I advise Members that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House expresses profound concern at the lack of adequate preparation made for the introduction of the Government’s Home Information Packs (HIPs); is further concerned at the failure on the part of the Government to provide a substantive pilot scheme; acknowledges the misgivings of various professional organisations; registers grave concern about the failure of HIPs to include reliable information on electrical safety, flood risk and contaminated land; fears that the cost of providing a HIP could be as high as £1,000; asserts that valuations and surveys will still be required, particularly for first-time buyers, increasing the cost of buying and selling a home; and notes that independent economic experts have warned of a negative impact on the economy arising from the introduction of HIPs.
May I say how pleased I am that the Minister for Housing and Planning is still in her place, because this debate gives me an opportunity to congratulate her on grasping the nettle, which her predecessors avoided, of signalling the death of home information packs? For let us be in no doubt that the announcement that she made yesterday—with becoming modesty, by way of a written statement—was an obituary to the Government’s plans to tie up the housing market in red tape. The Minister has come to the House today not to praise HIPs, as she may have anticipated a week ago, but to bury them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making reference to last week, because a week last Sunday I read in my newspapers that the major issue for the Opposition was English votes for English Members. I cleared my diary and prepared my speech in defence of the Union. I wanted to ensure that there would be no second-class MPs. What happened?
Order. The topic under consideration in this debate is home information packs.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am always delighted to hear from a fellow Scot in such debates, and I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman might wish to say about the subject that is actually being discussed this afternoon.
Despite the Minister’s many skills at the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, she will not be able to disguise that the central part of HIPs—the keystone around which everything else was constructed—has been demolished. Her decision yesterday to make home condition reports a purely voluntary part of HIPs means that they are now, in effect, a dead letter. After all, who in their right mind will voluntarily wish to pay hundreds of pounds extra for a home condition report, with all its current defects, simply to market their property, when they can go ahead without one? Making the preparation of a home condition report voluntary is like making payment of council tax voluntary—something the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister knows all about. If a Government-mandated levy is no longer obligatory, why should people pay?
For the benefit of the House, I should point out that council tax collection rates are at their highest ever level.
I am delighted to acknowledge that, thanks to the wonderful campaign conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), the Deputy Prime Minister has at last succeeded in paying his council tax, no doubt contributing to the increased collection rates in Conservative-run Westminster council.
Order. I have already said that the motion under debate is home information packs—not council tax, nor anything else.
Thank you very much for your welcome intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker; it allows me, despite the temptation offered by the Minister for Local Government, to get back on course.
I am naturally delighted that the Minister for Housing and Planning, in making yesterday’s announcement, accepted the force of Conservative arguments, because we have consistently highlighted the scheme’s weakness and invited her to climb down. I am particularly delighted that she has appreciated the importance of economic stability and the vital role that a stable housing market plays in ensuring such stability. [Interruption.] Labour Members laugh—perhaps they take a cavalier approach to economic stability—but we Conservatives put it at the heart of economic policy. That is why we welcomed the independent report by the lenders GMAC-RFC, which showed precisely what consequences the introduction of home information packs might have for the housing market and broader economic stability.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman is a fan of free markets, given his background in the Policy Exchange and his being a Tory, and all. So I am sure that he is aware that free markets can be fair only if everyone has the same information. Is his opposition to the Government’s plans merely based on keeping information in the hands of the rich, rather than making it available to all?
That was a beautifully read intervention. As a believer in free markets, I welcome precisely what the Government have done, which is to replace something that would have been compulsory—an intervention and a regulatory clogging of the market—with a voluntary proposal that allows the market to continue to function well.
As I was pointing out, we Conservatives welcomed the report by independent lenders GMAC-RFC, which pointed out that, unfortunately, the introduction of home information packs could—if the Government had gone ahead with them—have had profoundly destabilising effects on the housing market. That report took the Government’s own projections of the likely effect of home information packs—a 10 per cent. reduction in the number of properties for sale—and fed the figures through the Treasury model. The report showed that, as a result of pressing ahead, there would have been a deleterious effect not just on economic stability, but on gross domestic product and unemployment. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) laughs, but the silence from the Treasury at that point was notable. It did not utter any criticism, as it so often does when independent economic reports and forecasts are made, of that report. Indeed, shortly after it was published, the Treasury made its feelings known and, sure enough, the Minister for Housing and Planning, who keeps in close touch with Treasury thinking, ensured that it was taken proper heed of and that a voluntary scheme was introduced.
