§ 3.8 p.m.
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 1:
Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
INTRODUCTORY: GRANTS FOR IMPROVEMENTS AND REPAIRS
(" . The purposes of this Part are to enable a local housing authority to operate a scheme for grant aid for the renewal of private sector housing in its area in such a way that it can—
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment stands in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and my noble friend Lord Dubs. As the Committee will have perceived, this is a purpose clause. Purpose clauses are not unknown in legislation. Indeed they are frequently adopted in legislation. The purpose is to define what Part I is about.
§ I shall not make another Second Reading speech. In my Second Reading speech I made all the points about the general situation in private housing which I would otherwise have made in introducing the amendment.
Perhaps I may direct the Committee to the context of the amendment. It is designed to "enable" local housing authorities. That is the thrust of my new clause. What is a local housing authority to do if so enabled? First, it must,
assess the number of private homes which are unfit for human habitation or in serious disrepair".
Many local authorities currently do that but some do not. On the whole, the record of local authorities is fairly good. Secondly, a local authority should be enabled by this part, under paragraph (b) to,
estimate the number of homes which are owned or rented by people who are in receipt of [various benefits]".
Under paragraph (c) a local housing authority should,
set priorities for action under this Part in accordance with a local private house renewal strategy".
§ As the Committee will be aware, many local authorities already have such a strategy. The purpose of this part is to reinforce the ability of a local authority to determine such a strategy and to follow it through. If I may add a gloss to that, in subsequent amendments we will be urging that local authorities should have much greater discretion than they have at the moment to follow their own strategies.
Having determined what the local housing authority wishes to do under this provision—given that the Government have gone away from mandatory grants to discretionary grants—the local housing authority should be able to set priorities and follow them. Paragraph (d) says that the general purpose of this provision is to,
bring about an improvement in the condition of private housing in the area".
That is simple in terms but complicated in practice. Nevertheless, it is something that we believe to be right. Paragraph (e) has regard to the,
sound maintenance of private sector housing by private interests including lenders, insurers and builders".
§ The purpose of Amendment No. 1 is to go back to the first principles of what renovation grants are about; that is, to recall the aims of grant activity in private 1578 housing. Every Member of the Committee will recognise that what is needed is a system that will allow for the accurate assessment of needs in each local area; the extent to which such repairs may be undertaken privately and not with public assistance; the extent, following from that, of the need for financial assistance from local authorities with repairs, and the setting of priorities for the most urgent and most effective action.
§ I hope Members of the Committee on all sides will agree that the net result of this part should lead to an overall improvement in the condition of private housing. Unless this purpose clause is inserted at the beginning of Part I, I do not believe that our debates will be satisfactorily set within a framework which is the right framework for the part. I shall not go back to Second Reading, but the Government would be wise to accept this purpose clause—I emphasise again that it is only an enabling provision—in order to put Part I of the Bill into a proper framework. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
When I read the wording of Clause 1 of the Bill as it stands, which starts "grants are available", it seemed to me that the proposal of a purpose clause was required. "Grants are available" is a bland and uncontentious statement. Grants will only be available and should only be available within the context of a proper strategy for dealing with and preserving our housing stock.
Amendment No. 1 is an attempt to set, if not a strategy, at any rate a series of tactics and is very much within the Government's framework as set out in the housing White Paper. That points to support of the private sector. Like the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, I shall try to resist the temptation to make a Second Reading speech. The amendment promotes the private sector for ownership and for renting. We know that it makes sense to conserve an asset in which one has invested; the nation's housing stock must be one of the biggest of those assets.
My other reason for supporting the amendment is that it sets out clearly and helpfully the role of local authorities. They are best placed to assess local housing needs and opportunities. It puts the purpose of the Bill into the context of local authority strategies and capital programmes. The amendment is not taking us down a road which is in any way in contradiction to the Bill as proposed by the Government; but it is an appropriate introduction to the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, made an admirably brief speech, on which I congratulate him. I am paying a compliment to the noble Lord and do not know why he should look so worried. I withdraw the compliment, perhaps that will make him less worried.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that this was a purpose clause, which is not unknown in legislation. That is perfectly true. But such clauses are uncommon because they run the risk of interfering with the legal clarity of the main provisions of the Bill. As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, the clause enables local authorities to do various things. They can assess; they can estimate; they can set priorities; they can bring about improvement.
1579 The noble Lord is right that that is what the clause enables local authorities to do. But it only enables them; it does not instruct them. All those things which the noble Lord wishes to enable local authorities to do, can already be done. The inclusion of this clause, therefore, would not help. We would be putting into the Bill a clause enabling local authorities to do what they are already enabled to do.
As it is drafted the purposes of Part I of the Bill are quite clear. We are seeking to provide local authorities with the tools that they need to meet the objectives of their private sector renewal strategies. But it must be for local authorities themselves to decide how to use those tools. Local authorities already have a duty under Section 605 of the Housing Act 1985 to make periodic inspections of the private sector stock within its area. On the basis of advice from my department this is often supplemented by a local house condition survey to help the local authority to identify the local problems. That information is used to enable it to set priorities for action and to devise what it reckons is the best thing to do with the aim of improving the condition of private housing in its area. It is clear from the housing investment programme strategies submitted annually by local authorities to the department that authorities are at present using the legislation for the kind of purposes the noble Lord has in mind in his amendment.
My fear is that if the Committee were to accept the amendment, which I hope it will not, it would be putting into the Bill a new clause which would enable local authorities to do what they are already enabled to do. However, the mere fact of including the new clause might muddy the waters of what they are technically and legally allowed to do. The purpose of the Bill is to put clearly what the law is. The new clause merely gives an impression of what people might be able to do.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I did not wish to be disrespectful to the noble Earl when he complimented me on a short speech. I do not think that I have been on many Committees with the noble Earl. This is probably the first one. But my view about Committee procedure is that I should speak from the Opposition Front Bench to the amendment without making a long speech if I can avoid it. Members of the Committee opposite will recognise that that has been my practice in the past and will continue to be my practice in the future. It is not a matter of making compliments or not making compliments. It is a matter of getting on with the business of the Committee as best we may.
If I have wounded the noble Lord by what was meant to be a pleasant interjection, I withdraw it. I am sorry that I have hurt him.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am not in the least wounded. I just wish the noble Earl would understand what Committee proceedings are about. Committee proceedings are about speaking to specific amendments and not making Second Reading speeches or long speeches. Committee proceedings are about making the point concisely and clearly, which I hope I did.
1580 The noble Earl says that the new clause would not add anything to the Bill. I disagree. What is on the face of the Bill sets the tone for the whole of the Bill—in this case the whole of the part which we are discussing. I am aware that local authorities may be enabled at the moment to do this, that and thus. What I am urging on the Government and on the Committee is that there should be a clause at the start of Part I which makes it perfectly clear to anyone who is reading Part I what it is about. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, it is not about changing the provisions of the Bill and it is not about changing previous legislation. It is about stating what is the purpose of Part I.
The noble Earl invited me to expand on my reasons. The Government have given up any systematic attempt to address the problem of private housing disrepair. They have shrugged off responsibility for ensuring that private housing is kept in good condition, possibly preparing the way for future cuts in expenditure. The Bill as drafted will bring no new money, no new resources, no new homes and indeed no new ideas. What we are trying to say is simply that, given the Bill has received its Second Reading, we should put in at the beginning of Part I a clause which says, "This is what local housing authorities are meant to do". It is not a wrecking provision. I hope very much that in the light of what I have said the noble Earl will be able to say that he has no difficulty with the amendment.
§ Viscount Ullswater
Before my noble friend responds, perhaps I may encourage him not to accept the amendment. I said at Second Reading that I welcomed the fact that the Bill gives local authorities increased flexibility. This proposed purpose clause at the beginning of Part I would take away that flexibility and put some different but mandatory conditions on local authorities.
§ Viscount Ullswater
The noble Lord wants me to spell out whether they are mandatory. My interpretation of this purpose clause is that it tries to tie the hands of local authorities, whether by mandatory conditions or not, whereas the Bill seeks to provide the flexibility which I welcomed when the measure came before the House for its Second Reading.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
Will the noble Viscount explain in what sense and in what particular the new clause would be mandatory on local authorities? If he cannot explain that, I cannot accept his speech.
§ Viscount Ullswater
It is for the Committee rather than the noble Lord to decide whether to accept my speech. I was trying to indicate to my noble friend that I did not want him to accept the amendment because I see it as tying the hands of local authorities 1581 or making them act in a way they should not, rather than giving the flexibility which I believe the Bill gives.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am sorry to pursue the noble Viscount but I wish him to be more precise. In what manner does the new clause require local authorities to pursue certain actions which the Bill does not invite them to pursue?
§ Baroness Hamwee
Before the Minister responds perhaps I may make a comment. Far from being restricted, local authorities need to have authority to undertake any action as their powers are limited by statute. This amendment would explain to local authorities the context for their operation of the Bill. The suggestion that local authorities should have more discretion than the amendment might allow seems odd in the context of a Bill which I read as the Government telling local authorities in detailed terms what they may and may not do and preserving the discretion to themselves, given the number of regulation-making powers included in it.
I take the point made by the Minister about the potential difficulty of a purpose clause affecting the interpretation of later provisions of the Bill. That point troubled me very much when a purpose clause was proposed to the Family Law Bill which your Lordships recently considered. I was persuaded by the argument of a number of eminent lawyers, not least the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, that one should not be too concerned about that. I recognise that that was a different Bill and that the purpose was appropriate to that Bill. However, your Lordships have recently accepted a purpose clause as setting the scene for a Bill. In that sense I see this as no different.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
The purpose of that Bill was very different from the purpose of this one. The merit of the other purpose clause was that it declared the intentions of the Act, as it will be, in a way which made it possible for the courts to decide matters which were in doubt, according to the general intention of the Bill. If that cannot be adequately achieved in the Long Title of the Bill, then it is a legitimate purpose. But, as I see it, the amendment before us, as drafted, is useful for interpretation in only one area. The first three paragraphs suggest ways in which a local authority may carry out the functions which it is enabled to carry out by legislation, as does the final paragraph. The only paragraph which appears to have any force is (d) which states, if it is taken in context, that,The purposes of this Part are to enable a local housing authority to operate a scheme for grant aid for the renewal of private sector housing in its area in such a way that it can—(d) bring about an improvement in the condition of private housing in the area".1582 In the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, introducing this amendment which was of suitable length, I thought I caught an overtone that his real anxiety was that the funds released to support this legislation might be used merely to maintain housing in an unsatisfactory condition. I may have misunderstood him, but even this element of the amendment is superfluous because it is not possible to see how money might be granted under the terms set out in the Bill and be spent on buildings without them being improved: they could not remain in their existing condition. Therefore, this amendment would merely lengthen the Bill without adding any merit at all.
§ Lord Monkswell
Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, it is recognised that one of the problems, if I may put it like that, of home improvement or renovation work is the lack, or the reduction over time and a projected reduction, of central government funds which have been available, and which are going to be available, for that activity. While we may be concerned about that, there is not a great deal that we can do in terms of amending the Bill.
It is useful to remember that over the years local authorities in various parts of the country have exhibited amazing ingenuity in developing and helping the people living in their areas to gain improvements in their circumstances. The one particular paragraph of this amendment which lends itself particularly to my support is paragraph (e), which states that the local authorities are enabled to,encourage the promotion and facilitation of sound maintenance",standards in the private sector.
One of the results that one might hope will emerge from the discretion that local authorities will be granted by this Bill is the flowering of ingenious ways of promoting and supporting the development of sound practices as regards encouraging private investment in the private housing stock, without necessarily the expenditure of large amounts of public money. That would achieve the aims of this Bill which, I believe, everyone must agree are effectively set out in paragraph (d); namely, to:bring about an improvement in the condition of private housing in the area".
§ Lord Ezra
I hope that when the noble Earl replies he will make it clear whether his objection to this amendment is to the wording of the purpose clause or whether it is to purpose clauses as such. If it is the latter I shall be very disturbed because I believe that there is now a major trend towards trying to simplify legislation. In fact, there is to be a debate tomorrow to be introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, on simplifying tax legislation, and goodness knows, that is required. I believe that we should be aiming to simplify all legislation that comes through this House. A purpose clause for a part as important and complex as this seems to be highly desirable. Therefore, if the noble Earl does not agree with the wording of this purpose clause, will he bring forward at a later stage a purpose clause of his own?
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that purpose clauses have been put in legislation before. She referred to the Family Law Bill, as I knew she 1583 or somebody else would. As my noble friend Lord Elton said, there was good reason for that particular clause being put into that Bill, which is of a very different nature from this Bill.
One of the dangers of putting in this clause is that it will, or may, curtail and limit the powers which the authorities have under the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, asked whether I objected to purpose clauses as such or merely to the wording. I object to the wording of this purpose clause and to purpose clauses in this Bill. I was always taught that legislation ought to be as concise as possible. Most noble Lords now agree that legislation is becoming longer and longer. One is obliged to set the law. If we include a purpose clause, that confuses the position regarding what is actually the law as set out in the main part of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, said that all the amendment does is to tell local authorities what they are meant to do. With great respect to the noble Lord, it does not say that and it does not tell them what they are meant to do. It enables local authorities to do certain things, but they are already able to do those things which his amendment enables the local authorities to do: they have the powers. There is no point in inserting an amendment which gives local authorities powers which they already have. That is why it would be wrong to include this amendment.
The amendment would also tend to make people think that this proposed clause would be what the whole Bill was about, and that could well limit the very considerable breadth of powers which are already contained in the Bill. Throughout the Bill it is stated that the Secretary of State "shall" or "may", or the local authorities "shall" or "may". There are already very considerable powers. It would be wrong to include an amendment such as this, which does not add to those powers but which enables local authorities to do things which they can do already.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I do not believe that under the Bill, as proposed, local planning authorities can meet paragraph (d) of the amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, quite rightly pointed out. That was the whole burden of my Second Reading speech. As I understand it, the Government believe that this Bill enables local authorities to do something, but, as I understand it, that action cannot be undertaken under the Bill, as drafted, compared with the situation proposed in the amendment.
If that is the Government's intention I am perfectly happy to strike out paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of our amendment and to put in paragraphs (d) and (e) because, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, quite rightly pointed out, paragraph (d) is the crux of the matter; namely, does the Bill enable local authorities to do what, until now, they have been doing on a mandatory basis and, as proposed in paragraph (e), encourage private investors? If the noble Earl objects to those two principles then I take a very different view of the Bill from that which I had before we started.
Perhaps I may be able to help the noble Lord out of his difficulty. It is not that I do not like what he is saying. Paragraph (d) states that the purpose of that 1584 part of the Bill is to enable local housing authorities to "bring about an improvement". They already have a duty under Section 605 of the Housing Act 1985 to make inspections of the private sector stock within their own areas. That information is used by them to set their priorities for action and to devise what their strategies shall be, with the basic aim of improving the conditions in the private sector. So they have those powers, and they do that.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
Up to now it has been mandatory and not discretionary that they should do that. This part of the Bill introduces a discretionary grant system. Up until now it has been mandatory. I agree with the Minister that the idea of enabling local housing authorities to bring about an improvement in the condition of private housing in the area up until now has been mandatory. They have been required to do that. It has all been okay, but now we have a discretionary system. All I am doing in my amendment, which is supported by my noble friend and other Members of the Committee, is saying that that is something which is desirable, and which local authorities should be able to do under the Bill. It paves the way for subsequent amendments.
I wonder whether I can help the noble Lord a little more. It is true that previously the grant system was mandatory, but now it will be discretionary. That does not mean that Section 605 of the Housing Act 1985 does not apply. Of course local authorities have the right and duty to look at their housing, and to take account of it. What is discretionary is where they then place the money. Do they give it to that area or to some other area? That is the discretion part, not the fact that they should not take account of the housing stock in their area.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
It has been an interesting debate which has set the tone for the Committee's proceedings. I find the Minister's argument not wholly convincing. Nevertheless, we shall have a look at what has been said. I do not wish at this point to divide the Committee, but I reserve the position that at a later stage we may wish to put in a purpose clause which may be differently drafted, bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the Minister said. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, that a purpose clause at the beginning of this part could well help local authorities, the public, and the courts to understand what Part I is meant to achieve. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 1 [Grants for improvements and repairs, &c.]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 1, line 10, at beginning insert—
("Subject to section (Disabled adaptations to dwellings) below").
