HC Deb 25 June 1974 vol 875 cc1337-51
Mrs. Linda Chalker (Wallasey)

I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 9, line 31, at end add— '(7) Subject to the provisions of subsection (9) below, in any case where the Corporation makes a loan to any of the bodies specified in paragraphs (a), (c) and (d) of subsection (1) above, it shall require that body to include in any new housing scheme that it proposes such proportion of dwellings as is prescribed in subsection (8) below, which are designed to meet the special needs of chronically sick and disabled persons. (8) The proportion of specially designed dwellings in any housing scheme to which the preceding subsection applies shall be—

  1. (a) in a scheme comprising 10, but less than 20, units, not less than one such dwelling,
  2. (b) in a scheme comprising 20, but less than 30 units, not less than two such dwellings, and
  3. (c) in a scheme comprising 30 or more units, not less than 3 such dwellings or 5 per cent. of the total, whichever is the greater.
(9) On an application from any body to whom subsection (7) above applies, the Corporation may, having regard to all due circumstances, authorise the reduction or waiver of the requirements of subsection (8) above, if it is satisfied either—
  1. (a) that conditions beyond the control of the said body would render any accommodation that it could provide unsuitable for chronically sick and disabled persons, or
  2. (b) that the special purpose for which it is intended to provide the accommodation does, and in the foreseeable future would, entail the exclusion of all chronically sick and disabled persons'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 53, in Clause 49, page 47, line 10, after 'dwelling', insert: 'or in the case of a registered disabled person works required for his welfare, accommodation or employment where the existing dwelling is inadequate or unsuitable for those purposes,'.

No. 54, in page 47, line 14, at end insert: 'or which in the case of a registered disabled person which are inaccessible to that person by virtue of his disability.'.

No. 55, in Clause 58, page 55, line 7, after 'concerned', insert: 'except in the case of a registered disabled person when this subsection shall not apply,'.

Mrs. Chalker

Having discarded over half my notes, I shall not keep the House longer than to say what is absolutely necessary about housing provision for disabled persons.

These amendments are very important. Whatever the answer by the Minister, I feel that it is important to outline the reasons why we thought it necessary to put down these amendments.

First, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 required local authorities to have regard to the housing needs of the disabled. During the last three to four years we have observed what has been happening. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are profoundly unhappy about the progress being made by some local authorities.

Recently, we had Circular 74/74, "Housing for People who are Physically Handicapped." It is because of the urgent need for housing authorities to do more and to assist housing associations to provide accommodation for the disabled that I am moving these amendments.

We on this side of the House welcome what has been done by local authorities which had the foresight to see the necessity of purpose-built housing for the disabled. But it is no good, however often we outline the principle and however much we request local authorities to assess the needs of the disabled, if action does not follow words.

In 1969 we had a general guide in the Report on the "Handicapped and Impaired in Great Britain." But we must now get down to assessing the individual needs of each local authority area. There are huge variations between the needs of different age groups and different disabilities, but a number of provisions cover all aspects of the disabled.

About 10 per cent. of all disabled people use wheelchairs. Some 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. probably never move from those wheelchairs. But even for those who can still walk there are necessary adaptations which cannot be fully solved by alterations to existing properties. Therefore, there is a specific need for local authories to provide specially designed housing.

A person who is completely dependent on a wheelchair, sometimes a large wheelchair, encounters problems in the widths of corridors and the turning circle required to get from one room to another. Disabled housewives in their kitchens cannot use modern appliances normally found in kitchens. Often excessive alterations are required which cannot be done without completely changing the structure of a house.

Those who are less severely disabled have what is termed a mobility housing problem, because they cannot mount steps. In some instances, if ramps were provided to existing accommodation they would stretch not only out into the street, but across the street and into the driveway or front garden of the house opposite. Problems also exist where doorways are narrower than the 900 millimetres required for many wheelchairs. There is also the problem of electrical sockets placed where the disabled cannot reach them without severe problems and where switches cannot be used without the help of another person.

We have doorways which do not open sufficiently wide to allow wheelchairs, or somebody who is using a frame for support whilst moving round the home, through. We have the problem of persons who use rails around the home. If one fits an iron rail to a plasterboard partition between two rooms, after one month of pulling along on that rail attached to the plasterboard, the wall starts to crumble. That is one of the problems we wish local authorities to solve. It is no good expecting to put something right which was never designed for the fairly severe needs of those who are disabled.

