HC Deb 07 February 2001 vol 362 cc1022-36

Amendment made: No. 51, in page 25, line 39, column 3, leave out "Section 159(5)(b)".—[Mr. Raynsford.]

Order for Third Reading read.

9.1 pm

Mr. Raynsford

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Unfortunately, our debate has been attenuated because of the divisions in the Conservative party over the issue of energy efficiency, but it has nevertheless covered a number of important issues.

The Bill fulfils important Government commitments to improve the home buying and selling process, and to strengthen the protection available to homeless people. It is an important part of the Government's strategy to ensure that everyone has the opportunity and choice of a decent home, as has been set out in our housing Green Paper and widely welcomed.

The Bill improves the housing market for the benefit of the public when they are selling or buying homes, when they seek help because they are at risk of homelessness or have become homeless, when they are in housing need and are applying for social housing, and when they are existing tenants of social housing seeking to move within the social housing sector.

The proposals in part I form part of a wider package of reforms to help up to 2 million individuals and families who buy and sell their homes each year. We are introducing a modern, more streamlined system that is easier and faster for consumers, avoids unnecessary stress and disappointment and offers value for money.

In Committee, it was suggested that sellers' packs would add to the cost of selling homes, that buyers and lenders would not trust home condition reports commissioned by sellers, and that it was unnecessary to impose criminal sanctions on those who market homes without sellers' packs. Those concerns are not well grounded. There will be a small additional cost for people who would not normally commission a survey, but we believe that that cost will be more than outweighed by the benefits of a speedier transaction process and reductions in the huge abortive costs of the current inefficient system, which are about £350 million a year.

In developing the home condition report, we will set up a certification scheme to ensure consistent and high-standard inspections and reports. As we have made clear in recent amendments, inspectors will be liable to sellers, buyers and lenders. We believe that everyone will have confidence in the inspections, will rely on them, and will be able to take action in the event of any defect.

Sanctions are necessary. Without them, the temptation would be too great for freeloaders to sell their homes without a seller's pack, while reaping the benefits of a pack for the homes that they bought. Just one weak link would break the chain, thus perpetuating the misery of the current system.

We have looked carefully at the appropriateness of criminal sanctions. As we pointed out repeatedly in Committee, they are consistent with similar sanctions—for example, those in the Property Misdescriptions Act 1991, and others applying to landlord and tenant law. Currently, 95 per cent. of home sales are conducted through estate agents. Estate agents would be responsible for having sellers' packs when they were marketing a home, and in the vast majority of cases it would be estate agents who faced sanctions if they failed to comply with the law.

Additionally, local trading standards officers will have clear discretion—I emphasised this point repeatedly in Committee—to take the action that they regard as appropriate where they find a person marketing a home without a seller's pack. They will have scope and discretion to offer advice, to give a warning, to issue a fixed-penalty notice or, ultimately, to prosecute. Only the option of prosecution would lead to a criminal record.

We are absolutely clear that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, where an honest and simple mistake had been made, there would be no obligation for trading standards officers to do more than offer advice or give a warning. In the case of any individual householder, there would be little or no purpose, unless there were exceptional circumstances, in doing more than issuing a fixed penalty notice, so the concept of large numbers of innocent individuals being dragged before the courts to face criminal charges is an exaggeration and not properly founded.

We must, however, have sanctions, including criminal sanctions, to cope with the risk of what I hope would be a very small number of unprincipled estate agents seeking to subvert the whole purpose of the scheme by marketing properties persistently without a seller's pack and paying no heed to initial warnings from trading standards officials. I hope that I have made it clear that we have provided a range of responses to allow a proportionate response depending on the circumstances, and that the fears that have been expressed about sanctions are misplaced.

I have listened to the concerns voiced by a number of my hon. Friends about low-demand areas and low-value properties. I have made it clear that we are prepared to consider measures where seller's pack requirements would cause particular difficulties. The Bill provides us with a power to make such exemptions, but we must consider that issue carefully. Our research indicates that seller's packs would offer benefits in low-value areas and we must avoid further stigmatising properties in areas of declining demand and value. We are working up a number of options in a paper that I hope to issue for consultation shortly. That will allow us to have a thorough and considered debate about the best way in which to balance the conflicting pressures on that important issue.