The noble Lord said: I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 5 and 267. Before I do so, I have been asked to let the Committee know that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, tenders her apologies for not being able to be present. Unfortunately, her noble kinsman, the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, is not
well. I am sure that the Committee will join me in hoping to see them both back in their places as soon as possible.
§ Amendment No. 2 is purely a paving amendment to Amendment No. 5, and Amendment No. 267 is consequential upon Amendment No. 5. Disabled facilities grants are available to give financial assistance to disabled people for adaptations to their homes to enable them to live independently. A quarter of all households have a disabled member. There are 6.2 million people who are registered disabled, 4 million of whom have a mobility problem, according to the OPCS survey on disability in 1988. Research in 1994 by the Suffolk Coastal and Mid-Suffolk Disability Housing Research Group into the hidden housing needs of those who may not be registered as disabled found that nearly half of the people interviewed had difficulty with or could not use their front door, and half said that they were unable to use their bathroom facilities safely and independently.
§ As the population ages, the number of disabled people living in the community is likely to increase substantially. Ensuring that housing is made accessible to a disabled occupant will not just greatly improve the quality of life of older and disabled people; it is likely to reduce state funding in other areas of government policy. People who are able to manage adequately in their own homes, due to suitable adaptations, are less likely to require additional care in their own homes from local social services. They are also more likely to be able to remain in their own homes, thus meeting their expressed aspirations, and saving the expense of costly residential care.
§ Only a minority of the population is aged between 18 and 40, fit and able-bodied. Yet most housing development seems to be designed for that minority group. As a result, there is a considerable need for adaptations to existing properties to enable people with disabilities to manage within their own homes. The express purpose of the Government's care-in-the-community policy is to enable people to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible.
§ Disabled facilities grants are a major plank in that policy. At present provision for adaptations to private housing is made on an ad hoc basis. Disabled facilities grants are allocated when and if people apply for them. Many people are unaware of their existence. Others may not apply due to the real or perceived complexity of the system, or of delays. An annual report, as I propose in the amendment, would enable the housing needs of older and disabled people to be addressed systematically. It should address the need for adaptations to properties in the private, council, and housing association sectors. I beg to move.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
I warmly support the arguments used by the noble Lord and the amendments that he proposes. People, as they become older and begin to suffer from a lack of mobility, have in my experience one strong wish, which is to stay in their own homes for as long as 1586 possible. It is government policy, at least theoretically, that people should be encouraged to do that. Here we have an amendment which sets that out clearly. It would be invaluable if, as it says in Amendment No. 5, the Secretary of State were to publish such a detailed report of adaptations to dwellings in the manner suggested. That would be informative for us all, and it would help publicise to people who are becoming aware of their decreasing mobility that it might be possible for them to obtain help in having their homes adapted so that they can go on living there longer. That is what people wish, and the amendment sets out that proposition clearly.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
I, too, support the amendment so clearly explained by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I wonder whether we have to refer to "disabled adaptations". I wonder whether we can find a happier form of words than that. The amendment would be useful as there is an increasingly ageing population, and more people survive accidents and live successfully with illness and disease. The number of disabled people living in the community is also likely to increase substantially. We need to address the problem in a planned manner and make the best use of resources.
As the White Paper Caring for People noted, housing is a vital part of community care and is often the key to independent living. I know from personal experience, and from other disabled people, that that is so. My noble friend Lady Masham is a prime example of that. I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, in sending my best wishes to her noble kinsman, hoping that he makes a full and swift recovery. It is well known that if disabled people remain at home and live independently, they stay healthier and happier, and have a more positive approach to life. They have therefore less recourse to help from the state; for example, hospital treatment. I hope that the Minister will find value in this amendment.
§ Lord Rix
I support the amendment. In so doing, I indulge in a small bout of special pleading to draw attention to the particular problems of reinforcing, or otherwise rendering safe, a room for use by people with disabilities. For a small minority of people with learning disabilities, major behavioural problems that stem from frustrated communication, additional mental health problems, or pain that cannot be located or relieved, mean that an ordinary room will not meet their needs. Their special room has to be rendered safe for them and safe from them. They will shatter normal glass, break normal doors, demolish normal fittings and, in the process, can seriously injure themselves. Parents cannot monitor them 24 hours a day and therefore have to create within their house a place which is safe.
If we expect parents to cater for people with these very special problems we can at least ensure that the costs of creating a secure room within a house do not fall on their shoulders along with the emotional and physical costs of caring which do. I believe that such 1587 parents, small in number though they may be, should be included in any national estimate of the number of houses that require disabled adaptations.
I am grateful for the cross-party support for government policy and the paeons of praise for care in the community, disabled facilities grants and other efforts that the Government have made. Our proposals for change to the disabled facilities grant provisions are a clear demonstration of our commitment to ensure that disabled people obtain help for essential adaptations when they need it.
My noble friend's first two amendments provide that the provisions of Chapter I relating to the availability of grants shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has published a report on a national basis that covers certain matters dealing with home adaptations for disabled people, as set out in Amendment No. 5. The report is required to be updated annually. It is important to have full information about the adaptation needs of disabled people for the purposes of allocating the available resources. However, we already have the information we need for that purpose. The public sector stock indicator, as part of the annual housing investment programme process, provides an invaluable means of assessing the needs of local authorities to incur expenditure on disabled facilities grant.
Furthermore, the 1996 English house condition survey, which is carried out every five years, will provide useful information on homes that need adaptations. Above all, we have experience of giving out the grants themselves which tells us what the demand is. I am not at all convinced by the protestations of my noble friend Lord Swinfen that disabled people have difficulty in finding out what is available. All the efforts of the Government and the great organisations, with which my noble friend and others in the Committee are associated, are directed to making sure that disabled people understand exactly what is available to them. We publish information in an easily accessible format. I do not believe that there is a widespread problem about people not knowing what is available to them.
My noble friend described the effect of Amendment No. 267 as consequential. It is not inconsequential. It is extremely inconvenient to have to wait to bring Part I into force until a report which is very time-consuming and difficult to research has been produced. We see no need for it. We have a system that will run effectively without such a report. Even if such a report is required, we see no reason whatever to delay proceedings until it is produced. With that in mind, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have supported my amendment. I also thank my noble friend for his reply. My noble friend says that all of the information is published. I am not sure that it is published in a comprehensive form so that all of the information required can be found in one place. It probably requires a good deal of research. If all of it can be published in one place I am sure that it will be of great assistance to grant-making bodies as well as disabled people and their families who seek grants. I shall read what my noble 1588 friend said and take careful note of it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but I may return to it at a later stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 3:
Page 1, line 18, at end insert—
("The Secretary of State shall make arrangements to ensure that grants under this Part and Part IV are available through home improvement agency services in every local authority area.").
§ The noble Lord said: The Committee may be aware that the organisations referred to in the amendments as home improvement agency services are more usually called care and repair or staying put. Those organisations help older people, those with disabilities, or those who live in low-income accommodation, to adapt homes which are unsuitable or unfit. They assist vulnerable and disadvantaged people. For many people, applying for the grants we have in mind is a difficult exercise. The process is complex. Those Members of the Committee who have read the proposals will understand that matters will become more complex as and when the Bill receives Royal Assent. The service that is offered helps people through the entire process. Agencies visit people in their homes, decide what work needs to be done, arrange finance, and organise and oversee the building work. Agency staff often refer the person concerned to other agencies for further support.
§ The agencies are not available in all local authority areas. Not all local authorities need to provide such agencies, nor is it right that every local authority should have its own agency. Nevertheless, there may be a case for setting up mobile agencies, or mobile staying put schemes as they are called, which take the service to the customer. Such agencies have been set up, for instance, in rural areas of Devon, Craven and north Cornwall. Currently, there are 200 such agencies in England, of which 125 receive financial support from the Department of the Environment. Other funding comes from housing authorities, charitable trusts, housing associations and so on. The Department of the Environment's own research in 1994 showed a very high level of satisfaction on the part of recipients of these services, an ever-increasing amount of work being undertaken, and sound value for money.
§ Home improvement agencies constitute an essential part of the arrangements under the Bill. They are a low-cost, practical contribution to the problems of poor housing in the private sector. People need this type of advice when getting to grips with builders, local authorities or whoever it may be. The agencies provide not only a high quality service but a cost-effective one which targets those most in need. That is where our concern lies.
§ I do not go into all of the supporting arguments that I can adduce, because I do not wish to make long speeches about amendments. Nevertheless, I believe the amendment to be an important one. I hope that the noble Earl will understand the virtue of home improvement agencies and agree that such a service should be available to everyone who is covered by the Bill. I have no particular problem with whether that is provided within a local authority or by a mobile unit. However, 1589 if we are to move towards discretionary grants rather than mandatory grants, and given that the Bill is a complicated Bill requiring complicated procedures from those applying for grants, it is very important that proper, quality, independent advice should be given at low cost. I very much hope that the Government will bear that in mind. I beg to move.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I support the amendment and do so by challenging Members of the Committee to consider whether, when they have had building work carried out, they would not have been grateful for the services of an agency which could have helped them through the complexities and the upheavals.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have spoken highly of home improvement agencies. I entirely agree that they have done a wonderful job of work. They are highly valued by the people who use them. The noble Lord was right to say that people need impartial and good advice about their homes. The home improvement agencies have helped enormously with the effective provision of housing and community care policies in the various areas in which they work.
We greatly value that work and are keen to see the services of those agencies become widely available. Our steady programme of grant-aiding the administrative costs of such agencies can be clearly seen. We started in 1991 by supporting 97 agencies in 100 local authority areas. For the coming year we have increased the funding by a further 15 per cent., which will bring the total of supported agencies to 142, covering 148 authorities.
The noble Lord said that the agencies should be available to all, in all places. However, I am not convinced that home improvement agencies should, as a matter of law, be required in all local authority areas. It is primarily the duty of local authorities to ensure that renovation grants and the other assistance provided in the Bill reach their targets. That is their job and their duty. Some, but not all, authorities choose to do that by setting up or supporting home improvement agencies. I think that that is good, but I do not think that it would be right to require them to do so, particularly if, and where, they may have developed other effective arrangements.
Furthermore, home improvement agencies are essentially part of the voluntary sector. I think that that is where they find their spike and enthusiasm. Many of them have been funded by, for instance, the Anchor Housing Association and other such bodies. They rely on very small numbers of dedicated staff who have the advantage of falling outside the machinery of local and central government. They are basically volunteers. If we make those organisations into statutory bodies, as would happen if the amendment were to be accepted, we would alter their character and might be in danger of making them just another office of the local authority. The work that they have done, and are doing, is enormously important. I should like to see them proliferate around 1590 the country, but it would be difficult to make that happen by law. That is why I hope that the noble Lord may agree that the voluntary approach is probably the best.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am grateful to the noble Earl. There is very little between us. We all agree that the agencies play an important role—I would say that they play a vital role—in helping people to get the proper measure of grant to which they are entitled. They become more important as we move towards discretionary grants rather than mandatory grants.
I have no particular brief for saying that the agencies should be statutory in the sense that a local authority is statutory. They are clearly voluntary agencies. Of the 200 agencies in England, 125 receive about 30 per cent. of their core funding from the Department of the Environment. As often happens with voluntary organisations, that brings them half into the public sector in the sense that without such core funding they probably could not exist. That is the case with a number of voluntary organisations. Other funding comes from housing authorities, charitable trusts, housing associations and, increasingly, from health and social services. I recognise that the Government increased the funding of the agencies in the recent Budget. The Department of Health has also realised the community care potential of the agencies and is funding research into their benefits.
I hope that I would be the last person to recommend that we should place those agencies in the public sector by law. If the noble Earl understood my amendment in that way, I am afraid that the amendment must be badly drafted, because I did not mean that. I shall rethink the context and drafting of the amendment: what I meant to say was that in my view it would be wrong to introduce a discretionary grant system in the United Kingdom—in England and Wales or wherever—which did not allow the most vulnerable in our society the sort of benefits which are already available from the 200 agencies which already exist in England. In other words, anybody who feels that they need such advice should have access to that advice from somewhere. I do not know how that should be funded.
As I have said, there is not much difference between us and the Government, but perhaps the Minister could reassure me that at least throughout England and Wales there will be access to an agency such as Care and Repair, even if it is mobile. The Government should make sure that there is such access. That is the view of the national co-ordinating body for home improvement agencies, Care and Repair, which has,already proposed that there should be an agency in every local authority by the year 2000. They are also looking at the possibility of determining the ideal size of service with reference to a calculation based on each head of the target population, using the experience of the last ten years. A proper assessment of needs is required if the agency service is to prove effective and the tokenistic"—I do not approve of that word, but I am quoting—provision of a home improvement agency that cannot possibly meet the local demand is to be avoided".1591 I am pressing the noble Earl a little further to make sure that the Government take on board the view that I am expressing in this amendment, unsatisfactory though the drafting may be. Without such a network of agencies, the discretionary grants system will not be satisfactory for the most vulnerable people in our society. If the noble Earl will agree with me on that, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment.
As the noble Lord said, there is not very much between us on this. I think that the work that these people do is remarkable and is of great benefit; so does the noble Lord. We want to see that work continue throughout the country; so does the noble Lord. I accept that his drafting may be wrong but it is difficult to see how the Government or anyone else can promote what is basically a voluntary body. Such bodies have to grow and to move out as a result of efforts made from within. It is difficult for governments to say, "We will plonk"—to use another bad word—"a voluntary agency in a certain area".
I shall consider the noble Lord's point, but my difficulty is in seeing how we can promote a voluntary agency which will expand in various directions. I believe that that must come from within. However, I shall certainly consider the matter and see whether there is any way in which we can do so. It would not be right to provide for that in statute because many complications would be created.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am grateful to the Minister. One of the ways in which the Department of the Environment could encourage the growth of such voluntary bodies is by ensuring core funding. No doubt that is a matter which the Minister, in his expressions of good will, will be examining. Various estimates have been made of the necessary expenditure out of the public purse to encourage such voluntary agencies. I take no view on that but say simply that it is one of the ways in which the Government could, were they so inclined, encourage those and other voluntary organisations. Perhaps in some areas spontaneous growth is sufficient but it may not be so in other areas.
I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 4:
Page 2, line 14, at end insert—
("( ) No grant shall be payable under this Part until the Secretary of State has made an order under section (Report on Secretary of State's contributions to local authorities) below.").
§ The noble Lord said: I ask the Committee to note that Amendment No. 4 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 6, 111, 112 and 114. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that proper consideration of the level of resources necessary to secure the effective and practical operation of the grant system proposed in the Bill is achieved and to provide for proper accountability of decisions by making public the assumptions on which they are based.
§ In recent years there has been a progressive reduction in the amounts available for renovation grants. In the early 1980s the annual level of public investment in 1592 renovation grants was about £1.5 billion. By 1994–95 that had fallen to £0.5 billion. The number of grants has correspondingly fallen from a peak of 200,000 repair and intermediate grants in 1984 to fewer than 40,000 renovation grants provided by local authorities some 10 years later.
§ Understandably, therefore, there is concern that the removal of a statutory right to a renovation grant will further reduce the priority given to grant expenditure and lead to even larger reductions in investment. The current grant system, which is based on mandatory grants, has, as was revealed in the research carried out by the Government in 1993, highlighted the worst housing and the poorest households. At the same time, it was clear that a growing number of local authorities were finding it difficult to operate the system within the resources allocated. For that reason the mandatory system is intended to be replaced with a discretionary system.