Was not the sad reading from the Whip’s brief that we heard earlier evidence of the Government’s considerable embarrassment at having got the worst of all possible worlds? My hon. Friend is being far too kind to the Minister—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not reading from the Whip’s brief, but from my own fair hand. I have many notes and pieces of paper here—
Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair; it is a point of debate and the answer is now on the record.
Does not the hypersensitivity of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) at my pointing out her reading from the Whip’s brief demonstrate that the Government are greatly embarrassed? As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is being far too kind to the Minister, and we are ending up with the worst of all possible worlds. The chief executive of the Association of Home Information Pack Providers says that the energy performance certificates will cost £200 each, which is a ludicrous price for people to have to pay when moving home, on top of everything else. My hon. Friend is being far too gallant today in his comments to the Minister.
I am flattered by the generous words of my hon. Friend; it has always been my intention to forge a consensus, wherever possible. Under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), we have said that, when the Government do the right thing, we will agree with them. Belatedly, the Minister has done the right thing, so it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; his perspicacity and astuteness has led to the Government changing their mind. It is not as if we did not warn them. When this matter was debated in Committee during the passage of the Housing Act 2004, we told them that home information packs would be a disaster, because they would end first-day marketing, add costs to the system and put pressure on those already facing difficulties in selling or buying. We also pointed out that they would not get enough inspectors. All those things have come true. Why did the Government not recognise that then, and why have they pursued this policy with such vigour ever since?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for his intervention and he is quite right. He and my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Poole (Mr. Syms) exhibited rare prescience during the passage of the Housing Bill, pointing out precisely the dangers that the Government have only now recognised. The question that we have to ask is why it has taken the Government two years and millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to realise the folly that was clearly pointed out to them by my colleagues.
What an embarrassment of choices! I give way to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am listening carefully to what he has to say. Is he aware—I speak as a former domestic conveyancing solicitor—that there is profound concern at the huge costs involved for consumers, about whom I know he is very concerned, in proceeding to purchases that inevitably fail because of vendors’ failure to disclose? Is it not right that we should try to improve what is a defective conveyancing system?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I am grateful to him for declaring his interest. We should certainly seek to improve the conveyancing system, but nothing in the Government’s proposals would have done so. It was clear, particularly from the comments of smaller solicitors directly involved in conveyancing, that by proceeding as the Government planned to do before yesterday’s written statement, specialist conveyancing solicitors would have lost out. Family firms that provide diversity and competition would have been swallowed up by a move toward conglomerates, which would have provided a poorer and shoddier service.
Now, the embarrassment of choices is slightly smaller. I give way to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster).
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he is looking for consensus, can we decide what we do agree about? Does he believe that energy performance certificates are an important element, or does he oppose them, as well?
I agree that energy performance certificates are very important; indeed, we—like, I think, every party in this House—are happy to see the EU directive in question implemented. But I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that his own Government have specified that people do not need home information packs in order to comply with that directive. The Northern Ireland Office made that perfectly clear in 2004 and 2006, and I am sorry that the briefing supplied by the Government did not enlighten him on that fact.
Now, I give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts).
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He believed last week that vendors, when selling their property, ought to provide information on electrical safety, flood risk and contaminated land. Does he still believe that they should provide that information up front when selling a property, and does he still believe—as he also did last week—that, in order to ascertain the precise effect on the markets of the move to home information packs, there should be a paid-for, dry-run pilot scheme in certain parts of the country?
The hon. Gentleman has gifts of clairvoyance or second sight even greater than those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there was no debate last week on this issue, so there was no opportunity for me to make my views clear. He very helpfully makes a point that we have been trying to make—that the home condition reports that the Government were going to introduce would not have enlightened people as to flood risk, contamination or the threat of radon gas in properties that they might have purchased. As a result, clearly deficient information would have been provided.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said earlier that, in order to operate effectively, markets have to give people adequate or appropriate information. The home condition reports simply would not have done that, as the Council of Mortgage Lenders pointed out. As the Prime Minister made clear at the Dispatch Box not two hours ago, that was one of the reasons why the Minister had to execute the U-turn that she did.
I am delighted to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being most generous. This knockabout is all very well, but will he address the plight of home inspectors? Some 232 have qualified so far, having paid about £7,000 to do the course, and many more are in training. What are they going to do? Are they going to be left to hang out to dry as a result of this Government’s further U-turn?
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. One question that we must ask is, what is going to happen to all those people who were encouraged to invest up to £8,000 of their personal fortunes in training for a scheme that will not now be implemented? They have all been marched up to the top of the hill, only to be marched down. In contemplating the Deputy Prime Minister’s translation to the upper House, it is a great pity to note that the title of grand old Duke of York has already been taken. His position on this issue fits him adequately for that title.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson).