The proposals in part I are based on extensive research and piloting. We will continue to work with the key professionals and consumer representatives in developing the details of our proposals, especially the home condition report and the supporting certification scheme, so that seller's packs can be introduced as planned in 2003.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Does my hon. Friend agree that seller's packs could be of particular benefit to potential purchasers in the residential leasehold sector, who currently face service charge and insurance demands that they find baffling and by which they often feel cheated? When looking at the regulations on the content of seller's packs, will he consider, particularly in the light of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, which we will examine soon, whether, for example, the last set of certified service charge accounts and information about agencies providing reliable advice to leaseholders and potential commonholders might form part of the packs?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He has been assiduous over recent years in pursuing the interests of leaseholders, who form a significant proportion of the residents in his constituency. Like me, he will be pleased at the progress of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill, which has had its Second Reading in another place and will bring extensive benefits to leaseholders.

It is certainly our intention that the seller's pack will contain detailed information that will be of real value and relevance to leaseholders, including information about service charges. I would like to consider the wider issue of the availability of advice because, clearly, there is a question about the appropriateness and reliability of advice offered by different agencies. It is our wish that seller's packs should be primarily factual information and should not be open to any possible misinterpretation. It is certainly our intention to provide detailed information on service charges and other relevant information relating to the management of the lease. I should be more than happy to consult my hon. Friend and other hon. Members as we work up the proposals.

Part II will enable local authorities to provide better help in finding a settled home for those who each year face homelessness through no fault of their own. Our proposals require local authorities to adopt a more strategic approach to tackling the causes of homelessness and preventing its recurrence. The Bill will require local authorities to review homelessness in their area at least every five years and to put in place a multi-agency strategy for preventing homelessness, ensuring that adequate accommodation and support are available.

The Bill will encourage a more co-ordinated approach by requiring housing and social services authorities to take the homelessness strategy into account when meeting their responsibilities. We are also removing unnecessary restrictions that can limit local authorities' abilities to find sustainable housing solutions and offer real choice to homeless people, to others in housing need and to existing tenants, thereby helping to create more sustainable communities and tackling social exclusion.

Evidence demonstrates that a high proportion of homeless people who end up sleeping rough come from institutional backgrounds, and we are adding to the priority-needs groups some new categories of vulnerable people, including young children who have come out of care and others who have an institutional background and are homeless and vulnerable. That is a sensible and humane policy. I am glad that the Opposition did not pursue at great length today their unfounded claim that we are seeking to give ex-prisoners housing priority over other applicants. As has been well established, that was never our intention, and it is certainly not the implication of the Bill.

Taken with the Government's sound economic policies, our substantial increases in capital investment in housing and the wider policies set out in the housing Green Paper, the Homes Bill will help us ensure that everyone has the opportunity of a decent home. It is important reforming legislation, and I commend it to the House.

9.12 pm
Mr. Waterson

There has been a surreal note to today's debates which graphically demonstrates the dangers inherent in the Government's regular use of guillotine motions. The House will readily understand why most of my remarks on Third Reading will deal with part I, on seller's packs. As I said at the start of the programme motion debate, to the public, part I is every bit as important as part II—I see the Minister nodding in agreement—and although part I may affect different categories of people from those affected by part II, it is just as important.

Whether one uses the figure of 1.5 million people or that of 2 million, as the Minister did, every year a very great number of people are engaged in buying or selling their own homes. For some people—those who do not have to obtain mortgages or are close friend of the former Paymaster General—there is not much of a problem. For most people, however, it is a time of great anxiety and worry. That is why we find it inconceivable that the Government really wish to make that process even more worrisome.

