about which I speak, which concern us deeply, will still have to be made by somebody. Apparently, that person will ultimately be him.

We wish a fair wind to some of the measures contained in the Bill. The Local Government Association, among others, has welcomed the new duty to formulate a homelessness strategy, the new power to provide accommodation for persons who are not in priority need, the new framework for lettings policy and other flexibilities in applying local housing policies—not least the abolition of the requirement to maintain a housing register.

The Opposition will, however, be at some pains to ensure that local authorities are genuinely to be given the freedoms for which they ask and that central Government will not yet again impose new burdens and duties without providing commensurate resources. Various bodies have expressed concern at the extra resource implications inherent in extending the priority need categories and increasing the level of assistance available to homeless people who are not in priority need. It is worth remembering that the new power is unlikely to afford any great benefit in areas of high demand. For that matter, the same can be said of seeking to encourage choice in lettings.

In my constituency, people looking for council accommodation will, on average, wait a couple of years or more. In some parts of the north, however, people will be shown two or three perfectly nice properties on the same afternoon. That is an enormous difference between different parts of the country. No wonder the housing director of Hammersmith and Fulham has described the proposals as being like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. That is original, but also true.

As Members of Parliament, all hon. Members must deal with problems caused by so-called neighbours from hell. Such people can cause utter misery for those who are unfortunate enough to live around them and can sometimes affect the whole character of an estate. The Bill seeks to end blanket exclusions from access to social housing, but we welcome the provision in clause 27 that enables a local authority to take into account any behaviour of a person … which affects his suitability to be a tenant. That measure may need to be beefed up in Committee. We strongly believe that all social landlords should be empowered to deal firmly and summarily with neighbours from hell, and that there should be proper safeguards. We believe also that it should be open to fellow residents to initiate such action. Our tenants plus scheme would ensure that being a good neighbour is properly rewarded.

Part I of the Bill deals with proposals on seller's packs. Sixty-nine per cent. of householders in England now own their homes. That is a proud achievement of successive Conservative Governments. It would be interesting to know how many Labour Members do not own their homes. I wonder what the equivalent ownership proportion is in Denmark, the fig leaf to which the Minister clutched throughout his comments on the provisions about which I am speaking. I suspect that it is a great deal lower.

The Labour party has often been uneasy with owner-occupation, especially with the right-to-buy scheme. Nevertheless, it obviously felt it necessary to court the votes of owner-occupiers. In February 1997, in the policy document entitled "No to Gazumping", the then shadow Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), proposed a costs guarantee. He said: We are now proposing a system on which a seller or a buyer who goes back on an agreement would be obliged to meet the costs the other party had incurred in progressing to exchange of contract. That was in early 1997, but in the Labour party election manifesto it said: The problems of gazumping have reappeared. Those who break their bargains should be liable to pay the costs inflicted on others, in particular legal and survey costs. Despite all the pre-election promises and the hype since then, the Bill conspicuously fails to tackle the problem of gazumping. The Minister, in effect, accepted that in his speech.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

May I immediately make it clear that I made no such statement? I said that it was impossible to outlaw gazumping, but I went on to stress that the measures in the Bill would do an enormuous amount to reduce the circumstances in which gazumping can thrive. I ask the hon. Gentleman to recognise that that is a priority. Does his party support measures to make gazumping far less likely? When the Conservatives were in government, gazumping thrived: it was their hallmark.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Dear me. I confess that my attention wandered once or twice during the 59 minutes of the hon. Gentleman's opening speech. I listened intently to the part of his statement that dealt with gazumping. I thought—I hope Hansard will show this—that he accepted that gazumping was not being tackled, certainly not in any direct fashion. I accept that he believes that by speeding up the process, gazumping will be less likely—he has just referred to that again. Surely it would not matter to the average seller whether he had six, four, three or 10 weeks for the transaction. If he discovered that he could get £10,000 or £20,000 more for his home than he originally thought, he would make the same decision, and gazumping would occur.

We do not accept for a moment that the Government's proposals will bring about a significant reduction in the time taken for these transactions. I hope that I have clarified the Minister's position and mine on the question of delay and gazumping. On the basis of a rather dodgy pilot scheme, the Government are setting out to increase costs for potential sellers, to bureaucratise the sale of private properties and to criminalise ordinary law-abiding citizens who are merely trying to enter freely into contractual relations. That is the sum of the Bill and its contents on this issue.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

As my hon. Friend knows, this is not one of my specialist areas, but my experience over many years as a Member of Parliament and a buyer and seller of houses is that one of the big obstacles is the fragility of the chain. Five, six or seven people with transactions may be involved in a chain. As far as I could tell from what the Minister said, the magic pack will do nothing about that, or have I misunderstood?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I do not want to do the Minister's job for him, but I suspect that he would say that if it is to be compulsory to have a seller's pack, everyone in the chain will have one. If people can pick and choose, there will be no improvement. We do not believe that the seller's pack will help people, whether they are in a chain or not. I hope that I have read the Minister's briefing on that point fairly.

I am tempted to say that this measure is a large sledgehammer to crack a small nut, except that the nut is signally absent. The Bill does not—I repeat, does not—tackle gazumping.

I do not deny for a moment that gazumping—or indeed its ugly sister, gazundering—is a problem. It is distressing and costly for those involved. Some have advocated a move to the Scottish or the continental system, whereby acceptance of an offer immediately imposes contractual obligations. That was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells). Others have suggested a non-returnable deposit. The Labour party has flirted with the idea of the gazumper's being responsible for the gazumpee's costs, but has rejected that and other potential solutions.

We should, however, put the problem of gazumping into perspective. It is reckoned to affect fewer than 2 per cent. of all property transactions. Indeed, there must be parts of the country represented here today where the prospect of gazumping is about as remote as a landing on Mars—areas where it never happens, has never happened, and is unlikely ever to happen.

A seller may, of course, genuinely discover that he has put his property on the market at too low a price because it has been undervalued. Should that seller be obliged to accept a payment of less than the property is worth? What about those, such as trustees, who are under a legal obligation to obtain the best possible price?

Sometimes there are perfectly good reasons for delay during a property transaction, and people are entitled—even under this nanny state—to have second thoughts. As for delay in transactions after an offer has been accepted, a keen buyer and seller can move things along quite quickly if they are sufficiently motivated.

All this is academic, however, because the Government are not addressing the problem of gazumping in any direct way. What they are seeking to do is to impose onerous extra burdens on sellers. That is particularly bizarre because, in the majority of transactions, people are buyers and sellers at the same time.

The Minister based almost his entire case for the Bill on the flimsy foundation of the Bristol pilot scheme. Is his confidence justified? I do not think so, and neither do organisations such as the Law Society and the Council of Mortgage Lenders. Michael King, chairman of the Law Society's conveyancing and land law committee, concluded: The take up of the sellers pack during the pilot was disappointing. The Law Society does not believe that on this information it should be made compulsory. The Law Society remains to be convinced as to the effectiveness of the proposed pack. That is the view of a body that represents some 80,000 solicitors in England and Wales.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the chairman of the Law Society in Bristol, who has practical experience, is one of the strongest supporters of the seller's pack? That suggests that head office should perhaps learn from local experience before announcing its views.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am sure that—apart from the lucky recipients of the free packs—all the professionals involved in the Bristol property market were happy about the Government's injection of some £320,000 into that sector. If the Government would like to conduct a similar pilot scheme in Eastbourne, I am sure that it would be just as welcome to the president of my local Law Society branch.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not have the same briefing as me. My briefing—from the Law Society nationally, not just in Bristol—states: The Society has also supported the concept of sellers' packs.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

We are becoming used to seeing the Liberal Democrats ride to the aid of their friends in the Labour Government—but I will deal with the hon. Gentleman's point, as he has chosen to wander in and give us the benefit of his views some time after the beginning of the debate.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

The hon. Gentleman certainly was not present for a large part of the Minister's speech.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am sorry. In that case, I take back what I said.

I do not think that the Law Society has ever had a problem with the "concept" of seller's packs.

There is a lot to be said for putting together a pack of available information before starting to market a property. Many people do it. More and more will, I suspect, whatever happens to the Bill.

The Law Society—I am sure that the Minister will happily concede the point—has been at the forefront in pushing forward electronic conveyancing, in simplifying things and in trying to make the process faster. That would be happening irrespective of today's debate or the Bill, but the Law Society is still fundamentally concerned and opposed to the concept of including matters such as local searches, which may have a three-month shelf life, or survey reports, which also may have a shelf life of only a few months. It has clearly formed its own judgment, as I am sure most people will, on the results of the Bristol pilot scheme. [interruption.] I shall ignore the ruderies about solicitors.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

Unlike the Liberal Democrats, who have no one in the Chamber because they are in fear of being repossessed at the next election, I have read the Law Society briefing. It says: Introducing criminal sanctions for non-compliance with the full sellers' pack requirement would be unnecessary if the Government believed that their version of the sellers' pack would be adopted on its own merits—resorting to coercion demonstrates the weakness of the proposal. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not think that the Law Society's position could be any clearer, but perhaps if hon. Members on both sides of the House had a copy of the crib sheet that the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary is currently handing out, we could save ourselves a lot of time.

Michael Coogan, director general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, said: the evidence in support of introducing sellers information packs is not robust and such packs could prove to be unpopular with consumers. The Bristol pilot has failed to demonstrate that SIPs significantly improve the process and that there is widespread support from the professionals in the process. Trevor Kent of the National Association of Estate Agents has remarked that the whole idea of a sellers' pack is a farce. The Independent Association of Estate Agents and the Team organisation of estate agents have also attacked the proposals. Those experts have every right to be concerned.

The first question must be: why Bristol? It is hardly typical. It has a relatively buoyant property market, with relatively high property values. Many of the properties in the pilot were valued in the £150,000 range or above—not exactly Labour heartlands.

The pilot scheme originally aimed to have a sample of 250. In the event, only 189 participated. Only 90 properties were completed on under the scheme, of which a third—30—were new properties, which would not count for the purposes of the seller's pack proposals. I understand that those were Beazer homes. They were all new and did not require a home condition report in the pack in any event. They were all sales exchanging within a short period of 28 days, rather than properties sold and marketed in the usual way. One can only speculate on how those quick transactions managed to skew the findings of the pilot scheme on the speed of concluding transactions.

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Conservative, Eddisbury

Would it not be right to say that those new properties would probably be subject to a national house buyer's or home builder's guarantee? The significance of the seller's pack is thereby reduced, as there is further recourse for a purchaser who feels that he has not bought on the basis of proper representation or standards. May I add that the standard applied when buying a property at auction, which I have personally just experienced, is already demonstrating good practice in the marketplace. The sledgehammer of this Bill is not needed to try to improve on that good practice.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am grateful for the latter point. Perhaps my hon. Friend would like to develop it by volunteering to join the Standing Committee[interruption.] It is possible to take a man out of the Whips Office, but it is not possible to take the Whips Office out of the man. My hon. Friend's first point was absolutely right: it really is staggering that the Government are trying to rely so heavily on the results of the Bristol pilot scheme.

It is fundamental to any serious analysis of the pilot scheme that the participants were given their packs, including surveys, by the Government. That may explain the substantial satisfaction of those involved in the scheme when asked about it. Perhaps it is even more significant that one third of those who were involved in the pilot still insisted on their own survey, quite separate from the home condition report.

There are other objections to the Government's proposals, which are supposed to cut delay in the process. The proposals themselves could add three weeks or more at the beginning of the process, before the property could be put on the market. Additionally, as I shall discuss in a moment, surveys and local searches will inevitably grow out of date. After three months or so, they will have to be done again. Although that is fine in a very buoyant property market, it is not so good in a quiet one.

How will those who simply cannot afford those front-loaded costs—those who are in financial trouble and may be forced to sell their homes, or the elderly who are financially crushed by the need to pay for long-term care—manage? Has the Minister given any thought to them? He blithely tells us that estate agents will pick up those front-loaded costs as it will be worth their while to do so. Perhaps they will pick them up, but perhaps they will not. I do not think that it should be assumed that all estate agents will be signing up to that idea. Why should they? Moreover, if they do, might we not see an inexorable rise in commission levels as a quid pro quo?

The Minister has made much of the assertion that there was a marginal increase—I think from 72 per cent. to 87 per cent—in the proportion of final sales to accepted offers, but can those and other figures be relied upon given such a small sample? Cannot the change be explained away by other factors? I really think that the attempts to massage the results of the Bristol pilot undermine the overall case for compulsory seller's packs.

As we have already heard from various Labour Members today, the real problems begin when we move from the leafy avenues of Bristol to low-demand and low-value areas. There are rumours of rebellion on the Labour Back Benches, and the Government are right to be worried. The Government clearly share the concern of those Back Benchers because, previously, they have examined potential difficulties in Bradford and Burnley. According to a survey by Countryside, 20 per cent. of sellers with properties worth less than £60,000 would defer or abandon plans to sell if they were forced to produce seller's packs.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Labour, Workington

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument against the proposals, which I support in principle. If by any fluke of circumstance a Tory Government were to be elected, would they immediately rescind the legislation or remove its compulsory requirements?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

We are here to discuss the Government's proposals. However, as the hon. Gentleman has asked me that question, I tell him that it is possible—even likely—that at least this place will finish consideration of the Bill before the likely date of the next general election and that it is even possible that the legislation will be enacted. However, the Minister has told us—so it must be true—that it will not be implemented until 2003. By that time, a Conservative Government who will already have a couple of years under their belt will be best able to take a view on whether the legislation should be implemented.

I was dealing with the results of the Countryside survey—I can only assume that it is a wholly different Countryside survey from the one relied on by the Minister—that talked about 20 per cent. of sellers with properties worth less than £60,000 abandoning plans to sell if they had to produce seller's packs. However, in some areas—many of which are of genuine concern to Labour Members—a value of £60,000 is unheard of. What will happen in areas where properties are worth only £10,000 or £20,000, or in which people have negative equity?

The issue was aired in advance of our debate—as such matters often are—on the "Today" programme this morning, on which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and the Minister went head to head on the matter. The Minister is clearly under pressure from some of his Back Benchers, and has hinted at the possibility of exemptions and discretion being used. Powers to achieve that have already been incorporated in the Bill. Would it not, however, be outrageous if Labour areas around the country were singled out to be deprived of the so-called benefits of seller's packs? The Minister was characteristically honest about this, saying that it would be very difficult to draw lines on maps or to work on council tax bands.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to the problem that could arise if such exclusions were drawn too widely. People's worst nightmare could be brought about, with the value of properties that were already undervalued, or in low-demand areas and with very low values, collapsing completely as a result of the stigma of their being in an area where there was no obligation to use seller's packs.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

Bearing in mind that the hon. Gentleman says that most people are both buyers and sellers, and that, presumably, during a transaction, at least one survey—or the equivalent of a buyer's or seller's pack—is taking place, will he explain how the dynamics of the exchange process that he describes would lead to the end of life as we know it? I cannot quite follow his argument.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I cannot quite follow the hon. Gentleman's intervention, so perhaps we can call it a draw.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a plausible argument for excluding properties at the top end of the market—for example, properties in central London—where it could be argued that buyers and sellers are perfectly capable of looking after themselves and do not need the intervention of the state?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I shall not follow him too far down that road, but his point illustrates the absurdity of any attempt to exclude particular areas or types or values of property from the Bill or from the requirements for seller's packs.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in constituencies such as mine, which has more than 3,000 empty houses, the bottom end of the market has totally collapsed? I know that the Minister understands that, because he has been to Burnley and seen the problem at first hand.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

The hon. Gentleman illustrates graphically the problem with which we shall have to wrestle, no doubt at greater length, in Committee.

To return to the intervention by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), there is a practical problem because a front-loaded cost is being transferred to the seller. I shall deal with some of the other implications of that in a moment.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the Bill has not a friend in the world apart from the Minister. Who will benefit from the Bill? Surveyors will benefit, because all seller's packs will be required to contain a home condition report, although these will be very limited in scope. I accept the Minister's statement that the provision has still to be subjected to some fine tuning, but my impression is that the reports will be limited in scope. They will be fairly basic documents, dealing with a few basic issues that affect all properties. Reference was made to the possibility of customising the reports to particular properties, but that is very unlikely to happen.

The Minister was forced to concede, in response to an intervention, that he might well think twice about relying solely on the home condition report when buying an older property.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

It could be 20 or 30 years old, or older—I was not trying to pin the Minister down to a particular category. Some people live in properties that are 500 or 600 years old, but that was not my point.

Many buyers will still obtain a full structural survey in addition to the report—we should not call it a survey, because it is not one in any real sense—to be contained by law in the seller's pack. A third of those involved in the Bristol scheme—remembering always that many of the properties were brand new—still got their own survey carried out. Even if people are reluctant, the lender may insist, and will certainly still require a separate valuation.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

My hon. Friend mentioned the lender's survey. We now have three surveys, all of which have to be paid for, eventually, by the buyer. Is it not absurd to leave us in that position? Surely at least one of the surveys should be valid for both buyer and seller?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the burgeoning number of potential surveys.

Survey reports also become out of date, of course. If there is not a rapid sale, the surveyor may have to update the report after six months or so. There must be many thousands of homes affected by the recent severe floods whose condition has altered significantly even in the past two to three months.

What is to happen about the legal concept of privity? If the seller's surveyor makes a mistake, can the buyer sue? We shall have to go into that in much more detail in Committee.

Under the pilot scheme, the Government bore the costs. Under the new system, more will have to be done, with at least two surveys, extended liability, higher premiums and more training. I understand that, in meetings with professionals, DETR officials have said that they expect costs to increase to European levels. In Europe, commission runs to between 6 and 8 per cent., so that is hardly a great step forward for the consumer. The Minister was right to say that we are slower on average than other countries, but we are also cheaper. If he is to put the pros and cons to the consumer with total fairness, he must accept that there will almost certainly be higher costs, not only to pay for the packs but in higher commissions.

Is it any wonder that so many surveyors support the legislation? The head of policy at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Mr. Michael Chambers, has estimated that an additional 2,000 to 3,000 surveyors will be needed simply to produce the packs, and some believe that to be an underestimate.

Although the Bill is of little if any benefit to most people buying or selling a house, the Government want to impose some massive changes. They clearly intend, in effect, to reverse the rule of caveat emptor, which has served the English legal system well for centuries—although, curiously, the Bill itself contains no such provision. They want to interfere in free contractual relations and to impose serious criminal penalties on ordinary people trying to buy and sell properties.

The president of the Law Society said: It is unthinkable that the criminal law should be used in this way to interfere with ordinary transactions between citizens, such as selling a house. The Government are trying to turn people into criminals.

The Bill would impose penalties up to a £5,000 fine for the failure to provide a pack within 14 days. If people in areas of low value and low demand have problems in finding the money for the seller's pack, how are they to be expected to pay fines if they are in breach of the regulations? Could they face a prison term instead?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me; he is being generous in taking interventions. I am puzzled, so may I put a simple question to him? He has been remorselessly negative about the proposals for the seller's pack, and has given not one indication that the Opposition have the least support for it. Yet if I heard correctly what he said at the beginning, the Opposition do not intend to vote against Second Reading, despite the fact that their reasoned amendment says that they decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. Why have they changed their minds?

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

The Minister has been in the House longer than me, and he knows the form: the reasoned amendment is des4ned to set out our specific objections to the Bill. None the less, there are some good things in it—I am talking about part II rather than part I—and we shall not throw the baby out with the bath water. That is why I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the reasoned amendment.

I was talking about penalties. An estate agent is not allowed to start marketing a property unless he has a copy of the pack. Some of the possible defences in clause 6 are pretty strange, not least the idea that the seller can get out of the legal penalty by proving that the person involved was not "genuinely interested", or was not a person to whom the seller was likely to be prepared to sell the property. How bizarre. How might a court be satisfied that someone was not genuinely interested? Should the Commission for Racial Equality be concerned about the second leg of that defence?

What about the problems of enforcement? We all know that local authority trading standards officers are under great pressure. The Association of London Government and the Local Government Association have both expressed their concern about that.

The Minister has also tried to interfere by saying that people should have a prior mortgage offer before they start the process of buying a house. That may make sense in some circumstances, but not in all. Why would the Minister try to bully mortgage lenders in that fashion?

We are not all fortunate enough to have access to the sort of interest-free housing finance that was available to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We ordinary folk have to go cap in hand to our bank or building society—at least, most of us do. It is up to us and our lenders to decide such matters; it is not for Ministers, who do not have to face the tedium of filling in forms and so on.

We should be in no doubt that the Bill will deter some potential sellers from putting their homes on the market in the first place. It could therefore have a serious effect on house price inflation, and I hope that the Minister has made that clear to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Is it not ironic that, just as the "for-sale" signs will be coming down throughout the country, the "for sale" signs are going up outside Labour headquarters, as millionaires queue up to buy friends and influence the Government with their donations.

In short, the Bill ignores many of the underlying causes of homelessness, and it will not benefit people who are buying and selling houses either. Worse than that, it demonstrates two of the Government's least attractive features. First, it is all spin and no substance. After all this time, and all their empty promises, the Government have failed to tackle the problem of gazumping. Secondly, it shows their inability to resist interfering in people's lives. If seller's packs are such a good idea, why not leave it to individuals to choose to use them? Why seek to impose them on everybody?

The Government are an interfering, nannying, over-regulating, hectoring, bullying, lecturing, bossing, finger-wagging, patronising bunch of know-alls. I therefore invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the reasoned amendment.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a time limit of 12 minutes on all Back-Bench speeches. That limit will apply from now on.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton Labour, Bassetlaw 5:19 pm, 8th January 2001

I will take 12 minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will be quick.

The Bill has 99 per cent, support in the House and throughout the country, but there are obviously anomalies in any wide spread of housing. There are two problems. First, ex-council houses were sold at great haste by the Conservative party and people were encouraged to buy homes, especially flats, that are now unsaleable. The second problem involves houses that were owned by the National Coal Board.

I shall deal with council houses first. I shall quote what The Star—a Sheffield newspaper—says about a council and a ward that, along with Roy Hattersley, I used to represent 30 years ago. The Liberal council is pulling down tower blocks because they are half empty; no one wants to live there. The newspaper says: Out of 14 original tower blocks on the estate, nine have been demolished, but the council has offered one gentleman £7,000 for his home because no one wants to live there. That is all that the council says his house is worth. The headline is "Home and away", but the poor old pensioner wonders where he will find anything for £7,000 if he is evicted.

There are places in all cities that have gone so far down market because of crime, drug peddling, vandalism and poor schools that no one will even rent a house from the council and half the houses stand empty; no one will buy them. That often happens where people have inherited council flats and other properties that the Conservative party sold irresponsibly. I know of a man who inherited a home from his pensioner mother, who paid £5,000 for it. She bought it with her life savings as security for herself. He has offered it back to the council for free, but the council does not want it and he is saddled with all the roof repair costs and so on. That is happening in many inner cities.

When the Tories decided to sell off British Coal in 1987, it owned 178,000 houses, in which miners had traditionally lived, in probably 60 or 70 villages. The word immediately went out to sell the houses; otherwise, British Coal could not be sold. The houses were sold in a disgraceful way. Some 158,000 of them were offered to miners at prices as low as £2,000 or £3,000, but about 20,000 could not be sold. Some of them were made from concrete slabs with rusting ironwork inside, and building societies would not give loans. Others were inhabited by elderly pensioners who did not want to buy their houses. So British Coal, pushed by the then Government, put those houses up for auction and spiv landlords bought them in job lots.

