§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Report received.
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 1:
Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
PURPOSES OF THIS PART
(". The purposes of this Part are to enable a local housing authority to ensure the review, improvement and renewal as appropriate of the private sector housing in its area in such a way that in can—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will be aware that Part I deals with renovation grants for private housing. The House will also be aware that there were extensive discussions in Committee about the difference between a mandatory scheme for renovation grants and a discretionary scheme which is now proposed under the Bill before your Lordships. Without wishing to repeat what has been said at Second Reading and in Committee, I would just point out that public intervention as regards the condition of private housing for those who are unable to maintain their own houses with their own means has been undertaken since the time of Queen Victoria, but public investment in renovation grants has fallen to around a third of the levels in the early 1980s.
§ Furthermore, as I said on Second Reading, there is a deepening and frequently underestimated crisis of disrepair in private housing. One in 12 homes—that is 1.5 million homes—are officially unfit for human habitation. Furthermore, public intervention at current levels is failing to keep pace with the rate of deterioration in private housing. Economic and demographic factors have exacerbated the problems facing private house renewal and the current house renovation grant system introduced by the Government in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 is, in our view, in a state of crisis.
§ The Government's response to this crisis has been dominated by the need to dismantle the mandatory grant which they set up in their own Act in 1989 rather than to address the underlying problems of disrepair. If implemented in its current form without the amendment that I am proposing, the Bill will remove the current right to a grant to ensure that a home is fit to live in. The Bill provides no national framework within which local authorities may address the current disrepair in private housing. The Bill will officially sanction housing which is unfit for human occupation by legalising the deferral of action on those properties. The Bill will do nothing to bring in any extra resources needed to halt the deterioration—which is before our eyes—in the condition of private housing.796
Having said that—this is part of what we discussed in Committee—I should like to speak particularly to the amendment that I put before your Lordships this afternoon. The proposed "purpose" clause—in Committee we discussed the nature of purpose clauses, and I do not accept the argument that a purpose clause overrides all that is in the Bill subsequently—which I set before your Lordships is designed to clarify the intention behind the Bill by setting a framework for the operation of local authority discretion. Local authorities should, in our view, be enabled to set priorities for action to tackle private house disrepair. I cannot imagine that your Lordships will consider that to be contentious. Indeed it is precisely the purpose to which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred at Second Reading when he said,
It will give local authorities the freedom to decide their own priorities for tackling unfitness and disrepair in private housing".—[Official Report, 20/2/96; col. 976.]
§ My amendment will provide what we believe to be a useful curb upon the discretion the measure gives both to local authorities and to the Secretary of State. If local authorities do not use their discretion in the way required by this amendment they will be contravening the Bill's essential purpose.
§ Equally, if the implementation of the Bill and the wealth of accompanying secondary legislation that we predict as a result of the Bill gaining Royal Assent prevent local authorities from establishing priorities in the way envisaged, we believe that the Bill's purpose will be frustrated.
§ The purpose of public intervention in private house renewal' should be to bring about an improvement in private house conditions. That is set out in paragraph (b) of the amendment. I do not believe that this is a matter of dispute. Given the discretionary nature of the Bill's provisions, the widespread impression, which I accept, that the Government are abandoning responsibility to make proper arrangements for the maintenance of private housing, and the suspicion that the end of mandatory grant will be followed by a reduction in public expenditure on private house renewal, this part of the amendment may not be self evident. It is designed to establish a principle.
§ If the grant system is to operate successfully, it must encourage the sound maintenance of private housing in co-operation with private interests. We recognise that private interests will be involved. It is right that they should be involved in all aspects of private housing. It is odd that the Government, who are so committed to the advancement of the private sector, have not paid more attention to the role of the private sector in private house renewal. We believe that paragraph (c) of the amendment puts down a marker for private and public sector co-operation in private house renewal.
§ I am aware of the arguments put forward in Committee about purpose clauses. However, because the Bill marks a major change from a mandatory grant to a discretionary system for 1.5 million private houses in disrepair, I believe that a purpose clause for Part I is the right way to go forward. I beg to move.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, made much of the fact that the Bill 797 contains discretionary provisions and does not provide resources for their implementation. I believe that it will be easy for my noble friend to resist the amendment if he so wishes, as I imagine he does. Had that amendment been put into the Bill by the Government, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, would find it difficult to resist the temptation to put down an amendment to remove the provision in the following terms. He would say that the Bill provides only discretionary provisions; it includes no resources; and, therefore, it declares a purpose which cannot possibly be achieved in the first clause because that clause is discretionary.
The noble Lord says that the purposes of this part of the Bill are enabling and do not place a requirement on a local housing authority. If a discretionary motive is a weakness in the Bill, it is reflected and multiplied in the amendment. I hope that my noble friend will resist it.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I support the amendment because I read the clause in a way diametrically opposed to the interpretation of the noble Lord, Lord Elton.
The concern widely shared among many noble Lords, and outside the House, is that the Bill is an elaborate scheme to mask the inadequacy of funding for house renovation, repair and so on. If there is not enough money then there must be a strategy for using such funding as is available.
During Committee we heard much of the discretion in local authorities. I find it difficult to accept that there would be a discretion both in the context of inadequate funding and as regards the centralising provisions of the Bill. However, if there is to be discretion at local level, then it is appropriate—I believe that it is required—that local authorities are enabled to review, improve and renew private sector housing in the way set out in the amendment.
The amendment sets the discretionary nature of the scheme in a way which supports what the Government say the Bill provides—although I do not read the Bill as providing that. It is not enough to say that grants will be available when there is inadequate funding for those grants with no possibility of setting strategies for priorities or for using that money in the best way. The best role for local government is to encourage investment in maintenance and improvement and to play an active part in the best use of the funds available.
I set very high in that strategy the use of funds, in the private rented sector as well as privately owned property, where conditions may be particularly poor. Given the problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, alluded, I believe that it is the responsibility of local authorities to do everything possible to ensure that people have a decent roof over their heads. This purpose clause would set that framework.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, in supporting my noble friend's amendment, I take a slightly different tack from previous speakers. It is becoming recognised that through the Bill we are in the process of changing the regime for housing renovation grants from a 798 mandatory to a discretionary one. However, one of my concerns is as regards how those new discretionary housing renovation grant schemes will work at local housing authority level, and how they will change over time.
Perhaps I may postulate a couple of scenarios. The local authority may have few houses in such a situation. It may be a local authority with a lot of relatively new build. It may have had a high proportion of council houses and, therefore, may not have a large number of dwellings in the category likely to attract grant because of the decline in that sector of the housing market. In that situation, there is a risk that because the issue affects only a minority of people in the area, the local authority will say, "This is not a high political priority; we shall not spend a great deal of money in that area and we shall restrict giving grants as much as possible".
I would hope that a purpose clause might be used only in extremis. There might be a small pocket of decline in the private housing sector which needs grants but the local authority takes little notice of it. That sector could go to the court and say, "This local authority is not abiding by the Act". That is an example of one use that might be made of the new clause.
The other point is in relation to the ongoing dynamic situation. As circumstances change in a local authority area, there will be a need to adjust and readjust the priorities that a local authority may set. For example, it may decide to allocate more funds to a particular council activity. It may decide to change the criteria on which the funds were allocated. Surely, given the nature of the democracy that we have in this country, it is only right that local councillors making the decisions should be responsive to their local communities. They should have in front of them reports on how such a scheme might operate, what the effect would be on the operation of schemes that previously had certain criteria attached to them and whether they were effective in terms of the final section of the amendment to,encourage the promotion and facilitation of sound maintenance of private sector housing",by the private sector. It may be that, because of the way the local authority grant discretionary regime operates, it is not working to best advantage in bringing forward private sector investment in maintenance.
It is important that local authorities are, if not required then encouraged, to examine their schemes for discretionary disbursement of public funds for private sector renewal and maintenance. They should be responsive to the local situation as it changes. I hope that the Government will he sympathetic to the purpose clause and accept the amendment.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Viscount Ullswater
My Lords, at Second Reading and at Committee stage I crossed swords with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, because I welcomed the discretionary nature of the Bill's provisions. I approve 799 of the concept of a discretionary scheme rather than the mandatory one which it replaces. I gave my opposition to that at Committee stage.
I believe that it is an unusual approach for the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to take to put down and now to pursue at Report stage this purpose clause. On many occasions I have crossed swords with him about the restrictions that the Government have placed on the actions or activities of local authorities. He suggested to me that he disapproved of governments putting restrictions on local authorities and their activities. That indicates that the noble Lord does not believe that he can trust local authorities to exercise their judgment correctly. Therefore, they need an overarching purpose clause. I do not believe that this one will necessarily have the effect which he suggests and I agree with my noble friend Lord Elton that, although it creates a good feeling, it will not alter the amount of resources available for it.
In supporting the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, then argued very much against it. He indicated that one should leave the local authority to use its discretion to react to the different priorities as time goes by. That is exactly what the Bill does; it leaves local authorities to judge for themselves how the money should be spent, rather than the mandatory scheme which it replaces. Therefore, I urge my noble friend on the Front Bench to reject it.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, I believe that he misunderstood what I was suggesting. I was trying to suggest that the local authority would be required to consider changes to the scheme, not that it should not have the discretion. The local authority should have the discretion but should use it effectively.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, I support the amendment on the grounds that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, mentioned in the early part of his remarks. As he said, successive national house condition surveys have shown that no fewer than 1.5 million houses are unfit for human habitation in the country and 3.5 million are in need of serious repair. At the same time, the grants being made available for dealing with the situation, which obviously affect mainly people on low income, have been rapidly diminishing. It is my opinion that the drafting of this part of the Bill does not sufficiently emphasise the importance of the problem. I believe that this purpose clause or something similar would help to do so.
The fact that we have limited resources does not in any way diminish—indeed, it increases—the size of the problem. We ought to make that clear. There ought to be an incentive for this Government or successive governments to make additional resources available and for local authorities to make the best use of those resources. I should have thought that some reference to it in the Bill is necessary.
My Lords, noble Lords spoke eloquently on Amendment No. 1—notably the noble Lord, Lord Williams—about the importance to a local authority of being able to identify the needs of the 800 private housing sector in its area, to provide help for those who own, rent or let properties which are unfit or in need of repair and to encourage maintenance. We do not disagree about the general desirability of those principles.
However, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers said in Committee, my noble friend Lord Elton said today and I repeat, we do not believe that a general purpose clause of any nature is necessary or appropriate in the Bill. As drafted, Part I of the Bill deals not with overarching principles but with detailed provisions on the workings of grant regimes. It provides local authorities with the powers they need to meet the objectives of their private sector renewal strategies. How these are used is for a local authority to decide.
I do not believe that there is a need in the Bill to encapsulate fundamental guiding principles which are necessary to guide the courts in the exercise of their functions. Purpose clauses are extremely rare in English and Welsh legislation, with only the Family Law Reform Bill, the Arbitration Bill and the Legal Aid Act 1988 coming to mind.
A general purpose clause for Part I would run the risk of interfering with the legal clarity of the individual provisions in the rest of Part I. We already have a general statement at the beginning of each of Chapters I to IV of Part I explaining what the particular grant or purpose is for. There is no need to go any further with general principles which are not closely and directly related to the individual provisions and which run the risk of making interpretation of the legislation more difficult, with the possibility of upsetting conventional interpretation.
Part I of the Bill sets out the powers, duties and obligations of a local authority in terms of assistance and action where a person is unable to improve or adapt his property. Care has been taken to ensure that these cases are set out clearly and in detail to ensure that the provisions are applied on a consistent basis nationally and are not open to misinterpretation. I do not believe the amendment would improve the ability of authorities to achieve the purposes of the legislation. On the contrary, it would risk limiting their activities to those falling within the purposes set out in the amendment.
The objectives the noble Lord, Lord Williams, seeks to include in this purpose clause include the normal practices that we would all expect a local authority to undertake as part of its wider housing strategy and as part of the housing investment programme process. But some of the purposes set out in the clause, such as setting priorities for action and encouraging and facilitating sound maintenance, are not found in the express provisions of Part I. However, the latter arc purposes that the department recognises and seeks to encourage through guidance, with such publications as the Housing Strategies Guide and the annual Housing Investment Programme Guidance.
We are strongly of the opinion that there is no room for a purpose clause at the beginning of this part of the Bill. It adds nothing, it carries dangers with it and, as my noble friend Lord Ullswater said, we trust local 801 authorities to use the discretion that we give them properly. I hope that noble Lords will resist the amendment.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he clear my mind of the confusion in which I find myself, which I admit happens from time to time? I thought he said that general purpose clauses were unusual. He may well be right. However, he said that there was a general purpose clause in the Arbitration Bill, which completed its passage in this House and is now in another place. The Arbitration Bill reappears in Part II of this Bill, albeit in another context from the one with which we are dealing here. It occurs to me that if general purpose clauses are appropriate in the Arbitration Bill, which appears later in this Bill, why is it not appropriate to insert a general purpose clause at this stage of the Bill?
I may be totally wrong and the Minister may be able to clear up the confusion with which my mind is clouded. If it is, I should be greatly pleased if he would uncloud it.
My Lords, I acknowledge my ability to confuse the noble Lord. Indeed, at a previous stage of the Bill I remember confusing his gender! I hope I have not gone so far this time.
