Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
I congratulate the Minister on making such good use of the extra week that she has had to consider the Government’s position, as a result of my hon. Friends forcing an Adjournment of the House following the Government’s craven and inept use of the extradition rules. It cannot have been easy, but eventually, by 5 pm yesterday, reality had broken in on the Government. As a Liberal Democrat, I was pleased to see that reality came in the form of the Minister’s statement, the terms of which were very similar to the amendment that we tabled for today’s debate but which, unfortunately, Mr. Speaker has not selected for consideration.
The Minister set out the key considerations in much the same terms as those in which we see the problems of the home information packs project, as it was. First, there has been a significant delay in issuing the vital regulations determining how the scheme would run. One of my questions to the Minister is whether tomorrow’s statutory instrument Committee is still intended to go ahead and consider some of those rules, or whether the rules now have to be withdrawn and reconsidered. Secondly, there has been serious delay in implementing any pilot schemes. Thirdly, there are insufficient inspectors to carry out a mandatory scheme on the time scale that the Minister originally set out.
In the amendment that we tabled both last week and today, we pointed out that there needs to be a realistic assessment of when and how a compulsory scheme should be introduced. We also made the point that we do not need a gold-plated home information pack scheme. We were therefore pleased that the scheme outlined by the Minister in her statement is confined to fulfilling the important EU directive, and does not include gold-plated extras. Her statement yesterday was three times longer than our amendment, but it made the same points.
A useful concept has been wrecked by difficulties of the Government’s own making, and it would be unwise and unsafe to plough on. The Minister may initially have been seduced by an attractive argument, and one which appeals to me on many occasions—that anything opposed both by estate agents and by the Conservative party must be good. Well, 99 times out of 100, that is correct, but the Minister has belatedly understood that this was the 100th occasion.
We are grateful for the decision that the hon. Lady has taken and we look forward with great interest to what will happen next. The Liberal Democrats welcome the energy efficiency certificate and the fact that it will be introduced next year. However, she should not take too much credit for bringing it in 18 months early. That is not the case. In 1998, my former hon. Friend who was then the Member for Torridge and West Devon introduced a Bill that would have brought about exactly what is to happen in 2007. I was a sponsor of his Energy Efficiency Bill and served on the Committee that considered it. The Bill was opposed by the Government and eventually fell in July 1998.
If the Government want to take the credit for introducing home energy certificates 18 months early, they should also take the blame for bringing them in nine years late—nine years in which an extra 1.5 million homes have been built and about 11 million homes have been sold, none of which have had home energy efficiency checks, because back in 1998 the Government opposed their introduction. There have been no certificates, no transparency and no market pressure for energy efficiency for nine unnecessarily prolonged years.
The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the energy efficiency information has been available for the past nine years. If so, why is he trying to take credit for such a requirement being introduced in June next year? He cannot have it both ways. Much as I welcome the home energy certificate element of the Government’s proposals, I do not believe that it is right or appropriate for them to try to take credit for being ahead of the crowd, when they are in fact years behind what my former hon. Friend proposed.
In the present fiasco, we must not lose the core points about reducing the carbon emissions from our homes, increasing the transparency of transactions when buying and selling takes place, and reducing the stress factor. There is no doubt that buying or selling a home is a deeply stressful experience.
I was interested to read both the amendment tabled by the Government last week and the one that they tabled this week. They are almost identical, but they differ in one interesting respect. Last week, the final sentence said:
“the Government is working with industry on the development of...tests and...it has already announced that it will set out further details before the Parliamentary Recess.”
This week, the Government amendment ends with the statement 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.”
The industry out there is baffled by the Government’s approach and by the changes that they have made. The public are bemused and the Minister, despite her eloquence, sounds somewhat bewildered about what to do next. Will the hon. Lady please make sure that whatever comes out of the changes, we do not lose sight of the need for improved energy conservation, improved transparency and a reduction in stress?
Between 1 million and 1.5 million houses are sold each year. The best moment to make changes to those homes to reduce their carbon impact is when they are empty, when they are being bought and sold, and when, for the most part, householders are in the best frame of mind and have greatest access to finances to make those changes. We must therefore ensure that energy certificates are used as a market tool, so that if energy efficiency is bad, that is reflected in the price, and to give a prompt that instead of a new kitchen, some extra insulation in the loft might be better value for money. Without home energy efficiency certificates, there will still be substantial problems with compliance.
On transparency, I am sure the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) would be the first to say that markets work best when they are informed markets. Home sellers should not concentrate on baking bread in the kitchen on the day that the buyer comes round so that the house smells right—[Interruption.] They should make sure that the house is properly insulated and has the right equipment to maintain energy efficiency. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—but I would be happy to take a further intervention from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).
If we had a more transparent market in which people knew what they were buying and understood what they were selling, stress would be reduced. A survey was conducted at the beginning of this year on the most stressful events in people’s lives: divorce accounted for 17 per cent.; bereavement accounted for 28 per cent.; and buying, selling and moving house, which are stressful experiences, accounted for 44 per cent. We need to make sure that we take steps to deal with that issue.
So far as the Government’s announcement goes, we know that they have listened to their critics, but they are obliged to say what will happen next, and I do not believe that they have fulfilled that obligation today.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem faced by Ministers is that they have not conducted any full-blown tests? We have been given promise after promise about test after test. The latest idea is a test in Cambridge with university students. Can the hon. Gentleman think of a worse group of people on whom to conduct a test?
That is a challenge—but I will not attempt to name a worse group of people. However, I will talk about pilots, because some significant points need to be sorted out. On a practical level, a Statutory Instrument Committee is considering regulations on HIPs tomorrow, so will those regulations be changed? When will the rest of the information needed to make the pilots effective be introduced? And what is the plan for the pilots?
A central question, which the Minister did not address in a straightforward way, is whether the pilots will be free. A home condition survey provided free is a very different animal from one for which people must volunteer to pay. One of the significant points of criticism is that HIPs might depress the volume of sales, and that will depend on whether people have to pay for the service.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has suggested that some of the £3 million of promotional money should be used. I am not arguing that the surveys should be free. I am simply saying that previous discussion suggests that the Government thought that they were testing the mechanics, such as whether the envelopes could be opened quickly enough, when they needed to measure the impact on the market of a completely new vehicle for house buying and selling. The pilots need to be conducted on the right financial basis, and the Government should tell us where the pilots will conducted, how representative they will be and the scale on which they will be conducted.
How long the pilots will run is not as critical as it used to be. When the Minister made her announcement last night, it must have been in her mind that she could not use a pilot scheme that ran for a month or two in the winter, when sales are depressed, to gauge whether the scheme is functional. She has referred to market research that will be conducted this summer before the pilots start, and I welcome any moves to make the pilots as realistic as possible. We also need to know what will be used to judge success or failure in the pilot schemes.
As has already been asked, what will be the fate of those who started out on HIP training programmes? This afternoon, I heard that Reading university is currently running a course attended by 480 students, who have paid £8,500 each to be on it. When the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was changed into the Department for Communities and Local Government a few weeks ago, the students on the course asked for, and were given, a specific assurance that the change in the structure of the Departments would not affect the implementation of the HIPs, and the students continued on the course on that basis. The Government have an obligation to say what they intend to do about that matter and how they see the job prospects for those students either under a voluntary scheme, which might one day be a mandatory scheme, or during the pilot exercises. What future do they intend them to have?
I do not know whether Reading university should take the rap. There has been a serious attempt to recruit people to meet a Government deadline, which has now been changed, and the question is whether the whole scheme has been changed or abandoned. What are the prospects for those students? It may be that so few people have participated in training programmes that the work available from the voluntary scheme will be sufficient. We need to hear from the Government exactly what will happen.
The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point. People did not undertake the training because they were not sure whether the Government were committed to HIPs, which has proved to be the case. He is right: the Government have let down those students, so surely they should pay.
I have raised a number of specific questions, and I believe that the Government have an obligation to respond to them. If the Government say that they will not pay, we need to know their reasoning. They might believe that there will be a sufficient job market for those people, but if that is the case, let us hear about it. At the moment, the people who were naive enough or enthusiastic enough to take the Government at face value find themselves in the front line without a bayonet, while Ministers are safe in the rear pointing at maps and waving their arms.
Our amendment makes it clear what we do and do not support. When the legislation was being considered, we made it clear in this Chamber and in Committee what should have happened. My point is that much as I would like the situation to be different, it is not, and the Government must determine how they will sweep up the broken glass that they have left behind.
I want briefly to comment on what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath had to say. He was as eloquent as ever, and he spoke forcefully in favour of one specific Conservative policy, which is outright opposition to HIPs—that is one of the rare issues on which the Conservatives currently have a policy. However, I felt that his point about housing stability was wildly inaccurate. When I last bought and sold a house, it was in the middle of the housing slump induced by his Government and his Chancellor. If he represents himself as speaking on behalf of a party that has a record of achieving housing stability, it significantly devalues his eloquent contribution to the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; perhaps this will give the House a chance to have a breather.
