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After Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

Grants for home improvement agencies

(".--(1) Grants may be made available in accordance with this Chapter through home improvement agencies.
(2) Local housing authorities may contribute to the establishment and running of home improvement agencies through funds which would otherwise be available for making grants in accordance with this Chapter.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in this amendment we return to the subject of home improvement agencies. When in Committee, we were discussing their role, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said:

    "We greatly value that work and are keen to see the services of those agencies become widely available".--[Official Report, 26/3/96; col. 1589.]
I endorse that support. Home improvement agencies, often called "care and repair" or "staying put", help people who are old or who have a disability, or both, or who are living on a low income, to repair and adapt homes which are unfit or unsuitable. Their particular role is assisting people through what can often be a very daunting task in dealing with repairs and alterations, deciding what work has to be done, arranging finance and organising and overseeing the building work. I recall at Committee stage, in supporting an amendment regarding home improvement agencies, that I did so by challenging noble Lords to recall their own experience of any building work. It is generally uncomfortable to live through and difficult to organise.

The 200 agencies countrywide, 144 of which receive financial support from the Department of the Environment, target resources at those who are most in need. They are cost effective and have developed an expertise in identifying low-cost solutions. They contribute to the renewal of the housing stock which, whether we are saying it in a purpose clause or not, is what this Bill aims at doing. I am told that their ethos is that the services are person-centred in helping people

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to undertake work they feel is important thereby assisting them to stay at home with the dignity and independence one would want to see.

I propose the amendment because I am concerned to ensure that the work of home improvement agencies can continue. Subsection (1) of the amendment provides that grants may be made through those agencies. Subsection (2) is to enable local authorities, if contributing to the establishment and running of the agencies--and they will have to find the funds from somewhere--to use funds which might otherwise be available for direct grants to home owners, landlords and so on.

It is intended to support local strategies and discretion. A local strategy is determining how best to spend the cash available. I take the view that pump priming can often be a very good use of money, and that is the context in which I see the amendment. It is not an argument for less to be spent on repairs themselves but merely a proposal to facilitate the work of the home improvement agencies and to make the best use of the funds which are available. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, we discussed home improvement agencies in Committee. I share her enthusiasm and that of my noble friend Lord Ferrers for these agencies. They are small, voluntary bodies offering a personal service. We admire them greatly and, as the noble Baroness said, we support many of them. However, the noble Baroness's amendment would change the characteristics that make them so valuable.

The amendment would do two things. First, it would enable grants to be made available through home improvement agencies. But the administration of grants is a complex business. Some aspects, such as considering the needs of individual applicants and investigating the state of the property, may well be tasks that home improvement agencies are equipped to carry out. Many authorities use HIAs as their agencies for this kind of activity. It requires no change to the Bill to enable them to go on doing so.

However, what the noble Baroness appears to want is to enable home improvement agencies also to take on other aspects of the operation of the grant regime. Those matters are properly for the local authorities themselves--matters like the consideration of priorities; developing and carrying out strategies; the consideration of choice between deserving applicants; enforcing grant conditions, including obtaining repayments where appropriate; accounting for large amounts of grant moneys; and claiming subsidies from central government. Such matters are properly the job of accountable local authorities; HIAs are not equipped to deal with them.

Secondly, the amendment would allow authorities to use the resources they have for undertaking private sector renewal to fund the establishment and operation of home improvement agencies. Under the present arrangements, HIAs obtain funds from various sources. I have already mentioned the subsidy which the Government pay. This meets up to half of the running costs of those agencies which are supported. Agencies obtain the remainder of their funds from other sources,

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including charitable donations and other private sector sources, but their main source is undoubtedly local authorities. Some of the support is paid in the form of direct subsidies towards administrative costs. Some is received in the form of fees for work undertaken in connection with individual grant applications.

What is unacceptable in the amendment is the idea that local authorities should be able to divert resources intended for use on private sector renewal activities, such as giving grants, to support the administration of HIAs. If an authority wants to support an agency because it thinks that is a good way of administering some aspect of the grant system in its area, it should meet the cost from its own resources. The annual revenue support settlement allows for administrative costs. It would be wrong to allow local authorities to use money specifically voted for private sector renewal for administration.

I have stressed the value that we see in home improvement agencies, but, for the reasons I have given, I do not believe that the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness would help to improve that value. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

5 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the noble Lord has raised a number of matters which require response. First, he said that the administration of grants is complex. I agree with that. However, the noble Lord makes me wonder why, since I am not proposing any change in the regime, he objects to the first part of the proposed new clause which states:

    "Grants may be made available".
I repeat that I have used the word "may". The new clause does not state that the administration of grants "shall" invariably be through home improvement agencies. It is accepted that, by and large, they are doing a good job. I am not seeking to give them the whole of the job; nor to do more than enable local authorities to continue to use a good and, I suspect, relatively cheap mechanism.

I turn secondly to the question of funding. The main source of funding for home improvement agencies is local authorities. I sought to raise the issue because increasingly the funds which local authorities have to spend are not raised through council tax--between 85 and 86 per cent. of local authority expenditure generally comes by way of grant--and there is an increasing tendency to ring-fence the grant which central government makes to local authorities; in other words, for the Government to say, "You can have this money, but we will tell you what to spend it on".

I am concerned that the amount of money available for local authorities to use in a discretionary fashion is reducing year on year. It seems to me that it would be entirely appropriate to use money identified for home improvements in the best way and to make the best use of the administrative mechanisms which the local authority can identify, whether within or outside the local authority. The noble Lord said that it would be

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wrong to use money voted for renewal on administration. I do not think that that argument holds good because the amendment specifically gives the local authority the option to choose how to use the money, so the question of voting it for a particular purpose does not arise. In any event, as we know, a certain amount of administration is always necessary.

Nevertheless, I shall consider further what the noble Lord said, although he has made me more, rather than less, concerned about the issue. I shall read his words in Hansard, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Renovation grants: owner's applications and tenant's applications]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 6:

Page 4, line 8, leave out ("proposes to acquire") and insert ("is in the process of acquiring").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 6, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 7. In Committee, my noble friend proposed that the phrase "proposes to acquire" should be deleted and replaced by the words,

    "in the process of acquiring".
At that point the Government undertook to consider the suggestion, and it is my purpose in moving this amendment to see what came of the Government's consideration. I fully understand that it is right and proper that, as Clause 7 suggests, before giving renovation grants there should be a commitment to acquire the property. That is provided for in Clause 7(1)(a). The same point arises--and we suggest the same change of wording--in relation to Clause 7(1)(b).

It seems to me that it is much clearer to say that an applicant is in the process of acquiring the property. That means that certain steps have been taken with a view to acquiring the property. Such steps are clear and can be objectively seen, but the phrase "proposes to acquire" could simply mean an intention. It could mean, "I would like to do that if I could". That seems rather vague. Local authorities would be helped by having a clearer statement than that which is currently in the Bill. Therefore, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment. I beg to move.

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