We have not had the opportunity to debate all the groups of amendments and new clauses dealing with seller's packs duties, seller's packs offences and home condition reports. Although we have had a lengthy—some might even say exhaustive—debate on energy efficiency reports as a part of seller's packs, the vast majority of seller's packs issues, on which we spent more than half our time in Committee, have not been addressed at all in our debates today. I think that I had about 20 seconds to speak to our amendments in the sixth group, and that was it. Of course Ministers do not care, but I think that those who send us to this place will care that an issue that is important to very many people has simply not been debated.

On the subject of seller's packs, it is important to remember two preliminary issues. First, we must consider part I of the Bill against the background of the clear promises made by the Labour party in opposition. Labour Members do not like to be reminded of what the party said on this issue as on so many others, but it is clear that it promised people that it would tackle gazumping.

Whether tackling gazumping is ever likely to be a practical proposition is a matter for argument, but that is not the issue. The issue is that the Labour party led people to believe that that was what would happen. It was a surprise to find, therefore, when we tore open our mint copies of the Bill before Christmas, that that was the one matter that was not addressed.

I am sure that the Minister will say that the Government are trying to tackle gazumping by making the process of house buying quicker. However, we do not accept that the new system will make the process quicker. Moreover, if gazumpers are people who find that they can get more for their homes than they thought—to put it as neutrally as possible—why should the fact that the process is quicker make a difference? I have never received a satisfactory answer to that question.

For what it is worth, I shall repeat what I said on Second Reading and in Committee: the one matter that the Bill does not address is gazumping.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I did not have the pleasure of serving on the Standing Committee, although I spoke on Second Reading. Will my hon. Friend say whether the Minister gave any indication in Committee that he would consider rescinding this measure—in the event that he is still in a position to do so—if it does not reduce the average time that transactions take to complete?

Mr. Waterson

We did not get that far. Most of the significant elements in the Bill will be implemented by regulation. We have not seen the draft regulations yet, although we have had some hints of what they might contain. However, the Government do not propose that the new rules will come into force until 2003. When we win the election, we will have a long and hard look at whether they will make any difference. The betting is that the measure will not be retained on the statute book. The Government's attempts to force the Bill through in a short time will therefore have been for nothing.

When he was shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) published a pamphlet on gazumping. He wrote that the Labour party was proposing a system under which a seller or buyer who went back on an agreement would be obliged to meet the costs that the other party had incurred in progressing to exchange of contracts. In its 1997 election manifesto, the Labour party said: The problems of gazumping have reappeared. Those who break their bargains should be liable to pay the costs inflicted on others, in particular legal and survey costs. People who decided to vote Labour on the basis of the party's policy to end gazumping would therefore have been gulled.

As for the contents of the seller's pack, no one would contest the fact that it makes sense to put together, at the beginning of a transaction, a bundle of documents that one has to get together sooner or later, to try and shorten the process. Indeed, if one is buying a new property, the developer usually puts the basic documents together.

Our concerns are threefold: first, criminal sanctions should not be imposed. Secondly, to require a home condition report to be included in the pack is unrealistic and unhelpful. Thirdly, to require local searches to be included is also unrealistic and unhelpful.

Surveys, as we know, can be out of date. Some properties in the parts of the country worst affected by the recent flooding could have had a survey six months ago, but the condition of the property might be very different now.

Local authority searches have a relatively short shelf life—a maximum of, say, three months—and it would be prudent to renew them. We have never fully understood why local searches should be an issue. It has always been possible to carry out what is called a personal search, which means effectively paying a bit extra for the articled clerk in one's solicitors to go to the local authority offices and carry out the search then and there.

The basis for the entire structure set out in part I is the alleged success of the pilot scheme conducted in Bristol. We dispute that for a variety of reasons, all of which will be familiar to Ministers who were in Committee. The sample was supposed to consist of 250 people. The figure eventually was 180 or thereabouts, of whom 90 completed. As if that were not bad enough, of that 90, a third were brand new properties—Beazer Homes, although that company is probably called something else now, as it has been taken over since then. So we are looking at a terribly small sample in one city in England as the basis for this scheme.