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I wonder whether hope is in sight for inspectors who are partly trained or hoping to train. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the conclusion of yesterday’s statement says:
“Mandatory HCRs will remain on the table if the industry fails to make a success of the roll out of HCRs.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 13WS.]
My hon. Friend makes a good point in saying that the Government are attempting to cover their nakedness in their retreat by saying that they retain the right to introduce mandatory home condition reports. One of the questions we all have to ask is, given how few people trained as home inspectors and given how the Government have already reneged on the deal that they implicitly entered into with those people who did train, who now would be foolish enough to invest £8,000 to become a home inspector? I think it extremely unlikely that we will see any return of mandatory home condition reports.
Does my hon. Friend have a sense of déjà vu? Only a little while ago we had the home computer initiative, which seemed to encourage people to invest in their own training, only for them to find the Government pulling the rug from under them. To me, those inspectors seem to be in exactly the same position.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and might well have pointed out the scandal of the Government’s U-turn on self-invested personal pensions, where they encouraged people to make a series of investments only suddenly to pull the rug from underneath them. One of the key things that makes markets work is stability and certainty. One of the key aspects of the way in which the Government have operated has been their encouraging people to make investments then changing the rules so that those investments trickle into the sand. For a Government who seem to be committed to prudence, they are remarkably improvident with other people’s money.
For certainty, could you help me? We are obviously slightly slow on this side of the House, but are you in favour of energy performance certificates, or are you not? If you could just say yes or no—
Order. Perhaps I might remind the hon. Lady of the convention of the House that means that “you” is the occupant of the Chair. I do not declare what I am in favour of.
Would the hon. Gentleman enlighten those of us on the Labour Benches on whether he is in favour of energy performance certificates? Would the hon. Gentleman help us by simply saying yes or no? [Hon. Members: “He has.”] He seems to have said yes and no today, so might he give us one definitive answer? Is it yes, he is in favour of them, or is it no, he is not? We would really appreciate an answer.
I am always grateful to hear from the hon. Lady, who gives me the opportunity to repeat the point that I made to her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster). I absolutely believe that we should comply with the EU directive, as I mentioned in response to her hon. Friend. The Government—her Government—have made it clear that we do not need home information packs in order to comply with that directive. They have made that clear in Northern Ireland, and what is sauce for the Ulster goose should be sauce for the rest of the UK gander.
My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on his sustained comments on this matter and on making the Government make a U-turn in their statement yesterday. Is he aware that the gestation of this issue lies as far back as the Labour party manifesto of 1997? Since then, they have had three general elections and two Bills in Committee, and numerous eminent bodies have told them their proposal would not work. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government need to become slightly quicker learners?
I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I pay tribute to him for being one of the most dogged and persistent interrogators of the Government in this regard. It is thanks to the questions that he has asked and the speeches that he has made that the Government have been forced to conclude where they have.
The hon. Gentleman tries to make a sedentary intervention. If he would like to rise and make an argument, I should be more than happy to counter it. If not, I suggest he listens and learns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) offered a stricture on my concern for the Minister for Housing and Planning. However, I sympathise with her. She, as much as any of us, is a victim of the serial incompetence of the late Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. In 2004, the then Minister for Housing and Planning, the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), argued that home information packs would end a shambolic home-buying and selling process. The right hon. Gentleman is now parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister, so he is well qualified to talk about shambolic home-buying and selling processes.
During the passage of the Act that brought the packs into force, when the right hon. Member for Streatham held the post of Minister for Housing and Planning, the case for making the packs voluntary—the case that the present Minister has now accepted— was made forcibly and eloquently by my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings, for Poole and for Cotswold. As we have heard, that was all to no avail. The Minister heard the arguments; she was on the Committee. But she was honour-bound to follow where the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) led, and that, as we know, is always a dangerous path to follow.
The ODPM is now no more. The Minister is free from that encumbrance and has at last found her voice. It has taken a little time, though. As recently as two months ago, she was hailing home information packs as a welcome reform that would transform the home-buying and selling process. Only last month, she trumpeted the improved efficiency that HIPs would bring. We tried to point out the flaws in the scheme to her, but she denounced us—all of us—for being in the pocket of vested interests. Now, though, she has accepted our case that the scheme is flawed at its heart and needs a fundamental review. It would be, I have to say, churlish for us to do anything other than express our delight. As I am sure the Secretary of State will have told the Minister, there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.