§ In introducing the proposals on Second Reading, the Minister stated that that would enable local authorities to take a more strategic view of their responsibilities in this area. That is fine and highly desirable, but it will be difficult for them to do so if the amount of resources is to be continually eroded. For that reason, and because of that fear, the amendment proposes that the Government should indicate in broad terms their own assessment of the need for spending on private house renewals and the contribution that they intend to make to the main elements of the system. Without such a framework the effectiveness of discretionary grant will be undermined. I beg to move.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I have a good deal of sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. However, I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 112 and 114 which stand in my name. Amendment No. 112 requires the Secretary of State to:have regard to the housing strategies set by local authorities for the purposes of the housing investment programme process when determining contributions".The point is that local authorities are required to prepare housing strategy statements which set out their policies and programmes looking at least three years ahead. That is part of the process for allocating resources for housing capital expenditure. Those strategic documents are required to present a picture of housing needs and resources across the whole area covered by that local authority. Therefore, they cover not only action by the local authority but the contributions made by others, including private sector individuals, banks, housing associations and so forth.
Allocation of 60 per cent. of housing capital resources at regional level is currently made at the discretion of the Government's regional offices. It is currently proposed to increase that to 100 per cent. in 1997–98. However, I understand that that is the subject of consultation. The primary criterion for the use of such discretion is an assessment of the efficiency and 1593 effectiveness of each authority in the region. The key evidence for that assessment is currently provided by the local authority housing strategy.
Department of the Environment guidance on private sector renewal strategies requires that the policy be based on information about the current state of the private stock—we return to a previous amendment that I moved—and its occupation, and, where possible, that policy should draw on sound and recent surveys taken by the authority. Many authorities have undertaken such surveys. However, the problem is that there is a need for a system which draws not only on local information but on national information when assessing the condition of private housing, in determining the resources necessary for grants expenditure, and in considering the means by which that should be allocated. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, raised the issue of resources. Amendment No. 112, which deals with resources, is relevant to that issue.
Amendment No. 114 requires the Secretary of State to take account of the need for clearance action when determining the level of resources available for renewal activity. The current subsidy system for private housing renewal was introduced, among other things, to encourage balanced decisions between clearance and renovation and to direct the energies of local authorities towards particular types of activities such as area renewal. Prior to that local authorities could, in the main, disregard the financial regime. Decisions made on the balance between clearance and renovation were taken on the basis of physical, social and local political acceptability. Most local authority decisions on clearance were taken at operational rather than strategic level and were concerned with whether dwellings were unfit, whether they could be improved, at what cost and so forth. But the current subsidy system, in its ability to encourage balanced strategic decisions about clearance and renovation, now appears to us to be being undermined, not least—and I come back to what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said—by the inadequacy of the available national resources for private sector renewal.
These two amendments are attached to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I believe that that is for the convenience of the Committee so that we can have a discussion about resources and how they should be allocated. However, although the amendments to which I have been speaking come later in the Bill, they are not unimportant; in fact, they are extremely important.
After that admirably concise explanation of the amendments, I am afraid that I may take a little longer in replying. There is much in the amendments that we like but I hope that I shall be able to demonstrate to the Committee that that which we like in the amendments is already in the Bill.
I begin with an explanation of the allocation arrangements as they will be following the enactment of the Bill. The Government propose that the resources for private sector renewal will continue to be ring-fenced; that is, they will be allocated to local authorities as two separately identified parts of the housing investment 1594 programme allocation, one for disabled facilities grants and one for authorities' activities in tackling unfitness and disrepair in private sector housing.
The resources available are divided between the Government Offices for the Regions on the basis of indicators of need for each region. The indicators used are based on levels of housing fitness and cost to make fit for those who are grant eligible using information from the English House Condition Survey. Importantly, they are agreed with the local authority associations before being adopted. Changes to the methodology employed may be made to meet the associations' concerns before they are finally agreed.
Prior to the commencement of each year's housing investment programme round, there is consultation with local authority associations on its operation and, following this, the department issues guidance to local authorities to assist them in preparing their housing investment programme strategies. Once the strategies are submitted, the government offices meet with each authority to discuss their bid.
The government offices will make recommendations to Ministers on the allocation of the resources to individual authorities in their region. This allocation will be arrived at by looking at the past performance of the authority in dealing with private sector renewal and the strategy they have presented for dealing with it in the future while having a regard to indicators of need at a local level. This is a similar process to that which we have followed in previous years but in future, once the pressure to give mandatory grants is removed, more emphasis can be placed on local authorities' strategies and their performance measured against those strategies. Once the final allocations have been decided, we intend that they will be announced by way of a parliamentary Question and press release, as at present.
I turn now to the amendments. Those to Clause 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, add nothing of substance to the current procedure for announcing the allocations. In practice the proposal would create arrangements for renewal programmes quite separate from those for other parts of the housing investment programme. I feel sure this would not be the intention of the noble Lord.
The amendments to Clause 91 would introduce a number of requirements as regards the level of contributions paid, the rate of those contributions, and the amount allocated for clearance action. Members of the Committee will have noted from my explanation how the allocation system is intended to work and the part that the strategies produced by local authorities will play in that allocation system. Indeed, the thrust of this entire package of measures is to make those strategies pivotal to the distribution of resources.
To suggest, as Amendment No. 111 does, that those strategies should in some way determine the level of resources available nationally for private sector renewal is simply not feasible. The resources made available through the Public Expenditure Survey process to be shared between the department's programmes are finite. I recognise the need to consider fully the resources required for private sector renewal but they must be 1595 considered alongside the competing needs of other housing programmes. Local authorities' housing strategies should be aimed at demonstrating how they will make the best use of the resources that can be made available and not as a tool for determining the extent of those resources.
Another part of this question of resources is the rate of contributions made by the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 112 would require that local authorities' housing strategies are taken into account when setting this level. A number of factors can be taken into account when assessing what an appropriate rate might be and the information from those strategies is certainly one of them.
The grants are in fact a public investment in a third party's assets. Therefore, I believe we have struck a suitable balance with the current rate of 60 per cent. subsidy. That impacts on the overall level of expenditure. Were the subsidy rate to be increased, then we would have to accept an overall reduction in the resources towards private sector renewal. That cannot benefit those who we all acknowledge are in need. I do not believe that it would be beneficial to reduce the level below 60 per cent. even though it would enable more to be achieved overall.
Resources are allocated to individual authorities on the basis of their past performance and their strategy and with reference to an indicator of need which takes account of the level of unfit dwellings in the local authority's area. When dealing with unfit property, local authorities are required to decide how best to use the resources provided—whether to renovate or, if necessary, clear property. That will be reflected in an authority's strategy, which can then be taken into account when considering its allocation. As noble Lords can see, Amendment No. 114 does not add anything of substance to what is proposed. Given the details of the allocation process that we intend to follow, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, will withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, I wonder whether I may pick up one aspect of what the Minister has just said. As I recall it, he said that the expenditure patterns would be determined on the basis of previous experience. We are effectively talking about a discretionary system where local authorities have discretion to determine matters at local level. Moreover, there is the prospect of change in that situation—I can think in terms of changes of political control which might engender a change in strategy. If the expenditure pattern is to be based on past history, that would effectively deny the opportunity for discretion by the local authorities and the possibility of change. From the Government's point of view, that change may go either way. It might fall more in line with government policy or go in a slightly different direction. But we are talking about discretion and I hope that the Government will not curtail local authorities' ability to exercise that discretion.
I believe that I can give the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, the comfort which he seeks. As I understand it, the discretion is not to be fettered 1596 as to the way in which the policy is expressed or changed. We are looking at the effectiveness with which local authorities have put past policies into practice and whether the current proposals are such as to persuade us that effectiveness in the current year will be different, improved or worse. That will very much affect our thinking as to the level of grant which is appropriate rather than, as the noble Lord said, any change of political control to which we look forward in the spring.
§ Lord Ezra
The noble Lord indicated that the procedures envisaged go quite a long way towards meeting what is inherent in the amendments which I propose and also those proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. Nevertheless, I still have two doubts in my mind about all this: first, whether the present trend towards the progressive diminution of resources made available for renovation and clearance will not continue; and secondly, I am not absolutely clear how, within those procedures, a strategic approach can be adopted. It seems that that is to be reviewed annually based on past practice and I do not quite see how a forward-looking strategy would fit into the procedures. Perhaps the Minister will reassure me on those two points.
§ 4.30 p.m.
So far as concerns funding, I can go no further than that which has already been published; namely, that the resources for 1996–97 will be maintained at their previous level. On the question of strategy, we see the local level, where knowledge of exact local conditions and needs is to be found, as best. That is where we are encouraging it to develop.
§ [Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 not moved.]
§ Clause 2 [Applications for grants]:
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 7:
Page 2, leave out line 29.
§ The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, it may be for the convenience of Members of the Committee if I speak also to Amendments Nos. 8, 9, 10, 11 to 15, 19, 20, 22, 23, 32, 85 and 268. We come now to a rather delicate matter which has been reviewed by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee of this place; namely, the extent to which Secretaries of State may legislate and produce subordinate orders, regulations and prescriptions and to what extent they are able to be revised by Parliament.
I turn first to Amendment No. 7 which illustrates a number of the amendments I have tabled. It is odd that Clause 2 as drafted should have a series of "particulars" which are specified on the face of the Bill and then, as a sort of appendix, the expression,
such other particulars as may be prescribed".
It seems to me that convenience might have it that all one does is put down a clause saying that such particulars "may be prescribed" without enumerating anything that happens before. That is the effect of subsection (2)(d).
There are similar arrangements in, for example, Clause 2(3)(b) which says that,
'preliminary or ancillary services and charges' are specified for the purposes of this subsection by order of the Secretary of State".
There are various points at which the Secretary of State is empowered by the Bill, if it is passed, to make prescriptions, definitions or directions—or, indeed, whatever it may be—without parliamentary approval. As Members of the Committee would expect, that has attracted the attention of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee.
§ The very substantive amendment in the group is Amendment No. 11 which responds to a point made by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. As drafted, Clause 5 imposes a very general power on the Secretary of State to exclude works from eligibility for grant aid by direction. It is not surprising that the Select Committee in this place commented on the clause. It observed that, at first sight, the clause raises a case for some degree of parliamentary control. In effect, the Secretary of State will have the power to revise fundamental features of the proposed system for grant aid and to do so without reference to Parliament. I do not want to go into detail in that respect because, within the group, there are certain government amendments which no doubt the noble Earl will wish to speak to in response to my moving Amendment No. 7. I should therefore like to reserve my further comments until I have heard what the noble Earl has to propose for the Government. I beg to move.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, said, we are now discussing a fairly long group of amendments which covers many points. I believe the matter which really concerns the noble Lord is how the Government intend to carry out this part of the Bill. If I may say so, it was quite right for the noble Lord to table the amendments because people are most sensitive—and rightly so—to delegated powers and, indeed, there are several such powers in the Bill.
I believe it would be helpful to the Committee if I were to explain how we see those powers working. Many of the provisions are in fact similar to each other. That is because of the way in which the Bill has been drafted. It deals with each grant separately and, therefore, they can be grouped under fairly broad headings.
The first category concerns eligibility. Amendments Nos. 8 to 11, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, Amendments Nos. 12 to 15, which are tabled in my name, and Amendment No. 268, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, broadly fall into this category. We believe that setting out the scope of the grant regime, including those who are eligible for the works for 1598 which grant assistance can be paid, is important. These are agreed by Parliament and their inclusion within the primary legislation ensures that there is consistency nationally. However, in our ever-changing world, we cannot exclude the possibility that changes might interfere with the proper working of the legislation unless we make it flexible. It is therefore important to have some scope to fine tune the provisions when that is necessary.
Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 tabled in my name convert the powers of the Secretary of State to exclude certain works from grant aid from a direction-making power to a regulation-making power. That reflects the concerns of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred, that the Bill as drafted allows changes to be made on the direction of the Secretary of State, which would be an executive decision. The amendments will therefore require regulations to be made which will be subject to the negative resolution procedure in Parliament.
A second category of powers broadly encompasses means testing and the form of application. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, are relevant to that category. We believe that the means testing of grant applicants is the most effective way of ensuring that the available resources are targeted on households which are most in need of help with repairs, improvements or adaptations. The power for the Secretary of State to prescribe details relating to the financial circumstances of applicants and to obtain details on other matters in the grant application form further protects resources and will help authorities to reach correct decisions in determining grant.
There are several powers concerning tenancy and occupancy requirements. Amendments Nos. 19 and 20, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, are relevant here. We believe that it is an important principle that grant should primarily be to help those who cannot meet their obligation to maintain their property properly. We have attempted to reflect that in relation to the private rented sector. However, it is clear that there are cases where those rules are not appropriate or are difficult to apply. We have tried to cater for most eventualities in the primary legislation, but experience teaches that new cases do arise. Nevertheless, we wish to have in place some general principles and we believe it is right that a variation from them should lie with the Secretary of State if conditions and circumstances change.
Another group of powers relates to the prior qualifying period and the conditions leading to recovery of grant. Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and Amendment No. 85 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, are relevant. A main aim of the grant system is to assist people to remain in their homes. In achieving that aim, we think it appropriate that those seeking grant should meet a prior qualifying period of ownership and residence. It is appropriate also to require grant to be repaid in full if the applicant fails to comply with the grant conditions. However, we recognise that there will be circumstances where, through no fault of the 1599 applicant, he will be unable to fulfil a condition normally requiring grant to be repaid. In such cases there is provision for the authority to waive recovery. We believe that these provisions help protect resources by reducing opportunities for speculative applications.
A fifth group of powers concerns the use of grant. Amendment No. 32, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, falls into that category. We think it appropriate that the Secretary of State has the power to vary the purposes for which renovation grant may be given. This is to ensure that he may take appropriate steps to exclude from grant aid certain works for which assistance is available under other legislation or under a particular government initiative and therefore prevent the risk of double funding. In the past it has also been the case that the purposes have been added to, as was the case for the inclusion of the replacement of lead pipes within the scope of minor works assistance.
There are a few remaining powers which do not come within the categories I have described. The Secretary of State has the power to specify by order a maximum amount of grant under Clause 36 and the total amount or value of home repair assistance that may be given under Clause 76. Experience under existing legislation has shown the power to specify a grant maximum to be important in protecting authorities from excessive demands. While we hope that this will be unnecessary for discretionary grant, it cannot be discounted and therefore we believe it is wise to have such precautions. The use of a maximum for home repair assistance is intended to help emphasise the lesser nature of works intended compared with a discretionary renovation grant. The power to change the maxima is a realistic provision to be able to respond to changing circumstances.
A number of different amendments in this group seek to alter in some way what the Bill proposes, but I thought it helpful to explain to the Committee what we propose, and why. I hope that that explanation will have allayed some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. The noble Lord specifically referred to Amendment No. 11. That amendment would require the Secretary of State, before making an order bringing the clause into force, to publish and to update annually a report explaining how his powers under the clause shall be used. Amendment No. 268 provides that provisions in the Bill cannot come into force until the Secretary of State has published such a report.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, reminded the Committee, the Select Committee on the scrutiny of delegated powers reported to the House on 21st February on the proposed use of delegated powers contained in the Bill. The report stated:This power to exclude works from grant aid by direction of the Secretary of State could have a very substantial impact on those who would otherwise qualify for grants under Chapter 1. This raises at first sight a case for some degree of parliamentary control. It may be that it will be necessary for the power to be exercised on a case by case basis taking account of local circumstances; and this may be why its exercise has been excluded from parliamentary control. Before reaching a judgment on these issues the House may think it appropriate to invite the Government to explain how it proposes to use this power".1600 That is the reason why I have taken this opportunity to explain how we propose to use it.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
I thank my noble friend for introducing this debate. I thank the Minister for his full response. Perhaps I may make one point and ask the Minister a couple of questions.
First, one of the advantages of the new regime that we put in place is to give a discretion to local authorities to operate the new grant regime as they think best as regards their local community. There is a downside to discretion but also an upside. It enables a local authority to determine what is best for its local area. The Minister referred to two situations where the Government are effectively taking it upon themselves to restrict local discretion. Perhaps I may give two examples to the Minister. He referred to the three-year wait before grant application can be made. The argument for that is that it enables people to remain in their own homes.
There is a situation at the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps I may cite my own experience. When my wife and I bought our first home it was in need of improvement. We received a local authority grant to do that within a month or so of moving in Within a year our first child was born. If we had had to wait three years before we received the grant, our children may have spent their most crucial years in substandard accommodation. Allowing local authorities a discretion to determine what is best for their local community will be beneficial.