We are quite used to all the exhortations from Governments and from many speakers s such as myself, but unless we require local authorities to construct purpose-built homes for our disabled we shall not solve the problem, which is growing.

The siting of dwellings is important. This is a problem which can be solved by the local authority only at the planning stage Disabled persons must be able to get from their tricycles or other vehicles to the place where they live. There must be no steps. There must be a gradient with which disabled people can cope when they are alone. The accommodation must be near to a few shops so that disabled persons living alone can look after themselves to the best of their ability. This is something they desperately want to do, but we do not give them the chance to help themselves when we put them very often in unsuitable accommodation.

On the amenity aspect, they need not only to sit in a comfortable place but to be able to see something outside the window, because they sit for many hours longer than even the elderly persons for whom we all so greatly care. They need to be able to look out of their windows and to watch their disabled vehicles placed not too far away, because there is so much vandalism in our society. All those reasons have led other hon. Members and myself, together with the Central Council for the Disabled, to suggest the need for Amendment No. 52.

Subsection (7) requires registered housing associations, subsidiaries of the Housing Corporation and any other body over which the corporation holds interest to include in any new housing scheme a proportion of homes specifically designed to meet the needs of chronically sick and disabled persons.

Subsection (8) gives the suggested requirements. The numbers, I admit, are open to argument, but such figures as there are will help us to catch up with the necessary provision which is so lacking in the country.

Subsection (9) allows the corporation to review the requirements of the former subsection (7) where it is so requested by the housing body concerned. That would take place in an event where a statutory requirement would not be in the interests of the chronically sick and disabled, or where the specific building reason, say, for a student hostel, would exclude all the severely and very severely disabled persons.

I have also a brief word to say about Amendments Nos. 53, 54 and 55. These later amendments deal with the improvement grants situation and improvements to dwellings. The first of these, which falls within Clause 49(a), is to insert after "dwelling" in line 10 or in the case of a registered disabled person works required for his welfare, accommodation or employment where the existing dwelling is inadequate or unsuitable for those purposes". We all want those disabled persons who can work, who have the will to work and who need to be encouraged, to play an even fuller part in society. We want them to be given a chance. Much employment today can be performed within the home, but if that home is unsuitable for the necessary equipment—it might, for instance, be a Possum typewriter that is needed—then it is most important that an improvement grant to widen the doorway or to improve the dwelling in some other way should be available.

The second of these three amendments grouped together adds the aspect of accessibility. Clause 49(2)(b) covers the provision of standard amenities which a dwelling lacks. With the addition of Amendment No. 54 it would also cover inaccessability to the dwelling or any part of it.

9.45 p.m.

Clause 58(3) reads: A local authority shall not approve an application for an intermediate grant unless they are satisfied, with respect to each of the standard amenities specified as mentioned in subsection (2)(a) above, either— (a) the dwelling concerned has been without the amenity in question for a period of not less than 12 months …". The purpose of this amendment is to give an exception in the case of a registered disabled person when subsection (2)(a) would not apply. The reason is fairly obvious. There are some dwellings which can quite easily be adapted, and into which local authorities will willingly move a registered disabled person. Because of this, it is most important that a 12-month embargo should be waived in the case of registered disabled persons needing an intermediate grant for improvement or an improvement grant to allow them to live as full a life as possible in those dwellings.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

I support the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker). Amendment No. 52 is very modest. When my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and I and others were taking the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill through the House, we talked about certain numbers with which civil servants disagreed. The Amelia Harris Report revealed that the numbers were much larger. The hon. Lady has been very modest in the amendment. I believe that the numbers are far greater than the amendment indicates.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept this modest amendment and will make statements showing that he recognises the problem. He knows about it, because on 8th May I tabled a Question on the subject. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction replied: I am not satisfied with the numbers of such dwellings which have been provided since the passage of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th May, 1974; Vol. 873, c. 167.] My hon. Friend has issued a circular which clearly supports the hon. Lady's argument. It is clear that Conservative Members, Liberal Members, Nationalist Members and Labour Members know the problem. It is nice to know that we know it, and that, as Circular 74/74 shows, civil servants in the Department of the Environment know the problem as well. The circular says: We are directed … to say that there is an urgent need for housing authorities to do much more for people who are physically handicapped and to help housing associations to do so too. I did not say that; they said it. It has been said by both Governments.