I have a cutting from January 1987, which states that my hon. Friends the Members for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and my friend Geoffrey Lofthouse, the then hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford, and I proved in an Adjournment debate that I initiated that houses in south Wales and Northumberland were being auctioned in job lots at the Savoy hotel for as little as £3,000 each. They were bought with sitting tenants, only to be put back on the market for £6,000 within three days. People came from Athens and around the world to buy them.

The cutting states that my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) alleged that 210 homes in Alton, Leeds, bought by Manchester Square Associates of London were resold to another slum landlord, making a quick profit. Spivs—there is no other word for them—who paid an average of £2,000 to £4,000 for terraced houses, got their money back in a year. Sixteen years later, some of those houses are still being rented at £55 a week. About £40 of that money comes from housing benefit, paid to people in desperate circumstances who responded to local newspaper adverts. The landlords packed those pit houses with people who were perhaps homeless, who had been evicted from their homes, who had split from their families or whose cases involved social exclusion, but the landlords never did any repairs.

In the past few years, some pit houses have been done up and modernised. Couples live in them. The houses have central heating and double glazing and have attracted grants for improvements, but the people living in them cannot sell them for £22,000 or £19,000. They have been on the market for two or three years, but there are no buyers for them because slum landlords in such areas refuse to do any repairs.

When the problem families left, the councils said that the landlords should rewire their houses and make them safe, but they did not do that. The landlords would board up the houses and gangs would move in, smash the windows and take out all the radiators, sinks and taps within two days of the houses becoming empty. I would not be surprised to learn that some of those gangs had been organised by slum landlords, who instructed them to wreck the place and take all the stuff out. The landlords would then say, "I'm not putting another tenant in. If the council wants the house, it can have it, but it must pay me £17,000 for a house that is derelict."

When people drive down the streets in mining villages, they see lovely little terraced houses and then two that are wrecked and three that have "gas off" painted on the door. Four of the houses might have rats and others might have bedspreads chucked in the back garden. The council has to organise skips and the people who live there are in the pits of despair. They feel trapped. They say, "No one has even knocked on the door in three years. They drive down the street and see that it looks like Kosovo or Beirut."

I am talking about Warsop and Warsop Vale in my constituency, Pleasley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield, villages in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and at least 25 other coal mining and textile areas near the M62, which runs from Hull to Bradford and then on to Leeds and Liverpool. As my hon. Friends know, that coal mining and textiles belt contains thousands of houses that nobody can sell. We do not blame my hon. Friend the Minister for that, because he has done a good job generally.

Parts of Wales and Scotland have been regenerated, and now areas of England are at long last being regenerated. New jobs are coming in and new roads are being built. English Partnerships is doing a first-class job, but housing is a total mess. Council houses that the Tories sold off and have ignored ever since stand empty. Tower blocks should not be half full, because they cost as much to maintain, to run the lifts and to heat as they do when they are full. Therefore, councils face the problem of people decanting and of elderly people not wanting to move.

We can almost draw a ring around places in the country that have assisted area status, where there are no buyers for houses in band A. Not even estate agents are interested in such properties. If the people in such houses asked an estate agent to provide a seller's pack, they would probably be told to go somewhere else. The houses cannot be sold, and there is no profit in it for an estate agent to advertise them and to keep them on his books for two or three years.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that, in 1998, the coalfields taskforce produced a report on places such as Warsop Vale. It said: Leaving these worst affected estates to deteriorate further can only lead to a requirement for still greater expenditure in the future, not only to repair the housing infrastructure, but also to remedy the related social problem. The report added that the Government intended to take action to provide prioritised funding for 8 to 10 pathfinder Coalfield Neighbourhood Action Areas to address the worst affected former Coal Board Estates. Although those issues appeared in the report, they were not covered by the Government's response to it.

The law has to change. The compulsory purchase system must return. Positive action must be taken against landlords who refuse to do anything with the property that they own, and prefer, instead, to leave it with smashed windows or boarded up, so that other people in the area cannot sell their property. If that does not happen, the seller's pack, even with the best will in the world, will be of no use to huge pockets of land.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that clause 7 allows him to make exemptions, but in the two weeks over the Christmas period we have been unable to discuss that with our colleagues in the coalfield communities and the House. I hope that in Committee—certainly before the Bill becomes law— we shall address the problem of owner-occupiers who cannot sell their houses.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions) 5:30 pm, 8th January 2001

I wish you a happy new year, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I join the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in congratulating the Minister on his elevation to the Privy Council.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who painted a worrying picture of the housing market that, sadly, affects far too many people. If he will bear with me, I hope to pick up on a couple of his points. He is right to say that something needs to be done, but I do not believe that the Bill alone will provide the solution.

There are two ways in which the hon. Member for Bassetlaw could work with others to press the Government to help. First, the regeneration projects to which he referred contain too many overlaps and there is too much bureaucracy surrounding them. If we can find a way to put those different regeneration programmes into a single programme and create easier access to the fund, that will address some of the problems that he mentioned.

Secondly, there is no doubt that Housing Corporation money is increasingly being funnelled towards those areas of the country where there is a major shortage of all types of housing. That is understandable. However, as a result, that money is not readily available in parts of the country where there is no shortage of housing, but where the quality of housing reeds to be significantly improved. I have had private discussions with the Minister on that matter and perhaps the hon. Gentleman might want to join me in voicing such concerns.

Unlike the hon. Member for Eastbourne, I can say with some confidence what I expect my hon. Friends to do: I want them to support the Bill on Second Reading. It contains many measures that are worthy of support. We especially like the aim of speeding up and simplifying the arrangements for house sales and purchases, which are recognised as being as stressful as divorce. We are delighted that there are measures to repeal some of the worst aspects of the Housing Act 1996 in respect of homelessness. We are also delighted that there will be opportunities for increased flexibility in the way in which local authorities can determine their lettings policies to suit local circumstance and to respond to homelessness needs in their area, not least through the important requirement to draw up a homelessness strategy.

Like the hon. Member for Eastbourne, I am not entirely happy with all aspects of the Bill. Many hon. Members have revealed the large number of concerns about the proposals for a seller's pack, which have not been fully thought through. It was revealing to hear the Minister, in response to an intervention, say that the Government would address that point as they work up their proposals. It is clear that work is in progress, but I hope that by supporting the Bill on Second Reading and taking the issues into Committee, we will help him to work up the proposals, and I shall suggest how they can be improved.

It is one thing to draw up a homelessness strategy; it is another to put in place measures to ensure that it is properly implemented. It is vital that local authorities are given the tools to do that.

There is one ghost at the feast. I hope that all hon. Members recognise that the key issue to be resolved is the need to ensure that far more affordable housing is made available throughout the country. The Bill contains nothing that will improve that situation, although the Minister rightly pointed out that the Government are, somewhat belatedly, increasing the funds to build more social housing.

In this country there has long been a requirement that someone who is selling a product must ensure that it is defined as "merchantable", unless it is specifically defined as being otherwise. It is rather odd that the requirement does not apply to one of the biggest purchases that people make, and a measure to include houses in that category is vital. We can debate whether the seller's pack is the best way to do that, but at least it is a strategy for moving in that direction. Although the Bristol trial was not necessarily the fairest means of finding out how the scheme will work throughout the country, the Minister rightly pointed to the example of Denmark, where similar proposals appear to be working satisfactorily.

Concerns have been expressed about the need regularly to update the seller's pack. It is accepted that after three months local authority searches at least will be deemed no longer to be valid. In his response to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, the Minister seemed bizarrely to imply that even if that is the case—I believe it to be so—it does not mean that the seller's pack will have to be updated. Presumably, he is suggesting that after three months the information in the seller's pack can no longer be relied on, which would negate the value of the process. If I misunderstood the Minister, perhaps he will put me right.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Surely, in the hon. Gentleman's example, when the sale eventually takes place, the buyer will have to pay again for a further local authority search to complete the transaction. That contradicts what the Minister said about there being no additional costs.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

The hon. Gentleman has followed the debate and participated in it well, but the situation is even more complicated than he suggests because a key point in making the seller's pack a success is that reliance can be placed on it in law. If we are now being told that information contained in the pack may be out of date, the whole issue of where legal liability will lie is called into question. Bearing in mind that three groups of people—sellers, purchasers and, very likely, mortgage providers—will have to rely on the strength of that legal underpinning, we must ask questions about the legal issues surrounding the seller's pack and whether it contains up-to-date information. Matters other than local authority searches might invalidate the information, including events such as the recent storms to which the Minister referred.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne devoted a great deal of his speech to the argument that the Government are doing nothing to deal with gazumping. I failed to hear him make a single suggestion about what his party would do, although, to be fair, he referred to a number of possible proposals. To put the Liberal Democrats' position on the record for the hon. Gentleman, I can say that we are attracted to the system in Scotland, where the requirement to ensure that a deal has been struck, and a commitment made, applies at a much earlier stage than in this country.

Another point that has not been mentioned is that the checking of such a procedure will be the responsibility of local authority trading standards officers. I have already asked the Minister whether he could assure me that any additional costs incurred by local authority trading standards officers would be covered in the local government finance settlement. He pointed out in a letter in response that it was his view, and that of those who advised him, that the total cost of the exercise would be less than £1 million—less than £5,000 per average authority.

I accept the Minister at his word—that that is the advice that he has been given—but very much hope that he will question the advice. I am amazed that he is telling us that an average local authority will spend only £5,000 checking whether the huge new procedure has been introduced, introduced correctly and so on. Perhaps he will come back to us if he receives different advice.

I should like to deal with the point made in an intervention by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford). The Minister rightly referred to the hon. Gentleman's efforts in respect of energy efficiency. The Minister will recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) also tried, under pressure from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), to introduce legislation to require an energy efficiency audit of each house sold.

The Minister said that the energy studies conducted would form part of the seller's pack—currently that is not stipulated in the Bill—and that they would be, to use his word, tailor-made to each property. I hope that he can confirm that. In fact, I would be grateful if, in a second, he intervened specifically to confirm that that is the Government's intention.

The day before the Christmas recess, the Minister said in a written answer: It is currently intended that Regulations prescribe the inclusion of an energy report in the seller's pack, and that this will include generic advice on measures to improve energy efficiency, and an indication of the cost and pay back period of each of those improvements.—[Official Report, 21 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 313W] Clearly, generic advice is always welcome, but for those whose house already has an insulated boiler, advice on insulating it is not needed. Will the Minister confirm that it is the Government's intention that there will be tailor-made energy efficiency reports as part of the seller's pack?

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, even though he did so with the intention of getting an answer. I assure him that the intention is that the energy efficiency element of the home condition report will be specific to a property. However, the number of factors that can be taken into account are limited. That is the purpose of mentioning a generic approach, in which a number of indicators are likely to be covered.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I am most grateful for the Minister's response. When we see more detail of the regulations and guidance—in Committee, I hope—perhaps we will be able to push the point a little further.

I turn to part II, which deals with homelessness. As I have said, we are delighted that some of the worst aspects of the Housing Act 1996 will be repealed. That legislation was put on the statute book primarily as a result of the work of the late Liberal Member of Parliament, Stephen Ross, on the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Like the Minister, I found the Conservatives' amendment somewhat ironic—I choose my words carefully—bearing in mind that their legislation removed from local authorities a responsibility to have permanent concern about the accommodation of homeless people. By removing the right of local authorities freely to use their accommodation, the Conservatives made homelessness even worse.

I do not know whether the Minister was slightly taken aback, as I was, by the many interventions when he was dealing with part I and the important issue of buying and selling houses, whereas only one intervention was made by a Conservative Member on homelessness.

The issue of homelessness is vital, and it is vital that the measures proposed in the Bill are agreed. However, we believe that other measures need to be addressed. If we are to provide the range of support that local authorities will need if they are to help homeless people, councils should be free to invest all their capital receipts from right-to-buy sales in developing new social housing. Local authorities should have more teeth if they are to insist on a much greater proportion of affordable housing in all new developments. We believe that the planning process, through PPG3, is inadequate. There should be other measures such as mortgage rescue packages to prevent homelessness initially.

Labour Members made a key point: a sensible empty homes strategy is vital, but it is missing from the Bill. The Government could do two things almost immediately to end the obscenity of having 150,000 homeless households while having 750,000 empty homes. They could equalise at a lower rate VAT on repairs and renovations. I know that privately the Minister would love to do that. Secondly—it has already been hinted at—they could introduce much stronger compulsory purchase powers for local authorities to bring back into use homes or houses that have been left empty deliberately by unscrupulous landlords.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is there not a third strand, which is the way in which many council properties are under-occupied? We need policies that will encourage local authorities to get individuals to give up such properties in favour of families. However, before those individuals do so, they must be given a viable alternative, and that is not being offered by housing associations. Only local authorities will be able to deal with the situation. Once again, local authorities must be given the right to spend their own money on providing viable alternatives.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

My hon. Friend draws me on neatly to another point, and something that is missing from the Bill. It ties in with what he is saying. Any Member who has read the Bill in any detail will perhaps be surprised that there is no reference to registered social landlords, yet they are to be one of the key providers of affordable accommodation.

I draw the Minister's attention to the part of the Bill that refers to the development of a local authority strategy, which we welcome. The only other body that is to be involved is the local authority's social services department. There is no requirement in the Bill or in the guidance notes for there to be consultation with the registered social landlord. Nothing in the Bill—this is crucial to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock)—will require a registered social landlord to have a duty to take into account the local authority's homelessness strategy. Only when RSLs and local authorities work in partnership will we begin to tackle some of the problems.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) (The Regions)

Subsections (3) and (8) of clause 18 refer specifically to local authorities working with voluntary organisations or other bodies that they consider to be capable of helping them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that includes registered social landlords.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I am grateful to the Minister. I was about to refer to the quaint term "other bodies". It strikes me that RSLs are infinitely more than just another body. They are key to what is happening. It is surprising that there is no specific mention of RSLs. I acknowledge entirely that there is reference to other bodies.

More needs to be done in respect of temporary accommodation. The Minister rightly referred to his concerns about the quality of existing temporary accommodation. However, although local authorities will be required to pro vide suitable accommodation for the long-term solution of the problem, there is no requirement that temporary accommodation shall be defined in the same way as being suitable. I genuinely believe that that issue needs to be dealt with because two welcome measures—extending the range of people that local authorities will have to cater for under the new definitions of homeless categories and giving greater choice to homeless people, which will mean that they will stay in temporary accommodation longer—will put much greater pressure on temporary accommodation. There will be a real danger that, to meet that requirement, accommodation that is even less suitable will be found by local authorities. I hope that the Bill will include a specific requirement that temporary accommodation must be appropriate.

On allocations policy, we welcome the increased flexibility that is being provided. We want to make sure—perhaps the Minister can give an absolute assurance—that providing greater choice means more than one offer being made to a homeless person or household. He has said in briefings that that is the intention, but I hope that we can be given a clear assurance that the Government intend to offer a wider range of choice—not just one option.

We welcome much of the Bill, but nevertheless believe that it represents work in progress. I do not know how many Members found a bit more time to watch television over the holiday and became glued to programmes such as "Changing Rooms" and "Ground Work". [HON. MEMBERS: "Ground Force".] Well, I have not had the opportunity to see much of those programmes—I am just becoming gripped by them. However, I was struck by the fact that they give the broad outline of a plan at the beginning in the hope that it will work out by the end. I hope that, in Committee, we will have the opportunity to help the Minister to make sure that we get the Bill right because it deserves to succeed.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley 5:52 pm, 8th January 2001

I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words about the Bill because housing is a major problem in my constituency—it is perhaps the No. 1 problem facing Burnley. My hon. Friend the Minister would be the first to say that the Bill will achieve only part of what he and the Government want to achieve, and I am sure that housing will be an important part of the election campaign and of the legislative programme of the re-elected Labour Government. Our Green Paper "Quality and Choice" was produced last April and was followed by a consultation exercise, but there is a lot to do and much to implement, and the Minister does not pretend that the Bill does anything other than deal with two important issues.

I fully support the concept of a seller's pack—it is the right way to go and we have wanted such an improvement to be made to the housing market for many years. As the Minister said, a house is the biggest purchase that people make, so it is important that the right safeguards are in place to ensure that that purchase is dealt with properly. It is fortunate that he opened the debate because he has visited Burnley and the neighbouring constituency of Pendle to consider the problem on the ground, and he will not be surprised that I want to mention the particular problem for places such as Burnley. It is also fortunate that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), will make the winding-up speech. His constituency faces similar difficulties, and both Ministers understand the problem for areas in which it is difficult to sell property.

The difficulty in London is different. Labour Members who want to contribute to the debate mainly represent either London and the south-east or other parts of the country which face a different problem, but it is to the Minister's advantage that he has always recognised that the difficulties vary in different parts of the country. Also, he has always acknowledged that problems vary even within regions, which is to his credit. He is recognised everywhere as an expert on housing and we are fortunate to have a Minister who understands housing so well.

Last year, we in Burnley undertook a voluntary housing stock transfer to Burnley and Padiham Community Housing, particularly because the problems facing the private sector were so tremendous. We had a large number of empty houses and many houses lacked basic amenities. Many still need major structural improvement and repair. The council could not deal with this and its own housing stock, but the transfer has enabled it to concentrate on the private sector, which is a major problem. We have about 3,500 empty houses. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) intervened on my hon. Friend the Minister to refer to a house selling for £15,000 to £18,000. In certain parts of my constituency of Burnley, a block of houses could be bought for that price. I would be lucky to get £60,000 for my house, whereas a similar house anywhere in London would cost £250,000 while in some of the best parts it would cost between £500,000 and £600,000.

A couple came to my advice bureau on Saturday, and I almost cried when they put their case to me. The house next door to them caught fire just before Christmas, and another in the block had caught fire six months ago. They spent £3,000 to repair the problems caused by the earlier fire, and more than £1,000 in the past few months to improve their central heating. As they said, when they moved into their house the block was decent, but now more than half of it is empty and they want to know what is going to happen to them and their house.

The seller's pack will not help my constituents, although I listened to what my hon. Friend the Minister said and accept that clause 7(8)(c) provides for variation in certain parts of the country. I came to the House thinking that perhaps an exemption for all properties in council tax band A would be the right way forward, but Burnley borough council has 40,567 properties and 26,111 of those—64 per cent.—are in band A, which is an incredible proportion. However, not all those houses are in difficult areas. My hon. Friend saw particularly difficult areas such as Stoneyholme, Daneshouse and Burnley Wood and would also have visited Accrington road, but lack of time made that impossible. However, other houses in band A would sell for a reasonable price because of the area they are in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to assisted area status. Burnley does not have assisted area status, and a few months ago we lost objective 2 status as well, so those benefits would not help a place like Burnley. We must find a way to deal with the problems, and I am reassured by the fact that my hon. Friend said that the Bill provides for the appropriate variation.

In a letter to me, Burnley borough council states: there is a view that the proposal could be to the detriment of the housing market in our inner-town areas, in that the cost involved could be yet one more disincentive to investment—why should an owner spend, say, £400 when the property is worth very little and when there may be little prospect of selling it in any case? This is a finely-balanced argument, but a possible exemption for Council Tax Band A properties would be welcomed by some. The use of the words "by some" suggests that the council does not think that that is necessarily the right way forward. However, I believe that the concept is right and I accept my hon. Friend's assurances. The Local Government Association and other bodies must get all the relevant local authorities together, whether they are in the north-west, the north-east or elsewhere, to study the problem and find a solution. We must make sure that the legislation helps, rather than hinders, that process.

Finally, I shall comment on part II, which deals with homelessness. The Housing Act 1996 was totally misleading in its name and was an appalling piece of legislation. It was typical of the previous Government and was one of the reasons why they were kicked out of office by such a large majority in the 1997 election. I welcome the fact that one of the first things that the Labour Government did, as speedily as they could, by regulation, was to allow councils to deal with certain aspects of the problem of homelessness. Now we are going one stage further by changing the 1996 Act through primary legislation.

In its letter to me, Burnley borough council writes: You will be aware that we have set up the Burnley Homelessness Forum that is currently carrying out a review of homelessness, and working towards the development of a multi-agency strategy for the Borough. In particular, we welcome the creation of a new statutory duty on Social Services Authorities to assist in the review and strategy development process. It is important to recognise that in authorities which are not unitary authorities, social services are a separate area of responsibility. I have long believed that unitary local government is the best form of local government, but that is a separate debate. In an area such as Burnley, the county council is responsible for social services. I do not say this as criticism of the county council, with which we have a good working relationship, but difficulties arise because it is responsible for an aspect which is so closely related to housing. It is good that the Bill gives a specific role to county council social services.

The Government recognise the problem of homelessness. For humane reasons, we took steps to alleviate it straight away. We are now dealing with it responsibly and reasonably. That is to the Government's credit. I entirely support the Bill and will vote for Second Reading tonight.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon 6:04 pm, 8th January 2001

No doubt to the satisfaction of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I shall speak entirely about the part of the Bill dealing with homelessness. I suppose that I was the godfather of the 1996 Bill, which I still regard as a great, fundamental piece of legislation. The present Government's transfer programme, for example, would not be possible without the provisions of the Housing Act 1996. If the Act's provisions on homelessness were so wicked and have taken such a long time to correct, they were still important measures. I am not in repentance mode, but I shall speak about the future, not the past.

I agree with the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) that we must differentiate between the different circumstances in which local authorities operate. In large parts of the urban north, where there is surplus stock, the problem is finding people to live in the council houses. If there is more freedom to be creative in allocation, perhaps we can address some of those difficulties. In London and the south-east, however, the problem is a desperate shortage of homes for people to live in.

We can easily illustrate the differences by comparing the figures for cities north and south. In Leeds, where there are 71,000 council properties and a 3 per cent. average rate of void, which is a reasonably good record, the 10-year plan assumes a 20 to 25 per cent. decline in the number of council properties available. That is largely the effect of demography.

In Manchester there is a stock of 64,000. Any viable business plan for Manchester would plan for a reduction to about 40,000 properties over seven or eight years. Liverpool is down to 40,000 properties and has a rolling transfer programme which includes, in practice, the phasing out of social properties.

That pattern is not unique to the north of England. In Wales, Rhondda Cynon Taff—I apologise if I have not pronounced that correctly—has a contract out for the demolition of 380 council houses as part of a plan to get rid of unlettable properties.

In the north of England, the two-year duty had little practical impact, as large numbers of people could comfortably be housed well within the time of the review. In London, the problems are acute but entirely different.

The 1996 Act provided that local authority stock could not be used for temporary accommodation for more than two years out of three. Circumstances that have developed since then have made that a problem. There has been a move of population both into London and the south-east, and out of London. Asylum seekers and people who have been granted asylum are a significant part of the population coming into London and the south-east, whatever Labour Members may say. House price inflation has occurred, so the two-out-of-three rule has created difficulties, particularly for London boroughs housing asylum seekers, whose applications may take four or five years to be processed. It is sensible to introduce more flexibility.

There is no point in rehearsing an old argument, but London and the south-east, as well as other areas, would benefit if the VAT rules made it easier to convert properties for change of use. Despite the measures that were recently introduced, there is still no reduction in VAT if, for example, offices are converted into accommodation.

To see the practical effect of that, let us consider a London borough such as Westminster, with 6,500 people on the register. Reviews would remove about 1,000, who would move on, and place another 3,000 on the transfer list. Each year there are between 800 and 1,200 new lettings, 500 on transfer. About 900 lettings a year go to homeless people, so the great whack of the available property goes to people on the homeless list. As has been said, there is no way that the council can build its way out of those problems, because of the difficulty of finding available sites and the cost of the sites when they are found.