I have looked at the hon. Gentleman’s amendment carefully. Given that it refers to
“the nature and date of introduction of the compulsory scheme”,
it is clear that the Liberal Democrats support the compulsory introduction of a home condition report scheme. It goes on:
“and further calls on the Government to limit the scope of the scheme to that required by the EU Directive, rather than the current ‘gold-plated’ alternative.”
Can he outline exactly what the Liberal Democrats mean by that?
I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman refers to the Hansard record of proceedings in Committee and in this House, he will see that we opposed the introduction of the compulsory scheme.
I want to comment briefly on the use by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath of the Oxford study of the impact of HIPs, which has been hopelessly oversold. He and I attended a meeting where some of these points were discussed. The downside predicted by that study depends on an assumption about a reduction in transactions. I noted from the information given at the same time by the authors of the study that the reduction, or rather fluctuation, in the number of transactions owed far more to issues such as interest rates and the price differential between different parts of the country than it did to a one-off cost. In criticising the Government’s proposals, it is important that we do not shoot at non-existent targets.
Now that the frenetic rush towards June 2007 has ended, we need to take a long, hard look at the best and quickest way of smoothing the process of home sale and purchase, saving on costs for buyers and sellers alike, breaking the potent monopolies of agents and lawyers, and providing a strong incentive for energy efficiency and an improvement in the performance of our building stock. We need to bring a welcome and necessary transparency to the process of buying and selling a house, which is too opaque for most buyers and many sellers.
Home information packs have had a bumpy and fractious ride. Liberal Democrat Members ask the Government and the industry to step back and take a deep breath, to engage with the Opposition Members who one day soon will inherit their legacy, and to develop a viable durable scheme that is truly fit for purpose.
Order. Many more hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye than those of whom we have had previous notification. There is no time limit, but I would appreciate it if hon. Members would bear in mind that there is quite a demand to speak in this debate.
Let me start by drawing attention to my registered interests as chairman of the Construction Industry Council, chairman of the NHBC Foundation, and a director of Hometrack.
I suspect that today’s debate will not be seen as one of the finer moments in the history of housing policy or, indeed, of our democratic processes. A long overdue reform that held out the prospect of radically transforming and simplifying the home buying and selling process, cutting out waste and abortive costs and reducing the scope for failed transactions, disappointment and heartache has been seriously put at risk as a result of cynical, short-sighted opportunism from the Conservative party and a deeply regrettable loss of nerve on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.
Let us go back to first principles. It is no coincidence that the home buying and selling process in England is widely recognised as one of the most stressful activities that individuals and families experience in the course of their lives. At the heart of it lies the curious presumption that prospective buyers should make an offer without the benefit of essential information about the property that they are proposing to acquire. That is of course completely at odds with the normal principles of consumer protection.
In theory, the problem is reduced by the fact that the offer remains conditional until the buyer has had the opportunity to carry out the necessary checks to satisfy himself that what he is proposing to buy is worth the amount he has offered. However, that is precisely where so many of the problems that bedevil the system arise. The surveys and searches undertaken for the buyer may well reveal hidden problems or potential risks that may in turn either halt the process or prompt renegotiation of the price, which in itself inevitably means further delay and risk. While all that is going on, the seller may well have second thoughts and either withdraw the property from the market or accept an offer from another source—the infamous practice of gazumping. When that happens, all the costs that the prospective buyer has incurred in surveyors and lawyers’ fees will prove abortive. About £1 million is lost every day in that way, which is just senseless waste.
It is not surprising that many prospective buyers choose not to incur that expenditure but seek to minimise their outlay by not commissioning a survey and relying instead on their lender’s valuation. In consequence, they may well end up with far less basic information about the home they are buying than about even the most ephemeral consumer product. Yet it is often the largest financial transaction in their lives, and bearing in mind the fact that they will have to live with the consequences for very many years, it is clearly an unsatisfactory process.
That is where the concept of home information packs comes in. They would ensure that all prospective buyers have access at the outset to detailed information about the property, its condition, any restrictive covenants that apply to it, and potential planning implications that may affect its value or amenity. In that way, the buyer is better equipped to make an informed decision on whether to make an offer, and if so, how much to offer. Furthermore, the scope for subsequent delay, complications and abortive costs is greatly reduced.
The introduction of home information packs would not only result in a simpler, quicker, fairer and more transparent process, but encourage a more efficient market in which some of the current unjustified costs would not survive. For example, lenders continue to require prospective buyers to meet very substantial costs for the valuation of the property—£350 or more is typical. Yet we know that automated valuation models provide an alternative for a fraction of the cost and are increasingly demonstrating a high degree of accuracy. The introduction of HIPs and a more transparent and competitive market would rapidly accelerate the process of change to AVMs with substantial cost benefits to the public.
The special pleading by the Council for Mortgage Lenders on this subject is one of the more regrettable examples of a defence of vested interests instead of the promotion of the public interest. I am sorry that the Opposition and the Government appear to have given more heed than deserved to its representations.
There is a very strong case for the introduction of HIPs. Today’s debate should have been about how we can achieve that in the most effective way and with the least possible delay. Instead, we have an Opposition gloating in their ability to frustrate and derail something that is clearly in the public interest, and a Government who are backtracking from one of their manifesto commitments. What could possibly justify that? What are the arguments against HIPs, apart from the vested interests of certain groups, including some estate agents and mortgage lenders who do very nicely out of the current arrangements and do not want changes that will threaten them? There are four arguments against HIPs that should be addressed, although I do not believe that any one of them survives serious scrutiny.
First, there is the issue of cost, about which there has been a great deal of speculation and little serious analysis in the media. The figure of £1,000 has been widely bandied about, with the assumptions that packs will cost that amount to produce and that that will be an added financial burden on home sellers. Neither of those assumptions bears serious examination. Even if the cost to HIP producers were to be £1,000 per pack—most serious commentators believe that it will be significantly less—that is not what the seller would be asked to pay when they put their home on the market. There would be stiff competition to secure the HIP business and the potential commercial benefits that would flow from it, and that would drive down the charges made to individuals commissioning HIPs. A cost of about £350 is much more likely to have been the outcome, with some providers already holding out the prospect of offering the packs for free.
Furthermore, the largest potential producers have already made it clear that they would not charge sellers up front for the packs but would only set the charge against the proceeds of the sale when completed. At the same time, we should not forget that most sellers are also buyers, and any costs that they incur from the HIP would be offset by the benefit they get from the provision of the pack on the properties they are considering purchasing, as well as the removal of the risk of abortive costs for surveys and searches. Then there is the benefit for first-time buyers, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning identified.
The second possible objection to HIPs is their scope. There are obvious balances to be struck. If the home condition report is too comprehensive, there will be cost implications, but if its coverage is limited, its value is reduced if not undermined altogether. The proposals that have formed the basis of the scheme up to now appear to be basically right. They mean to provide the information that could be expected from a mid-range survey, while recognising that, in some special cases, additional information might be required. Whether that is the correct balance could have been further assessed in the course of testing the scheme. Some fine tuning would have been possible in the run-up to introduction and as the scheme proceeded. However, it is clear that neither the position adopted by the Opposition nor that of the Government is credible.
There are few better illustrations of the Opposition’s opportunism than their repeated complaints about the alleged excessive cost of HIPs, swiftly followed by suggestions that, without additional information, the home condition report will be worthless. My hon. Friend the Minister rightly made that point.
The Government’s announcement yesterday that the home condition report will not be a mandatory part of the home information pack is equally misguided. Although energy efficiency reports are welcome, they constitute only one relatively small element in the total equation. Few people, if any, will base their decision of whether to buy a property primarily on its energy rating. Yesterday’s announcement is therefore, as the Financial Times rightly observes, almost the worst possible outcome: retaining a significant cost attributable to the need for a visit to survey the property for its energy rating, without getting the benefit of the full home condition report and the economy of scale implicit in conducting both surveys at the same time.
I am interested in my right hon. Friend’s argument about the energy rating. Does not he perceive its value in changing the culture and the way in which people approach their energy emissions?
I fully agree that the energy rating is a significant element, but it is only a part of the picture, and the vast majority of people who consider buying a property want to consider several other factors, including structural stability, the location and the property’s characteristics, as well as energy efficiency. There should be a comprehensive report. That is much more cost effective than having two separate surveys. I fear that that is one of the wasted opportunities of the decision not to proceed with the mandatory home condition report.
That leads me to the third objection: that HIPs have not been sufficiently trialled and tested, that there are not enough trained home inspectors, that preparations for June 2007 are behind schedule, and that there is consequently a risk of serious problems and turbulence in the market around the introduction date.
Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a benefit of the energy performance certificate is that it will force domestic householders to consider how they expend energy, thus saving money? Would not the home condition report also accrue a benefit from that in that homeowners would be forced to consider other elements and other expenditure in their homes and try to gain equal cost advantage from improving those, too?
My hon. Friend is experienced in those matters. Indeed, I believe that she is currently training in the process of undertaking home condition reports—[Interruption.] She makes the valid point that the reports are about providing additional information to the public to enable them to make more informed judgments, and the abusive noises from the Opposition Benches imply disrespect towards those who are seriously trying to help the public to be better informed about the most important financial decision that most people will make in their lives.
