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Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 14:


Page 8, line 1, at beginning insert--
("( ) A local housing authority must approve any application for a renovation grant in respect of the following--
(a) unfit properties occupied by a person with a disability,

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(b) unfit properties occupied by a person who is receiving services or grants for services from the local welfare authority as part of a care package under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is designed to ensure that renovation grants remain mandatory for certain vulnerable groups in particular need of good housing.

The system which exists at present for mandatory renovation grants of unfit housing was considered first in 1985. Since then, public expenditure on housing renewal grants has fallen dramatically. The overall level of resources invested in grants in England has fallen from £1.5 billion in 1983-84 to under £0.4 billion in 1994-95. In 1994, only 40,000 renovation grants were provided compared with 214,000 improvement, repair and intermediary grants when the grant system was at its peak in 1984.

That would be understandable if housing conditions were improving in a similarly dramatic fashion. However, that is not the case. Figures for the English House Conditions Survey show that the number of unfit dwellings fell hardly noticeably from 1.6 million to 1.5 million between 1986 and 1991. One in six homes--that is about 3.5 million--require urgent repairs costing over £1,000. That means that there are probably well over 2 million people in this country who are living in housing which is in a state of poor repair or lacks such basic amenities that it is classed as being unfit for human beings to live in.

Surely people should not be living in unfit housing in a modern, civilised society. The mandatory renovation grant, which was introduced in 1989, was a recognition of that unacceptable situation and an attempt to provide government funding targeted on those on the lowest incomes to address the situation. The proposals in this Bill abolish mandatory renovation grants and signal the end of that attempt to set a minimum standard and to provide help to low income groups in meeting that standard. That is a change of policy which will affect not only older and disabled people but also others on low incomes in poor housing. However, the proposals are likely to have a disproportionately harmful effect on disabled people and those requiring community care services.

The amendment seeks to ensure that the most vulnerable groups who are likely to be most harmed by living in unfit housing retain the protection of a mandatory grant. The amendment will mean that anyone who is disabled under the terms of the Bill or who is receiving care services as part of a community care package will be entitled to a mandatory grant if he or she is living in unfit housing and is on a sufficiently low income to be eligible for grant aid under the means test.

It seems to me vital that there should be special provision for those people for a number of reasons. First, such people may be less able to carry out every-day maintenance, unlike a fit young couple who may be able to carry out do-it-yourself works to maintain their homes. The homes of those who are disabled or in receipt of care services, the vast majority

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of whom will probably be elderly people, are more likely to fall into disrepair as they are unable to carry out every-day maintenance.

Older people may occupy unmodernised older housing in many places, having lived there for most of their lives. In later life they may find it difficult to undertake or finance works to bring their homes up to acceptable levels of fitness. Disabled people, a large number of whom are elderly, and those in receipt of care services are also likely to be on lower incomes than the majority of the population as they may be less able to secure well-paid employment and so are reliant on state benefit.

I spoke on this subject in Committee and my noble friend has been kind enough to write to me since that time. I have removed from the amendment the fact that it dealt with elderly people and I have concentrated basically on disabled people. I hope that it will now find favour with the Government. I beg to move.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I should very much like to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I know that we discussed a related amendment earlier this afternoon. But perhaps I may give an example of why I believe that this amendment is particularly important.

Some years ago I was canvassing in a local election campaign and I was invited into a basement flat by an elderly woman who said that she wanted to discuss a particular problem and wondered whether I could be helpful. It was a winter's evening so the flat was dark. There were two elderly women living there. They said that they would like to offer me a cup of tea but they had no light in the kitchen. I asked why that was so and they told me that the lighting was defective and they did not know how to put it in order. In this case it so happened that by climbing on to a table and dealing with the electrics for three or four minutes I was able to get the light working in the kitchen. Not many canvassers are fortunate enough to be able to make instant repairs while canvassing for political support. But the point was that those elderly women were willing to devise a way of coping throughout the whole of the winter without having any light in the kitchen. I asked how they managed and they said that they cooked in daylight and ate the food cold in the evenings because they could not find their way round the kitchen in the dark.