The crucial issue in a place such as Westminster is the housing register and the priority needs categories. Westminster moved from a date order system, which was challenged by a court case, and has had to go back to a points system. Inevitably, under a points system some people will always be at the back of the queue, and people cannot be given an idea of when they might be housed. There is a requirement that that should be the case, but it is impractical. The Bill, which removes the requirement to give additional preference to people accepted as homeless and the requirement to tell people how long they must wait before being housed, may permit Westminster to go back to a date order system. People would then have a better idea of where they stood.

The circumstances of the north and of the south mean that total care packages must be provided for people who are homeless. In the north, a tenancy is in many senses the last thing that people need, because of all the issues of skills, competence and confidence that are involved if they are to hold down a tenancy. One of the things that we learned from the rough sleepers initiative was how important all those competencies were, with housing almost at the end of the list. In fact, it was at the end of the list if there was a sensible progression. We need to sustain people and we need sustainable recovery, if I may coin a phrase. The two-year duty had practically no impact in places where the availability of property was so widespread. However, in the south, because of things like temporary accommodation in King's Cross, that has to be buttressed by all-round care for people, otherwise the worst possible circumstances prevail. A roof over someone's head is the beginning, not the end, of support.

The most important element of the changes that the Government intend to make was alluded to by the Minister. Although it is not in the Bill, it concerns extending the duty to 16 and 17-year-olds. At present, children leaving care are catered for as a result of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which gives additional responsibility to social services departments. The issue, however, is about 16 and 17-year-olds who are not in care, which is referred to in chapter 9 of the housing Green Paper. The effective liaison between social services and housing departments will matter. Currently, the duty in cases of need falls on social services departments, and, as the hon. Member for Burnley said, in parts of the country where local government is in two tiers, there will have to be effective case-specific protocols across local authorities to make sure that no one falls through the net.

In rural areas, there are different problems. There is isolation, and there is a problem with fragmentation of services and identifying where people have difficulties. Much poverty and hardship in rural areas is less visible than in cities. There are problems in places such as Brighton, Eastbourne and Scarborough, which are at the end of railway lines, when kids turn up and declare themselves homeless. Co-ordination is essential because 16 and 17-year-olds cannot hold tenancies as they are minors and cannot be liable for debt. In addition, they are not eligible for housing benefit, so if they have tenancies they have to be sponsored by a social services department.

The Bill will help local authorities in cases where the current cost of looking after care leavers can be immense. In Liverpool, I discovered, the cost can amount to £1,500 a week when young people are places with a voluntary sector organisation or a chosen landlord. That does not usually have a positive outcome, as the total package that goes alongside housing is not available. Some youngsters may be ready for tenancies—which, of course, have to be underwritten—but others will need a staging post to link housing with education and training in a foyer plus concept. It is not good enough just to check from time to time that they are not getting into trouble.

Beyond that, there is still a serious problem with where young people live, as there is not a great deal of single-person accommodation. There is often a great deal of local hostility to what are perceived as hostels for troublemakers who are dumped on a law-abiding neighbourhood. We have all experienced that. There is a problem with temporary accommodation because, as we know, the mixing of older men and youngsters is not a good idea.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

In a moment.

From experience we know that regeneration is not helped by large concentrations of single persons on estates. One answer may be rotating tenancies with properties serving to provide temporary accommodation and then reverting to permanent stock after a while. I shall give way to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) who, no doubt, will be mindful of the time.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's recognition of the need for a change in homelessness legislation. I want to ask a question concerning 16 and 17-year-olds. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that the strategic nature of some outlines in the Bill will help to provide the multi-agency approach towards which he is moving?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

If the Bill does not encourage a multi-agency approach, there is no point in proceeding with it. We all recognise that housing is necessary, but it is not a sufficient solution. Housing will not be sustainable without the elements that make it possible for people to acquire the competencies to manage something as simple as rent and acquire the ordinary ability to use their finances sensibly over a week or fortnight to keep body and soul together.

There are difficulties for couples because temporary accommodation and tenancies are not easily available. There are increasing problems with childless couples and mixing a few couples in accommodation where there is a predominance of single men. Those are real social problems. It therefore makes sense to enlarge choice by bringing the private sector more into play. Some local authorities have established landlord forums, where landlords meeting certain standards in facilities and management can go on a common register with housing associations. That can extend to common application forms with housing associations. That widens choice and offers a wider resource base for housing, both geographically—as houses can be made available in parts of a city that would not otherwise be available—and qualitatively.

If the idea of the abolition of the duty to maintain the register is to permit local authorities to offer more choice and be more creative—everyone quotes the Delft example, almost ad nauseam—that can be supported, provided the local authority continues to keep effective track of people in need and to fulfil its duty to forecast housing need.

The Bill is an addition to the framework of the Housing Act 1996. Despite what some people have said, the Bill very much pushes that. When the Minister emerges from his Hemingway mode and comes out from behind the hair on his chest, he will recognise the common underlying objectives. I hope that the Bill will build on those objectives. It firms up the strategic duty, but I suspect that it will make little difference to who is housed where. I am sceptical about how much it will add to choice.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate 6:16 pm, 8th January 2001

May I begin by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the House and colleagues on both Front Benches as a long-standing constituency engagement means that I will have to leave the Chamber temporarily soon after I have made my contribution?

I welcome the opportunity to speak after the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), although I do not share his memories of the Committee on which I also served in 1996: I do not remember that it was quite as golden as he presented. However, I agree that the problem of homelessness will not be solved exclusively by bricks and mortar as there must be a genuine multi-agency approach to people who, for various reasons, find themselves homeless. I welcome the Government's acknowledgement of the fact that local authorities must take responsibility for young people leaving care, for people leaving prison and individuals who suffer from domestic violence.

Regarding people leaving prison and asylum seekers, I should like to refer to the contribution of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). The figures he cited are right, and the Association of London Government has, I imagine, furnished every Member of Parliament with the relevant information. At the moment there are more than 46,000 households in London in temporary accommodation, and 6,000 households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That increase in homelessness does not have to do with asylum seekers or local authorities already giving priority to people leaving prison before the legislation comes into effect. As the ALG makes abundantly clear, the main reason for the increase in homelessness placements is the fall in available supply. The ALG states: The supply of affordable housing available to local authorities for new lettings in 1999/2000, including nominations to housing association stock fell by 10 per cent. on the previous year's figure and was by far the lowest figure since the mid 1980s. The extremely comprehensive and interesting report by the London Mayor's housing commission states: Average house prices are one and a half times higher in London than the UK average … The average price of a London two-bedroom dwelling in 1999 was £161,000, in central London nearly £274,000 … The average gross London salary was £28,800 in 1999. However, for London as a whole 57 per cent of employees earn less than £24,000 a year and in several boroughs this proportion rises to 70 per cent. On rents, the report states: Average London market rents in the third quarter of 1999 were at a level of £85 per week for a room, sharing or bedsit to over £200 for a one bedroom dwelling and £285 for a two bedroom dwelling. For two-bedroom accommodation maximum rents of £3,000 are also to be found in the capital. Those costs are caused by an influx of people into London, which, as a great centre for the economy, has experienced the vast rise in house costs that I have detailed.

I welcome the Government's approach with regard to the new categories, which will have to be the responsibility of local authorities. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that much better use must be made of existing housing stock in London. I have cited figures on families in temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast, but they are, in a sense, merely the tip of the iceberg. It has been estimated that there could be as many as 112,000 people in London who are either without permanent homes or living in completely unacceptable housing conditions that are caused by vast overcrowding and abysmal maintenance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) referred to properties in his constituency that are uninhabitable because the landlord does not maintain them. Some of my constituents are living in conditions that are even worse than those described by my hon. Friend. Again, that is the case because landlords have failed to maintain the properties. Many of the people in question are elderly and some have severe disabilities. They almost invariably live on their own and are suffering conditions of absolute squalor, but we, the taxpayers, must pay via housing benefit the rents that they are being charged. It is unacceptable that the taxpayer should pay vast sums to landlords whom I deem not only to be corrupt but also to be slum landlords, when our constituents have to live in completely unacceptable conditions. In my view, such conditions would have been unacceptable in the 18th century, and they are certainly unacceptable in the 21st century.

In common with other hon. Members, I offer my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning my congratulations, but I urge him to examine and encourage local authorities, under the aegis of the Mayor's housing commission, on the potential for incorporating the empty homes out there—104,000 are estimated to exist in London—via the Empty Homes Agency. I know that there are many reasons why the houses are empty. It is not unusual for them to be unoccupied because the families whose properties they have become cannot agree about the price or the sale. A wide range of reasons exist, but there is a serious crisis in London. All agencies will have to work together to settle London's housing crisis, not only in the medium and long term, but in the immediate short term.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will take another, final issue into consideration: housing benefit. The West Hampstead housing association has furnished me with a report that shows that changes have been made with regard to responsibility for housing benefit that have impacted especially on registered social landlords. I urge my hon. Friend and colleagues in the Department of Social Security to re-examine housing benefit. In some instances, it is in a mess because the administration of the scheme has been put out into the private sector. I ask the House to note that my local authority, Camden, has received more than one charter award for the excellent housing benefit service that it provides in the borough of Camden. Perhaps that service could be a model for other local authorities that are having serious difficulties in respect of housing benefit. The existing framework has basic housing benefit structures that warrant swift examination and genuine joined-up government by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Social Security. We cannot afford to lose any venues in London that might now or in the immediate future afford the possibility of decent homes for the thousands of people who see no chance of ever obtaining such homes.

Mr. Humfrey Matins:

I should declare an interest as a solicitor, although I have practised only rarely in conveyancing. In fact, I have dealt with only one conveyance in my life as a qualified solicitor. Unfortunately, the sale was completed a week before the purchase, so we had to pay a hotel bill for my client in the interim period. I was then moved on to criminal law, where it was thought that I would do less damage.

I should like to comment on part I, which deals with home buying and selling. All hon. Members would support any sensible measures that improve efficiency in house buying and selling. However, one or two of the Government's proposals concern me greatly. My first concern is the increased costs that might result from the survey requirement in the seller's pack, and my second relates to the criminal proceedings that the Bill can initiate.

There are various estimates of the cost of the seller's pack. Local searches cost about £140 and drainage searches will probably cost another £40. When coupled with the price of the seller's survey, those charges are likely to amount to a minimum cost of some £500 for the seller's pack. Of course, that does not take into account the cost of preparing the pack, which could easily amount to another £200. To be of any value to the purchaser, the pack must be carefully and properly prepared, so the average seller is likely to face an immediate cost of some £700 merely to put the property on the market.

That is entirely contrary to the basic principle of no sale, no fee, which has survived and operated pretty well for the past 20 or 30 years. Many people who are professionally involved in the house-selling process believe that the cost will act as a major disincentive to sellers across the market. Those at the lower end of the property ladder might be especially affected. Every first-time buyer becomes a first-time seller, all of whose money could be locked up in the equity of his or her property, assuming that some equity exists. A person in that position might find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the cost of the seller's package without the guarantee of finding a buyer.

Currently, the cost of a sale will arise only on its completion, when proceeds are available to be used for payment. People who might be especially hit include those who are forced to sell because of financial difficulties. Such people could be husbands or wives who are left in possession of a property after the desertion of their spouse. Others who might be especially hit include those who sell their property after losing their job, those on benefits and elderly people whose only asset is their home. For such people, £700 is an awful lot of money to find up front. Unless estate agents are prepared to say to sellers, "We will guarantee this and will find the money", a great number of people will have an acute problem. The Government should consider that matter carefully.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a survey of 2,500 people conducted by the Countrywide Assured Group plc? The survey showed that only 6 per cent. of sellers would not put their house forward for sale if a seller's pack was introduced.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I was not aware of the survey. However, if 6 per cent. of potential sellers are seriously upset and worried, their problems must be considered very carefully. The £700 payment will be a heavy burden in particular sectors of the market.

The seller's pack worries me not only because of its expense. How full will the survey have to be? I gathered from the Minister that it will not have to be much more than a condition report, as opposed to a survey. How full should such a report be? How long will it be valid? That is another fair question. If someone put his house on the market in January with a seller's pack and found no buyer, took it off the market in March and put it back on in June, would the survey and the documents still be valid?

Will the surveyor doing the survey owe a duty of care to the seller, to the buyer only—there are no contractual obligations between the surveyor and the buyer—or to both? Many lenders are unlikely to provide a mortgage advance based on the seller's survey. In practice, both a seller's survey and a buyer's survey will be necessary, and perhaps a lender's survey as well. There will be a great deal of work for the surveying profession and a lot of money will be spent unnecessarily.

Making it a criminal offence to put a property on the market without a seller's pack is a wholly abhorrent concept. As is known, I sit as a recorder in the Crown court and as a district judge in the magistrates court. I believe that the criminal law should be used rarely, especially in what I regard as essentially civil and contractual matters. Such a provision is unjustified, especially as the seller may unwittingly omit some element from the pack, and the buyer may not want to rely on it anyhow. In any event, it is a great mistake to make criminals out of law-abiding citizens who may make an error, even though they enter into normal contractual arrangements in good faith.

Failure to supply a pack under clause 3 carries a potential penalty in the magistrates court of a level 2 fine, which is £2,000. Weights and measures authorities are to be given extensive powers, if necessary to enter buildings by force to take possession of documents and to have a defendant whipped off to the magistrates court and given a criminal conviction. Property buying and selling is often carried out under huge emotional stress and strain. It is wholly unrealistic and, I am afraid to say, heavy-handed and unfair to bring the full might of the criminal law to bear on the world of conveyancing.

I have little left to say in view of the time, but I want to raise the important point of the commercial freedom of the person concerned. Some people have expressed the view that market forces may dictate that the cost of the seller's pack will be underwritten by estate agents or lenders as part of a lock-in arrangement. That will make financial sense for lenders who have to fund the cost of preparing the pack only if they can lock a seller into whatever overall package they are offering. In those circumstances, a seller would potentially lose an element of control over the sale of his own property, because he would be prohibited from putting it on the market without a seller's pack. The seller's pack prepared by the agent or the institution would clearly be the property of the agent or lender, and according to many would be retained by the estate agent or lender and not made available to the seller.

If the seller decided to change agent or lender, presumably a fresh seller's pack would have to be prepared on whatever terms were dictated by the new agent or lender. That is another potential problem.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Is there not a further problem in that third parties will be willing to finance the packs only for properties that are likely to sell fairly quickly? That would once again disadvantage some of the poorest and already most disadvantaged in society.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

My hon. Friend is right. The provisions of the Bill could be divisive in relation to different sections of society and different properties.

I began by saying that all of us welcome moves to improve the process, but two areas worry me greatly. I hope that the Government will focus heavily on the selling survey, about which I have many doubts, and on the sense or otherwise of bringing the full panoply of criminal proceedings to bear on a civil transaction.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East 6:34 pm, 8th January 2001

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate on this important Bill. I shall he brief, given the number of hon. Members who want to speak. I should like to address my remarks to part I, although other parts contain equally important provisions.

It is such a truism that buying and/or selling a home is one of the most stressful incidents in a person's life that it has become a cliché. Anything that can speed up, streamline and reduce the stress of that process is welcome. That is why I particularly welcome part I.

I hope that the House will find it illuminating to consider the issue from the opposite end of the property spectrum to that described by my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Burnley (Mr. Pike). My constituency is prosperous and there is a shortage of housing. There is a desperate shortage of affordable housing, and that is causing some of our public services to crack at the seams. I had the privilege of introducing a debate on this topic in Westminster Hall before the Christmas recess.

In 1997, when the Government began to review the process of buying and selling a home, I consulted estate agents, solicitors and others in Reading, East to find out their views on the present process and how it could be improved. I am pleased to reveal some of the details from that consultation that still hold good. I have also returned to some of the people who responded to find out their views on the Government's current proposals and the Bill. Therefore, although I am expressing my own thoughts, they are informed by the views of people involved in the house buying and selling business in my constituency, and by people who buy and sell their homes.

Some 89 per cent. of respondents to my survey said that they thought that it took too long to buy a house. In response to a follow-up question about what could be done to speed the process up, many respondents said that the details required for buying a house should be prepared by the vendor beforehand. The then manager of Roger Platt estate agents said: Get the vendor to apply for a local authority search and to obtain a survey report, which can be passed on to the purchaser. That is similar to the proposal in the Bill. Other suggestions came out of the survey.

My survey also asked solicitors and estate agents—the professionals in this process—whether further legislation should be kept away from home buying and selling. Professionals in any field tend to resist legislation, but only 22 per cent. of respondents said that legislation was not necessary, and 78 per cent. believed that there was a crying need for further legislation on the home-buying process. That shows clearly that those who have denigrated this part of the Bill or have said that it is not necessary do not have the support of professionals in Reading, East who buy and sell homes.

There was a similar majority—72 per cent. to 22 per cent.—in favour of introducing a bond paid by the seller once an offer has been accepted. The aim of that was to prevent gazumping. Many said that it should be paid by both buyer and seller, to cover times when the market was flat as well as when it was booming. I am informed that the market in my constituency is currently described as steady, although house prices are high and may have peaked.

I note that specific proposals to prevent gazumping are not included in the Bill; instead caveat emptor remains the case—forgive my pronunciation. I ask that some thought be given to caveat vendor—seller beware. When the market is slack, it is not unknown for a buyer to spin out the purchase, and just before finalising the transaction threaten to withdraw unless the seller accepts a lower price. My survey showed support among all the people involved in the process in Reading, East for action to tackle those problems. I ask my right hon. Friends to give that further thought as the Bill progresses.

To illustrate my point, I shall use the example of a constituent who was caught up in this process. Three years ago, Mrs. Evans made an offer to buy a property at £72,950—it is not possible to buy a one-bedroom flat for that price in Reading these days. Her offer was accepted and she paid £700 in fees. Three months later, she received a phone call telling her that she would have to pay £79,000 or the property would not be available. That was defended by the estate agent, who said that it was the seller's duty to obtain the best possible price. The Evanses had to pull out, because they could not afford the extra £6,000. They lost the £700 that they had paid in fees, and were faced with the stress and anxiety of going through the process again, possibly losing further money paid in fees—all that at a time when Mrs. Evans was nine weeks short of giving birth. I am sure all Members are aware that at such a time there is no need for any extra pressure or stress.

In my consultation, I asked whether a bid should be legally binding once it had been made. I was thinking along the lines of the way in which such matters are conducted in Scotland. The responses of people working in house buying and selling in my constituency were split evenly. The division crossed professions, in that both solicitors and estate agents were for and against the proposal.

The consultation revealed the strong view that the problems experienced in a rising market or a prosperous area were not separate from those experienced in a falling market or a less prosperous area. I am sure that that is so, especially after hearing what some of my hon. Friends have said about the difficulty of disposing of houses in their constituencies, and about housing surpluses. I believe that the difficulty is the same whether there is a surplus or a shortage of housing, and that the Bill is welcome because it deals with some of the problems.

So far, no one has mentioned the fact that both buyers and sellers—especially first-timers—often do not fully understand the process. Moreover, it is in no one's interest to explain it to them. As a result, people may waste money by not responding when they should, or by doing something ill-adviced. It was suggested to me that the national bodies representing solicitors, estate agents, surveyors and mortgage lenders should establish a code of practice, and I think we should consider that.

There are a lot of estate agents around, regardless of which constituency or part of the country we are discussing. So, when someone wants to sell a house, who should that person go to? How should he or she choose the person who will do the job? A constituent told me that it had taken 18 months to sell a flat in central Reading. He had employed three estate agents at different times, and the quality and quantity of their work had varied enormously; but he had had no way of knowing that that would be the case before choosing them.

Reputation is important to estate agents. Estate agents whom I visited suggested the publication of performance tables showing how many of the houses taken on by agents were sold, and how long the sales took. I find that idea rather attractive. Such tables would have the added benefit of driving up the standard of service from estate agents.

As has been said, it takes far too long for transactions to be completed. The time taken here is among the longest in Europe. The stress involved in buying a house, and the financial cost to both buyer and seller, would be reduced if the time were shorter. It was felt in my constituency that if a prospective buyer could be given a certificate by a mortgage lender stating the amount that the lender would in principle be willing to provide, that would help to accelerate the process.

That would also deal with a concern expressed to me by the National Housing Federation, which fears that the defence for refusing to provide a seller's pack on request would be the belief of the seller or an agent that the prospective buyer did not have the means to buy the property. If the prospective buyer had a certificate from a lender stating that the lender was willing to provide the money, the seller or agent could not refuse a request for a seller's pack.

The recommendation for an improvement in the home buying and selling process requiring legislation came from an individual estate agency, which had anecdotal evidence that some large chains of agents were discriminating against prospective buyers who did not take out mortgages with the company that was linked to the agency involved. Such behaviour damages not just prospective buyers but prospective sellers, because prospective sellers cannot ensure that their details are before all prospective buyers.

In offering suggestions aimed at improving and speeding up the home buying and selling process, I repeat that they come from people involved in the process, and result from use of the current system. I hope and believe that all Members agree that that system is not ideal, and must be changed.

I have returned to some of the organisations and individuals involved in my consultation, and have talked to them about the Bill. A small independent estate agency in my constituency, Austin and Company, said that the seller's packs were an excellent idea, because they would make people think before marketing their homes. People—especially in areas where the market was rising, as it has in the south-east of England over the past few years—might otherwise put their homes on the market at an unrealistic price.

The Roger Platt estate agency wondered what would happen when people could not afford the pack—people who could not keep up mortgage payments and were selling ahead of repossession, for instance. Several years ago, that applied to many of my constituents. Others might be selling because of negative equity, although, mercifully, that is much rarer than it was in my part of the country. What would happen in such circumstances? We have received some initial clarification, but I should like to know more.

The provisions stating what a seller's pack should contain include a non-compulsory provision for a mining search. That provision is—

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Order. Time is up.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 6:46 pm, 8th January 2001

I want to concentrate on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths): the purchase and sale of houses.

A little-noticed private Member's Bill—the 1999 Property Transactions Bill, an all-party measure opposed by the Government but supported by, among others, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), who was present earlier—proposed a solution to gazumping and gazundering. It is of course impossible to prevent such practices entirely, because someone whose house is on the market can always withdraw it and then reintroduce it at a much higher price three or four months later; but experience world wide makes it clear that it is possible to prevent them by treating the buying and selling of property in the same way as the buying and selling of any other commodity. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) made that point. For instance, if I go to an antiques sale, say that I will buy a piece of furniture, and give the seller a certain price—even orally—that is enforceable in law.

Constituencies such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Reading, East—and of many other Members throughout the country—face two problems. One is gazumping and gazundering; the second is the whole question of daisy chains, as they are called in the property market. The result of such chains is that a long period may elapse between offer and completion, a fact to which many Members have alluded.

In my view, the private Member's Bill would have solved some, although not all, of the problems. Most of those who object to the idea of an enforceable contract—in Reading, East, 50 per cent. of professionals objected to it—are worried about the fact that no penalty would be involved in some circumstances. There might be sensible reasons; indeed, there might be tragic reasons. A buyer or seller might die during the course of the contract. We should recognise that when an offer has been made and accepted, both parties have already entered into a costly process.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

I will in a moment.

That means that both parties stand to lose if the contract is not fulfilled. If one party had to withdraw because of a death, or for any other reason, it would surely be sensible to wipe out the contract, and for one to pay the other's costs. That obvious method is used in other transactions in the commercial world. It seems fair and just to both sides.

The Property Transactions Bill provided for that, but went along with the Government in many ways: the vendor would prepare the house or property for sale in a particular way and provide the local authority searches. However, he would not compulsorily order a survey. That has been described as probably not worth the paper it is written on; it is certainly not worth the fee that the surveyor will exact for providing it. If the survey is not satisfactory for the lender, we may get two or three other surveys. As other hon. Members have said, it seems to be a wonderful thing for surveyors, but it is a disgrace to their profession that they should even support the measure if it is likely to have that effect.