The difference is surely that some Bills benefit from purpose clauses and others do not. Our general experience is that the numbers that do are quite few and far between. So far as this particular part of the Bill is concerned, we set out the purposes relevant to each individual section of the part, but we see no room for a purpose clause for the part as a whole.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who spoke to this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that he had mistaken my noble friend's gender in a previous discussion. He also mistook my noble friend's name in a letter that he very kindly wrote to me. So I am not sure whether my noble friend Lord Howie speaks as a male, a female or a member of some curious body that I know not of—
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, I wonder if I might help my noble friend. I have been a Member of this House, give or take a day or two, for 18 years. I know that the noble Lord is much more recent than I am. I daresay I am an antiquity—less so than some, but an antiquity of a sort. At an earlier stage of the Bill, he accused me of being the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. To a point, I was quite pleased about that, though it caused me a certain amount of further confusion. His satellites, or whatever the word is, in Whitehall sent me a letter in which they called me "Will Troon". I thought that very gracious. The "Will" bit was obviously meant to be kindly; and the "Troon" bit was part of my origin. All I can say is that if I am confused, the noble Lord is confused as well.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, perhaps I may continue my wind-up on this amendment. I am grateful 802 to my noble friend for his admission. I hope very much that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will not feel offended by my noble friend's remark.
The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in responding, said that basically the Government agree with all this. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, had read the text of the amendment. If I had said, "require a local housing authority", then I agree with the noble Lord that I should have been introducing what was fundamentally a wrecking amendment. I am not doing so. I am trying to set a framework.
That leads me to the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater. I have every trust in local authorities. That is not my problem; it is a problem that the Government have. They have no trust in local authorities at all—witness all the machinations of the revenue support grant, SSA and so on. I have trust in local authorities.
Nevertheless, I believe that there must be—I use the noble Lord's words—some over-arching principle in relation to renovation grants for private housing up and down the land. The amendment is only enabling, but it gives a guide to local housing authorities as to what they could or should be doing.
So far as resources are concerned, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, is right. When we come to the subject of efficiency grants we shall no doubt discuss the question of resources again. The point about paragraph (c) is that we are interested in getting private interests involved in this business, as indeed the Government are. I have no problem with that.
As for the purpose clause, as my noble friend Lord Howie—in whatever identity he chooses to present himself—pointed out, there are circumstances where a purpose clause is desirable.
Fundamentally, this is a question of political difference between noble Lords opposite and ourselves. The only way to solve political difference is to ask the opinion of the House.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 89; Not-Contents, 145.804
|Division No. 1|
|Addington, L.||Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.|
|Archer of Sandwell, L.||Dahrendorf, L.|
|Ashley of Stoke, L.||David, B.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Diamond, L.|
|Berkeley, L.||Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L|
|Blackstone, B.||Donoughue, L.|
|Blease, L.||Dormand of Easington, L.|
|Borrie, L.||Dubs, L.|
|Broadbridge, L.||Ezra, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Falkland, V.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Fisher of Rednal, B.|
|Carter, L.||Fitt, L.|
|Castle of Blackburn, B.||Gallacher, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Geraint, L.|
|Gladwin of Clee, L.||Morris of Castle Morris, L.|
|Gould of Potternewton, B. [Teller.]||Murray of Epping Forest, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.]||Ogmore, L.|
|Harnwee, B.||Peston, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|Haskel, L.||Rea, L.|
|Hayman, B.||Redesdale, L.|
|Hilton of Eggardon, B.||Richard, L.|
|Hollick, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Hollis of Heigham, B.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Holme of Cheltenham, L.||Seear, B.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Serota, B.|
|Hughes, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Jay of Paddington, B.||Simon, V.|
|Jeger, B.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Jenkins of Hillhead, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Jenkins of Putney, L.||Taylor of Blackburn, L.|
|Kennet, L.||Temple of Stowe, E.|
|Kilbracken, L.||Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Kirkhill, L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.|
|Listowel, E.||Thurso, V.|
|Lockwood, B.||Tope, L.|
|Lovell-Davis, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|McCarthy, L.||Varley, L.|
|McGregor of Durris, L.||Wallace of Saltaire, L.|
|McIntosh of Haringey, L.||Whaddon, L.|
|McNair, L.||White, B.|
|Merlyn-Rees, L.||Williams of Crosby, B.|
|Methuen, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Monkswell, L.||Winston, L.|
|Aberdare, L.||Davidson, V.|
|Acton, L.||De Freyne, L.|
|Addison, V.||Dean of Harptree, L.|
|Ailesbury, M.||Denham, L.|
|Ailsa, M.||Denton of Wakefield, B.|
|Aldington, L.||Dixon-Smith, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E||Downshire, M.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Eden of Winton, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Ellenborough, L.|
|Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L.||Elles, B.|
|Ashbourne, L.||Elliott of Morpeth, L.|
|Astor of Hever, L.||Elton, L.|
|Balfour, E.||Feldman, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Finsberg, L.|
|Blake, L||Fraser of Carmyllie, L.|
|Blaker, L.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Gainford, L.|
|Blyth, L.||Goschen, V.|
|Boardman, L.||Granard, E.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Greenway, L.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Hacking, L.|
|Braine of Wheatley, L.||Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Halsbury, E.|
|Burnham, L.||Harding of Petherton, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Harlech, L.|
|Cadman, L.||Harvington, L.|
|Caldecote, V.||Hayhoe, L.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Henley, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||HolmPatrick, L.|
|Carnock, L.||Hothfield, L.|
|Chalker of Wallasey, B.||Hylton-Foster, B.|
|Chelmsford, V.||Ilchester, E.|
|Chesham, L. [Teller.]||Inchcape, E.|
|Clanwilliam, E.||Inglewood, L.|
|Coleridge, L.||Ironside, L.|
|Courtown, E.||Lane of Horsell, L.|
|Craig of Radley, L.||Lauderdale, E.|
|Craigavon, V.||Lindsay, E.|
|Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.]||Liverpool, E.|
|Cuckney, L.||Long, V.|
|Cumberlege, B.||Lucas, L.|
|Dacre of Glanton, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Lyell, L.||Pym, L.|
|McConnell, L.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.||Renwick, L.|
|Mackay of Clashfern, L.[Lord chancellor.]||Richardson, L.|
|Marlesford, L.||Romney, E.|
|Merrivale, L.||St Davids, V.|
|Mersey, V.||Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.|
|Miller of Hendon, B.||Savile, L.|
|Milverton, L.||Seccombe, B.|
|Monteagle of Brandon, L.||Shannon, E.|
|Montrose, D.||Shaw of Northstead, L.|
|Mottistone, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Moyne, L.||Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.|
|Munster, E.||Stewartby, L.|
|Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Nelson, E.||Strange, B.|
|Newall, L.||Strathcarron, L.|
|Noel-Buxton, L.||Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]|
|Northesk, E.||Sudeley, L.|
|O'Cathain, B.||Swansea, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Swinfen, L.|
|Oppenheim-Barnes, B.||Teviot, L.|
|Orkney, E.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Orr-Ewing, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Oxfuird, V.||Ullswater, V.|
|Pearson of Rannoch, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Pender, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Peyton of Yeovil, L.||Wilcox, B.|
|Plummer of St Marylebone, L.||Wise, L.|
|Prentice, L.||Young, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Clause 1 [Grants for improvements and repairs, &c.]:
Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 1, line 10, leave out ("Grants are available from local housing authorities") and insert ("Local housing authorities may make grants").
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment seeks to amend the first line of the first clause of the first part of the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said in our earlier discussion, there is a general statement at the start of each part. My amendment seeks to replace the words,
Grants are available from local housing authorities",
which seem to me to be something of a purpose statement, if not a complete purpose clause. The phrase is descriptive but I am not convinced of its accuracy. It is not accurate because, as I said in the previous discussion, we all accept that funding for grants is, sadly, inadequate. Moreover, it does not describe the provisions which follow in this clause, because it does not reflect the discretion vested in local authorities, as we discussed. It reads as though the position is mandatory.
Therefore, the amendment will replace those words and the subsection will read,
Local housing authorities may make grants in accordance with this Chapter towards the cost of works",
§ which are then listed. We seek to provide for that local flexibility which throughout the Committee stage of the Bill the Government said they endorsed. I beg to move.
My Lords, I must admit at the outset that the amendment has caused us a great deal of 805 confusion and speculation. We did not realise at all what it was for and certainly the speech of the noble Baroness came as a complete surprise to me. We think that we are likely to be of the opinion that the amendment is inappropriate and confusing. But, having heard the noble Baroness's lucid explanation, we should like to have time to think about the amendment before Third Reading. I shall write to her.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I am sorry not to have heard a speech in response to what I might have said. That might have given me more material for Third Reading. It would be ungracious to refuse the noble Lord's offer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 3:
Page 1, line 16, after ("building,") insert—
("() the provision of facilities on a mandatory basis for disabled persons where properties are unfit,").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and myself. The House has already discussed this afternoon the Government's reluctance to move away from discretionary grants and toward mandatory grants. The purpose of the amendment is to confirm that there is one group of persons—disabled persons—for whom the need to live in decent, fit accommodation is so important that there cannot sensibly be an element of discretion. Local authorities should have a mandatory basis for making such grants.
§ Many disabled people are elderly but by no means all of them. Disabled people suffer far greater disadvantage than the rest of the population. It seems entirely proper that a local authority should make grants available in order that those people may live in fit accommodation. Of course, nobody should live in accommodation which is not adequate and proper. But the burden of living in substandard accommodation is that much greater for disabled persons.
§ There are the effects of dampness, for example. If a house is unfit, it may well be damp, with clear and obvious detriment to the health of those living within such property. An unfit building may be cold. It may not be properly insulated and perhaps does not have an adequate heating system. Again, that represents a danger to the health of the persons living there. If those persons are disabled and have less mobility, or are elderly and disabled, then the effect on them of cold is so much the worse. It is clear, and there is a lot of evidence to show, that when people who are disabled live in unfit accommodation, it has an effect on their mental as well as their physical health.
§ Many of the people who would benefit from the amendment may also be receiving support from the local authority in terms of social services or community care. If the aim of government policy is to enable people to live in their own homes for as long as possible before they move into residential care, it clearly makes sense to ensure that those homes are properly fit. The day when an elderly or disabled person has to move into 806 residential care will then be that much longer delayed. In fact, financial savings will be made through that process.
§ We have already heard of the large number of people that would be potentially affected by the amendment. In an earlier amendment many noble Lords referred to the statistics. It is worrying that perhaps one home in six in Britain requires urgent repairs costing over £1,000 to bring it into a fit state. We know that many of those homes are occupied by elderly or younger disabled persons.
§ There is therefore a clear argument for saying that the needs of the group of people about which I am talking are so great and their well-being so critically affected by living in substandard accommodation that it is right and proper that there should be a mandatory basis for grants to ensure that their homes are in a fit condition. I beg to move.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Finsberg
My Lords, on the face of it this is a difficult amendment to oppose and everybody must have immense sympathy for the disabled people concerned. But we must analyse what we are being asked to do.
It appears to me that we are having a virtual re-run of the arguments on Amendment No. 1. If one looks at the amendment, many of the factors are applicable also to ordinary elderly people rather than just elderly disabled people. And is not a single mother with children living under those conditions equally likely to suffer? I do not believe it to be equitable to put forward one category and ignore everybody else. We must say either that all grants should be mandatory—for the reasons given by my noble friend the Minister that is not on—or we must say that they are all discretionary.
In the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, he said that many disabled people may well be receiving benefits from the local authority. In that case, I should have thought that the local authority would use its discretion. Though one has the greatest sympathy for the argument, the case is not made out for singling out one category of people.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, in rising to support my noble friend Lord Dubs in his amendment, I must admit that I sympathise with the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg. However, my understanding of the Bill is that it is the Government's policy—it comes up later in the Bill—that disabled persons should receive mandatory grants for their needs. The discretionary element of the new regime will only apply to those grants that are not for disabled people.
One of the difficulties is the lack of clarity on the face of the Bill. Amendment No. 3 seeks to ensure that, right up front, within the first clause of the Bill, we provide some clarity about the mandatory nature of grants for disabled people. I had a degree of sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and her Amendment No. 2. I did not speak on it because I thought the Government would accept it—they appeared to understand the sense of it. Judging from what the Minister said, and given the explanation by the noble 807 Baroness, the Government are considering how to react to what is a sensible suggestion. I hope therefore that they will react even more positively to the amendment moved by my noble friend which effectively seeks to clarify, on the face of the Bill, what I believe is already government policy and what we are concerned with in determining this first part of the Bill.
§ Viscount Ullswater
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy for the sentiments behind Amendment No. 3. As my noble friend Lord Finsberg said, I do not believe that anybody on this side of the House would quarrel with those sentiments. However, Clause 24 of the Bill provides for what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, seeks.
Clause 24 spells out facilities for disabled people in some detail and those are the ones that must be granted. If there are others about which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is very keen, then perhaps an amendment should be made to Clause 24 rather than this overarching form of amendment at this early stage of this part of the Bill. If my reading of the Bill is correct—and I may easily be wrong—I hope that my noble friend will resist the amendment.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I support the amendment. As I read it, it is quite narrow, but important. Not only does it limit the mandatory grants to disabled persons, but also it only applies to a case where the property in question is "unfit".
I believe the amendment is important. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred to the ill-health which frequently—not invariably, but frequently—accompanies disability. Clause 24, to which the noble Viscount referred, lists many improvements and alterations which will become part of the mandatory regime. But that clause does not extend to making a house fit so that it does not fall within the definition of a house that is unfit for occupation, which is the terminology used in the provision.
I take the noble Viscount's point that perhaps the right place for the amendment is in Clause 24. But it is a sad indictment of our society if we cannot see our way to make provision so that accommodation is not unfit (and not being unfit does not necessarily mean very fit) as well as providing for the specific alterations. I support the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.
