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Lord Monkswell: Perhaps I may press the Minister further as regards his explanation. It seems to me that, given the small percentage of grant applications which would be over the £20,000 limit, the department should have some information about those grants. What is the general reason for grant applications of that order of magnitude? Is it because people living in stately homes require facilities to be able to get to the gun room or the east wing or the west wing and so on; or is it because the disability of the applicant is so severe and special that he needs special and expensive provision?

If the latter is the case, it may be that if the grant is not forthcoming, that disabled person will fall to be supported by public funds in some other way, perhaps as a chronic invalid in hospital needing some form of high-intensive care. That might cost the state quite a lot more than making the necessary adaptations to his home and may well cost more than £20,000.

I appreciate that the Minister may not have thought of that particular angle, but I am sure that the department and his officials will have some information regarding those very large sums of money which are being applied for. If he does not have the information this evening, perhaps he will provide those of us who have contributed to the debate with that information before Report stage.

9 p.m.

Lord Lucas: If I can, I shall certainly provide the noble Lord with that information. However, I am clear that it applies where individuals have particular needs which are expensive to meet but which need to be met. We are confident that local authorities can be trusted with the discretion that we believe they should have to deal with those particularly expensive cases in the best way. That is why we support the Bill as it is and not my noble friend's amendments.

Lord Monkswell: Perhaps I may suggest that, if there is a choice between the local authority exercising discretion and spending more money than the £20,000 and the local health authority providing the facilities to enable the disabled person to carry on his or her existence, then, bearing in mind the local authority's fiduciary duty to council tax payers, it might quite reasonably take the view that the health authority should pick up the tab rather than the local authority.

Lord Lucas: That is not our experience of local authorities.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, perhaps I may assist the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell. If it is found to be necessary to build on an extension to a home to provide either a room in which to sleep at the entrance level or a room with a bath or shower and washhand basin and

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a lavatory, the building cost could quite easily run over £20,000; indeed, there is no great difficulty in that respect. However, that will not happen in many cases.

I believe that my noble friend should look most carefully at the comparison regarding the expenditure of providing adaptations and the cost of keeping a disabled person in a residential home; or, indeed, in hospital. If a person has to be kept in a residential home rather than in his home, then someone else will probably have to be kept in hospital rather than in the residential home. That is even more expensive. However, I shall consider my noble friend's response and, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 62 not moved.]

Clause 36 agreed to.

Clause 37 [Decision and notification]:

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 63:

Page 21, line 41, leave out ("six") and insert ("three").

The noble Lord said: In moving the above amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 69 and 70. The purpose of the amendments is to give a local housing authority up to three months rather than the proposed six months to notify an applicant for grant as to whether the application has been approved or refused. Adaptations are often vital to enable many disabled people to remain living in their own homes. The main route to them is through the disabled facilities grant system. Without accessible housing, neither community care nor independent living for disabled people is possible. The provision of suitable accommodation is of central importance.

The present system of DFGs has some serious drawbacks. One of the most frequently encountered problems is the long delay in obtaining agreement for the grant and then further delays while the work is undertaken. Local housing authorities currently have up to six months to decide whether to approve or refuse an application. In many cases it is normal practice routinely to take the full six months. The work itself then has to be arranged and can take some time to complete. Delays of a year from requesting an assessment to work starting are very common. That delay presents serious problems for disabled people who do not have accessible accommodation.

In particular, such delays have a most serious effect on people waiting to be discharged from hospital who require work to their accommodation before they can do so. Those individuals can be left for long periods of time in hospital when there is no need for it. It is not only frustrating for such people and their families but is also an inappropriate use of hospital beds and most expensive.

For people awaiting adaptations who are living in inaccessible accommodation, the delays also present problems. Many people will not be able to get in and out of their homes or will not have access to lavatories or bathrooms. In some cases they will be living in unsafe situations. That will often lead to increased care requirements, including support from social services.

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The additional costs of someone waiting in hospital for a disabled facilities grant to be agreed and adaptations undertaken are immense. For example, Department of Health statistics for the cost of a geriatric bed--such beds are very often used by severely physically disabled people--show a cost of £791 and a few pence per week. That means that, if the person remains in hospital only because his or her accommodation requires adaptations and he or she is waiting for a disabled facilities grant application under the current system, it will cost £20,577 to keep that person in hospital while the application is processed. By reducing from six to three months the time that local authorities can take to process such applications, there would be a saving in excess of £10,000.

Although it is not possible to remove all the waiting time for disabled facilities grants, the period should at least be kept to a minimum. A time of three months should be more than adequate for any local housing authority to agree an application. Some local authorities which currently try to minimise delays decide on DFGs within weeks rather than months. Ensuring that the local housing authority decision is taken within a reasonable time cuts down considerably on the delays and has a tremendous effect on the speed with which the adaptations can be undertaken, thus greatly benefiting the disabled person requiring accessible accommodation. I beg to move.

Lord Dubs: When legislation refers to a period "not later than six months", there is a danger that a local authority will consider the provision and that six months will become the norm rather than an exceptionally long period.

There seem to be two arguments as to why one should keep to a minimum the length of time that people have to wait. First, when a person has to face disability--the condition may become worse fairly rapidly--it is surely right that he should have the benefit of having any improvements or changes to his home carried out as quickly as possible. Otherwise the situation for a disabled person may become well nigh intolerable.

Secondly, money might be saved, as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, made clear, if such improvements were carried out quickly; otherwise the disabled person might have to stay longer in hospital or in some other form of care--a fairly costly business. In many instances, if the disabled person can resume living in his or her home as quickly as possible, the net benefit may well be significant.

Faced with those compelling arguments, I hope that the Minister will consider the amendments sympathetically.

Lord Swinfen: Before my noble friend replies, perhaps I may add this. Inadvertently I did not speak to Amendments Nos. 69 and 70, which are grouped with Amendment No. 63. The two amendments place a duty on local authorities to commence payment of a grant immediately upon completion of the works, and remove the delay of 12 months proposed for the payment of disabled facilities grants.

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Adaptations can commonly take up to three years from the date of application to be completed. There may be delays in assessment and processing of grant applications followed by lengthy building works. Any further delay caused by allowing local authorities to delay payment for 12 months from the date of application will exacerbate an already intolerable situation for disabled people and their carers.

Lord Lucas: I am sad to say that we disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, on Amendment No. 63. We believe that in the worst cases a local authority could quite reasonably require six months to decide on an application. The Bill places a duty on authorities to notify an applicant of their determination as soon as reasonably practicable. The period of six months is, therefore, the maximum amount of time allowed. It should not be the norm. As my noble friend pointed out, it is often by no means the norm.

Under the new system, with the pressures off the remainder of the monetary grant system, we believe that there is no reason why most applications should be delayed anything like as long as six months.

Amendments Nos. 69 and 70 would require authorities to pay grant or, if instalments have been paid, the balance, immediately after the completion of the eligible works. As regards the payment of grant generally, we believe that authorities must have some flexibility over this, and Clause 38 as drafted gives them that flexibility. My noble friend's amendments would mean that authorities' ability to manage their financial resources would be greatly reduced, and I must make it clear that we do not wish to go down that road. There are also practical implications to the introduction of the term "immediately" which I am sure my noble friend will appreciate if he allows his imagination to run on for a while.

I appreciate that what I have said is not particularly encouraging to my noble friend. Nonetheless, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

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