I believe that the buyer has to prepare himself. He should have to provide evidence to the vendor that he or she can purchase the property. If it is a matter of taking out a mortgage, the lender, whoever it is—bank, building society or whatever—should provide a certificate to the effect that it will provide finance up to a certain level, so that the vendor can be certain that he is dealing with a genuine sale. In that way, we would speed up considerably the process of buying and selling.

In many ways, the Homes Bill goes some way towards speeding up sales, but, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking has mentioned, it is wrong to make it a criminal act not to provide a pack. The arrangements should be voluntary, and based on best practice. There should be some sort of reward if the seller is prepared to do a considerable amount of work and incur costs to enable the project to go through much more easily.

In the Property Transactions Bill, we provided that, if the party to a contract withdrew from the contract or otherwise frustrated or failed to complete the contract by the agreed date, he should forfeit any sum paid that he would have had to pay as a deposit when the contract between the buyer and seller was entered into. Should such legislation be put on to the statute book, even by amendment to the Homes Bill, we would speed up the transaction of buying and selling a property and make it easier and cheaper, to the great benefit of all those involved.

I do not believe that that would give rise to great difficulties. The reason why I say that is that that is the law throughout the United States of America and, in a different way, in Scotland. It avoids some of the stressful conditions that the hon. Member for Reading, East has graphically described.

I make one comment about part II, which deals with homelessness. It seems to me that the Bill does not tackle the fundamental problem that we have in the constituency of Hertford and Stortford, which is that there is no accommodation available for ordinary people who wish to obtain social housing because their income is too low to purchase. That is because the transactions between the council and the homeless take up all the available spaces. The result is that honest people in low-income jobs, some waiting to get married—they have come to me and said that they will not get married until they can provide a marital home—cannot obtain social housing; and they are not prepared to have children so that they get into the category that would get them on to the council house list.

If the other categories that the Bill proposes are added, the position will become hopeless. Those people will have to continue to live with their parents, or find some way to have accommodation by friends or relatives discounted. I do not see how they can get a house in my constituency at present, given that the price of the smallest hovel is well above the affordable price for people on average earnings plus. We are in a difficult situation with regard to the homelessness provisions.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

I promised to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and I will do so now.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says, but is not the difficulty with his idea of the binding contract that any buyer who is himself dependent on a related sale will not be able to make an offer until that sale is exchanged? That would dramatically narrow the market, with all sorts of unpredictable consequences.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

That is exactly what I want to achieve: I want to eliminate the daisy-chain process. Under my proposals to make the contract absolutely enforceable, except in unforeseen circumstances, the daisy chain would be eliminated. It does not exist in Massachusetts or anywhere else. It is only in this country that we have telescoping transactions, which are difficult to manage for the solicitors and estate agents involved. We would eliminate those daisy chains and have a purchase and a sale agreed in short time. Then the process could go on. It is simple to make it enforceable in law. It is the sensible way and would not lead to the huge bureaucracy that the Homes Bill will establish. As for enforcing the sales pack, it will be difficult, and I suspect bureaucratically expensive, with all those licensed traders enforcing the Bill.

We have to do a lot more on homelessness and affordable housing. The Bill does not address that. In many ways, it is going in the right direction but, in many more, it is going in the wrong one.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Pavilion 6:57 pm, 8th January 2001

I add my congratulations to the Minister for Housing and Planning.

In welcoming the Bill, I declare an interest that is rather different from the type that has been declared by other hon. Members: I chair the Friends of the Brighton and Hove Foyer.

It is by now widely known that, in Brighton and Hove, many problems affect people who want to become owner-occupiers for the first time and, indeed, people in the private rented sector. Part I will at least help to ease the house-buying process for some of those people, but a major problem that we have is the influx of second home buyers and renters, mainly from London, who are willing to pay high prices to purchase or to rent; I will refrain from mentioning by name any of those incomers. Often, it makes it difficult for local people to enter the housing market or the private rented sector.

I welcome the Government's proposals elsewhere on the starter homes initiative. My local council is already developing a scheme with a housing association to make a bid as part of the initiative. I hope that that will benefit teachers, nurses and other key workers. Elsewhere, I shall ask the Secretary of State for Health to look again at the omission of health workers in my constituency and elsewhere in East Sussex from eligibility for the cost of living allowance for health workers, which was announced at the end of last year.

It seems that many of the problems faced by my constituents are a legacy of the previous Government's policies. The right to buy scheme severely reduced the amount of council housing available to my constituents. Only 15 per cent. of housing stock in the Brighton and Hove council area is council housing, compared with an English average of nearly 21 per cent. Many people who exercised their right to buy, particularly their right to buy flats, and who became council leaseholders found as they became older that they could no longer afford the upkeep of those premises.

Many vulnerable people were robbed of security by the ill-funded schemes for so-called care in the community that were introduced by the previous Government. The previous Government also squeezed funding for the Housing Corporation, thereby reducing further the availability of other types of social housing. Additionally, under the previous Government there were such high mortgage interest rates that, in the early 1990s, we had record repossessions. Coupled with a high unemployment rate—which at times in the past 10 years was higher than 30 per cent. in the heart of my constituency and is still 5.2 per cent.—high interest rates made it very difficult to enter the housing market. The single room rent restriction for 18 to 24-year-olds also has hit young people. Some people have been forced out of home ownership, and others have never been able to afford even to begin it.

In 1999–00, 3,460 people presented themselves as homeless to my council, but it was able to accept only 925 of them. Many of those people came from the private rented sector. My authority's housing strategy has been developed on a multi-agency basis, as the Bill requires. The strategy is pro-active, seeking to ensure that problems are tackled before people become homeless. It seeks to deal with the problems of homelessness not only by responding to the needs of those who present themselves as homeless, but through preventative action both through advice services and support to those who are adequately housed but need help to maintain a tenancy. Such a strategy is essential in an area such as mine, which still has probably the highest level of street homelessness outside London. The strategy involves work with the rough sleepers initiative, the council, the youth offending team, health agencies and housing associations. That preventive strategy works. Last year, the council's advice centre dealt with 174 requests from council tenants who were facing the possibility of losing their tenancies. Only two of those people eventually lost their tenancies. Preventive action helped.

As I said, a major problem for us is the high proportion of people living in the private rented sector. In 1999–2000, almost 40 per cent. of those who presented as homeless in Brighton and Hove were from the private rented sector. The housing advice service dealt with 431 cases of potential homelessness, and it acted to prevent all of them. The Government have also supported our rent in advance and deposit scheme, which safeguards tenants and landlords. Therefore, in my local authority's area, the type of multi-agency strategy that the Bill calls for is already in place and working.

I welcome the widening of the definition of priority need, especially to 16 and 17-year-olds. I also welcome the greater choice that the Bill requires in making allocations, and acknowledge the £8 million annually that the Government are allocating to help with that process. I also welcome the promised increase in Housing Corporation-approved development programme funding that the Government have announced. The increase should boost the funds available to the corporation, in two years, to £1,236 million.

With my local authority area's large number of private rented properties, we should be able to make much better use of the private rented sector as part of our strategy to prevent homelessness. However, I think that that can happen only with reform of the housing benefits system, particularly of the single room rent restriction on under 25s and the system of local reference rents for over 25s. For so many of my constituents, precisely those housing benefit restrictions make entering the private rented sector so difficult.

I welcome the reference in the Government's policy statement "Quality and Choice", which was published shortly before Christmas, to tackling the issue of the single room rent. There is little detail in the document, but I know that a consultation process will be beginning, if one has not already started. I emphasise to Ministers the urgency for constituencies such as mine of conducting and completing that review. Since I was elected to the House, I have been pestering my ministerial colleagues—in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Social Security—on the issue, and I am glad that the message has got through.

Last June, in response to the housing Green Paper, various agencies got together with the council in Brighton and Hove to make a submission to Ministers on precisely that issue. I shall soon be handing to Ministers a revised version of the submission, which I hope they will consider very seriously.

The mismatch between the sums available in housing benefit and actual housing costs is a great problem for very many of my constituents, particularly my younger constituents, and is contributing to the homelessness problem in my constituency. Shortly before Christmas, I received a letter from Mr. John Holmström of the Brighton Housing Trust, who chairs the young homeless group in Brighton and Hove. He says that introduction of the single room rent restriction has made it almost impossible for the agencies working with young people in my constituency to find them suitable rented accommodation. The local reference rent is having a similar effect on older people.

Mr. Holmström says that he believes that if the single room rent and local reference rent definitions continue, they might be the single largest impediments to Brighton and Hove making any progress in reducing rough sleeping. Therefore, although I welcome the Bill's provisions, I urge Ministers urgently to take account of the points made by the agencies that I have mentioned and of work in my constituency. They believe that work on reviewing housing benefit is essential if we are to implement properly the ideals—which I support fully—that have been incorporated in the Bill.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West 7:08 pm, 8th January 2001

One of the Bill's welcome features is the aspiration, in part II, that greater choice should be available to homeless people and to tenants. However, one of my reservations about the Bill is that it might reduce choice. Although I raised that issue with the Minister in an intervention, he rather dismissively asserted that there would be more choice.

I have not simply plucked the issue out of the air. On Friday, I took the trouble to visit Mr. Greg Spawton, the housing needs manager at New Forest district council, and he raised precisely that issue with me. Subsequently, he has confirmed the points that he made in an electronic-mail message to me, from which I shall quote. [Interruption.] One of the advantages of such electronic communications is that a hard copy can be had if one perseveres with the machine long enough to retrieve one.

Under the heading "Use of the Private Rented Sector", Mr. Spawton says: This is a preferred option for many of our customers and we have a deposit scheme to assist people. The Bill will make this option much more difficult to use. It makes a placement in the private sector sound like a punishment rather than a choice. Few people will want to sign their rights away which they will be obliged to do if accepting an offer in the private sector. The result will be that people will have less choice and that b&b usage will again increase. The housing officer might be wrong, and my analysis might be wrong. However, the Under-Secretary should explain why that analysis is incorrect when he winds up.

A further welcome aspect of part II is the new categories of people to whom there will now be an obligation to provide housing, especially 16 and l7-year-olds, people leaving care, people fleeing domestic violence and those with an institutionalised background. The problems affecting such people are currently not being properly addressed. We know that from walking down the Strand or Victoria street in this city, or from going to any other town in the United Kingdom. Particularly proximate to my constituency are the people selling the Big Issue in Bournemouth, who will explain the nature of the problem. We also know about the problem from our constituency case loads and our constituency advice bureaux.

I welcome the aspiration that provision should be made for such people, but that will not be unreservedly welcomed by the local authorities that will have to discharge the responsibility. They are struggling to discharge their existing obligations, never mind the problems that will attend a widening of the net. The increase in resources foreshadowed in the explanatory notes to the Bill—some £8 million for all local authorities—will be insufficient to address the problem. My experience in the New Forest is that current resources are insufficient to address existing obligations, never mind those that will be added to them.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that local authorities such as his are struggling because during nearly 20 years of Conservative government no council houses were built?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I shall come to why local authorities are struggling, and it is not the reason that the hon. Gentleman gives.

The new aspiration will also be unwelcome for many of our constituents who are already on the housing needs register. I cannot be alone in having a considerable mailbag of letters from people who are continually frustrated because they perceive—an important word—that they have had to make way in the housing queue for people whom they regard as less deserving.

Let us consider how the anger and frustration of those people might grow if their perception were that they, who had done nothing wrong, had to give their place to those from an institutional background—for example, offenders requiring resettlement. Of course it is right to address the problem of resettling offenders, but it would be unwise to do so without providing the resources capable of achieving that aim without breeding the resentment that already exists within the present settlement.

New Forest district council is a beacon council and is considered to be among the best at managing its housing resources. Its housing investment programme has been placed in the best category available for such programmes for four years. The Government office of the south-east wrote to New Forest district council recently about its housing strategy, stating that we considered your approach … particularly good and are considering using this as an example of good practice for others. We know what we are talking about when we quote the experience of New Forest district council in dealing with these problems.

I went to see local housing representatives on Friday, and I was alarmed by the statistics that they quoted, such as the alarming growth in the number of applications to be classified as homeless, the number of people accepted as homeless and the number of people on the housing needs register, set against the fairly flat performance in terms of the number of vacancies available. Most striking, however, was the growth in the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation over recent years. New Forest district council has been proud of its record in this respect: in 1998, the number of people in such accommodation was reduced to nil. The figure is now 120 household placements, and is projected to reach 160 by the end of this financial year.

Let us consider what will happen when the new obligations are imposed. This year, under guidance from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, New Forest district council is already accepting all 16 and 17-year-olds on to the housing needs register. In other words, that is being done in accordance with the provisions of the Bill before it has become law. That has had a significant effect on the number of people requiring bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In 1998–99, four 16 and 17-year-olds were accepted, and in 1999–2000 there were eight. So far this year, there have been 23. That is a measure of the increase in demand in only one of the categories being considered, and it shows the potential for a significant increase in the amount of bed-and-breakfast accommodation required.

Government policy is undermining the entirely laudable aspirations of the Bill. New Forest district council has used its capital resources to fund about 200 new properties over recent years. That is not nearly enough to meet its existing obligations, never mind those about to be placed on it. However, because of the way in which the Government are now dictating that the council must allocate its major repairs allowance, its ability to fund new houses will be reduced by about half. It will struggle to produce between 90 and 100 new homes. At a time when the Government are increasing the obligations placed on local authorities, New Forest district council's ability to deal with the problem is being halved.

It is a matter of good fortune that local councils such as mine have a housing stock that has been well maintained over a number of years, and are therefore able to put more resources into grants for new build rather than into the maintenance of declining stock. It is, therefore, quite wrong that such councils should be subjected to the same straitjacket as councils in very different circumstances, with a very large housing stock requiring radical modernisation. Different rules should apply to us: it should be horses for courses.

It is outrageous that the decision whether to modernise the kitchens in the existing New Forest housing stock, or whether to build new houses for people who have no houses at all, should not he made by local councillors and officers in the New Forest who know the needs of the people there and are accountable to them. It is inappropriate for those decisions to be made in Whitehall or in Westminster, as they are now. That policy will do more to undermine our ability to deal with homelessness in the New Forest than the Bill can possibly do to assist us. I hope that the Minister will reconsider this wrong-headed policy.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 7:19 pm, 8th January 2001

I welcome the Bill for several reasons, one of which is that it specifically links homelessness with social services needs and recognises the appalling legacy that was inherited in 1997 of the large number of young people sleeping on the streets of London, with all the associated problems. That part of the Bill is a great step forward, and I strongly endorse and welcome it. The points that I want to make largely concern inner London and my constituency in particular.

The debate has been in two parts, because of the two sorts of housing problems in this country. There are enormous problems involving under-occupied, badly maintained, rundown estates, largely in the north and the north-east, where there is a lack of take-up of local authority housing and it is very difficult to sell a house.

The flip-side concerns inner-city constituencies such as mine, where unemployment is, generally speaking, above the national average and, according to the Department's own index, there is far greater poverty than in most parts of the country—six of the 10 most deprived areas of the country are in inner London, including Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington—yet private sector housing is massively expensive. One cannot buy a flat of any kind in my constituency for less than about £100,000, and a three-bedroom house is completely unaffordable for anyone on anything like an average—even a London average—income.

That problem has been countered in the past by council developments, some in large-scale and inappropriate estates and some in smaller and much more sensitive estates. Some of the estates in my constituency are models of good planning, management and practice. I commend the councils that developed the good and popular estates. My hon. Friend the Minister has visited many of them and will be aware of the high standards of design. However, like everywhere else, we have enormous difficulties with large, system-built estates, mainly from the 1960s, which are in very poor condition and have enormous debt problems. At the time of the previous general election, the estimate for the repair needs of the major estates in Islington was nearly £500 million. One estate alone requires £40 million of repairs to bring it up to an acceptable living standard.

I am glad that the capital receipts have been released and that the Government have managed to find quite a lot of money for estate improvements. The new roofs and windows and improvements in staircases and security systems are beginning to make life more tolerable for the people living on those estates.

Cuts in the local voluntary sector by the Liberal Democrat council, causing the loss of youth clubs, do not help. I do not mean this in a cheap, partisan way. I mean, seriously, that the council, whatever party runs it, has a responsibility to ensure that there is joined-up thinking. Young people growing up in overcrowded flats will inevitably not want to spend time at home in the evenings. They want to be out and about with their mates, and if there are no youth facilities or clubs and the community centres are closed, they will get into trouble.

I am sorry to say that last year Islington had 80,000 recorded crimes, several murders and many knife attacks and incidents of street violence. I am well aware that youth clubs will not solve all of that, but joined-up thinking, recognising the interrelationship of housing, youth and unemployment problems, will begin to make a difference.

There is a longer-term issue. The housing list in Islington is between 8,000 and 10,000, depending on how the calculations are done. The figure is broadly similar for most inner-London boroughs. The number on the transfer list is probably greater. The number of children growing up in seriously overcrowded, poor-quality flats is enormous. Any teacher could tell us about their under-achievement in school and their behaviour problems. Likewise, growing up in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation leads to health, behaviour and education problems.

We should be careful about categorising who gets housed. Do we house people in desperate housing need; those in housing need because of illness; those who are ill in any case; those who are homeless unintentionally or, so-called, intentionally; or asylum seekers and refugee families?

If people are housed temporarily in hostel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation, or any kind of short-term leased accommodation, an aura of instability is created for the children. They change schools often, and I suspect that in some cases they fall through the school net altogether, because they move from hostel to hostel so often that the parents find it impossible to get them into a school. We are not talking about millions or even thousands of children, but a significant number of children's education is being wrecked by the policy of regularly moving people between hostels and other temporary accommodation.

I have often spoken to my hon. Friend the Minister about the longer-term strategy for the new building of housing in inner London or the right of local authorities to purchase existing properties, converting them if necessary, to house people on the waiting list and in housing need. Unless we expand the affordable rented sector in inner London, the schemes that the Prime Minister and others have been talking about—of specialist housing for teachers, nurses, fire officers, police and others—will have to be extended in a year or two to hospital cleaners, postal workers, plumbers, gas maintenance workers and so on and on. We have to provide more affordable rented housing for ordinary people in London as it is, never mind how it might change in the future. I ask the Government seriously to consider providing yet more money to local authorities to invest—I stress the word—in good-quality housing for the ordinary people who live in central and inner London.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) spoke eloquently about housing benefit. Islington used to run its housing benefit service through its neighbourhood offices. The system was never perfect, but at the end of the day a problem could be solved because one could get hold of the relevant official and sort it out. The system was then centralised and it got worse because one could not get hold of the right official, and the number of people not getting their housing benefit went up.

The council then privatised the service and handed it to ITNET, which regularly posts enormous profits, and the situation got worse, so it appointed a consultant to liaise between it and ITNET to discuss the problems, which then got still worse. The fraud inspectorate was sent in. Thousands of people have been told that they are in housing arrears when they are not, and many people in private rented accommodation have been evicted through absolutely no fault of their own, but through the sheer incompetence of ITNET to deliver a service that, being publicly paid for, should be publicly administered.

The misery caused by the company in both my borough and Hackney is legion. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister once again to intervene and put whatever pressure he can on the local authority to cancel the contract, get rid of ITNET and put in someone who can run the service for the benefit of those who really need it.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has read the excellent report presented to the Mayor of London, entitled "Homes for a World City". On page 84, it lists the number of people in temporary accommodation—bed and breakfast, short-term accommodation and so on—in London. The figure has increased over the years. Paying extortionate rents to bed-and-breakfast and slum landlords is costing the public purse a great deal.

I do not begrudge paying housing benefit, because I strongly believe that a welfare state should support people in need, but we would be better off investing the money in purchasing homes for people to live in, rather than lining the pockets of bed-and-breakfast landlords and millionaires who are making a fortune out of the public purse through the housing benefit system. In some cases, after investing only £150,000 or £200,000 to convert a property into half a dozen flats, a private landlord can get all that money, or more, back in less than two years. That is a pretty good return on an investment—if one happens to be a private landlord.

I hope that when the Committee considers the Bill, it will re-examine the provision of housing throughout London and the south-east. I also hope that, in his reply, the Minister will give us some crumbs of comfort to the effect that the Government are prepared to reconsider the need for further investment by local authorities in local authority housing. I hope that they will provide a level playing field for housing transfer, rather than saying to local authorities, "There's capital available from the Housing Corporation if the properties go to a registered social landlord, but if they stay with you, there's no money available." That is not a fair choice. We need to provide decent housing for everybody. Surely that is what a welfare state should be about.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole 7:31 pm, 8th January 2001

The comments that have been made in the debate show that the Bill has two aspects, and I shall touch on both of them. The publication of the housing Green Paper was surrounded by the usual spin and hype to which we have become accustomed from this Government, and in my opinion the publication of the Bill got the same treatment. However, as with many glossy Government documents, hype is followed by disappointment. The Bill has missed many opportunities.

In his speech, the Minister could not tell us when we are likely to see legislation to introduce a licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), said recently: The Government remain committed to introducing a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation … as soon as Parliamentary time allows.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 8 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 107WH.] Is this not that opportunity? It has taken the Deputy Prime Minister long enough to get this Bill, and I should have thought that he would use it to honour all his commitments. Clearly, that will not be the case—but that is a debate for another day.

I shall now deal with the issues concerning buying and selling houses. As my hon. Friends have already said, a central feature of buying and selling homes in this country is that neither the buyer nor the seller is legally bound to go through with the transaction until unconditional binding contracts have been exchanged.

The Minister decided to cite Denmark as a good example of how a seller's pack has worked, but I remind him that the housing market in Denmark is about one tenth the size of the market in this country, and that Denmark's tax and interest rates are totally different. I am sure that if we had another debate on the euro, the Minister would be loth to use Denmark as an example. We cannot compare apples with pears. It is the situation in this country that needs to be addressed.

A MORI poll taken in 1999 by the ITV programme "Tonight with Trevor MacDonald" revealed that more than one third—34 per cent.—of home owners said that they would renege on a promise to sell if someone bid an extra £5,000 before contracts were exchanged. More than half—58 per cent.—said they would do so if the offer was more than £10,000 more, and two thirds—68 per cent.—admitted that they would switch if an offer was £20,000 more.

More than a quarter— 26 per cent.—of people living in houses worth £200,000 or more—[Interruption.]—would sell to a gazumper offering £5,000 extra. More than half—55 per cent.—said that they would do a deal for £20,000 more than the original offer. I think that I heard a Labour Member say something about my constituency just now, but the poll was not held in my constituency; it was an ITV poll covering the whole country. It is interesting to see how people approach the issue.

The Bill will do nothing to solve the problem of gazumping. In fact, it would make things even worse. The seller's pack is apparently supposed to improve the situation, but it brings many problems in itself, many of which my hon. Friends have described. For one thing, it does nothing about gazumping.

The Bristol & West, one of the main lenders involved in the pilot study, denied that it went smoothly. It did not manage to achieve the target of 200 transactions to test the scheme, and Dominic Toller, the head of lending marketing, said: we fully support anything that speeds up the process, but there are many gaps in this. If I were a purchaser, how happy would I be with a survey undertaken by the vendor? They have a vested interest. He said that he could not see how the seller's pack could stop gazumping—and he is in a senior position in one of the organisations that participated in the trial.

Critics of the scheme have pointed out that it would cost sellers £500 to produce a pack, which would have to be completed before they put their homes on the market. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said, that figure could be as high as £700. Any saving for buyers would be cancelled if they to were selling a property at the same time, and vendors whose houses failed to sell would be left, as Members on both sides of the House have said, with a bill for £700.