My Lords, again I find myself in some confusion. This time it is as a result of the confusion of others who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, attributes effects to the amendment which we do not find in it and misses out on effects that we do find in it.
Most of the matters addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, belong more properly to the argument on Amendment No. 14. I would happily join in were it not for the continued absence of my noble friend Lord Swinfen. I do not wish to trouble the House twice with those arguments and if the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will allow me, I will reserve them for the later amendment.
Clause 1 is an introductory clause and sets out in general terms the grants that are available under Chapter I. The purposes for which grant may be given 808 are described in more detail for each separate type of grant, together with the matters for which the local authority must have regard in considering an application. The purposes and matters to be taken into account in respect of a disabled facilities grant are described in Clauses 24 and 25 of the Bill.
Amendment No. 3 seeks to make disabled facilities grant mandatory, even where the dwelling is unfit for human habitation. Amendment No. 4 is consequential.
Clause 25 requires that a local housing authority, when proposing to approve an application for disabled facilities grant, should consider whether the dwelling is fit for human habitation. Where it is not, the authority has the power under subsection (5) of Clause 25 to treat the application as an application for a discretionary grant, even where it would otherwise be mandatory.
Clause 1 does not contain the power to give grant. It merely acts as an introduction in describing in general terms the purposes for which grant may be given. As a result, the noble Lord's amendment would be unlikely to be held by a court to override the detailed provisions to the contrary in Clause 25(5) on the same issue. We therefore believe that the amendment would in practice be ineffective.
To turn to the genuine concerns of the noble Lord in tabling this amendment, we have given considerable thought to the link between fitness standards and the needs of disabled people. We are aware that the present link, which exists under the 1989 Act, has deterred some disabled, people from applying for grant for essential adaptations to their homes, because they wish to avoid the disturbance caused by major renovation works. We therefore considered that it should be left to the discretion of the local authority, which is aware of the condition and circumstances of both the applicant and of the dwelling, to consider whether the condition of the property is likely to be a threat to the health and safety of the occupant and, therefore, that the adaptations should not be carried out unless works are also undertaken to bring the property up to an acceptable standard.
We shall be issuing guidance to local authorities on the treatment of applications for disabled facilities grant involving works to a property that does not meet the fitness standards. I hope that on consideration the noble Lord will feel that that is sufficient to allow him to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who have taken part in the discussion on this amendment. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, in arguing ultimately against the amendment put up a pretty good case for the first amendment discussed this afternoon; namely, that all the grants should be mandatory and not just those for disabled persons living in unfit property.
§ Lord Finsberg
My Lords, I wish to make it clear that I supported my noble friend the Minister in opposing the idea.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I can see that, ultimately, the noble Lord did, but in the process of arriving at his 809 conclusion I thought for one moment—just for one moment—that he was going to come out in favour of mandatory grants for all people. However, in the end, he went back to supporting the Minister.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made clear in reply to the point about Clause 24, Clause 24 has a different aim. Clause 24 seeks to adapt fit properties, or properties that are presumably fit, for use for disabled persons to enable them to go on living there. This amendment is quite different. The amendment says that if a disabled person is living in an unfit property it is right and proper that there should be a mandatory basis for providing grants to make that property fit for the disabled person to live in. That is surely a very wide point.
The Minister sought to meet the point a little by suggesting that guidance would subsequently be issued. I am not persuaded by that. Guidance would be helpful, but to have the proposition clearly stated on the face of the Bill is proper and sends out the right signal in terms of our concern for disabled people. I would much rather have the point on the face of the Bill than simply in guidance which the department will later issue without any parliamentary scrutiny. In the circumstances, I think it would be right, given the division of opinion, to seek the opinion of the House.
§ Viscount Ullswater
My Lords, before the noble Lord seeks the opinion of the House, he is indicating that even if a house were defective the grants would have to be made.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, what I am seeking to do is to establish the proposition that disabled persons should, above all others, not have to live in unfit property. If the House were to go along with that proposition, it might well be that subsequently other changes could be made. However, the general proposition should be on the face of the Bill. It is on that proposition that I seek the opinion of the House.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 3) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 79; Not-Contents, 127.811
|Division No. 2|
|Addington, L.||Darcy (de Knayth), B.|
|Archer of Sandwell, L.||David, B.|
|Ashley of Stoke, L.||Diamond, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.|
|Berkeley, L.||Dormand of Easington, L.|
|Borrie, L.||Dubs, L.|
|Broadbridge, L.||Ezra, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Falkland, V.|
|Carter, L.||Fisher of Rednal, B.|
|Castle of Blackburn, B.||Fitt, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Gallacher, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Geraint, L.|
|Craigavon, V.||Gladwin of Clee, L.|
|Gould of Potternewton, B.[Teller.]||Mishcon, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.]||Morris of Castle Morris, L.|
|Hamwee, B.||Murray of Epping Forest, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Haskle, L.||Ogmore, L.|
|Hayman, B.||Peston, L.|
|Hilton of Eggardon, B.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|Holme of Cheltenham, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Richard, L.|
|Hughes, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Jay of Paddington, B.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Jeger, B.||Seear, B.|
|Jenkins of Hillhead, L.||Serota, B.|
|Jenkins of Putney, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Kennet, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Kilbracken, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Kissin, L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.|
|Lawrence, L.||Thurso, V.|
|Lovell-Davis, L.||Tope, L.|
|McCarthy, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|McIntosh of Haringey, L.||Wallace of Saltaire, L.|
|McNair, L.||White, B.|
|McNally, L.||Williams of Crosby, B.|
|Merlyn-Rees, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Methuen, L.||Winston, L.|
|Acton, L.||Elliott of Morpeth, L.|
|Addison, V.||Elton, L.|
|Ailsa, M.||Feldman, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Finsberg, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.|
|Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L.||Gardner of Parkes, B.|
|Ashbourne, L.||Goschen, V.|
|Astor of Hever, L.||Granard, E.|
|Balfour, E.||Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Harding of Petherton, L.|
|Blake, L.||Harlech, L.|
|Blaker, L.||Harvington, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Hayhoe, L.|
|Blyth, L.||Henley, L.|
|Boardman, L.||HolmPatrick, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Hothfield, L.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Inchcape, E.|
|Braine of Wheatley, L.||Inglewood, L.|
|Brentford, V.||Kitchener, E.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Lane of Horsell, L.|
|Burnham, L.||Lauderdale, E.|
|Butterworth, L.||Leigh, L.|
|Cadman, L.||Lindsay, E.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Liverpool, E.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Long, V.|
|Carnock, L.||Lucas, L.|
|Chalker of Wallasey, B.||Lyell, L.|
|Chelmsford, V.||Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.|
|Chesham, L. [Teller.]||Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.]|
|Coleraine, L.||Marlesford, L.|
|Coleridge, L.||Massereene and Ferrard, V.|
|Courtown, E.||Merrivale, L.|
|Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.]||Mersey, V.|
|Crathorne, L.||Miller of Hendon, B.|
|Cumberlege, B.||Milverton, L.|
|Dacre of Glanton, L.||Monteagle of Brandon, L.|
|Davidson, V.||Montrose, D.|
|Dean of Harptree, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Denman, L.||Mountevans, L.|
|Denton of Wakefield, B.||Moyne, L.|
|Dixon-Smith, L.||Munster, E.|
|Downshire, M.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Eden of Winton, L.||Nelson, E.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Newall, L.|
|Elles, B.||Norrie, L.|
|Northbourne, L.||Seccombe, B.|
|Northesk, E.||Shaw of Northstead, L.|
|O'Cathain, B.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Stewartby, L.|
|Oppenheim-Barnes, B.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Orr-Ewing, L.||Strange, B.|
|Oxfuird, V.||Strathclyde, L.[Teller]|
|Pender, L.||Sudeley, L.|
|Peyton of Yeovil, L.||Swansea, L.|
|Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.||Tenby, V.|
|Prentice, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Pym, L.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Rankeillour, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Renwick, L.||Ullswater, V.|
|Rodney, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Romney, E.||Westbury, L.|
|St Davids, V.||Wilcox, B.|
|Savile, L.||Young, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ [Amendment No. 4 not moved.]
Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 5:
After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
§ GRANTS FOR HOME IMPROVEMENT AGENCIES
(".—(1) Grants may be made available in accordance with this Chapter through home improvement agencies.
(2) Local housing authorities may contribute to the establishment and running of home improvement agencies through funds which would otherwise be available for making grants in accordance with this Chapter.").
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in this amendment we return to the subject of home improvement agencies. When in Committee, we were discussing their role, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said:
We greatly value that work and are keen to see the services of those agencies become widely available".—[Official Report, 26/3/96; col. 1589.]
§ I endorse that support. Home improvement agencies, often called "care and repair" or "staying put", help people who are old or who have a disability, or both, or who are living on a low income, to repair and adapt homes which are unfit or unsuitable. Their particular role is assisting people through what can often be a very daunting task in dealing with repairs and alterations, deciding what work has to be done, arranging finance and organising and overseeing the building work. I recall at Committee stage, in supporting an amendment regarding home improvement agencies, that I did so by challenging noble Lords to recall their own experience of any building work. It is generally uncomfortable to live through and difficult to organise.
§ The 200 agencies countrywide, 144 of which receive financial support from the Department of the Environment, target resources at those who are most in need. They are cost effective and have developed an expertise in identifying low-cost solutions. They contribute to the renewal of the housing stock which, whether we are saying it in a purpose clause or not, is what this Bill aims at doing. I am told that their ethos is that the services are person-centred in helping people 812 to undertake work they feel is important thereby assisting them to stay at home with the dignity and independence one would want to see.
§ I propose the amendment because I am concerned to ensure that the work of home improvement agencies can continue. Subsection (1) of the amendment provides that grants may be made through those agencies. Subsection (2) is to enable local authorities, if contributing to the establishment and running of the agencies—and they will have to find the funds from somewhere—to use funds which might otherwise be available for direct grants to home owners, landlords and so on.
§ It is intended to support local strategies and discretion. A local strategy is determining how best to spend the cash available. I take the view that pump priming can often be a very good use of money, and that is the context in which I see the amendment. It is not an argument for less to be spent on repairs themselves but merely a proposal to facilitate the work of the home improvement agencies and to make the best use of the funds which are available. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, we discussed home improvement agencies in Committee. I share her enthusiasm and that of my noble friend Lord Ferrers for these agencies. They are small, voluntary bodies offering a personal service. We admire them greatly and, as the noble Baroness said, we support many of them. However, the noble Baroness's amendment would change the characteristics that make them so valuable.
The amendment would do two things. First, it would enable grants to be made available through home improvement agencies. But the administration of grants is a complex business. Some aspects, such as considering the needs of individual applicants and investigating the state of the property, may well he tasks that home improvement agencies are equipped to carry out. Many authorities use HIAs as their agencies for this kind of activity. It requires no change to the Bill to enable them to go on doing so.
However, what the noble Baroness appears to want is to enable home improvement agencies also to take on other aspects of the operation of the grant regime. Those matters are properly for the local authorities themselves—matters like the consideration of priorities; developing and carrying out strategies; the consideration of choice between deserving applicants; enforcing grant conditions, including obtaining repayments where appropriate; accounting for large amounts of grant moneys; and claiming subsidies from central government. Such matters are properly the job of accountable local authorities; HIAs are not equipped to deal with them.
Secondly, the amendment would allow authorities to use the resources they have for undertaking private sector renewal to fund the establishment and operation of home improvement agencies. Under the present arrangements, HIAs obtain funds from various sources. I have already mentioned the subsidy which the Government pay. This meets up to half of the running costs of those agencies which arc supported. Agencies obtain the remainder of their funds from other sources, 813 including charitable donations and other private sector sources, but their main source is undoubtedly local authorities. Some of the support is paid in the form of direct subsidies towards administrative costs. Some is received in the form of fees for work undertaken in connection with individual grant applications.
What is unacceptable in the amendment is the idea that local authorities should be able to divert resources intended for use on private sector renewal activities, such as giving grants, to support the administration of HIAs. If an authority wants to support an agency because it thinks that is a good way of administering some aspect of the grant system in its area, it should meet the cost from its own resources. The annual revenue support settlement allows for administrative costs. It would be wrong to allow local authorities to use money specifically voted for private sector renewal for administration.
I have stressed the value that we see in home improvement agencies, but, for the reasons I have given, I do not believe that the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness would help to improve that value. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, the noble Lord has raised a number of matters which require response. First, he said that the administration of grants is complex. I agree with that. However, the noble Lord makes me wonder why, since I am not proposing any change in the regime, he objects to the first part of the proposed new clause which states:Grants may be made available".I repeat that I have used the word "may". The new clause does not state that the administration of grants "shall" invariably be through home improvement agencies. It is accepted that, by and large, they are doing a good job. I am not seeking to give them the whole of the job; nor to do more than enable local authorities to continue to use a good and, I suspect, relatively cheap mechanism.
I turn secondly to the question of funding. The main source of funding for home improvement agencies is local authorities. I sought to raise the issue because increasingly the funds which local authorities have to spend are not raised through council tax—between 85 and 86 per cent. of local authority expenditure generally comes by way of grant—and there is an increasing tendency to ring-fence the grant which central government makes to local authorities; in other words, for the Government to say, "You can have this money, but we will tell you what to spend it on".
I am concerned that the amount of money available for local authorities to use in a discretionary fashion is reducing year on year. It seems to me that it would be entirely appropriate to use money identified for home improvements in the best way and to make the best use of the administrative mechanisms which the local authority can identify, whether within or outside the local authority. The noble Lord said that it would be 814 wrong to use money voted for renewal on administration. I do not think that that argument holds good because the amendment specifically gives the local authority the option to choose how to use the money, so the question of voting it for a particular purpose does not arise. In any event, as we know, a certain amount of administration is always necessary.
