§ 7.52 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I assure my noble friend and the House that I will turn over a new leaf for brevity. It is Second Reading. It is the second most interesting Bill that I have introduced to the House in the three years I have been here—the first being the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001. It is full of good things, all of which we can discuss in detail in Committee.
The Bill before us is improved. It is a large Bill: it comprises seven parts and 230 clauses. By consent and a Statement in the other place, which has been widely acknowledged, it has had good scrutiny—not every paragraph and every clause, but, nevertheless, good scrutiny. More clauses are to be added to the Bill for reasons that I shall explain. We think that the Bill will create a better and fairer housing market and protect the most vulnerable people in housing. It contributes to the Deputy Prime Minister's sustainable communities plan—launched in February 2003—which is a long-term programme of action backed by £22 billion of investment.
I shall briefly go through most parts of the Bill, but it will be a snapshot of each part and I shall not go into great detail, save for one area of the Bill.
We consider the private rented sector to be a key part of the sustainable communities plan. We want a vigorous and responsive private rented sector. The vast majority of private landlords are decent, responsible and professional. We will introduce licensing only where the risks are the greatest. The Bill will provide local authorities with new powers to license private landlords in areas of low housing demand and in areas suffering from anti-social behaviour, but they will not be able to 84 go out on a spree, licensing willy-nilly for ideological or other reasons. They must be specific. That is made clear in the Bill.
As for houses in multiple occupation, the Bill will introduce mandatory licensing for larger—that is, the highest risk—houses in such occupation. They often exhibit some of the worst housing conditions in the country. Where management problems are widespread, local authorities can extend licensing to other, smaller houses in multiple occupation. There is a definition in the Bill; but, in certain circumstances, it is not practical enough to cover all of those at risk. As I say, where the management problems are widespread, there is a constraint and it is simply not possible to continue extending licensing for other reasons.
Part of the Bill is quite technical. We will hold a briefing in this respect on Wednesday for Members of your Lordships' House. It concerns the housing, health and safety rating system—a new rating system that will replace the current housing fitness standard both as an element of the decent homes standard and as a basis for enforcement of better conditions in the private sector. It will place health and safety at the forefront of a drive to improve housing conditions in all stock. That approach is welcomed by the British Medical Association, and others.
It is quite technical. There has been much consultation, going back to July 2000. A range of about 29 hazards are to be considered. It deals with the property and is person-based, unlike the present system, which is only property-based. A fairly technical, but nevertheless, substantial consultation has been undertaken and reports and guidance issued. Obviously, we have more work to do on that between now and the time that the Bill is enacted.
There are some modest measures to tackle exploitation of the right-to-buy option and to reduce the scope for profiteering, which have been widely welcomed; for example, we have extended the initial qualification period from two to five years and from three to five years the period during which the discount must be repaid where the property is resold.
I have no doubt that one part of the Bill will have substantial debate in Committee—it would be quite wrong to do so tonight—namely, grants to non-registered social landlords. The intention of the Bill is to increase the supply of affordable housing by enabling the Housing Corporation and the National Assembly for Wales to provide grants for organisations other than registered social landlords. Basically, they will operate under the same criteria as registered social landlords, such as the scheme standards and rents. The conditions set by the Housing Corporation will ensure that public money is fully safeguarded.
I turn now to one part of the Bill in a little more detail, which concerns the home information packs. I hope that all of your Lordships tuned in to the "PM" programme this evening and listened to the feature on home information packs. I only caught the second part of it myself; I was not aware that it was on, because I was coming into your Lordships' House to find out what was happening and what progress had been made.
85 There is an issue, which is obviously one for substantial debate in Committee. Surveys show that almost nine out of 10 people are unhappy with the home-buying and selling processes in England and Wales. I emphasise that it is the "processes" with which people are unhappy. They usually love their solicitors and their surveyors and think their estate agents are the bee's knees. Overall, it is the whole process with which people can be quite unhappy.
The high cost of transaction failure means additional cost to almost everyone involved in buying and selling a home. The main problem is that key information is not available until after the terms are negotiated. I suspect that noble Lords, and certainly Members of the other place, will know that, in some cases, people spend less time buying a house than they do when looking for a summer dress or a winter overcoat. That is the reality for some people.
The home information packs will make key information available at the start of the process, because we think that it is nonsensical that key information is made available after the offers are made and accepted. We believe that it will make home-buying and selling easier, more transparent, more successful and, I must say, much less stressful.
The pack system works well in other countries. A number of schemes already operate successfully here. There is some evidence on that, which we can deploy in Committee. Evidence shows that packs must be compulsory so that everybody benefits. At the genesis of the Bill, when it was part of my responsibility as housing Minister, I was very aware of the implications of making packs compulsory all at once, but there are substantial reasons why it has to be that way. I shall be more than happy to debate and deploy those reasons in Committee.
Most transactions, although not all, involve chains, so delays affect almost everybody. One property in the chain marketed without a home information pack would negate the benefits of packs provided for all the other transactions. The Office of Fair Trading report makes it clear that those benefits are the most evident.
The home information packs manifesto commitment was fully supported by the Consumers' Association, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the major mortgage lenders. Buyers and sellers will negotiate from an informed position—that is important. Any problems will be identified and addressed early on, before the sale is put at risk. The packs will help the seller and the estate agent to decide on a realistic asking price that reflects the true condition of the property, and will greatly reduce the risk of transaction failure, which in some areas runs as high as one in four or one in three, and the hassle of having to renegotiate terms.
Packs will also shorten the period of uncertainty between the offer acceptance and the exchange of contracts. We are not legislating to eliminate gazumping, but the space available for gazumping will be shortened by the process in the Bill.
We do not think that there is a reason for a significant increase in costs. Apart from the home condition report, everything in the pack must be 86 provided at some stage in the process now. Industry accepts that costs will generally be deferred until completion, and we genuinely see no reason why packs should prevent homes coming on to the market.
Greater transparency will mean a significant reduction in wasted money. The estimate, which we can deploy in Committee, is that some £350 million a year is wasted through failed transactions. But, not to put too fine a point on it, some people are making a living out of that waste. We expect the packs to be cost-neutral overall and to result in significant savings in many cases. The Government considered the then sellers' packs at Second Reading of the Homes Bill in 2000 and have listened to the issues raised then. There are crucial differences between those provisions and the ones before us today.
Several noble Lords present today expressed concern about criminal sanctions. That has been reconsidered and is now subject to civil sanctions. We have also followed the advice of noble Lords opposite for buyers to be able to recover costs incurred when obtaining documents that should have been in the pack but were not there.
Other noble Lords raised concerns about the effect of the packs on low-value homes. We have taken powers in the Bill to deal with that in Clause 144(9)(c). The issue has been consulted on, and we believe that it is best left to the market to provide solutions. We look forward to hearing reports as the Bill progresses. I also have some personal experiences to share from the past 12 months in using this system for a property transaction.
The pilot was carried out successfully. The home condition report will provide energy efficiency information required by the EU energy performance of buildings directive.
We can concentrate today on the principle of home information packs. Concerns have been raised elsewhere about the practicalities of how they will be implemented, but I offer this House the same assurance as offered by the Minister in the other place, Keith Hill. The Government will not introduce the packs before the necessary pieces of the jigsaw are in place. Much of the detail will be in secondary legislation. The target date for introducing the compulsory home information packs is January 2007. It is demanding, but we think that it is realistic and achievable.
I shall outline briefly the other parts of the Bill. Part 6 introduces measures to tackle anti-social behaviour in social housing, to extend eligibility for a disabled facilities grant to all those who occupy caravans and to establish a social housing ombudsman for Wales. There are a few other provisions in the Bill that show that the Government have listened carefully to representations and responded.
Many noble Lords have urged action to strengthen the rights of park home owners. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, who lobbied me earlier on the matter, led a working party on park homes. We 87 do not have all the answers in the Bill, but we are delighted to report that the Bill now includes six key measures recommended by the working party.
The Bill also provides for statutory overcrowding standards to be amended by secondary legislation. After the Bill had completed its passage in the other place, the Government announced their intention to add two further measures. Both have been widely welcomed and will be debated in this House. If I can, I shall bring forward proposals for Committee rather than wait. If I cannot bring them all forward, I shall present what is available—certainly enough to have a debate on the issue.
First, there is much support for measures to protect tenancy deposits. Twenty per cent of tenants say that landlords have unreasonably withheld their deposit. We will bring forward amendments to tackle this. We seek to guard against only the worst abuses; given the timescale, we cannot deal with everything. Tenants need assurance that their deposit will be safeguarded and that they will not face difficulties trying to enforce judgments, even in the small claims court.
The other issue is empty homes. There has been a lot of support to allow local authorities to make empty homes management orders on long-term empty homes. There was a limited debate on the matter in the other place; we will have a much wider debate in this House. We consulted on the issue last year, so it is not new; we received a positive response. Now is the right time to legislate to deal with the hard core of long-term empty homes.
Local authorities will be able to make management orders on empty homes similar to provisions already in Part 4, with certain modifications. This is not sequestration; it is not taking over the ownership of homes. The government amendments will set out the precise scope of intervention. The intention is to apply to genuine cases of housing vacancy. Of course we will build in the obvious exceptions, such as where the property is occupied, albeit irregularly. If further meetings are required after those held this week, we will be more than happy to offer facilities for those outside the normal Committee process.
We are currently considering the 10th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has an impact in looking at the Bill, and we look forward to receiving the report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships' House. We will consider other government amendments as necessary. We have just given the committee a further memorandum.
We have done much to create sustainable communities. It is a panacea; we have a lot to do, and these are very early days. That is part of addressing the supply-and-demand issues in the housing market, but we need to create a fairer and more efficient housing market. Some 1.5 million homes change hands; there may be 2 million marketed per annum in this country, so there are a lot of people involved and a lot of stress.
There are people living in unsafe properties—we know that from the occasional tragedies that occur, and we are trying to address that. I am not trying to 88 short change anyone whatever. My noble friend Lord Bassam will try to deal with as many points raised as possible when he replies to the debate. Certainly, we will have full and detailed debates in Committee, which I more than welcome. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the contents of this Bill, which by and large affects the greater control of the private housing sector. However, there is no legislation now in the housing arena that will not need to be judged against the background of Kate Barker's report and, of course, the sustainable communities policies. There are a number of provisions in the Bill that affect the supply of housing, as the Minister indicated in his last sentences.
The introduction of home information packs and house condition reports has caused the most comment. That policy formed a significant part of the Homes Bill in 2001, but was dropped when it became apparent that there was so much opposition to it that the rest of the Bill, which dealt with homelessness, was in danger of being lost. In view of this history, it is interesting that the Government have returned to the fray in the face, still, of considerable hostility from the professionals involved in the sale of houses.
The potential of a licensing regime for houses in multiple occupation has also been around for some time, and some authorities are doing that on a voluntary basis. We do not deny that there are cases of appallingly managed housing in the private rented sector, but there are already many remedies available to local authorities if they are prepared to use them, through environmental enforcement, routine inspection, building and fire regulations. While not opposing the thrust of the proposals for licensing and registration of houses in multiple occupation, we are concerned at the amount of time this could take to introduce. The example of Scotland, where the scheme has still not been fully implemented, is not encouraging.
The properties that will be encompassed by the licensing are important, as are the costs of both administration and licensing itself, and the definitions of houses in multiple occupation. That could, and does in the Bill, include flats or houses which are shared by young people, but might also encompass flats and houses for young people that in the course of their early working lives or student days are owned and let to them by one set of parents. We want to be careful that we do not put too many people into this registration.
In a document published recently by the National Landlords Association, an analysis of fire fatalities in houses in multiple occupation concludes that even if legislation, such as that before us today, was in place, none of the fires analysed would have been prevented. The more prevalent factor seems to have been the vulnerability of the people in the properties, and this aspect may need to be looked at in more detail.
89 The maintenance of a register of houses in multiple occupation is not controversial, but the provisions for the raising of standards by the introduction of the housing health and safety rating system needs more explanation, and I am glad to hear that there will be an opportunity to discuss that outside the House. In particular, we want to explore in Committee how housing standards can encompass health conditions without their implementation becoming unnecessarily onerous. Grants for social housing to private developers, rather than, as at present to registered social landlords, even if administered by the Housing Corporation, is a new development. It raises questions about the assurances that will be available that housing provided in this way will be used for affordable housing, whether for key workers or others awaiting low-cost housing, the management of such housing, and whether it is intended that such provision will be largely for sale, shared ownership, or accommodation managed by the developer or a management company, rather than a registered social landlord. The Minister touched on the licensing of landlords for low-occupancy areas, which are clearly causing problems and concern. There are other concerns on the other side of this, and those relate to the clauses on anti-social behaviour and the impact that those might have on private landlords. We will need, if we may, to explore that further as well.
The Government have already tinkered with the right to buy, by reducing the amount of the discount available in a number of local authorities. That situation has adversely affected, and will affect further, the possibility of selling local authority property and creating, even in a small way, a greater social mix on estates. Where there are abuses of the current provisions they need to be addressed. So long as what is proposed does not turn out to be a further assault on the right to buy system, it will have our conditional support.