The other example applies to the long-term and short-term objectives. The Minister cited the example of channelling the limited resources which he implied will be available to those with the greatest needs. We can think of two situations. One is where the bulk of the money is channelled into what might be described as immediate need which gives a short-term improvement to private housing. Within relatively few years more expenditure is required. Alternatively, one can consider investing in long term projects. That provides a life expectancy for a building of perhaps another 50 years. The discretion should be available to local authorities depending on local circumstances. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.
§ Baroness Hamwee
Before the Minister responds, perhaps I may ask him a question along similar lines. I am grateful to the noble Earl for commenting on Amendment No. 85. I had not spoken to it. It seems to me that his answer contradicts to a quite considerable extent the assurance given a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. In response to my noble friend Lord Ezra, he said that strategies were best set locally.
Amendment No. 85 seeks to amend Clause 55 which gives the local housing authority the power to impose other conditions at its discretion when approving an application for a grant provided that the authority has the consent of the Secretary of State. Does that give local authorities the flexibility they should have? It seems to me that the provision would add to the Secretary of State's own administrative caseload, but that is perhaps a matter for him and not for me.
1601 If the Government are not minded to move on this point, will the Minister further explain how the power will be used? Do the Government propose to give general consents covering specific categories—in other words, an umbrella consent? Alternatively, do they propose to examine each application on its own merits?
On the more general matter to which attention was drawn by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, I am sorry that the Government did not take the opportunity to explain what consultation processes they would go through before laying any further regulations. In an area where there will be much experience on the ground, it would be helpful if the Government could say that they will take full note of that experience and consult widely. I am sure that the Minister will tell me that that is what the Government intend, but it would be good to have it on the record.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I wish to reinforce what the noble Baroness said, particularly in respect of government Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 which deal with the point raised by the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. I accept that regulations are subject to a parliamentary procedure. Nevertheless, as the Committee knows, if it is challenged, that parliamentary procedure involves rather cumbrous processes.
I would expect the Government to consult widely before introducing regulations which, after all, could have a substantial impact on the grant system. I would also expect the Government to be aware of their consequences and to explain such regulations before putting them forward. I do not suggest that we should move from here to primary legislation, but I wish to hear from the Minister that what I have suggested is the case and that there would be wide consultation, which should be made public, before the powers under the amendments to Clause 5, to which the noble Earl spoke and which he is about to move, are given to the Government.
Members of the Committee have asked a number of questions, including the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. He explained the dramas he experienced in moving into a house where, if he had been unable to obtain the grant within three years, he would, as they say in Norfolk, have been in a muddle. I can understand that. By raising the point now, he has pre-empted what I intended to say later, referring to Clause 10. We accept that in certain areas the conditions that normally apply will not do so. They include conversions, works for fire precautions to provide a means of escape from fire, properties in a renewal area and so on.
We wish there to be a presumption that the three-year prior qualifying period should apply, but we have taken note of the representation which was made before the publication of the Bill and which was reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, this evening. At a later stage, we intend to bring forward an amendment to give local authorities the discretion to disapply the condition to individual applications where to give grant will be in accord with the local strategy. I believe that that ought 1602 to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, as well as others. A number of local authorities, although generally supporting the principle of a prior qualifying period, have expressed concern that some deserving cases would be excluded from grant.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned about her Amendment No. 85. She thought that my answer might not agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Lucas. There is never any disagreement with what my noble friend Lord Lucas says, but I shall try to satisfy her. The provisions in the Bill set out the broad parameters within which local authorities can provide renovation grants. However, there must be an element of central control so as to ensure that all local authorities adopt consistency of approach across the country and that changes are carried out in a controlled manner. That is why we think it is right that authorities should require the consent of the Secretary of State before they apply additional grant conditions.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked whether we would consult widely before making the regulations and take on board the wealth of experience that exists. The answer is that we will consult widely over it.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
As regards consultation, can the noble Earl reassure me that the results of the consultation process will be made public?
Yes, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. He also pointed out that if the alterations are approved, with Parliament taking responsibility, parliamentary procedures are cumbersome under the negative resolution procedure. I know what the noble Lord means and it is not the first time that the suggestion has been made. It is always made when we produce a negative resolution procedure. The only alternative is to have an affirmative resolution procedure which takes up much parliamentary time. It is a recognised way of getting parliamentary approval. If noble Lords or others do not like it, they can always debate it. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, shakes his head and I understand why, but it is a matter of parliamentary approval. Without my amendments, we would not have had parliamentary approval. Therefore, I should have expected the noble Lord to welcome the amendments wholeheartedly. I am sorry that he retains a minor grudge over it, but I am sure that it is not deep.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
It is certainly not deep; the noble Earl understands exactly what I am grudging about. He knows that if he were in my place he would be equally grudging, if not more so, as he may find out in the course of time. We have had a good debate on delegated powers and the rights that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State to do certain things. I am grateful to the noble Earl for his long response to a number of points in the group. With the reservation that I shall have to read carefully what the noble Earl said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 8 not moved.]1603
§ Clause 2 agreed to.
§ Clause 3 [Ineligible applicants]:
§ [Amendment No. 9 not moved.]
§ Clause 3 agreed to.
§ Clause 4 [The age of the property]:
§ [Amendment No. 10 not moved.]
§ Clause 4 agreed to.
§ Clause 5 [Excluded descriptions of works]:
§ [Amendment No. 11 rot moved.]
Earl Ferrers moved Amendments Nos. 12 to 15:
Page 3, line 23, leave out ("direction of') and insert ("regulations made by").
Page 3, line 24, leave out ("Directions may be given") and insert ("Regulations may be made with respect").
Page 3, line 25, leave out ("given") and insert ("made").
Page 3, line 27, leave out ("Directions") and insert ("Regulations").
§ The noble Earl said: I have spoken to Amendments Nos. 12 to 15. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 5, as amended, agreed to.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Clause 6 [Defective dwellings]:
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 16:
Page 3, leave out lines 42 and 43.
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I feel that it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I also speak to Amendments Nos. 17 and 18. With the leave of the Committee I shall cover the debate on Clause 8 stand part. I also hope, before the Minister's remarks, at least to have addressed Amendments Nos. 21 and 35 standing in his name. These are almost entirely drafting points.
Turning to Clause 6, and to lines 42 and 43. on page 3 of the Bill, to which my Amendment No. 16 is addressed, I am not entirely certain, and should be grateful if the Minister can help me, what is meant in Clause 6(1)(c), which reads:
required to reinstate that defective dwelling".
That seems a rather odd expression. I should be grateful if the Minister will say what the phrase "reinstate that defective dwelling" means.
§ Moving on to Amendment No. 17, which relates to Clause 7, I am not entirely certain about the expression, "or proposes to acquire". I shall be grateful if the Minister will spell out what the expression means. Amendment No. 18 relates to the same provision, "propose to acquire". I am not quite sure whether in relation to an applicant it is a general proposition: I should like to buy something; I have signed a contract to buy something; I propose to buy something; my estate agent proposes that I should buy something. I am not sure what that means in practice. I ask this in order to guide interpretation of the statute when the Bill becomes law.1604
§ Amendments Nos. 21 and 35 are government amendments, and I wait to hear an explanation from the Minister as to his intention.
If I might subsume in this introduction the debate on Clause 8 stand part, I am a little worried about the certificates that the clause requires in the case of an owner's application. The clause as drafted states,
An 'owner-occupation certificate' certifies",
this, that and thus. I am a little concerned that it may lead to difficulty, particularly for those people who are vulnerable, whether they are old, disabled or whatever. They may find it almost impossible to fulfil the requirements of the clause. I should be grateful if the noble Earl would explain how the Government see those requirements being met. I am afraid that this is something of a rag-bag of a group of amendments. However, I very much hope that the noble Earl will be able to satisfy me on all these points. They are probing 0070oints, and are not meant to alter the Bill as it stands. I beg to move.
The noble Lord kindly suggested that his remarks related to a number of different amendments which he described collectively as a rag-bag. That is no derogatory term. They are all very important and are all different. I shall do my best, as usual, to satisfy the noble Lord.
In regard to Amendment No. 16, Clause 6 ensures that no grant can be approved under the Bill for dwellings designated as defective under Section 528 or 529 of the Housing Act 1985 if grant under Part XVI of that Act is already available for the same purpose.
The clause as drafted is not as plain as one might wish. However, it reflects—and this is important—the wording of the 1985 Act, under which reinstatement of defective dwellings has, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will be glad to know, a specific meaning. If Clause (6)(1)(c) were removed, which would be the effect of this amendment, there would be a risk of double funding.
Turning to Amendments Nos. 17 and 18, Clause 7 sets out the criteria for eligibility of owners and tenants to apply for a renovation grant. It is essential that grant resources should be aimed at those who are responsible for the cost of repairs and improvements and who have the power to carry out the works to the property.
The amendments proposed by the noble Lord would either alter the criteria or would remove the Secretary of State's power to make an order extending eligibility, where that is thought necessary or desirable, to individuals or descriptions of tenants who do not meet the criteria in the primary legislation.
Amendment No. 17 would remove from those eligible to apply for an owner's renovation grant those who had not yet acquired an owner's interest in the property but were in the process of doing so.
As part of their strategy, many local authorities have plans to use the grant system to help bring empty property back into housing use and to renew run-down areas. We consider that, in some instances, encouraging potential purchasers into the area by making it possible for them to apply for a grant can be an essential part of a local authority's initiative. For that reason we have excluded landlord's grants and grant for properties in renewal areas 1605 from the new prior residence and ownership qualification in Clause 10. To remove eligibility to apply for renovation grant from those who are in the process of buying a property but have not yet completed their purchase, which would be the effect of this amendment, could hinder schemes of benefit to the local community.
Obviously, the renovation grant should not be used—
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl. I am most grateful. He said, "in the process of acquiring". Is that the definition—which I willingly accept—of "proposes to acquire"?
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am sorry. I failed to express myself carefully. My Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 were probing amendments, to find out the meaning of the expression "proposes to acquire" in Clause 7.
As I understand it, in his response the noble Earl is saying that "proposes to acquire" equals "in the process of acquiring", which is an advance on the expression "proposes to acquire". I do not want to jump the noble Earl into anything. I should simply like to know whether I am right in thinking that that was his meaning.
The noble Lord is deeply generous in not wishing to bounce me. In normal English parlance I believe that the noble Lord is correct. However, if I might, I should like to consider the impact of his remarks and give him a considered view.
Obviously, as to what is meant by "in the process of acquiring", somebody goes to a person and says, "Can I buy your house?", the person agrees and one is in the process of making arrangements in relation to mortgages, banks, etc. One can never tell whether the process will work out in practice, because for one reason or another the parties may not bring the matter to fruition. But in general that is what is meant by "in the process of acquiring". If the noble Lord would like a more specific, considered view, I will let him have one later.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am most grateful to the noble Earl. I understand what he means by "in the process of acquiring". The question I was trying to put was: does the expression in the Bill, "proposes to acquire", equal "in the process of acquiring"? They are in my view two slightly different things.
Yes, the noble Lord is right. I now see the difficulty that he labours under. For instance, I might think that the noble Lord's house is a very nice one and should like to buy it, but the noble Lord has no intention of selling. I say that I propose to buy that wretched man's house—not referring to the noble Lord but to some other person who would come under that description—I propose to buy that fellow's house. But of course the fellow concerned may not wish to sell it. In that case that would fall right outside the Bill.
1606 With regard to my own Amendments Nos. 21 and 35, where a tenant's application is made for either a renovation grant under Clause 9 or a disabled facilities grant under Clause 23, the application should normally be supported by a certificate of intended letting provided by the applicant's landlord.
Such a certificate need not be provided, though, where the local authority considers that it would be unreasonable in the circumstances to ask for one. These amendments would change the emphasis in relation to obtaining a landlord's certificate by allowing the local authority not to require a certificate rather than not to seek one. In other words, it is not necessary to have the certificate but one must try to obtain the certificate. I hope that that will make it clear that the landlord will not have the option of refusing a certificate where the local authority wants one but it leaves the authorities free not to require certification in appropriate cases.
I hope that that explanation satisfies the noble Lord's concern as well as explaining the purposes of my amendments.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am, as always, most grateful to the noble Earl. I agree with the government amendments to which he referred. After his explanation on the subject of my amendments, Amendments Nos. 17 and 18, on the question of "proposes" to acquire, I wonder whether it would be better to say in the Bill what the noble Earl said recently at the Dispatch Box: instead of "proposes to acquire" say "in the process of acquiring". That would make it absolutely clear to my mind that that is what we are talking about. The noble Earl has made it clear to me, but I do not see why it should not be in the Bill rather than just have a ministerial explanation of what I perceive to be a slightly doubtful expression.
The noble Lord makes a perfectly reasonable point. I shall certainly consider it. I have never thought that any words that I might use at the Dispatch Box would find themselves in primary legislation; but if they do, I shall ensure that the words "wretched fellow" are kept out. I shall certainly look at the noble Lord's suggestion.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
The noble Earl used the expression "wretched man" and now he uses the words "wretched fellow", which is perhaps even more insulting. The noble Earl's words may well, if I may say so, find themselves at some point in the future in some court judgment. I do feel that we ought to have this point in the Bill. I am most grateful to the noble Earl for considering the drafting. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 6 agreed to.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Clause 7 [Renovation grants: owner's applications and tenant's applications]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 17 to 20 not moved.]
§ Clause 7 agreed to.1607
§ Clause 8 agreed to.
§ Clause 9 [Renovation grants: certificates required in case of tenant's application]:
Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 21:
Page 5, line 19, leave out ("seek") and insert ("require").
§ The noble Earl said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 9, as amended, agreed to.
§ Clause 10 [Renovation grants: prior qualifying period]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 not moved.]
§ On Question, Whether Clause 10 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My noble friend Lord Monkswell and the noble Earl's responses have rather taken the wind out of my sails on the qualifying period. I understand that the Government will bring forward some amendment to Clause 10, and presumably Clause 28 which is linked to this matter, about the qualifying period. In our view, the three-year residence rule is unnecessary. It seems to have been brought in only to stop the perceived—as I use the word—use of public funds to increase artificially the value of unfit properties on sale.
I do not believe that there is any justification for the provision. My noble friend has made the point. I should like to see the prior qualifying period removed altogether. Nevertheless, if the Government intend to bring forward amendments to Clause 10, not simply to satisfy my noble friend Lord Monkswell and others like him, in some way as the noble Earl described, I shall wait to hear when those amendments will be brought forward and what they say.
§ Lord Monkswell
I apologise to my noble friend for my inconsideration in talking to this matter before we came to it. Since I am on my feet, perhaps I may just mention one other aspect of the clause.
The first line of the clause uses the word "entertain":A local housing authority shall not entertain an application".I do not know whether I am right, but I would read those words to mean that if the authority receives an application which falls into the particular category, it must be excluded. The authority cannot entertain it. But I believe that the Government's intention is that the local authority should not approve the application. If the word "approve" were used instead of "entertain", effectively the application could lie on the table until the criterion was met rather than having to be rejected and reinstated at some later date when the criterion is met.
I just throw that comment in, but I support my noble friend in arguing against the three-year rule, which I believe the Minister has accepted already and I thank him for it.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I was one of those who expressed concern about Clause 10 at Second Reading. I am glad to hear that the Government are considering 1608 amending it. I imagine that it may partly be in response to comments from local authorities about the administrative difficulties of assessing the three-year residence and knowing what evidence is to be required.
More importantly, I hope that the Government will take the amendment of the clause as an opportunity to put the provision more squarely on the basis of the grant being an incentive to improve housing stock. To have to wait for three years in what are by definition unsatisfactory conditions can be no incentive to moving on, improving stock, selling up and so on. I feel that it is important that grants should be made available to those who may not have a great deal of capital in order to buy and who perhaps can only buy housing that will need improvement. It is fundamental to the good working of the scheme that those people are encouraged.