Nevertheless, I shall consider further what the noble Lord said, although he has made me more, rather than less, concerned about the issue. I shall read his words in Hansard, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 [Renovation grants: owner's applications and tenant's applications]:
Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 6:
Page 4, line 8, leave out ("proposes to acquire") and insert ("is in the process of acquiring").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 6, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 7. In Committee, my noble friend proposed that the phrase "proposes to acquire" should be deleted and replaced by the words,
in the process of acquiring".
§ At that point the Government undertook to consider the suggestion, and it is my purpose in moving this amendment to see what came of the Government's consideration. I fully understand that it is right and proper that, as Clause 7 suggests, before giving renovation grants there should be a commitment to acquire the property. That is provided for in Clause 7(1)(a). The same point arises—and we suggest the same change of wording—in relation to Clause 7(1)(b).
§ It seems to me that it is much clearer to say that an applicant is in the process of acquiring the property. That means that certain steps have been taken with a view to acquiring the property. Such steps are clear and can be objectively seen, but the phrase "proposes to acquire" could simply mean an intention. It could mean, "I would like to do that if I could". That seems rather vague. Local authorities would be helped by having a clearer statement than that which is currently in the Bill. Therefore, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend in this and in doing so I need to declare an interest, which I should have done at the beginning of the debate. I declared my interest in Committee in that I have submitted an application for a home improvement grant. I hope that that will be taken as my declaration of interest for the whole of this Report stage.
In rising to support my noble friend in this amendment, perhaps I may point out that one of the difficulties, which I believe the Government accept, is that it is sensible for someone who is hoping to acquire a house or is proposing to acquire a property—or however it is defined—that is, for someone who is aiming to do so, but is not yet the owner of the property, to submit a grant application. There is a whole range of 815 reasons involved, but we are talking predominately about making a judgment as to whether it is sensible to go ahead with the project of purchasing the house, bearing in mind the individual's own resources and any resources that are likely to come from the local authority in terms of renovation grant. One has to make an assessment as to all the resources that will be available from different sources. It is sensible, therefore, to enable an application to go forward even though the applicant is not the current owner of the property.
Someone may intend to buy a property, but that intention may be frustrated at some point by, say, the owner turning round and saying, "I don't want to sell to you". The owner may suddenly push up the price so that the project is not viable. What is the situation of the applicant for the home improvement grant at that stage? One of things that worries me is that if we leave the wording as it is on the face of the Bill and do not amend it as my noble friend has suggested, an applicant who is in this limbo before ownership may well have the best of intentions but, because of force of circumstances, may fall foul of the Act. I would hate that to happen. Therefore, I hope that the Government will recognise that in the vast majority of cases involving home improvement grants, people will make totally legitimate bona fideapplications and that they should not be held to have fallen foul of the system just because of the actions of another person who has put them on the wrong side of the law, if I may put it like that.
My Lords, we have given this matter some thought since Committee. We have decided that we like things the way they are. The wording in the Bill is, at first sight, less logical than the wording of the amendment, but it is wording that was evolved by the Law Commission which has been in use in housing law since 1985 and which works well.
When we come to the practical effects, most of the practical advantages which would seem to be in the amendment are negated by the fact that in practice a local authority can reject an application by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to buy Ditchingham Hall or some other great property, until he can show that he has a reasonable prospect of acquiring it. So it does not involve local authorities in unwarranted work. Its wide application allows for all sorts of means of beginning to buy a property which might in some way fall foul of the phrase "in the process of acquiring" in ways we do not yet know and in which we would prefer not to get involved because we are happy with the way things are.
With Amendment No. 7 there would be the additional disadvantage that it would open the door to serious abuse of the system by allowing someone to make a tenant's application, with the stated intention of living in the dwelling, when the applicant's intention is to buy the property, improve it with the benefit of grant aid, and then let it, thus evading the separate landlord's means test. We would positively dislike the effects of Amendment No. 7. With that explanation I hope that the 816 noble Lord will feel able to withdraw, and not press, what I accept are two amendments which are helpful even if they are not the right ones.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I was interested in relation to Amendment No. 6 to hear the Minister describe local government practice in terms of what it should be if the amendment were passed, rather than in terms of what the Bill actually says. In other words, he was saying that local authorities will interpret the clause in the way in which my amendment suggests rather than in the way it is worded.
In the hope that between now and Third Reading the Minister will think again, let me try him out on the use of the words in a slightly different context to highlight the point. If I were to say to him, "The Conservative Party proposes to win the next election, but the Labour Party is in the process of wining the next election", that shows that there is a marked difference between the two expressions. I do not want to force this matter any further this evening. I hope that the Minister will think again between now and Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 10 [Renovation grants: prior qualifying period]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 8:
Page 5, line 27, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (2A),").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to government Amendment No. 9 and, with the leave of noble Lords concerned, I shall cover also Amendments Nos. 10 and 11.
§ As was indicated in Committee by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, the Government recognise that there may be individual cases or general circumstances where it will not be appropriate to require a grant applicant to have both owned and lived in a property for three years before being eligible for grant assistance. The discussion in Committee included many well made points from noble Lords for which I am grateful, and in view of those points we have looked again at this provision.
§ We have already included a provision in the Bill which would allow the Secretary of State to dispense with the prior qualifying condition in certain circumstances. However, in practice that would dispense with the condition for wide categories of applicants, such as for all empty properties in an authority's area.
§ We believe that it would be preferable also to allow local authorities to decide when not to require the prior qualifying condition to be met when considering individual applications. That will allow local authorities to develop clear strategies against which an individual application can be measured and a decision made.
§ Therefore, we have brought forward Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 which give local authorities the discretion they need to dispense with the prior qualifying period generally or for particular cases or for certain types of case.817
§ With his Amendment No. 11 the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, seeks to achieve a similar effect. However, the amendments I have just described go wider than the noble Lord's amendment by allowing authorities also to dispense with the three-year prior qualification generally and in descriptions of cases. The additional discretion given by our amendments will help local authorities act strategically rather than in a piecemeal fashion.
§ Amendment No. 10 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would give local authorities the option of applying different qualifying periods to different cases. As I have explained, the purpose of introducing discretion for local authorities to dispense with the three-year qualifying period is to help achieve strategic aims such as dealing with empty properties. To introduce the discretion to vary the qualifying period would create uncertainty among applicants and the possibility of the discretion being used to control expenditure on grants rather than achieve strategic goals. I am sure that is something which the noble Baroness would be anxious to avoid.
§ In view of what I have said, I hope that the House will agree to my amendments, and that the proposers of the other two will feel happy not to move them. I beg to move.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, the Minister has in part answered my amendment, which was designed to seek clarification. It does not seem to me to be logical to provide for a qualifying period of three years, or no qualifying period at all, but not to allow a local strategy which may require a short qualifying period, perhaps to establish the bona fides of the applicant. I can see that there might be occasions where a local authority would regard it, in a particular case or in general cases, inappropriate to require a short qualifying period.
I support the amendment. I was one of those who criticised the provision on Second Reading as well as in Committee. It is entirely right that the qualifying period should not have to be applied, so that empty properties can be brought back into use with greater ease and that first-time buyers, who may be the likely buyers of such properties, will be able to apply for grants. Nevertheless, it seems a little odd to say that the qualifying period will apply at one end of the spectrum or at the other, but nowhere in between. That is why I tabled my amendment to the Minister's amendment.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting these amendments and reacting to the debates we had in Committee. It is worth paying tribute to the Government for the distance that they have moved and for recognising the common sense arguments which were put forward in Committee by various noble Lords across the Chamber.
I hope that the Minister will not think me churlish if I ask the Government to go just that little bit further. With these amendments the Government are effectively saying, "Yes, the qualifying period is there, but local authorities have a discretion to dispense with it if they 818 see fit". The Minister mentioned the criterion of empty properties. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned first-time buyers. I should define that more closely. We need to recognise the importance of newly married couples as people who need the home improvement grants that they can obtain from local authorities.
We are going to give local authorities discretion in terms of how they disperse whatever resources they feel necessary for home improvement grants. We must ask how they will exercise that discretion. What sort of criteria are they likely to use in determining who receives the grants and who does not?
My concern is that by providing in the Bill the concept of a qualifying period we are nudging local authorities in a particular direction by saying, "This is a useful criterion to use when you are making your discretionary assessment". I hope that we can be a little more relaxed about the way in which we consider local authorities will exert their discretion and will not give them such a pointer. I believe that even the Government recognise that that may not be a good way of exercising discretion.
I hope that we can encourage local authorities to think of discretion in terms of the greatest need, the best impact that limited finances will have in a particular local environment and the way in which local authority resources may lever more private-sector resources into that endeavour. I hope that we can encourage local authorities to come forward with novel and beneficial ways of supporting their communities.
I hope that the Government do not think me churlish in asking whether before Third Reading they can go a little further and dispense with the suggestion that there should be a qualifying period. I hope that they can he expansive with local authorities and trust them to come up with the best criterion for discretion within their areas.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, the Minister has gone a long way towards meeting the anxieties about the excessive rigidity of having a three-year qualifying periód. That is good and I am pleased that the Minister has tabled the amendment. However, I am puzzled about one matter. Having given local authorities the power to dispense with the necessity to comply with a particular condition, Clause 10(2) remains. It provides that the qualifying period is three years, and although that can now be dispensed with it continues:or such other period as may be specified by order of the Secretary of State, ending with the date of the application".I believe that that is an unnecessary provision because, when the local authority can dispense with the period altogether, I can see no circumstances in which the Secretary of State would wish to have a period different from the three-year period. That provision may require tidying up but, in principle, I am happy with the Minister's comments about his amendment which meets the objectives of Amendment No. 11.
My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to the government amendments. I cannot go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, would 819 wish me to go. The three-year rule is part of the principle of the Bill; to establish residence and to avoid people who buy a house cheaply because it is in need of repair and then obtain money from the Government to make it more valuable. People buy a house at a price and on terms which reflect its condition. Some time is required before it is reasonable for the Government to step in and help with repairs. However, we all agree that additional flexibility is right. We prefer to keep it more simple than the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but I am not saying that either way is perfection. We have our preferred way and I am sure that in the circumstances the noble Baroness will be happy to let us have our way.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 9:
Page 5, line 38, at end insert—
("(2A) A local housing authority may dispense with compliance with either or both of the conditions in subsection (1), and may do so either generally or in relation to particular cases or descriptions of case.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee had given notice of her intention to move, as an amendment to Amendment No. 9, Amendment No. 10:
[As an amendment to amendment 9]Line 3, after ("subsection (1)") insert ("including by requiring a different qualifying period").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I feel that I should shake the complacency of the Minister but I might do that on Third Reading. I shall not move the amendment.
§ [Amendment No. 10 not moved.]
§ On Question, Amendment No. 9 agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 11 not moved.]
§ Clause 11 [Prior qualifying period: the ownership or tenancy condition]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 12:
Page 6, line 42, leave out from ("of") to ("as") in line 43 and insert—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 12, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 44 and 168. During the Committee stage of the Bill, we extended the care institutions listed in Clause 11(3) from sheltered housing or a residential care home to include also a hospital, hospice or similar institution.
§ Amendment No. 12 would replicate that extended definition in Clause 11(4), and Amendments Nos. 44 and 168 would replicate it elsewhere in the Bill. Amendment No. 12 would also extend the coverage of Clause 11(4) to parallel that of subsections (2) and (3) to provide for the case where a disposal within a family is made as a result of the previous owner going to live with and be cared for by a member of his family.820
§ I hope that noble Lords will agree that the amendments are worthwhile. I beg to move.
The Earl of Balfour
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lucas spoke also to Amendment No. 168. That is not on the Marshalled List and I wonder whether he meant to say that.
My Lords, it is in my note but not on the Marshalled List so perhaps we had better leave it out for the moment. My noble friend Lord Balfour has a terrible reputation for correcting Ministers' mistakes, and he has got me!
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 12 [Renovation grants: purposes for which grant may be given]:
Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 13:
Page 7, line 38, after ("provide") insert ("or extend").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to permit grants for the conversion of properties to be used to extend them. When debating the matter in Committee, the Minister said:
to enable a proper big extension to be grant-aided by this method would be wrong because the purpose of the grants is to renovate buildings which are in a bad state of repair … Larger extensions would, on the whole, fall outside the proper purpose of renovation grants which are primarily to secure the repair of existing buildings and not to subsidise the provision of new ones".—[Official Report, 26/3/96; col. 1612.]
§ There may well be circumstances when it makes for the best use of a building to be able to extend it rather than simply to convert it into flats or whatever. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that grants will be available which will optimise the use of buildings by ensuring that where it is appropriate to extend them so that they can be more effectively subdivided, grants will be available for that purpose. I beg to move.
My Lords, this amendment would enable renovation grant to be given for extensions as well as for conversions. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, spoke most persuasively to a similar amendment tabled in his name during Committee. I replied that the purpose of a renovation grant was the improvement of a dwelling and it seemed to me that while this might cover smaller extensions to dwellings, larger extensions would, on the whole, fall outside the proper purpose of renovation grants.
I subsequently gave further thought to the question of conversions and extensions, and I wrote to the noble Lord on this important matter. I accept that there is some strength in the argument that grant should be available for internal re-arrangement where two or more properties are to be made into one larger property in order to meet the needs of a larger or extended family. Subsection (2) of Clause 12 as drafted enables grant to be given for this purpose.
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said during Committee, government guidance suggests that a grant for conversion should not he given where it would result in a reduction in the number of dwellings. This advice stems from an earlier wish not to reduce the supply of affordable housing.