I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has had to say and he has had a lot of cheap laughs. But the home improvement pack has been introduced to safeguard the interests of first-time buyers, so while he has his cheap dig at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister he might remember that the Deputy Prime Minister has introduced a number of significant safety measures to homes that have meant less people losing their lives in their homes. The hon. Gentleman has dismissed the home condition report, but applauded the energy saving instrument. That is fine, but to get energy saving, we need some of the instruments available in those home condition reports. He said no to that, and what he is actually saying is no to better home efficiency—
Order. The hon. Lady knows that interventions must be brief.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady’s intervention might perhaps be better directed to her hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning. If she is such a great fan of home condition reports, she should concentrate her strictures on the Minister responsible for torpedoing that flagship.
One thing I should say is that we are actually debating home information packs, not, as the hon. Lady implied, home improvement packs. There is a clear distinction between the two. Home information packs are the legislation that we are discussing; home improvement packs are merely a solipsism to which the hon. Lady fell prey.
Does my hon. Friend agree that references to first-time buyers bring to mind the fact that first-time buyers are often short of money? They have enough stress as it is and the need to produce extra cash for these useless packs—[Hon. Members: “They do not!”] Perhaps Members on the other side—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should make his point briefly. I think that his Front-Bench colleague will have understood what has been said.
My hon. Friend knows something about buying and selling houses and is absolutely right to say that these packs, had they been introduced, would have failed first-time buyers. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Let me explain; I shall be delighted to do so and shall take as long as hon. Gentlemen want. [Interruption.] Thanks for that support from a sedentary position.
The home condition report was supposed to forestall the need for a house buyer to commission a survey or valuation. As designed by the Government, however, it signally failed to provide proper protection for the consumer, and in particular for first-time buyers. In the regulations laid by the Minister, there was no requirement for home information packs to include information on flood risk, natural subsidence, electrical safety, radon gas or land contamination. As designed by the Government, home condition reports were both deficient and dangerous. They would not even have done the job for which they were originally conceived.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am trying to make a little progress.
The Minister argued that when home condition reports were introduced the need for buyers’ surveys would diminish dramatically. She quoted support that she claimed to have received from the Nationwide building society. Just last week, the Nationwide described the Department for Communities and Local Government’s use of its figures as “misleading”. Indeed, the Minister was clearly labouring under a misapprehension when she believed that home condition reports would dramatically reduce the need for buyers’ surveys. Mortgage lenders need to be certain of a property’s value before they can extend a loan. They explained to the Minister that a separate physical inspection, on top of the home condition report, would be needed in a wide range of circumstances.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not at this stage.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am specifically addressing the request from the right hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends that I should discuss the plight of first-time buyers under this Government.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Lenders specifically said that an additional survey evaluation would be needed where the mortgage was worth more than 80 per cent. of the value of the house, where the property was distinctive, newly built or a character home, and particularly for flats and conversions. As I am sure hon. Members will not need reminding, there are few first-time buyers whose mortgage is less than 80 per cent. of the value of the home. In addition, they are likely to be disproportionately represented among those buying new-built homes and flats. Ministers spent a great deal of time, and public money, trumpeting the benefit of home condition reports for first-time buyers, but those buyers, who are already hit by the Government’s increases in stamp duty, would have faced paying twice, for the home condition report, which would have been added to the cost of the home, and for a lender’s survey on top of it. As the party that has constantly championed wider home ownership and put support for first-time buyers at the heart of our policy process, we can only welcome—along with first-time buyers everywhere—the Government’s retreat.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many first-time buyers, when entering into what is probably the largest financial transaction of their life, have any detailed information about the condition of the property they are buying? Does not he think that is a defect and that it is time something was done to improve it?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is defective: home condition reports designed by the Minister for Housing and Planning and conceived in the Department that the right hon. Gentleman once graced. How effective is a report that contains no details about flood risk or land contamination? How effective is a report that lenders will require a separate valuation or survey to back up?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I must make a little progress.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I would love to make progress but I will give way to my hon. Friend.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
Of course surveys are needed for valuation, but as anybody who has ever claimed on a chartered surveyor’s professional indemnity insurance because of a defect found in a property would know, no home pack could ever give that level of assurance.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One of the many defects of the scheme was that, as of yesterday, there was no adequate indemnity insurance scheme for home inspectors, so the Government would have asked home inspectors to conduct inspections even though no private sector supplier was, at this stage, willing to insure them.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I must try to make a little progress—I gave way to the hon. Gentleman earlier.