Trevor Kent, former president of the National Association of Estate Agents, the leader of the campaign against the packs, who has already been quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), said: if you have spent £800 on the pack, you would be keen to get as much money as you can. It won't cost the gazumper anything to make an investigation. That is telling, because Trevor Kent is at the leading edge of the industry involved and he is highly critical.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders has stated: the lending industry is concerned that:

  • —a trial based on less than 100 property sales is being put forward as the basis on which to introduce radical changes to the home buying and selling process,
  • —the SIP (Seller's Information Pack) will lead to a significant fall in the number of property transactions as sellers will be put off "testing" the market, in turn leading to a less buoyant buying and selling environment for consumers; and
  • —the need for sellers to fund the SIP up front could have adverse implications in areas of low income and low demand and the inclusion of a Home Condition Report could lead to increased costs for sellers.
I, like other Members, have also had other evidence sent to me about people who are concerned about issues connected with the Bill. Michael Coogan, director general of the CML, has said: while the CML supports the idea of buyers and sellers being more prepared early on in a transaction, the evidence in support of introducing Sellers Information Packs is not robust and such packs could prove to be unpopular with consumers. The Bristol pilot has failed to demonstrate that SIPs significantly improve the process and that there is widespread support from the professionals in the process.The Government's review of the house buying and selling process has acted as a catalyst for the introduction of significant changes and improvements to current procedure, including the mortgage application process and conveyancing. The CML believes the way forward would be to promote greater use of technology and innovation. Those are genuine concerns, yet I do not think that the Minister referred to any of them. Perhaps he and his colleagues can tell us how he would seek to address those fears. If he fails to do so, it will be a missed opportunity. The Bill fails to address the real issue of gazumping, and there are better ways of speeding up the process of conveyancing than seller's packs, such as making searches and Land Registry information more available on the internet. I know that the Minister referred to that subject, and I am sure that as our proceedings on the Bill progress, we shall hear more about it. I hope that what we hear will be robust enough to meet some of the concerns that we are raising tonight.

The second part of the Bill concerns homelessness and social housing. Five years ago, in 1996, the Prime Minister promised that Labour would do everything in our power to end the scandal of homelessness, to tackle the spectacle of people sleeping rough on the streets, and to end the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation … in today's Britain no one should have to sleep rough on the streets. However, homelessness has risen under Labour, and the Bill does not go far enough in tackling the problems. The Prime Minister said that five years ago, just before going into an election campaign; he has now come out the other side, and the figures do not stack up in the Government's favour.

Official figures show that the number of priority homeless people has increased by 3,000 since Labour came to power. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne so beautifully articulated—[Interruption.] The Minister clearly did not hear what my hon. Friend said, and he does not want to listen to what I say either, but the facts are the facts.

Acceptances of those deemed to be priority homeless increased to 27,330 in the second quarter of 2000, compared with 24,290 in the second quarter of 1997—an increase of 13 per cent. The latest statutory homeless figures for the third quarter of 2000 show that, in the September quarter of 2000, local authorities accepted 28,710 households as meeting the statutory criteria of being eligible for assistance, unintentionally homeless and falling within a priority needs group. That represents an increase of 1,380, or 5 per cent., on the previous quarter, when the figure was 27,330, and is 990–4 per cent.—higher than the total number in the corresponding quarter last year. Those are the facts, and I hope that the Minister's people sitting under the Gallery will pass him messages to confirm them.

At the end of September 2000, the number of households in accommodation arranged by local authorities under the homelessness provisions of the Housing Act 1985 and the Housing Act 1996 was 71,890—some 5,860, or 9 per cent., higher than at the end of the previous quarter. The total number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation was 9,530 at the end of September. That represents an increase of 1,150 households—14 per cent.—on the previous quarter and the same period a year ago. At the end of September, the number of homeless households in hostel accommodation, including women's refuges, was 9,960—an increase of 430, or 5 per cent., since the end of the previous quarter and 740, or 8 per cent., compared with a year ago. I put those points to the Minister because it is important, as he is not taking notes, that he hears the actual figures.

Housing groups, such as Shelter, have warned that we need to provide more than 100,000 affordable homes a year for the next 10 to 15 years to meet demand. Chris Holmes, the director of Shelter, said: These figures are extremely worrying and show just how critical the housing shortage is. Households on low incomes are the innocent victims of the housing boom. As rents continue to soar thousands of households are becoming homeless. Our own experience shows that temporary accommodation such as bed and breakfast hostels are totally unsuitable for nurturing stable family life. There are many reasons for the increase in homelessness, and they have been discussed in detail in this debate. The Bill may make some progress towards tackling homelessness—not before time—but I am disappointed by the lack of provisions, including measures to introduce a licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation. That most definitely takes something away from its overall thrust.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash 7:43 pm, 8th January 2001

Like the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), I thought it telling that the Conservative spokesperson, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), spent 95 per cent. of the time discussing part I of the Bill, but little time on part II. I do not deny the importance of part I, but the balance of his speech should have been better. I therefore intend to focus on part II, which will enshrine a fundamental shift in the approach to homelessness that led Chris Holmes of Shelter to say: By including important and far reaching reforms to the current homelessness legislation this Bill represents the best opportunity for a generation to strengthen the statutory framework to tackle homelessness in the long term. My definition of a generation is 20 years, not three and a half years.

The shift is welcome because it is predicated on prevention and joint working. At its heart is a review and ensuing strategy in which social services will be required to play a central part, along with local authorities and other local organisations and voluntary services. It is important to define how local authorities, social services and other co-workers will tackle and prevent homelessness and to define the current and future levels of homelessness and the resources available to tackle it. That has not been done coherently before. Such coherence has long been needed, and it represents a true sea change.

The removal under the Housing Act 1996 of the duty on local authorities to accommodate unintentional homeless people in priority need until a settled solution was found was shoddy. Although many people were accommodated in practice, that Act created uncertainty for already vulnerable people. The Government's intention to restore that duty will make local authorities look for a settled solution at the outset—a better approach to the problem. The measure forcing applicants to accept a tenancy in the private sector without sufficient safeguards was unacceptable and also led to uncertainty.

I welcome the new safeguards contained in the Bill, such as the agreement between the local authority and the landlord to broker arrangements and the inclusion of written statements, with the terms of offer being read and signed by the applicant, but I am concerned that such offers might involve short fixed terms. Short-term tenancies last only six months. I am pleased that offers that are inappropriate to needs can be rejected without affecting the duty owed by the local authority.

I welcome the powers to provide accommodation for non-priority homeless people, although practice varies across the country at the moment. Even where housing surplus exists, some local authorities do not take advantage of that option. Plainly, such poor use of available housing stock does not meet current needs. The 1996 Act placed a duty on local authorities to offer advice and assistance to homeless people, but current evidence shows that the quality of that advice and assistance is frequently poor, and attention must be paid to that. There is also plenty of evidence of good practice, and I should like that duty to be strengthened.

I welcome the proposal to do away with the single housing register because it paves the way for flexibility and choice, but the allocation scheme that will replace it must be clear and transparent in identifying principles, priorities and procedures. The Bill defines the groups that will be given reasonable preference, but there is a provision that will enable certain other factors to be taken into account. That provision must be justly applied. There are examples of people in rent arrears simply because of the late payment of housing benefit who are still discriminated against. Likewise, there are examples of unproven anti-social behaviour. I am as tough as anyone on deploring such behaviour and wanting to take measures to challenge it, but those measures must be applied fairly and only in extreme cases where evidence exists.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I know that the hon. Lady is tight for time, so I am grateful to her for giving way. Does she agree that if a local authority refuses to make housing available under the Bill, it is vital that the person involved receives a written statement of the reasons why the authority has done so and has a right of appeal?

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

Yes, I am concerned about the current lack of an appeal process. I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

I understand that there are concerns about what is not in the Bill. Families suffering from domestic violence are covered by other provisions, but racial abuse and violence are not dealt with in any measure. I should like to hear the Minister's response on that. How will housing need be secured after a stock transfer? Housing authorities should continue to play a strategic role. I draw the Minister's attention to clause 4 of the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which seems to take a more robust approach to that issue. I should like to hear his response to that provision and to know whether he is prepared to proceed further on that matter.

Accommodation during a review period is another issue that concerns me. At present, local authorities have powers to offer accommodation but frequently do not do so. It is often very off-putting that someone who is going through the review process and who is homeless and vulnerable has to take the process further because they do not have a secure home Further provisions to cover that point could be added to the Bill.

Like other hon. Members, I wish to flag up the issue of the suitability of accommodation for homeless people in priority need. Such accommodation is often below standard, so I call for a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation to be introduced as soon as is practicable. I understand that parliamentary time is an issue, but such a system would shore up the alternatives that we offer to some people.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned this point, but I would like the code of guidance to be strengthened. Under current legislation, local authorities have a duty to have regard to that guidance, but that duty is weak. More teeth should be given to the guidance to ensure that local authorities comply with the Bill's most important aspects and meet its policy intentions.

I hope that my speech has not appeared niggardly; it was not intended to be so. I shall be very proud to walk through the Lobby tonight to vote for a Bill about which Chris Holmes was able to make such profound comments. However, when the Bill completes its passage through the House, I hope that it will be as good as we can get it. I also hope that, in less than a generation, homelessness will be, if not eradicated, greatly diminished and that the processes and procedures that are in place will be able to tackle it much better than they have done in the past.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 7:52 pm, 8th January 2001

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), but I intend to speak exclusively about part I. I draw the House's intention to the registered interests that I have and have had for many years in a small company involved in the housebuilding business. That certainly does not make me an expert on the subject, but, on many occasions in two decades or more, it has made me a frustrated bystander to the process of buying and selling property.

I share wholeheartedly the Minister's objective of shortening the time that it takes between the agreement of a sale and the exchange of contracts. I say that not because I think that gazumping is such an important problem—its impact and effect has been much exaggerated—but because many other problems are associated with the long delays between agreement and exchange.

I understand the Government's instinct to legislate to achieve their objective. Legislation is within their power, so it is natural that they should reach for the statute book to deal with a problem. However, legislation has great difficulty in dealing with structural and cultural problems. One factor that has been missing from the debate is recognition of the way in which the structure of owning and transacting houses and the culture in England—if not in Scotland—affect the problem.

The Minister and many others have made comparisons with other countries. Denmark has been much quoted, but it is fair to point out that there is a significant difference between the percentage of owner-occupied properties in the countries that have been quoted and in this country. There is also a difference in the level of available privately rented accommodation, and different patterns of finance are used for house purchase.

The norm in England, but not necessarily in Scotland, is that people still expect to move out and to move in on the same day; they expect to co-ordinate their transactions. Although we can consider the reasons for the delays in the conveyancing process, I suspect that most of them relate to the attempt to co-ordinate the sale and the purchase. That is a major factor that we must examine.

The Government have identified several legs as being part of the solution. One of them is the seller's pack, but they have also suggested that buyers need to be better prepared when they enter into a transaction. Information coming from the Land Registry and local authority searches needs to be speeded up. However, the Bill proposes criminal sanctions in only one area—the responsibilities of the seller. What do the Government propose to do about local authorities that do not play their part in the overall scheme? What do they propose to do about buyers who do not make the necessary preparations before the transaction and thus might upset the legitimate expectations of the seller?

One major legitimate problem that buyers often face is a valuation from their lender that is lower than the offer that they have made for a property. That leaves the buyer and the seller in an awkward predicament. An objective valuation included in the seller's pack could help to unstick that problem. However, from what I have read, my understanding is that the Government's proposals were designed specifically to exclude a valuation from the condition survey to be included in the pack. In response to an earlier intervention, the Minister said that was not necessarily so and that some of the details remained to be worked out. I welcome that comment but, if a valuation is to be included in the seller's pack, he will have to persuade lenders to abandon their time-honoured system of having designated panel valuers and to accept any valuation that is included in a condition report made by an authorised and licensed surveyor or other practitioner. If he can do that, we may make some progress.

The Government now propose a compulsory system of seller's packs that include a survey. However, those who want to speed up the transaction process are already able to do so. Sellers of houses are perfectly free to adopt a binding tender approach to their sale, which will create a binding contract upon acceptance of the offer. Many private buyers—although admittedly still a very small number—use the auction system that also creates a binding contract on the fall of the hammer.

Conveyancing delays are emphatically not the real or the main problem. The problems are chains and the mortgage arrangements that people have to make. Coupled with those arrangements is the very high gearing that people expect to employ when they borrow to buy a home. It means that a very small undervaluation can dramatically upset their plans and cause them to be unable to proceed.

I wish to make two comments about the proposed packs. First, information will have to be provided at some stage in the process by either the buyer or the seller. There can be relatively little harm in providing much of that information up front. My only caveat relates to the shelf life of some of that information. Earlier, we heard an exchange about local authority searches. Although such searches do not expire after three months—three months is not a magic figure—lenders typically will not accept searches that are older than that. Although the Minister may not require a seller to pay for a new search to be done after three months, the buyer will almost certainly have to pay for a new local authority search to satisfy his lender when the property transaction is finally closed. The Minister would make real progress if he tackled the lenders over that practice and their insistence on it.

Secondly, more than 70 per cent. of buyers do not currently ask or pay for certain aspects of the information that will appear in the proposed condition report or survey. In a document that came from his Department, the Minister suggested that all those involved in the process agreed that survey or condition reports should be part of the packs. The Minister addressed a conference of estate agents in November and I hope that he came away from it in no doubt that many of them did not agree that the inclusion of a compulsory survey was a good idea. Lenders do not require surveys for most properties. Most buyers do not commission surveys and many people would not understand them—indeed, they might inappropriately be put off a property.

The inclusion in the pack of a compulsory survey will have a major impact on the costs to the seller. It is disingenuous of the Minister to say that there will be no significant incremental cost because the figures show that no condition report is commissioned in 70 per cent. of cases. If the additional condition reports are commissioned, they must, in aggregate, add a significant extra cost, which will support the living of the 3,000 additional surveyors that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has estimated will be required.

There is potential for a major reduction in liquidity in the market because sellers will not be able to dip their toe in the market on the principle that if there is no sale, there will be no fee. The Government's assertion that surveys are a valuable contribution is based on an utterly inconclusive pilot, which had a small uptake, in a relatively affluent area.

Many of the points that I wanted to raise have been eloquently made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that the Government will decide not to include the survey as a compulsory element of the pack. The Minister has made it clear that, because the pack's contents are to be determined by regulations, the Government have that option open to them and I hope that they will be receptive to representations over the coming months.

However, assuming that the Government are not going to change their mind, I have a couple of specific questions. Clause 7 gives the Minister wide powers of discrimination between different classes of property, but I have seen no suggestion that new homes or nearly new homes that are covered by warranties, such as those issued by the National House-Building Council, are to be excluded from the scheme. Is that the Government's intention? The Bill requires that a property that is marketed as a dwelling, whether complete or not, will require a seller's pack. Most new properties begin to be marketed before they are completed or, indeed, started. I take it that the Government do not intend to make it illegal to market a new property until it is complete and a survey has taken place. I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify that.

Will the Minister also clarify, because there is some ambiguity on this matter, whether he intends to extend the duty of care owed by the surveyor, or the professional, so that it will include the lender? It is clear to me that it will include the seller and the buyer, but my understanding from the RICS document is that it most emphatically will not include the lender. Therefore, if the lender requires a survey, the buyer will have to commission another survey. If the Minister can persuade lenders to accept the surveys that he proposes to include in the pack, we would be considering a different proposition.

In conclusion, I support the objective of trying to reduce the time between agreement of a sale and exchange of contracts, but, in so far as we can tell, because regulations have yet to be made, the Bill does not provide a robust mechanism for that. The evidence has not been conclusively presented to suggest that the Government's proposal will achieve that objective.

Photo of Ms Oona King Ms Oona King Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 8:04 pm, 8th January 2001

The Homes Bill is one of the Government's most important pieces of legislation. Few circumstances cause more hardship than not having a decent and affordable home, and few things are more scarce in my constituency than decent and affordable homes.

Part I of the Bill introduces measures to help house buyers. The reforms are designed to make house buying faster, simpler and more transparent. Unfortunately, many of my constituents will never be able to enjoy the safeguards that the Bill offers because they are not in a position to buy or sell houses. They live in a borough that has some of the lowest income levels and the highest house prices in the country. It never ceases to amaze me, but last year a four-bedroom terraced house in Wapping went for more than £600,000. As we have heard, the average price of a house in London today is £150,000. To afford a 95 per cent. mortgage on such a property, a person would have to earn more than £47,500 a year. That is enough to make even MPs reconsider their financial position.

So ordinary people in inner cities need decent social housing. But inner cities also need decent ordinary people. After all, the high-fliers—the yuppies and the stockbrokers—will not keep the rubbish off our streets. They will not keep our hospital wards clean and our schools running or provide the administrative services for our emergency and social services. The London Housing Commission, which was established by the Mayor and is chaired by Chris Holmes of Shelter, does not mince words. It believes that the lack of affordable housing in London has become a fundamental market failure which is undermining the region's sustainable economic development. It is not just people on low incomes in Tower Hamlets who have to rely on good-quality affordable social housing. Anyone with an interest in London's economy must rely on the provision of good-quality social housing, as must anyone with an interest in London's public services or mixed communities. Otherwise, London and similar cities will become the preserve of the very rich and the very poor—not a pretty prospect. Nor are the prospects good for Tower Hamlets residents or, indeed, any London residents, who have to rely on the mythical good-quality affordable housing. For many, it remains a pipe dream.

Some 15,000 families in Tower Hamlets, and 190,000 households in London as a whole, are waiting for a transfer. In Tower Hamlets, 1,200 households are living in temporary accommodation. Many more—I must stress this—live in permanent accommodation. But it is permanent accommodation with damp running down the walls, windows that rattle due to draughts, insect and mice infestations and Dickensian levels of overcrowding. For those people, the Bill's proposals to tackle homelessness are the single most important item in the Queen's Speech. They are the first important steps towards turning a pipe dream into reality.

The Bill includes measures to put right one of the most appalling Tory wrongs—the provision in the Housing Act 1996 to give homeless people the right to only two years' local authority accommodation. Those restrictions on providing support for vulnerable homeless people must rate as one of the most regressive and shameful measures that the House has ever passed. In stark contrast, the Homes Bill fulfils the Labour party's manifesto commitment to restore the duty on local authorities to provide settled accommodation for people in priority need. It also extends the number of people who fall within the category of priority need. For those words to mean anything, and for those people who are homeless to receive protection, we have to build extra supply into the system. There is only one way to do that—to increase housing investment.

It was interesting that Opposition Members, and certainly the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, appeared to suggest that there was no link between housing investment and homelessness. I try to steer clear of making party political points—anyone who reads my speeches will know that to be the truth—but I find it difficult to listen to Tories squawking about helping homeless people and then pretending that their diabolical legacy has no impact on the number of homeless people today, many of whom I see in my surgery week after week.

The Tory legacy is all around us. Under the Tory Government, housing investment was slashed—halved from £1.5 billion to £0.75 billion. The Tory Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), may well avert his gaze because he knows how shameful that fact is. Social housing stock under the Tories fell from 31 per cent. of the total in 1979 to only 20 per cent. by the time we took office in 1997.

So, what have we, the Labour Government, done? We have reversed the decline. We have massively increased housing investment, as announced under the comprehensive spending review, to £2.4 billion this financial year. I am also pleased to note that the Government will be increasing the revenue support grant. However, the need is expensive, so how early might the Minister be willing to review the figure he has announced? It must be increased, and it is not acceptable to expect local authorities to fund that by increasing council tax.

I now turn to the wider funding picture. Next year, the housing investment programme and major repairs allowance for Tower Hamlets will total £38 million. That means that, in just four years, the Labour Government have increased investment in Tower Hamlets by £60 million above the Conservatives' spending plans. The Government have also provided substantial additional funding through the estate renewal challenge fund and the new deal for communities. That is excellent news, but in east London we need much more.

In the money that we are investing in social housing, we the Labour Government are a million times better than the Tories. Let us take the example of the Ocean estate in Stepney. Under this Government, it will receive £56.6 million more than it ever did under the Tories.

Although we have done well, I must return to the salient point of British politics: to be a million times more generous than the Tories is not to be generous enough, because the Tories are as tight as they come. The other theme to which I return is the concept of generosity itself. To be generous in housing investment is to be economically prudent.

As the London Housing Commission reported last month: there is not just a housing justification for a major increase in the rate of provision of affordable homes, but also an economic justification and a public service justification. With that economic justification in mind, I turn to the crux of the matter which, as ever, is resources.

I am extremely concerned that proposals in the Bill should be considered realistically. If we are to expand the new duty on local authorities to help homeless people, which I welcome wholeheartedly in principle, we must face up to the fact that this will result in an increase in the number of applicants arriving on the doorstep of the homeless persons unit in Tower Hamlets. I am concerned about the practicalities. If we cannot house all those who are already homeless, how will we house the greater numbers to come?

I welcome, and have argued for, the spirit of this legislation, but I trust that Ministers will recognise that without increased assistance over and above that already announced, areas with a current housing crisis will never be able to meet the spirit of the law—still less the letter of it. We need a regional, if not national, financial response to deep-rooted housing problems that go back further than the blitz.

The London Housing Commission estimates that a further 43,000 extra homes will be needed in London over the next 10 years. That is more than double the number currently being built. As we are all critically aware, the spiralling cost of temporary accommodation is virtually bankrupting local authority housing revenue accounts. That means, as it happens, that local authorities have an incentive to prioritise homeless applicants: put simply, they go bankrupt if they do not do so. After all, it costs 10 times more to house a homeless family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation than in council housing stock.

In Tower Hamlets, where 15,000 households are waiting on the transfer list, virtually all those who are rehoused have been homeless or are decanted in order to facilitate regeneration programmes and new housing. It is right for us to rehouse homeless families in desperate need. It is right for us to have regeneration programmes that aim to improve living standards in London's poorest area. But unless there is extra help, it is wrong—in fact, it is a disgrace—if the price of doing so is to leave other desperate people in equally dire need.

Many of those people are young, have lived in Tower Hamlets all their lives and do not have a hope in hell of affording a place of their own—even if they earn twice as much as their parents ever did. They have a stark choice: to leave their community or to throw themselves on to the streets in order to be rehoused.

In conclusion, and having discarded the rest of my speech—which, the House will be glad to hear, cannot be delivered in the time allowed—I should like to bring to hon. Members' attention one example of the human misery to which I have referred. A woman who has a six-week old baby came to my surgery recently. Her one-bedroom council flat is so damp and cold that the baby turns blue every night. She spends the nights with her mother because she is scared that her child will die. She has asked me what I am going to do to ensure that her baby does not die before she gets a transfer. The woman is not homeless. I reiterate that she is not deemed to be in priority need. She is simply housed in poor accommodation that could kill her baby, and cannot afford anything better. I wish that that were hyperbole, but I have seen a doctor's letter stating that another baby—four months old—in my constituency has died as a result of housing need.

I welcome the Homes Bill, and I urge all hon. Members to support it.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 8:16 pm, 8th January 2001

It is unfortunate that the Government's first essay into housing legislation should be on such a modest scale. The Government could profitably have tackled all kinds of issues. I am delighted, however, that they have responded in part to the all-party parliamentary group on blight.

