Housing Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 17th November 2004.

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Lords message considered.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I inform the House that privilege is involved in Lords amendment No. 191B. If the House agrees to the amendment, I will arrange for the necessary entry to be made in the Journal.

After Clause 143

Lords amendment: No. 128C.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

I have already made it clear that this Government will not introduce the duty to have a home information pack unless we are sure that the industry and the public are ready. We are already committed to undertaking a national voluntary dry run of home information packs ahead of compulsory introduction.

Yesterday, in another place, my noble Friend Lord Rooker offered a commitment that our Department will pursue positively with stakeholders the possibility of a compulsory element to the dry run in a local or sub-regional area further to test our proposals ahead of the introduction of national compulsory packs. That would be achieved by commencing the statutory scheme in the chosen area earlier than in the rest of England and Wales. Clause 231(8) provides the necessary powers. We will involve all the key consumer and industry stakeholders in the arrangements and in the monitoring and evaluation of the voluntary and compulsory elements of the dry run.

We are confident that we have the flexibility within this Bill quickly to respond through regulations to any problems that arise before or during the dry run period or with the compulsory element. Depending on the nature of a potential problem, we could tailor the contents of the pack, exclude certain types of property from the duties or allow certain elements of the pack to be included later than the day of marketing, and so on.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

I wonder whether the dry run will be in a low-value area.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

We have not decided where the dry run will occur. That is a matter for close consultation with the industry.

We recognise that even with those commitments to undertake rigorous research and testing ahead of introduction, there are concerns among Conservative Members and in some sections of the industry that problems might arise that, despite the extent of the flexibility provided in the Bill, might be best addressed by suspending the operation of all or part of part 5 while they are resolved.

In response to those concerns, my noble Friend moved amendment No. 128C. That amendment adds a new clause, giving the Secretary of State the power to suspend the home information pack duties. I do not expect that we will face problems that we cannot solve quickly through regulations, so I do not expect that we will need to exercise that power. Should I be wrong, however, this power will enable us to suspend duties while we put things right.

I hope that I have allayed the concerns of Opposition Members and put to rest once and for all the suggestion that we are hell-bent on persisting with compulsory home information packs regardless of their impact.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

According to St. Luke, there is

"more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent."

In this case, there is undoubtedly a degree of repentance on the part of the Minister, and we should be generous about that. He has listened to the concerns expressed by Opposition Members. In that respect, despite my intrinsic reservations about all Liberal Democrats, I have to say that they have been at one with us. He has listened to the concerns expressed in the House of Lords by peers of all parties, including Cross Benchers. He has listened to the concerns expressed by the Law Society. Incidentally, although he withdrew the remark, it was not terribly emollient of Lord Rooker to describe it as the "Lie Society" in the other place. That was not the right tone for the Government to use in making such a U-turn.

The Minister has listened to the concerns expressed by estate agents and by others who have pointed out that with the best will in the world—I think that the Minister does have good will over this—significant problems could arise during the trial period of these packs.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I make no secret of the fact that I believe that home information packs are unnecessary and will be unhelpful. They will slow down the market, might stimulate further surveys, are unlikely to satisfy mortgage lenders, and will be insufficient in many regards.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not right that the state should compulsorily interfere with two freely contracting individuals, and that that is the heart of the argument that Conservative Members have advanced?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) (Housing and Planning)

For once, there is a nuance of difference between my hon. Friend and I, who agree about so much, so often. As hon. Members know, I am not an advocate of the unbridled free market, and I believe that there is a civilising role for Government and local government. In this instance, however, my hon. Friend is spot on, because the case that the Government made—that this would assist the marketplace—was not made persuasively. It did not persuade Opposition Members and clearly it has not persuaded the Lords.

For that reason, the trial, as we can now reasonably call it, becomes highly significant. If my hon. Friend Andrew Selous is right about this, as he probably is, and if our reservations are founded in common sense—as, in my judgment, they are—so that significant problems arise during the course of the trial, it is absolutely right that this House should have the power to suspend the implementation of the packs. That would mean that instead of a dry run leading to an inevitability, we would have a legitimate and genuine pilot scheme. Under a pilot scheme, one tests something, sees what has gone wrong, and alters it. The suspension suggested in the amendment will be essential following the failure that sellers packs will undoubtedly become; otherwise, we will experience the chaos predicted by many experts, colleagues in this place, and Members of the Lords.

