HL Deb 11 July 1994 vol 556 cc1576-9

7.15 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, this short but important measure has been considered by the First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments in another place where it received the support of the Opposition spokesman. It has also the support of the local authority associations. It follows wide consultation with, among others, consumer organisations, the CBI, the Law Society, and other representatives of the professions concerned with property transactions.

The regulations are designed to provide a specific power for local authorities in England and Wales to charge for dealing with inquiries made in connection with house purchases and other property transactions. The amount of the charge will be at the authority's discretion; but in setting charges, the authority will be required to have regard to the costs of answering those inquiries. The inquiries in question concern planning, highways and other matters, information about which is important to prospective purchasers.

Local authorities have been dealing with, and charging for, those inquiries for over half a century; but it has recently been drawn to the department's attention that the local authorities in England and Wales have no clear charging power for that purpose. We need to act to rectify that situation. There would be serious consequences for the property market if local authorities were to withdraw that service for lack of any charging power.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced for consultation in March proposals for new statutory arrangements for local authorities' handling of land search and related inquiries. Those proposals include powers to enable local authorities to deal with and charge for a wide range of inquiries. The details of the scheme are currently being worked out, taking account of responses to the consultation; but a new statutory scheme, with new powers, will require primary legislation and must therefore await a suitable legislative opportunity. We can however act in the interim to provide a clear charging power for the inquiries with which local authorities are currently empowered to deal. We can do that by means of the regulations which are to be made under Section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 4th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount St. Davids.)

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for introducing the regulations. We from the Opposition welcome it. I have only two or three questions to ask the noble Viscount about the order. In the first place, I refer to Regulation 2, (which relates to "answering enquiries". Are we to assume that the status of inquiries is established? There may be a telephone call; there may be a letter. What is an inquiry? What is formally an inquiry? Perhaps the noble Viscount can assure me on that.

Secondly, on Regulation 2(1) (a) relating to "the authority's functions", I take it that the regulation relates only to the functions of authorities in England and Wales, which are of a planning nature? I hope the noble Viscount will be able to confirm that. Thirdly, in Regulation 2(1) (b), "any interest in land" is the expression used in the regulation. I take it that that has nothing to do with housing; that this is an authority which has land in which it has an interest, and if it wants to sell off, for instance, a council house, and someone makes an inquiry about the sale of a council house, that that is not subject to Regulation 2?

Lastly, perhaps I may ask the noble Viscount about Regulation 2(3) which states: A charge imposed under this regulation is payable by the person making the enquiry", If the charge is in respect of a transfer by the authority of any interest in land, and if then the person making the inquiry wins the case, or, as it were, prevails, is that still a charge on the person making the inquiry or are costs in that case borne by the local authority? I do not wish to pick nits, but I believe that those are questions that the noble Viscount may wish to answer.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's first question, there is a lengthy local authorities' inquiry form entitled CON. 29, which is published by the Law Society. In the first part, headed standard inquiries, it poses some 16 questions with optional inquiries covering a further 16 questions. Some of those questions have more than one part. It is in the use of CON. 29 to which these regulations mainly apply.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Is he saying that unless someone making the inquiry fulfils CON. 29 it is not an inquiry under the order which the House is considering?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the inquiries about which we are talking fall under the regulations we are considering. It is almost certainly the practice that the inquiries will be made in writing. As regards the noble Lord's second question, the regulations are specifically designed to allow local authorities to charge for answering inquiries made in connection with property transactions. Any proposals to allow charging for inquiries relating to some other purpose would need to be considered separately.

The noble Lord's third question related to the phrase "in land". That includes all property whether it be land or housing. It relates to property in general. In answering the noble Lord's fourth question, I understand that the charges are made for the inquiry.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, before the Minister finally concludes, perhaps I may clarify one matter. He said that almost always inquiries will be made by reference to CON. 29. What does he mean by "almost always"? Is it always or is it sometimes? We need to know what we are talking about. Either there is an inquiry under a specific procedure which is written, as the Minister pointed out, or there is a telephone inquiry which may take up to three-quarters of an hour of a local authority's time and that may be charged.

While the Minister is obtaining news from elsewhere, perhaps I may deal with a second point. I was interested to hear him say that inquirers on sales of council houses can be charged by the local authority which, a fortiori, owns the house in question. I had not understood that point in the regulations. Is it really the case that if a council wishes to sell a council house and bids are out for the council house, all inquiries, presumably in the correct form, can be charged to any person who makes an inquiry about the house regardless or whether or not he or she concludes a contract to buy the house? If that is the case I should be grateful if the Minister would spell it out in words of one or two syllables because it seems to me to be unfair. If I have a house which I wish to sell I do not charge a prospective buyer the cost of my telephone calls, his telephone calls to me or his applications to me. Nor does my estate agent. I should be grateful if the Minister could assure me on those matters.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, an inquiry does not have to be on CON. 29 but that is the usual practice. It could be received in the form of a letter or any other type of written inquiry. Someone wishing to acquire a property would require the information to be made to them in a written form. I do not believe that one would wish to rely purely on the information received as a result of a telephone call.

The noble Lord asks about charging. The regulations provide for the local authority to make charges at its discretion. They are not mandatory.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister. I find it odd that a council wishing to sell a council house can charge for an inquiry in writing. I understand that no telephone calls are allowed and that all inquiries must be made in writing. I find it odd that the council can say, "You have asked about this particular house. It is 3 Acacia Avenue and these are the details. You have asked in writing and therefore the charge is made to you". No estate agent in the world would charge for that. And no owner in the world, if he had any sense, would charge for that.

I do not wish to pursue the matter. If the Minister insists that councils will have the right to do that no doubt that is so. I find it odd, however, that in the context of the property market these regulations should pass without clarification of the point I have raised.

Viscount St Davids

My Lords, the noble Lord was not right in saying that I said that inquiries will always be made in writing. I said that it is the practice that they should be written. CON. 29 is a pro forma of the type of questions that will be asked. They cover issues such as road schemes, development plans, the maintenance of roads and notice under planning Acts. I suggest that one would wish to have a written record of that. The regulations do not relate to the local authority's costs incurred in selling a house. They cover the cost of supplying information about planning, highways, the matters I listed and other matters relating to the property.

On Question, Motion agreed to.