May I draw to your attention on a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the fact that my name is not accurately shown on the annunciator screen.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I am sure that the necessary adjustments will be made very rapidly.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

Blight is one of the great issues dominating the house values of many. One of its most dreadful features is that public endeavours are largely responsible. Houses are affected for very long periods. By the time a road or railway is built, or almost any public work comes to fruition, a generation of people have found their property prices destroyed, and that not nearly enough has been done about it—although, as I said, the Government have made some response to the all-party group, for which I am grateful.

In Kent, the future property price of many households is dubious as a result of the floods. I hope that, in replying to the debate, the Minister will be able to say something of comfort to those who, with or without a seller's pack, find it difficult to sell their house.

The idea of a seller's pack is perfectly sensible. Indeed, over time, it would be sensible if all properties had a logbook, just as cars do. One could then trace the history of the property. That would surely make it very much easier for the administrators of housing benefit, for example, to insist that if the logbook showed that the property was below standard, it would not qualify for housing benefit. I know that there are such shortages of accommodation that hard-pressed local authorities say that they dare not close off supply of some accommodation, however grotty, because they have nowhere else to put people, but unless we take a grip on the quality of accommodation for which housing benefit is paid, the system will continue to be a disgraceful scandal. The first steps having been taken, I believe that we would see quite a sharp improvement in quality.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) was right when he said that we are talking about part of the country's capital stock when landlords who do not live in their property allow it to decay to the point at which it becomes offputting for those who live round it. I do not understand why it would not be possible in the Bill, or in another Bill in future, to introduce regulations to provide that if someone does not live in a property and it falls below a certain standard, he should be penalised. At the last moment, there should be the power to take over the property. To allow people to let their properties decay to the detriment of their neighbours is a scandal.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), having been an assiduous attender of the debate, has now left his place. I have perceived over the years that his approach to certain political problems is marginally different from mine. Nevertheless, I agree with him that we need to find better uses of young people's time in many urban areas, and in rural areas. A great deal of damage or harm to young people and to a locality is done because young people do not have enough to do. I would lay quite a large bet that, at the first sitting of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament at the end of February, the provision of facilities for young people to use their time constructively will arise.

I feel strongly with the hon. Member for Islington, North about the administration of housing benefit. It is a crying scandal, not merely a matter of incompetence, that housing benefit should be so slowly administered that respectable people are told that unless they obtain an eviction notice from their landlord they will not have their housing benefit paid as a priority. When confronted with this possibility, many landlords say, "You are too much of a hassle as a tenant. Would you mind going?" That, too, is homelessness.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Islington, North when he says that that it is a matter of private provision. One of the local authorities in my constituency is so far behind with its housing benefit that it will give priority only to people who have an eviction notice from their landlord, despite their having an impeccable record up to that time of paying rent and doing everything properly. The authority is running the system itself, so it is not a question of whether a private company or a public corporation is involved. It is disgraceful that publicly administered benefit should lead to people being drummed out of their property and made homeless. If that is not part of the homelessness prevention strategy, it should be.

There is another element of housing that the Bill does not address, and it could easily have done so. Local authorities are extremely restrictive about allowing householders to modify their properties to make it possible for them to accommodate their ageing parents or relatives. Encouragement should be given to make this possible, and there could be many safeguards. For example, if the value of the house increases by a certain percentage because it has extra accommodation, but the old people do not move in because they die before they are ready to do so, or live in the property for only a short time, some of the money could be ploughed back into the local authority. There is a need for some imagination.

One of the reasons for the housing shortage is that elderly people are finding it extremely difficult to find places where they can be accommodated close to their relatives. If their relatives are prepared to modify their houses for that purpose, they should be encouraged so to do.

There is a dreadful injustice when the definition of voluntary homelessness is aggressive and hard on people whose family may have broken up on some other disaster may have befallen them. In such circumstances they are often deemed to be voluntarily homeless by local authorities who are under great pressure to provide accommodation for families. They naturally want to try to define people as being voluntarily homeless.

In respect of young people who are leaving or want to leave home because they cannot get on with their parents or step-parents or for some other reason, and who are not yet finished with their education or training, the provision of foyers, with some adult support and education in how to look after their rooms, is enormously helpful in allowing them to make the transition without going on to the streets or becoming homeless. I hope that that is included in the Bill. The Minister may be able to reassure me on that.

In Maidstone, for example, there is the enormously successful conversion of an historic but no longer wanted church into a foyer. It has been an extraordinary success. It is in the heart of the town, which means that young people can walk to all the facilities that they want. It has caused no problems of any significance to the local community. We should encourage the provision of such foyers as much as we can.

Another element that goes back to the modification of homes for relatives is that more could be done to educate older people about the possibility of moving house before it is too late to do so. I am sure that there are very few Members who do not have constituents with elderly relatives who have left it too late and could not possibly move, and have no intention of so doing, but who might have been persuaded earlier to go. They will not be persuaded by their own family for many reasons, including generational pride. If such moves had not been left too late, larger accommodation could have been opened up for families in need. There should be a public education campaign to encourage older people to downsize their housing at an appropriate moment when they are still flexible enough to accept change. Possibly it would be a good idea to use older people to help with the campaign.

It is awful that in many local authorities small repairs are left so long that the entire house deteriorates. I would like to see encouragement given to volunteers and community groups to make it possible for such repairs to be made at an early stage.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 8:28 pm, 8th January 2001

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) who opposed, or claimed to oppose, the Bill. He made a deeply confused speech. As my hon. Friend the Minister pointed out in an intervention, the Opposition have tabled amendment stating that they will vote against Second Reading. One Opposition speech apparently excoriated every single line of the Bill, yet apparently they will not vote against Second Reading. What is the solution to that conundrum?

Curiously, the Opposition claim that they will not vote against the Second Reading of a Bill that lays waste to the Housing Act 1996—one of the last pieces of legislation that the previous Government pushed through—but they also defend that measure. That is a puzzle, but it can be solved. The Opposition are still deeply committed to market dogma in housing, but cannot quite square that with the fact that, for good reasons, it is increasingly unfashionable to claim publicly that market dogma is the solution to all housing problems. That is why the Bill is so important.

An outsider studying house sales and purchases in this country would be astonished by the state of affairs because the most expensive and important financial investment that one is likely to make in one's life hinges on complete uncertainty up to the moment at which contracts are exchanged. Significantly, most Labour Members have spoken about buyers while most Conservative Members have spoken about sellers, although I do not know whether that represents an example of association, subconscious or otherwise. I want to concentrate on house buyers.

I had little money when I bought my first house several years ago, although I took the precaution of having surveys done. The purchase of the second house that I attempted to buy fell through three days before contracts were exchanged, and I ended up paying for four surveys, which was desperately damaging. At one stage, I was almost persuaded to give up on buying my house. Other countries think that state of affairs to be very strange.

House buying in France, for example, is more expensive in terms of add-ons, but it is a known quantity, not an undefined process that goes on until the moment that contracts are exchanged. An offer is made and a deposit required, which is forfeit to the seller if the transaction is not completed. A notaire deals with both sides of the transaction and the business is fairly orderly and straightforward. I accept that there are different circumstances in terms of volume of house and type of purchase, but nevertheless there is not the anarchic system that Conservative Members are happy to have continue here.

Occasionally, our system encourages otherwise perfectly honourable people temporarily to become wild west capitalists—to gazump and go back on verbal agreements, which they would never dream of doing in the ordinary course of life. Therefore, a system that can bring some sense and sanity to such a method of buying and selling houses must represent a step forward. The Bill will not by itself tackle gazumping, but to concentrate on that is to miss an element of the point of the proposals.

The Bill will ensure that buying and selling a house can proceed in an orderly fashion. One seller's pack, and one only, will be created and the possibility of having to undertake multiple surveys, to the detriment of the person buying the house, will be a thing of the past. That will be of inestimable value, particularly to first-time buyers in my constituency in Hampshire who are attempting to buy houses in a market in which the entry price is high. It also represents a tremendous step forward in providing both some stability to that end of the market in particular and some certainty in the minds of those buying their first home.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has been dealing with the seller's pack and what the Government hope will be of real value to purchasers. One aspect that worries me is the concept of the seller providing a survey—a home condition report. Has he given any thought to that? Will not such a survey inevitably be so hedged with protection for the surveyor that it will be difficult to rely on? Alternatively, will not it be so expensive that it will inhibit sales and purchases?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I am not sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes as strong a point as he thinks he makes. In my experience, all surveys are hedged with caveats. If one wants to buy a house and be certain of it, one must make a judgment, on the balance of probabilities, as to whether one is buying a 150-year-old house in the middle of a swamp, or a new house on solid land with the remains of a National House-Building Council guarantee.

How one looks at the house in the first instance will determine the extent to which one takes additional belt-and-braces precautions when buying it. That is how the housing market is, and it is reasonable that it should be that way. The Bill does not prevent people from taking precautions. It provides stability at the centre of most people's considerations when they are buying most houses in most circumstances. That is an honourable, if not complete, step forward in dealing with the problems of house purchase that I described.

The Opposition have raised concerns that need to be addressed. In an earlier intervention, I mentioned the possibility that the provisions of the Bill would place the onus on the seller, who might be discouraged from putting the house on the market. If we accept that there will be a change in the way that the market works, and that one seller's pack will be produced for each transaction, I do not believe that most people will be incommoded. There will be a step change at the beginning of the process, but once the dynamic of the process is under way, things will equal out and the one seller's pack will be the bargaining counter of the transaction.

Legitimate concerns have been expressed about low-value housing. The same principle applies—stability will be introduced. Studies carried out in Burnley and other places suggest that a seller's pack stabilises and reinforces the market, whereas exemption from producing the pack would red-line a particular market and make a bad situation worse.

Part II deals with the flip side of people buying their first house and getting on the property ladder. It is easy to characterise homeless people as people in cardboard boxes sitting under bridges, but homelessness involves families in negative equity, families that have broken up as a result of stress on housing, families that have over-extended themselves, families that have lost their homes and were not properly insured, and families breaking up having purchased a council house and being unable to keep up with the payments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) pointed out, the reaction of the previous Government was shameful. They tied up the housing market by switching housing underwriting from bricks and mortar to funding for individuals to become players in the rented housing market. They encouraged sales of council houses, even where people could not afford to buy them, by making sure that local authorities provided compulsory mortgages to families on an extension of incomes that would not have been considered by building societies. The previous Government effectively stopped the building of new council houses and emptied the market of money for underwriting registered social landlords.

When the difficulties mounted, with all the family problems that I described, the reaction of the Conservative Government was to cap it all by telling local authorities that they should have less regard for homeless people and that they did not have to take seriously their responsibilities towards homeless people.

I am particularly proud that the Government have reversed that through the Bill. We believe that there is a bottom-line obligation on all of us as regards homelessness. We are not prepared to let the logic of the market have its way and to brush those people under the carpet when the market goes wrong. There is an obligation to make sure that homelessness is dealt with and that people get back into the housing market if they can, and at least get a roof over their heads. That is one of the many reasons why I shall support Second Reading tonight.

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Conservative, Eddisbury 8:40 pm, 8th January 2001

I was here for the opening speeches, but I apologise for not being present during all the subsequent speeches. I shall address my remarks primarily to part I of the Bill, but, if time permits, I should like to make a few comments about part II. Like most right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber, most people in the country, and the majority of people in my constituency, my wife and I have been heavily engaged in property transactions over a number of years. In the past 18 months, we have sold a home, rented a home and purchased a home. In response to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), sales and purchases will feature in my remarks, as they do in the experience on which they are based.

At the outset, it must be stressed that, in contrast to previous generations, our generation, generally speaking, does not have the same problem as our parents and grandparents, as there is relatively little difficulty in securing funding for mortgages, subject to tests, terms and conditions. In the past, one had to build a financial track record before one could even have access to the market through funding. Therefore, today we live in a true homes or houses marketplace, as funding for homes is not a distorting factor. Certainly, it is something that has to be afforded, and problems are often associated with that, although that is not a determining factor.

We have to be realistic in our approach to the reasoning behind the Bill and the Government's proposals, and accept that we are dealing with a homes marketplace. That is not intended to reinforce, in any sense, the somewhat tendentious point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, who said that the market was controlled by market dogma. I was concerned to hear that three days before exchange, a transaction fell down—I hope that the hon. Gentleman was referring to the deal, but perhaps it was the property. However, we must remember that every Member in the Chamber represents a different geographic and socio-economic history, and a different current demand for housing and homes in his or her constituency. It is therefore almost impossible to think how one should generally prescribe conditions that should apply across the country or, in this case, England and Wales. It is right to caution that we meddle in the marketplace at our peril.

That is not to say that we should not attempt to do so if specific concerns need to be addressed. However, the cautionary principle on meddling with the marketplace should be borne in mind as we seek to understand how the Government are trying—genuinely, I believe—to address the Bill's objectives, namely, how to put more certainty into the transaction process and how to seek to limit what are perceived as unfairnesses in some ways in which those transactions take place.

It is right to start with the marketplace for homes because the majority of people in this country are owner-occupiers. Furthermore, owning a home combines tackling the need to provide a roof over one's own head and that of one's family with, one hopes—although there is no guarantee—a financial stake in the capital assets of the country by means of a proper private transaction. Most people would seek to make sure that they enter a transaction that is likely to maintain the value of the asset over time, especially as it involves the most significant financial risk of their lives.

As the Minister well knows, my interest in the housing market was stimulated by working for more than a decade in the building materials industry in the United Kingdom and in many countries abroad. Naturally, there is a demand for roofs over heads, but the drivers for building materials are housing transactions. That is the case because it is either shortly before or after housing transactions occur that most of the building materials for repairing, maintaining or improving properties are used. That is important for the UK economy and explains the significance of the process of sale and purchase, which has a knock-on effect not only on the economy, investment and value, but on the quality of housing stock.

I made clear the importance of quality in an earlier intervention. I do not have the most recent statistics, but I know that when I worked for a large UK plc in the sector, this country had the slowest demolition rate in the western world. By one measure, we knocked down a building once every 938 years. In England and Wales, we can see evidence of a culture and passion for things that have stood the test of time, and especially properties, for which a high premium is often paid.

That is why it is important to consider the existing housing stock when examining the aims of part I of the Bill. I refer especially to stock that is more than 10 years old, to which the National House-Building Council guarantee does not apply. Such consideration is especially important as this country has a unique distortion towards older housing stock, which means that an economic and qualitative test must occur.

For that reason, I want to focus on the Bill's provisions on existing and somewhat older housing stock. Of course, certainty is required in a transaction, not least for title and other conditions, but the Bill introduces only one extra item in addition to those available under the current system. That item is the survey, which must be carried out at the cost and risk of the seller. I am surprised that the Government have not sought to address the principle of caveat emptor. We know that the buyer must beware in the marketplace, which must be the right fundamental principle, as it is the buyer who ultimately takes the risk. The survey produced by the seller might help to establish some information that can act as common ground on which offers can be made, but it is more likely that it will not be trusted by most sensible and reasonably informed purchasers. Although an accreditation system is proposed, we must bear in mind that the surveys will be produced by professionals who, under the usual privity of contract rules, will be engaged by the seller.

The danger of that arrangement is the interest of the expert or professional in question. It would be very nice to believe that all professional approaches will be completely objective and uniform, but we all know from experience in all professions that where there is more than one expert there are likely to be at least two opinions. Under privity of contract, the seller's survey is likely to have a slight—if not more exaggerated—tendency to weigh in favour of the seller's interests.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

Apart from trust—indeed, a purchaser may be prepared to give trust to a reputable surveyor—are there not two huge problems? First, the reputable surveyor, in respect of any house of any complexity, is bound to hedge around his opinion with a good many caveats, or he will be laying up great legal problems for the future. Secondly, is there not great worry for the seller if he—every hon. Member is likely to be a seller at some time—cannot sleep quietly in his bed in years to come, having made the transaction?

Photo of Stephen O'Brien Stephen O'Brien Conservative, Eddisbury

The insurance market will demand of professionals that they hedge their survey around with conditions. Indeed, that is the case today, but it means that little reliance can be placed by the purchaser on the seller's survey. Will the purchaser be able to rely on that survey as a matter of contract and be able to sue for damages should it be traceable and should a claim of misrepresentation be made? I fully endorse the contention of my right hon. and learned Friend that it is highly questionable whether the seller's survey will serve the interests of any sensible and relatively well-informed purchaser of a property—I accept that that may not apply to all purchasers.

We should focus our attention on the aspect of the housing market that the Bill will affect, which is properties of a certain value more than 10 years old. They are the majority of properties and are likely to be part of sale and purchase transactions involving purchasers who have some information about the risk they are taking and their need to contain that risk. Purchasers will rightly still want to engage their own surveyor and have a full structural survey or whatever type of survey they need to define the areas of risk that they are prepared to accept.

Furthermore, most properties are bought with mortgage finance, and it is highly likely that finance houses will continue to insist on a survey for their own purposes. Such a survey will be of a different value and risk to that of the purchaser. It is likely that there will continue to be purchasers' surveys and mortgagees' surveys, and this added survey by the seller. The Minister said that it was not fair of the Opposition to complain about the added costs that that will entail. It is highly doubtful that he is right. It is very likely that this survey will be an extra cost in the totality of the transaction, and will possibly be a brake on housing transactions. The economic and quality aspects will therefore suffer.

It is important to point out that in addition to the purchaser's need to have certainty because of the risk of buying the property, he needs certainty in the transaction and the process. Recently, at first against my better judgment, I went through the process of purchasing a property by auction. I am surprised that the Minister has not found a way of enabling current best practice to be used, which in this country—in England and Wales for the purposes of the Bill—is for purchases through the auction process, because all the risk has to be assessed beforehand.

Photo of Mr Keith Darvill Mr Keith Darvill Labour, Upminster 8:53 pm, 8th January 2001

I rise to speak in favour of the Bill. I especially welcome the provisions on homelessness in part II, but I want to concentrate my comments on part I, about which I have some reservations. Before I do so, I declare an interest, which is disclosed in the Register of Members' Interests, as a solicitor and a partner in a firm of solicitors that undertakes residential conveyancing. I have conveyed property since 1973, and I am a member of the Law Society.

In principle, the measures to speed up the conveyancing process are to be welcomed. However, we must guard against over-promoting the proposals as a panacea for the problems inherent in the system of moving home, which are caused not by the conveyancing process but by the nature of our housing economy.

The conveyancing process in England and Wales is often compared with that of other countries, and is said to be slow. Indeed, I heard my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning say on a Radio 4 programme this morning that the process is slower than in other countries. When those comparisons are made, like is not necessarily compared with like.

I shall deal with the reasonable point about uncertainty, which is perhaps the nub of the problem that the Bill attempts to address. There is uncertainty during the period between the decision to move and the exchange of contracts. There are numerous reasons why that period can be extended, and these proposals will not change or eliminate those reasons for delay.

As a result of the high proportion of home ownership and the low proportion of private rented accommodation in England and Wales, few people who have to move home can consider moving into temporary accommodation between selling and buying. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that, if comparisons are to be made with other countries, the level of home ownership and the availability of reasonably priced rented accommodation should be given the most attention.

The main consequence of this feature of our housing economy is the creation of long chains of transactions, all parties to which move at the slowest possible rate. We should ask whether part I will help to speed up the process, notwithstanding the differing circumstances in England and Wales. My answer is that it will help, but only marginally, and at a cost—financially and otherwise—to those moving home. Moreover, it may have undesired consequences. We need to scrutinise that part of the Bill in detail in Standing Committee.

Let me give an example of the undesired consequences that I mentioned. An unscrupulous seller might obtain a seller's pack and hawk it around. An estate agent or solicitor could give his vendor client a copy of the report, and, if that was hawked around, further gazumping might take place.

I said that part I would help marginally. Why "marginally"? For one thing, most solicitors and licensed conveyancers already use a form of seller's pack. The Law Society transaction scheme and the protocols that go with it mean that the seller's solicitors provide a contract, copies of title documents, copies of pre-contract inquiries, fixtures and fittings lists, planning and building regulation documents, warranties and guarantees and, in respect of leaseholds, copies of leases, details of service charges and other information. What they do not supply in most cases is information about the local search, and what they do not supply in all cases is information on the home condition survey, for which the Bill will provide.

As most local authority land charges departments are much more efficient nowadays, it is surely more appropriate for the purchaser's solicitor to apply for local searches—partly because of the need, in some instances, for the purchaser's solicitors to raise additional inquiries, and partly because of the need to requisition searches at the appropriate time, to minimise the risk of their becoming out of date. That is a risk in all cases, whether the purchaser or the vendor applies for the search.

Given the extension of information and communications technology, in the foreseeable future—probably before 2003, when the legislation will come into effect—local and land registry searches will be available at the touch of a computer keyboard. I think we can almost ignore them as a factor leading to delay and uncertainty, although they are relevant to the question of cost and who is to bear it. Incidentally, it has always been possible to undertake personal searches if circumstances dictate the necessity.

We must consider the major innovation—dare I say imposition?—in the Bill. I refer to the vendor's obligation, proposed in clause 8, to provide a home condition report. That seems reasonable on the face of it, and indeed it has some benefits, to which my hon. Friend the Minister alluded However, I have serious reservations.

First, there is the cost of the report. According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, it would cost about £500. That includes other costs, such as the cost of the local search. I estimate that the cost to a seller requiring a home condition report, a local authority search and the preparation of the package in the first place—by licensed conveyancers or by solicitors—would be nearer £700. Admittedly, in the case of normal transactions most solicitors will have already asked their purchaser clients to provide money on account, so the overall additional cost will not be quite as much. In any event, the Bill proposes that the vendors bear the cost.

Secondly, according to these proposals there could be three different surveyors looking at a property in each transaction: the seller's surveyor, the buyer's lender's valuer and the buyer's own surveyor. Most solicitors I know advise their clients to have a full structural survey, certainly if the property is more than 10 years old. That cost could be minimised by seeking the co-operation of the Council of Mortgage Lenders and accredited surveyors so that, for example, a buyer could consider a "top-up" full structural survey with a discount. Indeed, there could be arrangements for the valuation element, as the Housing Federation has said.

Overall costs could be minimised. When we debate the regulations, or when we examine the Bill in Standing Committee, we should give that option serious consideration. It could deal with some of the attacks on the provision.

My third concern is that the report could become out of date. Other hon. Members have already alluded to that, but it is a difficulty. The fourth problem is that people with negative equity and financial difficulties will have an additional, perhaps unnecessary, burden placed on them, but we must consider that in relation to the overall balance of the benefits. Fifthly, in some cases, the cost to the seller may deter him or her from putting the property on to the market in the first place.

In addition to those five points, there is the issue raised by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) relating to the NHBC certificate. That point should be dealt with in the regulations because it is valid. Properties that are 10 years old or younger already have the benefit of the NHBC guarantee.

The Standing Committee can make some significant improvements to the Bill. As long as there is sufficient consultation with the professional bodies during consideration of the Bill, particularly the Council of Mortgage Lenders, real progress can be made.

My other serious concern—it has been referred to already by the hon. Member for Working (Mr. Malins)— is about the imposition of criminal sanctions, particularly those proposed in clauses 10 and 11. I agree that there needs to be some sanction if seller's packs are to become universal and thus provide the marginal but worthwhile benefit that flows from them, but the question is: what sanction could there be?

There is an alternative method: a certification process. Already when registering property at HM Land Registry, solicitors have to provide in transfers a certificate that stamp duty has been paid, for example. It seems that, as all properties have to be registered at HM Land Registry, it is possible for a system to be devised whereby, on registration, the professional bodies certify that a seller's pack has been provided. That would deal with the need for criminal sanctions but ensure that, in all cases, a seller's pack had been provided. It seems a much more sensible way forward. I should like the Minister and the Department to give that proposal serious consideration because I think that it is a way forward. It would be a much better system than that proposed in the Bill.