When the Minister makes her speech, I hope that she will not try to paint her retreat—which we want to celebrate—as a precursor to the reintroduction of the scheme, for there is no prospect of her being able to deliver on her Department’s earlier pledges. As several of my hon. Friends have pointed out, there are not enough qualified home inspectors ready; as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point said, there are fewer than 250, yet the Government said that they would need at least 7,500 to make the scheme work. The Minister has often told me and others that 4,000 inspectors are in training, but how many of them have merely registered for training? How many have actually ponyed up the £8,000 necessary to complete the course? When she tells us how many have put the money up front, will she tell us what words of condolence or what compensation she will offer to all the people who have sunk their money into a scheme that will not be honoured?
The Government were prepared to spend £3 million on advertising the scheme—£3 million for spin doctors but no compensation for those who have lost their savings as a result of the Government’s U-turn. What will those who invested in that flawed scheme think when public money is used to advertise the merits of a flagship that has already been sunk?
More than that, there were real worries about the home condition report database, which was integral to the scheme. As we know, and as we have heard from Members on other occasions, the Government have grave problems in handling IT schemes. Lenders said that they needed 12 months to get systems in place to reconcile them to the HCR database, but even yesterday we still did not have details about the tender or the operating rules for the database. Last week, it was reported that two of the potential bidders to run the scheme had already pulled out. After yesterday’s announcement, how many will offer to run it now? Rather than trying to nail the dead parrot to the perch, would not the Minister be better off admitting that the home condition report has shuffled off the mortal coil and gone to join the choir invisible?
Ministers will try to clutch at two straws in their efforts to say that HIPs are still alive: the need for energy efficiency ratings, up front at the point of marketing, and the need for local government searches, also up front at the point of marketing. The Government have tried to make a great deal of the energy efficiency report, but the truth is that it is a fig leaf. It is small and it looks green, but it cannot really cover the Minister’s embarrassment. As the Government have themselves admitted, and as I pointed out in response to two questions earlier, we do not need HIPs to implement energy efficiency reports. The Northern Ireland Office said that
“we do not believe a home information pack is necessary to ensure compliance with the directive”.
Indeed, given that HIPs apply only when a home is bought or sold—obviously—how can we ensure that all the homes in the country have their energy efficiency rating fixed if we rely only on transactions for the commissioning of those ratings or reports? It simply does not make sense.
The Government’s pretensions to environmental consciousness in respect of house building policy will raise a hollow laugh in many parts of the country. Their code for sustainable homes has been criticised by both the World Wildlife Federation-UK and the Association for the Conservation of Energy. The WWF-UK resigned from the sustainable buildings taskforce, saying that it felt unable to defend the draft code because it did not do enough to promote energy conservation. In the last Parliament, the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), drew considerable attention to the environmental defects of the Government’s house building programme. Indeed, it was only thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) that the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill has provisions to ensure that microgeneration is one of the factors that planning committees take into consideration when deciding whether to go ahead with new developments.
Rubbish—the provision was always in the Bill.
It was an amendment introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle, which I was delighted to support. It is a commitment to the fact that when it comes to construction the Opposition take their environmental responsibilities seriously.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No thank you.
The final straw that the Minister may be tempted to clutch is the need for local searches, paid for at the point of marketing. But as anyone who has been involved in the home-buying and selling process knows, the key problem with local searches is that they need to be timely; after three months, they instantly date. It is much more sensible to make them at the point of sale rather than at the point of marketing. Indeed, the Government’s pretensions to be an agent of quicker searches overall are undermined by their record. They presided over the introduction of the national land information service, which was designed to cut delay, but according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders NLIS is a mess; it is another flawed IT project. Fewer than 25 per cent. of local authorities can accept a request, process the search and deliver it electronically. Some local authorities take weeks to deliver. Nothing has been done to achieve full connectivity and more than half of local authorities say that the key problem is the Government’s failure to ensure a fully joined-up system—yet another reason for the Government to get the detail right before pressing ahead with over-ambitious schemes.
I have a specific question for the Minister on searches. At present, local authority searches do not incur VAT, but HIPs were supposed to incur VAT, so will we now have VAT on local authority searches as part of the HIP? Is that another stealth tax that the Minister is trying to rescue from the wreckage of her schemes?
The home information pack was a sickly child; now it is being abandoned even by those who were anxious to bring it into the world. The Consumers Association—once the Government’s loyal ally in this regard—said that the Government have come up with a half-baked compromise and shown that their house is made of straw. Today, the Financial Times said of yesterday’s climbdown:
“It is hard to imagine a better way of discrediting the process before it even gets off the ground. Policy making on the hoof is rarely a pretty sight and it is pretty clear that this is a poorly thought-out climbdown. Time to go back to the drawing board.”
