§ 4.55 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they consider any, and if so what, steps should be taken to regulate the estate agents profession. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is indeed an honour that an Unstarred Question should come before the House at such an early stage of the day; in fact, many Members of the House might almost regard it as a half-day. Before I explain my purpose in putting down this Unstarred Question on the control of estate agents, perhaps I should disclose that part of my professional work is connected with estate agency business. Having said that, I should like also to say that the Question is asked wholly at my own instigation, and not on behalf of any of the professional bodies. It is a subject which I believe is in need of the most urgent legislation, and I very much hope that when the noble Lord comes to reply he will, first of all, be able to assure the House that the Government recognise the urgency of the problem; secondly, that the Government accept the responsibility that any legislation which comes forward should be in the form of a Government Bill and not a Private Member's Bill; and, lastly, that they will introduce such legislation in the very near future.
§ It is no exaggeration to say that the reform of the estate agency profession has been discussed in Parliament for almost as long as the reform of your Lordships'House—and, indeed, if I may say so, it has not had such rapid or such marked success. Over eighty years ago, in 1880, the first Bill was introduced 578 to control the practice of estate agents and was rejected. Since then four Bills have been introduced, namely, in 1913, 1923, 1963 and January of this year, 1966, all of which foundered. On top of that, a Select Committee of your Lordships' House was set up in 1935 to study the existing laws regarding estate agents.
§ I have studied the reasons why, so far, no legislation has come forward, and I think it comes down to four basic reasons: first, that until January, 1966, no Government of the day would accept the responsibility for any legislation on the matter, taking the view that estate agents should put their own house in order; secondly, that there was a strong suspicion from members outside the professional bodies that any legislation would bring about a "closed shop" and would be for the benefit of the professional members more than for the benefit of the public; thirdly, that the professional bodies themselves, up to 1963, could never agree on the form which any legislation should take, and lastly, and perhaps most important of all, that people considered estate agency not as a profession but purely as a commercial venture which should be entitled to the same amount of commercial freedom as other commercial ventures enjoy.
§ The House will be aware that the job of an estate agent is to buy, sell, value or manage urban and rural property. It is an immensely variable profession. At one moment one is discussing the sale of a small residential flat, and at the next one might be discussing the sale of the Hilton Hotel. On another day one will be collecting rents, and on yet another day will be valuing a client's reversionary interest in a property. All this requires knowledge beyond just the knowledge of the market value of property. It requires a knowledge of the law of the land, the law of contract, the law of landlord and tenant, the law of town and country planning, and a knowledge of building construction. The estate agent often finds himself in the unique and responsible position of advising on what to most people is the most important investment in their lives, their home. I suggest that the estate agent's job requires the highest integrity, and there is no doubt in my mind that an estate agency can be regarded only as a profession and, like other professions, should be governed by statutory authority. Yet it is well-known to your 579 Lordships that at present there is absolutely no control over estate agency, and the gate is wide open.
§ There are roughly three categories of estate agencies: first, the members of the professional bodies, such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the Chartered Land Agents' Society, who are bound by their own professional codes. Then, secondly, there are what I call the part-timers—the architects, the solicitors and the accountants. Again, they are bound by their professional codes. Lastly, there is the group, varying from the honest to the dishonest, who are not bound by any code of conduct, and this category of course attracts both the scrupulous and the unscrupulous person, those with or without integrity and with or without any proper knowledge of their work. There are to-day over 30,000 estate agents practising in this country, of which about one-third come in the last category, and it is this body which has brought the profession into such disrepute.
§ It is interesting to note that complaints against estate agents are to-day very similar to the complaints that were made in 1935, before the Select Committee of your Lordships'House—misappropriation of deposit funds, the charging of unwarrantable fees well over the professional scales, mock auctions and incompetence. All of these occur to-day as they did in 1935 and they will continue to occur, to the hardship of innocent people, until something is done. The only difference now from 1935 is that in 1935 auctioneers and house agents had to take out an annual licence, and the Select Committee then recommended that power should be given to withdraw those licences if there was evidence of malpractice. This recommendation could not be carried out to-day because the licences were abolished in 1948.
§ Abuses in conduct by estate agents vary from sheer dishonesty to just incompetent practice. The most common dishonest practice, and one about which one reads almost weekly and certainly monthly, is that the agent disappears with the deposit funds of clients. I have not been able to establish an accurate figure of the number of cases of dishonest agents, but I assure the House that the frequency of court cases is very disturbing and perhaps even more disturbing is the number 580 of unknown cases which never reach the courts. On the question of incompetence, the damage that can result from bad or unscrupulous advice can, of course, be immense. By putting money into their house people are often putting at risk their entire life savings, and if they lose part of that capital as a result of poor advice there is usually very little they can do.