Since the Bill was considered in the other place, the Government have announced their intention of introducing measures in the House to strengthen the law on the return of tenants' deposits—I was glad to hear the Minister confirm that today—and to enable local authorities compulsorily to take over, license and let empty properties.
While empty homes are an affront to those who have no home of their own, the definitions of empty homes will have to be carefully scrutinised. It is one thing to repair and bring back into use housing that has been left vacant for, say, structural regeneration purposes; but it is quite another where properties—genuinely owned either as second homes or as pied-à-terres of visitors from overseas, and vacant for considerable periods—could potentially be classified as empty, but it would clearly be a travesty to do so. The details of these provisions will be all-important, and I recognise that the Minister has acknowledged that.
There is one further matter that I will wish to raise as a possible amendment to the Bill, which lies within the park homes measures. I am conscious that these have been sought for a long time, and that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, in particular has fought long and hard to bring some semblance of security to those who 90 live in them. Indeed, one of the first debates I ever took part in from the Front Bench was on just this matter—there were three of us in the Chamber altogether—and it struck me then that it was extremely important.
The same legal protections for security of tenure and freedom from harassment which this Bill brings forward need to be as applicable to those who reside in permanently moored houseboats. The problems are the same as for park homes, and while I know that discussions have taken place with the Minister, Keith Hill, they have so far not had any tangible results. I will table amendments to bring that matter forward for further discussion. I should declare here that some of the moorings are in Chelsea—part of the borough in which I am an elected councillor, so I am putting that interest forward—but by no means all of them; they are countrywide.
The most contentious provisions in the Bill are those relating to home information packs and house condition reports, which the current Government apparently believe will speed up the sale of houses and reduce the cost. Evidence of both seems at present to be remarkably slim, despite the Minister's happy experience, which I know he is going to tell us about, if not today, then on some future occasion. There are more issues raised than we can even touch on today, but in Committee we will be moving amendments to ensure the packs are not compulsory, and that they do not have to be produced on the first day of sale. We do not believe that these packs will be cost-neutral, and indeed at the moment the estimate of their cost comes to anywhere between £600 and £1,200. There are also great concerns about the length of the life of the information packs and about how often they will have to be renewed if, for example, a house is not sold at the earliest moment. We will also wish to discuss the relevance of the packs to new properties that already have a 10-year builder's guarantee and to properties that are being auctioned.
There are deep concerns about the whole regulatory process; about the difficulty of ensuring that there are sufficient properly qualified surveyors to carry out a survey that can be relied on not only by the vendor but, especially, by the purchasers and the mortgage company; and about whether an NVQ is an adequate qualification, particularly where surveys are currently carried out by qualified surveyors. There are also concerns about the regulation and inspection regime required to ensure that standards are met and maintained and about how a reliable insurance scheme can be established to protect all parties from an incompetent surveyor.
It is clear from the briefings that we have received that the Consumers' Association is entirely in favour of home information packs and that practically no other body is. Already, we have had more discussions on those provisions than on any of the others, and they will justify considerable time and thought.
We will also consider the desirability of providing a scheme for the registration of estate agents. Among the professionals involved in the sale of houses, estate agents are the only parties who are not regulated. Although few 91 may be unscrupulous, it seems iniquitous that those who deal with such an important area of someone's life—the largest financial commitment that people are likely to make—should not be the subject of some form of registration. Subject to our discussions, we will consider tabling amendments to implement it.
This is an important Bill with a great many measures in it. We look forward to considering them in detail in Committee.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, before I speak on this important Bill, I shall declare a few interests. I am a vice-president of the National Housing Federation and president of the National Housing Forum. I am also patron of the Empty Homes Agency and a vice-president of National Energy Action.
We welcome many parts of the Bill and support many of the Government's aims. However, we have some concerns, which fall into two main areas. First, it is far from clear that many of the proposals for implementation will work. Some of the timescales are over-ambitious, and some of the systems over-complex. Secondly, there is a danger that some of the proposals will not achieve the aims and objectives of the Government.
Part 1 concerns housing conditions, which is an area that certainly needs attention given the age profile of our housing stock and the very poor conditions to be found in some of the private rented sector. Nearly half of the households renting from a private landlord—45 per cent—live in accommodation built before 1919. More than three-quarters of private rented homes have interior or exterior faults; for example, roof leaks, faults to drainage components and damage to ceilings, doors, windows and wall structures.
Although we welcome the new housing health and safety ratings system, we think that it may be inadequate to tackle disrepair in the following ways. It may make it more difficult to identify, evidence in court and enforce repairs through the rating system. It may not adequately cover a disrepair that causes inconvenience or misery to residents, but does not cause an immediate threat to health and safety. There are similar concerns to which we shall no doubt turn in more detail at a later stage.
There was considerable debate in another place on the repeal of Section 190 of the Housing Act. Many people believe that that is a rather straightforward and effective tool for authorities to ensure that landlords carry out repairs. It can also be a useful tool as part of wider prevention strategies to prevent a less serious disrepair in a property deteriorating into a far more serious disrepair. Professional and local government bodies are concerned about that. There was considerable debate in another place. Again, that is something that we will pursue later.
I have two other areas of concern in Part 1, one of which is the timescale that is given for people to put right a category 1 hazard. At the moment, the Government propose a five-year period. The Local Government 92 Association favours three years. My honourable friend in another place suggested that perhaps it should be one year, but that there should be an ability to extend that depending on the circumstances.
We would also like to see here and elsewhere greater emphasis on energy efficiency improvements. Dealing with climate change is the big debate at the moment. We know that reducing the amount of energy that we use is really important in that respect. I feel that in many areas the Government have been rather slow to respond to that. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government have done all that they can in this Bill to line up with other strategies to deal with energy efficiency: for example, their own energy strategy, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act, the fuel poverty strategy and the Sustainable Energy Act. Those are matters that we shall also pursue later.
Part 2 concerns the licensing of houses in multiple occupation. The last time that I discussed that issue in any detail was in another place regarding the Housing Act 1996. Indeed, the present Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I were both in another place at that time. I am only sorry that it has taken us so long—seven years or more—to talk about it again. I strongly support the measures in the Bill. Some of the worst housing in this country is houses in multiple occupation.
However, the Government could be a little more courageous and ambitious. I should like to see more measures to give landlords a more positive role. Landlords' organisations are anxious to be involved in raising standards through their training and accreditation schemes. I know that the Government have been in discussion with landlords' organisations on those matters and such schemes. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the Government's thinking and where they are in their discussions.
We would particularly like to see a couple of areas changed, one of which is the definition of a house in multiple occupation. In his opening comments the Minister gave his reasons about why they were to apply only to buildings of three storeys or more with more than four residents. From my experience in Southampton, where I represented a ward that was close to the university, there were a lot of houses in multiple occupation. Many of the houses that had been converted into housing of multiple occupation were only two storeys, which also happens in inner city areas. Other organisations support us, including the Local Government Association, the National Union of Students and Shelter.
As regards university students, the licensing of accommodation that is occupied by full-time students and run by education institutions, such as halls of residence, should be brought within the survey. There is evidence from the British Gas housing survey of 2004 that some of these buildings have considerable problems with damp and mould.
The Bill will give further authority for local authorities to extend licensing in selected areas. We welcome this, but perhaps it should not be quite so restrictive as the Government have made it. As I understand from the Bill, 93 where there is poor landlord management in areas of low demand, that is the area that the Government are trying to tackle. That should be widened. In other areas where there is bad management, even if there is not low demand, the local authorities should be able to step in. I heard what the Minister said in his opening remarks, that there would be possibilities to extend that in other areas for HMOs that were not three storeys.
There is considerable detail in the Bill, in the areas that I have touched on, but a lot of extra detail will come through regulations and guidance. I already have here a very large pile and I am sure that there will be more. We have tried to find out exactly what is available now, and I would be grateful if the Minister would update us.
As the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, the most controversial part of the Bill seems to be Part 5 on home information packs. It certainly is for these Benches. But we are not alone in our criticisms, some of which the noble Baroness outlined. The Law Society particularly feels that some of the new processes already in place are fairly satisfactory and that the packs will not help them—they will not sit very well with new developments in the market.
The National Association of Estate Agents is very concerned about the proposed timescale for the implementation of Part 5. I welcome the Minister's reassurance that the Government will not implement it if it is not ready. That is very important because there are concerns about getting enough trained home inspectors.
The House Builders Federation is also concerned about the shelflife of the pack. One of the interesting points it made was about the problems that it will create for frail and elderly people who want to buy homes, particularly being forced to have the pack upfront when they start, and the fact that it is compulsory. I am sure that we will discuss that in detail; I do not have time to go through all the objections, but we share many of the concerns on these Benches.
Above all, we believe that the bureaucracy that will be set up will not achieve the Government's aim. The Minister shared with me his experiences of using that system; I shared with him my experiences of not having a system, and one going well and one not going well—it was nothing to do with whether you had a pack.
It seems to me that the one sector of housing in this country that really works is the private ownership section: where 70 per cent of people own their own home that does not seem to be the area that has the most problems—but more of that later. My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I discussed that the last time we had a housing Bill here, and I am sure we will be doing it again. My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury has very strong views on this; unfortunately he is not able to be with us tonight, but he hopes to take part later.
We support the changes made by the Government in Part 6 on the right to buy. Over the years we have seen a huge erosion of the number of rented houses, particularly, which means that families in the social 94 rented sector often have to be put into flats. Quite frankly, some individuals have made enormous personal benefit from that: if they happened to be in the right place at the right time, they did very nicely, thank you. I do not begrudge them that, but we need to get the balance across the sectors.
I am still concerned about rural areas. We ought to look much more carefully at how we deal with that. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer will touch on that in her contribution tonight. However, Members on these Benches have always thought that it is for individual local authorities to decide how to operate their schemes, which should be based on their overall housing strategies.
Clause 186, covering grants for social housing, is an important provision that the Minister has already referred to, but which has been little discussed. It allows social housing grants to be paid to bodies not registered with the Housing Corporation such as private developers. It would allow unregulated bodies to bid for public funds to develop affordable housing. I understand that the Government believe that they may be able to get better value for money in this way, but can the Minister tell us what evidence backs that up? When my honourable friend in another place, Ed Davey, asked about average build costs in both the public and private sectors, the answer he was given by the Minister, Keith Hill, was that the average cost of a new building for social rent in England in 2003–04 was £116,000. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister does not keep comparable information on the private sector. I hope that we will be given rather fuller information than that when we come to discuss the clause.
Questions need to be asked: whether private developers can build more cheaply; will standards suffer; can standards be enforced through contract terms; will there be cherry-picking from other projects, and what about the sustainability agenda? I am sure that we will pursue these matters at later stages.
Some new issues have already been added to the Bill. Both speakers referred to the park home provisions. I was part of the group, along with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, that pursued this matter. When I was a Member of Parliament, my constituency contained a huge number of park homes. They provide many advantages as homes for elderly people. The sites are secure and they take up only a small amount of land. However, they lack the kind of protection enjoyed by people in normal housing. I have sought for a long time to ensure that park homes become a part of mainstream housing. I pay tribute to the Minister, Yvette Cooper. She listened to the arguments, went away and did something about it. We particularly welcome that.
Amendments will be tabled on two issues: to provide a statutory basis for tenancy deposit schemes and provisions to enable councils to compulsorily lease long-term empty properties. We support both of these proposals and we shall look at the details. I recall tabling amendments on deposit schemes to the Housing Act 1996. People have campaigned for a number of years, 95 and plenty of information is available from voluntary schemes that have already been set up. I hope that that will inform how regulations are formulated, and that those who are operating reasonable schemes are not compromised by new legislation.
Last, but not least, I turn to empty properties. I have been involved in this issue since my earliest campaigning days and I am pleased that the Government are at last going to provide an extra tool for local authorities. Much good work has already been done. As patron of the Empty Homes Agency, I recall giving an award to South Somerset District Council for its good work, undertaken while my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer was there.
This legislation should be several Bills. Housing never rises high enough up the agenda to get into the programme. Whenever a housing Bill comes along, everyone wants to add something to it, resulting in very complicated legislation. Despite what the Minister has said, some parts of the Bill were not adequately scrutinised in another place. The Report stage was appallingly truncated.
We support much of the Bill, but we want to improve the detail and throw out the unworkable in our quest for decent, affordable homes for everyone in our country.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness because she shares with me a deep interest in housing matters, based upon the same experience as mine. It has been 45 years since I started as a councillor, then a Member of Parliament and subsequently came to this House.
I know that the Minister has his heart in the right place. He started by saying that this was the second most important, interesting Bill that he has dealt with. I cannot think of any other aspect of our lives more important than the possession of or ability to occupy a home.
As a constituency MP in Edmonton in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—and, speaking to colleagues, their experience was a similar one—night after night, one would listen to people who one knew were genuine but who had drawn the short straw. By virtue of circumstance they had found themselves living in either inadequate accommodation or in what in the old days would have been called slum accommodation. They were ready to be evicted; they were victims of circumstances, and it made my heart bleed. As I have told the House before, on two occasions I left my surgery on a Friday night, sat in my car and cried, because I knew that I could do nothing about it.
