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The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): I should mention to the Committee that as Amendment No. 95 is also being spoken to, if Amendment No. 95 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 96 to 98 inclusive.
Lord Dubs: I should like to refer briefly to a number of the amendments which are grouped together. Amendment No. 95 is similar to Amendment No. 94 but it contains two additional provisions. It covers thermal insulation and the possibility of grants for buildings located in a clearance area.
Amendment No. 96 seeks to enable local authorities to continue to fund patch and mend grants for dwellings subject to clearance action. The difficulty is that when a house is in a clearance area it tends to become dilapidated and the conditions for the persons living in such a house can be intolerable. The idea is that local authorities should be able to provide small sums of money, for example, to ensure that a property is wind and weather proof, so that tiles may be replaced on a leaking roof or other such items, enabling the persons living in such a house to live in reasonably tolerable conditions until the clearance date comes along.
Amendment No. 98 is rather different. It seeks to ensure that the limit on home repair assistance is uprated annually in line with inflation. That would seem to be a fair proposition. I accept that the RPI may not be the best index for these purposes, as it may not specifically reflect prices in the building industry. It may therefore be appropriate to use another index which is more closely linked to building and construction work. The important thing is that there should be some form of index linking to ensure that the value of the grant is maintained whatever the level of inflation.
Amendment No. 99 is concerned with the residence requirement in subsection (4) of the clause. The principle should be that home repair assistance should be available to those who have lived in their home for less than three years. It may well be that people who are declining in health may move to a smaller and more manageable property and it would be difficult for them to have to wait three years before they could qualify for the grant. It seems to me that it would not be right that somebody should have to wait three years simply because that seems to be a reasonable length of time in which to establish that they are living in their new property. When people's health is in decline, they may be prompted to move to a smaller or more manageable house or flat. The intention behind the amendment is that the three-year limit should not apply in such cases.
Amendment No. 100 concerns lead piping. I have the privilege of serving on Sub-Committee C of the European Communities Committee. We recently produced a report on lead in drinking water which I hope will be debated in this Chamber before too long. It is a report on drinking water quality as a whole. One of the conclusions in the report is that it is important significantly to reduce the amount of lead contained in drinking water. Some of the lead comes through pipes owned by the water companies. That is believed to affect around 8.2 million households. In other instances, households themselves have lead in their internal piping, and that is believed to affect around 8.9 million households. The amendment is specifically concerned with people who have lead in their own homes. In hard water areas that situation may not be so serious, but in soft water areas it is clearly a danger to health if there should be any significant quantity of lead in the water supply.
I hope that, when this Chamber debates the report of the Select Committee together with the Government's response, more attention will be focused on the quality of our drinking water and in particular on the lead within it. It therefore seems appropriate, in anticipation of such a debate, that this Bill should contain somewhat better provision to enable people who are not in receipt of state benefits but are on low incomes, to secure grants to enable them to deal with lead piping contained with their homes.
Finally, Amendment No. 102 deals with grants to people who live in houseboats. As the Bill stands, there is a constraint on grants to houseboat owners. It seems to me that as the grant we are discussing is in any case subject to local authority discretion, there is no need to add further constraints. The local authority can make its own judgment as to the risks of abuse in the case of any specific grant. The amendment therefore seeks to make such a grant available provided that,
Lord Lucas: Amendments Nos. 94 and 100 seek to identify elderly and disabled people as specifically eligible for home repair assistance and to provide for their needs separately. However, it was our intention that their needs should be covered in Clause 77(2) and (5). It was our intention to refer to "infirm" rather than "disabled" people to ensure that assistance is available to a wider group. However, given the concern raised by my noble friend, we will give this matter some further thought and revert to him before Report.
Turning to Amendments Nos. 95 and 96, home repair assistance builds on the success of minor works assistance and enhances it by increasing its potential availability. It provides for the payment of grants or the provision of materials necessary to carry out works of repair, adaptation or improvement to enable an applicant to remain living in his own home.
This broader description incorporates all the works for which minor works assistance is currently payable, which includes such small scale repairs as suggested by "patch and mend". I believe it is unnecessary as proposed in Amendments Nos. 95 and 96 to have these purposes and works listed separately, as in the current legislation. I can confirm that buildings in clearance areas can get assistance. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will agree with me on that.
Amendment No. 98 seeks to establish an annual increase in the total amount of value of home repair assistance that may be given by linking such an amount or value to the retail prices index. There is already provision in Clause 76 for the rates to be uprated where that is appropriate and I do not believe it would be helpful to have an annual increase.
Amendment No. 99 seeks to remove the prior residency requirement in all cases where the applicant does not have an owner's interest but occupies the property under a right of exclusive occupation for life or more than five years. We believe that the prior residence criteria should apply across the board for this category as they are a protection against potential abuse in the area of non-standard tenancy arrangements. It is relatively easy to establish a grant eligible person in a non-standard tenancy with the aim of securing grant assistance.
Amendment No. 101 would disapply the income related benefit provision for all applications in respect of works to replace lead pipes and apply the test of resources as defined for renovation grants to any applicant. We do not believe this amendment is necessary. Assistance for work to replace lead pipes can already be given to any qualifying applicant in receipt of income related benefits under the present minor works assistance provisions. This is carried forward into the wider purposes of home repair assistance.
I do not believe it would be helpful to introduce help for a wider group of people and use of the main grant means test. This undermines the intended simplicity of the operation of home repair assistance. There will be nothing to prevent those who fall outside the current scope of Chapter III to apply for a discretionary renovation grant.
Amendment No. 102 seeks to remove the three-year qualifying period from an applicant living in a houseboat as his only or main residence and the requirement that his dwelling has been moored during that period at the same mooring and therefore within the same local authority area. Because of the more unusual nature of this type of dwelling, we believe that our proposed conditions of grant should remain, as they represent a safeguard against potential abuse. However, the noble Lord has identified that it is not easy to tie
This should deal with the situation where houseboats travel from their mooring for short periods of time, such as weekend trips on the river or holiday boating. I hope that the noble Lord will not feel it necessary to move his amendment and that he will support others. With those assurances, I hope that the various amendments will, when the time comes, be either withdrawn or not moved.
Lord Dubs: Perhaps I may comment briefly on a couple of points that the Minister made. I am disappointed that he cannot be more flexible about Amendment No. 97 concerning the three-year qualifying period. It seems to me that that can be pretty harsh on people who have moved house, as I have said. I hope that he will be able to think again on this matter.
As regards linking the level of home repair assistance grant to the retail prices index, the Minister said that it would not be appropriate to make such a link. By not making such a link, one is effectively reducing the maximum level of such a grant because of inflation. I would have thought that the words "not appropriate" are themselves not appropriate, as applied to this concept.
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