§ There is one point which I should like to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Rhodes, to-day, and that is what the energetic Minister of Housing suggested some months ago in regard to local councils setting up their own estate agencies. If this should come about, I believe it will be a most serious infringement of the livelihoods of all those engaged in full-time estate agency. It would open the door, I suggest, to a free service of, say, solicitors and barristers and any other profession one cares to name. It would be a most costly operation to the ratepayers, and altogether thoroughly impracticable. I would appreciate the noble Lord's comments on this, and should like to know whether, in fact, it is the Government's intention to press forward with this idea.
As I said at the beginning, in the past three years, there have been two private Bills on this subject, both introduced in another place and both sponsored by the professonal bodies. The intention of each Bill was to enforce the registration of estate agents, to lay down a standard of competence and conduct, and to set up a compensation fund for the benefit of the public. The first Bill foundered on its Second Reading when it was talked out. The second Bill, considered in January of this year, was amended to embrace the arguments of those opposed to the first Bill, and it duly received a Second Reading in another place. At that time the Government spokesman gave his official blessing with these words:
that is a subject in which the Government recognise that we have a responsibility to legislate. Indeed, if the Government were not already committed to a very large legislative programme, we ourselves might have wished to introduce a Bill on the subject."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Commons, Vol. 723. col. 627; 28/1/66.]
The Bill then went to Committee, but was lost when the General Election was called. So one might say that, but for Parliamentary procedure, this Bill could well be on the Statute Book now.
§ It is no secret that the two Private Bills sponsored by the professional bodies have cost those bodies over £15,000 of their voluntary funds, and I would now suggest that it is the Government's turn to take up that last Bill and find time to see it through all its stages. Since the General Election the professional bodies have again been pressing the Government to take action. The latest position, as I have read from a Press statement—and, perhaps, the noble Lord will confirm this later—is that the professional bodies have apparently accepted that there is no room in Government legislation for such a Bill at the present time. So what they have suggested is setting up a voluntary estate agents' council at their own expense, if the Board of Trade will give it its official blessing.
§ I have lead that the council would prepare a standard of conduct and would eventually issue licences to all its members, and request them to take out fidelity bonds. Members would in turn enjoy the privilege of displaying a Board of Trade insignia to the public, and then, through consistent publicity, it is hoped that the public would be educated to deal only with members of this council. But much as one welcomes this move of the professional bodies, it is surely only an expensive compromise and would merely delay the taking of legislative action by the Government, which is their clear duty. The proposed council, because of its voluntary nature, would have no control over the very fish it wishes to net—that is, the unscrupulous agents—and those agents would continue to go unharmed. The success of the council would entirely depend on the public's reaction and response.
§ The case for reform of the estate agents' profession has been discussed, as I have said, for over eighty years, and I believe that now the case is undisputed that reform should take place. I would ask the Government to-day why it is, when they accepted responsibility for legislation last January, and when they accepted that it was clearly in the public interest that control should be enforced, they are still dragging their feet. I should be grateful if, when the noble Lord comes to reply, he would give the House a clear indication of when the Government intend to bring forward this legislation, legislation which 582 I submit is both important and long overdue.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ BARONESS ELLIOT OF HARWOOD
My Lords, I rise to add just a few words to what the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has said on this subject, and I am speaking to-day as the Chairman of the Consumer Council. I am going to put to your Lordships' House some of the comments which the Council have made, and I know that in what I say to-day I have their support.
I think the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has made a very strong case for doing something in this very important matter. My Council became involved in this subject only in connection with the Bill which, in another place, was supported very strongly by the members of all Parties, and which was taken a long way in the last Parliament. So far did it get that, as the noble Earl has said, if it had not been for the Dissolution of Parliament I feel fairly confident that the Bill would by now have been law.
In connection with the advice which we were asked to give and the inquiries which the Council made, we consulted a great number of different bodies—the estate agents' societies, of which there are a considerable number; chartered surveyors; and an important survey, made by the Research Institute for Consumer Affairs, known as RICA, which made a survey on estate agents. All that we could discover has been most ably recounted by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and we felt very strongly that the Bill which had been presented in another place was a good Bill. It was one which we should have liked to see go through Parliament, and we think there is a strong case for legislation.