Clearly, this amendment deals with far more substantial improvements to make a building fit than the example that I have given. But there are elderly disabled people--and those two ladies were elderly and had disabilities--who may be unwilling to go through the process of having to apply for a discretionary grant. It would give them a sense of self-respect if they felt that, where they had good reason for improving an unfit property, they could do so because the local authority would provide grants on a mandatory basis. The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, has an important point and one which I hope that the Government will accept.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, I should like to support the amendment moved so powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I do not think that any of us in any part

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of the House would argue with the concept that it is quite wrong that disabled people should have to continue to live in unfit homes. They should, therefore, have a priority in such matters. Even though we have covered this ground before, I believe that this issue needs to be looked at most closely, at least on human grounds if on no others.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I should like to express my support for the amendment. However, when I first read it, I wrote on my paperwork that it was "a bit strong". The reason I say that is that it says that:


    "A local housing authority must approve any application".
That is pretty strong language. It would mean that a local authority "must" provide the grant for disabled people living in unfit properties.

As I said, the language is strong but it is only right, in the last decade of the 20th century in Great Britain, that we should be prepared to take strong action to deal with the problem that presents itself of disabled people living in unfit properties. The Government may possibly say, "Well, this could result in vast committed expenditure for improvements to unfit properties". There are, however, two responses to that approach.

First, it is a pretty shocking state of affairs if adherence to the new clause would effectively require vast commitments of public money. One might ask how the dwellings got into such a state in the first place. Secondly, we must recognise that over time the risk of a precipitate, large increase in public expenditure would probably be alleviated. It is to be hoped that in time the commitments and requirements of local authorities under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 to monitor the needs of members of their community in terms of the assistance that they require and the proper discretionary provision under the Bill would ensure that there is no desperate need in future years. Even though the strong language used by the amendment would probably lead to a precipitate increase in public expenditure, I hope that the Government will accept that that increase is totally justified if it prevents disabled people living in unfit housing.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, the amendment is in some ways a pair to Amendment No. 5. The latter amendment sought to make it mandatory for grants to be given for disabled facilities in an unfit dwelling, whereas this amendment looks at it the other way around and seeks mandatory grants to make the dwelling fit.

The amendment seeks to remove the local housing authority's discretion in approving an application for renovation grant by making grant mandatory where an unfit dwelling is occupied by someone who is disabled or who is receiving assistance as part of a care package under the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990.

We share the concern of my noble friend Lord Swinfen that help should be made available to those very vulnerable people. That is why we propose to retain mandatory disabled facilities grant in a system which would otherwise be wholly discretionary. We are also

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proposing to replace minor works assistance, which has been such a useful tool in helping to implement community care packages, with a new grant--home repair assistance--which gives wider scope and availability to just those categories of applicant which concern my noble friend.

In drawing up the proposals, we gave much thought to whether the link under the 1989 Act between the fitness standards and disabled facilities grants should be retained. We understand that in some cases applicants in need of adaptations to their homes are deterred from applying for grant by the upheaval and disturbance likely to be caused by major renovation works. We therefore concluded that it would be better to leave it to the discretion of the local authority in each case to decide to what extent the works are essential to the health and safety of the applicant, or whether a more minor patch-and-mend grant would be sufficient to deal with the necessary repairs with the minimum of disturbance to the applicant. I can assure my noble friend that, as I said on the subject of Amendment No. 5, we shall be issuing guidance to local authorities as to how they should use that discretion.

I was also delighted to learn that people receiving canvassers from this House should have such happy expectations as regards their lighting. Not only the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, but also the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, are quick to repair lights when canvassing. However, if I was canvassing, the old ladies concerned would also have the pleasure of calling the ambulance afterwards. With those reassurances, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.


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