If a purchaser had an in-principle mortgage certificate it could significantly improve the speed of conveyancing and conveyancing transactions. It could be secured at the same time as the seller's pack. The combination of the two would, I believe, lead to much faster conveyancing transactions. However, we must have a sense of balance.

In my view—I have undertaken many conveyances over many years—the average transaction takes about 12 weeks, which is a sensible period. Occasionally, there is a need to move quickly, but when we think of all the ancillary matters that go with moving house, to move in a couple of weeks is too quick in most cases. That is particularly true where there is a chain of transactions.

It is the period of uncertainty that, in certain cases, allows gazumping or other difficulties to arise. That is particularly so in the summer months when families look to move home in time to get their children into school. In the heat of May, June and July, when families look to move and to get their children into the house for September, it can be particularly fraught. Although the proposals may go some way towards dealing with that problem, they will not eliminate it.

I warmly welcome the Bill. Nevertheless, I feel that it could be improved with careful consideration.

Photo of Neil Turner Neil Turner Labour, Wigan 9:05 pm, 8th January 2001

I, too, welcome the Bill. As the Minister said, it is the first of two or more Bills that will implement the principles outlined in the Green Paper.

Like many other hon. Members speaking in this debate, I should like to deal specifically with one part of the Bill. I shall concentrate on part II, on homelessness. As hon. Members have made clear, we all think that homelessness—particularly of non-intentional rough sleepers—is a dreadful blight on any society that is as rich as ours. Anything that will alleviate that problem, at least in part, has to be welcomed.

As other hon. Members have also said, homelessness is very rarely a simple problem, but is usually the product of a series of personal, medical, financial and social problems. Usually, homeless people have not "a problem" but a series of interlinking problems, each of which has to be dealt with on an individual basis. I question whether the sum of £8 million that is mentioned in the explanatory notes is sufficient to enable local authorities to deal with those problems. It is wrong for Parliament to place a duty on local authorities but not to provide sufficient resources for them to perform that duty.

The Bill makes it clear that local authorities have a leadership role to play in solving our homelessness problem. The solution is a matter of implementing specific policies within a wider housing strategy. However, local authorities are able to formulate such policies and strategy, as their corporate structure includes social services, education and youth services and their own housing departments.

Local authorities are also able to work with partners. My own local authority has a very good record of working in housing forums with partners such as registered social landlords and private sector landlords. However, I do not think that such partnerships offer a panacea to all our housing problems. Registered social landlords themselves can cause problems. Many of them are quite small-scale landlords and do not have the critical mass necessary to employ sufficient of those with the experience and expertise to deal with difficult tenants. Quite often, a registered social landlord works not with one local authority but with various local authorities, each of which has only a minority of the registered social landlord's housing stock. Such arrangements can cause problems for local councils in co-ordinating the implementation of their housing strategy.

I doubt that any hon. Member has not had problems with bad private sector landlords. Such landlords take money from people who are usually on housing benefit and put them into houses, but then provide no management of the property or assistance to the tenants. Subsequently, tenants go to their Member of Parliament or local authority representative to try to find a solution to a problem that often has been caused by a lack of management skills. It is a problem that we have to try to solve.

The Bill recognises that local authorities are vital in solving the problem of homelessness. As I said, local authority departments are able to work corporately. They also have the political overview that is necessary to solve the problems that arise in implementing their housing strategy. Most local authorities, and particularly those with housing stress areas, own and manage their own stock. It is essential that local authorities should, if they wish, be able to continue to do that.

In the past 20 years, we have had terrible problems, which were ably highlighted by hon. Members, because of reductions in housing subsidy and overall investment. Those reductions have now been reversed. All Labour Members welcome the £5 billion from the right-to-buy sales that has been reinvested in local authority housing. An increase is planned in the maintenance and renewals allowance. Money will also come from rent restructuring, and it is important that local authorities have the ability to keep that money. There cannot be a return to the "daylight robbery" that took place under the previous Government, by that or any other name.

In a recently published MORI poll of local authority tenants, 75 per cent. wanted to keep the local authority as their landlord. Less than 10 per cent. were seeking a different sort of landlord, and those cases usually involved housing problems caused by an earlier lack of investment, rather than by the present housing management. It would be grossly unfair if rent rationalisation and equalisation between registered social landlords and local authorities meant that registered social landlords were allowed to keep all the rent that they received, while the local authority, receiving a similar rent for a similar property, had its income capped by means of a reduction in subsidy or even a negative subsidy.

The Government have a policy of encouraging large-scale voluntary transfers, where there is consent by the tenants. Consent is the important factor. Neither the tenants nor Labour Members would understand or support a situation in which that consent was skewed by the fact that the only way to obtain the necessary amount of money for continued investment was by a move to a large-scale voluntary transfer. We cannot have a situation in which remaining with a local authority results in financial penalties. Local authorities have an important role to play in the development of homelessness strategies and housing strategies. They need the finances to achieve those aims, both in terms of their general rate fund finances and of the housing investment programme and moneys from rent. If that can be achieved, we shall make progress towards solving homelessness and ensuring that this is the first of a series of Bills to ensure that housing is finally put on a decent basis, and that decent homes can be provided for everyone in the country.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North 9:12 pm, 8th January 2001

It is a pleasure to take part in a debate on housing, particularly as housing has been such an important part of my political life. I spent many years serving on Westminster city council, and I remember only too well the famous minute of a meeting involving the then director of housing, during the days of Dame Shirley Porter, which required the local authority to be mean and nasty to the homeless.

I find it hard to be moved by Opposition Members who, when talking about homelessness, take out an onion and weep about the increase in homelessness in recent years. That increase has undoubtedly happened, and I shall return to that matter later. Opposition Members forget the shameful record of their own years in government, when there were 1,000 repossessions a week and the number of people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation soared to a record high in the late 1980s, before asylum seekers and other reasons for increased demand even entered the picture. The Opposition also oppose all reasonable attempts to increase the supply of housebuilding in the south-east and elsewhere. Relative to need, that is indeed the case.

The Government have recognised the importance of housing across the board. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) lamented the narrow scope of the Bill—wrongly, I believe, because it is only part of the story. There has already been a doubling of housing investment in the comprehensive spending review, a commitment to tackle the repairs backlog over 10 years, and the use of substandard housing as one of the indicators for the Government's commitment to reduce the number of children living in poverty. There has also been a recent initiative by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security to tackle a number of the problems that have plagued the housing benefit system. In addition, the Bill contains an overdue and very welcome commitment to remove the arbitrary and unfair two-year limit on the housing duty towards homeless families.

I also warmly welcome the proposed duty on local government to formulate to a comprehensive strategy aimed at preventing homelessness, and the review of the letting process to increase choice and flexibility. That will work most effectively in areas of low housing demand, especially in the north of England, but it may also be a valuable tool for authorities and housing associations in areas of high demand.

I commend the work done by Camden council and by Notting Hill housing trust, which work in areas of exceptionally high demand but still believe that a take it or leave it approach to housing allocation is wrong. Even those in the most desperate and urgent housing need have a right, where possible, to exercise some choice over where they are to spend a considerable part of their life. There may be a need to review the performance indicators, particularly in respect of housing voids, if we are to allow authorities the flexibility that they will require.

The Government are right to recognise the frustrations of single people who are not currently defined as in priority need and who are effectively disqualified from access to housing, especially in the south. I deal with people in that situation almost every day: adult children wanting to leave the family home; people in the private rented sector; partners leaving the marital home after a relationship breakdown

The London Housing Commission, of which I was proud to be a member, estimated that there were 34,000 single homeless people in London alone. Their situation is becoming increasingly hopeless. To take one example from my current case load, Amanda has been registered with Westminster city council for 10 years and last autumn faced becoming homeless when her grandfather gave up his home because of financial pressures. Her application received only 25 points, and the council's letter states: Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will ever be in a position to make her an offer as her position is 1098 on the list for the north of the borough and 1166 for the south. She and people like her cannot access social housing, cannot afford private sector rents and are priced out of not only the open housing market but even most shared ownership options.

Even for those with the greatest need and vulnerability, the situation in London is the worst that I have ever known, trapping families with children with physical and mental health problems in deeply unsuitable conditions and leaving no room whatever for the important but less needy group of single people.

There are nearly 50,000 families in temporary accommodation in London. That is expensive and unsuitable, and it is almost impossible for families in that situation to work, because of the high rents charged and the difficulties associated with housing benefit.

In 1884, a royal commission on the housing of the working classes discovered that eight people to a room was commonplace in the "pestilential human rookeries" of London slums. The worst that I have found is 10 people in a two-bedroom flat in a Conservative-controlled council area in the last days of the Conservative Government—but things are still pretty bad now.

Desmond is the father of a family of seven sharing a two-bedroom flat in the borough that has been their home for 20 years. His children are doing well at school and college, but he will have to move out of London to stand any chance of being rehoused. One of his young children was recently diagnosed with tuberculosis, so he can draw the dubious comfort of having extra points because it is recognised that overcrowding can exacerbate the spread of TB. My London colleagues and I deal with such cases every day of the week.

Why has the situation become so bad? The number of people accepted as homeless and in priority need has grown, but it is still 10,000 below the peak of the early 1990s. The shortfall in supply, rather than the increase in demand, is at the heart of the problem: supply is down by 11 per cent. this year, with 10,000 fewer properties to let than last year.

That is the consequence of a bottleneck in housing supply that has developed over two decades, and a decrease in supply from turnover linked to high house prices. It is no coincidence that the number of first-time buyers fell by a half last year. Blaming the problem on the homeless, including asylum seekers, as Opposition Members have done in the past week, is not only deeply unpleasant but simply wrong. We do not need an approach to homelessness rooted in blame and prejudice. We need practical solutions, and that is what it the Government are providing. If the Conservatives genuinely want to express their distress at the suffering of homeless people, they will join us in offering practical support.

We need not only to implement the policies in the Bill, but to hang them on specific targets—such as a target for meeting housing need, similar to the existing target for tackling the backlog of disrepair in council housing. There should also be a national target of eliminating the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for all but short-term emergencies, and reducing the use of temporary accommodation across the board. We can do that.

The focus in the Government's early years was a much needed improvement in substandard housing stock; now the focus must also be on increasing supply, especially if we are to meet the needs of new groups that have been brought into the priority categories of homelessness.

A recognition of the cost of housing in central London is essential, especially if we are to create larger, family-sized homes. It cannot be acceptable that in one London borough the average wait for homeless families wanting four-bedroom accommodation is six years. We should support the effective use of planning powers to increase the supply of affordable homes, as recommended by the London Housing Commission.

As well as increasing the supply of social rented housing, schemes to promote low-cost home ownership are welcome, whether they involve subsidised mortgages, shared equity or shared ownership. The provision of low-cost home ownership needs to address wider housing needs than those of key workers alone. In the past 18 months, Westminster city council has sold 50 shared ownership properties, but only 13 of them to people in housing need categories. If shared ownership is to make a real contribution, it must be made more affordable and be geared, in part at least, to meeting wider housing need, as well as that of workers essential to London's economy. As the council's housing supply manager pointed out, reduction of the minimum equity share by 5 per cent. is helpful, but of limited assistance in a market that has typically seen house prices rise by 40 per cent. over the past year.

The proposals in the Bill, together with the welcome additional investment in housing set out in the comprehensive spending review, will underpin the Government's commitment and make it possible to provide respect and dignity for homeless people, to offer them the chance of a permanent house, and to give everyone in this country the chance to live in a decent, affordable home.

I congratulate the Government and the Minister for Housing and Planning. I also congratulate Shelter on its campaigning work over the years, which has led to this excellent day.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 9:22 pm, 8th January 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate; I apologise for the fact that I could not be here for the opening speeches. I quite understand the Minister's objective, and I listened to him, as others did, on Radio 4 this morning. I do not wish to be unduly contentious, but I thought that he slightly oversold the package.

I shall talk briefly about one of the problems with the seller's survey. The hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), who has a great deal of experience in this field, made a number of important points, and I hope that they will be carefully considered in Committee. His experience as a solicitor is much more relevant to this subject than is mine as a barrister.

The seller's pack has some merit, in its attempt to deal with the searches comprehensively in advance. However, it will be up to the Minister to ensure that local authorities provide the information swiftly and cheaply. Houses often go on to the market, do not sell, come off the market and then go on again. If every time a house, especially a low-cost house, goes on the market, several hundred pounds have to be spent on a seller's pack—and in particular, on a sellers' survey—that could be deeply counter-productive. I see the Minister shaking his head, and I hope that he—or the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), when he winds up the debate—will find a moment to allay our fears.

My principal fear concerns the seller's survey. Like most hon. Members, I have bought houses from time to time during my life. I happen also to have bought houses in France. The only great advantage of the French system is that because everything is under the control of the notaire, what is being bought and sold is carefully registered. We hope that the national land register, coupled with the local authority electronically recorded land search records, will go far towards matching those standards. In other respects, the French system is very expensive and requires much caution.

I shall return to the seller's survey. Anyone who has read a surveyor's report knows that it has to be hedged around with caveats. When surveyors look at houses, they examine the points of possible danger, usually those where damp can enter, but they cannot hack off plaster or enter every cavity. Consequently, they can only warn potential purchasers of the possible risks. The house condition report that will appear in the compulsory pack will, no doubt, contain a generalised warning, but anxiety has been expressed about such reports by the Council of Mortgage Lenders following the Bristol pilot scheme.

We know perfectly well that mortgage lenders always require their own surveyor to visit properties, although we sometimes think that they do so in a very cursory manner. The point is that today the person who commissions the survey report relies on it. The Government suggest that in future the vendor must produce a report, which potential purchasers will be able to rely on. That is much more dangerous. At least if people ask their own surveyor to write a survey report, he will tell them how much it would cost them and how much more they are likely to pay for a comprehensive survey report. When buying a property of considerable value, whether old or new, the extra amount that may be paid—perhaps up to £1,000 or £1,200—may be money extremely well spent. People may be warned of matters that affect the price, or they may get a builder in as soon as they have bought the property and spend extra money taking precautions.

Our complaint is that such costs should not be foisted upon the seller in every case. That will be deeply damaging to the housing market and will frighten off many sellers of modest properties. Again, such proposals are unlikely adversely to affect the significantly rich—they can afford to carry such costs—but ordinary people with houses of about the national average value of £85,000 will be adversely affected.

Huge improvements have taken place in conveyancing costs during the past 15 years. Labour Members complained about mentioning the market, but, as the hon. Member for Upminster will confirm, what really caused conveyancing costs to decrease was the removal of the Law Society's prohibition on advertising. As soon as solicitors could advertise that they would convey properties more cheaply than other firms, the costs came tumbling down and what had, frankly, been a ramp in the past became extremely good value. In fact, it became almost too good value and solicitors did not charge quite enough.

I recognise that the Minister is trying to do something valuable. As he will get his Bill. I ask him to be extremely cautious about how much he puts on the seller. Let us try to have a sensible little pack, but let us not run up the costs excessively so that what is intended to be helpful becomes counter-productive.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions) 9:29 pm, 8th January 2001

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his forthcoming elevation, which was announced during the Christmas recess.

We have had a very interesting debate, helped by the time limit, with many contributions from hon. Members with first-hand experience of the subjects under discussion.

In many respects, the debate has not been about the Bill. Notwithstanding the individual importance of effective measures to streamline house buying and to tackle the rising tide of homelessness, it is not a Bill that tackles the shortage of affordable housing. Indeed, all its provisions are demand, not supply-side, measures and it is a not a Bill that takes forward the new structures for social housing provisions that were outlined in the housing Green Paper. It does nothing to streamline, monitor or add transparency to lettings policies by registered social landlords and nothing to fulfil Government promises to raise standards for houses in multiple occupation.

I thought that it was faintly absurd for the Minister to bait Conservative Members for not having signed an early-day motion that was signed by Labour Back Benchers, but which has resulted in precisely zero action by those on the Government Front Bench. The Bill does nothing to promote leasehold law reform despite last year's draft Bill, which took four years to produce after the previous Government left a Bill on the table. We still have no timetable for a new Bill before a likely election.

The Bill does not tackle the worsening waste of property, with a 3 per cent. rise in empty council properties since 1997. It does nothing to tackle the scandal of waste and disorganisation in the housing benefits system, which in many places is in a state of collapse exacerbated by a Government who have made no fewer than 85 regulatory changes to the administration of the benefit and introduced new rules at the rate of one a fortnight. It will not prevent gazumping. Arguably, it has produced a costly, ill-thought-out gimmick that could exacerbate the problem.

The whole Bill is a last-minute, ill-thought-through and desperate attempt to cover the blushes of a Government who made elaborate promises before the last election that they have singularly failed to keep. There was the promise of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who, as shadow environment spokesman, commissioned the imaginatively titled consultation paper "No to Gazumping". He said: The problems of gazumping have reappeared. Those who break their bargains should be liable to pay the costs inflicted on others. The Bill does nothing to remedy that problem.

The Prime Minister also made promises. When he was in opposition, he said: Labour will do everything in its power to end the scandal of homelessness and to end the waste of families sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) has articulated well, the numbers in temporary accommodation stand, according to the Department's own figures, at 71,890 in the third quarter of 2000, which is up from 41,236 in the first quarter of 1997—a rise of 74 per cent. Those figures, along with the real-life experiences in the New Forest about which we heard and the rise in priority homeless by 3,000 since May 1997—in London alone, the figure is up by 14 per cent.—show that the Government's promises patently ring hollow. Four years later, we have a thin, half-hearted Bill that has appeared rather late in the day.

That is a shame, because many of the provisions for homelessness in the Bill will find support among Conservative Members. That is why we shall not vote against its Second Reading. However, we want to see much more detail on the mechanics and not the wish list that the Bill appears to contain. We certainly support measures that will help people to escape domestic violence, and, as hon. Members have said, we want the racial abuse provisions to be more clearly drawn.

We welcome a preventative approach to homelessness rather than the crisis management to which it has increasingly become subject. We also welcome a co-ordinated approach between different agencies. However, placing the onus on local authorities to come up with strategies may all be very well in tackling the demand side, but it does nothing to deal with the supply side. The amount of social housing built under this Government has fallen sharply, with 59,000 new dwellings built between 1997 and 1999. That compares with the 91,200 new properties that were built between 1994 and 1996 under the previous Government.

Conservative Members and many homelessness organisations welcome any increase in choice in social housing. However, as several Labour Members have said, in areas of heavy demand and especially in London, choice will be limited. We risk raising people's expectations unrealistically as the Association of London Government has clearly stated. Instead, some measures run the risk of bringing much more pressure on temporary accommodation and the natural tendency will therefore be to look for lower-quality properties to fill the shortfall. Resources will obviously be further stretched when the Government extend the priority need categories by the order that we are promised soon. We will want to look closely at the measures. No matter how much the Minister tries to weasel out of the commitment to give former convicts a degree of priority, the legislation will give them some priority over law-abiding citizens, who will be pushed lower down the list for temporary accommodation.

The hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) mentioned the more contested parts of the 1996 Act. The two-year duty on local authorities certainly raised many arguments, but it did not turn of t to be the horror story that opponents suggested it would be. Most authorities have chosen, at their discretion to carry on that duty beyond two years. On what basis have the Government decided to revert to the earlier position? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) so eloquently demonstrated—he is an expert on such measures—the Bill risks creating more of the problems caused by the north-south divide.

We also want to consider the Bill's effect on housing allocation policies and sustainable communities, and the risks of concentrating the most vulnerable people in one place. Such people are often in transit and have little attachment to an area. That can create the problems of systemic decline and of antisocial neighbours, on which the Bill is silent, and we have a duty to the great majority of people who are law-abiding and community-minded good neighbours. We want to hear far more from the Government about promoting neighbourliness and looking after the families of those good neighbours.

Opposition Members obviously concentrated on the seller's pack because it is the most contentious aspect of the Bill. We support many of the measures that deal with homelessness, but we have all agreed that we need to speed up the process of selling homes. Everyone in the Chamber probably has a personal experience of that. It is a unique transaction because 80 per cent. of the participants play the dual role of buyer and seller.

We support any moves that would genuinely speed up the property transaction business and genuinely deter gazumping, but nothing in the Bill will prevent the determined gazumper, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) said. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) spoke about the increasing use of the auction system and there are other innovations, such as speeding up local authority searches on the internet through the use of the national land information service, the use of the Law Society's transaction scheme, the availability of voluntary insurance schemes that are offered by agents and lenders to cover losses and failed transactions, the use of mortgage guarantee certificates and greater duty of disclosure by sellers and agents. Such schemes can speed up the process, and some are already operating.

Part I will add anything up to £700 to a property sale that might not happen. It could even deter vendors from placing a property on the market, especially in weak market conditions and weak areas, and encourage vexatious or time-wasting buyers. It will also criminalise yet another set of people. House vendors or their agents who fall foul of the rules will become criminals. Some people might say that penalties against estate agents are long overdue, but estate agents are hardly a danger to society. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Matins) said, the measures are heavy-handed.

Before Christmas, the Government instigated measures to criminalise the hunting fraternity and now members of the house-selling fraternity are to become criminals if they fall foul of the rules. When will the Government do something about cracking down on the real criminals who menace society, including the thousands whom they have let out on early release?

The seller's pack raises many questions. Many people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), explained that some houses will require three surveys—a home condition report, a full structural survey and a mortgage lender valuation report-even if the house is new and under guarantee or is being bought by someone who has lived in it for years.

We have heard much about the lower values of houses in northern cities, such as Bassetlaw, Workington or Burnley. Let us not forget that last year, more than 40 per cent. of all private house transactions were for sums of less than £60,000. What exactly will be in the seller's pack? An awful lot is left to the Secretary of State to prescribe. What will it do to speed up the solicitor's input or that of freeholding companies that have no interest in meeting performance targets? Will the whole pack be held up, and therefore the sale, for the sake of a single missing document or query over, for example, a damp-proof guarantee from a company that has long since gone bust?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill will put criminal sanctions at the disposal of yet another group of civil servants—weights and measures officers. Is not that a highly reprehensible way forward in a democratic society?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

It creates another version of the Gestapo. Many trading standards officials do not want the extra powers or will be unable to exercise them.

Many other questions have arisen, such as for how long surveys and searches will be valid. The Minister was particularly weak on that point. He seemed prepared to allow a sale to go ahead—perfectly legitimately in his view—with a survey or search many months out of date. That would be particularly worrying after a hot summer, when land under the house would be subject to contraction, or after six months this year during which the house was subject to flooding. Will surveyors be liable for negligence or breach of contract to the potential buyer? What happens to private sales not involving an agent, where the buyer does not want a pack, or to those between connected parties? I gather that friends and family are being considered as exemptions. How on earth does one define "friends"? I hazard that everyone will become a new-found friend of house sellers who want to get round the rules.

Will time-wasting buyers be encouraged to make bids, given that they are not committed to the expense of a survey, which at least shows some serious intent? What about the impact on business property transactions? They are supposedly exempted, but what about corner shops that are sold with a flat above? We shall raise all those questions and many more in Committee.

All of this Bill is based on a pilot study in Bristol that involved just 60 private transactions. Not surprisingly, it elicited a high satisfaction rate among vendors, who were given free packs—a point which the Minister seemed to have some trouble understanding. It is not surprising that 82 per cent. of them thought that such a freebie was a good idea. I am surprised that the Government did not offer to throw in the house free as well in order to get a 100 per cent. satisfaction rate. The pilot was conducted during a buoyant period in the property market in a relatively economically buoyant area, yet a third of buyers still commissioned their own separate survey.