There are just one or two comments I should like to make. The chartered bodies would like a minimum standard of professional competence, and also the registration of estate agents. The Consumer Council was not opposed to the registration of estate agents provided that a sufficient number of the public were members of the registration council. Under the last Bill, the number representing the professional bodies and the estate agents was greatly in excess of the number representing the general public—the consumers, one might say, of the 583 service provided by estate agents. By putting some pressure upon those who were interested in the Bill, we got them to agree to a larger number of representatives of the public on the registration council. This, I think, would have made the registration council an effective and a fair body.
The inquiry by RICA, to which I have referred, showed that among many estate agents there was a lack of knowledge as to the qualifications and standards necessary for the practice of estate agency, and it revealed a number of matters to which the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has alluded and which I think build up a good case for some legislation. On the question of registration, we were concerned that there should be representation of the general public: otherwise we felt we might be creating a closed shop on the registration council which could militate against the public interest.
A question was raised about maximum charges, and my Council, on going into this matter carefully, thought that this would be a mistake, since limiting charges might create some kind of monopoly. As a matter of fact, at the present moment the fees which are charged by estate agents are being reviewed by the Monopolies Commission, and my Council may possibly be giving evidence in this matter. In any case, we were not in favour of maximum charges being laid down, because, in practice, as one knows, maximum charges can very easily become minimum charges, and there may be a certain amount of abuse. It is interesting that in Scotland the buying and selling of houses is often done through solicitors without the aid of estate agents, and with apparent success.
I think that if the Government are interested in this subject, as I hope they are, they will realise that it is one in which the protection of the public is urgently needed. I did not know until I heard the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, how many times legislation had been brought forward in the last eighty years, and how long this matter had been under discussion. To-day, when the buying and selling of houses is done on a very considerable scale, and when, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has said, young people just starting their 584 married lives are probably putting a considerable proportion of their savings into buying a house which may have to last them a great many years, it is very important that they should have some protection from the dishonest members of the house agents' profession.
I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that we are not saying that the house agents' profession as such is not an honest profession—I am quite sure it is—but there are a certain number of house agents (I think he gave the figure of one-third) whose standards we should not consider to be right or proper, and of whom the public may very often be victims. So I hope that the Government will take this matter seriously and that we shall have some legislation for the protection of the public.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ LORD MITCH1SON
My Lords, I am sure we have all listened with great interest and a good deal of gratitude to the speeches of the noble Earl who put this Question and the noble Baroness, who put forward the views of the Consumer Council as well as her own views. My Lords, there was in fact one piece of legislation which did get through. The trouble with house agents has been very largely in the big towns, and particularly in London. Indeed, for some years after the war jokes about house agents almost reached the status of the old music-hall jokes about mothers-in-law and cheeses; and there was a great deal of work which, although one would not call it actually dishonest, was in some cases pretty inefficient and resulted in people paying house agents for something they never got. What they wanted was a house. They may have got many other things, but not that.
In 1953, the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, introduced in another place a Private Member's Bill which finally became the Accommodation Agencies Act of that year. It was introduced as an Act of limited duration, and perhaps the best testimony to the need for it, and to its usefulness, is that it has been continued from year to year; and I think I am right in saying that it is still in force. It has not been a dead letter; there have been occasional prosecutions under it. I refer to the Act because I think it illustrates as well as anything can the sort of 585 difficulty one is in when dealing with this kind of question. I am not going to read the Act out, short though it is, but its Title described it asAn Act to prohibit the taking of certain commissions in dealings with persons seeking houses or flats to let and the unauthorised advertisement for letting of houses and flats.I think that indicates the kind of mischief that the Act was intended to meet.
As I say, it seems to have had, within that rather limited field, considerable success, and I think the existence of legislation of this kind raises the question that was behind both the speeches we have just heard: assuming that there is something wrong, who is the right person, and what is the right machinery, to deal with it? In this particular case Parliament itself went into the matter. The Act does not go into any great detail, but it goes into sufficient detail to enable criminal prosecutions to be laid and to enable people to know what they can do within the law. It goes, for instance, among other things, into the question of the solicitor who, whether in England or in Scotland (for the Act applies to Scotland as well as to England), is, in effect, an agent for dealing with houses.
For many years, of course, hairdressers badly wanted to be registered—and they had a case. They said that it was essential to have clean hairdressers. They said: "We ought to be controlled to some extent; and we ourselves are the best people to do it". But such a situation may result—and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, very fairly pointed it out—in those who are already in the profession keeping out others who might be good recruits to it.