821 As the noble Lord rightly implied during Committee, it is important that the grant system is relevant to the needs of the present day. Where a pressing local need could be met by extending into a neighbouring property, I see no grounds for this to be prevented. I shall ensure that we cover this in the revised guidance we shall issue to local housing authorities.
The noble Lord has some understandable anxieties about this issue and I hope that I have met them and that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he explain to the House the limits on the use of the word "extend"? My understanding is that planning law was revised a few years ago. That enabled extensions to buildings, houses, to be constructed without planning permission up to a certain size. In that sense, that was a variation on what had applied before when, effectively, anything which was an extension to a house required planning permission.
It may be that there is a difference in interpretation between the Minister and the Opposition, if I may put it in that way, in terms of what they mean by "extension". It may be that the legal situation now, which will obviously be familiar to the Minister's advisers, enables an extension to be incorporated within this grant-giving power and that the old definition under the previous planning laws is no longer extant.
I am not sure whether I am making myself clear and whether the Minister understands what I am trying to say. But if the change in planning law which I believe occurred a few years ago allows the building of extensions without planning permission, that would satisfy a number of the concerns which a number of noble Lords on this side of the House have in relation to the wording of the Bill before us.
My Lords, I am not sure that I do understand the noble Lord completely. I hope that when he reads Hansard he will find that in the earlier part of my remarks I have answered most of the concerns which he raised. If I find that I have not done so, I shall certainly write to him.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister has said that he will issue guidance to local authorities to achieve at least some of the aims of the amendment and also to give me time to consider the detailed implications of what he said when I read it in Hansard, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 13 [Renovation grants: approval of application]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 14:
Page 8, line I. at beginning insert—
("() A local housing authority must approve any application for a renovation grant in respect of the following—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is designed to ensure that renovation grants remain mandatory for certain vulnerable groups in particular need of good housing.
§ The system which exists at present for mandatory renovation grants of unfit housing was considered first in 1985. Since then, public expenditure on housing renewal grants has fallen dramatically. The overall level of resources invested in grants in England has fallen from £1.5 billion in 1983–84 to under £0.4 billion in 1994–95. In 1994, only 40,000 renovation grants were provided compared with 214,000 improvement, repair and intermediary grants when the grant system was at its peak in 1984.
§ That would be understandable if housing conditions were improving in a similarly dramatic fashion. However, that is not the case. Figures for the English House Conditions Survey show that the number of unfit dwellings fell hardly noticeably from 1.6 million to 1.5 million between 1986 and 1991. One in six homes—that is about 3.5 million—require urgent repairs costing over £1,000. That means that there are probably well over 2 million people in this country who are living in housing which is in a state of poor repair or lacks such basic amenities that it is classed as being unfit for human beings to live in.
§ Surely people should not be living in unfit housing in a modern, civilised society. The mandatory renovation grant, which was introduced in 1989, was a recognition of that unacceptable situation and an attempt to provide government funding targeted on those on the lowest incomes to address the situation. The proposals in this Bill abolish mandatory renovation grants and signal the end of that attempt to set a minimum standard and to provide help to low income groups in meeting that standard. That is a change of policy which will affect not only older and disabled people but also others on low incomes in poor housing. However, the proposals are likely to have a disproportionately harmful effect on disabled people and those requiring community care services.
§ The amendment seeks to ensure that the most vulnerable groups who are likely to be most harmed by living in unfit housing retain the protection of a mandatory grant. The amendment will mean that anyone who is disabled under the terms of the Bill or who is receiving care services as part of a community care package will be entitled to a mandatory grant if he or she is living in unfit housing and is on a sufficiently low income to be eligible for grant aid under the means test.
§ It seems to me vital that there should be special provision for those people for a number of reasons. First, such people may be less able to carry out every-day maintenance, unlike a fit young couple who may be able to carry out do-it-yourself works to maintain their homes. The homes of those who are disabled or in receipt of care services, the vast majority 823 of whom will probably be elderly people, are more likely to fall into disrepair as they are unable to carry out every-day maintenance.
§ Older people may occupy unmodernised older housing in many places, having lived there for most of their lives. In later life they may find it difficult to undertake or finance works to bring their homes up to acceptable levels of fitness. Disabled people, a large number of whom are elderly, and those in receipt of care services are also likely to be on lower incomes than the majority of the population as they may be less able to secure well-paid employment and so are reliant on state benefit.
§ I spoke on this subject in Committee and my noble friend has been kind enough to write to me since that time. I have removed from the amendment the fact that it dealt with elderly people and I have concentrated basically on disabled people. I hope that it will now find favour with the Government. I beg to move.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I should very much like to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I know that we discussed a related amendment earlier this afternoon. But perhaps I may give an example of why I believe that this amendment is particularly important.
Some years ago I was canvassing in a local election campaign and I was invited into a basement flat by an elderly woman who said that she wanted to discuss a particular problem and wondered whether I could be helpful. It was a winter's evening so the flat was dark. There were two elderly women living there. They said that they would like to offer me a cup of tea but they had no light in the kitchen. I asked why that was so and they told me that the lighting was defective and they did not know how to put it in order. In this case it so happened that by climbing on to a table and dealing with the electrics for three or four minutes I was able to get the light working in the kitchen. Not many canvassers are fortunate enough to be able to make instant repairs while canvassing for political support. But the point was that those elderly women were willing to devise a way of coping throughout the whole of the winter without having any light in the kitchen. I asked how they managed and they said that they cooked in daylight and ate the food cold in the evenings because they could not find their way round the kitchen in the dark.
Clearly, this amendment deals with far more substantial improvements to make a building fit than the example that I have given. But there are elderly disabled people—and those two ladies were elderly and had disabilities—who may be unwilling to go through the process of having to apply for a discretionary grant. It would give them a sense of self-respect if they felt that, where they had good reason for improving an unfit property, they could do so because the local authority would provide grants on a mandatory basis. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has an important point and one which I hope that the Government will accept.
§ Lord Ezra
My Lords, I should like to support the amendment moved so powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I do not think that any of us in any part 824 of the House would argue with the concept that it is quite wrong that disabled people should have to continue to live in unfit homes. They should, therefore, have a priority in such matters. Even though we have covered this ground before, I believe that this issue needs to be looked at most closely, at least on human grounds if on no others.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I should like to express my support for the amendment. However, when I first read it, I wrote on my paperwork that it was "a bit strong". The reason I say that is that it says that:A local housing authority must approve any application".That is pretty strong language. It would mean that a local authority "must" provide the grant for disabled people living in unfit properties.
As I said, the language is strong but it is only right, in the last decade of the 20th century in Great Britain, that we should be prepared to take strong action to deal with the problem that presents itself of disabled people living in unfit properties. The Government may possibly say, "Well, this could result in vast committed expenditure for improvements to unfit properties". There are, however, two responses to that approach.
First, it is a pretty shocking state of affairs if adherence to the new clause would effectively require vast commitments of public money. One might ask how the dwellings got into such a state in the first place. Secondly, we must recognise that over time the risk of a precipitate, large increase in public expenditure would probably be alleviated. It is to be hoped that in time the commitments and requirements of local authorities under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 to monitor the needs of members of their community in terms of the assistance that they require and the proper discretionary provision under the Bill would ensure that there is no desperate need in future years. Even though the strong language used by the amendment would probably lead to a precipitate increase in public expenditure, I hope that the Government will accept that that increase is totally justified if it prevents disabled people living in unfit housing.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, the amendment is in some ways a pair to Amendment No. 5. The latter amendment sought to make it mandatory for grants to be given for disabled facilities in an unfit dwelling, whereas this amendment looks at it the other way around and seeks mandatory grants to make the dwelling fit.
The amendment seeks to remove the local housing authority's discretion in approving an application for renovation grant by making grant mandatory where an unfit dwelling is occupied by someone who is disabled or who is receiving assistance as part of a care package under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990.
We share the concern of my noble friend Lord Swinfen that help should be made available to those very vulnerable people. That is why we propose to retain mandatory disabled facilities grant in a system which would otherwise be wholly discretionary. We are also 825 proposing to replace minor works assistance, which has been such a useful tool in helping to implement community care packages, with a new grant—home repair assistance—which gives wider scope and availability to just those categories of applicant which concern my noble friend.
In drawing up the proposals, we gave much thought to whether the link under the 1989 Act between the fitness standards and disabled facilities grants should be retained. We understand that in some cases applicants in need of adaptations to their homes are deterred from applying for grant by the upheaval and disturbance likely to be caused by major renovation works. We therefore concluded that it would be better to leave it to the discretion of the local authority in each case to decide to what extent the works are essential to the health and safety of the applicant, or whether a more minor patch-and-mend grant would be sufficient to deal with the necessary repairs with the minimum of disturbance to the applicant. I can assure my noble friend that, as I said on the subject of Amendment No. 5, we shall be issuing guidance to local authorities as to how they should use that discretion.
I was also delighted to learn that people receiving canvassers from this House should have such happy expectations as regards their lighting. Not only the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, but also the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, are quick to repair lights when canvassing. However, if I was canvassing, the old ladies concerned would also have the pleasure of calling the ambulance afterwards. With those reassurances, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, before I do so, perhaps I may invite my noble friend the Minister to take a course in electrical maintenance from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, so as to ensure that no one would have to call an ambulance for him and thereby incur greater expense to the National Health Service. I am somewhat encouraged by what my noble friend said in his response to the amendment. I shall read what he said most carefully and give it all due consideration. I hope that I shall not feel the need to return to the matter at a later stage, but I must reserve the right to do so. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 5.45 p.m.
Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 15:
Page 8, line 21, at end insert—
("() Notwithstanding subsection (5)(a) above, where the applicant requests in writing that only part of the premises be made fit for human habitation, the authority may approve such an application.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is of course the case that normally when a renovation grant is made available the whole of the property to which it applies should be improved. However, there may be instances where it is sensible to say that it is necessary to renovate or improve only part of the property. That applies when a house or flat is occupied by an elderly person who uses only part of the property and does not want the 826 disturbance of having the whole dwelling invaded by builders over a long period. It is possible that some elderly people would prefer not to have the whole property renovated rather than face the disruption, if it is not possible for them to have improved just the parts that they occupy.
§ I do not think that that would apply in many instances; indeed, I believe that it would be unusual. However, we all know that there are some circumstances where only part of a house is occupied by an elderly person. Surely it is his or her right to go on living there as long as possible. That may involve improving some of the dwelling without improving the whole building. I believe that the amendment is sensible. I know that a similar point was discussed in Committee but, because of the way in which the discussion took place, I do not believe that we focused as much on this point as we did on some other aspects covered in the group of amendments. As I said, it is a sensible move and one which would apply in a minority of cases. However, in those cases to which it would apply, the provision would make quite a difference to the circumstances of an elderly person living alone in a house or flat. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord said, we touched on this matter in Committee. I am happy to revisit it because it is one upon which we look with some favour. However, we do not wish to take action on the amendment as it stands. The amendment raises the important question of application of the fitness standard to part of a property. As my noble friend Lord Ferrers explained in Committee, the major revision of the standard under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 introduced a more objective approach whereby fitness is determined by reference to each individual requirement in the standard and not a combination as previously. The fact that the decision as to fitness is now based on a property having to meet each individual requirement means that the standard can only sensibly be applied to a complete unit of accommodation.
However, the Government are not unsympathetic to the thought that, with the introduction of a new renovation grant system, it would be sensible to look again at the fitness standard requirements and the way that the standard is applied.
My noble friend Lord Ferrers gave an assurance in Committee that once the Bill is out of the way, and before the end of this year, the Government would set in train a review of the fitness standard and as part of that seek views from bodies such as the local authority associations and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. At that time my noble friend expressed the hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would see the wisdom of looking at the issues raised by his amendment and the others he raised in Committee relating to fitness for human habitation as part of a proper review. The important point here is that much hangs on the fitness standard and changes to the requirements and the way the standard is applied should not be contemplated without the fullest consideration and consultation. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will 827 remember that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, warmly welcomed this approach. I hope this is still the case and that he will therefore feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I welcome the sympathetic attitude the Minister shows to what this amendment seeks to achieve. I understand what he says—and what was said at Committee stage—namely, that there will be a wide review. It is a pity that, having a major Bill on the subject, we cannot deal with it in the Bill and have to leave it until later. However, given that the Minister has conceded that there is a case for thinking about a measure of this kind, and that the Government will deal with it in the way he described, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 16 [Common parts grants: certificate required to accompany application]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 16:
Page 9, line 38, leave out subsection (3).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 16 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 17. We have given some thought to the views expressed during the Committee consideration of this Bill about the likely need for a prior qualifying period for some types of grants. In Committee we confirmed that it was not envisaged that general powers as in Clause 17 applying to landlords' applications for common parts grants would be used in the foreseeable future.
§ Following our discussion in Committee we have considered fully the points made by noble Lords, particularly on the equivalent provision for grants for houses in multiple occupation. In the light of that discussion, we now believe that for the purposes of clarity it would be preferable to remove the clause from the Bill. Therefore, we have brought forward Amendments Nos. 27 and 29 in order to achieve this objective for HMO grants. In order to keep the provisions for grants to landlords consistent, Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 remove the provision for common parts grants. I beg to move.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I query the Government's view on this matter. It seems as though they hold a different view when it is a case of landlords and the grant applications they may make to the view they hold as regards householders; namely, individuals seeking home improvement grants for their homes. In the earlier discussion when we discussed the amendment which gave local authorities discretion to waive the qualifying period, we were told it was essential that the qualifying period be retained and that it be waived if the local authority saw fit. Effectively the Government were saying it was important that the qualifying period should exist as regards householders who applied for a home improvement grant.