There is ground for concern about the speed of implementation and the adequacy of the number of home inspectors, but the Government’s decision to pull the plug on the mandatory home condition reports is precipitate and wrong. The training of inspectors, although slow to start, has been gathering pace this summer. Indeed, there will be many upset and angry individuals who have invested much time and money in preparation and training for the introduction of the reports. They will feel badly let down. All the evidence that I have gleaned from those with genuine experience of the market shows that the June 2007 date was achievable and that, even if some difficulties had occurred around the start of the new arrangements, they would have been overcome in a relatively short time.
Let me say a brief word about the likely impact on the market. There has probably been more ill-informed speculation, scaremongering and nonsense aired in recent months about that than about any other aspect of the scheme. The suggestion, which has been put about, that HIPs will lead to a massive slump in the market and that 90,000 estate agents will consequently be out of work—incidentally, that was seen as a downside—are, frankly, not worth the newspaper on which they are written.
Of course, there may be some short-term reductions in the number of properties put on the market because, as everyone knows, under current arrangements some homeowners put their properties up for sale to get a feel for their value, with no serious intention of proceeding to sell. However, by definition, the vast majority of those speculative sales would never have proceeded. So the idea that their withdrawal from estate agents’ windows will lead to a collapse of the volume of sales is unconvincing. The report to which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) repeatedly referred is a perfect example of that. If one puts rubbish in as one’s assumption, one is likely to get rubbish out as one’s conclusion.
The factors that determine the overall volume of sales and, indeed, trends in house prices are far more fundamental and reflect wider economic trends. While the Government continue to manage our economy as skilfully as they have done in the past nine years, we should have no reason to fear a serious downturn in the market. On the contrary, the creation of a fairer, better, quicker and more transparent system of buying and selling homes should improve the prospects for a thriving housing market in the years ahead—one in which the interest of the public comes first and the professionals involved are genuinely competing for business in a way that delivers best value for money for the citizens.
I greatly regret yesterday’s announcement that home condition reports will not be a mandatory component of home information packs when they are introduced next June. The suggestion that they can be introduced on a voluntary basis is wishful thinking. The irony behind all that is that, after years of dragging their feet, many of the vested interests who have done well financially out of the current arrangements have come round to accepting that a fundamental reform was inevitable. The more progressive elements in the industry were already gearing up to take advantage of a more open and transparent market in a way that would have brought genuine benefits to the public. It is hardly surprising that consumer voices are the most disappointed today and that the backwoods estate agents and the Opposition are crowing.
I am sorry that the Government, whom I support and as part of whom I served for many years, have made such a grievous error of judgment, which will make it much harder to achieve the fundamental reform to the home buying and selling process in England that is so overdue. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning will realise before too long that they have made a mistake, which must be reversed, and that they must introduce HIPs, with the full mandatory home condition report, in the lifetime of the Parliament.
Follow that if one can! I am amazed that we are holding such a debate. Future generations of home sellers and buyers will celebrate the change that has happened, and the Government should designate 18 July a public holiday. Perhaps it could be named Prescott day in memory of a politician who made it possible by cocking it all up. The architect of the scheme is a disaster and the idea was insane. Only the Deputy Prime Minister could have devised it, making even Donald Rumsfeld appear sensible.
I cannot wait to see the back of the dreadful home information packs. It is an appalling scheme. Whatever the Minister claims, hopes and has powers to achieve, I am sorry but the Government are wrong. I agree with the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) that the matter should be examined, but not in the current manner. Change must happen, but let us think it through. There has been too much emotion cast here, there and everywhere, and that should not continue.
The home condition report will also bite the dust. Why is the idea crumbling? Because, again, it was not thought through. However, according to the Minister, HIPs remain top of the pops for the general public. That is not the case—HIPs have gone down like a lead balloon with the general public. If one talks to estate agents, mortgage providers and the Law Society, they will say that the general public do not want HIPs.
Yes, there is a vested interest. Those people talk to the public. I wish that the hon. Gentleman would do the same.
The Consumers Association, which unfortunately orchestrated the scheme, asked only 1,000 people what they considered to be the way forward for home improvement. That was two or three years ago. How can one base legislation on a consumer report of three years ago, with a sample of only 1,000 people? One cannot. Which? is a tremendous publication. It does a good job, but it is produced by a broad-brush organisation, not a forensic organisation.
Of course, the organisations that I have mentioned have a vested interest, and they know what they are talking about. That is what Labour Members cannot accept. A mortgage lender lends money; an estate agent is trained to do that job; and the members of the Law Society are pretty good at the job that they do. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) is not in his place at the moment.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I would like to emphasise that my constituents are also raising these concerns. The general public are worried about the value of these packs and about the increased costs involved. They are also worried about what the packs will be worth if they are not mandatory. My hon. Friend’s powerful case is backed up not only by the professionals, but by a number of my constituents who have contacted me.
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. Is it not the general public—our constituents across the country—whom we are here to protect, rather than vested interest groups? The Minister is relying on a Consumers Association report based on a survey of 1,000 people. Come on!
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is aware that we have been running a HIPs survey in my constituency, as he has been extremely helpful in putting it together. Minehead is a town of 10,000 people on Exmoor, with no large towns around it. I went to see Mr. Nick Lacey of Langdon’s estate agents and asked him to get every estate agent in the town to help with the survey. Every one of them is doing so, including the ones who have signed up to provide HIPs. Over the past month, they have been asking every buyer, seller and renter to fill in a questionnaire, and the responses have been revealing. They show what the public—the people whom we represent—think. I will present the findings to the Minister, even though they will be slightly out of date. Why did we choose an area such as Minehead? Because it is self-contained and populated by predominantly older people with money and common sense. Funnily enough, they are the general public. That might come as a surprise to some people.
The customers were very keen to fill in the questionnaires, which have revealed that they do not understand what they would be getting themselves into. That is the message that is coming back through the estate agents. They are not sure what the packs will entail. They do not know the costs involved or the ramifications of the process. What is an energy report? It is a thing on the fridge that says “A” or “B” or “C”. That is what people think. They do not understand the proposals. Are we going to paint “A”, “B” or “C” on the side of people’s houses? That would be good in areas of outstanding natural beauty such as Exmoor. Oh, sorry—that is the public; we do not talk about them.
Opposition to HIPs is running at an all-time high, with three to one against them. People in the very group that will allegedly benefit from the scheme were asked whether they thought that HIPs would stop gazumping, and 85 per cent. said no, they would not. Of course they would not. They might help a bit, but they are not going to stop it. We are going to have to do more than that. An even higher proportion of the interim results show that buyers will not trust HIPs because the seller has to pay the bill. Nobody trusts a report that has been paid for by the other side—they want to find out for themselves. They would be silly not to. However, I suspect that when I present my survey results to the Minister, they will be ignored because they are from the general public.
The individuals who will be charged with undertaking the inspections will not just have been swept up off the road. They will have had to undertake significant training. Many of them will already be chartered surveyors. When they carry out an energy assessment, they will be competent to do so. They will also be bound by professional standards, which will mean that they are impartial and will provide only technical advice. Does the hon. Gentleman think that he is misleading people when he suggests otherwise? Are not the vast majority of people in this country genuinely interested in their energy consumption? Would not they want to find out about that from a qualified individual?
Qualified? Reading university? I am told that Rightmove is now training people for free. The Government are so worried that there will not be enough providers that they are now giving cut-price courses. I know who I would depend on. It would be an estate agent, a lawyer or a mortgage lender who will go out and get the relevant information. This is not about telling people, “You can have an ‘A’ rating on your fridge.”
No, I will not give way again.
This is wrong. People are not going to get a clear understanding of what the energy efficiency of their house is. How long will the scheme last anyway? Until the next lot of European directives comes through and we have to change the process again. Another 300 quid.
The Minister has not mentioned housing associations and I am not sure whether that issue has disappeared. My local housing association in Sedgemoor, SHAL Housing, asked me whether, under the new scheme, it would have to carry out a brand new energy rating every time a property was let. I could not answer that question, but perhaps the Minister will be able to. If that is the case, will the Minister look into the situation as a matter of urgency? I am sure that no one would want housing associations to have to fork out money every time a property was let. I would have thought that that assumption was probably wrong.
The Danish scheme has resulted in a 25 per cent. decrease in the market. If HIPs did not work in Denmark, they will not work here. I am delighted that the Bill has been scrapped and that the Government have seen sense. I am just sorry that £3 million was spent before that happened.
Some years ago, the Government introduced the draft Housing Bill, which contained the initial proposals for HIPs. I was a member of the then Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which considered the proposals. I was also a member of the Standing Committee on the Housing Bill. Other hon. Members who are here today were also part of that process.
I began by making the basic presumption that the present house buying and selling processes in this country were not really adequate or fit for purpose. To begin with, however, I was not convinced that HIPs necessarily represented the right way forward. I therefore asked members of the Select Committee to take part in the discussions on the Housing Bill and to question Ministers and Members on the Opposition Front Bench. Eventually, I came to round to the view that HIPs were an appropriate way forward, although I did have some reservations and wanted to see certain elements of them changed.
