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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I wish to ask the Minister a question. He may feel that the answer is so obvious that the question should not be asked, but experience has taught me that it is better to ask. The question is whether subsections (2) and (3) of Amendment No. 108 limit subsection (1). In other words, is a person to be taken to be disabled if, and only if, the conditions set out in subsections (2) and (3) apply? Alternatively, may a person be regarded as disabled under subsection (1)(a),(b) or (c), but without the application of subsections (2) or (3)?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, let me give immediate comfort to the noble Baroness. Subsections (2) and (3) in Amendment No. 108 passport people into subsection (1). That subsection is a defining clause; subsections (2) and (3) state that people who qualify under those also qualify under subsection (1) and no arguments will be admitted against that. It also covers the question raised by my noble friend Lord Swinfen and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, as to the reference to permanence. That characteristic occurs in the National Assistance Act 1948 but it is not a characteristic of subsection (1). Therefore, as concerns the new clause, there is no requirement for permanence. "Substantial" suggests a reasonably long-term disability, but there is no requirement in it for permanence.

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A definition evolved in the course of two weeks' hard work by my officials is not necessarily perfect, but I am sure that the House will agree that it has been put together with a great deal of goodwill and it is entirely pointed in the right direction. We shall look with care at all that has been said today and will listen to anyone else who may have opinions as to improvements which could be made to the definition.

So far as we can see at the moment, we have got it about right. We thank the Committee for having raised the matter and are delighted to have been able to respond to it. I commend the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 20 not moved.]

Clause 24 [Disabled facilities grants: purposes for which grant must or may be given]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 21:

Page 13, line 47, at end insert--
("( ) making the dwelling or building safe for the disabled occupant and other persons residing with him;").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 21 and to speak to Amendment No. 23. During the Committee's consideration of the Bill we listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and I am sad that he is not in his place today. He spoke eloquently about the needs of those with severe behavioural problems and in particular about the provision of a safe room for a person with such disabilities.

While I would hope that local authorities have given mandatory grant in the past for such purposes, Amendment No. 21 seeks to clarify the position as we feel the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has raised an important issue. The amendment provides for mandatory disabled facilities grant to be given to render the dwelling or building safe for use by a disabled occupant and other persons who reside with him.

The provision is intended to be sufficiently flexible to give grant to provide a special safe room or rooms for a disabled person who suffers from behavioural difficulties and for those who live with him, and also to provide safety measures for disabled people generally where these are necessary. The specific facilities will depend on all the circumstances.

Amendment No. 23 in the name of my noble friend Lord Swinfen would provide for mandatory disabled facilities grant to be given to improve or install a lighting system suitable for a visually impaired occupant. During Committee my noble friend spoke with admirable clarity to a very similar amendment tabled in his name. I said then that we believed that improved lighting systems should come under the discretionary rather than the mandatory heading.

I fully appreciate my noble friend's concern to ensure that those who are partially sighted and who require an enhanced form of lighting to enable them to carry out better the everyday tasks and activities many of us take for granted should have grant available for this purpose as of right.

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As my noble friend made clear to the Committee, the provision of enhanced lighting is an important matter and I stress that local authorities will be able to give discretionary grant for this purpose. It is also the case that Amendment No. 21 would enable the provision of lighting to be a mandatory purpose where safety is an issue.

It might also help my noble friend if I add that, were it to become clear that some visually impaired people were not being given access to grant to enable them to benefit from enhanced lighting, the Secretary of State could, if he considered it appropriate in the circumstances, use the power in subsection (1)(i) of Clause 24 to add to the list of mandatory purposes by means of an order.

However, the thrust of the new grant regime we are proposing is to give local authorities maximum flexibility to determine how they can best use their available resources. We remain of the view that the decision as to whether grant should be awarded in such cases is one which should be left to local authorities' judgment based on the circumstances of each case. I am not convinced that this is an area in which we ought to go further. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say on his amendment and beg to move mine.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I welcome the amendment moved by my noble friend. As a result of his Amendment No. 21, I shall not move my Amendment No. 23 because obviously for a visually disabled person a building will not be safe without proper and adequate lighting. It is not just a case of taking out the 100-watt bulb and putting in a 150-watt bulb. It may be a matter of putting spotlights in the right place, or putting lights of differing colours in and ensuring that the light is on the areas where the disabled person is working or studying. I shall not speak at length because there is much to be dealt with tonight, save to say that I welcome my noble friend's amendment.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, I wish briefly to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Swinfen said and welcome Amendment No. 21, as my noble friend Lord Rix cannot be here to do so himself.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I too welcome Amendment No. 21. I note with interest what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said in supporting his Amendment No. 23. I note that he will not move it, but I believe that Amendment No. 23 goes rather wider than safety in terms of having lighting systems for disabled people. To that extent there is still a gap in what is to be provided. However, subject to the hope that the Government will address themselves to that gap, I welcome Amendment No. 21.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful for the expressions of support that we have received and I commend the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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6.15 p.m.