The Minister will no doubt say that in Bristol everyone thought that it worked fine. The president of the Law Society—the Minister's new best friend—thinks that it is wonderful, the best thing since sliced bread. I explained during the debate on the timetable motion why I thought, with the greatest respect to the president of the Law Society, that he might be enthusiastic. Even more so, no wonder that the level of satisfaction discovered among the participants of the pilot scheme in Bristol was pretty high. I suggest that it was because they were given their seller's packs, including their survey reports, courtesy of the taxpayer. More than £300,000 was pumped into the local property scene for the purposes of that pilot scheme.

We question, as do people intimately involved in buying and selling property, how anyone can rely on the results of that scheme. It also came to light in Committee that the local authority was giving priority to searches connected with the pilot scheme over and above those that came before it in the usual way.

I complained in the debate on the timetable motion that Ministers were unwilling to accept advice from those who ought to know. I spent some time describing the Minister's dismissal of these people. Let us remember what certain organisations have said. Mr. Michael King, chairman of the Law Society's conveyancing and land law committee, said: The take up of the sellers pack during the pilot was disappointing. The Law Society does not believe that on this information it should be made compulsory. The Law Society remains to be convinced as to the effectiveness of the proposed pack. Mr. Michael Coogan, director general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, said: the evidence in support of introducing sellers information packs is not robust and such packs could prove to be unpopular with consumers. The Bristol pilot has failed to demonstrate that SIPs significantly improve the process and that there is widespread support from the professionals in the process.

Mr. Hammond

I should probably draw the attention of the House to my registered interests. One of the great flaws in the condition survey involved in the seller's pack is that it may not be acceptable to lenders, so buyers may have to commission a further report. Did the Minister tell the Committee whether any serious progress had been made on persuading lenders to agree always to accept the condition reports in the seller's packs?

Mr. Waterson

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Minister had a fairly disastrous appearance early last December at the annual conference of the Council of Mortgage Lenders. One of the things that he tried to do was to bully its members into accepting that very principle. The CML takes the view rather robustly, although a little less robustly than it used to thanks to the Minister's pressure on it, that it is for lenders to decide what evidence they need in order to advance money for property transactions.

My hon. Friend has brought me to the next major issue. Who will benefit from the proposals? We know already that many people do not have full structural surveys done. It is important to remember that the home condition report is nothing like a full structural survey; it is fairly limited in scope and detail. I appreciate that the final form is in a state of flux. We have seen at least two draft versions. It is far from being a structural survey.

I was talking to people last night at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors annual presidential dinner. Anyone in the business will say that unless a property is relatively new, one is advised to have a full structural survey. That is not to say that many people do not take a chance and do not have one done. So, as a matter of law, people will have a home condition report. They may well have a full structural survey as well. Even in the Bristol pilot scheme, a third of the people involved had their own report done, despite the fact that they were given a free home condition report courtesy of the Government. The lender may insist on a separate survey report and then still insist on the usual separate valuation, for the moment anyway.

So, leaving aside the updating issue that I mentioned a moment ago, we have the potential for a series of surveys on a given property. Those in the business have estimated that up to £700 will be added to a transaction.

Mr. Raynsford


Mr. Waterson

The Minister argues that broadly those costs would be incurred anyway. I hope that I do not do his argument an injustice. Whether that is right or wrong, there is no doubt that front-loaded costs will, for the first time, be imposed on the seller, not the buyer.

One of the main concerns of organisations such as the CML is that there will be a significant effect on the supply of property on the market. It is perfectly true that some people test the market by putting their property on it and seeing what happens. If they get no interest, they take it off and no one is any worse off and no harm is done. There is real concern that speculative would-be sellers will be deterred by the front-loaded costs of putting a property on the market.

