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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.

Lord Lucas: 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,


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

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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

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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.

Earl Ferrers: 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

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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

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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.]

26 Mar 1996 : Column 1620


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