I wonder why there seem to be different criteria as regards landlords. Why is it that householders should be subject to a qualifying period—effectively that means that the householder is expected to live in poor standard 828 accommodation until he can obtain a grant after three years—but a landlord, who does not have to put up with the poor standards, can obtain a grant without being subject to the three-year qualifying period? There is a hint of double standards here. I hope the Government can explain to the House how they arrive at these apparently different criteria for judging landlords and householders.
My Lords, the basic difference of course is that the landlord will not live in the property and should be encouraged to improve the property for the benefit of his tenants. But in general landlords are under a much stricter grant scheme anyway and are subject to a rather different grant scheme. As we said in Committee, this power was in the Bill but we could not envisage using it in the context of all the other restrictions and powers that we had. Therefore we have thought it sensible to remove a power from the Bill that we never thought of using on the principle of not adding things to the Bill which are there unnecessarily. It is in the nature of a tidying up exercise in terms of what we intend to use the Bill for. I can understand the points that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, makes, but I do not think they affect our resolve in this matter.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 17 [Common parts grants: prior qualifying period]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 17:
Leave out Clause 17.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 20 [Disabled facilities grants: owner's and tenant's applications]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 18:
Page 12, line 38, after first ("tenant") insert (", introductory tenant").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 18 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 56, 57, 89, 109 and 110. Amendment No. 8 would add to the tenants described in subsection (5) of Clause 20 as eligible to apply for disabled facilities grant tenants occupying the dwelling under "an introductory tenancy". This is a new form of tenancy, introduced under Part V of the Housing Bill. Introductory tenancies may be operated only by local authorities or by housing action trusts.
§ I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Swinfen for raising the question of introductory tenants in Committee. We have given the matter further thought. While we consider that, in practice, it is possible that introductory tenants would be eligible to apply for disabled facilities grant in any event, we agree that an amendment specifically to add these tenants to the descriptions of tenants eligible to apply would put the matter beyond doubt. All the other amendments in the group are consequential. I beg to move.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for taking this matter on board.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
829 Clause 21 [Disabled facilities grants: the disabled occupant]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 19:
Page 13, line 4, leave out subsection (2).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 19 I would also like to speak to Amendments Nos. 20, 25, 26, 53, 54, 58, 59, 88 and 108. These amendments return to the familiar issue of the definition of a "disabled person" as applied for the purposes of eligibility for disabled facilities grant which were debated during Committee. There was concern from all who spoke in Committee that the words used in the present definition to describe particular disabilities, taken from the National Assistance Act 1948, caused offence to disabled people.
§ However, it was clear then from those who spoke at Committee that the coverage of the definition was not considered to be a problem. I explained in Committee that the purpose behind the wording of the existing definition was to maintain consistency with other legislation relating to the provision of services to disabled people but, in the light of the points raised by noble Lords, I promised that I would look again at the wording of the definition and return to it at Report stage. I have done that and I now explain my conclusions.
§ Part I of this Bill is primarily concerned with matters relating to housing for which my department is responsible. Part I accordingly offers no opportunity to address any wider issue of defining "disabled person" for other purposes, in particular in relation to services provided by social services authorities.
§ Nevertheless, I recognise that it is desirable to have a core definition common to legislation affecting the provision of services to disabled people. A definition linked to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as Amendment No. 20, tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord Swinfen seeks to achieve, would be outside this common core. The 1995 Act is an anti-discrimination measure and its subject matter is therefore quite separate from that of Part I of this Bill.
§ Subsection (1) of Amendment No. 108 now proposed sets out a definition, in modern language, of "disabled person" for the purposes of Part I of the Bill. Subsections (2) and (3) are deeming provisions. Subsection (2) passports into subsection (1) people aged 18 and over who are either registered or receiving services under arrangements made under the National Assistance Act 1948, or for whom, in the opinion of the social services authority, such arrangements might be made.
§ Subsection (3) makes analogous provision for people aged under 18 who are either registered as disabled under the Children Act 1989 or who, in the opinion of the social services authority, are disabled within the meaning of that Act. The effect is to cover, as at present, all people, whether children or adults, who are either registered or registrable as disabled.
§ Subsection (5) makes it clear that subsection (1) of the new clause is not to affect the interpretation of the definitions of "disabled person" and "disabled child" in the 1948 and 1989 Acts.830
§ In bringing forward the amendment, I believe that we have addressed the concerns expressed by noble Lords in Committee. The amendment substitutes, for the current wording, modern and more acceptable language while maintaining the essential close link with other relevant legislation.
§ I have some sympathy with the arguments put forward by noble Lords that the language used in the 1948 Act and in related statutes should be brought up to date. That is not something we can do in this Bill. Several government departments would be concerned. I will certainly draw the attention of the relevant Ministers to the views that have been expressed in the House, and the conclusions we have reached so far as concerns this Bill.
§ The remaining amendments tabled in my name are necessary consequential amendments. I hope that noble Lords are reassured by the amendments we propose. I beg to move.
§ 6. p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, the Minister said that he was responding to the wishes of the House when there was widespread concern about the definition of a disabled person as suggested in the Bill. I am disappointed that in the end the Government have not dealt with the issue as put forward by so many noble Lords. I welcome the fact that there is some change. However, many of the difficulties discussed at Committee stage still remain as regards Amendment No. 108 as drafted.
Let me cite a few points. First, if we have the new definition, within British legislation there will still be three alternative definitions of disability: within this Bill; within the Disability Discrimination Act; and within the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. It seems to me that the most recent definition—that in the Disability Discrimination Act—has the merit of having had a great deal of thought and the support of the main disability organisations, and represents an up-to-date, sensible and workable definition which Parliament agreed only recently.
Secondly, there is a strong suggestion that the disability discussed in Amendment No. 108 has to be a permanent disability. That is rather inflexible. I may misinterpret the wording, but it seems to suggest permanence. People may be disabled for a period of time, but, happily for them, the condition is not permanent. Yet they will not derive the benefits that they would if the definition were more flexible.
For those reasons, I am sorry that the Government have not done as many Members of the this House urged. I believe that the proposed definition will still cause many difficulties when applied.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I thank the Minister for having listened to what we said at Committee stage. I welcome the fact that my noble friend has brought forward an alternative definition. I should like to take the opportunity to thank him for writing to me with a draft of the amendments, in particular Amendment No. 108—the new clause after Clause 98. I received it late last night.
831 As a result, I shall not move my Amendment No. 20. I do not believe that I should be successful if I were to divide the House tonight in an endeavour to get the provision into the Bill.
Amendment No. 108 introduces the new clause with the definition. It addresses some of the concerns about the definition of a disabled person. There is some updating of the language on the face of the Bill, but it still hinges on the definition within the National Assistance Act 1948, which is outdated in its language and approach, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, has a requirement for a disability to be permanent.
The new wording is cumbersome and could lead to the very situation that the Government wish to avoid—of several definitions of a disabled person within different legislation.
The reason that the disability must be permanent is because there is still a requirement to be registered under the National Assistance Act 1948 or for social services to decide that welfare arrangements might be made under that Act. The 1948 Act specifically states that a person must have a "permanent and substantial disability". Although obviously disabled facilities grants should not be available for people who have a short-term injury, I believe that they must be available for people with a disability which is long-term but may not necessarily be permanent.
An example of that is a child with a severe arthritic condition, which can be extremely disabling. I understand that frequently such children can grow out of their arthritis and of their disability. Therefore it is important that there should not be a requirement for the disability to be permanent for a person to be eligible for consideration for a disabled facilities grant.
I wonder whether the wording of subsection (1) of Amendment No. 108 is likely in practice to cause problems. Subsection (1)(a) states that,his sight, hearing or speech is substantially impaired".That might be interpreted as sight and hearing or speech. I am sure that that is not the intention. However I wonder whether the word "or" could be inserted between "sight" and "hearing" to ensure that there is no ambiguity.
A similar problem exists with subsection (1)(c) where there could be some ambiguity in practice. I suggest that the subsection might be redrafted to state that,he is substantially disabled by illness or injury or impairment since birth, or otherwise".That would be an improvement and would ensure clarity.
Perhaps my noble friend could consider this point between now and a later stage in the Bill. There may not be time to deal with the issue in this House. However, another place could effect the necessary amendments.
I still believe that all those problems could be overcome as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, if we were to use the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act. However, despite what I have said, 832 I am grateful that my noble friend has listened to what we said and, with his officials, has made an attempt to improve the situation.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
My Lords, I had added my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, because I was anxious to get rid of the outmoded wording in the definition in the 1948 Act. I stress that I have not consulted widely yet on the Minister's definition; nor have I talked to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply about the definition referring only to permanent disability.
As the Minister explained, the old definition covered everyone who should be eligible for disabled facilities grant. When I consulted, I found that in the Disability Discrimination Act the definition did not. I welcome Amendment No. 108. However, I stress that the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has consulted more widely than I have and has gone more thoroughly into the definition. He may have found things that are not quite acceptable and right. I believe that the Minister is on the right lines. I thank him very much for having gone to this trouble. The definition under the 1948 Act continued because it covered those people whom we wanted it to cover. It was merely the language that was not right.
This provision may need a little more tidying, but I hope that something like it will become the accepted definition in future legislation. Being a very starry-eyed optimist, I hope that perhaps it might be resurrected as a more attractive phoenix in the Disabled Persons and Carers (Short-term Breaks) Bill in the name of my noble friend Lord Rix. However, more realistically, at this point I warmly welcome the Government's amendment, but with the slight proviso that the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has gone through it with a finer toothcomb than I have done.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I wish to ask the Minister a question. He may feel that the answer is so obvious that the question should not be asked, but experience has taught me that it is better to ask. The question is whether subsections (2) and (3) of Amendment No. 108 limit subsection (1). In other words, is a person to be taken to be disabled if, and only if, the conditions set out in subsections (2) and (3) apply? Alternatively, may a person be regarded as disabled under subsection (1)(a),(b) or (c), but without the application of subsections (2) or (3)?
My Lords, let me give immediate comfort to the noble Baroness. Subsections (2) and (3) in Amendment No. 108 passport people into subsection (1). That subsection is a defining clause; subsections (2) and (3) state that people who qualify under those also qualify under subsection (1) and no arguments will be admitted against that. It also covers the question raised by my noble friend Lord Swinfen and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, as to the reference to permanence. That characteristic occurs in the National Assistance Act 1948 but it is not a characteristic of subsection (1). Therefore, as concerns the new clause, there is no requirement for permanence. "Substantial" suggests a reasonably long-term disability, but there is no requirement in it for permanence.
833 A definition evolved in the course of two weeks' hard work by my officials is not necessarily perfect, but I am sure that the House will agree that it has been put together with a great deal of goodwill and it is entirely pointed in the right direction. We shall look with care at all that has been said today and will listen to anyone else who may have opinions as to improvements which could be made to the definition.
So far as we can see at the moment, we have got it about right. We thank the Committee for having raised the matter and are delighted to have been able to respond to it. I commend the amendment.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 20 not moved.]
§ Clause 24 [Disabled facilities grants: purposes for which grant must or may be given]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 21:
Page 13, line 47, at end insert—
("() making the dwelling or building safe for the disabled occupant and other persons residing with him;").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 21 and to speak to Amendment No. 23. During the Committee's consideration of the Bill we listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and I am sad that he is not in his place today. He spoke eloquently about the needs of those with severe behavioural problems and in particular about the provision of a safe room for a person with such disabilities.
§ While I would hope that local authorities have given mandatory grant in the past for such purposes, Amendment No. 21 seeks to clarify the position as we feel the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has raised an important issue. The amendment provides for mandatory disabled facilities grant to be given to render the dwelling or building safe for use by a disabled occupant and other persons who reside with him.
§ The provision is intended to be sufficiently flexible to give grant to provide a special safe room or rooms for a disabled person who suffers from behavioural difficulties and for those who live with him, and also to provide safety measures for disabled people generally where these are necessary. The specific facilities will depend on all the circumstances.
§ Amendment No. 23 in the name of my noble friend Lord Swinfen would provide for mandatory disabled facilities grant to be given to improve or install a lighting system suitable for a visually impaired occupant. During Committee my noble friend spoke with admirable clarity to a very similar amendment tabled in his name. I said then that we believed that improved lighting systems should come under the discretionary rather than the mandatory heading.
§ I fully appreciate my noble friend's concern to ensure that those who are partially sighted and who require an enhanced form of lighting to enable them to carry out better the everyday tasks and activities many of us take for granted should have grant available for this purpose as of right.834
§ As my noble friend made clear to the Committee, the provision of enhanced lighting is an important matter and I stress that local authorities will be able to give discretionary grant for this purpose. It is also the case that Amendment No. 21 would enable the provision of lighting to be a mandatory purpose where safety is an issue.
§ It might also help my noble friend if I add that, were it to become clear that some visually impaired people were not being given access to grant to enable them to benefit from enhanced lighting, the Secretary of State could, if he considered it appropriate in the circumstances, use the power in subsection (1)(i) of Clause 24 to add to the list of mandatory purposes by means of an order.