The Minister referred to the separate but related issue of what happens in low-demand, low-value areas. A significant number of Labour Back Benchers expressed concern about that on Second Reading. In fairness, I recognise that the Department has done some work in Bradford and Burnley on the problem. The Minister mentioned a moment ago today's Government press release, which says that the Government intend to consult on the options. Of course, that means that they have still not thought of the answer. They cannot take out a council tax band—during our debates in Committee, we eliminated that possibility. It is difficult simply to draw a line on a map.

In his press release and indeed in his speech, the Minister for Housing and Planning has, with breathtaking cheek, adopted the word used on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)—"stigmatising". I make no complaint about that, because the word is the right one. My right hon. Friend pointed out that, in some parts of the country, one might produce the very result that one was trying to avoid by telling people that they did not need a seller's pack, thereby stigmatising the area—perhaps, for example, a former mining village. It is clear that Ministers still have no solution to that problem, so they are putting it out for consultation. In Committee, we suggested all the possible options—more than once. None of them seems to have commended itself to Ministers.

Lest it be thought that those are merely scares thought up by the Opposition, or by the Law Society, estate agents or mortgage lenders, we should consider the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) on Second Reading. He was in the Chamber earlier, but some prescience has made him disappear. The hon. Gentleman has practised as a conveyancing solicitor for many years. Possibly, for that reason, he did not make it on to the Standing Committee.

The hon. Gentleman thought that the proposals would make only a marginal difference. He suggested that there might be problems because unscrupulous sellers could hawk a seller's pack around. He made the point that I made earlier—many conveyancers and solicitors already use a type of seller's pack for some of the documentation. He referred to the point that the Law Society has been trying to make to the Minister for a long time: the Law Society and others are already working towards streamlining the system—with the use of e-conveyancing and the like.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the extra cost—possibly £700—and the need for extra surveys. He expressed concerns about criminal sanctions.

Mr. Love

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) is attending a legal dinner this evening. He wanted to contribute to the debate; he was in the Chamber earlier.

Mr. Waterson

I am grateful for that intervention, but I thought that I had already pointed out that the hon. Member for Upminster was in the Chamber earlier. I am sure that the legal dinner is most interesting. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, he will be impressed. He can skip over some of the earlier passages, but when he reads my speech, he will be pleased that I took so seriously what he had to say—obviously, so did his own Whips.

The hon. Gentleman knows what he is talking about. If the Minister will not even listen to him, we are in a serious state.

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have hesitated to intervene, but I really could not let that go on. He will know well, because I raised the matter in Committee and made it clear to him, that, following the Second Reading debate, I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) to discuss the whole issue with me. We had a most useful and constructive discussion and I am sure that I put to rest many of the concerns that my hon. Friend voiced on Second Reading.

Mr. Waterson

I hope that the Minister will not take it amiss when I point out that we have only his word for that—we do not have the hon. Member for Upminster, although I am sure that the bruises have started to go down.

As we pointed out in Committee, when the Minister made that point, it would have been nice if the rest of us had been privy to what the hon. Member for Upminster had to say. When it comes to practical conveyancing, I prefer his comments to those of the Minister.

Mr. Hammond

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the Minister seems to be a bit selective about which hon. Members who took part in the Second Reading debate he wants to discuss this matter with, because I wrote to the Minister after that debate, asking him whether he could clarify some unanswered questions, and I have not yet had a reply.

Mr. Waterson

That is very worrying, because I know that my hon. Friend knows about these things. I do rather resent the Minister because, as a result of his systematic denigration in Committee of almost every organisation and lobbying group that has a connection with conveyancing, my mailbag has swollen to Gargantuan proportions as a result of people writing to ask who this chap is and how he dares to talk about them in that way.

I should have said earlier that I do not have an interest to declare. As I said in previous debates, I am a solicitor but not one who has ever practised in conveyancing matters.

We now come to the question of criminal sanctions. The Minister said that he was confident that sanctions were necessary. He then undermined his position by saying—it was an ever louder theme in Committee—that he did not think that essentially innocent people would find themselves in trouble with the weights and measures officers, hard pressed as they already are, who will have to try to enforce the legislation.