I am not saying this in any critical spirit, but the person referred to as an estate agent may be all kinds of person—I think that came out from the speech that we have just heard. He may be a member of a chartered body, with considerable standing, claiming that his, at any rate, is a profession. But there are other people, doing the same kind of thing, as a rule on a smaller scale, and in a different sort of way, whom I think one would hardly describe as professional people; yet they are estate agents. One has to ensure that no useful and honest activity in this sphere, even though it is on a small scale, is ruled out for lack of professional qualifications. I was not greatly 586 impressed by the amount of law that estate agents are supposed to know; because I rather doubt whether, as a rule, they do know it. Whether that is so or not, it is a difficult matter to lay down the right standards.
Then it is said that the profession, or (to use a neutral word) calling, can do it for themselves. I doubt it in a case of this kind. What they tend to do is just what the noble Baroness described. I did not know of the particular case she mentioned; but I guessed that that is what would happen. They wanted to set up a controlling body, with a few members of the public and a great many of themselves. An alternative would be to put in somebody from the Board of Trade, but as a rule the Board of Trade "will not play". I do not know what my noble friend the Minister is going to say about it; but this idea has been tried also in another calling. We have recently had a move by travel agents to get something of this sort done. Travel agents, again, are a very mixed collection of people. Some are much better and more efficient than others; some, I am afraid, have recently been hauled up in criminal proceedings.
My Lords, one cannot expect a body of that very mixed character, whether they are hairdressers, estate agents or travel agents, to deal with the matter for themselves. The question is whether a body with powers to let people into and out of the calling is the right sort of body. All I want to say on this is that in this particular case I think it might prove extremely difficult to get a satisfactory body from within the calling. I notice that Parliament itself, as the noble Earl pointed out, has taken the responsibility of, at any rate, looking into the matter and, in the particular case I have just mentioned, the Act of 1953, laying down some guidance to prevent abuse. That seems to me to be one possibility that might usefully be considered. But I must say to the noble Earl, having spent a certain number of years in another place, that I should not reckon as very high his chances of getting Government time for a Bill of this sort. It is not possible in Parliament as it is nowadays to deal with everything, but there is machinery for Private Members' Bills (of which the 1953 Act was an instance) 587 which enables things to be done in that way where there is a broad measure of agreement.
I do not agree that this matter ought to be kept out of the purview of the local authorities. It seems to me to be a great mistake to try to deal with the changing of hands of houses of one kind in the council office—as they have to deal not only with council houses but also with the other accommodation which almost any council in a big town must have at its disposal—and the dealing with exchanges or sales of houses in private hands. I think, therefore, that while one ought not to say that the local authority is necessarily the one right body to deal with every case it would be an advantage if, as my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing seems to have suggested, there were arrangements at the town hall for something of this sort to be done.
I do not expect to carry the noble Earl with me, but I am sure that he will be the first person to recognise that the more reputable we can make the business altogether, the better, in the long run, it will be for the profession. It seems to me that they will have plenty to do. I do not think the councils are going to take the bread out of their mouths or the fees out of their pockets. The transactions vary, from the sale of a very large house—with which a local authority is hardly likely to be concerned—to the rather small transaction where, again, these estate agents may not be concerned. I am thinking of cases where people may be hunting to find the kind of house they require, and do not know how to do it—the sort of business that depends on advertising in tobacconists' shops, and the like, which we know about all over London.
I hope, therefore, that when the societies and others, and the Consumer Council itself, are considering this matter they will, if I may say so with deference, remember (as I am sure they will) that this is a very human question. It is the sort of thing for which Parliament is bound to have a responsibility and the sort of thing for which the local authority, as a housing authority, is also bound to have a kind of responsibility. Therefore they will not feel satisfied with laying down codes of conduct on their own, or 588 with securing the representation of the public by putting some members of the public on a professional body; because I do not think that that would do what is required. The best representation for a purpose of this kind is the elected representation of a local council. It is very much better than trying to find half a dozen people who may be taken to represent the public.
I must say, speaking personally, that I should be very glad to see something introduced to deal with the abuses which still exist, whether it is done by amending the 1953 Act or by something more. I should also welcome, again speaking only for myself, some sort of council of an advisory character which could advise the local authority and the Ministry. I do not know what my noble friend is going to say; but the Board of Trade have a terrible lot on their plate, as have the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I incline to the feeling that the best way to do this would be to try to give powers to the local council. I hope the noble Earl, to whom I am grateful for raising this matter, will not think me frivolous if I say that that was what the hairdressers always wanted.