§ However, the thrust of the new grant regime we are proposing is to give local authorities maximum flexibility to determine how they can best use their available resources. We remain of the view that the decision as to whether grant should be awarded in such cases is one which should be left to local authorities' judgment based on the circumstances of each case. I am not convinced that this is an area in which we ought to go further. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say on his amendment and beg to move mine.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I welcome the amendment moved by my noble friend. As a result of his Amendment No. 21, I shall not move my Amendment No. 23 because obviously for a visually disabled person a building will not be safe without proper and adequate lighting. It is not just a case of taking out the 100-watt bulb and putting in a 150-watt bulb. It may be a matter of putting spotlights in the right place, or putting lights of differing colours in and ensuring that the light is on the areas where the disabled person is working or studying. I shall not speak at length because there is much to be dealt with tonight, save to say that I welcome my noble friend's amendment.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
My Lords, I wish briefly to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Swinfen said and welcome Amendment No. 21, as my noble friend Lord Rix cannot be here to do so himself.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I too welcome Amendment No. 21. I note with interest what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said in supporting his Amendment No. 23. I note that he will not move it, but I believe that Amendment No. 23 goes rather wider than safety in terms of having lighting systems for disabled people. To that extent there is still a gap in what is to be provided. However, subject to the hope that the Government will address themselves to that gap, I welcome Amendment No. 21.
My Lords, I am grateful for the expressions of support that we have received and I commend the amendment.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ 6.15 p.m.
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 22:
Page 14, leave out lines 5 to 8 and insert—
("() facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room in which there is a lavatory, or facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility;
() facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room in which there is a bath or shower (or both), or facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility;
() facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room in which there is a washhand basin, or facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility;").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 22. It clarifies a peculiarly obscure piece of wording in the Bill and I hope its effects are obvious.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, as this amendment was a result of one which I moved at the previous stage, I welcome it.
§ The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Serota)
My Lords, in calling Amendment No. 24, I should point out to the House that, if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 25 or 26.
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 24:
Page 15, leave out lines 3 to 5 and insert—
("() In considering whether the relevant works are necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of the disabled occupant, the local housing authority shall—
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that local authorities, when assessing the need for the disabled facilities grant and adaptations, can either co-operate with the relevant social services authority or, where more appropriate, can seek written confirmation from a general practitioner or other suitably qualified professional. The purpose is not that the local authority should consult both, but that they should choose a relevant person or authority, depending on the circumstances.
§ At the present time, in order to assess whether a disabled facilities grant is necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of a disabled occupant, a local housing authority will often require an assessment from an occupational therapist. The social services authority 836 would have a duty to undertake an assessment of aids and adaptations, but the waiting time for such assessments can often be extremely lengthy.
§ Often, when only minor adaptations such as rails in the bathroom are required, a disabled person's general practitioner would be quite capable of assessing whether that is necessary and appropriate. In other situations it may be that another qualified professional, such as an RNIB housing worker, would be as appropriate as an occupational therapist to make an assessment. RADAR, for example, is aware of a disabled person who had a full occupational therapy assessment for adaptations some years ago. That individual now requires an extra handrail on the stairs. The individual requested an occupational therapist's assessment for that purpose in October 1995, but has been informed that an assessment is unlikely to be possible before June 1997 at the earliest. That is a minimum waiting time of 20 months. That person will probably decide to have the handrail put in independently, but as the individual is on benefit it will be financially difficult and could well put the person into debt.
§ Waiting times for occupational therapist assessments are often up to two years, and longer waiting times have been reported. Although the Government are reviewing occupational therapy services, there is a fundamental problem. There are large numbers of disabled people requiring assessments for adaptations, and there is a shortage of occupational therapists. Many local authorities are now using occupational therapy assistants to undertake assessments. As there is a growing number of disabled, and elderly people who arc becoming disabled, it appears that the problem will inevitably get worse.
§ Around 15 per cent. of disabled facility grants are for less then £1,000; 7 per cent. of all such grants are for a shower over the bath; 4 per cent. are for handrails. It would be quite reasonable for a general practitioner or other suitably qualified professional to recommend those. If local authorities accept recommendations from occupational therapy assistants, then surely a recommendation from a general practitioner should be equally valid.
§ In some situations a suitably qualified professional from an organisation with specific expertise appertaining to the needs of the disabled person could be just as relevant as an occupational therapist. For example, a special housing worker from a large HIV and AIDS organisation could give expert advice on access, heating and bathing requirements of the person with HIV or AIDS.
§ This amendment would give local housing authorities the discretion to decide who was the most appropriate person to assess the need for adaptation. It would not undermine the invaluable role of occupational therapists, but would simply give some flexibility to local authorities to assess the situation and request information from the most appropriate person. Where there is an obvious need for major adaptations, an occupational therapist assessment could be required; but where there is a straightforward requirement for some simple adaptations, a general practitioner could make the recommendation.837
§ Of additional benefit would be the opportunity for the local authority, alternatively, to call on the expertise of a professional with particular knowledge of disabled persons' requirements. That could all be made clear in guidance.
§ Basically, by allowing local authorities to choose the appropriate person to make the assessment depending upon the situation of the individual the whole process could be speeded up. If my noble friend the Minister does not wish to see the discretion on the face of the Bill, it would be very helpful if he could consider including in guidance information for local authorities on situations where it may be appropriate for them to request information from a general practitioner or other professional rather than waiting for an occupational therapist assessment when that may not be necessary. I beg to move.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I support this amendment, which the noble Lord explained in detail. It is important. At one level it describes what ought to be good practice on the part of a local housing authority. In so far as local housing authorities are sensitive to the needs of disabled people, I am sure many of them will behave in the way suggested by the amendment. However, they do not all do that. It would be proper to have on the face of the Bill an obligation on local housing authorities to consult in such instances with social services authorities or general practitioners where that is appropriate and where occupational therapy assessments are not forthcoming or not forthcoming quickly. It is a very reasonable amendment. It would help local authorities to move rapidly to good practice where they are not already doing so.
§ Baroness Warnock
My Lords, I support this amendment very strongly. Anything that eliminates undue delay or makes the waiting time shorter is a very important and serious addition to the Bill. I very much hope that the Minister will give consideration to this proposal. Twenty months may be the entire length of life that the person in question has, and very often 20 months is the minimum for getting an occupational therapist assessment.
Lady Darcy (de Knayth)
My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. I believe the wording is drawn directly from the guidelines for housing associations, which have this flexibility. RADAR gave an example of someone who needed handrails up to the house. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, explained, that can take up to two years. Because it was a simple request for a handrail, all that was needed was a letter from a GP confirming it, and it was installed the following week. Obviously, if a disabled person needs a full OT assessment, or his or her needs are complicated, the housing association will ask for an OT to do the assessment. It is very valuable to have such guidelines. They offer flexibility: you can have simple confirmation of need in such instances, which speeds things up enormously. I support it.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Swinfen has again moved an amendment requiring housing 838 authorities to co-operate with social services in deciding the adaptation needs of the disabled occupant and also to seek written confirmation from either a GP or other qualified professional.
We explained in Committee why we considered his amendment unnecessary and why we believe that the collaboration which the amendment seeks to achieve already happens in practice. The process of providing help with adaptations through disabled facilities grants must, of course, be conducted with full co-operation and collaboration between the respective authorities. But I believe responsibility for advising on the particular needs of disabled applicants is a matter entirely for the social services authority.
In Committee my noble friend Lord Swinfen explained that the purpose of his amendment was to bring the duty of social services authorities to co-operate into line with Clause 164 of the Housing Bill. I agree entirely with him that it is essential that those authorities co-operate fully in the disabled facilities grant process.
However, social services already have statutory duties under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 to provide assistance in arranging home adaptations to secure greater safety, comfort or convenience. I understand they use these powers widely in considering with their colleagues in housing authorities what should be provided to meet the adaptation needs of disabled people.
Since the grant system was introduced in July 1990, housing and social services authorities have built up locally efficient systems and procedures for the day-to-day operation of disabled facilities grants to ensure the effective delivery of help in meeting the adaptation needs of disabled people.
The duty we have placed on housing authorities to consult social services authorities relates solely to consultation with that authority. I believe that is right. With respect to my noble friend Lord Swinfen I believe it is the social services authority and not the housing authority that is best placed to decide in each case who should be involved in the assessment. In most cases it is carried out by the occupational therapist, who may be employed by social services or the health service.
However, social services may decide that others need to be involved in the process, depending on the person's circumstances. This may involve discussion with a GP who has specialist knowledge of the applicant, voluntary groups of carers who have day-to-day contact with the disabled occupant and are therefore well placed to provide views on what adaptations are needed.
As I have said, my noble friend's amendment would place the burden of taking these decisions on the housing authority when such matters should clearly be left to social services authorities in carrying out their statutory duty to provide advice to housing authorities on these matters.
Both my noble friend Lord Swinfen and the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), drew attention to the current shortage of occupational therapists which has caused delays in obtaining assessments. The noble Baroness said that, for relatively small items, a general practitioner would be perfectly capable of carrying out 839 the assessment without the need to wait for an occupational therapist. My noble friend Lord Swinfen echoed that argument at this stage of the Bill.
I fully understand that concern but hope that noble Lords will be reassured to hear that there is nothing to prevent such an arrangement being applied under the present arrangements, if the social services authority considers that to be the appropriate course of action. Authorities, therefore, are already able to decide for themselves who should be involved in particular cases, and I am not sure that the amendment of my noble friend Lord Swinfen would enable authorities to do anything that they cannot or do not already do.
The last part of my noble friend's speech suggested that the equivalent of this amendment might be included in guidance. As I indicated, that is not a matter for my department. I shall certainly raise the matter with my noble friend Lady Cumberlege and between us we shall write a letter to him.
In Committee, my noble friend said that the intention of his amendment to require social services authorities to co-operate in rendering reasonable assistance was because of his concern that the consultation with that authority takes place rather late in the application process. However, our research shows that in most cases an application to the housing authority for a disabled facilities grant arises because of a referral from the social services authority rather than the other way around. In such cases, it is likely that the occupational therapist's assessment has already been carried out prior to referral for a disabled facilities grant.
After that rather long explanation, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, as my noble friend himself said, it was a long explanation. I should like to read in Hansard what he said and digest it thoroughly before deciding whether to come back to the matter at a later stage.
At first sight, it appears that the reply may be encouraging. But there may be some holes in it and I want to be certain that any such holes are all properly filled. I shall definitely read what my noble friend said. I thank him for taking the trouble to give such a long and well considered reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Lucas moved Amendments Nos. 25 and 26:
Page 15, line 4, leave out first ("welfare") and insert ("social services").
Page 15, line 4, leave out second ("welfare") and insert ("social services").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I spoke to these amendments when I spoke to Amendment No. 19. I beg to move them together.
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 27 [HMO grants: certificate required to accompany application]:
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak at the same time to Amendment No. 107 in my name and trespass slightly on Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, Amendment No. 29 is not my amendment. It is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
Quite right, my Lords. We have given some thought to the views expressed during the Committee consideration of this Bill about the likely need for Clause 28. During Committee, I confirmed that it was not envisaged that the power would be used in the foreseeable future and indicated that it would be our intention to see mirrored in Clause 28 the discretion proposed for local authorities on disapplying the prior qualifying conditions.
However, having given further thought to the points made by noble Lords, I now believe that for the purposes of clarity it would be preferable to remove the clause from the Bill. Therefore we have brought forward Amendments Nos. 27, 29 and 107 in order to achieve that objective.
In view of the amendments removing the clause, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will not move his Amendment No. 28.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for moving Amendment No. 27. It responds to our concerns at Committee. As we pointed out, the power was unlikely to be used and in responding at Committee the noble Lord affirmed that the Government had no intention of using the power. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to accept the noble Lord's amendment. It is also reasonable that local authorities should be left with discretion to decide their own strategies.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing the amendment, which responds to concerns voiced at Committee. He is quite right, he has pre-empted my amendment, Amendment No. 28, and I shall not move it when the time comes.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 28 [HMO grants: prior qualifying period]:
§ [Amendment No. 28 not moved.]
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 29:
Leave out Clause 28.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 31 [Power to restrict certain landlord's applications]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 30:
Leave out Clause 31
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, we discussed the purpose of Clause 31 at some length in Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, had suggested a number 841 of amendments with the intention of clarifying the clause. That gave us the opportunity to consider further the need to retain Clause 31.
§ We believe that the maintenance of a property in the private rented sector is the responsibility of the owner. That led to our initial decision in the White Paper to restrict landlords' access to grants. With the move in this Bill to a discretionary grant system accessible by all landlords we were keen that the message of owners' responsibility to maintain their property was not lost.
§ Clause 31 was included in case experience showed that, rather than maintain properties to a good standard, landlords waited for a local authority to take enforcement action or offer grant assistance. Were this pattern of activity to emerge, we would have wished to take steps to restrict grant availability.
§ However, the comments that we have received from local authorities about how they expect to use the power to give discretionary grant assistance to landlords has reassured us that the power will be used for strategic purposes and that we are unlikely ever to need the power in Clause 31 to restrict grant availability. Bearing in mind the concerns expressed in Committee, we have concluded that the clause should be removed. I beg to move.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I am again grateful to the noble Lord for moving the amendment. I can only repeat what I said earlier. In our view it is right that this clause should be out of the Bill. The noble Lord kindly took due note of the arguments that we put forward in Committee. It is again right that local authorities should be allowed maximum discretion in deciding their own strategies. Therefore, I am very happy to support the Government in their Amendment No. 30.
My Lords, I am delighted again to give pleasure the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel.
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 33 [Means testing in case of application by owner-occupier or tenant]:
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 31:
Page 19, line 46, at end insert—
("() make provision for the deduction of—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is tabled in my name coupled with that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. In Committee we had quite an involved discussion about means testing. The purpose of the amendment, which was said of the amendment that we moved in Committee, is to ensure that the means test calculation takes into account mortgage interest payments and payments on other sums on which relief is in fact given under the income tax Acts. We are trying to match up the provision with the income tax Acts.