There were certain givens involved in the house buying and selling processes that we needed to see incorporated into any system designed to deliver an appropriate process for our constituents. When individuals buy or sell a property, they are embarking on what is, for most of them, the most important financial transaction of their lives. Buyers and sellers are therefore entitled to receive and provide appropriate and adequate information about the property. That is a very simple point.
At the moment, people embark on that process with nothing more than an estate agent’s guide—and we all know what that can mean in practice in many cases. The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) talked about estate agents. Anyone can set themselves up as an estate agent. In this country, they need no qualifications at all to do so. There are some very good ones on whom I would be very happy to rely, but the reality is that many have no qualifications. The general public ought to be very concerned indeed that all they have to go on when buying a house is a brochure from an estate agent. The principle that the public should be protected by a system in which the seller provides information to the prospective buyer therefore seems a good starting point.
Secondly, whatever process we have, there will be costs. At present, there are search and survey costs and a whole variety of other costs, including estate agency fees. It seems to me to be reasonable that the costs should fall on the vendor rather than the purchaser. That protects first-time buyers who, by their very nature, are not sellers, and will therefore be helped by home information packs and home condition reports as they will not have to bear upfront costs. I shall deal with the point at which costs might be incurred in a moment.
If we can develop a system that avoids at least some elements of the duplication that can, although not in every transaction, occur, we should do so. At present, it is obvious that some transactions involve more than one request for a search and that some individuals seeking to buy a house have a search done on more than one property. If we can avoid that duplication by providing the search in the pack from the beginning, that seems to be a sensible principle. Some properties may have been on the market for so long that a second search must be done. The likelihood, however, is that there will be fewer searches and less expenditure under the HIPs proposals than under the current arrangements. No one has ever really tried to dispute that.
If information about the energy efficiency of homes can be incorporated into the system, I would hope that everyone would welcome it. I take the point, however, that if someone is to visit the home for the purpose of ascertaining its energy efficiency, it would be the best use of time and expenditure were an examination of the state of the property and a structural survey also done. That leads me to my next point. The House has a responsibility, as do the Government, to protect people from themselves to a degree. I find incredible the number of people in this country who still buy homes—the biggest financial transaction in their lives—without having a survey done. The only surveys that they have done are by the building societies, and we know how peripheral those can be. If we ask people to engage in a process with that amount of financial commitment, without also requiring them to have a survey completed, we would be failing in our duty as parliamentarians, and the Government would also be failing in their duty. Therefore, a system that requires a survey to be done is sensible.
For those reasons and good principles, a system of HIPs, with HCRs as part of it, seemed to me an appropriate way forward. As well as agreeing to the principle of the Government’s proposal, I also believed that it was right to consider how it would be implemented. Throughout the process, especially in the Bill’s Committee stage, I engaged the Minister in debate and asked for proper pilots to be carried out. If the Government’s statement today means that we will have a proper dry run, a proper look at what will happen, and an opportunity to iron out some of the wrinkles inevitable in any scheme when it is first implemented, I will welcome that. I will not, however, welcome a decision that ultimately means that we do not get the principle of HIPs with HCRs as part of a mandatory process. I will accept the Government’s proposal if an eventual move to mandatory HCRs is still very much on the table, and if the Government are prepared to give serious consideration—as the Minister has committed to do, although she has not committed to introduce the system—to including in the pilots, at least in some cases, an element of mandatory HCRs.
There will be some potential difficulties when the scheme begins. Unlike Conservative Members, however, I have some faith in markets. The people engaged in the process will adapt and change, and all the complaints from the Council of Mortgage Lenders about the dual cost of valuations will melt away. Magically, valuations will appear in most cases and will be co-ordinated with surveys done as part of HCRs. Ultimately, we will find that there is one process, and that lenders who refuse to accept that the introduction of HIPs and HCRs has changed the way in which we buy and sell houses in this country will go out of business. Those who want to stay in business will adapt to the new system, and we will not find that there are two charges up front for valuations.
We have heard all the scare stories about £1,000 upfront, but we know that those are nonsense. What will happen is that HIP providers will come forward who will only charge people when the house is sold. How do we know that that will happen? Maria Coleman, who ran the trial scheme in Bristol—which, I understand is still running— came to a deal with all those engaged in the process and the charge was made only at the end of that process. As I said, I have some faith in markets—I am surprised that Conservative Members do not—and they will adapt when the changes come about.
There have been a good many scare stories about the effect that HIPs might have had on the housing market. As my hon. Friend well knows, a number of different factors affect the state of the market, including real interest rates, nominal interest rates and disposable incomes. How important does he think the effect of HIPs would have been in comparison with those of all the other factors?
I think that the most important factors are the stability of the economy, and confidence that that stability will be maintained in the future. The finding from the Oxford survey that HIPs would have a massive effect on gross domestic product and jobs was entirely predicated on a 10 per cent. fall in the number of housing transactions. The figure was dragged out of thin air; there was no proper assessment. What was said was simply that if there were a 10 per cent. fall, that would be the consequence—which is fine, but it does not mean that HIPs would bring about the 10 per cent. fall in the first place.
We must ensure that the content of HIPs is as useful as possible to both seller and buyer. I have some sympathy with what Opposition Members say about that in their motion. If they really fear that the content is not adequate, and if it is true that more information about electrical installations is needed, I support them. If we are to introduce this document, it is important that we get it right.
I think that HIPs should also include information about the security of homes. Even if that were not mandatory, sellers could state: “This is the information that we have about the security of our homes.” They could say whether burglar alarms and locks had been installed and whether their homes met standards set by the Association of Chief Police Officers. If they chose not to include such information, that would say a fair amount about the state of their homes as well. There could be a section dealing with fire safety, which again would not need to be mandatory. Those who wanted to include the information could do so very clearly, and buyers would observe either that it was there or that it was not.
If a trial helped us to get the content right, it would be beneficial. I am not sure where the Opposition stand on the matter, because their motion states that they want HIPs to contain even more information. If we ensured that the content was right, would they support HIPs? That is the implication of their motion, but it is not what they have said today. At the breakfast meeting that I attended last week with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), he agreed that there should be a paid-for dry run in a part of the country for the introduction of HIPs on a mandatory basis, with mandatory home condition reports. If that is still his position I support him, because I think that it would be quite a good idea to try out the system to see if it worked, and I believe that the markets would adapt to it.
I hope that the Government have not walked away from HIPs completely. If they are signalling that there is to be a delay, that there are to be trials, that the mandatory scheme is still on the table and that there is a possibility of mandatory dry runs and pilots for HCRs in some parts of the country, I am prepared to go along with that. During the debate, I have heard nothing from the Opposition parties about how they would reform the process of buying and selling houses. If they are telling the country that the current process is perfect, my constituents and many others would be interested to hear their defence of a system that most people would not be prepared to defend.
I want HIPs and HCRs to be introduced because I think that they are right in principle. I want them to be implemented properly and to operate efficiently and effectively before too long, because I believe that that would benefit all our constituents.
I am grateful and relieved to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to be able to make my first speech in the House during this debate. Indeed, after last Wednesday’s events I am grateful and relieved that there is a debate for me to speak in.
I begin my speech with mixed feelings—in particular, feelings of both humility and sadness. I say that, of course, in relation to my predecessor, the right hon. Eric Forth. It is not easy to follow someone who became a legend in the House in his own lifetime. He was an exceptional parliamentarian, someone who was passionate about the House and passionate about the defence of its rights, as he was passionate about the rights and freedoms of the individual. He was passionate about the integrity of the democratic and legislative process. If he sometimes made himself less than popular on Friday mornings in that regard, it was because he believed in the importance of making any measure presented to the House subject to the most rigorous scrutiny. It would be interesting to know what he might have said had he been here to contribute to this debate.
I must also express a measure of sadness, because Eric was a good friend to me, as is his wife, Carol, who many hon. Members will know was a great support in all that he did. He had many friends among right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House. He also had many friends in the constituency of Bromley and Chislehurst. Despite the myth that he assiduously cultivated to the contrary, he was a very dedicated constituency MP.
It is very difficult for me to fill his shoes and stand in his place. I can endeavour only to do my best. Members will have their own recollections of Eric and his endeavours in the House, and many of the tributes paid to him were accepted on all sides. I particularly liked one tribute to the effect that Eric
“regularly made a lot of mediocre people very angry. He was a wasp in the jar of public life and a first-class nuisance.”
He would have liked and appreciated those sentiments and the spirit with which they were expressed. It sums up what he believed was his duty as an MP—to say what he believed without fear or favour. We all know that he certainly did that throughout his entire career here.
By way of a final tribute to Eric, I can say two further things. He was a legendary debater, as I know from observing some of his debates on television. Many Members will recall his sparring across the Chamber with the late Robin Cook. Many people I spoke to during the by-election campaign commented on the ironic tragedy of those two great parliamentarians being taken from us prematurely. Secondly, in summation, my ultimate tribute to Eric is to express my sadness that I am here in his place rather than joining him here.
