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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

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parents, small in number though they may be, should be included in any national estimate of the number of houses that require disabled adaptations.

Lord Lucas: 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

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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,

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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.

Earl Ferrers: 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

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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.

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