I understand the distress of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in having the wind taken out of his sails by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. If it is any comfort to him, he took the wind out of my sails too. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, can be an irritant—in the most delightful way—to both of us.
I explained, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, that there are reasons for specifying a three-year period. However, many representations have been made to say that that would be too restricting, and we therefore propose to bring forward an amendment to Clause 28(2).
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asks when the amendment will be provided. I can only say at some time. The chances are that it will be before Report stage, but I cannot guarantee that. The noble Lord asks what the amendment will say. Of course I cannot tell him that. I do not know what will be in it. We will try to ensure that the points that are of concern are reflected in it. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, will understand that I cannot go further than that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that the provision should be an incentive to improve houses and that that should underline the sentiments of the amendment. I shall ensure that her comments are taken into account. The whole point of introducing an amendment is to do just that.
The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said that we should look at the first line of Clause 10. At his invitation, I did so. It says,A local housing authority shall not entertain an application".The noble Lord said that that really means that the local authority shall not approve an application. But that is not what it means. It means that the application will not be entertained; it will not even be considered unless paragraphs (a) and (b) are satisfied. Paragraph (a) states,that the ownership or tenancy condition … was met throughout the qualifying period".Paragraph (b) states,that the applicant lived in the dwelling as his only or main residence".1609 If the applicants do not go through that hoop, the application is not even entertained or considered. It is not a question of approval.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
The upshot of this debate is that the Government will bring forward amendments of a King Lear like nature; they know not what. We are no further forward in knowing what the Government are thinking because the Minister cannot tell us.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, cannot get away with that. He knows perfectly well that he, his noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that three years is too long and asked why do we not table an amendment to say that we will reduce it. I said that we will but I cannot tell him what the wording will be because it has not yet been approved. Had the wording been approved the amendment would have been brought forward at Committee stage rather than at Report stage.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
Of course I am not asking for the actual wording of the amendment. I would simply like the noble Earl, unlike King Lear, to say roughly what the amendment will seek to do. However, we have to wait, as we had to wait for the end of King Lear, for quite a long time. I am happy to wait for as long as the noble Earl wishes, as long as the amendment to Clause 8 comes before this Committee is resolved into the House and we go on to the Report stage of the Bill. If it is not here by then, we shall need to table our own amendment to Clause 8.
Clause 10 agreed to.
Clause 11 [Prior qualifying period: the ownership or tenancy condition]:
Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 24:
Page 6, line 31, at end insert—
("( ) The local housing authority may treat a person as continuing to meet the residence requirement in subsection (2)(a) or (b)(ii) for up to a year after he has, by reason of age or infirmity—
§ The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 24, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 46.
§ The main purpose of renovation grants is to help those who genuinely cannot afford the cost of essential repairs and improvements to remain living in their homes; or to meet the cost of repairs and improvements to rented accommodation where the consequent increase in rental income would not be sufficient to meet repayments on a loan taken out for that purpose. It is not intended to help speculative purchasers increase their profits on the sale of the property or to enable an applicant to move up market by buying an unfit property and then improving it with the benefit of a renovation grant. It is to prevent such use that we are introducing the prior residence or ownership qualification under Clause 10.1610
§ Subsection (2) of Clause 11 allows the prior residence qualification to be treated as met if, immediately before his death, the family member from whom the applicant inherited the property met the requirements under Clause 10. Amendment No. 24 would allow the deceased owner to be treated as having met the requirements where, for a period of up to one year, he had had to leave his home to receive care in a hospital or residential home, for example, or from a member of his family.
§ We considered that it would be inappropriate to apply a prior year ownership qualification to all applications for HMO (house in multiple occupation) grants. It might discourage landlords who have recently acquired a house in multiple occupation in poor repair and in need of financial help to carry out repairs for the benefit of existing tenants or licensees, from carrying out works. That would penalise the occupants of the house in multiple occupation who would already be living in poor conditions.
§ Although the Bill provides for the Secretary of State to make an order applying the ownership condition to applications for HMO grant, we have no plans to use that power at present. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 11, as amended, agreed to.
§ Clause 12 [Renovation grants: purposes for which grant may be given]:
Lord Monkswell moved Amendment No. 25:
Page 7, line 17, after ("adequate") insert (" , fuel efficient").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 25 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 38 and 47, which are similar amendments to subsequent clauses. It is my intention to probe the Government's intention in relation to this element of Clause 12.
§ We can all appreciate the enormous advantages to the health of young people particularly, but also of the elderly, with the advent of central heating. I remember that in my early days in the 1940s and 1950s our bedrooms were not heated at all. We had coal fires but they were never lit. Subsequently, during the winter months, if we were not off school due to illness, the chances were that we had runny noses with all sorts of nasties being apparent.
§ Nowadays most children live in centrally heated houses and the prevalence for them of winter colds and coughs is much less. The health of the nation benefits as a result. But we need to be aware that there are still young children in our society who go to school with runny noses during the winter months.
§ That is the background to my question for the Government. I readily accept that the words of the amendment may not ensure the end result that I seek. A number of criteria are involved. I hope the Government will agree that facilities for space heating in domestic residences should be cheap, accessible, easy to operate and efficient. It is really to probe the Government's view and understanding of the meaning of the word "adequate" that I tabled Amendment No. 25. I beg to move.1611
§ 5.30 p.m.
I was most moved to hear the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, speak of the deprivations of his childhood and the bedroom where the fire was ever unlit. I had not realised that he had been to Eton too!
These amendments seek to introduce the principle of energy efficiency into the purposes for which various grants may be approved. The amendments in the group would require that where space heating is provided with grant aid, it is fuel efficient. The Government are committed to the principle of energy efficiency and the guidance to local authorities on the present grant system makes clear that heating provided should be energy efficient. However, if we prescribe in the primary legislation for space heating provided with grant aid to be fuel efficient, there is a possibility that some local authorities will give undue weight to state-of-the-art energy efficiency measures rather than the main purpose of the grant regime which is helping those in unfit property. On the other hand, there is also a danger that these amendments would lead to a reticence on the part of some local authorities to exercise their discretion to provide space heating tor fear of a requirement to go beyond what would be the norm. We would clearly not be serving the cause of energy efficiency well by following this route.
Committed as we are to the principles of energy efficiency under a changed grant system, we would clearly want energy efficient heating systems installed where local authorities assist in providing them and we will issue guidance to that effect. However, under the new system we want to give maximum freedom to local authorities to implement their local strategies. The current resource allocations for local authorities' housing investment programmes include a component for energy efficiency and we would expect the strategies under the new system to include a commitment to energy efficiency.
The primary aim of the grant system is to provide basic facilities and amenities to those who would not otherwise be able to afford them. Giving authorities the statutory power to provide adequate heating and thermal insulation meets this aim. Local authorities aided by the guidance we intend to issue may then attach their own importance to matters of fuel efficiency without their discretion being fettered by over-prescriptive legislative requirements. With that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Monkswell
I thank the Government for that explanation of the background and the current workings of the scheme. I shall read more closely the explanation that has been given. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 26:
Page 7, line 31, after ("provide") insert ("or extend").
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to permit the use of grants for the conversion of properties to be used for their extension. Currently conversion grants are used primarily to convert single 1612 households into houses of multiple occupation, to convert properties comprising bedsits into self-contained flats and to convert properties above shops into flats. As Members of the Committee will be aware, government guidance specifically prohibits the use of conversion grants which results in a reduction in the number of dwellings; for example, by creating a larger dwelling from two smaller ones.
§ The Bill's wording contains the more specific title of conversion application. It allows for the provision of single dwellings or HMOs but does not allow for the creation of a larger home from other smaller dwellings. My amendment would enable an authority to use grant aid to extend an existing dwelling by the incorporation of an additional adjacent dwelling—making two dwellings into one larger dwelling. I hope that that is understandable to the Committee.
§ Authorities often find that a large number of small-scale residential units is available in their area but that there is a lack of larger-scale units. The proposed amendment would enable an authority to meet more fully the housing needs in its area. I stress that the number of cases in which this type of assistance would be required is relatively small. Nevertheless, it seems to us to be a useful amendment. I commend it to the Committee.
§ Lord Swinfen
I support the amendment. It will assist in bringing back into residential use empty properties above rows of shops which are often too small for modem use. The conversion of two into one will make proper and adequate use of them rather than leaving them, as they so often are at the moment, idle and a wasted asset for the nation.
The noble Lord's amendment, as he clearly explained to us, would enable grant to be given for extensions as well as for conversions. The whole purpose of renovation grants is that they should be for the improvement of a dwelling. It seems to me that that may well cover smaller extensions to dwellings. I would regard as a reasonable use of a renovation grant the extension of a house to provide a lavatory or a bathroom where those were not present in the house. But 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. If you wanted to convert two houses into one you could get a discretionary renovation grant to do it. The main purpose is to ensure that those houses or places of residence which are in bad order should have grant in order to improve their condition. 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.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am grateful to the noble Earl for his response, although I find it rather disappointing. The objective of any local housing authority is to meet the housing need in its area. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, quite rightly pointed out, my amendment would contribute to that objective. There is little likelihood that the power would be used very often. 1613 Furthermore, the role of grants has evolved over the years. They have been payable to improve, to provide amenities, to make fit for human habitation, to provide facilities for disabled people, to create new dwellings, to deal with defective dwellings and to improve common parts of blocks of flats. All this comes from the same local authority budget. I do not see why the budget should not be used for the very modest purposes which my amendment puts forward. Nevertheless, I shall read carefully what the noble Earl has said. I shall probably come back to the matter at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 12 agreed to.
Clause 13 [Renovation grants: approval of application]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 27:
Page 7, line 44, at end insert—
("( ) A local housing authority shall approve any application for a renovation grant in respect of the following—
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that renovation grants remain mandatory for certain vulnerable groups in particular need of good housing. There are certain groups of people for whom living in unfit housing is particularly harmful and who will have the most difficulty in arranging and paying for renovation work themselves. The retention of mandatory renovation grants will assist them in maintaining good health and independent living and is thus likely to reduce expenditure on health and social services.
§ Older people who may be reliant only on the state pension often have low incomes and few savings with which to undertake costly repairs. The English housing condition survey of 1991 found that three-quarters of people on the lowest incomes occupying the worst housing were older people. Older people's ability to remain in control of their lives and maintain independence will be threatened if renovation grants are not available to them.
§ Good housing conditions are particularly important for those who have health or care needs. Targeting of mandatory grants on people with particular care and health needs will assist in preventing further expenditure on health and social services. Good housing is closely linked to good health. The harmful effects of poor housing on health are well recorded. The National Housing Forum, in the 1994 paper Papering over the cracks, cited research showing that dampness can lead to bronchial and respiratory illnesses; cold housing to hypothermia and increased susceptibility to other illnesses; and that unsafe houses can lead to accident and death. In 1992 the Government's The Health of the Nation strategy 1614 document said clearly that the home environment had a direct effect on health. It has been estimated that health problems caused by cold and damp housing costs the National Health Service some £800 million. Older people, and people with particular health problems or disabilities, have a need for warm, safe housing in order to maintain good health.
§ People with disabilities also require their housing to be of good quality in order for them to be able to maintain their independence. Disabled people are normally entitled to mandatory disabled facilities grants to assist with adaptations to their homes. If, however, their homes will be unfit on completion of the works, then the local authority can refuse a disabled facilities grant. Renovation grants to ensure that the property is made fit are thus particularly important to this group.
§ There are also clear links to be made between 'good housing and social services. Housing is increasingly being recognised as the cornerstone of community care policy. For some people the provision of decent housing will be a vital part of a social services care package to enable them to remain living in the community. The DoE's study Living Independently in 1994 found that over four-fifths of older people desire to remain in their own homes rather than move into specialist accommodation as they become more vulnerable. Increasingly, government and professionals believe that those in need of community care services should, where possible, have them provided in their own homes. That is only possible where homes are of a good standard. Poor housing increases older people's dependency and crisis situations. Expenditure on renovation grants for older people and those in need of care services can thus, in the long term, lead to savings in expenditure on costly residential care.
§ At Second Reading the Government suggested that the needs of these people could be met by the new home repair assistance grant if mandatory renovation grants were abolished. That is not a sufficient replacement for two reasons. First, home repairs assistance is a discretionary grant and thus older and disabled people will be reliant on the specific priorities set by local authorities. Older and disabled people in some areas may be unable to access grant assistance due to the local authority deciding to prioritise area-based renewal policies rather than focus on the needs of vulnerable occupiers.
§ Secondly, the amounts available under home repair assistance are considerably smaller than those under renovation grants. For renovation grants the current limit is £20,000. For home repair assistance it is proposed that the limit be £2,000 for any one application and £4,000 in any three years. For the houses in the worst disrepair, those amounts will not be sufficient. In 1994 the average amount of a mandatory renovation grant payment was over £10,000. Thus, for many people in housing in the worst condition, home repair assistance will not be able to take the place of the mandatory renovation grants for all unfit housing. I beg to move.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
Yet again I very much welcome the amendment so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord 1615 Swinfen, and agree wholeheartedly with what he said. People with disabilities may find themselves in a Catch-22 situation where they are eligible for a disabled facilities grant so that their home can have the benefit of aids and adaptations but, if their home is of poor quality and in a bad condition, they may not he given the grant because the home itself is not good enough to justify the aids and adaptations.
That is an undesirable position for vulnerable people to find themselves in. Even if they did not need money for aids and adaptations, it is perfectly clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, that they will find their health more adversely affected by a poor home than those who are in other aspects fit and well. So we are compounding the difficulties for vulnerable groups of people as specified in the amendment. If the amendment, or something like it, is not incorporated in the Bill, we shall find some very tough and hard cases of people who are obviously in need of help to improve their homes but who simply will not find that help forthcoming. I hope that the Government will find some way of accepting either the details of the amendment or the spirit of it in order to incorporate it in the legislation.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
I support the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen, and Lord Dubs, who have made out a very good case. I hope that we shall hear an encouraging reply from the Minister, especially as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, spoke enthusiastically about the value of the disabled facilities grant as regards Amendment No. 5. I hope that he too will feel it particularly important that the renovation grant stays for people with disabilities; otherwise the local authority can refuse the disabled facilities grant if the house is completely unfit on completion of the work.
I am surprised to find myself having considerably more faith in local authorities than the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, appears to have in terms of their using powers that we wish to give them with good sense and as we would expect those powers to be used. The categories of people listed in the amendment include those most in need of help with renovation grants. We would expect that to be reflected in the policies adopted by local authorities. There are many other categories of people who might similarly be seen as being towards the top of the queue. We do not wish to support an amendment which would strike at the heart of the Bill and remove a very substantial element of discretion from local authorities when we are trying to give them that discretion so they can plan properly the provisions they want to see in their areas. Paragraph (c) of the amendment appears to be an almost universal category; namely,a person whose physical or mental health is affected by disrepair".That can apply to almost anyone one cares to think of. The effect would be to entirely remove any local authority discretion and return us to a mandatory grant system. There are great advantages in local authorities having discretion. They are the proper people to exercise it at local level. We are sure that they will bear in mind all the points that have been so ably made by my noble 1616 friend Lord Swinfen. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment which, to our minds, would, if allowed to go forward, be greatly destructive of the Bill.
§ Lord Swinfen
I find my noble friend's reply somewhat disappointing and rather unconstructive, particularly when one takes the total costs of community care into account as against the cost of mandatory grants for renovating property. I think that my noble friend has taken an extremely short-sighted view, possibly guided by his friends in the Treasury who, as far as I can see, can never see beyond the end of the current financial year and at the moment that is rather a short period.
There is some merit in what my noble friend said about paragraph (c) and I shall give serious consideration to that. It was never my intention to press the amendment to a Division this evening, so if the Committee will allow me to do so, I shall take the amendment away to reconsider it. However, I am likely to return at the next stage with a similar amendment—
§ Lord Elton
Before my noble friend sits down, I wonder whether he can explain the extent of his disappointment. I apologise for having missed the beginning of his speech because I had to leave the Chamber briefly due to the business of another committee. However, as I read the amendment, it states:A local authority shall approve any application",without regard to merit. That seems to be contrary to the whole intention of the Bill and to open the floodgates to wholly inappropriate grants being made to wholly inappropriate people. I thought that the purpose was to improve the standard of building. Therefore, some discretion must be given to the authorities as to whether or not to approve an application. If that is the effect of the amendment, I dare say that my noble friend would like to look at that point also before the next stage.