In paragraph 2 it is stated: But still not enough housing is being provided for physically handicapped people and the range of what is being made available needs to be widened. I throw away my notes and appeal to my hon. Friend that much more be done in this matter.

A large number of physically and severely physically handicapped people can make a contribution to our society if their homes are properly adapted to provide facilities to enable them to earn a living. That would take them off our backs. Further, if there is proper provision, facilities can be made available for severely handicapped children to be educated. I appreciate that this would cost a lot of money, but the children can be educated to such an extent that they, too, can become completely independent of any help from society. That is what they want and what we should give them. It is not charity.

Finally, I come to the question of the handicapped housewife. The hon. Member for Wallasey had this matter in mind, and I fully support her. The handicapped housewife has probably been the most neglected of all the people in our society who are in need of help. It would be so easy for us to help her. We can do so if there is a favourable response from my hon. Friend the Minister. We can aid the disabled housewife with a family if we give her the means by which she, not us, can bring up her family independently and can sustain, help, support, advise and guide them, with a minimum of cost. If we can do that this Parliament will have shown that it is humane.

I hope that there will be a favourable response from my hon. Friend. We are asking here for a minmum amount of money. We are also asking that disabled people be given the right to lead independent lives. If my hon. Friend responds, society will benefit immeasurably. A large number of disabled people will welcome any support which he can give to this all-party amendment.

Mr. Christopher Woodhouse (Oxford)

I shall be brief, as I hope all hon. Members will be brief in relation to other amendments, because I have the Adjournment debate later. I shall be brief also because the case is self-evident and has been eloquently argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones).

All the disabled people I know have one primary wish, to live as normal a life as possible. One of the features of the amendment which I find attractive is that in the new subsection (8) the effect of the provision would be to help create a measure of dispersion of disabled people within a community of people who are not handicapped, and this is psychologically and in every other way attractive for them. They do not wish to be isolated in what we may crudely call a ghetto. They want to lead normal lives, and living in a community of people who equally have normal lives is part of their therapy.

I hope that the Minister will take account of what I have said as one further small commendation of the amendment which has rightly been supported from both sides of the House.

Mr. Emery

There is little that I can add to the speeches we have already heard. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Woodhouse), the case for the disabled is self-evident, as the Government recognised in Circular 74/74.

The amendment tries to stipulate where grants can be made to a registered housing association, a subsidiary of the Housing Corporation or any other body in which the corporation has an interest. If the specifications in the amendment cannot be met, the Minister can waive them. I can understand that, when an association or the corporation is planning a student hostel or a building for single people of perhaps 15 units, it may not make sense to have to meet these requirements. But subsection (9) gives the Government a let-out.

I hope that the Government will consider this matter seriously. There are problems, which should not be belittled. In the schemes coming forward, the strict mathematical calculation in the amend ment may cause some difficulties, but I hope that the Minister will turn his mind from the difficulties to ways of meeting the intention of the amendment. I urge that he and the Government should so do.

Mr. Freeson

I assure the House that I have turned my mind already to attaining the objectives of the amendment in general, even if I fear that I cannot recommend the House to accept it as drafted.

I come to this question with a strong personal interest as well as a ministerial one. Among many things with which I have been associated in this area it has always given me some retrospective pleasure to recall that the last parliamentary political activity in which I was involved before the unfortunate demise of the last Labour Government was as a member, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) and others. of the Standing Committee which considered the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which became known as the charter for the disabled. That was the last piece of legislation to go through that Parliament and we pushed it through with the kindly help of our present Chief Whip, who was Chief Whip then also, to ensure that it was not lost by the pending election.

But much remains to be done in areas covered by that Act. I will confine myself to housing, although the Under-Secretary of State dealing with the disabled, who is present for this part of our deliberations, is pressing very hard on other aspects of that charter which have been inadequately implemented.