The Minister and his colleagues should earn the undying gratitude of untold thousands if not millions of people for whom this Bill might be the answer to their problems. Over the past few months, the Minister and his colleagues have been persistent in making sure that this Bill has reached its present stage and, in particular, have come along later with provisions for park homes.
96 I would like to say a word or two about the right to buy. I strongly opposed the right-to-buy principle when it was introduced, because I knew that in Edmonton there were thousands of homes built by direct labour, which were solid, reliable and well worth the money. Inevitably, however, with the prospect dangling in front of them of making £5,000, £10,000, sometimes £20,000, it made it very difficult for people—who had been desperate to get that house when they had been homeless—not to capitalise on it.
One of the things that has stuck in my craw over the past 20 years has been the argument put forward then: that people had the right to buy the house in which they had lived all their lives and in which they wanted to continue to live. We now see from surveys that 48 per cent or more of the people who exercise the right to buy immediately sell the property at a profit. This is a profit which takes the ratepayer and the taxpayer for granted. The party opposite has always said, "We are not in favour of wasting ratepayers' or taxpayers' money". Yet the beneficiaries of the right to buy were being given a grant. All of a sudden, council tenants were specially selected people: people who deserved this opportunity.
I have read the research papers in the Library and, without going into the detail, there have been an absolutely scandalous number of scams growing out of the right to buy. I do not know whether the Minister and his colleagues are able to stop them. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was quite right that the right-to-buy principle will not be breached, but the manner in which it has been operated and abused needs to be tackled. I suggest that the Minister should continue to try to deal with that.
One reads the briefs that one receives—and I have never been so well served in preparing for a Bill as I have been for this one—and generally, of course, they are to be welcomed. As has been referred to, Which?, or the Consumers' Association, welcomed the introduction of the Housing Bill. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that they were the only ones who welcomed the Bill. Quite frankly, I do not know of anyone who does not welcome the Bill in general terms.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, I believe I said that the Consumers' Association were the only people who welcomed the home packs, not the Bill. Perhaps I had better make that clear for the record.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I accept that.
In its brief, the Residential Landlords Association has stated,The RLA supports the Government in wanting to stamp out rogue landlords",and the Local Government Association believes that the Bill is a positive move towards dealing with the problems associated with private sector housing.
Although the Council of Mortgage Lenders has stated,Whilst we support the Government's aim of securing a better quality and better managed private rented sector",97 it then continues, quite rightly, to enter caveats and criticisms.
The Law Society has stated that it,welcomes many aspects of the Bill, in particular measures aimed at improving standards in the private rented sector"—that is great—and the Disability Rights Commission is delighted at the prospect of legislation
Clearly there are some criticisms of the Bill's content and omissions, so the Minister should be under no illusion that it will have an easy passage in general. But I feel a great deal of warmth towards him and his colleagues because at long last they have been able to do something.
Over the past seven or eight years the problems of park homes have been debated. We first went to Hilary Armstrong, who set up a working party in a genuine attempt to help. Nick Raynsford, Sally Keeble, Keith Hill, Yvette Cooper, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lord Rooker have all played a part in keeping the ball rolling. As parliamentarians, we know that we have to be very lucky in respect of timing and opportunity, and I am very grateful to them. I am certainly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for her continuing support on the park homes front.
Let me rehearse some of the provisions in relation to park homes which were spatchcocked into the Bill in the other place. It now requires a written statement of terms to be given to a prospective purchaser before the sale of a park home. That was not there before, but it is so simple. The Bill creates a power by which the Secretary of State can add additional implied terms to the agreement and repeal and vary those in the Mobile Homes Act. One of the things to my credit is that I am the only living Member who served on the Mobile Homes Act in 1983. 1 have lived to pay the penalty because everyone comes to me and says, "What a rotten job you made of it".
The Bill will also help to deter a site owner from unreasonably withholding approval of a prospective purchaser. It will remove the age of a home as a criterion for ending an agreement and give discretion to courts to adjourn termination proceedings on the grounds of the condition of a park home to allow for repairs to be carried out. And it brings protection from eviction to park homeowners up to that for tenants of houses, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. Park homeowners have felt inferior—and certainly they were in terms of protection from the law.
The Minister and his officials have had to be persuaded and pushed, but they have recognised the problem and I am very grateful. They have consulted about the model standards and will be undertaking some work on the statutory instruments in the Housing Bill which relate to park homes. It is the good news that we have been waiting for. If I knew how to spell "hallelujah" I would say it properly. It is "hallelujah" for the people who live in park homes. We have come a very long way and we are very grateful to the Minister and his colleagues.
98 Before I sit down, I should like to mention Roy Waite, a man who has carried the burden of ensuring that the case was made for people who live in park homes. He is not well and I just wanted to mention his name. I should also like to mention Frank Jagger, who has resigned as secretary of a group. Both of them have worked very hard for almost 20 years and are now beginning to see progress.
The Minister can count on my support, not only in general but almost without exception. These aspects of living need the spotlight of Parliament turned upon them. It is our job to reflect upon and revise what was said in the other place; it will be put to good purpose here. I thank the Minister most sincerely for what he said.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Graham, but if he will forgive me, in view of the time available, I shall concentrate on Part 5 this evening. Whenever we introduce major new regulations and regulatory requirements, with new regulators and inspectors usually following to monitor and police them—I suspect that that will happen in this case too—we need to be fully convinced that the benefits justify the costs and outweigh the difficulties involved and the burdens imposed.
I readily agree that there are arguments in favour of the scheme. I have no doubt that there is much frustration and stress for both buyers and sellers because of some aspects of the present system. I do not think that the present system is a "shambles'', as the Minister in another place put it, but some of the delays and uncertainties could surely be eliminated or shortened.
I attended the other day a seminar of an organisation called CHIPS, or Consumers Home Information Pack Supporters, in Portcullis House, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I was particularly impressed by evidence provided by that organisation—it has a voluntary scheme—that in the period between the offer subject to contract and the completion and exchange of contracts, all the transactions in which those particular estate agents were involved were completed. There was no one-third drop-out rate in that period and transactions were completed much more quickly. However, it was a small sample.
I was concerned about imposing a new cost on the seller, but I accept that most sellers are also buyers and benefit from that. I accept also that first-time buyers will benefit most from a scheme of this kind. However, a surprisingly large proportion are sellers only. I was struck by a sentence in the Government's regulatory impact assessment document, which states:The cost of providing the pack could be added to the purchase price of the property being sold".That sentence was tucked away. It has not been shouted from the rooftops by government Ministers. The Minister made other points in favour of the scheme.
99 Therefore, I am prepared to consider the scheme, but as I looked further—I was not involved in the original debates—and considered both the Government's regulatory impact assessment document and the many representations that we have received on Part 5, many of my original doubts remained. My noble friend Lady Hanham and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, have already referred to some of them and the Minister is aware that this is clearly a major part of the Bill to be explored in Committee, but I shall refer to a few that most strike me.
The Government originally announced the scheme in 1998. That was six years ago. In this rapidly changing world, six years is quite a long time. I was struck by a survey conducted recently by the Council of Mortgage Lenders, to which it referred in its submission to us. Research that it undertook last year highlighted the fact that there have been "significant improvements" in the past five years, with many more to come. We know that one of the main reasons for introducing Part 5 was the delays that occur between the offer subject to contract being made and the ultimate completion. There is much that is happening now that will reduce those delays anyway. The average 12-week delay should come down substantially due to the technological developments in relation to local authorities, mortgage lenders, the Land Register, the National Land Information Service and so on. The regulatory impact assessment states that those developments,will enable search results to be delivered within minutes rather than days or weeks".Is not technology outstripping the original arguments?
My next point relates to the key additional costs, which are quantified in the regulatory impact assessment. The major additional cost is the compulsory home condition report. The Government argue that that will replace the existing survey for many and therefore the cost will not be as great. However, the Consumers' Association states on page 10 of its report to us:The HIP is a guidance document for people looking round a property and caveat emptor will still apply".I thought that was a very interesting sentence, but I suspect that that means—the Government will have to make it clear in relation to HIPs—that many people who currently conduct a search of their own will still wish to do so, so there is a considerable additional cost for them. More importantly, the Council of Mortgage Lenders states at various points in its representations that, as matters stand now, lenders will often still have to have a physical valuation of their own. That is one aspect of costs that has been underestimated.
I am particularly struck by the fact that we cannot properly assess the costs until the outcome of what we know will be prolonged consultation on the details of the scheme. Clearly at the moment, as the Council of Mortgage Lenders and others have pointed out, many costs to lenders, local authorities and so on have been left out of the current cost assessment. I am doubtful about some of them; for example, I am sure that the 100 assumed cost to local authorities and the trading standards officers of £2.2 million will be a considerable underestimate in practice.
I am interested in who has the title to the home improvement pack because it is clearly relevant to who can be sued. Who owns it? I presume that it is the person who paid for it; or is it the home inspector, estate agent or lawyer? I would like an answer to that question, because, bearing in mind the Consumers' Association's point about caveat emptor, there will be considerable issues. In particular, if there are concerns about the home inspector's report and it turns out to be inaccurate, can the home inspector be sued or how is the issue to be resolved?
The Minister in the other place made brief reference to a resolution of disputes procedure, as does the regulatory impact assessment document, but at the moment I am not at all clear what that disputes procedure and what the costs would be. I hope that the Minister will be able to fill us in with considerable details.
As has already been mentioned, home inspectors are a key issue. Is the qualification good enough at NVQ4? Clearly the Council of Mortgage Lenders does not think so, because it says that that level of training is significantly below that of a chartered surveyor. The problem is that if the lenders are to rely on the information collected within a home condition report for use in valuations and underwriting, they must be persuaded that the training and ongoing monitoring of home inspectors is of a sufficient standard, otherwise there will be additional costs.
The sufficiency of inspectors will clearly be crucial to a national compulsory scheme. Who will pay the costs of training? I was glad to hear the Minister guarantee that the introduction of this part of the Bill will not take place until he is fully satisfied that all the conditions are in place. One of them, critically, must be a sufficient number of fully qualified inspectors in place, taking into account that many are expected, indeed intended, to be part time.
One of the key issues in that context is insurance, which is a crucial part of the scheme—and not only for consumers and lenders. No home inspector in his right mind should take on the job if there is not professional indemnity insurance. At this stage I understand that that issue is still unclear; indeed the Consumers' Association is saying that if there is no clear indemnity for home inspectors, the Government must be insurers of last resort.
So one could go on. Many other points were raised by the noble Baronesses who spoke before me, but they are summed up in the Council of Mortgage Lenders' point:it is our view that a vast amount of work remains to be done prior to there being any possibility of successful implementation".I was glad to hear the Minister say that he would not proceed with this part of the Bill unless there was an assurance that all the many areas of doubt and difficulty had been resolved. The starting date looks optimistic, but I hope that it will be possible for us to return to these issues not only in Committee and on 101 Report, but as so much will happen in regulations after the Bill becomes an Act. I hope that a revised and more realistic regulatory impact assessment available to both Houses is made before proceeding.
That leads me also to the conclusion that the Government should revisit the idea of a voluntary scheme. I did not find convincing the Minister's answer on that point in another place, nor was I convinced this evening. I can see that there are some difficulties in having a voluntary scheme alongside the home improvement pack scheme, but nothing like as many difficulties as with a compulsory scheme without all the problems that have been drawn to our attention having been satisfactorily ironed out.
I suspect that a voluntary scheme would enable a home improvement pack to be tried and tested in the market place, which could be the best way.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Maddock said in her excellent speech that a housing Bill does not come along very often. Indeed, it does not; and it is perhaps with that in mind that I should like to share with the House and the Minister my extreme disappointment that this Housing Bill does nothing to address the issues of affordable housing in rural areas.
The problem of affordable housing has been highlighted year after year, particularly strongly in 2002 and 2003, by the Countryside Agency, which felt that it was the most severe unaddressed problem facing rural areas. So far as I could see, the Government's only reaction to that has been to abolish the Countryside Agency—or they are about to do so. However, the rural advocate, the last chairman of the agency, is shortly to join your Lordships' House, so I hope that his voice will be added to those calling for action in this area.
Last year, the agency underlined how serious the matter was. Since then, house prices in rural areas have gone on rising—particularly in my own area of the south-west, by some 20 per cent a year, which I believe is higher than in many areas of the country. The supply of new-build affordable homes is pathetically, shockingly small. I hope to ask the Minister for some reasons why the Government have not only felt unable to address that problem robustly but made some moves that have been unhelpful.
In almost any forum that one cares to go to—whether local authority meetings or strategic partner meetings—the issue of affordable housing comes up time and again. The Minister himself mentioned sustainable communities. Affordable housing is the bedrock that is needed for rural communities. Without those affordable homes, not only will the key workers be unable to live there but so will all those occupations that are not classified as key workers but which certainly are in a rural area—whether they are car mechanics, plumbers, care home workers or taxi drivers.
Without that sort of affordable housing, the community will fade. As young people cannot afford to buy in, there will be no babies, no children, no school, 102 and consequently much less of a community focus. Eventually we will end up with a cluster of individual households, which are not only less supporting but much more of a call on the public purse in terms of social services. Generations cannot stay together; older people are not there to babysit and child-mind in the towns where there are young people, and the young people are not there to carry out errands for the elderly people left in the rural communities. It will simply not be a sustainable community. The Government cannot claim to support sustainable communities while ignoring a swathe of those in rural areas, which simply will not be able to remain sustainable.