§ Lord Swinfen
I shall certainly look at the aspect which my noble friend has pointed out. Indeed, he has given me a much better response as to why the amendment should not be accepted than was given by the Government. I shall certainly take on board what he said. As I have said, I am likely to return with a redrafted amendment at the next stage, but I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 28:
Page 8, line 19, 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: In moving Amendment No. 28, which stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendments Nos. 117 and 121 to 124.
§ The purpose of Amendment No. 28 is to permit a local authority to use grant aid to make part of a property fully fit for human habitation where that has the consent of the applicant. The provision is designed 1617 to deal with the case of, for instance, an elderly occupant who lives in only part of the property and who does not want the disruption of bringing the whole property up to a reasonable standard. There will be circumstances where a renovation grant, as it is traditionally understood, will be the best course of action, but where the applicant is not able or is not prepared to cope with the extent of the work that is required to remedy the unfitness. That is most likely to be the case with an elderly owner-occupier, but it may apply in other circumstances also. Although the provision of a home repair grant would be the first consideration, that is cash-limited and there will be cases where the appropriate works are too expensive.
§ Many properties are found to be unfit on the basis of serious disrepair and dampness. In many cases, that will require external refurbishment, such as reroofing or damp-proofing, to ensure that the dwelling is wind and weather-proof. The cost of such works may well exceed the £4,000 available as a home repair grant.
§ Although in principle it should be a minimum requirement to deal with all aspects of unfitness, the additional works, particularly where they involve substantial internal building works, could affect an older person's ability to cope with such an upheaval. In those circumstances, provided that the critical works are undertaken thus preventing further deterioration of the property, it might be appropriate to leave the total property unfit in some aspects (where that does not affect the current occupancy) at the request of the applicant.
§ Turning to the other amendments, Amendment No. 117 is a paving amendment for a schedule. The schedule amends the Housing Act 1985. Its purpose is to introduce a requirement that houses should be free from poor internal arrangement; to introduce a new requirement into the fitness standard stating that a house should be thermally efficient; to introduce a new requirement that a house should have adequate means of escape from fire, and other fire precautions; to introduce a further requirement into the fitness standard stating that no house should be significantly affected by radon; and to restore the ability of local housing authorities to take action in respect of houses and flats, parts of which—but not the whole—are unfit for human habitation. I recognise that that is a big mouthful, but I have a great deal of brief from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health which I am happy to let the Government have if they do not already have it. I very much hope that the noble Earl will be able to give a considered response to this series of amendments which, in my view, is of great importance to elderly people in the type of dwelling that I have described. I beg to move.
The noble Lord has made a number of convincing points which have the sympathy of all of us. He has asked me to give him a considered response, and I shall try to do so.
The amendments raise important questions about the housing fitness standard and the way in which it is applied in assessing fitness. A primary role of the 1618 housing fitness standard is to serve as a minimum standard for enforcement intervention by local authorities in private housing. Any additions made to the requirements of the fitness standard are therefore likely to increase the number of properties that can be determined unfit. That in turn—potentially at least—will expose more individuals to enforcement action by local authorities. Public intervention in that way is not always popular, but is sometimes necessary and it is sometimes even desirable. It is obviously right, however, that if we are to make any changes which would increase the likelihood of such intervention, those changes must be carefully considered.
Adding to the requirements of the fitness standard has implications for public resources. An increase in the number of properties that can be determined unfit would clearly bring increased demands for renovation grants, thereby adding pressure on the resources available to local authorities for private sector renewal—resources which opponents of the Government sometimes criticise as being too little.
I make no comment as to whether that would be a right or wrong thing to do, nor on the merits or otherwise of the additional requirements which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, is seeking to add to the fitness standard under Amendment No. 124. No government would wish to impose the extra burdens described without the fullest consideration and consultation. The changes introduced by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 were preceded by extensive consultations and consideration. That is only right because so much hangs on the fitness standard that is obtained. I hope that the noble Lord will see the sense and value of such a process before any further changes are contemplated.
The noble Lord's Amendments Nos. 28 and 121 to 123 raise the important question of the application of fitness to part of a property. That brings us back to the standard. The major revision of the fitness standard introduced under the 1989 Act covered the standard's application as well as individual requirements. A more objective approach was introduced whereby fitness was determined by reference to each individual requirement in the standard and not to a combination of requirements as was the case previously. That the decision as to fitness is now based on a property having to meet each individual requirement means that the standard can only be sensibly applied to a complete unit of accommodation. If we did anything less and applied it to, say, a single room or cellar it would be unlikely to meet each of the wide-ranging requirements that are in the present standard.
I am aware that the issues covered by the noble Lord's Amendments Nos. 28, 117 and 121 to 124 are not entirely new. Many of them were raised in 1993 under a Private Member's Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees. The Government indicated then that they were not unsympathetic to some of the changes proposed, but that it would be premature to consider changes to the fitness standard and its application so soon after the substantial revision introduced under the 1989 Act. The changes under that Act represented the first major and considered revision 1619 of the fitness standard for over 30 years. I certainly do not suggest that the standard should remain fixed for a similar period.
The Government are not unsympathetic to the thought that, with the introduction of a new renovation grant system, it is sensible to look at the fitness standards again. This will enable full account to be taken of the views of practitioners and research that has been carried out over the past few years, all against the background of a changed grant regime. Obviously, a proper review of this nature cannot be conducted within the timescale of this Bill. It is not a matter to be taken lightly. But I can give your Lordships the assurance that when the Bill is out of the way we will set in train a review of the fitness standard and, in so doing, will seek views and ideas from bodies such as the local authority associations and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the Committee will see the wisdom of looking at the issues which these amendments cover.
I know that if I do not mention the timing of such a review the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will press me as soon as I sit down. I will deny him the pleasure of doing so by telling him that I cannot be precise as to when it will be. But it would be the Government's intention to begin the review before the end of the year, with the aim of completing it as speedily as possible thereafter.
I hope that the noble Lord feels that I have given him a considered reply to his amendments. We see the importance of those amendments. I hope that he will also agree that if the fitness standards are to be changed it must be done after careful consideration and not lightly.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am grateful to the noble Earl. On these matters we are at one. He recognises that they are important matters. The Government have addressed them. I recognise that they cannot be changed overnight and require proper consideration and consultation. The noble Earl assures me that the Government—if they are still in existence—will undertake a review of the fitness standard before the end of the year. I am very happy that they take the matter seriously. I can assure them that the next government will take it equally seriously. I am genuinely grateful to the noble Earl for his considered response. The Government have made an effort on this matter. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 13 agreed to.
Clause 14 agreed to.
Clause 15 [Common parts grants: landlord's and tenants' applications.]
§ [Amendment No. 29 not moved.]
§ Clause 15 agreed to.
§ Clauses 16 and 17 agreed to.
§ Clause 18 [Common parts grants: purposes for which grant may be given.]
§ [Amendment No. 30 not moved.]1620
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 31:
Page 11, line 10, at end insert—
(" ( ) to provide adequate sound insulation;").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 31. Many people suffer stress related to the noise of neighbours and other occupants. The provision of grants for adequate sound-proofing would alleviate much of the stress and lead to better communities. Stress related to noise nuisance can have significant effects on people's mental and physical wellbeing. Often, there is no escape from stressful noise without adequate sound-proofing. In a block of flats with communal parts noise nuisance is often caused by residents and visitors to the building when using the stairs and entry door. Another cause of noise nuisance is children and young people congregating in common parts either to play or chat. I will not spend all evening going into the many causes of noise nuisance. This amendment is supported by a number of organisations for elderly and disabled people.
§ Lord Dubs
One notices in Clause 18 a long list of requirements or conditions where a common parts grant is available to help people who live in blocks of flats. It seems to me to be anomalous that adequate sound insulation has been omitted, perhaps by oversight. The argument in favour of giving people a bit of peace and quiet through sound insulation is a strong one. In blocks of flats noise can be one of the most distressing effects. It can upset people and prevent them from sleeping, functioning properly or enjoying their leisure. I do not talk of noisy parties in respect of which local authorities can take action. I refer to the whole range of noise which can make life miserable but which is not covered by the extreme circumstances of noisy parties in respect of which local authorities have powers. I believe it is a minimum requirement that people should have such silence or peace and quiet as is consistent with living in blocks of flats and the quality of sound insulation that can be provided. It is a small but important point that should make life for many people just that little bit better.
As far as concerns this amendment, the Government believe that such problems as are caused by noise are generally not associated with common parts. Common parts grants are normally given for works on the roof, exterior walls, stairs and the entrance to a block of flats which form the definition of common parts. Most noise nuisance emanates from the ceilings or floors of a dwelling and through the internal walls, none of which normally constitutes common parts.
As to the wider argument whether sound insulation, or the lack of it, should form part of the definition of a building that is unfit and the purposes for which grants are available to remedy such unfitness, I believe that that is best considered as part of our general review, rather than being hitched on as a separate subject when its effect, if agreed to, will be merely to dissipate the amount of funds available for perhaps more pressing needs.
§ Lord Swinfen
I do not want to pre-empt a later amendment which deals with sound insulation of individual houses, but what my noble friend said sounds 1621 helpful in relation to that amendment. I can see some force in his argument on this amendment. I shall read what he said and consider the position. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 32 not moved.]
§ Clause 18 agreed to.
§ Clause 19 agreed to.
§ Clause 20 [Disabled facilities grants: owner's and tenant's applications]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 33:
Page 12, line 47, at end insert ("and—
(e) a local authority introductory tenant;").
§ The noble Lord said: In Her Majesty's Speech at the Opening of Parliament, mention was made of the Housing Bill. I suspect that the Bill we are currently discussing is part of a much bigger Housing Bill, the other part of which, under that name, is currently going through the other place. In that Bill there is mention of a local authority introductory tenant, which is not so far mentioned in this Bill.
§ The purpose of the amendment is to allow the new category of introductory tenant being introduced into the Housing Bill to be eligible to apply for disabled facilities grants. That new category of tenant will give rise to introductory tenancies for local authorities. All local authorities will have the option of giving new tenants of permanent housing an introductory tenancy for the first 12 months. During that time, if the tenant is deemed to have behaved in an anti-social manner he may be evicted quickly. The tenancy is designed to deal with tenants behaving in an anti-social fashion on council estates. I doubt very much whether many disabled people, particularly those with physical disabilities, behave in that manner.
§ A major difficulty arises for disabled people due to that new tenancy. Until the tenancy is confirmed at the end of the 12 months' introductory period, it is not a permanent tenancy. Therefore the Department of the Environment has confirmed to my advisers that people with an introductory tenancy will not be able to apply for disabled facilities grants.
In a letter to RADAR of 5th March this year the department stated in relation to introductory tenancies and facilities grants:
It is unlikely that such a tenancy would qualify under the definition in Clause 20(5) of the Bill. Because of the potential short-term nature of the tenancy this exclusion would be in line with the general wish to ensure that the resources available are used to best effect rather than put at risk should the tenancy not be confirmed".
That would mean that a disabled person who has a high enough priority to be offered a local authority tenancy but who required certain adaptations—for example, a hoist or changes to a bathroom—would not even be able to apply for them until he or she had lived there for a year. The local authority would then have a further six months to agree the application, and then work could start. So the work would not start for a minimum of 18 months.
§ Although many disabled people are offered accommodation which meets their basic need for accessibility, there is often a requirement for other adaptations to meet the individual person's needs. To expect someone to wait a year before he or she can even apply for the adaptations is surely unacceptable. In reality it would mean that local authority accommodation is not an option for many disabled people.
§ Introductory tenancies are designed to deal with the small number of tenants who behave in an anti-social manner. To allow tenants to apply for disabled facilities grants during that first year is unlikely to lead to a great drain on resources by tenants who are subsequently evicted. The real drain on resources could be the additional costs—for example, keeping a disabled person in hospital because local authority accommodation cannot be adapted, so that the person must wait for private sector or housing association accommodation which could be immediately eligible for disabled facilities grants. I beg to move.
§ 6.15 p.m.
It always gives me great pain when I rise to disagree with my noble friend's amendments. So I am delighted to say that this amendment seems a sensible one. However, it is not unreasonable to require that the terms under which a tenant occupies a dwelling have some degree of permanence before the tenant is able to make an application. Bearing that in mind, I should be grateful if my noble friend would withdraw his amendment on the understanding that I will give further thought to it and get back to him before Report.
§ Lord Swinfen
I believe that that is the most encouraging reply that any of us has received this evening. I thank my noble friend. We might possibly discuss the best way around the problem. There is again a difficulty here which I know we should both like to sort out. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 20 agreed to.
Clause 21 [Disabled facilities grants: the disabled occupant]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 34:
Page 13, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
(" (2) For the purposes of this Chapter a person is disabled if he has a physical or mental impairment which has substantial and long term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day to day activities as defined under Schedule 1 to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.").
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that a current and relevant definition of disability, which is defined under legislation, is used for the disabled occupant when considering applications for disabled facilities grants. Disabled facilities grants are central to independent living for disabled people. In 1993 over £70 million was spent through local authorities on the provision of those grants. With the average grant being for £3,700 it becomes apparent that disabled facilities grants enable a large number of disabled people to live in their own homes. Those grants 1623 must be available to all disabled people who require adaptations to their homes to allow them to continue to live there.
§ It is important that a clear and relevant definition of a disabled occupant is used when considering applications for disabled facilities grants. It is useful if that definition has its basis in current legislation. The definitions suggested in Clause 21(2) are drawn directly from the National Assistance Act 1948. The terminology was drafted nearly 50 years ago. It is outdated. It would not merely cause offence to many disabled people; it would perpetuate negative stereotypes.
§ The Disability Discrimination Act which we passed last year contains a clear definition of disability. That definition focuses upon a person's ability to undertake activities rather than on the person's medical condition. Some reservations about that definition have been expressed, but it is relevant and comprehensive for the purpose of assessing disabled facilities grants. As there is a recent and relevant definition within legislation, it would be preferable to use that rather than to use an offensive definition written almost half a century ago. I beg to move.
§ Lord Dubs
When I examined the Bill in detail and saw Clause 21 I was shocked. Some of the terminology that is used to define disability is grotesquely out of date. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, it is offensive to disabled people. A better definition arises from more modem legislation; namely, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Surely such an outdated definition of disability in the Bill must be an error. It is not even helpful to the purposes of this part of the Bill.
A definition based on a person's ability to undertake activities or tasks is more appropriate than an attempt to define a medical condition with the words:or such other disability as may be prescribed".I believe that that will get the Government into even more unnecessary difficulties in applying Clause 21. Therefore, in terms of doing justice to disabled people and not using a form of words that is out of date and offensive and in terms of having a more workable definition for the purposes of this part of the Bill, the amendment has great merit.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
I hesitate to speak in support of my noble friend because whenever I remain silent he receives more encouraging answers from the Government. However, I wish to speak in support of the amendment because I feel strongly about the matter. Clearly, it is an advantage to use a definition already found in legislation and it is logical to use the definition in the Disability Discrimination Act that is used in relation to access to goods and services.
It is about time we got rid of the outmoded and inappropriate definition. As long ago as 1988, when we debated the Education Bill, the Government brought forward an amendment in response to one that I had withdrawn. I had half an hour to say whether or not I agreed with it. I was horrified by the definition of a disabled person and I checked that it was the definition in the 1948 Act, which uses the words "dumb", "lame" 1624 and so forth. I discovered that that was the only definition available in legislation and therefore it had to be used. Eight years on we are faced with the definition yet again. It is antediluvian, unattractive and completely outmoded.
However, we have an acceptable definition in existing legislation. If the Government will not accept the amendment I urge them to bring forward an amendment of their own in order to banish once and for all the definition in the 1948 Act. I strongly support the amendment and hope that in saying that I will not put the Minister off.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I share all the views expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), and I too hope that my intervention will not cast a blight on the amendment. I raised the matter on Second Reading and in reply the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, gave an undertaking to look at the matter again. Following Second Reading I wrote to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and I received the Government's reply this morning. I have not yet had an opportunity to consult widely on it.