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 22:

Page 14, leave out lines 5 to 8 and insert--
("( ) facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room in which there is a lavatory, or facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility;
( ) facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room in which there is a bath or shower (or both), or facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility;
( ) facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room in which there is a washhand basin, or facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of such a facility;").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 22. It clarifies a peculiarly obscure piece of wording in the Bill and I hope its effects are obvious.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, as this amendment was a result of one which I moved at the previous stage, I welcome it.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I too wish to welcome the amendment. It represents an improvement.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 23 not moved.]

Clause 25 [Disabled facilities grants: approval of application]:

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Serota): My Lords, in calling Amendment No. 24, I should point out to the House that, if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 25 or 26.

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 24:

Page 15, leave out lines 3 to 5 and insert--
("( ) In considering whether the relevant works are necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of the disabled occupant, the local housing authority shall--
(a) co-operate with the relevant social services authority, or
(b) seek written confirmation from a general practitioner or other suitably qualified professional where this is more appropriate.
The authority mentioned in paragraph (a) shall co-operate in rendering such assistance as is reasonable in the circumstances.").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that local authorities, when assessing the need for the disabled facilities grant and adaptations, can either co-operate with the relevant social services authority or, where more appropriate, can seek written confirmation from a general practitioner or other suitably qualified professional. The purpose is not that the local authority should consult both, but that they should choose a relevant person or authority, depending on the circumstances.

At the present time, in order to assess whether a disabled facilities grant is necessary and appropriate to meet the needs of a disabled occupant, a local housing authority will often require an assessment from an occupational therapist. The social services authority

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would have a duty to undertake an assessment of aids and adaptations, but the waiting time for such assessments can often be extremely lengthy.

Often, when only minor adaptations such as rails in the bathroom are required, a disabled person's general practitioner would be quite capable of assessing whether that is necessary and appropriate. In other situations it may be that another qualified professional, such as an RNIB housing worker, would be as appropriate as an occupational therapist to make an assessment. RADAR, for example, is aware of a disabled person who had a full occupational therapy assessment for adaptations some years ago. That individual now requires an extra handrail on the stairs. The individual requested an occupational therapist's assessment for that purpose in October 1995, but has been informed that an assessment is unlikely to be possible before June 1997 at the earliest. That is a minimum waiting time of 20 months. That person will probably decide to have the handrail put in independently, but as the individual is on benefit it will be financially difficult and could well put the person into debt.

Waiting times for occupational therapist assessments are often up to two years, and longer waiting times have been reported. Although the Government are reviewing occupational therapy services, there is a fundamental problem. There are large numbers of disabled people requiring assessments for adaptations, and there is a shortage of occupational therapists. Many local authorities are now using occupational therapy assistants to undertake assessments. As there is a growing number of disabled, and elderly people who are becoming disabled, it appears that the problem will inevitably get worse.

Around 15 per cent. of disabled facility grants are for less then £1,000; 7 per cent. of all such grants are for a shower over the bath; 4 per cent. are for handrails. It would be quite reasonable for a general practitioner or other suitably qualified professional to recommend those. If local authorities accept recommendations from occupational therapy assistants, then surely a recommendation from a general practitioner should be equally valid.

In some situations a suitably qualified professional from an organisation with specific expertise appertaining to the needs of the disabled person could be just as relevant as an occupational therapist. For example, a special housing worker from a large HIV and AIDS organisation could give expert advice on access, heating and bathing requirements of the person with HIV or AIDS.

This amendment would give local housing authorities the discretion to decide who was the most appropriate person to assess the need for adaptation. It would not undermine the invaluable role of occupational therapists, but would simply give some flexibility to local authorities to assess the situation and request information from the most appropriate person. Where there is an obvious need for major adaptations, an occupational therapist assessment could be required; but where there is a straightforward requirement for some simple adaptations, a general practitioner could make the recommendation.

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Of additional benefit would be the opportunity for the local authority, alternatively, to call on the expertise of a professional with particular knowledge of disabled persons' requirements. That could all be made clear in guidance.

Basically, by allowing local authorities to choose the appropriate person to make the assessment depending upon the situation of the individual the whole process could be speeded up. If my noble friend the Minister does not wish to see the discretion on the face of the Bill, it would be very helpful if he could consider including in guidance information for local authorities on situations where it may be appropriate for them to request information from a general practitioner or other professional rather than waiting for an occupational therapist assessment when that may not be necessary. I beg to move.

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