Then we had the great example of Denmark, a country with less than a tenth of the population of this country, where last year there were 133,119 private house sales—8 per cent. of this country's total. Is not it extraordinary how much attention this Government are prepared to pay to Denmark when it suits their purposes, while on the rather more major issues, such as standing up to the supertanker of European federalism, Denmark is cast aside as a nonentity?

The Government have done well from the property market by milking buyers of an additional £1.5 billion in stamp duty since 1997 alone. They now want to add yet further costs to house transactions, but the real winners will be surveyors, for whom it will be Christmas all over again.

As the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) said from considerable experience, the Bill is not the universal panacea that it has been cracked up to be. He rightly made important points about the yet further impact of negative equity on house sellers.

The first part of the Bill is an ill-thought-out gimmick that raises more questions than it answers. The system in England and Wales is far from perfect and needs to be speeded up and improved. That is happening with the help of innovation and technology. However, it must be recognised that we have one of the cheapest systems in Europe, which has led to the highest level of house ownership in Europe. We shall be ending a no-sale, no-fee system that has worked well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said. In its place, the Government propose a much more expensive and more bureaucratic system, which can work against house sellers, particularly in lower-value areas, and will do nothing to outlaw the determined gazumper.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, the Bill is hype followed by disappointment and confusion. It is a missed opportunity, and the coupling of more worthwhile and necessary provisions on homelessness is particularly cynical. We shall be raising many, questions and tabling many amendments in Committee. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for our reasoned amendment to show their indignation at this ill-thought-out gimmick of a lightweight Bill.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 9:45 pm, 8th January 2001

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) cheered us all up with his reference to the Gestapo. Is it not wonderful how the mention of foreigners brings Conservative Members to life, or most of them?

Seriously, we have had a good debate. I am grateful for the widespread support from hon. Members on both sides of the House for our proposals on homelessness. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for his constructive and intelligent approach to the entire Bill and for his support. I am grateful also to hon. Members on both sides of the House who made constructive and intelligent suggestions, sometimes on the basis of personal experience. I think particularly of the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) and that of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), but there were others.

I am sorry that some of my hon. Friends sat through the debate and did not have the opportunity to contribute to it. Having spent 13 years on the Back Benches, I understand the frustration ns of life there.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) betrayed a certain shamelessness, albeit delivered with characteristic good humour. He pushed several of the most cynical pre-election buttons— including asylum seekers and the wholly false allegation that convicted criminals will be able to jump the queue, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham returned. I thought that his point at out the abolition of mortgage tax relief was particularly cheeky because no one has ever suggested that the Tories would restore it.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne made much of the professional bodies that are opposed to the seller's pack, which predictably represent some of the major vested interests. In fairness, however, it must be said that many estate agents and lawyers are in favour of it. I think particularly of the National Association of Estate Agents.

The hon. Gentleman failed to acknowledge that the Consumers Association is in favour of the pack, and the Bill is one for consumers. We make no apology for that. Ashley Holmes, head of legal affairs at the association, said of the Bristol pilot: The current house transfer system is hopeless. It is uncertain, slow and confusing and consumers' interests often seem to be left to one side. The Government's proposals, particularly the idea of a Seller's Information Pack, containing vital information on homes such as a surveyors' Condition Report, should take most of the heartache out of the process. He said that the Bristol pilot points the way forward for change. As I have said, we make no apology for being on the side of consumers and against vested interests.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

I shall raise two points because I did not manage to catch the Speaker's eye My hon. Friend will know that I have introduced my Energy Efficiency Bill on several occasions, but it has been blocked for three years by the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). During the intervening period, 4.6 million houses have been sold without any energy efficiency measures being in place to give information to purchasers. If there is a two-year delay, at least another 2 million properties will be sold without any energy efficiency information being available. Will n y hon. Friend consider introducing an interim measure on the lines of my Bill to deal with the situation? Will he ensure that energy efficiency is mentioned in the Bill?

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

No. I regret that we cannot consider any interim measures. However, my hon. Friend's commitment to energy efficiency is a legend, even in his own lunchtime. I do not want to trivialise his point because it is a serious one which I share an interest in.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne was at his most cynical with his allegation that homelessness had got worse under Labour. I shall not trade figures with him, but suffice it to say that I can recall a time not so long ago when a vast shanty town grew up in the centre of Lincoln's Inn Fields at the height of the Thatcher decade. I remember the homeless camped in every doorway from Kingsway through the Strand up to Victoria. I acknowledge that we still have serious problems, and I do not think that there is any scope for complacency, but we are taking steps—rather more robust ones than those taken by the previous Administration—to tackle them.

I am grateful in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) for reminding us of the approach that Westminster council took to the problem of homelessness and its notorious minute to staff that they should be mean and nasty to the homeless. We take no lectures from the Conservative party about helping the homeless.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Forgive me, but I do not have time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) graphically described the collapse of the social fabric in some former coalfield areas. There are similar areas in my constituency, so I understand the seriousness of the problem that he outlined. We shall listen carefully to the argument that the seller's pack could exacerbate problems in areas where the market has collapsed. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made clear, there is scope for flexibility in the Bill, but we are not so far persuaded. There is a difficulty, and hon. Members referred to it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said, it is hard to define who should be exempt. Exempting properties in band A of the council tax would exempt 64 per cent. of the houses in Burnley. Although Burnley has its share of social problems, it also has many houses that are not affected by those problems and such an exemption would drive a coach and horses through our proposals.

My hon. Friend also pointed out that Burnley is not an assisted area. Many other areas with such problems are also not assisted, so that definition would not help either. I acknowledge the problem, and we shall consider it, but we cannot at the moment give any assurances on that point. However, we take seriously any possible impact that the seller's pack may have on areas of low demand, although I take some comfort from the surveys in Bradford and Burnley, which suggested that many owners of low-value properties also welcome the seller's pack.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) suggested that we should do more to tackle the problem of slum landlords, especially those who have derived their fortunes from housing benefit. I heartily endorse that, and we are considering the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate was also right to say that much more must be done to tackle the large number of empty properties. Those are important points and issues that we take seriously, but they are not the purpose of the Bill.

Let me deal with some of the specific points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Eastbourne said that the seller's pack would be very expensive and add to the cost of selling a home—a point amplified in a press release put out by the Tories this afternoon. We estimate that the pack will cost about £500, but that is not all additional cost and it is a gross misrepresentation to pretend otherwise. Most of the information in the pack is provided now, some by buyers. As most sellers are also buyers, a lot of the costs will even out. Indeed, the illustrative costs that we have placed in the Library show that there should be no large increase in overall transaction costs.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Forgive me, but I have only six minutes left and rather a lot of points to reply to, including some that the hon. Gentleman made.

The only additional cost under our proposals will be that of a survey in those transactions where buyers currently do not commission one, but our reforms will achieve other savings not reflected in our illustrative costs. Some £350 million a year is wasted by consumers on abortive transactions in England and Wales. That figure should be significantly reduced.

The hon. Member for Bath asked whether the seller's pack will have to be updated if the property does not sell quickly. Other hon. Members made the same point. Most of the items in the seller's pack are not time-affected. The home condition report will normally be valid for about six months, well within the time scale of most, but not all, transactions. Local searches are usually accepted as valid for three months, and it is always open to the buyer to get updated search information. As was made plain by my hon. Friend the Minister, that will be easier and quicker when the national land information service is available nationally.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) and others, including the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), spoke of the need for three surveys—one in the pack, one for the buyer and one for the lender. We do not believe that that will be the case. The surveyor will be liable to both the buyer and the seller. We are working with lenders as we develop the home condition report to ensure that it meets their requirements as far as possible.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Forgive me; I have only five minutes to reply, and many points to respond to. With all due respect—I know that he acknowledged this—the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not present for most of the debate.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford spoke of a massive bureaucracy. With all due respect to him, that is nonsense. We estimate that it will cost about £5,000 per authority to enforce the seller's pack. The estimate comes not from us, but from the local authorities co-ordinating body on food and trading standards—that is the Gestapo to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred a moment ago. It should be borne in mind that in many respects, enforcing the seller's pack will be an add-on to trading standards officers' existing duties to enforce the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991.

The point was made that the proposals will not prevent gazumping. Our research found that gazumping occurs in less than 2 per cent. of transactions. In our view, a ban is impractical as it would risk stopping legitimate activity—for example, a seller may want to accept another offer because a buyer was deliberately dragging his feet. The answer lies in increasing transparency and speeding up the process, thus reducing the window within which problems such as gazumping can occur. That is what our proposals will achieve.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

Forgive me; I shall not give way. I have many points to reply to, and only three minutes left in which to do so.

A particularly scurrilous point was made about allowing criminals to queue-jump ahead of more needy, deserving householders. It is important that I knock that one on the head.

The criterion for priority will relate directly to vulnerability, regardless of whether the institutional background is a care home, the armed forces or prison. It is vulnerable people who will be given priority. Let me add, in passing, that there is a benefit to the wider community in ensuring the successful rehabilitation of ex-offenders. There is a significant correlation between the homeless and ex-offenders, rough sleepers and ex-offenders. By ensuring support for the most vulnerable citizens, we will help to break that cycle.

The point was made that the evidence base for the reforms was thin. No doubt someone will pull my coat in a moment and tell me that I must sit down, but I have a long list of the key components, of which the Bristol pilot scheme was only one Suffice it to say that a great deal of detailed research went into the proposals.

In conclusion, the Bill takes forward important measures to improve the home buying and selling process. It will make it easier, speedier and more consumer friendly. It will reduce the stress, frustration and abortive costs that millions suffer under the current system. The Bill will also put in place a strong system to prevent homelessness, to provide more effective help and more sustainable housing solutions for those who do become homeless, and to improve the choices offered to homeless people and others in need. The Bill is an important element of the Government's strategy. I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 123, Noes 332.

Division No. 32][9.59 pm
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Amess, DavidFowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelFox, Dr Liam
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon JamesFraser, Christopher
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Gale, Roger
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Garnier, Edward
Bercow, JohnGibb, Nick
Boswell, TimGillan, Mrs Cheryl
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaGreen, Damian
Brady, GrahamGreenway, John
Brazier, JulianGrieve, Dominic
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterGummer, Rt Hon John
Browning, Mrs AngelaHamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Burns, SimonHammond, Philip
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Hawkins, Nick
Hayes, John
Chope, ChristopherHeald, Oliver
Clappison, JamesHeathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)Horam, John
Collins, TimHowarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Cormack, Sir PatrickHunter, Andrew
Cran, JamesJack, Rt Hon Michael
Curry, Rt Hon DavidJackson, Robert (Wantage)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)Jenkin, Bernard
Day, StephenKey, Robert
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenKing, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Duncan, AlanKirkbride, Miss Julie
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterLaing, Mrs Eleanor
Faber, DavidLait, Mrs Jacqui
Fallon, MichaelLansley, Andrew
Leigh, EdwardRuffley, David
Letwin, OliverSt Aubyn, Nick
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Sayeed, Jonathan
Lidington, DavidSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterSoames, Nicholas
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Loughton, TimSpring, Richard
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir NicholasStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnSteen, Anthony
McIntosh, Miss AnneStreeter, Gary
MacKay, Rt Hon AndrewSwayne, Desmond
Maclean, Rt Hon DavidSyms, Robert
McLoughlin, PatrickTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Madel, Sir DavidTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Malins, HumfreyTaylor, Sir Teddy
Maples, JohnTredinnick, David
Maude, Rt Hon FrancisTrend, Michael
May, Mrs TheresaTyrie, Andrew
Norman, ArchieViggers, Peter
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)Walter, Robert
Ottaway, RichardWaterson, Nigel
Page, RichardWells, Bowen
Paice, JamesWhitney, Sir Raymond
Paterson, OwenWhittingdale, John
Pickles, EricWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Portillo, Rt Hon MichaelWilletts, David
Prior, DavidWilshire, David
Randall, JohnYeo, Tim
Redwood, Rt Hon JohnYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Robathan, Andrew
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)Tellers for the Ayes:
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)Mr. Peter Luff and
Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
NOES
Ainger, NickButler, Mrs Christine
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Alexander, DouglasCampbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Allen, GrahamCampbell-Savours, Dale
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E)Cann, Jamie
Caplin, Ivor
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Casale, Roger
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryCaton, Martin
Ashton, JoeChapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Atherton, Ms CandyChaytor, David
Atkins, CharlotteClapham, Michael
Austin, JohnClark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Bailey, AdrianClark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Barnes, Harry
Barron, KevinClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Battle, JohnClarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Bayley, HughClarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Beard, NigelClarke Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Begg, Miss AnneClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Clelland, David
Bennett, Andrew FClwyd, Ann
Bermingham, GeraldCoaker, Vernon
Berry, RogerCoffey, Ms Ann
Betts, CliveCohen, Harry
Blackman, LizColman, Tony
Blizzard, BobConnarty, Michael
Boateng, Rt Hon PaulCooper, Yvette
Borrow, DavidCorbett, Robin
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Corbyn, Jeremy
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Cotter, Brian
Brake, TomCrausby, David
Brand, Dr PeterCummings, John
Breed, ColinCunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Brinton, Mrs Helen
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Dalyell, Tam
Browne, DesmondDarling, Rt Hon Alistair
Buck, Ms KarenDarvill, Keith
Burden, RichardDavidson, Ian
Burgon, ColinDavis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Burstow, Paul
Dawson, HiltonJenkins, Brian
Dean, Mrs JanetJohnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Denham, JohnJohnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dismore, Andrew
Dobbin, JimJones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Dobson, Rt Hon FrankJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Donohoe, Brian HJones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Doran, FrankJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dowd, JimKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Drew, DavidKeeble, Ms Sally
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Kemp, Fraser
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Edwards, HuwKhabra, Piara S
Efford, CliveKidney, David
Ennis, JeffKilfoyle, Peter
Fearn, RonnieKing, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Field, Rt Hon FrankKing, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fisher, MarkKirkwood, Archy
Fitzpatrick, JimLadyman, Dr Stephen
Flint, CarolineLawrence, Mrs Jackie
Flynn, PaulLaxton, Bob
Follett, BarbaraLepper, David
Foster, Rt Hon DerekLeslie, Christopher
Foster, Don (Bath)Levitt, Tom
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)Linton, Martin
Foulkes, GeorgeLivsey, Richard
Galloway, GeorgeLloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gapes, MikeLlwyd, Elfyn
Gardiner, BarryLock, David
George, Andrew (St Ives)Love, Andrew
George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)McAvoy, Thomas
Gerrard, NeilMcCabe, Steve
Gibson, Dr IanMcCafferty, Ms Chris
Gidley, SandraMcCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Godsiff, RogerMcDonagh, Siobhain
Goggins, PaulMacdonald, Calum
Golding, Mrs LlinMcDonnell, John
Gordon, Mrs EileenMcFall, John
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)McGuire, Mrs Anne
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)McNamara, Kevin
Grocott, BruceMcNulty, Tony
Grogan, JohnMacShane, Denis
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Mactaggart, Fiona
Hancock, MikeMcWalter, Tony
Hanson, DavidMcWilliam, John
Harman, Rt Hon Ms HarrietMallaber, Judy
Harris, Dr EvanMarsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Harvey, NickMarsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Healey, JohnMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)Martlew, Eric
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Maxton, John
Hendrick, MarkMeacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hepburn, StephenMeale, Alan
Heppell, JohnMichael, Rt Hon Alun
Hesford, StephenMichie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hill, KeithMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Hinchliffe, DavidMilburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hoey, KateMiller, Andrew
Hope, PhilMitchell, Austin
Hopkins, KelvinMoffatt, Laura
Howarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howells, Dr KimMoore, Michael
Hoyle, LindsayMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)Morley, Elliot
Humble, Mrs JoanMorris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hurst, Alan
Hutton, JohnMudie, George
Iddon, Dr BrianMullin, Chris
Illsley, EricMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jamieson, DavidNaysmith, Dr Doug
Oaten, MarkSoley, Clive
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Spellar, John
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)Squire, Ms Rachel
O'Hara, EddieStarkey, Dr Phyllis
O'Neill, MartinSteinberg, Gerry
Öpik, LembitStevenson, George
Osborne, Ms SandraStewart, David (Inverness E)
Palmer, Dr NickStoate, Dr Howard
Pearson, IanStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Perham, Ms LindaStraw, Rt Hon Jack
Pickthall, ColinStringer, Graham
Pike, Peter LStuart, Ms Gisela
Plaskitt, JamesSutcliffe, Gerry
Pollard, KerryTaylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Pond, Chris
Pope, GregTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pound, StephenTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Powell, Sir RaymondTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Temple-Morris, Peter
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Prosser, GwynThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Purchase, KenThomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Quin, Rt Hon Ms JoyceTimms, Stephen
Rammell, BillTipping, Paddy
Rapson, SydTrickett, Jon
Raynsford, NickTruswell, Paul
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rendel, DavidTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)Tyler, Paul
Roche, Mrs BarbaraTynan, Bill
Rogers, AllanVis, Dr Rudi
Rooker, Rt Hon JeffWard, Ms Claire
Rooney, TerryWareing, Robert N
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Watts, David
Rowlands, TedWhitehead, Dr Alan
Roy, FrankWicks, Malcolm
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Salter, Martin
Sanders, AdrianWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Savidge, MalcolmWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Sedgemore, BrianWillis, Phil
Shaw, JonathanWinnick, David
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Short, Rt Hon ClareWood, Mike
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Woodward, Shaun
Skinner, DennisWorthington, Tony
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Wray, James
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)Wyatt, Derek
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Smith, John (Glamorgan)Tellers for the Noes:
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Mr. Mike Hall and
Snape, PeterMr. Kevin Hughes.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading:

The House divided: Ayes 325, Noes 6.

Division No. 33]10.16 pm
AYES
Ainger, NickAtherton, Ms Candy
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Atkins, Charlotte
Alexander, DouglasAustin, John
Allen, GrahamBailey, Adrian
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E)Barnes, Harry
Barron, Kevin
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Battle, John
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryBayley, Hugh
Ashton, JoeBeard, Nigel
Begg, Miss AnneEdwards, Huw
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Efford, Clive
Bennett, Andrew FEnnis, Jeff
Bermingham, GeraldFearn, Ronnie
Berry, RogerField, Rt Hon Frank
Betts, CliveFisher, Mark
Blackman, LizFitzpatrick, Jim
Blizzard, BobFlint, Caroline
Boateng, Rt Hon PaulFlynn, Paul
Borrow, DavidFollett, Barbara
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Foster, Don (Bath)
Brake, TomFoster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Brand, Dr PeterFoster, Michael J (Worcester)
Breed, ColinFoulkes, George
Brinton, Mrs HelenGalloway, George
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Gapes, Mike
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Gardiner, Barry
Browne, DesmondGeorge, Andrew (St Ives)
Buck, Ms KarenGeorge, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S)
Burden, RichardGerrard, Neil
Burgon, ColinGibson, Dr Ian
Burstow, PaulGidley, Sandra
Butler, Mrs ChristineGilroy, Mrs Linda
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Godsiff, Roger
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Goggins, Paul
Campbell-Savours, DaleGolding, Mrs Llin
Cann, JamieGordon, Mrs Eileen
Caplin, IvorGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Casale, RogerGriffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Caton, MartinGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Grocott, Bruce
Chaytor, DavidGrogan, John
Clapham, MichaelHamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Hancock, Mike
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)Hanson, David
Harvey, Nick
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Healey, John
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Hendrick, Mark
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Hepburn, Stephen
Clelland, DavidHeppell, John
Clwyd, AnnHesford, Stephen
Coaker, VernonHill, Keith
Coffey, Ms AnnHinchliffe, David
Cohen, HarryHoey, Kate
Colman, TonyHope, Phil
Connarty, MichaelHopkins, Kelvin
Cooper, YvetteHowarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E)
Corbett, RobinHowells, Dr Kim
Corbyn, JeremyHoyle, Lindsay
Cotter, BrianHughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Crausby, DavidHughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Cummings, JohnHumble, Mrs Joan
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)Hurst, Alan
Hutton, John
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Iddon, Dr Brian
Dalyell, TamIllsley, Eric
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairJackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Darvill, KeithJamieson, David
Davidson, IanJenkins, Brian
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dawson, Hilton
Dean, Mrs JanetJones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Denham, JohnJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dismore, AndrewJones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dobbin, JimJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dobson, Rt Hon FrankKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Donohoe, Brian HKeeble, Ms Sally
Doran, FrankKemp, Fraser
Dowd, JimKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Drew, DavidKhabra, Piara S
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Kidney, David
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Kilfoyle, Peter
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Moonie, Dr Lewis
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Kirkwood, AtchyMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Ladyman, Dr StephenMorley, Elliot
Lawrence, Mrs JackieMorris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Laxton, Bob
Lepper, DavidMudie, George
Leslie, ChristopherMullin, Chris
Levitt, TomMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Linton, MartinMurphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Livsey, RichardNaysmith, Dr Doug
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)Oaten, Mark
Llwyd, ElfynO'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Lock, DavidO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Love, AndrewO'Hara, Eddie
McAvoy, ThomasO'Neill, Martin
McCabe, SteveÖpik, Lembit
McCafferty, Ms ChrisOsborne, Ms Sandra
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)Palmer, Dr Nick
Pearson, Ian
McDonagh, SiobhainPerham, Ms Linda
Macdonald, CalumPickthall, Colin
McDonnell, JohnPike, Peter L
McFall, JohnPlaskitt, James
McGuire, Mrs AnnePollard, Kerry
McIsaac, ShonaPond, Chris
McNamara, KevinPope, Greg
McNulty, TonyPound, Stephen
MacShane, DenisPowell, Sir Raymond
Mactaggart, FionaPrentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
McWalter, TonyPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
McWilliam, JohnProsser, Gwyn
Mallaber, JudyPurchase, Ken
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)Rapson, Syd
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Raynsford, Nick
Martlew, EricReid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Maxton, JohnRendel, David
Meacher, Rt Hon MichaelRobertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland)
Meale, Alan
Michael, Rt Hon AlunRobinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Roche, Mrs Barbara
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)Rogers, Allan
Milburn, Rt Hon AlanRooker, Rt Hon Jeff
Miller, AndrewRooney, Terry
Mitchell, AustinRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Moffatt, LauraRowlands, Ted
Roy, FrankTemple-Morris, Peter
Russell, Bob (Colchester)Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Salter, MartinTimms, Stephen
Sanders, AdrianTipping, Paddy
Savidge, MalcolmTrickett, Jon
Sedgemore, BrianTruswell, Paul
Shaw, JonathanTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Skinner, DennisTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Tyler, Paul
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Tynan, Bill
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)Vis, Dr Rudi
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)Ward, Ms Claire
Smith, John (Glamorgan)Wareing, Robert N
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)Watts, David
Snape, PeterWhitehead, Dr Alan
Soley, CliveWicks, Malcolm
Spellar, JohnWigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Squire, Ms RachelWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Steinberg, GerryWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Stevenson, GeorgeWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Stewart, David (Inverness E)Willis, Phil
Stoate, Dr HowardWinnick, David
Strang, Rt Hon Dr GavinWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Straw, Rt Hon JackWood, Mike
Stringer, GrahamWoodward, Shaun
Stuart, Ms GiselaWorthington, Tony
Sutcliffe, GerryWray, James
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Wyatt, Derek
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)Tellers for the Ayes:
Taylor, David (NW Leics)Mr. Kevin Hughes and
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)Mr. Mike Hall.
NOES
Chope, ChristopherRedwood, Rt Hon John
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Tellers for the Noes:
Leigh, EdwardMr. Eric Forth and
Maclean, Rt Hon DavidMr. David Wilshire.

Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read a Second time.