One of the points the Government make is that they are not aware that the definition has caused difficulties. I appreciate that the definition in the National Assistance Act 1948 is used for current grant purposes but my point is different. It is raised by groups representing disabled people. Given that that is from where the move for change comes, it is odd that the Government state that they are not aware that the old-fashioned and offensive definition in a 50 year-old Act is causing difficulties.
The Government also make the point that different grant regimes would run in parallel if the amendment were to be accepted, creating difficulty for local authorities in having to apply different definitions. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that it would be better to update all the definitions rather than take a retrograde step. Will the Government consult the local authority associations about whether a different definition might cause such difficulties? Given that that is the view of the disability groups, I should be unhappy to leave the matter as it is. It deserves a good deal more consideration and reflection.
A point has been made to me with regard to the definition in the 1948 Act. I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to reply today. Will people with progressive conditions such as non-symptomatic HIV or non-symptomatic conditions leading to blindness be covered by the definition? The important point is that the needs lead the decision and the decision-making structure, and we should not get stuck in old-fashioned terminology.
I believe that almost everything I have to say in defence of the Government's position has been argued from the opposite point of view. Our dilemma is clear. We have the choice of two definitions. One is up-to-date and agreed as part of the Disability Discrimination Act; the other is incorporated in legislation relating to all the other services which go with that in the Bill.
In drafting the Bill we decided that the best way forward would be to maintain consistency between the services involved rather than introduce a difference by 1625 updating the definition. However, I am most conscious of the points that have been put today and I shall certainly take them back to my colleagues. We will look again at our arguments in the expectation of having a further opportunity to discuss the matter on Report.
As regards the final point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, if conditions are non-symptomatic I doubt that they will result in the need for modifications to dwellings. Therefore, I suspect that in practice no problems will be caused. We will look at our proposal again and hope to come back on Report. Perhaps we shall return with the same arguments; I make no promises.
§ Lord Swinfen
I am delighted to learn that my noble friend is prepared to give the matter further consideration. He spoke about maintaining consistency. Yes, we should all like to maintain consistency. Using this Bill as the channel to bring all other legislation into line with the Disability Discrimination Act the whole lot could be brought up to date and revised. I am sure that my noble friend and his advisers can find a way around it. A little imagination can go a long way.
I and my advisers will be delighted to discuss the matter with my noble friend between now and the next stage. Having said that he will give the matter further consideration, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 21 agreed to.
Clause 22 agreed to.
Clause 23 [Disabled facilities grants: certificates required in case of tenant's application]:
Earl Ferrers moved Amendment No. 35:
Page 13, line 38, leave out ("seek") and insert ("require").
§ The noble Earl said: I spoke to this amendment when moving Amendment No. 16. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ 6.30 p.m.
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 36:
Page 13, line 41, at end insert—
("( ) Where the authority seeks such an owner's certificate from the person who at the time of application is the landlord of the property this shall not be unreasonably withheld.").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment will ensure that a landlord cannot unreasonably withhold from the local housing authority an owner's certificate for a property where his tenant has made an application for a disabled facilities grant.
§ Some landlords, especially in the private rented sector, may be reluctant or refuse to allow improvements, aids and adaptations to be carried out to their property; for example, to enable a visually impaired tenant to improve access to, orientation within and use of the facilities in the property. Others may seek to start eviction proceedings to avoid the commencement of work.1626
§ For a tenant with limited security of tenure, applying for a disabled facilities grant may therefore result in homelessness. For that reason, I feel that there is a need to introduce a provision which makes it explicit that a landlord cannot unreasonably withhold giving consent in the form of an owner's certificate. I beg to move.
This amendment is designed to prevent a landlord from unreasonably withholding an owner's certificate where his tenant has made an application for a disabled facilities grant. This clause requires a tenant to enclose a tenant's certificate when applying for a grant to the local housing authority. Unless it is unreasonable in the circumstances, the application should also be accompanied by an owner's certificate provided by the landlord.
It is true that there is no current provision preventing a landlord from unreasonably withholding an owner's certificate, but I am not aware that that has ever caused particular problems for local authorities. However, if, in a particular case, a problem is caused, under Clause 23(3) a local authority has discretion to do without an owner's certificate. In the light of that, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Swinfen
That is an encouraging reply and, in those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 23, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 24 [Disabled facilities grants: purposes for which grant must or may be given]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 37:
Page 14, line 6, leave out ("bath, shower or washhand basin") and insert (", washhand basin and bath or shower").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 39 to 42. The first of these amendments attempts to redraft a part of the Bill which, in my view, is not clear. The purpose of Amendment No. 37 is to ensure that a disabled facilities grant is available to provide that the disabled person should have access to a lavatory, washhand basin and either a bath or a shower. The current wording appears to indicate that it is sufficient for a disabled person to have access to any one of a lavatory, bath/shower or washhand basin. I very much doubt that that is what the Minister intends in the drafting of the Bill.
§ When we discussed Amendment No. 31, the Minister made encouraging noises. Therefore, I hope that he will accept Amendment No. 39 or instead bring forward one of his own. The amendment seeks to improve soundproofing within a dwelling as many disabled people, and indeed, able bodied people, suffer stress relating to the noise of neighbours or other occupants. Additionally, some disabled people have a life style which may cause noise nuisance for other neighbours and occupants. The provision of grants for adequate soundproofing would alleviate much of that stress and lead to better communities.1627
Amendment No. 40 will ensure that a disabled occupant may obtain a grant to improve or install suitable lighting in his dwelling. Clause 24(1)(g) refers to:
facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of a source of power, light…by altering the position…of access to or control of that source or by providing additional means of control".
§ That will enable a disabled occupant to obtain a grant to fit accessible switches and sockets. However, it does not cover the provision of additional sources of light or improving the existing lighting system in a dwelling to meet the needs of the disabled occupant. Appropriate lighting levels in the home are essential for blind and partially sighted people. That generally means providing significantly more light—around twice as much as for fully— sighted people for general circulation purposes.
§ The purpose of Amendment No. 41 is to ensure that disabled facilities grants are available to facilitate access and movement of the disabled person around the dwelling in order for him to care for dependent children normally resident in the dwelling and in need of such care.
§ Many disabled people are also parents and disabled facilities grants should be available to facilitate those parents caring for their children. I understand that in the past some local authorities have interpreted the legislation dealing with disabled facilities grants concerning access for a disabled person to care for another to refer to care for another disabled person. They have chosen not to interpret it as applying to the care of non-disabled children. Therefore, it is important that disabled facilities grants should be made available to allow disabled parents to care for their children.
§ Amendment No. 41 would allow disabled facilities grants to facilitate access by the disabled occupants to their gardens. Many disabled people spend a large proportion of their time at home. Many are elderly and past employment age. Only one-third of disabled people of employment age are in work. Having access to a garden therefore becomes much more important for their general and mental health and well-being. I beg to move.
§ Lord Dubs
Some years ago when I was in another place one of my constituents was an elderly woman whose husband was seriously disabled and had a progressive condition which prevented him from being able to get into the bath. That lady approached me to ask whether I could arrange with the local authority for a grant to pay for the bath to be taken out and a shower installed, because without a shower it would have been quite impossible for the couple to maintain adequate standards of hygiene.
I took up that matter with the local authority and it proved a long and difficult task. But the point of the story is to show how important it is for people with disabilities to have access to facilities which enable them to maintain decent standards of hygiene.
As Clause 24(1)(d) is worded, it refers to;facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility".It is not clear to me whether we are interpreting the English language differently or whether paragraph (d) is phrased very restrictively. Perhaps the Minister will give 1628 an assurance that it is not meant to be as restrictive as it sounds. If I am wrong, I am sure that the Minister will be as sympathetic to this amendment as he was to one or two earlier amendments.
As regards the amendment dealing with non-disabled dependent children, it may well be that a disabled parent is prevented from looking after a dependent child—the child not being disabled—without some additional features to the dwelling. It would clearly be pretty depressing for a parent who was disabled to feel that he or she could not look after a child simply because of the lack of necessary changes to the flat.
As regards gardens, it seems to me that people, especially in cities, who have the good fortune to have a garden but who are denied access to it because of disability must find that deeply frustrating. I hope that such simple changes to the Bill as envisaged by the amendments will be acceptable to the Minister.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
I support this group of amendments. Amendment No. 37 is especially important to those who are incontinent or paralysed with, for example, skin problems. It is a modest amendment. As I understand it, a housing association tenant would be able to apply for a wider range of adaptations to a bathroom with a special bath, bidet and so on. Amendments Nos. 39 and 42 deal with "soundproofing" and access to a garden. Housing association tenants could also apply for grants in that respect.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Amendment No. 41 is most important. It would enable a disabled parent to care for his or her non-disabled—or, indeed, disabled—child. On the one side, from the point of view of the child there would be a better relationship with the parent and, on the other, one is a better parent if one is independent and can look after one's own child. Indeed, people have confidence and self-esteem if they are able to do so.
My noble friend' s amendment, Amendment No. 37, would have the effect of enabling mandatory disabled facilities grant (DFG) to be given to provide access to a lavatory, wash handbasin, and bath or shower, or a room containing those facilities. I am not sure that the amendment provides the flexibility that we need to enable grant to be given to cover all the circumstances which may arise. It is our intention that help should be available to provide a disabled person with a lavatory, a bath and/or a shower, a wash handbasin, or any combination of those facilities.
My noble friend's amendment would provide for a bath or a shower to be provided, but not both. There may, however, be circumstances where it would be appropriate to provide a disabled facilities grant to cover both. As currently drafted, we believe that Clause 24 achieves our purpose. I hope that that will reassure my noble friend and that he will therefore be able to withdraw his amendment. I appreciate that the wording is a little difficult. I shall look at it again to ensure that it achieves exactly what we wish of it.
Amendment No. 39 provides for mandatory grant to be given to improve or install suitable soundproofing to meet a disabled occupant's needs. I know that it is 1629 important and that some people require peace and quiet in the home on account of their specific disabilities but, because of excessive noise caused by others or from general traffic, they are unable to obtain it.
However, I do not believe that there is a significant number of disabled people for whom the need to be protected from such nuisance is paramount and, therefore, that mandatory grants should be widely available for that purpose. As my noble friend will have observed, Clause 24 ensures that the principal features which are likely to be required to adapt a home for a disabled person are included as specific items for mandatory grant while those which may occur from time to time for specific persons are left to discretionary grant. Local authorities may already consider—and will be able to continue to do so—giving discretionary grant for that purpose as for other individual needs. In our view, the same argument applies to Amendment No. 40 proposing improved lighting systems. We believe that that should come under the discretionary rather than the mandatory heading.
Amendment No. 41 seeks to insert "dependent children" into the provision. Many disabled people are of course parents who have to cope with caring for, and bringing up, small children. We accept entirely therefore that grant to facilitate access and movement by a disabled person around the home in order to care for dependants living there should encompass dependent children. However, paragraph (h) of Clause 24 already achieves that aim. A "child" is a person and is therefore included in the provision. So the amendment is unnecessary.
Amendment No. 42 would allow mandatory grant to be given to provide facilities for a disabled occupant to gain access to a garden. I will take the matter away to check, in particular, if clarification is necessary to ensure that discretionary grant can be given for that purpose. We agree with my noble friend that it should be. With those assurances I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
Perhaps I may comment briefly on what the Minister said as regards care of non-disabled children. I understand that the noble Lord believes that the clause achieves what he would wish. However, it is my understanding that some local authorities have interpreted disabled facilities grants in a more restrictive way; that is to say, that the grant is intended to refer to the care of another disabled person. If local authorities are aware of the Minister's intention, that may well dispose of the matter. But there is an area of doubt. I wonder whether the Minister will accept the fact that local authorities may not always interpret the legislation in the way that he would wish.
I shall certainly take the noble Lord's point on board. However, I have it on the best authority—indeed, the written words in front of me—that what I have said is right. Children are included: all 1630 children, not just disabled children. We shall make clear that our interpretation of the wording is right in guidance to local authorities.
§ Baroness Hamwee
Before the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, responds, I should like to express my support for a review of Clause 24(1)(d). If one takes the logic of the concern, it would be sufficient to provide a lavatory or a bath or a shower or a wash handbasin. That is clearly not what is intended. I believe that reconsideration of that part of the clause would be helpful.
§ Lord Monkswell
Perhaps I may press the Minister on Amendment No. 40 which speaks of improvements to lighting systems which are necessary for disabled people. The noble Lord said that local authorities would have discretion to provide the financial provision for such facilities. I wonder whether that is really satisfactory, bearing in mind the fact that we have talked about the provisions for disabled people in other areas to enable them, for example, to carry on their normal life. Indeed, we actually say, "Yes, they should have a mandatory grant".
Adequate lighting is essential to enable partially-sighted disabled people to carry on their normal life. I should have thought that that provision came into the mandatory category rather than discretionary. I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to reply immediately; perhaps he will take the matter on board and try to find a way of ensuring that such essential requirements are met on a mandatory basis.
I and my colleagues will read the noble Lord's remarks in Hansard. However, I hold to what I said. At present we consider that this is something which should be discretionary rather than mandatory.
§ Lord Swinfen
I should like, first, to thank all Members of the Committee who have contributed to this short debate. My noble friend says that he will look again at the subject of Amendment No. 37. Despite what my noble friend said, I still feel the drafting of the Bill to be extremely bad and misleading. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said—and as I read the Bill—the wording means that you can have a bath or a shower or a lavatory or a wash handbasin. It seems to me that we are going back to early Victorian days. I believe that we have moved further on in that respect. The wording should be redrafted and made clear.
I take the point that sound and lighting may need special detailing for some people. I hope that my noble friend will also reconsider that aspect. Amendment No. 41 deals with the care of children. Children are most important to society. Parents should therefore have the opportunity to bring them up properly under close supervision for their own well-being and, indeed, for the parents' peace of mind. I believe that that provision should be written into the Bill. I hope that my noble friend will consider the matter again.
I refer to gardens. Some 15 years or so ago, when working as an estate agent as part of my career as a surveyor, I looked at what were then brand new houses. 1631 The only way to take a barrow-load of dung to the garden at the back of the house was by wheeling it all the way through the house. If he had steps from the back of the house down into the garden, even if he had a level access at the front a disabled occupant would be stuck in the house, and would not be able to enjoy the garden in any way. There should be proper provision from the house to all parts of the hereditament.
Like my noble friend, I shall consider again the group of amendments between now and the next stage. However, I reserve the right to come back on the amendments if I believe it necessary. If my noble friend is talking to me on other subjects, perhaps we may talk on this group too. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 38 to 42 not moved.]
§ Clause 24 agreed to.
§ Clause 25 [Disabled facilities grants: approval of application]:
Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 43:
Page 15, leave out lines 3 to 5 and insert—
("(3A) In considering whether the relevant works are necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of the disabled occupant, the local housing authority shall—
(3B) The authority mentioned in subsection (3A)(a) shall co-operate in rendering such assistance as is reasonable in the circumstances.").
§ The noble Lord said: I am speaking so frequently, I feel that I should apologise to the Committee for boring it stiff.
§ Lord Swinfen
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that consultation with the welfare authority is ongoing and meaningful and to validate recommendations from professionals other than occupational therapists for disabled facilities grant applications. The amendment is supported by a large number of organisations of and for disabled people and of and for elderly people.
As currently worded in the Bill, the consultation with the welfare authority may be tokenistic and may occur late in the process, leading to an inaccurate assessment being made. This amendment brings the duty to co-operate into line with Clause 164 of the Housing Bill and will ensure that the welfare authority complies with requests for assistance in assessments of disabled facilities grant applications.
Under the Housing Corporation aids and adaptations scheme, grant applications must be supported by,written confirmation from the appropriate Social Services Authority, a general practitioner or other suitably qualified professional where necessary and appropriate to the needs of the individual concerned".The corporation acknowledges that the expertise of some professionals other than occupational therapists qualifies them to make informed recommendations on 1632 aids and adaptations. These professionals have up-to-date information on developments and innovations in their fields and have insight into the specific needs of their client groups.