The Bill addresses the issues of licensing houses in multiple occupation. That is good—indeed, it is essential. However, rural areas do not have many HMOs, although there is a need for HMOs and small flats in rural areas. It is not as though young people from rural areas suddenly go from being aged 18 to 28 with no intervening years; they go through the same process as young people in urban areas. They look to become more independent and to move out when they get a job—only there is nowhere to go, except to move away to a large town or city. It is with some regret that I observe that the HMO part of the Bill will not have much relevance to rural areas.
One of the least helpful moves that the Government made recently was, last year, to remove the local authority housing grant. It was removed almost overnight. The speed of the decision and the lack of warning made planning for its removal very difficult. I appreciate that it was not a large amount, but it was enough to allow local authorities to fund small village schemes, or part-fund with RSLs. Often that pump-priming response is what is needed to respond to the housing needs survey.
When the Minister comes to say why the grant was abolished, I suspect that he will say that it was because it discriminated in favour of richer authorities. But even richer authorities in rural areas have hidden pockets of deprivation and they have those in housing need, which the strategies identify. That grant really helped. The Minister may say that that grant has gone to the Housing Corporation but has the total amount of money that it has to allocate increased by the equivalent amount of money or has the Treasury simply allocated less funding to housing overall? Clause 190 allows some grant to be given to private developers but I believe that this will not make up for the fact that local authorities themselves, which are the democratically elected bodies asked by the Government to respond to housing need, cannot do much about it.
In the mid-1990s, 2,500 homes per year were built in smaller villages with Housing Corporation funding and a further 2,000 with local authority grants. I believe that the figure last year was a total of some 1,750. I return to the fact that that is a pathetically small figure of the whole of England. I urge the Minister to give some thought to whether there should be something in the Housing Bill to give some cheer to rural areas. One area he might like to consider is exception sites: sites that would not normally get 103 planning permission but which can do so in a rural area when it is for affordable housing. They were first recognised in 1989. Since then some 4,000 sites have been brought into use. The Minister may say that that is not an issue for the Bill but I understand that his colleagues in the ODPM are thinking of a rewrite of PPG3, which would put the exception site policy at risk. I believe that, in the face of any other way of addressing affordable housing in rural areas, that would an extremely retrograde step. If it were abolished, a massive grant programme to buy land in rural areas would be needed and that is not a good way to use public funds.
I would like to mention a couple of other issues. I am pleased that park homes are in the Bill. I could not agree more with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, when she says that houseboat owners too need similar protection. I look forward to debating that issue further in Committee where I would also like to address the issue of homes for owners of genuine smallholdings, which have come under more and more pressure as the countryside becomes very precious.
The Government claim that their aim is a living, working countryside. At the moment, it is a joke. One can work in the countryside but live in town or work in town and live in the countryside, if you are young, but it is very difficult to do both. I hope that the Bill will do something to address that situation.
§ 9.3 p.m.
§ Lord Best
My Lords, I welcome the Bill, which contains a number of important changes for housing in the UK. I declare my interests as the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust and I have long-standing links with many other housing organisations.
Last week, I spent time with Jacky Peacock and her colleagues from the well respected Brent Private Tenants Rights Group. I listened in on the week's caseload of private sector tenants in need of advice and support. There were cases of accidents in unsafe properties, cases of harassment by unscrupulous landlords waiting to gain possession of properties and many cases of landlords illegally withholding the deposits that they had collected from tenants. For example, an incredulous Australian returning home after working here in the health service was astonished to discover that his landlord systematically withheld tenants' deposits of between £500 and £1,000. Such landlords know that tenants from overseas cannot wait for cases to be organised and heard in the small claims court some months later. Tenants who need to use their deposits to secure their next rented homes here can find themselves homeless, simply because landlords refuse to return their money. The recent addition to the Bill of new measures on tenants' deposits to protect against exploitation of this kind is very welcome indeed.
I also visited a number of houses in multiple occupation last week, some of which will be subject to the new licensing arrangements. I have to tell 104 noble Lords, and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, in particular, that the evil slums of yesteryear are still very much with us. There was the woman occupying a single room at £85 a week in the back addition of a house in Harlesden where the rain came through in three places. There was the hospital porter's miserable hovel above a shop in Wembley with cockroaches and plumbing that did not work. There was the couple in the house in Brent which had been shoddily converted into multiple "apartments" infested with mice and suffering from disrepair, condensation and mould growth. Harassment and intimidation of tenants who complain is only too common in this seedy end of the housing market.
The landlords of these properties are a disgrace to the majority of respectable and sensible operators. It is good news that the Bill will introduce regulations to improve the position. But we know that exploitation is always likely when there are acute shortages. And we know from Kate Barker's excellent review for the Treasury that the shortages of homes at rents affordable to those on low incomes are set to grow worse if we cannot increase supply, not least in rural areas, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, explained.
The private sector has much to offer to the middle market of those on the move or not yet ready or able to settle into owner occupation. But this sector cannot provide the answer for those who need decent homes at low rents, on a secure, permanent basis. Nor are those landlords who are investing in renting—and £40 billion has gone into the buy-to-let schemes in recent years—currently building any extra housing. They are simply buying existing property, and that can add to inflationary pressures on house prices. That is why successive governments have funded the direct provision of extra social housing at present provided through housing associations.
That brings me to the proposals in the Bill mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for paying social housing grant to house builders and developers—grants which hitherto have been available only to regulated housing associations. In place of the current and very welcome trend to partnerships between house builders and housing associations, this approach sets the two groups into competition with each other. The idea is that increased competition will mean efficiency gains and secure more subsidised homes for the same amount of public money. As always, the Treasury is hoping for more for less.
I should be grateful for reassurances from the Minister on three points. The first is that there will be a level playing field between house builders and housing associations in the regulations on rents, security of tenure, tenant participation, redress through the housing ombudsman and so on.
The second is that the increase in the value of properties that have been grant-aided will be locked into providing continuing social benefits in the future. The housing associations of today use the gains they have obtained from the rising property values of homes produced in the past to borrow cheaply, to withstand losses on rents in the early years of new 105 schemes and to upgrade properties and provide important services to tenants. It would be a tragedy if the new arrangements for giving grants to house builders and developers meant that the benefits of rising property values were lost to social purposes and went instead to commercial interests and private shareholders.
Thirdly, reassurance from the Minister would be greatly appreciated on safeguards against house builders winning bids for social housing grant by building more cheaply, as they do for comparable properties for outright sale. It is possible to use less robust components in houses for sale, because homeowners are prepared to do their own maintenance and DIY, and because they under-occupy the premises, usually having a spare room, which means less wear and tear. However, in rented housing, lower quality means higher costs in the future. My fear is that if, on day one, house builders and developers appear to offer more for less, tempting the Housing Corporation to pass over public money to them, the gains may prove illusory in the longer term.
The Bill contains an array of important improvements for the UK's housing. In particular, I hope that it will help those worst affected by the bad practices of a minority of private landlords, and will in no way undermine the provision of additional, badly needed affordable homes through housing associations. I look forward to discussion of the details of the Bill over the weeks ahead.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill. Like other noble Lords, I have received enormous amounts of briefing, the majority of which has welcomed the Bill. Of course, the devil is in the detail, as always. I also welcome the not unexpected statement from the Minister that he looks forward to a robust debate, because parts of the Bill will bring that.
There have been many contributions about the home information pack. Mine is probably one of the few voices in the debate thus far to welcome it—it is a good thing. The fact that the Consumers' Association is the only organisation to have welcomed it in no way discredits either the standing or the quantity of its briefing. It conducted a survey last October of more than 1,000 people who had bought their homes. The disgraceful figures to come out of that were that more than 50 per cent were unhappy with the transaction, 70 per cent felt that the estate agents had given them misleading information, and 82 per cent thought that the home information pack would be very useful to them. All that I have read has led me to one firm belief, which is total agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that we should look at licensing or regulating the estate agency sector. It is the only group in the house-purchase chain that does not have either a professional or a regulatory backing.
The issue of rural housing is very fraught. It is a real issue in rural areas, and I am sure that we shall have a debate on it. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was a bit unfair to the Government, who have more than 106 trebled the number of houses built in rural areas since they came to office. So desperate are we to get houses built—it is difficult to reach the targets—that the Housing Corporation, with the Countryside Agency, funded the employment of 20 people for three years up and down the country looking for sites or buildings that could be converted for rural housing. Such is the commitment behind trying to improve it. I accept that it is nowhere near what is needed, but it is certainly much better than it was. It is unfair to criticise the Government as strongly as the noble Baroness did, but I look forward to the debate on the issue.
I want to concentrate on Part 6. It has the rather innocuous title of "Other provisions about housing", but I believe that it is part of the beef of the Bill itself. It is a substantial part of the Bill and deals with a number of areas, not least of which is disabilities. Because of time, I shall not speak on that subject; I think that my noble friend Lady Wilkins and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will concentrate on that in their speeches.
Last year, I was asked by the Deputy Prime Minister to chair a group of what turned out to be 16 people, to look into how we could increase the number of people in this country who could afford to buy their own homes. Currently, 70 per cent do and 90 per cent would like to. How do we increase the market for low-cost home ownership? The Barker review is a major contribution to that. My review was submitted to the Deputy Prime Minister last October. It received nowhere near the publicity of the Barker review; it was not so high-pitched. However, I was delighted a few weeks ago to receive a letter from the Housing Minister, Keith Hill, confirming acceptance of the majority of the 45 recommendations in that report, many of which are in the Bill. I place on record my thanks to the Government for that.
The Minister said in his opening address that some small changes had been made to the right to buy. That was a recommendation of my small working group, which comprised not only housing officials but private developers and a range of others outside housing.
I welcome the changes in the Bill, but they do not go far enough. Among other things, the working group conducted a series of meeting with people who lived in rented property or had shared ownership—part rental, part buying—but who wanted to buy their own home. What came through was the unfairness—they are so right—of the difference between the discount in the right to acquire from housing associations and that given by local authorities. The blunt fact is that it depends where the dice falls for an individual: if you are in a local council house, the discount and what you get is far better than if you are in a housing association property. We felt that that should be rectified. The Government have not done that; nor have they dealt with the variation between the regions. Nevertheless, I welcome without reservation Clauses 157 to 165, because they reflect my task force's recommendations. We want to see good value and improvement in affordable home ownership.
107 One of the other areas that the Government did not accept related to increased value when a shared ownership tenant of a housing association property sells and moves on. We wanted to see the housing association share of that profit recycled within affordable home ownership. I hope that the Government will look at that again.
I welcome Clause 87, which deals with overcrowding. The standard was last set in 1935, I think; so the Government's commitment to review it is very welcome. It would be very helpful if the Minister could indicate the timescale for the consultation and what the Government are looking at on the issue of overcrowding. He might not be able to give the answer today, but perhaps he could do so during the course of the Bill. As with overcrowding, the issue of decent homes is so big that it must be dealt with in a timescale; you cannot do it overnight. It would be good to have within the Bill, which the Government intend to make active at the beginning of 2005, a timetable for dealing with overcrowding. That would certainly help local authorities. It would be helpful if the Minister could give some indication on that.
Until last year, I was chairman of the Housing Corporation, so I welcome the Bill's updating of the corporation's powers and the improvements on the present arrangements, but there is an omission. The Housing Corporation has the sanctions of either gentle persuasion or, at the other extreme, what I used to call the nuclear bomb—statutory inquiry. It needs some intermediate sanctions by which it can bring housing associations along when they are not meeting the standards needed. Yes, you can put people on a board under supervision—you have them there part time. It would be good to have intermediate powers and a special manager. I gather that the Treasury rejected that recommendation because a special manager would remove housing associations' independence. However, that is not the case in Scotland, where the proposal has been accepted, so I question why we cannot have such provision here.
Like other noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, I am concerned about the issue of grants to non-registered landlords. There are lots of questions on that, and I am sure that it will take some time in the Bill. It is not new; it has been tried before and it failed.
I welcome the commitment on the tenancy deposit scheme, and we will wait to see the content of that.
§ 9.19 p.m.
§ The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, like other noble Lords, basically I welcome the Bill. I want to concentrate on Part 5. I declare my interest as a surveyor and as having set up an estate agency in 1995.
I fear that Part 5 replaces light-touch regulation with heavy-handed, socialist bureaucracy, which will at least lead to the stigma of a two-tier housing market. In Denmark, which the Government have often quoted as having home information packs, the size of the pack has risen from 100 pages to 800 pages. They have a small housing market in comparison to ours.
108 We have made little progress in the six years of discussion with the Government on the sellers pack, or home information pack as it is now called. The only notable achievement is to have moved them away from criminal penalties to civil penalties, and I welcome that. The idea of a home information pack is admirable. It is agreed that there is a need to speed up the housing market, but the Government's proposals are not a solution to our problems. Let us look at the cost. The Minster said that the alleged cost of aborted transactions is about £350 million. We will come back to that on Report, but that figure is wildly out of date and it is misleading—it is much less than that. However, the cost of a home information pack will add about £650 million annually to existing selling costs. The average cost of a home information pack will generally be over £600, or more like £1,000 in London.