It is indeed time for the Government to go back to the drawing board. They have failed to provide adequate consumer protection in the housing market, failed to manage the crucial detail even though they were warned years ago, and failed to use their time and public money to bring about genuine improvements to the house-buying process. I suspect that it will fall to another Government to bring about the changes that first-time buyers and others need to secure the improvements that the country desperately needs.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“believes that reforms to home buying and selling need to be designed around the interests of consumers; further believes that Home Information Packs (HIPs) will cut waste and duplication and speed up transactions for consumers; applauds the proposed inclusion in HIPs of Energy Performance Certificates which will give buyers and sellers vital information about the energy efficiency of homes and practical suggestions about how to cut fuel bills and carbon emissions; welcomes the Government’s intention to carry out further testing of HIPs; and notes that the Government is working with industry to encourage the successful voluntary take-up of Home Condition Reports, retaining the option of a mandatory approach to ensure widespread take-up, and thus maximising the benefit for consumers.”
As always, we heard an entertaining speech from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). It was rather lacking in fact or substance, but entertaining nevertheless.
The hon. Gentleman began his speech with an important issue. He talked about stability in the housing market and in the economy. I think the people of this country will be astonished that the Conservatives are attempting to say that they have concern for housing market reforms because they are concerned about the stability of the economy and the housing market. The Conservatives put interest rates up to 15 per cent. They pushed people out of the housing market and pushed that market into free-fall. The hon. Gentleman talks about helping families on to the housing market ladder, yet his party pushed half a million families off the housing market ladder.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a report that he knows is based on utterly unfounded assumptions—or at least I hope he knows, given his party’s concern and its pretensions to try to regain some economic credibility. He also talked in some detail about his concerns about first-time buyers, and other hon. Members raised that issue. First-time buyers, by definition, are not sellers. They do not have to provide home information packs. In fact, they get the packs for free. They will get the information, for which they currently have to pay, for free. That is why home information packs are good news for first-time buyers and why the Labour party is supporting first-time buyers. Conservative Members say that they are concerned to help first-time buyers, yet they oppose home information packs, they oppose the new homes that we desperately need to help first-time buyers, and they oppose the funding of shared ownership schemes to help people get their first step on the housing ladder.
Is not the situation even worse? Under the present scheme, do not first-time buyers quite often pay for surveys several times over, following abortive sales?
My hon. Friend is right. If a first-time buyer, or any buyer, wants to buy a house and the sale falls through, another buyer will come along and have to pay for all the same searches all over again. That seems to be an awful lot of duplication and waste. It seems that an awful lot of money is going into the hands of people who are gathering that information, but the consumer should not be spending that money time and again.
We know that Conservative Members have always opposed all aspects of home information packs. One minute they complain that they will cost too much, the next they tell us that sellers should pay more for extra information on flooding or on radon gas in their HIPs. One minute they say that HIPs are too bureaucratic, the next they say that they want someone who lives on top of the Pennines to pay for an extra bit of paper saying whether their property is subject to flood risk. We do not think that that is appropriate. The fact is that consumers can waste a lot of money under the current process. I do not understand why Conservative Members want to keep defending the status quo. Why do they want to keep defending a situation in which consumers waste huge amounts of money every day?
I noticed that there were chuckles from the Labour Benches when the Minister was making some of those statements. If the home information packs are so important and essential, why have her Government now abandoned them?
Let us be clear—we are not abandoning home information packs. The chuckles from the Labour Benches were at Conservative Members pretending to support the interests of first-time buyers and blatantly opposing measures that will help them.
We think that we should not simply defend the status quo in the housing market. There are serious problems in the way in which that market works at the moment. Consumers can end up wasting a lot of money. There is a lack of transparency. They cannot have the information that they need. We think that we need to amend the way in which we introduce the home information packs and we have changed our approach in the light of the work on the dry run and the information on the readiness of the market. Many hon. Members have called on us to do more work on the testing, and we agree. We are doing more work. We will introduce area-based trials later in the year, underpinned by independent monitoring and research, to test the costs and benefits of the home information packs and to look at some of the underlying assumptions. We think that that is appropriate.
I just wonder what the implications are for home inspectors. A constituent e-mailed me this morning to say that he had borrowed £7,000 to become a home inspector and he does not know what the future holds.
My hon. Friend is right. We recognise the uncertainty that many home inspectors are expressing. We are keen to tell them that we believe that home information packs will need to be introduced from 1 June next year and that they will need to include energy performance certificates, so there is work to be done to introduce those certificates by that date.