Given the past few weeks, Bromley and Chislehurst may not be wholly unknown to right hon. and hon. Members and I am certainly grateful to my hon. Friends who took the opportunity to make their acquaintance with the constituency. The area is described in a well known reference book as a classic piece of London suburbia. I might take issue with that a little, because it does not do justice to the diversity of the constituency or to suburbia itself. The truth is that it is part of Kent and many of my constituents regard themselves as inhabitants of Kent as much as of London. Over the years, the area was eaten up by the growth of the metropolis and the advance of the railways.
A range of communities live within the area. To the north is the village of Mottingham. Moving down towards Chislehurst, originally a village on one of the main roads towards Maidstone and we move through the former garden suburb of Bickley to the old market town of Bromley, which was once a summer residence of the bishops of Rochester. It grew into a major commercial centre, as it happily remains today, based on the main railway line to London. We then move on to the suburbs of Hayes and the village of Keston.
Over the years, the area has attracted a variety of residents. I am told that W. G. Grace lived in Mottingham and, while I was canvassing, I discovered at the northern tip of the constituency the house in which he lived. I also discovered that he had a total score in first-class matches of 55,213. Now that is a result! I am conscious that I am going to have to up my run rate a little if I am to match that.
Chislehurst was at one time home to Emperor Napoleon III during his exile in this country. He was attracted, apparently, by its easy rail access to London—plus ça change, some might say. A later inhabitant was Richmal Crompton and many people say that characters and places in the “Just William” books can be identified in Chislehurst to this day. One story was entitled something like “William Gets By” and, after the by-election, I have some sympathy with that sentiment; indeed, I remember thinking that I should re-read that story.
Bromley was home to H. G. Wells who, happily from my point of view, did not have as lasting an impact on the political philosophy of its residents as he might have done. Even more dramatically, the place was home to Prince Peter Kropotkin, author of the theory of anarchism.
On a different tack, William Pitt the Younger had his home at Holmwood in the southern end of the constituency, and it is particularly relevant, with the anniversary of the abolition of slavery coming up, that it was in the gardens there that he and William Wilberforce talked about Wilberforce’s proposals to abolish the slave trade.
So my constituency has had a pretty varied and lively past—not entirely typical of suburbia, I would submit. Of course, its present-day occupants and residents come from a diverse background, too. What they have in common, as well as that dual identity between London and Kent, is that they are the people who through their skills and hard work are the engine that keeps London the economic powerhouse and centre that it is. That is true of all suburbia, and the contribution of its inhabitants to the capital and the nation is therefore often seriously underestimated.
People choose to live in the outer-London suburbs because they believe that doing so gives them and their families and children a better quality of life. They are prepared to tolerate journeys on the railways that are probably marginally less stately or comfortable than those that Napoleon III enjoyed, precisely because they want to live in a community that has greenery and space. It was clear during the by-election campaign that that feature is threatened: people are concerned that the qualify of life in those suburbs is undermined by the pressures of building. They are not nimbies—they want their own children to have homes to live in—but they are concerned that the development of those new homes should be in the right place and should not take place at the cost of the existing environment.
People are concerned about the cost of living in suburban London—for example transport costs, but also the costs of council tax and housing, which is why I wanted to speak in this debate—but above all they are concerned that a one-size-fits-all planning policy, coming from the Mayor of London, threatens to undo the benefits of the suburbs and not offer the advantages that might have been intended. That is a key issue for them, and they fear that they will see more and more in-fill development, which cannot be sustainable in the long term for anyone.
One of my predecessors as the Member for the Bromley part of the constituency was, of course, the late Earl of Stockton, Harold Macmillan. Although I appreciate that I am more mature than some new entrants to the House, I cannot pretend that I remember him when he was Prime Minister, other than as a black-and-white figure flickering on the television set in my parents’ home. However, as I became involved in politics as a student, his legacy was still a fresh and cogent one, which has remained with me for a long time.
I have re-read Alistair Horne’s remarkable biography of Macmillan, and he made the point that, among Macmillian’s many qualities, those that stood out were his ability to think forwards—to relate the basic principles of his philosophy and of his party, when he was its leader, to the challenges both of today and of tomorrow—and his great skill in restating those principles in terms of the issues of today and in the language of today, tackling at that time the growth of the post-war mass consumer society. That need is as relevant now as ever, so I am glad to say that I think that the spirit of Harold Macmillan lives on among my right hon. and hon. Friends in the House and elsewhere.
Of course, Macmillan’s first great contribution in redefining the post-war Conservative party was in housing. It was Macmillan who set out practical and deliverable means of increasing the supply of housing and of advancing home ownership. That is something about which my constituents feel very passionately indeed, and that sentiment applies right across the breadth of society.
The London assembly, of which I currently have the honour to be a member, carried out a survey of key public sector workers as long ago as 2001. That survey identified that some 77 per cent. of the people who drive our buses, who are our police officers, who are our teachers and who work in the medical profession, such as nurses—those who keep the city ticking along—had an aspiration to own their own homes. It was the inability to purchase in London that often caused those people to leave the capital. When considering the home information pack proposal, I asked whether it would make it any easier for those people to achieve that aspiration. I will adhere to the convention and attempt to be as non-controversial as possible, but I regret to say that the evidence that I have received does not persuade me that that would be the case.
In particular, I have, for obvious reasons, had more opportunity than most to talk to members of the general public in the past few months. Whenever the issue was raised—more often than one might think—on the doorstep, not one person had anything to say in favour of the proposals. They were not at all backwoodsmen but ordinary members of the public who aspire to encourage home ownership for their children and feel that the home information packs will be a hindrance, rather than a help. I take the point that there is always room for improvement in how we deal with home purchase and selling, but it is not an advance to identify the problem and come up with the wrong answer. That is what concerned the people I met about the Government’s original proposals. They are concerned that inevitably—and despite all that we have heard in this debate—the costs will be passed on to the purchaser, which will bear especially harshly on first-time buyers, who will often have to commission their own surveys because they are likely to borrow more than the 80 per cent. of the value of the property that is likely to be the cut-off point, and will need greater comfort because they will not have a track record with the financial institutions. The changes will make the task of first-time buyers harder. Those in Bromley already have to raise more than the normally accepted rate in terms of the earnings to borrowing ratio and the proposals will make that harder.
It is also clear that the proposals will not assist in the matter of structural subsidence. There was much publicity in my constituency recently when some homes in the centre of Bromley disappeared into a hole in the ground. The incident also caused the main line out of Victoria and the Eurostar to be suspended for some time. The proposals would not have assisted those people. They will, however, pose an additional bureaucratic burden.
I have considered the regulations and the explanatory notes, which run to more than 104 pages of text. I accept the genuineness of the desire to make home purchase less stressful, but I am not sure that ploughing through this legislation would make it less stressful for anyone. As well as speaking to ordinary residents, I have taken the opportunity to speak to professionals, and I would not sneer at their views. Those who have had 20 or 30 years of experience as conveyancing or trust solicitors say that they have a real fear that the proposals will cause fewer houses to come on to the market. They are not whipping up a froth in support of vested interests: those to whom I talked struck me as persons of integrity who gave me the benefit of their own empirical experience. That should be of value in deciding the best approach to this issue.
I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. Eric Forth’s favourite word was “why”. I suspect that he would have applied that test to these proposals and I fear that he would have drawn the conclusion that he had not had a satisfactory answer. From all that I have heard, I have not had one either.
I should like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for his excellent maiden speech. It was marvellous to hear him talk about Eric Forth. I had many arguments with him, but no one can deny that he was a stalwart of this House, or that he did it great service. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s words will have been received very well.
Before I make my contribution on HIPs, I must first declare my interests. I am a chartered engineer and a fellow of the following organisations: the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors, the Institution of Engineering Designers and the City and Guilds Institute. At various times, I am required to provide information to those bodies, and I have participated in a number of their campaigns in respect of various Bills.
I am also chair of the all-party building services engineering group, which receives support from the Heating and Ventilation Contractors Association. I host meetings in the House for women in plumbing that are sponsored by the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering. I chair the all-party group for construction skills and training, which receives support from the Construction Industry Training Board. For many years I have worked for specialist electrical contractors and for the Electrical Contractors Association. I sit on the board of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, whose membership includes people working in the housing industry. I am also one of those currently undergoing training so that I can provide home inspection surveys.
I am a member of the Engineering Technology Board, which regulates academic standards in the engineering sector and which will also be responsible for regulating the course provided by Reading university. I sit on the board’s panel that represents the interests of registrants, many of whom have qualified already as home inspectors. In the past eight months, I have met all the chief executives in the sector skills council who represent the interests of companies in the engineering sector, including those that have been heavily involved in giving thousands of people the opportunity to undertake the home inspector’s role.
In addition, I work with all the engineering institutions that have a vested interest in promoting engineering and the development of vocational and professional standards. I believe that the HIP, and the home condition report in particular, offered an excellent opportunity to improve housing stock over time.
It would be useful to compare the HIP with the MOT test for cars. The MOT was introduced after many years of motoring disasters. The Tories have given various reasons in the debate as to why HIPs should be dismissed, and I have no doubt that they would give the same reasons to reject the MOT if that test were to be introduced today.
The same arguments apply. The MOT test comes at an additional cost that is a burden for car owners, and when the test was introduced the serious problem was that too few people were qualified to carry it out. However, would we seriously suggest today that we should not have the MOT test, given that it has led to significant safety improvements in car production and use? We would not, as the MOT test is a very sensible intervention.