As my noble friend Lord MacGregor pointed out, the regulatory impact assessment is a flawed document, as it does not take into account many of the additional costs. The Government have seen fit not to include those. The result will be that extra costs will go up, and some estate agents will be able to push up their fees as well. That happened in Denmark, where fees have practically doubled since the introduction of their equivalent of the home information pack.
A home condition report is a pretty worthless document if it is not accepted by the mortgage lenders. The lenders will always want the right to commission their own valuation and survey. Contrary to what the Minister implied, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has not welcomed the idea of home condition reports. The survey has the wrong name; it is not a survey of a house, it is an inspection by a partially qualified person. That person will not be qualified up to Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors standards, and that inspection will not reveal any of they key information that a house buyer wants. It is a surface inspection; it does not look at the expensive things that are always hidden, the drains, the electricity, the gas, the damp, the subsidence. They are totally ignored, so it will not help in the way that the Government want.
My noble friend Lord MacGregor also raised the question of surveyors and insurance. That is a huge problem. Let us look north of the Border, where a similar scheme is under way, except that it is voluntary. The whole scheme is grinding to a halt because the insurance companies are terrified of what will happen. At the moment, one gets a survey carried out by a professional. That person will probably be RICS certified, which will not be the case in the future. The survey goes to one person; that is one insurance claim. Now, the insurance companies will be faced with a home condition report going to perhaps 50 different people, all of whom can sue. That problem is by no means resolved yet.
Let us look at the shelf life of the property. The Government state that the home condition report should not be more than three months old at the time marketing commences. At the moment, 25 per cent of open market sales take about six months, so that inspection will be at least six months out of date. Whose responsibility will it be to update that? In the 109 past few years, we have been used to a strong, bullish market. There is no question that that will end. By whatever means, the market will slow down, back to what it used to be when properties took a long time to sell. The home information pack will be out of date, the searches will be out of date, and the home condition report will be out of date. Having spent a vast amount of money preparing it for the beginning of the sale, whose responsibility is it to update it, and how are they going to find the extra costs? It is going to have a big impact on the housing market, far more than the Government give it credit for.
There is also going to be a conflict of interest between the surveyor and the home condition report inspector. They can sit in the same office, at adjacent desks. If that home condition report has got to be accepted by the vendor and the purchaser, there is no way they should be allowed to be in the same building, and agents should not be allowed to own or take part in a firm that is producing home condition reports. There is too much of a conflict of interest, which would not be allowed in any other line of business.
Let us look at the qualifications for estate agents. When the Minister is looking for a new job after the next election, he can set up an estate agency the next day and sell a £10,000 house, or even a £10 million house. He needs no qualifications, nor does he have to meet any threshold, but if he wants to sell £100 worth of stocks and shares he has to go through every hurdle the FSA can produce for him. It is nonsense, and I strongly support my noble friend Lady Hanham. She knows I have been banging this drum for many years—us estate agents need to be properly regulated, along with the rest of the financial sector.
I want to ask the Minister what has happened to SAVA, that great institution that was launched with such a flourish. In 2001 the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was telling us all about its goodness. Who owns it now? What happened to the house that was suddenly found among its assets?
The Minister has said absolutely nothing about how he is going to monitor Part 5. What are the Government's plans for monitoring? How are they going to assess whether this has produced value for money and improved the market? How are they going to differentiate what the Bill does, as opposed to all the other changes that have been mentioned that are coming through in the housing market?
There are a lot of problems. I hope the Minister gives us enough time to debate this in Committee. We started today at 7.53 p.m., exactly the same time as we were allowed to start the Bill in 2001. I fear we are going to be horribly squeezed in Committee.
At Second Reading in 2001, the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—said that the seller's pack or HIP, as it is now going to be called, was going to be ready for 2003. Yet in July of that year the Select Committee looking at the draft Housing Bill in another place savaged the Government's proposals, and said that a great deal more work needed to be done before they could be introduced. They were not convinced that HIPs were going to solve any of the problems that the Government have identified.
110 Let us be absolutely clear; England and Wales are stepping into the unknown so far as this part of the housing market is concerned. No other country in the world is going to be doing what the noble Lord proposes, and therefore we need to get it right.
We have ludicrous situations; I shall give your Lordships one last example. Gone will be the freedom to market a house at day one, when you want to market it. If your office is in England or Wales, you will not be allowed to market the house. However, if you sell the house from Scotland or market it from France, you can tell everybody. If you have a multinational firm, it will be easy to let people know beforehand that a house is going to come on the market, which will be a civil offence in England and Wales. That is going to be a nonsense. Will the Minister clarify that if I was part of a multinational and I was based in Edinburgh, my other partner in England could not mention that a house was going to come on the market, but being in Scotland I could tell that to anybody in England? That is one of the many nonsenses that this Bill, as drafted, leads us to. We are moving into uncharted territories that need a great deal of examination.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Lord Rix
My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long, but as the Disability Rights Commission's 14-page parliamentary briefing on this Second Reading includes Mencap writ large on the cover and as Mencap's Housing Timebomb report is quoted on page 3, I felt that, as president of that organisation, I should take this opportunity to say a word about access to housing for people with learning disabilities.
The policy discussions of recent years have highlighted what I might call the four key facts. First, most of the housing progress of community care over the years has done no more than replace hospital accommodation with community housing without adding to the total. Secondly, most adults with learning disabilities still live with their families, as they did before modern community care began.
Thirdly, accommodation is not enough. If people with learning disabilities are to live in their own homes in the community, they need—to varying degrees—support, as well as accommodation. Fourthly, we have invested rather a lot of resources and nervous energy in implementing and then scrapping and replacing models of accommodation and support, without focusing on what the person who is going to live there, and be supported there, actually wants. It is as if a surgeon were to work on the basis of doing a particular sort of operation, quite irrespective of what the individual patient needed or, indeed, wanted.
We need a housing policy that makes the best use of existing housing stock. Best use means appropriate to the needs of those who need the housing. In the case of people with learning disabilities, that means, in particular, catering for the needs of the verb large numbers of people with learning disabilities now in middle life who are still living with elderly parents. For 111 some of that number, the right answer might be for the family home to be made more appropriate now to the changing needs of the parent or parents and the person with learning disability; that is, to put in extra support now and to plan for the person to carry on living in his or her familiar surroundings once the family who had made the house "home" have gone.
Physical accessibility is not an issue for many people with learning disabilities, whereas having a home of their own to access is. However, the more severe the learning disability, the greater the likelihood of there being associated physical disabilities. In addition, the longer people with learning disabilities live, the greater the likelihood that they, like the rest of us, will acquire physical disability.
My personal dream is of a housing and support programme which—in place of the traditional approach of putting people where we think they ought to go and moving them when it is convenient to move them—enables people to live where they want to live and to stay there as their disabilities increase, if that is their preference. Such a policy requires better assessment of needs and wishes, a starting point in those needs and wishes rather than our theories, registration of demand and of supply, flexible funding policies and speedy availability of the disabled facilities grant and other funding in order to maintain accessibility.
I have been partially reassured by the Government's response to the Learning Disability Task Force on the issue of funding in the Supporting People scheme. It is vitally important that that level of funding is sustained. However, I am still nervous, given the long history of housing benefit cutbacks, that promising housing policies will be retrenched the moment that it becomes clear that they will, for perfectly good reasons, cost rather more than had been originally anticipated.
It has been clear from the earliest days of trying to get that right for people with learning disabilities that a home in the community, with the support needed to live well in that home, is an essential prerequisite for being present in and participating in the community. There is more than one way of funding, managing and monitoring housing and housing support, but the valuing of people and the housing policies that are being developed offer a real prospect of getting it right this time, always provided, of course, as the good book says, that having put our hand to the plough we do not turn back.
When I read of the size of some new private sector developments, and when I notice that local authorities are still unclear how many people with learning disabilities are living with elderly parents—let alone having plans for them—I do worry that we might turn back and stumble and fall on the very brink of success.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Lord Borrie
My Lords, I propose to concentrate my remarks on Part 5 of the Bill: 25 clauses containing important and desirable consumer-protection proposals whereby vendors provide home information packs, including home condition reports, whenever a house is put on the market.
112 To be most cautious, at least, I should declare an interest as an honorary life member of the National Association of Estate Agents. Though—as other noble Lords have said—that body seems to be officially opposed to the Bill's proposals, I think that the association is divided. Many members—including its very well respected former chief executive, Mr Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy—are very much in favour of Part 5.
Part 5 was fought over on several occasions during the passage of the Bill in another place, but I believe that in this House we should support the mandatory requirements for home information packs because they are intended to make more transparent, more speedy and more effective what is—it is commonplace to say—the most economically important transaction that people make in a lifetime, and very often several times in a lifetime. Key information is to be made available at the outset of the process. Particularly because a house purchase is typically part of a chain with the vendor buying another home, and so on up the chain, I believe that opposition pressure in another place—and from what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, says, perhaps here too—to make the whole idea voluntary would seem a worthless outcome of what the Government are trying to achieve because sales without packs would slow down the connected sales with packs.
It is not surprising that the Government's proposals have received warm support from the Consumers' Association, because there have been so many instances where ignorance on the part of the purchaser about some vital aspect of the property's condition has meant that only when he commissions a survey—usually at a very late stage of the transaction—do the defects come to light. The first-time purchaser is particularly hard hit at present because he or she has to pay for such a survey upfront before he gets on the first rung of the property ladder.
It is even worse if the purchaser is unwise enough not to commission a survey of any kind before committing himself to a price that has been agreed on a false basis of the apparent superficial soundness of the property. Surely Part 5 is good news, for the first-time purchaser in particular. The vendor will provide and—this is a partial answer to some things that the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor's said—be legally responsible for paying for a home condition report with legal responsibility as well behind the wording, the assurances and the terms of that report.
At present, several prospective purchasers may each spend money on separate surveys of the same property, only to end up—or at least most of them—with an aborted transaction. The only profit is to the various surveyors who have undertaken the separate surveys.
The beauty of the Government's scheme—I emphasise the word "beauty" before coming to the criticisms, many of them legitimate, at least in terms of queries to the Government made by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor—is that when a vendor proposes to put his property on the market he commissions a survey and that is made available to every genuine intending purchaser.
113 That is a major cultural shift from the situation in which at present a purchaser makes an offer for a property on the basis not of what it is, with the reality of its imperfections as well as its good points, but on its superficial appearance and a spot of estate agent's hyperbole. It is not surprising that at present a high proportion—many estimate as high as one third—of all transactions fail when only at a late stage does a survey reveal what lies behind the false mask of the so-called particulars of sale.
Some noble Lords may recall an estate agent called Roy Brooks who operated during the 1960s. He never used hyperbole in his particulars of sale, rather he was blunt to the point of extreme frankness. He would refer to "this rundown dump which is in need of extensive renovation". He was a successful estate agent, but sadly no other estate agent—a rather unimaginative lot, I think—seems to be bold enough to follow that example.
The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised a number of serious issues. It is impossible to cover them all this evening, but I am very glad that they have raised these important matters. Certain questions have to be answered by the Government. In so far as the Government did not respond to them fully in the other place, they need to be answered here. Among them is the costs, not only the overall cost of the new scheme but also the cost of each transaction. Also to be detailed is the recruitment and qualification of the inspectors. I mention the question of indemnity and the legal rights people will have if a home condition report turns out to be inaccurate. Those are important issues which I believe can be answered, even bearing in mind the Minister's important statement about the intention that the scheme should come into effect not tomorrow, but in 2007. I think that Part 5 is a worthwhile part of this Bill.
§ 9.42 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, I bumped into the Minister earlier this afternoon. He expressed the hope that I would not take him past 10 p.m. I am fortunate that that privilege will fall to another poor Member of this House, due to the rather late firing of the starting gun.
I welcome the Bill, although I want to talk about an issue that is not included in it. Anything that seeks to improve the general housing situation must be welcomed. Housing is what I would call another fence in the endless steeplechase of life. We are dealing with the problems of housing as the Government see them today, and providing solutions for today. With a great deal of hard work, I do not doubt that this will be a good Bill in the context of today. But we should face the reality that must be faced by all legislation: while we may solve many problems, we will create problems for others in the future. We should not presume that we are going to provide a Utopian solution here.
I am not quite as euphoric about Part 5 as the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I recall that when I bought my first flat in London, I was advised to have the property 114 professionally surveyed. I did so, but some weeks later—and with a much lighter wallet—I received the wonderful document, which told me nothing that I could not see for myself when I took the care to take a thorough look at the property. So we should not assume that buyers' packs, to use the shorthand phrase, will necessarily be the perfect answer.
I want to talk about social housing in the context of Section 106 agreements. I declare an interest as an Essex landowner who has been involved in a major development where there was a heavy Section 106 agreement, which did produce a great deal of social housing. This is a significant issue.
During the proceedings on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Best, talked in considerable detail about the reasons why the Government should not take a formulaic approach for community gain on major developments. He was right, because the circumstances of each development are dramatically different.