§ 5.29 p.m.
VISCOUNT MASSEREENE AND FERRARO
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to say that I do not think his comparison between the hairdressers and the estate agents was really very apt. It is true that a hairdresser may cut your hair badly, but it soon grows again. He could, I suppose, give you some appalling concoction which would send you bald, but in that case you could always get damages. But an estate agent, if he is a crook, can get hold of some very guillible individual and can run him into an expenditure of very many thousands of pounds. After all, we have a great many qualified professional men who have to be registered. One could as well say, "Why not allow anybody to practise as a chartered accountant? "I support my noble friend. I agree that the Board of Trade and the Government have their hands full at this moment, especially the Government, but that is not really any excuse for not trying to prevent frauds on innocent people.
§ LORD MITCHISON
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Viscount? I am grateful that he mentioned chartered 589 accountants, because it reminded me to say something that I ought to have said before. It seems to me that chartered accountants, solicitors and various other professional people have statutory duties. A chartered accountant has, in connection with the accounts of companies, for instance; and solicitors, obviously, have an enormous stautory responsibility. I think that is the difference between that kind of profession and what we are considering here. So far as I know, estate agents have not any serious statutory responsibility.
§ THE EARL OF KINNOULL
My Lords, they may not have a statutory responsibility, but one responsibility they have is mortgage valuations.
§ VISCOUNT MASSEREENE AND FERRARD
My Lords, I will not prolong the debate, but I wanted to make that point about comparing hairdressers and estate agents. I thought it was rather a wide comparison.
My Lords, I would suggest to my noble friend that if his simile with the hairdressers is not to be pressed, perhaps that with the plumbers might more aptly be pressed. I believe they have been pressing for registration for as long as the estate agents have. Parliament has always shown itself extremely tender in this matter, for fear, as the noble Earl has very fairly said, of establishing a closed shop; one which could, and very easily might, exclude eligible people who ought to be admitted to the profession.
§ 5.33 p.m.
My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate and for rising to say just a few words. I do not believe that any noble Lord who has spoken has ever been a member of a firm where estate agency was part of the business. I was, and still am, a member of the Chartered Surveyors' Institution, although I have not practised for a long time and when I was in practice I was not what would, broadly speaking, be called an estate agent; none the less, I probably come a little nearer the profession than most other noble Lords in the Chamber to-day. I therefore hope I may be excused if I take up two or three minutes.
590 I wound up the Second Reading debate for the Promoters of the first of the two Private Bills which have been referred to, which was lost on Second Reading. The Bill was lost on Second Reading because there is a fringe of the estate agents' profession, a fringe of so-called estate agents, who adopt a commercial attitude to the business as against a professional attitude which is the line that the chartered body to which I belong has always taken. This is a difficulty which we have to consider, where to draw the line, because estate agency can be practised in this country by people with no training and no experience, and so at present there in no protection for the public at all.
What I do not think has been mentioned, and it is extremely distressing to the chartered bodies, is that there are those who, for one reason or another, have had membership of a chartered body taken away from them because of a breach of the code of conduct. There is no reason for these people to do anything except to rubout the word "chartered" from their brass plate and carry on the next day doing exactly the same as the day before. That is the sort of situation which we wish to see improved.
One always feels that those who practise the law put themselves on a pedestal when it comes to considering the professions of others. I am not going to pursue that with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, now, although members of the chartered bodies are frequently cited in Statutes as arbitrators and are given other duties, and so it is not quite right, I think, to suggest that the reputable branch of the estate agents' profession does not have responsible statutory obligations.
In conclusion, may I say that I hope the time is not too far distant when we can find not only Parliamentary time but a way of ensuring a proper standard for the profession, not principally for the benefit of those who work in the profession and follow it for their living, but for the benefit of the public at large and the country generally. I think that important. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, that all of this is best done by some sort of local authority lay help. I think we should approach it from a proper professional outlook and 591 treat it as a serious subject which demands public attention and some Government help before too much time has flown by. Then I think we shall have done something very much for the general benefit.
§ LORD MITCHISON
My Lords, would the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, accept from me before he sits down that I did not mean to say, and do not think I did say, "all of this", but "some of this"?