In many authorities, the demands on occupational therapists are so great that disabled people may have to wait a considerable time before their assessment is carried out. Some people can wait for as long as two and a half years. This goes against the aims of the Government's own community care policies to encourage, empower and enable people to live independently.
Accepting professionals from other professions will ease the backlog for occupational therapists and assist the Government in pursuing a more efficient system which supports and reinforces the concept of independent living for disabled people. I beg to move.
§ Lord Dubs
On an earlier amendment, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, stated that "entertain" meant "consult". Here we have the use of the word "consult" in the Bill. The amendment suggests a rather better and more thorough approach to liaison between social services departments and others with the local housing authority. I believe that that is appropriate.
As drafted, the Bill states,shall consult the welfare authority".That is a rather limp way of saying that there should be proper co-operation between various bodies in order to ensure that the right decisions are made about the needs for the disabled person.
I believe that the amendment improves the drafting of the Bill quite significantly, and adds a little force to what is fairly limp phrasing.
Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)
I support the amendments. As we have heard, in many cases there is a great shortage of occupational therapists, as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said. In many cases the disabled facilities grant is for relatively small items such as handrails for steps or bathrooms. Even then the waiting list for assessment is something like two years. A GP would be very capable of assessing whether the person required those adaptations. This would mean that there would be less time to wait for an assessment, and, by reducing the numbers on the OT waiting lists, it would speed up the process for those who really need a full OT assessment.
Apparently many local authorities are now using OT assistants to undertake assessments for aids and adaptations. Surely other qualified professionals or specialised officers from the relevant disability organisations, such as those referred to by the noble Lord, would be equally suitable as an OT assistant to undertake an assessment.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reply positively. It is quite ridiculous to wait two years for assessment for handrails. Not only is it bad psychologically to lose one's independence, but one 1633 may deteriorate physically and not regain one's independence if one has to wait two years for the wherewithal to manage on one's own.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that my noble friend Lord Ferrers stated that "entertain" meant "consult". I do not believe that he did. I believe he said that "not entertaining" meant "not allowing over the threshold". I am always happy to entertain, consult or allow over the threshold the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Swinfen, but we do not wish to entertain this amendment.
I share my noble friend's concern that it is important that local housing and welfare authorities work closely together in providing for the adaptation needs of disabled people seeking help through disabled facilities grants (DFG). However, I believe that the current provisions already provide for the necessary co-operation and collaboration between the respective authorities, which my noble friend's amendment seeks to achieve.
His amendment would require the housing authority to obtain written confirmation on these matters from either a GP or a qualified professional. I believe that these are matters which welfare authorities already take into account in carrying out their statutory duties to advise the local housing authority on whether proposed adaptations are necessary and appropriate.
It is normally the occupational therapist, as the qualified professional, who provides this assessment having regard to any further care needs the disabled occupant may require.
Under these current arrangements, where a welfare authority has been consulted by the housing authority, it may need to consult others before meeting its responsibility to provide that assessment. This may involve discussions with the applicant's GP, health authority staff and others who are involved in the care and support of the applicant, including agencies, voluntary bodies and anyone else providing care for the applicant such as family members.
The proposed amendment would also require social services departments to co-operate in providing such assistance as is reasonable in the circumstances. Those authorities already have continuing duties under Section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 to provide assistance to disabled people in their area in arranging for adaptation works to be carried out or other facilities required to secure his greater safety, comfort or convenience. Such assistance may involve liaison with the housing authority to see whether an applicant for disabled facilities grants needs further help in meeting his share of the cost of adaptations.
A question was raised on the shortage of OTs. The department is participating in an interdepartmental working group. Its terms of reference are to look at improving the effectiveness of OT service. We believe that that is a better approach to the problem. We feel that my noble friend's amendment is unnecessary and I hope that he will withdraw it.
§ Lord Swinfen
Before I decide what to do with the amendment, can my noble friend tell me what practical 1634 steps the Government are taking to reduce the two to two-and-a-half year waiting time for assessments for adaptations?
§ Lord Swinfen
That is a disappointing tail to a disappointing dog. However, at this hour I do not wish to press the amendment. I shall withdraw it and reserve my right to come back at a later stage of the Bill.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 25 agreed to.
Clause 26 [HMO grants: the interest of the applicant in the property]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 44:
Page 15, leave out lines 27 to 29.
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 44 and to speak to Amendments Nos. 45, 58, 67, 73 and 116. This group of drafting amendments does not change the substance of the measures to any great degree.
§ I deal first with Amendments Nos. 116 and 67. Amendment No. 116 ensures that consents given under Clause 93 can be given for particular cases or descriptions of cases. It provides the Secretary of State with the flexibility to give the various consents in unusual or extreme cases, without changing the general policy. As a consequence of the change, Amendment No. 67 removes the same power from Clause 37, where it is specific to that clause and will therefore be unnecessary once the amendment to Clause 93 has been made.
§ Amendments Nos. 44 and 58 remove from Clauses 26 and 34 provisions on matters dealt with by Clause 140. Amendment No. 45 makes clear that residential occupation does not include holiday lettings and will prevent grant for houses in multiple occupation being given for holiday homes. The amendment will bring the Bill into line with the current legislation in that respect. Amendment No. 73 merely makes a minor stylistic change. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 26, as amended, agreed to.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Clause 27 [HMO grants: certificate required to accompany application]:
Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 45:
Page 15, line 44, after ("(b)") insert (""residential occupation" does not include occupation for a holiday, and").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 27, as amended, agreed to.
§ Clause 28 [HMO grants: prior qualifying period]:
§ [Amendment No. 46 not moved.]
§ On Question, Whether Clause 28 shall stand part of the Bill?1635
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
On this question, I find myself in some difficulty because it seems that, according to what the Minister said earlier, the Government will move amendments to Clause 10. I assume that the amendments will be reflected in Clause 28, which deals with qualifying periods in the same way as Clause 10.
Since the noble Earl is unable to give me anything other than King Lear-like threats that amendments will come in due course but we know not what they are. I imagine that the same position will be taken on Clause 28. If that is wrong, perhaps the noble Earl or the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will tell me. It seems to me that the two clauses are related.
§ Lord Monkswell
I support the thrust of what my noble friend has said. The noble Earl made the chance remark that the Government were thinking of making provision for a reduction in the qualifying period. However, previously he seemed to suggest that there might be situations when the qualifying period could be waived. Bearing in mind the difficulty of giving the precise amendments which might be forthcoming from the Government, I hope that they will consider that there could be circumstances in which the qualifying period would be waived rather than reduced to a shorter period.
King Lear rises again. I cannot tell the noble Lord, Lord Williams, what will be in the amendments. We will bring forward an amendment to enable local authorities to disapply the three-year qualifying period in respect of Clause 28. Circumstances may arise where an ownership condition with the element of local authority discretion needs to be applied to HMO grants. For that reason, we believe that the Secretary of State should retain the appropriate powers, which include the option to vary the period by order. The Secretary of State can do so and I believe I am right in saying that local authorities cannot. I take the point which the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, made. I believe that he is wrong, but I shall bear it in mind.
Clause 28 agreed to.
Clause 29 [HMO grants: purposes for which grant may be given]:
§ [Amendment No. 47 not moved.]
§ Clause 29 agreed to.
§ Clause 30 agreed to.
§ Clause 31 [Power to restrict certain landlord's applications]:
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 48.
Page 18, line 27, after ("is") insert ("not").
§ The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if, in moving this amendment, I speak also to Amendment No. 49, standing in my name, although the amendments address two different matters.
§ Amendment No. 48 is purely designed to elucidate the expressions in Clause 31. I should have thought that in line 27 the word "not" has been left out because, as I read the provision, it does not make much sense. However, if the Minister can assure me that it makes 1636 sense without the "not", I shall be glad to have a full explanation. The ordinary public reading the Bill may not understand why there is no negative in line 27, therefore the ordinary public will rely on Hansard in order to understand what the clause is meant to achieve.
§ On the other hand, Amendment No. 49 is more substantive. It relates to grants to landlords and its purpose is to ensure that such grants are permitted where they are consistent with a local housing authority's private renewal strategy which has been agreed with the Secretary of State. The Government's explanatory paper, The Future of Private Housing Renewal Programmes in England, proposed that most landlords' renovation grants and grants for houses in multiple occupation should be withdrawn and discretionary grants available only in renewal areas.
§ The retention of local authority powers to give grant aid to landlords in the Bill is a welcome change to those proposals. It represents government recognition that landlord grant is an important component of the powers that local authorities have to effect improvements in private rented housing.
§ Clause 31, however, appears to contradict that policy intention by including a wide-ranging power for the Secretary of State to restrict the use of landlord grant by order. This amendment seeks to remove such power from the Secretary of State in relation to grants which make a contribution to meeting the strategic aims of local authorities. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
If I understand Clause 31(1) correctly, I think I prefer it without "not". It seems to start from the presumption of local authority discretion which may then be reduced by the Secretary of State rather than putting the power first in the hands of the Secretary of State. However, it is for the Government to defend their wording.
I want in particular to support Amendment No. 49. Last night, as I was putting together papers for today's proceedings, I had the usual evening courier delivery from my own local authority, Richmond. It happened to include a newsletter on Richmond's private sector housing strategy. It seems that the contents of the agenda for a recent meeting, which are reported in that newsletter, go a very long way to support this amendment.
To give the Committee a flavour of what is dealt with in such a private sector housing forum, the agenda included feedback from sub-groups on an advice pack for landlords and on an accreditation scheme for landlords. It included a building society presentation on mortgage lenders' attitudes to property rental and on the implications for mortgage indemnity insurance; an item on the role of the local housing advice team; and a housing benefit update. That sort of forum is a very valuable tool, bringing together the various parties and players on the housing scene. I therefore very much support the amendment.
So far as Amendment No. 48 is concerned, I share the preference of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for the way things are in the Bill. Of course it would be possible to construct the negative 1637 within the positive, and vice versa, and to use whichever version were to pass into final legislation to achieve either a positive or negative effect. But if ever we were to do anything under Clause 31 as it is at the moment, which we have no current intention of doing, we should be intending to exclude some category of area, rather than any class of landlord, from the application of the scheme. Therefore we should prefer the present wording.
Amendment No. 49 would allow any restrictions on eligibility of landlords' applications imposed by the Secretary of State in an order to be overridden where the application conformed with the local authority's private housing renewal strategy; or, if Amendment No. 48 were passed, it would do exactly the opposite.
It is not our present intention that any order should be made under Clause 31. However, were there to be any, this amendment would allow a local authority's strategy, which has no legal force, to take precedence over a decision based on primary legislation.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. Are not the private housing renewal strategies of local authorities agreed with the Secretary of State? Therefore does not that strategy itself have some governmental authority?
I suppose that there are degrees and degrees. Currently we have no plans and no intention to introduce any restrictions under Clause 31. Were we to use this power and were we to phrase it in a way that overrode a local authority's strategic plan, we would do it with that intention. That is the way we would wish it to be in the legislation; namely, that in the end we would assert the primacy of Parliament over local authorities. That is stretching the imagination somewhat since we currently have no particular requirement that would fit under this clause. However, given that the clause is there, we should like it to be in its present form to give us the powers and the pattern we have requested. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. I accept his comments and those of the noble Baroness on my Amendment No. 48. Reading through the Bill, it seemed slightly confusing. I always prefer to avoid double negatives where possible. But if that is the way the parliamentary draftsman wants it, that is the way the parliamentary draftsman gets it.
On Amendment No. 49, I am bound to say that I found the noble Lord's reply very much less than satisfactory. It is after all a local authority which makes a private housing renewal strategy. That strategy is agreed with the Secretary of State. The agreement therefore gives to the local authority a status which should not be overridden by order. The noble Lord said that they had no intention of doing any such thing. If they have no intention of doing any such thing, why leave a clause as such in the Bill? If the Secretary of State has the right—which he has—to disagree with the local authority's private housing 1638 renewal strategy, why would he want to issue an order overriding that strategy when he has agreed it? I simply do not understand why the noble Lord wants this clause in the Bill. Perhaps he will elucidate.
So far as I understand it, we may approve or disapprove of a local authority's strategy, but we do not write it. There may well be occasions when that strategy cuts across what we would wish to achieve. What we are specifying here is our ability to exclude various areas from the scope of this particular grant. That is something we feel we should be able to do. But I do not see how the noble Lord can say that a local authority should be granted an exemption from a direction by the Secretary of State if that is what the Secretary of State wishes to do and has taken proper power for that in legislation.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
No, but we have a very odd situation here. As I understand it, and subject to anything that the noble Lord may say, a local housing authority's private renewal strategy is agreed with the department (with the Secretary of State). Once that has been agreed by central Government, that seems to have an authority. If, after that, the Secretary of State decides that he does not like the strategy, that is tough luck. He should have said that before he agreed it. No local authority can work with a Secretary of State saying, "Well, I'll agree your strategy, but in half an hour's time I may change my mind and issue an order under Section 31". It makes no sense.
I have to return to what I said. The strategy is evolved by the local authority. It is the authority's strategy. The Secretary of State is notified of it, but it is not something to which he gives his blessing or which requires his blessing. We are examining the Government's ability to put a restriction on what may be done as a result of that strategy. To me, that seems entirely proper.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I do not think I shall get much further with this argument. I shall reflect on what the noble Lord said. It seems to me that once the Secretary of State, in whatever manifestation it may be, has been notified, has not objected and has essentially agreed a strategy, it is then unnecessary and indeed divisive and undesirable for the Secretary of State then to issue an order under this section, saying, "No, I disagree. I shall use the authority that I have under statute to renege on that." Nevertheless, I feel that we shall not get much further with that argument. I shall certainly read with the greatest care what the noble Lord said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 49 not moved.]
§ Clause 31 agreed to.
§ Clause 32 agreed to.
§ Clause 33 [Means testing in case of application by owner-occupier or tenant]:
Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 50:
Page 19, line 24, after ("a") insert ("mandatory or discretionary").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment stands in the names of my noble friend Lord Dubs and of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I also speak to Amendment No. 51.
§ The purpose of these amendments is to ensure that the definition of "relevant persons" for the disabled facilities grant means test for mandatory and discretionary grants excludes non-disabled owner-occupiers, their partners and dependants. The Government have indicated in their explanatory paper, The Future of Private Housing Renewal Programmes in England, that there will be a change in the means test for disabled facilities grants. Such a change does not appear on the face of the Bill. It will apparently be implemented in regulations which determine the means test for grants to be made under Clause 33(5).
§ We expect that the regulations will follow the general principles set out in the explanatory paper; namely, that for mandatory disabled facilities grants only the means of a disabled applicant, and parents in the case of those under 18, will be taken into account, but in the case of discretionary disabled facilities grant the current arrangements will remain.
§ I hope very much that the noble Lord will be able to accept the amendments or at least assure us that the principle enshrined in the amendments is accepted by the Government. I beg to move.
Amendment No. 50 seeks specifically to apply the means test provisions in Clause 33 to any application for either a mandatory or a discretionary disabled facilities grant. But Clause 33 does not distinguish between those classes of grant and applies equally to both. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Amendment No. 51 would exclude from the means test provisions owners of the dwelling who themselves are not disabled in the case of an application for a disabled facilities grant.
I have some sympathy with the intention behind the noble Lord's amendment, which seeks to achieve changes to the means test, to which we are already committed. We have already announced our proposal, as the noble Lord said, to make changes to the test to require that for mandatory grant only the means of the disabled occupant and his spouse or partner will be taken into account. However, those are matters which are more appropriate for inclusion in regulations, rather than being set out in primary legislation. That enables matters concerned with the way in which the means test works to be revised from time to time, should that prove necessary, which would not be possible if the provisions were included in the primary legislation.
With that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
I am grateful to the noble Lord for the fact that the Government have sympathy with Amendment No. 51, which is quite an important amendment. On the basis of the assurances that he gave, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 51 not moved.]
This may be a convenient moment to break. I beg to move that the House be now resumed. In moving that Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.25 p.m.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.