We disagree with the Minister now, as we did in Committee. It is simply not open to Ministers, even in the Government, where they have an extremely exaggerated notion of their own importance, to say that people will not be pursued or prosecuted for breaches of the law. If we are creating a new law, the breach of which is in theory subject to criminal sanctions, Ministers cannot wave their hands and say that people will not be prosecuted except in extreme situations.

One aspect is really worrying. Even if the Government really believe, against all the advice and evidence to the contrary, that seller's packs will make all the difference, why impose criminal sanctions? The Law Society has been outraged at that suggestion, and so are Conservative Members. We think that ordinary people, going about in their law-abiding fashion, entering, or not entering, into free contractual relations, should not be threatened with criminal sanctions—criminal sanctions which, as we discovered in Committee, are the equivalent of those for someone carrying an offensive weapon such as a flick-knife. We strongly believe that if the Government are having second thoughts about any aspect of part I, they should drop the idea of criminal sanctions.

I shall deal more briefly, for reasons that I have explained, with part II, which deals with housing and homelessness. As Ministers know, we have consistently not voted against the principle of the Bill. We did not do so at Second Reading and I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House against the Bill on Third Reading, because there are some good things in part II, some of which we agree with, but some of which have not been thought through enough.

The Bill arrives at the eleventh hour of the Government, after four years in government and 18 years in opposition. I suspect that during every month of that time, the current Minister for Housing and Planning had some sort of responsibility for housing policy. The Bill is missing things such as a licensing system for houses in multiple occupation, which has caused much comment in the housing press. The Bill must be viewed against the background of a general failure in housing policy.

Every time that we discussed the homelessness figures in Committee, the Minister would rise to his feet to rubbish the very figures issued by his Department, so I am risking provoking him again. I believe, however, that we can at least agree that we established painfully in Committee that between 1997–98 and the last year for which figures are available, the figure for total priority homeless acceptances increased from 102,650 to 108,500 in round terms. That means, on my arithmetic, that the homeless figure has been rising under the stewardship of the Government and these Ministers. There has been an increase of 6,000 in those years.

The figure for the total number of empty homes has fallen only marginally, to 762,700. All that, together with the massive extra pressures caused by the Government's comprehensive failure to tackle the problem of asylum seekers and the sharp fall in the supply of new social housing, shows that there is a crisis in housing and homelessness under the Government.

I discovered the other day that the Labour administration in Basildon has had to impose a special service charge of between £7.50 and £17.50 on homeless people. That is referred to locally as the homeless tax. It is argued that, as most homeless tenants are on benefit, the tax will not be paid from their incomes. The housing chairman, Paul Kirkman—a Labour councillor—said that he felt heavy hearted at putting a charge on homeless people and that imposing the charge felt like sticking the knife in the homeless.

This country's homeless and housing figures paint a very disturbing picture indeed, and the Bill must be judged against that background. We are mystified as to why the Government have taken so long to produce the Bill and why its scope is so limited, given that they have purported to give such a high priority to housing in the run-up to the election and thereafter.

There are major problems with some of the proposals in part II. As I said earlier, supply and demand is the major issue. The Government have not addressed the fact that there is an excess of supply over demand in some parts of the country and vice versa in others, which undermines choice-based allocations.

In a nutshell, part I will cause enormous problems; it will criminalise ordinary law-abiding folk and make the job of buying and selling houses more expensive and more difficult. Part II is riddled with contradictions. The Bill does not tackle some of the big issues in housing, which should have been tackled by now, but, as I have said, I shall not invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against its Third Reading.

9.42 pm
Mr. Don Foster

I am still pondering the answer given by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) when he was asked whether a Conservative Government, if there were ever to be another, would rescind the Bill. The answer was that the Conservative party would take a long, hard look at it. I recall that those were the words of either Eeyore or Winnie-the-Pooh.

It is clear from the debates so far that we were absolutely right to question the programme motion. It is absolutely clear that there has been inadequate time to discuss the large number of very important issues before us tonight. However, we could have made more effective use of the time that was made available. Nevertheless, the debates in the Chamber and in Committee have provided an opportunity to discuss not only the issues dealt with in the Bill, but a wide range of other related issues. That has been helpful.

We have had an opportunity to discuss the need to speed up the provision of affordable housing. We have discussed the need to tackle the absolutely disgraceful fact that there are 750,000 empty homes in this country. We have discussed the need to improve support for those who tragically often suffer from the neighbours from hell. We have even discussed the proposals to run trials to determine the ways in which different local authorities can develop greater choice for the various people in need of housing. I hope that the bid from my local authority—Bath and North East Somerset—will be considered very favourably by the Minister. We have also had an opportunity directly to consider important issues in the Bill, such as buying and selling housing and the development of homelessness reviews and strategies by local authorities.

On Second Reading, the Minister accepted that the Bill was, at that stage, work in progress. I genuinely believe that our deliberations have resulted in significant progress. For example, I am delighted that Ministers have been prepared to accept Liberal Democrat proposals for improvements to the reintroduction of reviews of eligibility and of the priority given to homeless people. I am delighted that some of our proposals on energy efficiency have been accepted tonight. Hon. Members from both sides in Committee and in the House have backed our proposals to improve the advice and guidance that local authorities give to homeless people. Ministers have also been willing to reconsider certain aspects of new clauses 5 and 7. I am grateful for the improvements that have been made.

The Bill contains many important and beneficial measures. Despite that, it continues to contain a number of weaknesses. They include the inadequately defined and certainly inadequately financially supported role that trading standards officers will have to play. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly said, insufficient attention has been given to the issues of gazumping and gazundering. There is certainly not enough in the Bill to link the important work of registered social landlords and local authority housing departments. The Minister will be the first to acknowledge that we have still not found a solution to the question of whether a seller's pack should be required in areas of low-value properties. In addition, we have not yet done enough to link together at the local authority level the development of homelessness strategies and the housing strategy.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly referred to the Bill's biggest weakness, which is the sanctions that the Government propose to introduce against those who fail to meet the requirements of a seller's pack. We are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of criminal sanctions. It is wrong to make it a criminal offence to fail to meet the requirements of the seller's pack. That would mean that someone who had not met those requirements could find that their character had been diminished in the eyes of their neighbours and others. Their job might be put in jeopardy and their credit rating and their ability to obtain a mortgage could be put at risk. Some countries, such as the United States, will not accept people with criminal records, so the ability of those people to travel could also be put at risk. If there is to be a sanction, it should be a civil sanction, not a criminal one.

The Bill is work in progress, and progress has been made during our deliberations. I do not want to do anything that will prevent further progress from being made in another place. For that reason, we shall not vote against the Bill's Third Reading.

9.48 pm
Mr. Love

I welcome the Bill, not least because it implements two of the Government's manifesto pledges. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning on taking the Bill smoothly through all its stages in the House, and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), on his appointment as a Minister.

Funnily enough, I pay tribute to both sides for the measured and sensible debates that we had in Committee. They were in marked contrast to the Second Reading debate, which sounded very much to me like an election rally for the Opposition. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) suggested, we had a surreal debate tonight when two Liberal Democrat homelessness policies were on show. There was also the amazing spectacle of the Welsh Nationalists coming to the aid of those on the Opposition Front Bench when Opposition Back Benchers were chiding them about Conservative principles.

The Bill will significantly improve the process of buying and selling a home. The need for the measure is clear: 1.5 million to 2 million sales are made a year. Although the process is among the cheapest, it is also the slowest. Twenty-eight per cent. of all sales fail, even after terms have been agreed, and dissatisfaction is high. Frankly, action was required.

We cannot criticise the Government for lack of research. An enormous amount of consultation and research was carried out before the measure was introduced. A long study took place in 1998, followed by a consultation process. It showed strong support for the seller's pack and even for making it compulsory. The consultation was followed by a pilot study. We are considering trust and confidence in the survey form, which was discussed at length. The provisions should establish that confidence before the form is introduced in 2003. The Bill will achieve more stability and predictability in the process of buying a home.