I acknowledge that the Minister has recognised those arguments. He has had the courage to make a significant concession, for which we must be grateful. But I have to say, although I do not want to be churlish, that he could have done that a long time ago. We had this debate in Committee, on Second Reading and during several other debates in this place and in the other place. It is an 11th-hour conversion, but at least it is a conversion.

I make a prediction and a commitment. The prediction is that, in their trial, sellers packs will be a disaster. The commitment is that, when a Conservative Government are elected to office—as I confidently expect next year—we will use the provision to suspend sellers packs at the outset. We are not convinced about them for the reasons that have often been articulated. I shall not tire the House by repeating them.

I am pleased that the Minister has made a concession, but a concession which would not have been granted without the consistent and energetic pressure that my colleagues in the Lords exerted. Baroness Hanham and Lord Hanningfield have been notable in that campaign, supported by Liberal Democrat Members. Without that pressure and the humble contribution of those in this place, who pale into insignificance beside the eloquence of our colleagues in the other place, we would not have wrung the concession from the Minister. He is a sinner that repenteth and I welcome his repentance. Sellers packs will not work. They will be suspended and the proposed new provision provides the chance to do that. We therefore welcome it.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 4:30 pm, 17th November 2004

Mr. Hayes represents the amendments differently from my understanding of them. The principle of a compulsory scheme appears to have been accepted by both Houses. The system of buying and selling in this country through chains of transactions means that it is important for one comprehensive system to apply. That will happen and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on standing firm and ensuring that that forms part of the eventual legislation.

I thank the other place for adding a useful and pragmatic power, which may or may not be used in future. I assure the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings that it is not possible to suspend the scheme before it has started. I thank my right hon. Friend for all his work on the Bill and the subject.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I welcome the Government amendment, which recognises that the Liberal Democrats were talking common sense about home information packs. We have our disagreements. We do not believe that the packs will be a success and the Government clearly believe that they will prove successful. We are glad that they have included a get- out-of-jail clause. We are pleased to have helped them to do that because we believe that the proposed new provision is necessary to ensure that the packs can be suspended if they do not work after a trial period or even at some later stage.

The major difference between Conservative Members and us is that we have always acknowledged the need to introduce energy efficiency into the home sale at some point. We do not believe that it should be at the point of marketing but at the point of sale. That would bring it into line with the European directive. If the problems envisaged with home information packs occur and the proposed new power is needed, we hope that the ability to meet the terms of the European directive can rapidly be established at the point of sale, not of marketing. The Government have not given themselves the power to do that but they would have to do it to fulfil the terms of the directive if they used the proposed new provision.

I welcome the Government's change of heart. We are pleased to have played our part in persuading them of the need for it. We are not convinced that the packs will work and we continue to have huge reservations about them. However, the Government have at least given themselves the ability to stop them when, as we believe is likely, they prove to be a millstone around home buyers' necks.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I was sorry that Mr. Hayes was a little taken aback by Lord Rooker's forcefulness. Perhaps my noble Friend feels that there is quite sufficient emollient on these ministerial Benches in normal circumstances.

I know that the energy performance certificate has been a matter of some concern to Matthew Green. The EC directive requires the certificate to be made available when a property is sold. It also says that the certificate should be made available to prospective buyers to enable consumers to compare and assess the energy performance of the property being sold. The objectives of the directive would clearly not be met if the certificate were just handed over to the buyer on completion. It must be made available earlier in the process to provide the consumer with a genuine choice.

The hon. Member for Ludlow has raised the issue of what happens to the energy performance certificate in the event of a suspension or non-pursuit of the home information package. The power to suspend in amendment No. 128C is a power to suspend all or some of the duties in clauses 137 to 141. It is limited to those clauses and would not affect other powers or provisions in part 5, including the ones in clause 144. However, the power in clause 144(9)(a) to make regulations altering the time at which a pack document is provided will still exist. If a suspension order were to be made affecting the duties under clause 138, therefore, this would not prevent special arrangements from being made for the timing of the production of energy performance certificates, if that were deemed necessary.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

I thank the Minister. My understanding of what he has just said is that in fact the Government would have the power to ensure that the energy performance certificate could be in place at the end of the process rather than at the start, if they so chose and if they realised that what they were proposing was not working.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I am delighted to say that the usual form of inspiration has winged its way to me and confirms my instinctive understanding that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes.