HC Deb 26 February 1975 vol 887 cc500-3

3.42 p.m.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make better provision for the acquisition or exchange of small residential properties by the establishment of a new conveyancing service under a Conveyancers Council with appropriate powers and duties, for the reduction of charges and delays in such matters, and for other purposes. In asking the leave of the House to introduce this Bill under the Ten Minute Rule procedure I wish to do two things as a preliminary. First, I declare an interest in that I am President of the National Houseowners' Society. But I have no financial interest in it. I accepted the position because I have a strong personal interest in conveyancing reform.

Second, in the course of my speech I shall have to mention solicitors as a group in the context of my arguments. In doing this I emphasise that I mean no discourtesy, since some members of that profession are also hon. Members of this House.

I seek support—[Interruption.]—today from both sides of the Chamber—[Interruption.]—and I hope that the arguments in principle, stemming from the Long Title will be—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are a great many conversations going on. I wish that they would go on outside the Chamber.

Mr. Weetch

I hope that these arguments will be found acceptable to all sections of political opinion.

The Bill has two purposes. The first is to bring some competition and fresh air into the whole area of conveyancing and the transfer of residential property, but to bring this competition to bear in a controlled and well-supervised way to protect and maintain standards. The ultimate aim of the Bill is to reduce the expenses for owner-occupiers of modest means in a critical area of high cost, that of moving house. More particularly it is aimed at reducing the high cost of the legal transactions that occur when ordinary people buy and sell.

The Bill's second purpose is to suggest regulations and to construct machinery with a large consumer representation, to ensure that the highest standards are maintained when conveyancing is made easier and cheaper, so that although the cost of transferring property is reduced, standards are not.

I consider the Bill to be an important step forward in consumer affairs. In particular, it is in line with paragraph 108(e) of the recommendations of the Second Report on the Remuneration of Solicitors issued in March 1971. That report said: Further consideration should be given to the means of achieving simple, cheap and reliable registered conveyancing. In general I can say with every confidence that there is widespread dissatisfaction throughout the country with the high cost of moving house. It is agreed by the vast majority of people, certainly from my own researches, that an important part of that cost is concerned with legal fees for conveyancing. The crucial point at issue is that until recently these very high charges have been the consequence of a restrictive statutory monopoly. The best expression of that is in Section 20 of the Solicitors Act 1957. Under that section, conveyancing property for fee or gain is, in effect, restricted to solicitors.

It is difficult to establish what solicitors' charges for conveyancing are in terms of general statistics since the scale charges were abolished two years ago. But they do not come within the social contract. I can tell you that for nothing, Mr. Speaker. I have a bill in my hand for the sale of a property in the London area. It was registered property. It was a straightforward transaction. The value of the house was £13,500. The charge for selling the property was £158. It could have been done at a reasonable profit for half that figure.

My point is that any monopoly which is responsible for and gives rise to charges such as that is responsible for social extortion. Those are my words. But they were the sentiments, put more politely, of the reports of the National Board for Prices and Incomes of 1968 and 1971. When a restrictive and high-priced monopoly is established it is in the nature of men in this country to challenge it. Indeed, much of the history of this House and its Members has been concerned with the challenge of monopolies. In recent years this monopoly has been effectively challenged. There are a number of organisations operating in this area. The National Houseowners' Society has completed 25,000 conveyances, 7,000 of which have been for the GLC. There are now others operating here. One is Stewart Title and the Property Transfer Association is another.

While I am pleased to see the monopoly being challenged and costs cut by 50 per cent., the plain fact is that as more firms enter this area, because of the high profits to be gained by breaking this restrictive practice, the whole situation threatens to become unregulated and unstable. This must be avoided because, although we need competition to bring down costs, buying a house is the most important purchase in many people's lives. There must be no fly-by-nights in this area. What the Bill purports to do, in short, is this: it seeks to extend the class of persons who can conveyance for fee or gain. In particular it seeks to re-establish the professional conveyancers who are specialists in this area. I say "re-establish" because professional conveyancers used to exist until they were legislatively strangled in the dark.

The Bill seeks to establish machinery for the effective supervision of such conveyancers and to bring in the consumer in a substantial way so that prices are kept reasonable for the work done. There is a need for reform because the present system is expensive and highly priced for the work done, especially with registered property. Conveyancing is an expensive factor in the high cost of moving house. It impedes mobility. It is unjust and bears heavily on owner-occupiers of modest means. In this age of rapid inflation this Bill can bring prices down "at a stroke", if I may use someone else's phrase.

I should like hon. Members to note one more thing: if I have the good fortune to be granted leave to introduce this Bill, I ask hon. Members to note that throughout the personal pronoun will be used in the feminine gender. The masculine gender has covered both cases for too long and I hope to kill two restrictive practices with one stone.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ken Weetch, Mr. James Wellbeloved, Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Ivor Clemitson, Mr. John Cartwright and Mr. Bruce Grocott.