If one considers that the Minister's right honourable friend in another place, the Deputy Prime Minister, wants to land the south-east—which is my particular part of the country—with another 400,000 houses, and if one then considers that this will be major new development, some of it on brownfield sites but all resulting in immensely enhanced values, that development, negotiated properly through the Section 106 system, will produce 20 per cent, possibly 30 per cent, of social houses out of the total number of units provided. My Lords, 400,000 houses at 20 per cent is 80,000 social housing units; at 30 per cent, it is 120,000.
These things are achievable. This is a huge sum. If the Minister's right honourable friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has his way and we get from the Treasury the additional million houses that are being talked about, it would mean vast numbers of social housing units being constructed across the country.
The issue I want us to touch on, however, is how such properties are paid for. There is the idea that the developer pays for them. There is a sense in which he does, of course. He will almost certainly construct the properties and in that sense he will pay for them. The housing does not come from nowhere; it has to be paid for. It actually comes from the original landowners, who are party to this negotiation and want to see the benefits of the money that they are putting back in the community going into their communities and staying there.
There is a little fly in the ointment here. It is the right-to-buy scheme. The one thing that those landowners do not want to see is the social housing that they enable to be created subsequently going out of the social housing sphere, possibly within five years, at a discount. These are, if you like, their resources. It is their payment to their community. I would like to think that housing in that situation should at any rate have a 20-year exemption from the right to buy.
One could also argue that, where land is given up in small communities for social housing—small plots of five or 10 acres to provide social housing in towns and villages across the country—by landowners who are prepared to 115 accept a very low value for their property in order to provide the housing that is required by their community, it is again important that the right to buy does not come into play. I know that there are ways over this. It can be done by charitable housing associations; it can be done by such things as shared occupancy, and so on. It ought to be clearly understood from the start, however, that this is an issue where the right to buy should not apply, at any rate for a time.
This Bill gives an opportunity for a clause of that nature to be added, so that this matter can be taken care of. In my view, if this existed it would make it easier to negotiate Section 106 agreements. It is something which can be done in detail in Committee, and I do not need to take more of your Lordships' time.
§ Baroness Wilkins
My Lords, I greatly welcome the introduction of this Housing Bill and the opportunity which it gives us to tackle some of the barriers which face disabled people in finding accessible and affordable homes. I declare an interest as a patron of HoDis—the National Disabled Persons Housing Service—and as a member of the Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill.
I also declare my interest as a wheelchair user. While there have been enormous changes in the opportunities available to disabled people in the 40 years since I became disabled, the housing sector is an area which has been left in the shadows. For physically impaired people the lay-out of our homes can either enable us to live full and independent lives or it can disable us completely, making us dependent on other people for the very basics of our existence—washing, eating, sleeping and going to the loo.
But it is not only about our lives in our own homes. The ability to go into other people's homes, to visit our friends and family, is regarded almost as a luxury—and yet that ability is essential if we are to be fully equal participants in society. I have come to accept that none of my family or non-disabled friends has a home that I can get into without help. This is not because they do not care or are unthinking but because accessible housing stock is not available. This means that I can only ever be on the receiving end of their good will. If they are sick, I cannot visit them or take them a meal; if they go away, I cannot feed the cat or water the garden; if I get my neighbours' post by mistake, I cannot take it to them. It is all that give and take of life that makes relationships equal.
I hope that I can convince your Lordships that equality of access to housing is an issue of basic human rights which provides the foundation for independent living and all manner of social and economic opportunities. However, for many disabled people it is a right denied. The evidence is shocking. One-quarter of wheelchair users are virtual prisoners in their own homes because of poor access and location; thousands of disabled children are living in homes which blight 116 their life chances, restrict their social development and cause their parents acute stress, back injury and sometimes loss of employment.
Many, many barriers obstruct disabled people's access to appropriate housing and independence. I suggest that this Bill and the forthcoming Disability Discrimination Bill together offer a critical opportunity to remove many of these barriers and address the growing accessible homes crisis.
The Joint Committee on the draft Disability Discrimination Bill, of which I was a member along with my noble friend Lord Rix, received a large body of evidence asserting the need for a more proactive approach to meeting the housing needs of disabled people by local housing authorities, public housing associations and the providers they fund.
There has been widespread concern—which the committee's report, published on 27 May, strongly echoes—that the draft Disability Discrimination Bill does not go far enough towards securing the right to a decent home for disabled people. We therefore recommended that the full Bill should include specific provisions preventing landlords and management committees unreasonably refusing consent to disabled people who need to make physical changes to their properties, including communal areas, in order to enjoy fundamental rights of access. Some 18,000 disabled tenants living in unsuitable accommodation report that they have been prevented making essential alterations or adaptations because their landlord has refused consent. I hope that the Government will feel able to accept the recommendation.
But the committee went further, endorsing calls from the National Housing Federation and the British Council of Organisations for Disabled People that premises which have been appropriately adapted to accommodate disabled tenants should be put on an accessible housing register as a way of systematising the supply of suitable accommodation to a suitable group of people who would be in need of it. This proposal is strongly supported by HoDis, which has pioneered the development of such registers, and by many other organisations. The Housing Bill offers the perfect opportunity to take this forward.
Despite the acknowledged shortage of housing built or adapted to various accessibility standards, when a property becomes available landlords frequently have difficulty in identifying someone who needs it. Social landlords are under some pressure to let empty properties quickly. Consequently, if someone whose needs match the equipment or adaptations in the vacant property is not identified within a couple of weeks, it will be let to someone who does not need the adaptations. Even worse, the adaptations, which could have cost several thousands of pounds, may be removed. This is a calamitous waste of resources.
A statutory duty on housing authorities to maintain databases of accessible or adaptable properties and of disabled people in housing need, and to use these to provide an information and matching service, would have a plethora of benefits. The number of empty properties would be reduced, along with admissions to hospital and 117 residential care. Unnecessary spending on adaptations would be avoided and disabled people would be in a position to choose suitable accommodation much more quickly. Local authorities which operate such a service have achieved quite staggering savings and are in a position more accurately to map and plan for current and future levels of need.
Given the appalling lack of accessible housing, we must surely grasp this opportunity to make the best use of the resources that we have. The introduction of housing registers is one simple and effective solution, but given the competing demands placed on housing authorities, that will not happen without legislation. The Housing Bill could and should mark the beginning of a concerted campaign to remove some of the barriers to decent housing for disabled people. I trust that this opportunity will not be missed.
§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Lord Selsdon
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, pointed out that buying a house is one of the most expensive purchases that one makes in one's life. I shall approach it from the other direction: death, divorce and moving house are the most stressful events in a person's life. Presumably, the Bill seeks to make life easier and more comfortable for all those concerned. It is on the principle, on Second Reading, and not on the devil in the detail, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, that I would like to speak.
I was very impressed by the Minister when he spoke in the housing debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Lucas. At the end of that debate, as I was sitting on the steps of the Throne and watching both sides, he said with supreme confidence that he would cut through bureaucracy and build some 920,000 houses and please everybody. The next day, it was reported that the cost of houses had gone up.
I have declared an interest as a director of a construction company which builds houses. We do Section 106 and Section 52 agreements; we do urban regeneration schemes and we build on brownfield sites. I have been a rather unsuccessful landlord and I have been reluctantly involved in enfranchisement and leasehold reform. I have sat in your Lordships' House over the years and asked why we could not have one simple Bill that made it easier for us all.
I have been amused during the past week. Since your Lordships' House scrutinises and improves legislation, the briefs began to arrive during the Recess. They came by e-mail when my machine was down. It told me that the service was not available and there was a red cross on the screen. In the end, I found that paper is not sent any more. When you receive the briefs on your e-mail system, you try to print them out, but the printer will not connect and there is no one to help in the computer office. You cannot find any paper and Dixons is shut, so one cannot get the brief. Therefore, I rang the department up, but most of them were not there. One answered on his mobile from the Test match and told me the score. I then realised that input into Ministers is quite difficult. We have a government who are 118 willing to do what they possibly can in the housing sector to make things easier, more secure and better for people, and to build more houses.
When we turn to social housing, I think back to the Leasehold Reform Act. We had Smiths charities, which we thought were charities trying to help people have cheap houses. I think that they originally built houses for widows of pirates. We found that they were concentrating only on the maximum value that they could extract from their portfolio, complaining that leasehold reform was unfair to them. A few weeks later, they sold their portfolio to the Wellcome Foundation for the largest amount that they could get. I ask myself where are the great philanthropists such as Thomas Salt, Peabody and others, who, instead of giving money to political parties, set out to do things within a community, to finance, build low-cost and own houses, as good, respectful landlords, knowing that people would respect them as well.
I do not like the term, "social housing". It is accommodation. Our previous debate brought me round to the belief that in rural areas, where only 10 per cent of the population now live, we should build more houses, yet my own attitude had been that we should not build any more in the rural areas because we will destroy the countryside. If one flies around in a helicopter, one sees the most enormously bad patches of land in rural areas. One sees farmers longing for some house builder to apply for permission to build on their land without telling them so as not to upset the local environmental lobby. The house builder would come back and say, "I say, sir. We've got some good news for you. We can get you planning permission for your house. We'll do a joint venture on your land". The farmer will say, "I didn't mean to do this. I'm a farmer. I'm part of the community".
The building of a good house and home—they are not necessarily one and the same—is one of the duties of government. I look at the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wondering whether he can be a Harold Macmillan. Harold Macmillan said that he would build houses every year and that was the most important thing. At the moment, building houses at the right price—at the right cost for people—is the right thing. How do you do it?
We are not necessarily going about it the right way. Forty or 50 per cent of the costs of a house is often the land. There must be a way whereby under Section 52, Section 106—or whatever we may call it—that land may be put into the pot and the end price reduced, not instantly but for a long period of time because there are no land costs.
If we look at house builders, and I consider my own lot, we have to go out and spend maybe £40 million per year to buy a strategic land bank in order to be able to keep building houses. How much nicer if in some areas the Government would sit down, as they do, with house builders and say, "With our plan there are areas where we think it would be right, where there is a good local community and a council that wishes to have things".
119 Although it may be the voluntary sector, I believe that there is a will in the country for people in the commercial world to work that one out. I repeat to the Minister that buy-to-let is a moral and acceptable notion. Throughout Europe people are better off putting their money and savings into houses that they can let that may be passed on to children, family or those at universities.
I wonder whether we might think of a radical policy whereby those in retirement who buy homes may not be taxed on the income from them; a TESSA for houses or something of that sort. Ultimately, whichever way we look at it, we are talking about money. I could repeat the words of my noble friend Lord MacGregor and point out that there are not enough surveyors or people in the land who could undertake the work proposed in the Bill; and more than that, there is not enough insurance capacity in PI insurance to permit that to happen.
Some of your Lordships may have had to help people who have had a survey that went wrong, with dry rot, deathwatch beetle, cockroaches and everything in the book. They turn to the surveyor on whom they spent £1,000, and he says, "It's not my fault", he disappears into the sunset, his professional indemnity insurance takes over and we hear no more about it.
I wish the Minister well because I believe that his heart is in the right place. The Bill may be over-bureaucratic, but during its progress let your Lordships make it work for once rather than all the previous legislation that has ended up half finished.
§ 10.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, I want to speak on Part 5 on the home information pack, in common with many of your Lordships. As the last on the list of the Bank Benchers after the 10 o'clock watershed, which I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, for taking me safely past, I am glad that I am going to talk about something on which no noble Lord has touched on so far.
I should declare some interests, first, as chief executive of the Environment Agency, but also—strangely enough—as an honorary fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Those organisations are not of one mind on the issue, so I am probably free from the prejudices of either.
I commend the home information pack provisions in the Bill in principle. I believe that they can make a contribution to simplifying and speeding up the selling and buying process. More particularly, I want to consider two other important reasons for the home information pack being worthwhile pursuing and for a systematic examination of the details with a view to making it a practical possibility rather than thinking up every reason in the book for it not happening, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, did.
The home information pack and especially the home condition report are an opportunity for homebuyers to benefit from knowing about a range of material issues associated with the environment and the property in 120 which they are interested. The pack will have to contain information on energy efficiency. That has benefits for prospective purchasers in terms of the size of future utility bills but also for the impact that they will be making on climate change, the greatest environmental threat facing us all.
About one-third of total carbon dioxide emissions are associated with energy use and domestic energy use is one of the sectors that continues to rise. Homebuyers should also be enabled through the home improvement pack to know about other environmental issues associated with the property that they plan to buy; for example, it is vital that they understand their flood risk status. They need to understand what the flood risk to that property is, what can be done to alleviate it and what impact it will have on the insurance costs for the property.
Alongside the Bill, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is consulting on the content of the home information pack, which will be subject to secondary legislation. I encourage the Minister to include all the environmental data in it as material for a house purchaser; otherwise we are really asking house buyers to buy an environmental pig in a poke.
The pack is one of the few opportunities to influence the resource efficiency of existing housing stock. Very simple steps may be taken to improve the environmental performance of homes, often at a very low cost. That is particularly true of water efficiency. Some parts of the south and east of England already have less water available per head of population than countries which noble Lords would regard as arid, such as the Sudan. There are big increases in house building proposed for those parts of the country, which will put even more pressure on water resources. We must make the housing stock more water efficient.