It will already be clear that I am sympathetic to the objectives of these amendments. I will come back to that, because this is one occasion when I should clarify the present position in expansion of the parliamentary Answer to the Question—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Housing Bill may be proceeded with at this day's Sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Freeson

I wish to expand a little on the Answer to the parliamentary Ques tion tabled a short while ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles. Before doing so, let me speak a little to the amendment. I am recommending the House not to accept it not because one disagrees with the policy which the hon. Lady and her supporters are seeking to put to us but because it represents, in the Government's view, too inflexible an approach to the problem. It would be tackling the problem in the wrong way, by seeking to impose a particular proportion of dwellings for the disabled in every housing association scheme, something which is not done even in the local authority field, even in the wake of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.

In planning housing for the chronically sick and disabled, many factors other than just the nature of the accommodation itself need to be taken into account. The site must be in the right place for ease of access to local facilities, site levels should be negotiable and any necessary personal support services must be available. All this means that it is better to let the housing associations, the Housing Corporation and local authorities plan flexibly for the categories of need they feel best able to meet. There are, of course, several housing associations which specialise in this field of providing houses for the disabled. It is better to do it in that way than to seek a compulsory proportion or a statistical pattern on every scheme.

I could elaborate further on that but it will serve the purpose of this discussion, which in a sense is a mini-debate on the disabled, if I set out what we are doing by our own means and what we are asking others to do by their own means, even though I must ask the House not to accept the amendment.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Would my hon. Friend accept that the concept advanced by the Spastics Society would have entailed its own housing organisation, Habinteg, and that this is a valid method of proceeding? Secondly, a rather more fundamental point, would he suggest to his Department and all local authorities that if they are going to build houses they ought to think twice about whether steps are necessary, and whether they can put in ramps and not steps as a matter of architectural necessity?

Mr. Freeson

I support my hon. Friend's reference to Habinteg—and there are other specialist housing associations operating in this field. Inskip St. Giles and John Groom's, like Habinteg, are leaders in this field. I should refer to the fact that the Department of the Environment, together with the Department of Health and Social Security, under the all-seeing eye of my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the disabled, are jointly promoting with the London boroughs schemes for special support housing for the very severely disabled. We are doing this in the hope that when these schemes get off the ground they will provide models not only for local authorities but also for housing associations in this field.

On another important, though in statistical terms limited, contribution in this field—and I said I would like to indicate thoughts going beyond the issue of the circular—may I say without any qualification that we have not done enough in housing to enable disabled people to live in the community. Since the passage of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, there have been 1,300 submissions for new dwellings by local authorities. That is not good enough, in the light of the passage of four years and in the light of the mood in which the Act was passed and of the genuinely intended statements which I myself made at the time about housing.

I am not trying to single out anyone for blame. I do not know sufficient about what has transpired in the years since the passage of the Act, or sufficient at this moment, to be able to do so. But I do say that 1,300 dwellings is not enough in view of the scale of need which has to be met.

It was for this reason that it gave me particular pleasure and sense of urgency, as one of my earliest actions following my appointment in March, to get Circular 74/74 sent out asking local authorities to get on with increasing the amount of suitable housing available for disabled people. We described in the circular three ways in which they could do it, and we want to see district councils immediately starting on much more ambitious programmes of provision than has been evident since 1970. This must be a main priority if within a reasonable time we are to tackle this important need adequately.

I believe that disabled people want, if they possibly can, to live at home within the community. They have a right to be able to do so, and it is our job to give them the opportunity. But time is not on the side of disabled people or of the elderly—and we know how often in individual cases these two descriptions overlap. Local authorities will have to find out who are the disabled in their districts and what are their special personal needs—whether, for example, it will be possible for them to stay in their own homes if those homes are adapted, or whether they need purpose-built dwellings fully designed and equipped for someone in a wheelchair.

Although we have given in the circular a certain number of facts and figures of a general nature about the needs and problems of handicapped people, the local authorities have to do their homework on the ground. National figures are not good enough. They have to be translated into local detail. This is true of many other aspects of housing and urban policy.

The basic view that I have urged over the years is that central and local government have a long way to go before we can possibly be satisfied that we know what the housing needs are in the community. National figures are all very well, but there are respects in which they, too, could be improved. It is my firm conviction that the important thing is for local authorities to know the housing needs of the people of or in their area and to break the figures down even within their areas in terms which will enable them to meet the needs by providing the sort of housing which is required, often desperately required.