We also want to promote the roll-out of the home condition reports. We think that those are valuable. However, we are concerned that a big bang approach and introducing all aspects of the home condition reports next year would pose too many risks to consumers. Therefore, in the trials that we shall begin later in the year, we shall look in particular at ways to support the roll-out of home condition reports. We shall work with the industry in order to increase take-up and look at both voluntary and mandatory approaches in order to be able to promote the roll-out of home condition reports. We think that the surveys will be very valuable for consumers.
I will give way in the order in which hon. Members caught my eye.
For those home inspectors and those training to be home inspectors in areas not subject to the pilot tests, will the Government be willing to refund the money that they have spent training to do a job that will never materialise, potentially?
As I have said, we think that we should be rolling out home condition reports. That is the clear aspect of the statement that we made yesterday. We want to start the trials this November. We will need home inspectors in place in order to be able to do the trials from this November for the home condition reports but, clearly, we will want to look at the results of those trials, too.
Will my hon. Friend say something more about what she means by an area based roll-out? Are we talking about regions of the country, which has some sense in terms of the digital roll-out? Labour Back Benchers are keen, for environmental reasons, that home information packs be continued with. The people who are trained are vital, so we must make sure that they are supported and that there is a clear process. Perhaps she can say something about what that process will be.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Let us be clear. We think that the energy efficiency information needs to be brought in from 1 June next year nationwide, so that energy efficiency information, as part of the energy performance certificates, will be included on a mandatory basis within the HIP from 1 June next year. Obviously, we will need to test the workings of energy performance certificates and their effectiveness, but we also want to test the home condition reports and the top-up for the full survey. Our approach is to begin this summer with some detailed consumer research and analysis of the HIPs that have been produced already—there are HIPs that have been produced already across the country—in order to develop detailed area-based trials, to begin sometime later in the year. We will set out the details of those trials in the light of the further research that is taking place over the summer. We will inform Parliament in due course of further details on that.
In the trials, I ask my hon. Friend not to shy away from making the scheme compulsory. There have been numerous attempts to reform the conveyancing system to assist first-time buyers. I have personal experience of those. They have all failed as a result of a lack of compulsion. Sellers and their solicitors have chosen not to supply the information because of the additional cost for sellers, so I urge her to make the scheme compulsory. Consult and get it right, but make it compulsory.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have said, we want to look, as part of the trials, at different ways of supporting the take-up of the full home condition report. That may mean looking at incentives and at all sorts of different approaches, but we want to look at the mandatory approach, too. We are clear that we need the trials to look at a range of approaches to ensure that we can get the roll-out of the home condition reports and to ensure that those are effective. It is important that we learn from the trials and have a pragmatic approach in order to deliver the benefits for consumers and the environment.
I welcome what the Minister just said. If we are going to market-test, market-testing mandatory home condition reports in at least some areas of the country will be worth while. I was at a breakfast meeting last week with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). At that time, he was also calling for a mandatory trial run on that basis, so we would satisfy him by doing that, too.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have said, we want to consider the precise design of the trials in the light of the research over the summer, so at this stage we cannot confirm exactly how those trials will work. It will depend on the consumer research and the further analysis that we undertake.
May I press my hon. Friend a little further on that matter? She will know from the research that has been done that the vast majority of dry run packs that have been issued to date have not included the home condition report. How will the evidence from that research help her to conclude which areas would be appropriate for the mandatory tests, to which she responded positively—which was welcome—in replying to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts)?
It is important to make clear what we are considering. We want to look at mandatory, voluntary and other approaches to roll-out, but we cannot make a commitment to conduct a mandatory trial, as there are problems with the practicalities of such a trial, and we must undertake further work over the summer. We are looking at existing HIPs—my right hon. Friend is right that many of them have been produced without surveys—and at consumer attitudes and evidence from other countries. He will know that Denmark, for example, has introduced home condition reports in an extremely popular scheme that is similar to HIPs. We want, too, to look at the experience in Australia and other countries. We must therefore undertake detailed and informed work so that we can promote the home condition reports.
Once HIPs are in place, they can be topped up to become full HIPs with a home condition report. Most people do not have a HIP, so their position will be very different if searches are conducted and an energy performance certificate is issued. We want to work with the industry to look at the alternative options in a market-led approach to roll-out. As the amendment makes clear, the Secretary of State believes that the mandatory approach remains on the table.