The Sustainable Buildings Task Force reported recently to ODPM and showed how water savings of up to 26 per cent can be achieved by installing more water-efficient fittings and appliances. Where water meters are installed, saving water also reduces bills by as much as 10 to 20 per cent. The information in the home information pack on the water efficiency status of a property should encourage householders to see water efficiency as an important issue and to take steps to increase the saleability of property by water efficiency measures, thereby reducing the impact on the environment and on their bills.
The home condition report could be an opportunity for water companies to promote water metering at change of occupancy, without the knee-jerk reaction that they fear at the moment—unwisely, I sometimes think. That would mean that there could be savings for householders and for the water environment as greater water meter penetration happened automatically at change of hands.
There are opportunities for the future. It would he impossible in the near future for there to be a reliable eco-labelling system for existing housing stock, showing its environmental efficiency overall. However, work is going on with the Building Research Establishment's eco-homes standard, which could 121 make that a possibility in future. Will the Minister reassure me that the terms of the home information pack are drawn in such a way that there is an opportunity to include eco-labelling, or some sort of environmental kite-marking scheme in future?
Buying a home is often one of the most financially important decisions that people make; it is also one of the most environmentally important decisions, determining some of the biggest environmental impacts that we make as individuals throughout our lives. The home improvement pack can help home buyers to reduce bills, can reduce their environmental risk and can protect the environment.
As the Minister said—and certainly with respect to Part 5—this is a good Bill with a lot of good things in it. I hope that I can encourage the Government to include even more good things, in the Bill itself and in the secondary legislation.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, anyone who has gone door to door over the past few weeks, taking our party's wares around like some modern version of the travelling salesman, will have been reminded how varied is our housing stock and how varied is its condition. One cannot tell everything from observing the front of a house, although I have noted over many years that there is a preponderance of Conservative voters among those whose gates are shut. I challenge noble Lords to deny that!
Anyone who has managed to find a voter at home will have found, too, that the supply of housing is often very high on that individual's list of concerns. People who deliver leaflets often find that slips of paper from decorators and pizza companies have got there just before them. I have never actually seen a note from one of those who encourages a tenant to exercise a right to buy and then buys the house from the new owner—but that is one of the abuses which I very much welcome being tackled in the Bill.
One evening last week, I was asked by a carer, who was just leaving, not to disturb Mrs "So and So" because she had just been settled for the night. The house, which was divided into several units, had a disabled parking bay outside and a chairlift on the long flight of steps up to the front door. It looked to me like a very good example of the services working together to keep someone in her own home, making the best use of existing stock. The Disability Rights Commission has given us many ideas as to how the Bill can be tweaked to deal with the interests and, indeed, rights of disabled people, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, have reminded us.
Now that we have the Government's announcements about the tenancy deposit scheme and the empty homes management arrangements, I am happy that noble Lords from these Benches can be on the welcoming side of the line regarding the Bill. It will be our stamina, not programme motions or knives, that will determine the effectiveness of our scrutiny of it. Because so much of the Bill is welcome in principle, we are bound to spend quite a lot of time looking at the detail. Reading the Bill, it 122 struck me that definitions will be very important, as will the balance between primary legislation and what the Secretary of State can determine or change through regulations and orders.
I must say that. I am finding it a little difficult to work out what has already been published in draft, a matter to which my noble friend has referred, but we can come back to the detail later. If the ODPM could produce a flowchart of what is an HMO within the legislation, it would be helpful. If it cannot produce a chart showing what falls within which bits of the Bill, that would prove the point of how difficult it might be for those affected by the Bill and those operating its provisions.
If the Bill is about protecting tenants—and it must be—then the number of storeys is not as relevant to the hazard as is being presented. Whether, at any given time, there are four or five occupants is another matter that we will have to look at. How long should one have to live with a hazard? These are points, among others, that the Local Government Association has raised. I have been surprised that it has not also said that local authorities will need the resources to operate the Bill. I hope that that means that it has had all the right reassurances from Government but it would do no harm for them to be repeated in this House a t some point.
Should scoring against ratings determine a judgment as to whether there is a hazard or rather inform that judgment based on qualitative assessment? Hope triumphed, as it often does, over experience and I was surprised when I found that the details of hazards are to be prescribed.
As to licensing, we have heard from the Council of Mortgage Lenders that it is concerned that investors should not be deterred or the buy-to-let market damaged. I am sure that they do not mean by that that bad landlords should be able to let unfit, in the broadest sense, accommodation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Best, having supported encouraging investment in housing, I am beginning to be concerned that it is pushing up prices and making things particularly difficult for first time buyers. I take the point of the CML about the complications of the proposal and the difficulties envisaged if different schemes operate in different areas.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned the position of parents of students who buy a property for the student and let rooms to other students. Perhaps, to put fears at rest, the Minister can tell the House the estimated cost of licensing for a good landlord. On the question of students, I have been far from convinced by the Government's arguments about excepting student accommodation. In a world of PPPs and PFIs, I do not think that one can rely on saying that universities are responsible public organisations; I do not deny that, but I do not think that it is relevant to this issue.
On reading the Bill, I found a number of matters not easy to understand. I look forward to exploring how the Bill interrelates with provisions elsewhere about antisocial behaviour. I hope that the Government can 123 convince us that this is not another example of a nanny government knowing best, and also convince us that licensing in designated areas will improve conditions and not confirm that area as undesirable, consolidating its reputation in a vicious spiral.
One of my first thoughts about the Bill was that the level of penalties against landlords in breach was pretty low for them to be an adequate deterrent. I then found, though, that the Secretary of State can uprate the level of fines for some offences if he considers that there has been a change in the value of money. I thought that that was a function of standard scales. I hope to explore just how all this will operate and whether the fines will be an adequate deterrent. Mind you, I then went on to read that the Secretary of State can confer jurisdiction by order on the residential property tribunal. So anything seems possible, I suppose.
On both the rent deposit schemes and empty homes management, we will have to see the detail, although my guess is that there will be heavy reliance on regulations, which is where the devils mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, may be. However, perhaps the Minister can tell the House tonight what consultation there will be on the detail of both of those matters.
One issue that has been raised but on which the Government have barely moved is the protection of houseboat owners and occupiers, to which both the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer have referred. I say "barely" because until recently there was no movement at all. Indeed, I have seen a letter from an official at the ODPM to a houseboat owner that was almost entirely about park homes. And then the official said at the end,unfortunately the issues of harassment"—of houseboat owners—seem similar to that of park home owners, but there are important differences between the two tenure types … I am unclear of the extent and nature of the problems with houseboats and whether statutory intervention would be justified is not clear. I hope this information is helpful to you in setting out the bill's provisions in relation to park homes".I think the answer to the last sentence is, "No, not very".
However, there is now a glimmer of light. In a more recent letter, Keith Hill wrote:I am in no doubt that the plight of houseboat owners is no less important than those of mobile homes. Officials in Defra are looking into ways these problems can best be addressed".So I say to the Minister, can Defra and the ODPM please join up and find it in their hearts—and if necessary by changing the Long Title of the Bill—to "spatchcock", to use the term used by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, the protection that the Bill extends to park home owners to houseboat owners and occupiers so that we do not have to hear tales of uncontrolled service charges levied by the licensors of moorings, charging for 25 years in advance, cutting off water and electricity in order to move a houseboat owner on, and so on?
124 As so often, there is far more in the Bill than one can hope to address at this stage, although the array of expertise available to the House and contributing to tonight's debate has meant that we have given it a pretty good airing. But for my final remarks I should declare an interest. I am still a practising solicitor—although I have to say as regards conveyancing matters that "practising" is probably still the right term. But my real interest is in achieving the best for the consumer—for both the buyer and the seller, not for the professional. So I take seriously the support of the Consumers' Association. I take very seriously, too, its campaign to regulate estate agents, who are too often not clear who is their client.
Returning to the issue of home information packs, I take seriously, too, the concerns of the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Law Society, which the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, used to such great forensic effect. If the packs are to be useful and if they are to include a home condition report, that report must be acceptable to lenders for mortgage purposes.
At the time of the Homes Bill three years ago, I recall being very surprised to find that only about 30 per cent of purchasers arranged their own surveys. I suspect that part of the reason for that is their cost. By imposing that new requirement on sellers, very many of whom are also buyers, the Government will make things more difficult and more expensive. The Government are talking up a solution that is not a solution to the real problems of the time and complexity of assembling a chain of vendors and purchasers. My observations do not lead me to the same conclusions as those of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie.
I attach less importance to the packs than some but, if we are to have them, let us sort out their validity, their contents—the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, were very useful on that—their format, and questions of liability insurance and inspection. I am with those who want to make them voluntary. If they are as useful as is claimed, they will catch on very fast. We will have an interesting time at further stages of the Bill's passage.
§ 10.21 p.m.
§ Lord Hanningfield
My Lords, it has been an interesting and constructive debate on an extremely important issue. There have been many valuable contributions from all parts of the House, and I shall endeavour not to detain the House too long at this stage of the evening.
The need for secure housing is one of the most crucial issues facing today's society. It is a basic right that those holding a position of influence—like us—must acknowledge and respect, and that those disadvantaged and alienated must expect. Housing has a fundamental impact on an individual's life chances. Put simply, without a stable home environment, both education and health opportunities are likely to suffer. Equally, employment prospects will be seriously affected. For people caught in the cycle of despair, access to housing is crucial in attempting to break free from its shackles. I have said that because I wanted to 125 echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, and the noble Lord, Lord Rix. We very much support them on the issue of disabilities.
I fear that the Government have missed a valuable opportunity to bring about a real change and improvement to the housing sector. What could have been a progressive and forward-looking Bill is still rather undistinguished. What could have been a clear and insightful Bill is somewhat muddled and confused. Furthermore, the Bill introduces unwelcome elements that will do nothing to ease the current problems in the housing market. Indeed, the Government have taken the opportunity to load even more bureaucracy and burdens on almost everyone involved in housing, from the private individual who merely wants to sell their house, to the good landlord who will have to cope with additional form-filling.
Paradoxically, there are also significant elements missing from the Bill. There is no mention, for example, of rural housing—several noble Lords mentioned that, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—and the particular problems of affordability in rural areas. We all know of those difficult issues. There is also nothing on the problems experienced in national parks, and nor is the issue of empty homes adequately dealt with anywhere in the Bill.
I would like to turn in detail to some of the key issues in the Bill. The plan for mandatory home information packs is an unnecessary and ill thought-out measure, merely acting as a burden and additional stealth tax on the individual. It will do nothing to speed up the house-buying process. It has received criticism from all quarters except one or two noble Lords tonight. Although the issue of sellers' packs has received the most attention, it is by no way the only contentious issue in the Bill. I must stress that in case the Minister thought that he would get off lightly in the scrutiny of the rest of the Bill.
If the Government feel that transactions will be quicker and more user-friendly, with reduced gazumping and benefits to the consumer, we would like to hear more about that. However, we feel that the packs will do nothing to speed up property transactions, as purchasers will still more than likely wish to commission their own surveys, hence the proposals will simply duplicate the number of surveys undertaken, adding to the cost of selling one's home.
As my noble friends Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market and Lord Caithness have so adequately covered all the problems with that part of the Bill, and as we shall follow up much of what they said through amendments and scrutiny of the Bill, I need not say much more about that tonight, except that comparisons with Denmark and Australia are irrelevant as their processes and, especially, their volumes are nothing like those in England.
Furthermore, I am especially worried about the problems of the elderly. Much of our correspondence has come from elderly people. The introduction of such complex, expensive legislation with potential 126 legal problems has concerned many elderly and other disadvantaged people who could be dissuaded from moving until an absolute crisis point has been reached. Again, the issue was most adequately raised by my noble friend Lord MacGregor, who referred to those who sell a house but do not buy another one—such as many elderly people. Those issues need to be scrutinised and queried as we examine the Bill.
The Bill also seems to attack the principle of the right to buy by introducing restrictions in what the Government deem to be high-demand and rural areas. We have doubts about the Government's real commitment to the scheme, but we are of course willing to consider and support any measures that stop naked abuse of it. We want an assurance that those restrictions are in no way likely to have a negative impact on people's ability to acquire property of their own.
The right to buy has allowed ordinary people who would otherwise not have been able to do so the opportunity to own their own home. Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us what assessment has been made of the restrictions that have been introduced during the past year about the number of people taking part in the right-to-buy scheme. My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith raised an issue that we shall pursue further in Committee concerning the right-to-buy scheme and private developers. We will consider that further.
The licensing scheme for houses in multiple occupation is also an important part of the Bill. Although we must be mindful of the balance between regulation and the proper protection of vulnerable citizens, we are concerned about the intrusion of officialdom into private residences, together with the resulting red tape and bureaucracy. We support the intent to bring a degree of order where genuine abuses are occurring. However, a balance must be struck that does not act as a disincentive to those who want to provide much-needed accommodation for rent, as several noble Lords have mentioned tonight. Also, would such a licensing scheme cover those in greatest need?