My Lords, I am sorry if I misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison. I did come into the Chamber after his speech had started. If I misunderstood him, the fault is mine.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ LORD RHODES
My Lords, we have had seven speakers and four have brought in the claims of other professions or industries. It shows the difficulties that surround the subject. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who raised this topic, is in possession of information which I gave to him last Monday when he came to the Board of Trade to seek information, and I am not able to say a lot in reply. I shall divulge the reasons in a few minutes. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, said he was in some difficulty about one part of his problem, but his problem is nothing compared with mine because I am inhibited on this occasion.
I do not think there is any doubt that there is in this House a body of opinion on the question of consumer protection and the interest of the consumer which is unexcelled anywhere else. This House has a first-class body of opinion on this subject. Far from treating the subject lightly, I would treat it with great seriousness. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and the noble Lord, Lord Grimston of Westbury, who is sitting near him, have had experience, as has the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, in another place, extending over many years, and they could not fail to have had this matter drawn to their attention, especially during their interviews with their constituents, because problems of this sort crop up all the time. Hardly any of us who served as Members of Parliament in another place have not come up against this serious problem. I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that he had a good answer from the noble Lord, 592 Lord Mitchison, about local authorities coming into this matter. In any case, I will pass on the comments of the noble Earl to my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
I should like to make one or two comments on attempts to control the activities of estate agents. Reports that discreditable people in this profession have been taking improper advantage of their clients have been advanced to all of us. Until the beginning of this year the subject was the responsibility of the Home Office, but at that time, in view of the responsibility of the Board of Trade for consumer protection and for monopolies and restrictive practices, it was decided that the Board of Trade should take over this matter.
The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, is quite right. There have been two attempts in recent years to promote Bills to control estate agents: one in 1963, when the Bill failed to obtain a Second Reading, and one earlier this year which lapsed because of the dissolution of Parliament. The latter Bill had more support than its predecessor, having been drawn up with the approval of the ten principal societies representing estate agents. As amended, this Bill would have set up an Estate Agents Council with a number of independent members. The Council would maintain a register of estate agents of good character, and lay down minimum standards of competence required by future applicants for registration. The Council would draw up a code of conduct which would have to be approved by the Board of Trade and would draw up rules about the opening and keeping of accounts for money held on behalf of clients. These were the principal provisions of the Bill. The Government have made it clear that they were in sympathy with the general aims of this second Bill, but with the already heavy legislative programme it is not a matter to which the Government can attach any high degree of priority. I must make that clear now.
This brings me to the noble Earl's question whether the Board of Trade regard estate agency as a commercial business or a profession. First, what is a profession? It is, I suppose, the business of giving for a fee disinterested advice based on certain qualifications and 593 knowledge. But many commercial concerns do this and I could name several. Clearly the line between the two is by no means clear-cut. There is, in my view, little point in trying to make a categorical assessment on this subject. All I can say is that there are clearly aspects of the work of estate agents which fall in both categories.
There has recently been another development of which I might remind your Lordships. The Monopolies and Mergers Act 1965 gave the Board of Trade for the first time power to refer services as well as goods to the Monopolies Commission, and my right honourable friend announced last month that he proposed under this new power to refer to the Monopolies Commission the arrangement by which estate agents and others charge commission at standard rates in connection with the selling and leasing of house property. This will lead to an objective investigation into this question of fees, and the report, when it is published, should give useful guidance both to the Government and to estate agents, as well. I hope that we shall have the Report in a fairly short time.
I have referred earlier to the Bill which lapsed on the dissolution of Parliament. Since then, as the papers have reported, there have been discussions between the ten societies representing estate agents and the Board of Trade about action which might be taken in the absence of early legislation. Here is where I come to the reason for my inhibition this afternoon in not being able to give a full reply to the Question the noble Earl has raised. My right honourable friend hopes to make a statement very soon about the upshot of these discussions, but I cannot, and I am sure your Lordships will not expect me to, anticipate that statement. But I hope that when it has been made your Lordships will recognise that steps are being taken to bring about improvements in this industry or profession, or what you like to call it, that we should all like to see.
§ THE EARL OF KINNOULL
I wonder whether I could ask him this question. He has mentioned a statement that is about to be announced, and the question 594 I was asking was whether the Government would take up the Bill that failed this January. I am not asking for a statement, but merely a reply on that point.
§ LORD RHODES
I suppose, according to what Orders we have in this House governing the rules of procedure, it is out of order.
§ LORD RHODES
Thank you very much. I learn every day. I will take up the point and let the noble Earl know.