Anyone who has a mortgage will realise that it is an important outgoing from the household. In Committee the Government argued:
Our view is that the amount of mortgage an individual takes out, or the amount he pays towards life insurance or other premiums for which he can reclaim tax paid, is a matter of personal choice, and as such we see no case for those amounts to feature in the renovation grant means test"—[Official Report, 26/3/96; col. 1651.]
§ The Government went on to say that the inclusion of such amounts would encourage individuals to take up larger mortgages. However, they slid a little during the argument in Committee in giving an undertaking to reply in detail at a later stage when they realised that the wording of the amendment took up wording in the education grants means test. The purpose of tabling the amendment at Report stage is, first, to give the Minister an opportunity to clarify, if that is possible, the response given in Committee and, secondly, to answer those points made by the Government in debate.
§ Our view is that mortgage interest payments are an important household outgoing and, when we come to renovation grants, it is important that those things should be taken into account. I can elaborate on the effect of disregarding such mortgage interest payments if the noble Lord wishes me to; I have a great deal of material which will allow me to demonstrate the problem.
§ In our view it is unlikely that the changes we are suggesting to the grant means test will alter the operation of the housing market in any meaningful sense. A decision to purchase a house is usually taken without taking into account changes to personal income and changes to the housing market, which, as we all know, are impossible to predict.
§ The assumption on which we should work is that most people purchasing a house will have taken into account its maintenance needs. It is not true to say—the second argument advanced by the Government—that the allowances included in the means test are an adequate provision for housing costs. As the allowances are, by their nature, applied uniformly to all applicants, they will not take into account differences in the housing costs of individuals and the anomaly will remain.
§ The amendment is intended to probe the Government's view on the matter. It is something that has not been fully considered by the Government. We believe that there is virtue in making sure that any means test for renovation grants takes into account the essential outgoings of those who are owners of property, 843 and that includes mortgage interest payments and other consequential outgoings such as insurance. In that probing spirit, I beg to move.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, in supporting my noble friend's amendment, the most powerful argument is that it would give a common base with the other grants that he mentioned such as the education grant. To have two different measures of income for disbursement of public money in terms of grants will appear illogical and nonsensical to the ordinary householder. Therefore, from the point of view of what may be described as public regard for the law and the criteria on which public bodies make their judgments, it would be sensible to adopt the same criteria when it comes to assessment of income for grants.
§ 6.45 p.m.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has again moved an amendment requiring an applicant's mortgage interest, life insurance premiums and other tax deductible payments to be disregarded in the means test regulations under this clause. All means tests have their imperfections and different forms. Perhaps I may help the House by explaining the principles behind the present means test for renovation grants and explaining why the amendment would discriminate against certain applicants.
The purpose of the present means test is to ensure that help given towards the cost of essential repairs and adaptations goes to those in greatest need, whether they own their own home, have a mortgage or are renting. The test follows housing benefit rules and seeks to assess household needs in the same way as for those claiming help through the social security system. It is a framework for determining what an applicant can reasonably afford to contribute, if anything, to the cost of works. It establishes how much money a household needs to meet reasonable weekly expenditure, including reasonable housing costs. It does that by a system of awarding personal allowances and premiums which take account of the specific circumstances of the family.
We recognise that there are demands on a person's income, including mortgage payments and rents. The test therefore provides for an additional premium of £40 per week over and above housing benefit levels to ensure that allowance has been made in the test for housing costs such as mortgages and rent. The system treats all those seeking grants fairly and equally, or at least as fairly and equally as a means test is likely to do. Because it makes allowance for reasonable housing costs to be taken into account, it does not penalise those without mortgages or those who pay similar amounts in rent, as I believe the noble Lord's amendment would do.
I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in tabling the amendment that we should provide all the help we can within available resources so that people can remain in homes in a good state of repair. However, his amendment does not treat all housing costs equally and those people, particularly the elderly, who may have no mortgage or who have either paid it off or are close to doing so and therefore have small amounts of interest to pay would be unfairly treated. Furthermore, those 844 living in private rented accommodation paying equivalent amounts of rent would also be disadvantaged under his proposals. In my view, it would also risk resources going to those who can afford to take out higher mortgages at the expense of those who perhaps cannot borrow so much but who are nevertheless equally deserving of grant aid. Some people, especially younger applicants, may be encouraged to borrow more to move up market in the knowledge that they will receive more grant.
The amendment would also require certain tax deductible payments of widows' and children's annuities and personal pensions to be disregarded. We see no case for disregarding those payments which are purely a matter of personal choice.
We share the anxiety of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that people seeking grant to adapt or improve their property are given the fairest treatment in determining their ability to contribute to the cost of works. We believe that the means test that we have chosen is the best practical way of doing that. I would like to think that I might have persuaded the noble Lord of our argument, but I take leave to doubt that.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, as always, I am grateful to the noble Lord for speaking to his brief. I do not accept the arguments. I cannot see, to take mortgage interest payments as an example, why a private owner who is burdened with a mortgage for one reason or another—individual choice which may have taken place a long time ago—should be disadvantaged compared with another private householder who is paying rent. Rent is a straightforward monthly outgoing; mortgage payments are a straightforward monthly outgoing, unless one is in a mortgage system which does not require monthly payments. Nevertheless, it is a cost of owning the house. When we are talking of renovation of a dwelling, the two things seem to be compatible.
I do not understand, when assessing the means test, why the Government insist on saying that rent may he taken into account as outgoings. The noble Lord wants to intervene.
My Lords, it may be helpful if I say that no individual personal housing costs are taken into account. An allowance of £40 per week is made, whatever the housing situation of the applicant. Neither the rent nor the mortgage interest is considered.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, that makes the position slightly worse, because in that case it is not a proper means test; it is a benefits assessment which across the board does not reflect the reality of life.
However, I am sure that we shall not get any further with this discussion. I said that this is a probing amendment. I am quite certain that the matter will he taken up at a later stage in another place. It is vital that people who are on the margin of contributing to the renovation of their houses and on the margin of receiving grant should be treated fairly. I do not believe that the Bill as presently constructed treats people equally, one with another. Nevertheless, I accept that the noble Lord has done his best to persuade me otherwise.
845 But I am unpersuaded. The matter will certainly be taken up in another place. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 32:
Page 19, line 46, at end insert—
("() In the case of an application for a disabled facilities grant regulations must, in particular—
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is designed to ensure that local authorities take into account only the income of the disabled occupant, and his parents if he is under 18 and living with them, when considering a disabled facilities grant, and further to ensure that local authorities take into account the needs of the disabled occupant and any person who is dependent on him.
§ Disabled facilities grants are vital for providing adaptations for disabled people to help them to continue to live in their own home. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys estimated in 1985 that one in five of the population has some form of disability. Four million people in this country experience mobility difficulties. It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1993 more than £70 million was spent through local authorities on the provision of disabled facilities grants.
§ Currently, I understand that the average value of the disabled facilities grant awarded is some £3,700. The grants are means tested and 17 per cent. of all those awarded grants make a contribution to the cost of the works. The proposals within the Bill for the scope of the regulations concerning the means test would allow the income of not only the disabled occupant to be taken into account but also the income of other non-disabled people living in the household. Adaptations carried out on the home of the disabled occupant are for the benefit of that disabled person and not for other members of their household. The legislation states that the relevant works should be necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of the disabled occupant.
§ Research undertaken in 1995 by PIEDA for the Department of the Environment found that 48 per cent. of disabled facilities grants entailed improving mobility in the dwelling through the provision, for example, of stairlifts, ramps, grabs and handrails. Those are obviously solely for the benefit of the disabled person and of no benefit to other occupants of the dwelling. Therefore, why should the income of the non-disabled people within the household be taken into account for the means test?
§ In many cases the fact that the income of non-disabled people is taken into account in the current means test has the effect that the contribution required to the cost of the works is very difficult for the disabled person to find. A comprehensive research project undertaken by the Suffolk Coastal and Mid-Suffolk 846 Disability Housing Research Group found that the means-tested grants system was leaving people in financial difficulty. It stated that there are cases where help has been sought with no result because of the means test for the disabled facilities grant.
§ The current proposals for the scope of regulations covering the means test could lead to the income of anyone living in the household being taken into account. That could include lodgers, friends, carers or care assistants, relatives, the parents of disabled adults or even children who have an income. The original consultation document issued in July last year by the Department of the Environment entitled The Future of Private Housing Renewal Programmes in England suggested a change to the means test. For disabled facilities grants it stated that only the means of the disabled adult, and their parents in the case of those under 18, and the means of spouses and partners would be taken into account.
§ During the Committee stage of the Bill the Government made mention of the relaxation of the means test proposed in the consultation and expressed sympathy with the intention of limiting the means test. My noble friend Lord Lucas further stated that he would give consideration to the detailed operation of the means test when the Government came to prepare the regulations later in the year. However, if the Government intend to limit the means test to the income of disabled occupants and their spouses, why is the scope of the regulations outlined in the Bill so wide? Surely it would be better to state the actual regulations the Government intend to use in the Bill rather than an all-encompassing list, the majority of which apparently will not be used in the regulations.
§ There is serious concern that if this all-encompassing list remains in the Bill it will be possible at any time in the future, without further reference to Parliament, to alter the scope of the means test to bring in the income of a wide range of people. In a year or so the regulations could be altered to include the income of other people such as lodgers or relatives. Surely, if the Government are committed to including only the income of the disabled occupant and spouse, they should limit the regulations rather than allowing this almost open-ended list to appear in the Bill. I beg to move.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. He has said it all and I just hope that the Minister will agree with the noble Lord's irrefutable logic.
My Lords, I find that a very difficult act to follow. In Amendment No. 32 my noble friend has returned to the operation of the means test and how it will be applied to a disabled person seeking grant aid. I had hoped that I had been able to satisfy my noble friend's concerns when these matters were raised in Committee. Perhaps I may give my noble friend further reassurance that the concerns he has raised are without foundation.
We have given an undertaking, which I repeated in Committee, that it was our intention that regulations he made setting out the operation of the means test for 847 disabled facilities grants. We feel that that is the appropriate mechanism for the level of detail required. I can confirm that for applications for mandatory disabled facilities grant only the means of the disabled person and his spouse or partner will be considered. Where the applicant is below the age of 18 the income of the parents will also be taken into account.
My noble friend asked why the scope in the Bill is so wide. It is because discretionary grants will be means tested in a different manner than presently is the case. That is why we feel we need the wider scope.
The relaxation from the current practice has been widely welcomed and we believe it is preferable to the current arrangements. However, where the grant is discretionary, and therefore likely to be less vital, we believe that there is a case for reflecting that by including the means of the applicant and those of the owner, where that is a different person, in the means test calculation. Where discretionary grant is given for mandatory purposes such as to top up a grant in excess of £20,000, the test as used for mandatory grant will apply.
As regards the second part of the amendment, I do not believe that we should restrict the regulations as suggested to take specific account of the needs of the disabled occupants and any dependent person to any greater extent than is already the case. We already achieve that through set allowances and premiums for applicants for disabled facilities grants.
In calculating an applicant's entitlement to grant, whether a renovation grant or a disabled facilities grant, all applicants must complete a means test. The test is based on an assessment of an applicant's basic needs and his income. The basic premise of the test is to see how much of an applicant's income, if any, over and above the assessed need of the household is available to finance a loan to pay for the works. Grant represents the difference between the "affordable loan" and the cost of the works. Where the financial resources of the applicant are less than the assessed need of the household, grant is available towards the full cost of works.
In assessing the basic needs of the household, a number of personal allowances and premiums are awarded depending on family circumstances. Therefore, if you are a couple where at least one member is aged over 18, you are assumed to need £73 per week of your income before any is available to meet loan repayments. If both members of a couple are aged over 60, they are allowed a further £28 per week.
In addition to this, for a disabled person, further allowances are built into the calculation. A couple under 60 years of age would be eligible for disability premium—£28.30 per week, rising to £70.10 per week where there is severe disability. Further premiums may be added in respect of disabled children and of carers, and for those disabled with at least one child aged under 19.
I must restate that these premiums are weekly amounts which are awarded to the personal allowances of those receiving attendance allowance, disability living allowance, disability working allowance, mobility supplement, invalidity pensions and severe disablement 848 allowance, to reflect the additional household needs and costs arising because of the disability of the applicant or family member.
As further recognition of the demands made on a person's income, an additional premium of £40 per week is added to these allowances and premiums in the case of all applicants.
Therefore, I hope it is now clear that we do already take some account of the increased costs associated with disability when undertaking a means test assessment and that we will meet our commitment to introduce a more generous means test formula. I hope that, with these explanations, my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that response and for giving an undertaking at the beginning of his speech. He will know as well as I do that an undertaking given by this Government cannot bind any future government. He will also know that it is very much easier to change regulations, very often with no discussion at all, than it is to change primary legislation, which has to go through both Houses of Parliament and be properly discussed. That is one of the reasons why I should like to see this measure on the face of the Bill.
If my noble friend, as a young man, were sharing a flat with a group of other young men and wished to take out a hire purchase agreement on, say, a saxophone, would he think it fair that the income of the other men sharing the flat with him should be taken into account to see whether or not he can have the loan or the grant to buy the saxophone? That is the sort of thing that my noble friend is asking to be done here. I suggest that only the income of the disabled person and spouse and, if he or she is under the age of 18 years, the parents of the individual, should be taken into account, and not that of everyone else. I do not believe that it is fair to people. I have the feeling that the Treasury is trying to make certain that it does not pay its fair share. However, it is getting late and I do not want to divide the House on this particular point, but I may come back to it later. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before eight o'clock.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.