The Bill would also allow local authorities to take and rent out property left empty. We have grave and substantial concerns about that aspect of the Bill, which gives rise to serious issues about the intervention of the state into the affairs of the individual. We will argue that hasty action by councils could cause distress where there is good reason for a property to remain empty temporarily, such as a family bereavement. We want to explore those issues further in Committee.
On the additional provisions on park homes, surely, as my noble friend Lady Hanham and others mentioned, it would seem sensible to include houseboat owners. Houseboat owners own their boats but not the mooring to which the boat is attached. The owners enjoy no rights vis à vis the licensed moorings manager. Surely the Minister will agree that they are in a similar position to owners of park homes and should be included in the Bill.
The Bill will give public money to the private sector for the construction of social housing. Does the Minister agree that such a step is being adopted merely to speed up the delivery of many more homes and an 127 unwanted housebuilding programme in some parts of the country, including mine? Furthermore, questions need to be answered about the percentage split of social housing grant between the registered social landlords, local authorities and the private sector. What would happen were a private company using public cash to go bankrupt?
Finally, I touch on the issue of fitness standards and the introduction of new housing health and safety rating systems. Although we can support the intent of such measures, I wonder about the cost of implementation for local authorities. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, there have been no guarantees about where that money might come from. Reports have suggested a figure of around £5 million. Perhaps the Minister could assure us that they have sufficient financial resources and capacity to cope with such new responsibilities. We all know, and it has been said many times, that local authorities are given responsibilities without any cash. This is an opportunity to explore that issue.
This is a wide-ranging Bill covering many extremely important issues. We have major concerns, and we hope to improve on the Bill as it stands. As I said at the outset, it is a very important Bill. The Government's legislation is now under scrutiny and will go into Committee, when I look forward to working with my noble friend Lady Hanham.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. Like my noble friend Lord Rooker, I think that this is one of the most interesting Bills that I have had the pleasure of spending time looking at and preparing for. From the wide-ranging comments made during what was a long debate given how late we started, I can tell that we will have fascinating debates in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading as we go through the detail of the legislation.
It was interesting to note the areas where there was consensus, where there was disagreement and where most of the disagreement was focused. It does not take a brain surgeon to work out that we ran into most criticism on the part dealing with home information packs. From what has been said, I can predict that we will spend a lot of time on that in Committee. That is fair enough. Having listened to the intensity and the detail of the questions on the matter, my noble friend Lord Rooker and I will deal with those as extensively as we can later, in the amending process. However, I will pick up some of the points raised during the debate.
The Bill is extensive; it covers a wide range of subjects relating to housing and the housing market. As such, it is part of a comprehensive action plan to create sustainable communities. We have set out our plans very clearly on several occasions. We have backed that with a marked increase in resources—some £22 billion. I think that I can fairly argue that there has been a positive step-change on the part of government in tackling the many different housing 128 problems, north and south, that this country faces. The Bill is a part of that action plan to create sustainable communities and to raise housing standards.
I want to begin with Part 1, which surprisingly attracted least interest and commentary. However. I pay credit to our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock, made important references to Part 1, and I shall come to their points. Unlike some of his Conservative colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, also raised issues of concern; in particular, that relating to the cost of implementation for local authorities.
The current housing fitness standard dates back over 80 years, and there is agreement that it needs to be replaced. Tackling health and safety issues in housing is an approach that looks at the impact of the property on the individual as well as at the state of the house itself. The Bill paves the way for that approach with a rating system. This will help local authorities to prioritise activity and to target properties where there are health and safety hazards, and where risks to residents are greatest—that is its value. It will put those health and safety considerations at the front of the Government's drive to improve housing.
During the course of extensive scrutiny of the Bill, we have tried to pick up on many of the issues raised on that matter. One of the criticisms was that local authorities would not be able to take action to prevent houses falling into disrepair in future. We argue actually that local authorities will be able to take effective enforcement action where disrepair presents a risk to the health and safety of occupants. Of course, that will be a matter for local authority priorities. The housing health and safety rating system will become a useful evidence-based tool to tackle that range of problems.
From memory, it was the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who raised the issue of consultation on this section of the Bill. An unfinalised draft of version 2 of the technical guidance has been published by the ODPM and was posted on its website towards the end of last year. Research on version 1 of this guidance identified some practical difficulties. The comments made have helped us in the development of version 2. We will continue to consult on this, as we have already consulted on the enforcement guidance earlier this year. We are still considering responses to that, and we will be providing guidance for landlords before implementation.
I remind the House why we are introducing licensing regimes. A vigorous and responsive private sector is an important part of developing sustainable communities, and it offers flexibility of tenure to a wide group of people, and a real and genuine alternative to owner-occupation and social renting. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said, the majority of private landlords in this sector are decent and responsible people. Licensing 129 is important because it enables us to target and to improve the private rental sector and better promote its image. Good landlords will benefit from this scheme. They will not be tarred with the same brush as the bad landlords.
The licensing of houses in multiple occupation is an important part of our approach, and it has been welcomed notably by the Liberal Democrat Benches. Licensing will enable us to concentrate on management problems and the poor physical stock condition of many houses in multiple occupation. I do not think that anyone would pretend that this is a sector that can he left. Our aim is to use licensing to tackle poor management, and to identify properties where poor physical conditions will be targeted under the rating system. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, definitions will he important, and questions of definitions will no doubt come up in debates on that part of the Bill.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock, raised questions as to the extension of the licensing scheme to cover student accommodation. That was based on some experience that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, had as a ward councillor. I recognise the issue, as it is one that affected residents in my city. Obviously, a range of measures can he used to tackle such problems, and the housing health and safety rating system, which will be used by local authorities, will be able to attack many of them. Licensing will tackle the worst problems, but in our estimation we need to get the balance right between protecting tenants and unnecessary overregulation.
I want to spend a little time on home information packs, because that was a large part of the debate this evening. We had welcomes from the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, and concerned criticism from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor and Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I can best summarise their criticisms as saying that it would be better if we did not have this, but if we have to have it, it should be voluntary. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said that it was a good idea in principle, but perhaps not in practice. I understand the import of the questions that were asked. We have given a long time-frame for the introduction of this part of the legislation. I look forward to more extensive debates on the questions of detail that were properly raised this evening.
I recognise that there will be concerns about the practical implementation of the home information packs. I want to correct one profoundly wrong impression that was given in some comments this evening; that there is not support for this out there in the market and among consumers. Clearly, consumers welcome this. The trials that have been conducted, particularly in Bristol, showed that there is widespread and extensive support among consumers, and that people thought that it was a valuable and vital change to make.
130 As to the market itself, and those who are in the business of property transaction, there is support from the Halifax Building Society and from TEAM Conveyancing, one of the largest groupings of independent estate agency firms. We have also had support for the scheme from the director of Legal Marketing Services, Andrew Knee. He was supportive of the HIP proposals, and he looked forward to the opportunities they represent. He made the point that.we feel it is important that the industry receives further clarification regarding the timing and implementation of HIPs".We all accept that, and we recognise that it is an important point.
Noble Lords questioned the cost and its impact. We do not accept those arguments. Some of the costs identified as being additional that have been criticised are actually costs that exist at the moment and will be defrayed by the implementation of the scheme.
It is important to look at the experience elsewhere. The Danish experience and that in New South Wales give us encouragement. In the end, the home information packs will be widely welcomed by consumers. The cost implications are likely to be neutral, and there will be a benefit to those who receive the packs in terms of the way in which transactions are conducted. The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, made the point that market forces are important in this regard, and my guess is that they will dictate how costs will be met. I look forward to listening to more of the detailed comments that will come forward on this in Committee, because I recognise the importance of the issue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, raised the issue of water efficiency. I can, I think, reassure her and say that flood risk information is one of the items that will be considered for inclusion in the home information pack as part of the standard search agreements.
I shall move on to some of the other measures in the Bill, because they are important. There was extensive discussion of the changes we are intending to introduce to the right-to-buy provisions. We all recognise the important part that right-to-buy has played over the past two decades, and the Government remain totally committed to the principle of right to buy. This scheme has helped many thousands of ordinary families to realise their aspirations to own their own homes, and it has helped to create stable and mixed-tenure communities. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was concerned about the impact of the first range of changes that we made. I do not have that information here, but I am more than happy to write to him on that issue. We should move forward with the maximum knowledge and information about the impact of changes. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, supported the changes that we were making. My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton was also supportive, because of his concern about the impact of what he described as scams and abuses that needed to be tackled.
We are trying to mitigate some of the adverse impact of the way in which the current right-to-buy scheme works and its impact on the availability of affordable housing in some areas. It is for that reason that we wish to close off some of the exploitation of the current rules 131 to curb profiteering and tackle exploitation. My noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde said that we should consider going further to curb some of the more adverse effects of right-to-buy. Of course, if it is right for us to make such changes, we will, but they must be targeted and proportionate. That, I think, is the plea that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made.
Some concern was expressed about the grants by housing corporations to non-registered social landlords. It is an important part of the Bill. Demand for affordable housing is outstripping supply, causing prices to rise, and we want to use grants to ensure that we increase the provision of affordable housing. In the past, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has given detailed information on that. No doubt, we will have to look at it more closely in order to assure colleagues and those who are concerned about the impact of those provisions, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock.
We want to ensure that we have value for money. The new approach is designed to ensure that more affordable housing is made available to those who need it while securing maximum value for money for our housing programme. We will work closely with the Housing Corporation to ensure that appropriate checks and balances are included in the appraisal procedure so that the respective merits or bids for grants from registered social landlords and their new private sector competitors can be accurately assessed by the Housing Corporation. That will consider not only the upfront costs of each bid but also the long-term sustainability of the products on offer.
A number of noble Lords referred to park homes. We should congratulate my noble friend Lord Rowlands on his part in keeping that issue at the forefront of people's thinking, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for her long campaigning on that issue. Your Lordships will be aware that the measures in the Bill are designed to afford protection, which is the overall thrust of what we are trying to achieve. Quite rightly, a question was asked about houseboat owners. I can give an assurance that those who occupy houseboats will be covered and will have an equivalent protection. I hope that that satisfies that particular concern, which was raised by a number of noble Lords.
The issue of overcrowding was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. We have included a provision that would allow Ministers to repeal existing standards and to empower, but not require, Ministers to set out overcrowding standards by secondary legislation. I can give an assurance that the Government will provide sufficient time and flexibility to consult widely and to consider carefully the way in which any changes to the standards should be made. We intend to use the consultation period to invite views on the role of national standards and the extent to which local authorities should have discretion to set their own local standards. We expect that consultation to take place during the summer.
132 We gave an assurance that we would bring forward measures on tenancy deposit protection. The precise detail of that package is being worked out at present. Our intention is to legislate for the approval of schemes that will safeguard tenancy deposits. I am grateful for the support that we have had for that measure from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Best, who rightly described the exploitation that takes place in some areas and, in particular, his experience based in Brent.
We attracted some criticism from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for our empty homes strategy. In his opening remarks, he suggested that we were setting about dealing with the problem in a completely wrongheaded way and that our measures would not be very effective. We have to start somewhere. We think that we are right to bring forward a scheme, which will be based, I have little doubt, on the best practice that many local authorities have already established in that sector. The noble Lord probably knows more about that than I do. Certainly, the leaseback schemes that I was familiar with as the leader of a local authority in the early 1990s were very effective. Of course, we will consult very carefully on that.
Our intention is that local authorities will be able to make management orders on empty homes that are similar to provisions already set out in Part 4. We intend to make modifications to the Bill. Of course, we will table amendments in due course. That will provide us with the opportunity to have discussions in Committee. No doubt, we shall want to explore some of those issues in some detail with the Local Government Association and those interested in housing issues in particular.
Before I sit down, I should like to turn to accessible housing and the plea made quite rightly by my noble friend Lady Wilkins and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for careful measures in that field. We recognise the importance of that range of issues. The plea for equality of access was one which I am sure all members of your Lordships' House would wish to share. I look forward to the debate when amendments will be tabled for us to consider. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, argued perfectly properly for an opportunity for this measure to be given fair consideration.
We do not at present favour the creation of a registration scheme because it will place a disproportionate burden on local authorities. Some local authorities already exercise such a register to deal with the range of subjects which the noble Baroness outlined in her comments.
In introducing this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, set out how the Government are delivering their sustainable communities' programme and the important part that housing plays in that. We have backed that with considerable additional resources and have put increased resources into all areas of housing, not least rural housing, which was raised by a number of noble Lords this evening, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. We have trebled the amount of money that we put into that sector. We intend to continue to invest in rural 133 housing and ensure that we provide housing through the social landlord route.
We are now tackling low demand and transforming failing housing markets through nine Pathfinder projects backed with £500 million worth of market renewal funding. We are accelerating our new building programme where it is most needed. We are developing four growth areas in London and the wider south-east, which have the potential to deliver an extra 200,000 homes and over 300,000 jobs over the next 10 to 15 years. These are significant measures. This Bill will complement those measures.
134 We have had an extensive debate on what is a very wide-ranging Bill, and I certainly understand and acknowledge the important points raised. I hope that in Committee and during the other stages we can begin to explore those issues in greater depth and detail than we have had the opportunity to do from the Government Benches this evening. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time.
§ House adjourned at seven minutes before eleven o'clock.