I am grateful to the Government for proceeding more slowly with home information packs. I welcome my hon. Friend’s measured tone and approach to the issue, in contrast to the pyrotechnics of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove)—his speech was all sizzle and no steak—and I urge her not to fall for his strictures on local authority searches. I remember conveyancing when the Opposition were in office. Local authority searches could take up to 46 weeks, but the Conservative Government did nothing about it.
My hon. Friend is right. If we provide information at the beginning of the process, rather than at the end, we will cut the time that it takes to buy and sell homes. That takes far too long at present, and it is not a sensible way to run a major market in which people invest huge amounts of money in their most important possession.
It is claimed that the national land information service is dysfunctional, which would prevent the benefits of HIPs from being realised if the scheme proceeds. How does the Minister intend to make sure that electronic local authority searches work better? Will she, for instance, consider compulsion?
The hon. Gentleman is right that it is important that NLIS works effectively. He will be aware that reforms to e-conveyancing have the potential to introduce a substantial measure of transparency. If there are long delays, people do not know whether it is their solicitor or estate agent or the other party’s solicitor or estate agent who is at fault, or whether there is a problem elsewhere in the chain. Most people who are buying or selling a home do not know whether the delay in the system is legitimate because they cannot work out where it is. They do not know whether someone is ripping them off, because they do not know exactly what is going on. Together, e-conveyancing and HIPs have a huge potential to introduce transparency in the system.
I should like to make a little progress, as I have given way to many hon. Members.
It is important to acknowledge the importance of the energy performance certificates, but Opposition Members’ response was disappointing. They had an opportunity to back them and welcomed the changes that we have made to the programme. They could acknowledge that HIPs and energy performance certificates will have a big impact, as 27 per cent. of carbon emissions in this country come from domestic homes. The certificates will allow us to give people reliable information so that they can cut those emissions as well as fuel bills. However, there is not a word about the certificates in the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. There was hardly a word about them in his speech, although he did mention them under questioning by Government Members. Opposition Members have a chance to support the introduction of energy performance certificates 18 months earlier than the European deadlines, because it is important to give people information on ways in which they can cut fuel bills and carbon emissions.
Green gimmicks are all that the Tories can offer. They fly to the Arctic and they sledge with the huskies, but they will not tell a first-time buyer how to cut her fuel bills. They ride bikes across London, but only if the chauffeur is following with the shoes. They say that it is okay for the wealthy to buy wind turbines, but they will not tell everyone else how important it is to lag the loft. That is the reality of the Opposition’s policy on the environment. They are not prepared to introduce energy performance certificates early, even though the measure is backed by WWF and Friends of the Earth. There is silence from the Opposition. All that they say is that work in Northern Ireland suggests that we could proceed without home information packs. They may wish to know that Northern Ireland cannot introduce energy performance certificates on 1 June next year, 18 months earlier than the European deadline. It will introduce them, but it still has an awful lot of work to do, as there must be consultation and regulations must be introduced. We are right to introduce the certificates early with HIPs to give people proper information about ways in which they can cut emissions from their homes.
A couple of weeks ago, the Government acquiesced in the introduction of an EU directive to postpone mandatory nitrogen oxide emissions targets for another five years. That is not the approach one would expect of an environmentally friendly Government, so rather than criticising the Opposition the hon. Lady should look at what her own party is doing.
Given that the Tories opposed the climate change levy and are desperate to get out of any European policy, they do not have a huge amount of credibility on the issue.
The Opposition parties have always opposed the reform of home buying and selling. They have resisted every aspect of HIPs and energy performance certificates from the beginning, and they object to estate agents having to change the way in which they operate. They have defended the status quo and the vested interests of people who make money from the system, rather than defending the consumer. It is right to conduct detailed debates about the way in which we can make the changes effective, and we must ensure that we learn from the trials and from experience. However, we must ensure, too, that we reform home buying and selling and the wider housing market to achieve stability, which benefits the economy, as hon. Members said at the outset of our debate. We must build more homes, but Opposition Members have repeatedly rejected that proposal. If they cared about stability in the housing market, they would back our proposals to build 200,000 new homes, but they have failed to do so.
They must be in the right place.
Where is the right place? Opposition Members can never think of the right place to build homes—they oppose them wherever they are. The oppose them on greenfield and on brownfield sites; they oppose them in the country and in the town. They do not want them here or there; they do not want them anywhere. It is a Dr. Seuss or “Green Eggs and Ham” approach to housing policy. The reality is that Opposition Members do not care about housing market stability, or benefits for the consumer or first-time buyers and home owners. The Government have introduced benefits for the housing market, for the consumer and for the home buyer. We will continue to do so, and we will back the interests of the next generation—not the vested interests that have dominated the Opposition for far too long.