I believe that the HIP is the equivalent of an MOT for houses. It will cost money, but the aim is to ensure that people have safer homes to live in and understand the condition of the houses that they buy. That is what we expect to happen with cars, which cost only a fraction of the price of houses, so why should we not get the same help when we purchase a home?
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) made excellent speeches earlier, and I wholeheartedly support what they said. Like them, I am deeply concerned at the fact that the HIP is not to be introduced next year.
Like my Back-Bench hon. Friends, I support the cause of making home condition reports compulsory, and I do so for the following reasons. When the Housing Bill was introduced, it was argued that HIPs would deliver:
“Transaction Improvements by reducing the abortive costs to consumers and the industry as well as reducing the number of failed transactions caused by survey or valuation inspection findings.”
It was claimed that they would also deliver:
“Housing Stock Condition Improvements by a reduction in the incidence of unexpected repair bills and encouraging better maintenance of homes.”
It was also said that they would create:
“Greater Consumer Choice by reducing the entry costs to first time buyers and creating a market of serious sellers.”
Many colleagues have discussed transaction improvements and greater consumer choice, but I want to concentrate briefly on housing stock condition and the importance of the home condition report. It has rightly been pointed out that many first-time buyers do not engage their own surveyor to assess the condition of the property that they are purchasing, and in many cases they will be purchasing a property with a number of costly problems. Unless the previous owner has taken the time to ensure that all the work undertaken in their home has been carried out by a competent person, the buyer must beware.
Far too many people buy properties with serious problems. They might face serious problems with their electrical distribution capacity. That might mean that they cannot add anything more to their existing electrical circuits than they already have, or that that they get shocks from systems in their kitchen, or that their lights go out whenever they switch on a radio, simply because their electrical board has not been updated—and does not meet any of the standards introduced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the past few years.
More worryingly, people might have serious problems with their gas supply and the gas distribution in their home. Unless they have commissioned a survey to determine that, they will find that out the first time someone comes to inspect their boiler. I have spoken to many people who received a nasty shock when their boiler was inspected—not an electrical shock, but a serious shock of a different kind when the inspector said, “I’m now going to switch off your boiler and your gas supply because you’re not safe.” People say in reply, “Well, I bought it only a few weeks ago; it’s a new boiler.” A new boiler is not necessarily a safe gas installation; it is not a safe gas installation when it has not been installed by a competent person.
As much as we would like to think that every such person who comes to our homes is competent to carry out the jobs that we pay them to do, none of us are that naive. Lots of people who come into our homes, and go into the homes of our constituents, profess to be something that they are not. They do not carry industry competence certificates to demonstrate that they are capable of doing the job. It is not only the person who owns that house at that time who suffers as a consequence of that: so, too, does the person who will buy that house in the future.
Let us talk about drainage. Most of us take drainage for granted; we flush the toilet and everything disappears. But that is not always the case. Some people knowingly sell a home that has serious drainage problems. The buyer does not know about that if they have chosen not to have a survey done. The home condition report allows them to know about that, because an assessment of the drainage will have been carried out—and drainage is very expensive. It can cost people tens of thousands of pounds to correct a drain, even when they have insurance cover of the drains within their property. More often than not, the problem is outside the property, and they do not have insurance to cover that. The whole of their drive could be taken up, right back to the main road, and that could cost £10,000. The cost of this report is negligible in comparison, even if the purchaser has to bear it.
What about construction? Many Members have talked about subsidence. As an engineer, I like subsidence; it provides me with a great intellectual challenge, and I have never yet come across an instance of subsidence that I cannot sort out—but that is me. I have looked into the qualifications of Members of this House, and none of them has any of the qualifications that I have, so I am okay on the subject of subsidence. [Interruption.] It is a shame; it is a great shame. I am okay on that, but most people’s biggest worry is subsidence. They are very frightened by the possibility of subsidence, because subsidence means tens of thousands of pounds in costs. It does not mean that to me, but it does mean that to most Members of this House.
When surveyors carry out home condition reports, they do not come in with no knowledge whatsoever. They are not going to see subsidence and then not tell people about it. We are professional engineers, and the people who take this course will be committed to high standards. If they are not going to exhibit high standards, they will be fined. They could be charged and they will be brought into litigation, which would be counterproductive, so they do not want that. Although they might not be able to do anything about a particular incidence of subsidence, they are not going to fail to point it out. Subsidence is pretty obvious—it is not a small crack in the wall that occurs as a result of drying out. It is serious problem, and surveyors will see it, just as I could see it immediately if I walked into a Member’s home that was suffering from it. I would not fail to point it out, because I am a chartered professional engineer and we are required to point it out. Currently, first-time buyers do not get that service if they cannot afford the privilege of accessing that information. Such access is what we need.
The home condition report is not just of use to the person who is purchasing the property; it could save the life of the person selling it, which is why it is important and why we need it. There are too many rogue traders working in this area. Far too many householders enlist the services of people who are supposed to be competent, but are not. I am not going to blame householders for doing so, because the vast majority of us are completely ignorant of this world. We cannot know everything, but we have got to enlist people whom we can trust to help us get good standards at home.
Let us say that I sell my house tomorrow and a surveyor assesses it—looks at my gas and electrical installations, at my property’s construction and at the drainage—and says, “This isn’t right and we are concerned about it; we want to look at your certification.” Then, on my handing them the certification, they say, “Well, it looks pretty, but it is worth nothing—you must have the property surveyed again.” I would want to know that. I have got three children, and I would want to know whether my property was safe. I would then go back to the person who did the work—or try to—and say, “Come on, give me the correct documentation.”
However, most people in that situation will be in for a very nasty shock. They will find out that those who did the work were not competent to do so and cannot supply the certification. At that point, they will learn pretty quickly who is competent to assess home installations. That is great for the building service industry, which is bending over backwards to ensure that only legitimate people undertake work in homes. The big issue that we Members of Parliament deal with is consumer protection and consumers who are being ripped off by unethical traders. This measure—this intervention—has helped to address that problem enormously.
So, like many of my colleagues here today, I regret the fact that the home condition report is not going to be in the home information pack. I understand why it is so important, and what a missed opportunity this is for consumer safety. I know, speaking for all of my colleagues without exception, that they will regret this, but what they will do is wait. If it is a requirement to provide a set number of people to do the job, that will happen, because we want a safe industry. We want to improve the standards of homes and to make them safer for people. That is what this is all about.
I have heard some pretty adverse comments, but I have not heard Opposition Members talk about consumer safety, which is a pity. I cannot think of any better vehicle than this one to deliver improvements in consumer safety quickly. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at making home condition reports mandatory, because there is an imperative to do so. I am happy to wait while we sort out the number of people required, invigilation standards and so on, but there is an industry waiting to do this work, and a consumer protection imperative for us to deal with this issue.
The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) spoke for 15 minutes; I shall speak for a mere five to try to allow my colleagues time to get in.
I declare an interest as a fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I was also heavily involved in the gestation of the home information pack measures as the official Opposition spokesman on the Homes Bill in 2000, the first that came before us on the matter. I pay tribute to the work done since by official Opposition spokesmen—my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), for Poole (Mr. Syms) and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who has valiantly campaigned on the issue and who made a very worthwhile speech today.
We are where we are, but I agree with all who have said that we are in the worst of all possible worlds. We have half a compulsory measure, with all the costs that that will involve. For the sake of clarity, I shall quote the relevant paragraph of yesterday’s written ministerial statement:
“This means that the remaining aspects of Home Condition Reports will not be made mandatory from June next year, but HCRs will be authorised documents that sellers will be able to include in their packs.”
The sting in the tail comes next:
“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.]
So, we really do not know where we are. We do not know whether they will be made mandatory or not.
I wish to make what I think is a sensible suggestion. Let us leave the system as it is now proposed until the next general election. Let us see whether home information packs do the job that they are supposed to do. If they do, no doubt all parties will wish to include in their manifestos a promise to make HCRs mandatory. But if there are huge problems and if they have not done what they are supposed to do, I have no doubt that the Labour party, as well as my own, will run away from the idea as fast as they possibly can.
I am interested in the costs and benefits. I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who was quite right to identify the benefit as being about £1 million a day—some £365 million a year. He went on to say that no proper analysis has been done of the costs, but I shall give him some. The Government have produced figures on the sellers packs—official figures included in the explanatory notes to the last Bill—showing that the cost without the home condition report would have been £660 per pack, without value added tax. The cost of the home condition report is put at £400, and we could halve that for the environmental statement, which leaves the packs at about £460, or about £550 with VAT. Multiply that by the 1.2 million actual sales each year and we have a cost of about £650 million. In other words, there is a cost-benefit gap of about £300 million. For a benefit of £350 million, we are getting a cost of £300 million. What on earth is the sense of bringing in regulations that cost that amount for that benefit?
There are a number of ways in which the Government could improve the housing market, which, on the basis of 1.2 million sales and average house prices, according to the Halifax, of £176,000, is a market of about £200 billion. There are several things in the market that they should consider. First, what should they do with the home condition inspectors currently under training? There are about 3,000 of them, and a lot are lowly paid people who have invested several thousand pounds of their own savings. They will not know today whether they should continue their training or not. I beg the Government to give those people a clear steer on what they should do.