I have a direct constituency interest in homelessness. Almost one in three constituents who come to me have housing problems. Most of them are homeless or in the process of becoming homeless. That reflects the Tory legacy. The previous Government's neglect of social housing has led directly to such problems; indeed, their legacy is symbolised by rough sleepers. That will haunt the Conservative party for a long time.

I welcome the Bill. It provides a settled housing solution for people who are in priority need, but it also does much more than that. It provides for local authorities to devise homelessness strategies, and establishes the need for them to put prevention at the top of their agenda.

Although Opposition Members have criticised them, I welcome the provisions for strengthening advice and assistance. When we are unable to provide a settled housing solution, we should give homeless people advice and assistance. It is clear that that currently does not happen.

I welcome the Minister's important reassurance that blanket exclusions, which have formed a large part of some local authorities' activities, will be outlawed. I join the hon. Member for Eastbourne—although I do not ask the Minister to select Eastbourne as one of the pilot authorities—in welcoming the extension of choice to social housing. That is long overdue and will lead to local authorities gaining a better reputation for their provision of housing for those in need.

The Bill will make a difference. It will reduce not only homelessness, but social exclusion, which is perhaps even more important and at the centre of Government policy.

9.53 pm
Mr. Robert Ainsworth

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) complained that there had not been sufficient time to discuss part I, and he blamed the programme motion. The Bill has 33 clauses and it has been allocated a full day for Report and Third Reading. That was not unusual in the House even before the time of programme motions. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on the debate, he will probably realise that there was no time to discuss all the issues that are relevant to part I, mainly because one or two Conservative Back Benchers were so offended by the proposals of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) that they decided to take him by the scruff of the neck and shake him for an hour or so.

Mr. Waterson

The Minister chooses to work on the basis of the number of clauses, which is rather like a "Never mind the quality, feel the width" approach to politics. Will he remind the House of the number of clauses in the Bill that led to ratification of the Maastricht treaty?

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman might know that, as an ex-Whip, I have a tendency, which I need to lose, towards "Never mind the quality, feel the width". It is something that I shall work on.

Our procedures for buying and selling homes are the slowest and most inefficient in Europe. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people endure the frustration of delays and failed transactions, often incurring substantial costs. We are determined to do something about that and to improve the lot of consumers. An efficient housing market benefits everyone. We are pursuing a range of measures to increase certainty in the process and reduce delays. The Bill, which requires sellers to prepare a seller's pack before marketing a property, is at the heart of these proposals.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne complains that the Bill will do nothing about gazumping. Surely one of the main reasons for gazumping is the time that a transaction takes in a moving housing market. If the hon. Gentleman does not appreciate that, it is obvious that the commonsense revolution has not reached all the parts of the Conservative party.

Homelessness, or the threat of it, can be one of the most stressful experiences in life for families and individuals, especially if they are vulnerable as a result of, for example, their age or health. The legislation introduced by the previous Government failed to provide adequate protection. The Bill puts in place another important piece in our comprehensive strategy to help homeless people and to tackle the causes of homelessness.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne spoke of his objection to the issue of criminal sanctions. If the issue of seller's packs is to be effective, we need a mandatory scheme, and that requires appropriate sanctions. There is plenty of scope within the Bill for a tough line to be taken on estate agents who deliberately flout the law, and for discretion to be applied when a private seller makes an honest mistake. Estate agents market the vast majority of homes.

Civil sanctions would not offer effective safeguards. They would rely on the buyer suing the person who had marketed the property without a seller's pack. That would involve buyers in delays and uncertainty, and the expense of legal proceedings to recover the money that had been lost.

Criminal sanctions would not have to rely on the actions of the buyer. Local trading standards officers—they are not members of the Gestapo—will be able to initiate enforcement action as is appropriate to meet the conditions that they face and individual circumstances.

I am grateful for the support of some Opposition Members for the measures that we have proposed. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.