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Home Information Packs

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 6 June 2006

I am grateful for that answer. In November 2004, the Government promised to road-test home information packs in a specific geographical area in England and Wales to see how effective they were. Can the Minister let us know when that road test will take place and in which geographical area?

What we said during the passage of the Housing Act 2004, when the packs were extensively discussed both in this and the other place, was that we would properly test the components of the home information pack. We shall do so. Already, many providers are starting to supply home information packs and will do so on a more extensive basis from the autumn, when the certification schemes are in place. We will set in place detailed testing and research arrangements to monitor progress. The industry was clear with us that it did not want a geographically isolated pilot, but wanted a scheme that tested the programme more widely across the country.

Surely not enough testing has taken place. What was promised as a dry run has really been just a sham. Which independent body will audit the testing? How will it be judged whether the packs are a success or a failure? It seems to me that the Government just wanted to railroad this ahead without serious consideration of how it would operate.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. One hundred and fifty organisations keen to be involved in the dry run have now approached the Department. They wish to work with us on testing the various elements of home information packs. We will set out an independent testing and research process to ensure that we properly monitor the dry run as it unfolds. It is important to remember that we are introducing reforms that are strongly backed by the Consumers Association, and it is right that we should introduce them to make big improvements for people buying and selling their homes.

There appears to be some discrepancy between estimates of the cost of HIPs. They range from £1,000 recently cited in an early-day motion to £700 cited by HIP providers. Will my hon. Friend assure the House, especially the sceptics, that the cost is more likely to be at the £700 end, and that the cost will not be duplicated further up the chain? Does she agree that encouragement of those fears is irresponsible?

My hon. Friend is right. The cost and price of the home information packs will be set by the market. There is huge potential for considerable competition to bring down costs in various areas of home buying and selling. She may be interested to know that some providers have already said that they intend to reduce the price of home information packs. One has even said that it would offer them to consumers for free. We assess that the current average costs of the component parts of the home information pack under the current process amount to somewhere between £600 and £700—most of those are costs that are already paid in the current process. We will transfer the cost from buyers to sellers. Most of us are sellers and buyers so it will not make any odds to us, but it will make a really big difference to first-time buyers, because they will get home information packs for free.

Does my hon. Friend agree that mixed messages are coming from the Conservative party? The Conservatives say that they support first-time buyers, but they will not support a measure that will reduce the cost to first-time buyers—[Interruption.]

Order. I am sorry I was distracted—those matters have nothing to do with the Secretary of State.

There is a significant mismatch in Upminster between relatively low local income levels and very high property prices. Does the Minister share my concern that sellers are likely to add the cost of the home information pack to the asking price, making the cost of properties even higher and less affordable for local people?

No, but the hon. Lady is right to say that there are pressures on affordability. In particular, there are pressures on first-time buyers in terms of getting into the housing market. That is why there are strong benefits from transferring the costs from buyer to sellers because that gives first-time buyers the chance to get into the housing market in the first place. Many of the providers have said that they would not charge for the home information packs up front. We think that this is a huge opportunity to improve the efficiency of the market and cut waste—something that the Consumers Association has long argued for.

As the Minister will know, there are large numbers of last-ditch opponents to home information packs—and not just on the Conservative Benches. Two of the points that lawyers and estate agents who are trying to protect their privileged position make is that there will not be enough home inspectors and that HIPs will have a negative effect on the housing market. Will she reassure us that neither criticism is valid?

On home inspectors, more than 4,000 people are already in training to become home inspectors. Their work will begin in the autumn and we expect that, therefore, the process of people completing their training will accelerate around that time. My hon. Friend spoke about the impact on the market. In Denmark, where a version of home information packs has been introduced, the Danish chief executive of the estate agents organisation believes that home information packs did not have any negative impact on the market at all and that they have been extremely good for buyers and sellers in Denmark.

The Minister is all too well aware that every industry expert insists on the need for an appropriate dry run before we press ahead with this intervention in the marketplace. However, so far only 200 of the 4,000 promised home inspectors have actually qualified; no specific geographical areas have yet been earmarked for dry runs, despite what her predecessor as the Minister for Housing and Planning promised in 2004; and we have no clear, unambiguous and independently audited criteria for judging the success of those dry runs. Can the Minister tell us what the benchmark for success in the dry runs will be, or will Ministers simply award themselves a pass mark irrespective of the results?

The hon. Gentleman has long been an advocate for those in the property industry who are opposed to the introduction of home information packs because, frankly, they make money out of the existing system. The advocate on behalf of buyers and sellers, the Consumers Association, is strongly in favour of home information packs. I caution the hon. Gentleman against becoming the parliamentary spokesperson for the National Association of Estate Agents, which might have its own interests in the process.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the dry run. We have made it clear for many months that we will have a dry run throughout the country so that we can test the component parts of home information packs. It is important that buyers and sellers are able to see improvements being made to the existing system and more efficiency. Conservative Members can hide as much as they like behind the questions that they ask, but we know that they have opposed the scheme from the beginning. We will set out proper research, as I said in an earlier reply to which the hon. Gentleman was clearly not listening. I caution him that he, like the Consumers Association and buyers and sellers throughout the country, should recognise the importance of home information packs. The scheme is all about buyers and sellers throughout the country because they are wasting loads of money due to the existing system, and I do not think that that is fair.