Other measures that the Government could consider include speeding up e-conveyancing and e-searches. The national information land register has been mentioned today, and of the 175 local authorities represented in the House, only 42 are properly e-enabled. Searches, more than anything else, hold up property transactions, and the Government could do a great deal in that respect. They should also look at estate agents. As has been said, they have a good association, but 30 per cent. of them are not members of it, and a number of that 30 per cent. are complete cowboys. Let us get the estate agents under control with proper regulations.
The Government could do a number of things. They should look carefully at the whole market, if they want to interfere with it as they propose, with the buyer versus the seller, and remember the old maxim, caveat emptor. When buyers look at the packs they will think that they have everything on a plate, but there are still many problems that they will need to consider.
There will be problems with the energy performance certificate and the Government should not underestimate them. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors estimates that the software will be correct for only 80 per cent. of houses and the Government will have more difficulty than they think in providing enough inspectors for the work.
I shall not repeat all the excellent points made by my hon. Friends, as there is little time left for the debate, so I shall focus on energy efficiency. I welcome the intention to include in HIPs information on energy efficiency, including information about how to cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. We are all becoming increasingly aware of the impact of carbon emissions on climate change, but in our busy lives we need reminders and incentives to encourage us to prioritise the issues. The concept of an energy performance certificate will help all home owners, vendors and purchasers alike, to focus on making their homes more energy-efficient.
Viewing a house on a lovely warm day, such as today, it is easy to forget what it might be like in the middle of winter. First-time buyers in particular can find the whole process of buying a house such an ordeal, with so many different things to think about, that they often overlook the important issue of what the fuel bills are likely to be. It has been my experience as a vendor that hardly anybody looks at energy-saving features and few people ask what my fuel bills are.
Information on energy efficiency is valuable to buyers, enabling them to make a realistic assessment of what their fuel bills are likely to be. It also allows them to make comparisons between the properties that they view. Furthermore, knowing that prospective purchasers will look at the energy efficiency information and compare the likely fuel costs of properties will act as an incentive to vendors to consider how they could make their home more energy efficient. Estate agents’ publicity material will mention more than just double glazing in terms of energy efficiency. People will increasingly talk of homes as “cheap to heat” or “expensive to heat”. As that information becomes more important to prospective purchasers, it is likely to affect property prices; good energy features will be appreciated for the fuel bill savings that they can bring.
In the course of my adult life, I have bought and moved into eight homes, which usually involved improving older properties. I know how overwhelming the process can be, and the energy efficiency information in the pack will provide a useful checklist for people who are thinking about how to improve their property.
Not only will people think about how to insulate their homes better and reduce fuel demand, but the knowledge that when they sell their home it will be judged on its energy efficiency will act as an incentive to consider installing microgeneration equipment for heat or electricity. Only a year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) chose to use his success in the private Members’ Bill ballot to introduce the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill. At that time, few people were talking about energy efficiency or microgeneration, so it is to his credit, with the support of the Minister for Energy, that those issues have gained so much prominence. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning for her genuine commitment to try to tackle climate change in her areas of responsibility. It is to her credit that we are even talking about energy performance certificates.
The inclusion of energy efficiency information for prospective buyers will influence builders. When they are thinking about how to market their properties and steal a march on their competitors, they will give much more consideration to including features that enable them to boast of excellent energy efficiency ratings. That could have a significant impact on their choice of materials, the design of the layout of the house to make the best use of sunlight and the microgeneration equipment that could be included. If we are going to be serious about tackling climate change, it is no good just making grand speeches. It is a concern that should be addressed by all Departments across Government, not just by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade and Industry.
I welcome the inclusion in home information packs of energy efficiency as a significant step forward in increasing awareness of what we can do to make our homes more energy efficient. I hope that the inclusion of energy efficiency in HIPs will serve as an excellent example to all Departments of how measures to encourage energy efficiency can and should be included in all areas where the Government have influence.
In the few moments that remain, I wonder whether I could reduce my speech to a few questions to the Minister, which I hope he will be able to deal with in his summing-up. They relate in particular to the home condition reports, which I assume from the statement yesterday that the Government will press ahead with and endeavour to make mandatory in due course.
For how long would the information in home condition reports remain valid? Would the vendor have to renew the information at, say, three-monthly intervals? If the property is taken off the market for more than 28 days, the pack has to be renewed. If the details are deemed to need updating when the property is off the market for a month, for how long are they deemed not to have changed while it is on the market? For example, would a two-year-old home condition report still be valid if the property had remained on the market during that entire period? What buyer could trust it? What seller would volunteer that information if it were not mandatory?
That could mean that the price of the property would have to be increased periodically to absorb the recurring cost of updated home condition reports. It is clear that the Government still intend to introduce home condition reports, but not yet. The usual strategy to make a house more attractive for sale is to reduce the price. Far from ensuring that the home buying and selling process becomes more certain, transparent and consumer friendly, while reducing stress and the number of failed transactions, that will create an additional complication.
How many of the idiosyncrasies that all homes have would a seller be required to declare? Should there be caveats such as the fact that television reception on Five is poor because the house is in a bit of a valley, the radiator in bedroom 2 does not work unless it is given a kick, or the oven is slow? Every home has a multitude of idiosyncrasies. Into what detail does a home condition report have to go? What about things such as squirrels, birds or even bats in the loft, or foxes under the garden shed?
More important, what would happen if that information were omitted? Who will verify the information that is provided? What will be the status of the information and what if there is a dispute between the seller and the inspector as to the content of the report? What obligation is there on a buyer to have their finances in order and to be in a position to exchange contracts when an offer is accepted? What bar is there to prevent a seller from accepting a different offer while the sale to the first buyer is still in progress? What redress will a buyer have if a HIP is found to have been seriously misleading? Many people would be unable to afford to risk legal action when they have just incurred the considerable costs of moving home, but if the HIPs are not binding in law and caveat emptor still applies, there seems to be little point in them.
The Department's statement says that the third aim of the HIP programme is
“to encourage and support long term transformation of the home buying and selling industry by introducing greater transparency and competition to drive down costs and incentivise better service and clearer redress for customers.”
It is gobbledegook and I urge the Minister to abandon the entire scheme.
First, I draw Members’ attention to my interests in the Register of Members' Interests. I do not think that I have an interest, but given the way that interventions go in such debates one is never quite sure, so I think I had better declare it.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on an impressive maiden speech. It included some fond stories of Eric Forth and Robin Cook, and a tour of his constituency, which, as he said, we have all got to know over recent weeks in this hot weather. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing a lot more from my hon. Friend, who I am sure will make a great contribution in future years in this House.
We have had an interesting debate. Some of us have lived with the issue of HIPs for a considerable time, and we sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, thinking about the consequences of the measure. The Opposition’s position has been entirely consistent for the past half dozen years. [Interruption.] Of course, that is a great relief. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said, if one compares the costs for the 1 million to 1.5 million houses that are sold every year with the costs of the current system, one can see that the sums do not add up. Under the current system, someone can market their house or test the market at no cost to themselves. Under the Government proposals, however, there will be a substantial cost. Indeed, there will be a cost even if someone does not sell their home. Some people, of course, are unable to do so. We discussed all those matters when the Housing Bill was in Committee, and I am sure that we are on the right side of the argument.
I am a little confused about the Government’s thinking. I listened carefully, as I always do, to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who made a good case for the Government’s proposals. The Government are in a pickle, because if they want home condition reports to be successful they must build sufficient capacity. They will only do so if they make the scheme compulsory and specify a date for its introduction. Essentially, 7,000 surveyors must be trained, so there is a long lead-in time. If the system is voluntary, as many hon. Members have said, most people will not be prepared to pay extra. Why would someone leave their job and spend £8,000, £9,000 or £10,000 on training if they are not sure of their prospects?
The Government have reduced capacity, because people who were thinking about training have realised that what seemed like a good career a few days ago no longer seems as good. The scheme proposed to include home condition reports in a computerised system or databank. Who will operate such a system if there is only a small number of such reports? Once again, capacity will be reduced. When my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) argued in Committee that if the scheme were worth while it should be voluntary, the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the then Housing Minister, said that housing is largely about chains, so HIPs would work only if the home condition report were compulsory for everyone. The moment that compulsion was removed, he argued, the benefits of HIPs would end and the system would fail to speed up. There will be problems in June 2007, because there are not sufficient surveyors to administer a new system introduced in a peak period for the housing market. The Government therefore decided to make the scheme voluntary, thus reducing capacity and probably preventing home condition reports from working.
Was not all that information available to the Government from the outset? Experts warned of problems, and many of us wrote to them again and again to explain the facts. What has changed to make them introduce a voluntary scheme when they believed that it was manifestly wrong to do so at the outset?