I am not in favour of isolated specialised services when these are unrelated. Local authorities, as the best increasingly are, must assess the many factors which go to make up the present and prospective housing problem in terms of general and special needs, of the mix of types of housing and so on. Within this comprehensive approach we need to pay particular attention to those who are most vulnerable, and I expect the local authorities to do much more to find out about the needs in their areas without taking the waiting lists as a sufficient guide—not to sit at the feet of time and simply wait for applicants who need help, but to go out and find out what the needs are. We must not rely on waiting lists to tell us because, in many instances, they reflect only a proportion of the housing needs of the areas with which we are concerned.

Again, this is true not just of the disabled but of other aspects of the housing problem. Local authorities and housing associations which have so far built for disabled people have concentrated on specially designed housing—what has been called "wheelchair housing"—and more is wanted. But only about 4 per cent. of disabled people have wheelchairs and only about 2 per cent. use wheelchairs all the time, which is where mobility housing comes in.

Some local authorities have found that by making minimal changes to standard Parker Morris dwellings it is possible to provide easily and without undue effect on costs for disabled people who can walk or, if they use a wheelchair, do not need it all the time—and that, as my figures indicate, is the majority. By including at least a level or ramped approach to front and back doors and wider doorways to the main living areas and bedrooms in new dwellings that are suitable for this treatment, it is possible to provide a new flexibility in the housing stock and a new opportunity to provide a home for a disabled person when one is needed, rather than having to wait for it to be built.

There are, of course, other features that local authorities and housing associations will think are worth putting in this kind of housing and our circular mentions a couple of them. But the essential point is that mobility housing will be suitable either for a family with a disabled member or an able-bodied family. This makes for good planning and the flexible use of housing stock. The housing needs of most disabled people can be met by adaptations, specially designed housing and "mobility" housing. These ways are being considered in greater detail in the course of a study being conducted in the Department of the Environment.

However, in many cases it is already clear what would suit handicapped people best—and most of them will have preferences and views which will reinforce or guide the thinking of authorities and voluntary bodies and enable expert advice to be applied sensitively and with understanding. The Government are anxious that authorities should not wait on the publication of the study, and that the period from now until the study and the advice based on it can be published should be used to good effect. We need to get more dwellings provided. We need to provide better-planned housing which can be used by the disabled.

My last point I make without any disrespect to hon. Members. if we send out circulars, if we exhort, study and probe, as we intend to do, in the monitoring of the circular, as it were, in due time, that is not enough. What one needs to have is a personal interest by hon. Members and by the public and councillors, so that when we look at sites in our constituencies and see schemes being put forward by our local authorities, we take the initiative on the ground as well and ask whether they are including in these schemes provision of some kind for the disabled and those in need.

Often we shall find that they have missed out, and if we pick up the query and probe early enough on the ground, without waiting for the schemes to be submitted to the Department for loan sanction, we shall find that we can get in early enough to persuade the policy makers at that level to give consideration to this aspect of the policy which they would have done if it had been brought to their attention previously. We have individual responsibility as well as a policy responsibility at parliamentary and Government level.

I hope that I have made it clear that, both as a Minister and personally as a Member, I am concerned to see an expansion of provision in this respect. We shall be following up the circular with further work later and we shall be pressing for a much better effort than we have seen so far since the passage of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.

Mrs. Chalker

I am very grateful to the Minister for his remarks, but I am not entirely satisfied with them. Whilst I quite understand his wish for me not to press the amendment on this occasion, may I endorse what he said about national figures? I do not know whether it is significant—it had better not be for much longer—but a number of hon. Members who are most interested in the disabled, or who speak most frequently about them, come from the North-West. There, for every specifically designed dwelling for a disabled person there are 1,300 disabled people waiting. That number, 1,300, had better stick in our minds. I hope very much that the monitoring which the Department will do and which hon. Members will do will make the assessment and the future building requirements decrease that number to one which is reasonable. It must not be just in the pious hopes that are sometimes expressed, but in reality for the future of the disabled.

With those remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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