I can only speculate about the reasons for the change. Third-term Governments in difficulty start to look for snags ahead. The housing market is important for growth, and I am sure that the Treasury has taken a view about the benefits and disbenefits of the initiative. Decisions have been made on other issues, and I suspect that they, too, are part of the reason. The rationale of HIPs, with which I disagree, has been destroyed to some extent by the removal of compulsion from a large part of the pack. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made an important point. He said that if an inspector is going to a home to prepare a home condition report, he can do the energy performance certificate at the same time. If the procedures are separated, the cost of the energy performance certificate increases, so the benefits of the scheme are reduced. The Government have some more serious thinking to do about whether to proceed with the other elements. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) posed many sensible questions about whether the remaining elements of the HIP would stand without the home condition report.
Returning to the point about the people who have trained, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who had to leave the Chamber earlier, gave me an e-mail that he had received, which provides the perfect example. Guy Frazier of West Sussex has been doing a course with SAVA college, which I think is associated with Reading university. He says he has spent almost £10,000 on the course and on travelling backwards and forwards. He is £10,000 in debt and is very concerned about what that investment will bring him. I therefore make a plea to the Government. Instead of being spent on publicity, perhaps some money should go to supporting those who have taken the Government at face value, undertaken training and put themselves in debt. We heard earlier that although only 230-odd people have qualified, there are about 3,000 people under training. Unless they have some measure of certainty, they may feel that they have lost their money.
We have had an interesting debate, with good contributions from several hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich set out what he saw as the rationale for the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) reminded us of the good sense of the people of Minehead and his various surveys in his constituency. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) argued the case for the scheme. I believe that he also served on the Committee that considered the Bill which resulted in the Housing Act 2004, so he is a veteran of such debates.
The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) spoke passionately about her concerns and about safety in the home. The House listened carefully, particularly to her CV and all her qualifications and engineering experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, who is a veteran of the 2000 Bill, presented some compelling figures. The debate continued with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) setting out her views, and my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) articulating some important questions, which I hope the Minister is able to answer.
The rushed decision, just before the recess, to change the nature of the game has probably raised more questions than it has provided answers, especially for many of those who are training in the hope of becoming home inspectors. I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate, he can flesh out the Government’s thinking. It is clear that the scheme as it is constructed at present will not work. At the beginning of the debate, we heard from the Minister for Housing and Planning about trials in areas, but home condition reports cannot be compulsory in some areas but not in others.
May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that under the Law of Property Act 1925 covering England and Wales, which came into effect on 1 January 1926, not all areas were areas of compulsory registration? It varied round the country for the following 70 years. We had a differential system then.
The hon. Gentleman has waited years to make that intervention in the House. I am glad I gave him the opportunity to do so, which he did very speedily. I will read it carefully tomorrow and perhaps give him a more considered reply.
Home information packs are an important matter that will impact on all home buyers and sellers. I do not think the Government have got it right. We were right in our initial opposition. The Government have moved away from their original proposals and will have to think carefully about the viability of the whole scheme. We have had an interesting debate in an interesting week, and I look forward to the Minister’s remarks.
This has been a fascinating debate, because it has flushed out the three types of Conservative Member in this Chamber. First, there are real “conservatives”, who oppose change because they oppose change. That position is not intellectually coherent, but it is at least understandable and consistent. Secondly, there are those who want the status quo because their mates have told them that it is best. Again, that is not intellectually coherent, but I suppose that it is at least politically consistent. Finally, there are those who frighten me, and they want the unfettered free market. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has pointed out, one would not buy a car without an MOT or a service logbook, but one would sell a car without an MOT or a service logbook if the market regulation allowed. The Conservatives who frighten me are like Del Boy’s friend Boycie, who would sell a car without that guarantee.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), whom I welcomed into this House—not least because it got him off the airwaves—falls into the last category of the unfettered free marketeer. Perhaps we should not be surprised. One amusing thing to do in the evening when waiting for a vote is to read the writings of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, who has worked for the BBC—as did I—and still writes for The Times. This is what he said about the housing market in 2002:
“the housing market is a high stakes poker game”.
With great enthusiasm, he advocated approaching home selling and buying like a gambler with a hand of cards:
“Nerve shredding as the process can be, poker has proved an invaluable help because it teaches you to wait, as the antes are raked up by the other players and your reserves of patience (and money) dwindle.”
He is consistent in his attitude to the housing market: let the unfettered free market decide.
The hon. Gentleman recently wrote about his 1995 biography of his then hero, Michael Portillo, which was subtitled, “The future of the right”. He wrote that it
“ranks up there with Robert Maxwell’s life of Ceausescu and David Steel’s moving 1985 manifesto for government, Partners in One Nation, as a work whose prescience left just a little to be desired.”
I suggest that his predictions about the future of the housing market under our policy will be just as accurate.
When I have finished exposing some more of the points of view of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath—although I will not talk about Europe, because I have only six minutes and it would take an hour to expose the difficulties on that subject.
Conservative Members have said that the policy is dead, but they have also tried to criticise it. Either it is dead or it is not dead, and I do not think that there is an alternative—if anyone has found an alternative, I would be grateful to hear about it. All the evidence suggests that buyers and sellers are unhappy with the way in which properties are bought and sold. In many cases, people lose hundreds of pounds on abortive surveys and searches, and those who are least able to afford such costs often bear the brunt.
The current system is not working and consumers are dissatisfied, which is hardly surprising. There is currently an almost complete lack of transparency. Key information about a property becomes available only after terms have been agreed. In the meantime, people make an offer based on limited information and immediately begin paying out for searches, surveys, legal fees and other documents. If problems then come to light and the transaction fails, those costs are all wasted. The costs are often duplicated, too, when another potential buyer pays out for the same information all over again.
Another cause of transaction failure is the length of time that it takes for the process to go through, and the consequential increased risks of things going wrong. The process in this country takes twice as long as the European average. Delays, which have a knock-on effect through the chain, often result from buyers and sellers up and down the chain asking for and obtaining information on a piecemeal basis. Only when every link of the chain is in place can those involved be confident that their sale or purchase will go through. The Government’s research shows that almost 30 per cent. of transactions fail after terms have been agreed, and more than £350 million a year is wasted in this way. Those costs are extremely serious for the people who bear them—for hard-working families who need to move home and for young people trying to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder. They are also a cost to the economy as a whole and represent a substantial wasted resource.
In those circumstances, no one can seriously argue that the market is working well and should be left alone—but that is what the Opposition want us to do. HIPs will give buyers the information they need in order to make an informed choice about the property before they make an offer, rather than later when large amounts of time and money have been spent trying to get hold of it for a purchase that may ultimately fail. More information up front will reduce delays and failures, cut duplicated costs and help to reduce the number of failed transactions, which cost consumers £1 million a day.
Moreover, as my hon. Friends have said, first-time buyers stand to benefit most from the policy. One of the main benefits of HIPs is that those first-time buyers will not have to spend hundreds of pounds on surveys and searches, and then find that the money that they have struggled to save has been completely wasted when their purchase collapses.
The hon. Gentleman is making the case that was made when the Government introduced this policy. He is saying that it is necessary—indeed, essential—for the market, but he is not explaining why the Government have changed their mind, nor is he giving us any projection of the effect that this is likely to have on its success. Can he give us a notional view of the number of inspectors who will be required under the new scheme, and what progress is being made to train them to ensure that it works?
I will tell the House why the Government made the written ministerial statement yesterday—because we are determined that the policy will work and we will not play politics with buying and selling people’s homes. We brought that statement to the House before the recess because we wished to be transparent and to send out the message, not only to the House but to the public, that we believe—on the basis of the advice and evidence that we have—that risks might well have been involved if the 1 June 2007 deadline for the entire pack had been stuck to. This is the right thing to do, to allow time for proper trials so that we can get the policy exactly right. If the market makes it work, we will have HIPs; if the market fails, we hold back the mandatory card. That is a responsible policy.
I pay tribute to the new Member, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and wholeheartedly endorse his remarks about Eric, not only as a parliamentarian but as a Minister. He may be pleased to know that my own constituency benefited hugely from Eric’s time as a Minister. I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his tribute to Robin Cook. The two men were great debaters in this House. I applaud him for his maiden speech. He may not have been an A-list candidate but he is an A-list Member of Parliament, and I welcome him to the House. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby made a passionate, informed and typically knowledgeable speech. She drew our attention to the parallel with the MOT certificate, and clearly showed why she supports HIPs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) asked us to consider sensitively the request for pilots and how the trials could be conducted. We will do that. He also said that he had faith in markets. I endorse that point and find it surprising that the Conservative party has lost its way with regard to its view about the markets and their contribution.
The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) said that he had been listening to the general public and estate agents. He is obviously concerned about the policy. He asked about rented properties for licence. We are considering the matter. The details have to be worked out and information will be forthcoming.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) spoke wisely, considered the policy in the round, made some pertinent criticisms of the official Opposition’s policy and asked for more details about trials, which are important.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) welcomed the policy, as he has done consistently over months and years, and raised his concerns about the timing of the introduction of the mandatory elements in the packs. My hon. Friends and I will examine his words closely.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made an important point about regulating estate agents. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) reminded the House of the difficulties, stress and trauma of buying a house. The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) asked some pertinent questions. I can provide more details in writing but the essential answer to her question—
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31(2) (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House 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.