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Viscount Long: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.32 to 8 p.m.]

Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Bill [H.L.]

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 33.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 33:

Page 20, line 4, leave out subsection (8) and insert--
("(8)-Regulations may make provision to extend regulations made under section 5(1)(h) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (relating to the payment of housing benefit) to the provision of information or evidence for the determination of any matter under this section by such persons as may be prescribed.").

18 Apr 1996 : Column 857

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in speaking to amendment No. 33, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 34, which is grouped with it. These are probing amendments which seek to delete the subsections allowing for regulations to make provisions requiring information or evidence to be furnished,

    "by such persons as may be prescribed", and instead provide for regulations under Section 5(1)(h) jof the Social Security Administration Act 1992.

The reason for moving the amendments is that in Committee on 26th March, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred to the provisions which the Government were then proposing replicating to a large extent the regulations for housing benefit. I move these amendments in order to ask what the differences might be. Since there is full provision for such matters in the 1992 Act, I have suggested that that should apply also under this Act. But I merely wish to inquire of the Government whether there are any distinctions and if there are, whether they are immaterial. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, now that it has been revealed to me what the amendments are for, I shall have to say that I shall write to the noble Baroness because I do not have an answer with me here.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, is it not rather odd that we have reached Report state, amendments are tabled but the Government have no response to this at all?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, my response to the amendments is that we like things the way they are. We believe that the purpose of the amendments, as we have seen them, is already provided by Clauses 33(8) and 34(5), which allow the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring any information or evidence needed to be provided by any such person as may be prescribed. Therefore, we believe that the effect of the amendments is already covered.

However, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has raised certain detailed points. I should like an opportunity to consider them and cover them in detail and I shall write to her about them. I am afraid that I do not have the necessary information with me to enable me to do that off the cuff.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I shall look forward to the Minister's response. I should have thought that the question would be apparent from the tabling of the amendments, although I concede that they were tabled late--not too late but late. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 34 [Determination of amount of grant in case of landlord's application]:

[Amendment No. 34 not moved.]

Clause 37 [Decision and notification]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 35:

Page 22, line 8, leave out subsection (3) and insert--

18 Apr 1996 : Column 858

("The total of the amounts referred to in paragraphs (b) and (c) is referred to in this Chapter as 'the estimated expense'.
( ) If the authority notify the applicant under subsection (1) that the application is approved, they shall specify in the notice--
(a) the eligible works,
(b) the amounts referred to in subsection (2) (b) and (c), and how those amounts have been calculated, and
(c) the amount of the grant.
( ) If the authority notify the applicant under subsection (1) that the application is refused, they shall at the same time notify him of the reasons for the refusal.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 35, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 55.

When the Bill was being discussed in Committee, I said that I would reflect further on two amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that would place a duty on a local authority to tell an applicant how the cost of the grant works is arrived at or why a grant is refused. This is an important issue and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing it to the attention of the House.

I hold the view that good local authorities already do what the amendments would require, but there is merit in converting good practice into a general rule. That is why we have brought forward Amendment No. 35, which would require authorities to provide such information. Amendment No. 55 is consequential upon this. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing forward these amendments. Thanks must go also to the solicitors housing law practitioners. I am not sufficiently creative to have drafted that myself but I thank the Government for responding.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that these amendments are reasonable and we shall not oppose them. I am glad that the Government feel that they have had ample time to respond to amendments that have been tabled and I look forward to future responses coming forward rather more quickly than was the case on the previous amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 39 [Delayed payment of mandatory grant]:

Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 36:

Leave out Clause 39.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment Nos. 37 and 38. The purpose of the amendments is to place a duty on local authorities to pay a grant upon satisfactory completion of the works and to remove the delay of 12 months which is proposed for the payment of disabled facilities grants.

Disabled facilities grants are vital to help disabled people remain in their own homes. The provision of suitable housing is a cornerstone of community care policies. In the main, that is achieved through adaptations, because 50 per cent. of all disabled facilities grants involve the redesign of a dwelling, including adaptations to bathrooms, kitchens or other living areas

18 Apr 1996 : Column 859

by, for example, widening doors. That is essential work which enables a disabled person to live in his own home as independently as possible.

The most serious problem for disabled people who apply for grants is the lengthy wait before there is an assessment and then having to have the application processed before works can begin. Reports of adaptations taking over two years to be completed are not uncommon. That is caused by delays in assessment and processing of grant applications followed by lengthy building works.

The proposals within the Bill would add an extra waiting time into a system which already gives rise to very serious problems in relation to delays. Local authorities would have up to 12 months in which to commence payment from the date of application. As they have an initial six months to agree the application, the proposal would allow a further delay of six months. In most cases where there is a substantial amount of work to be done payment is made in instalments, so that the date on which payments begin is the date on which the work begins. Basically, if a local authority saw fit, the works would not start for a year after the application was made and there would be a further 12 months in which to complete it, so a disabled person would have to wait for two years for the adaptations to be completed.

The Government have confirmed that the reason for the extra delay is to allow the local authority to manage its capital. They feel that it will help authorities with their financial management by giving them the discretion to withhold payment of mandatory disabled facilities grants for up to 12 months after the date of application. The Government have further acknowledged that on occasions that may inconvenience the disabled person; but they must strike a balance between inconveniencing the disabled person and inconveniencing the local authority.

However, there is no support within local authority organisations for the proposals. Both the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils have stated that they do not support the proposed delay and feel that it is not required. In fact, I understand that, if I had not been persuaded by RADAR to table the amendment, those two organisations would have persuaded another Member of this House to table a similar amendment.

In their joint response to the initial consultation document, those organisations stated that,

    "the hopes and expectations of the disabled person will have been raised with the approval of the grant for work, but the contractor may not be prepared to start work . . . and may then demand a premium or refuse to do the work in prices have risen".

They further stated that contractors.

    "may then not be prepared to carry out Disabled Facilities Grant work". The Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation recently contacted the Association of Metropolitan Authorities which confirmed that it still opposes the proposals. If the associations representing local authorities do not want the proposals, why are the Government introducing them for the benefit of local authorities?

18 Apr 1996 : Column 860

Unfortunately for disabled people who are awaiting adaptations which are urgently required to allow them to live in their own homes the extra delay will be more than just an inconvenience. Many disabled people are waiting in hospital for adaptations to their homes to allow them to leave hospital and return home. That is not only distressing for the individuals involved but it is also very expensive. Department of Health statistics, for example, estimate that a geriatric bed costs over £700 a week. Any delay would, therefore, be costly; but a delay of six months would cost in the region of £20,000. That is surely unreasonable when the only reason is to aid the cashflow of a local authority. The average disabled facilities grant award is for less than £4,000, yet costs of several times that amount could be accrued for a hospital bed while the application is help up. The delay would not only be serious for people in hospital but also for disabled people whose quality of life is very poor because of their housing and because they have considerable care requirements.

Even if local authorities inform the disabled person of when they will be starting the payment, the disabled person will still have to wait. Although the waiting may be slightly less painful if you have some idea when it will end, that is not a tremendous help to someone stuck in hospital or who cannot get out of his own home. The delay itself will still bring tremendous hardship.

Disabled people are already very often waiting a long time for disabled facilities grants. The system requires improvement to shorten those delays rather than lengthening them. To build in an additional delay in payment allegedly to help local authorities with their cashflow, even if the local authority must inform the disabled person of the likely payment date, will cause serious difficulties and hardship. As the disabled facilities grants will be supported by a specific capital grant, this delay, as far as I can see, is neither required nor warranted. I beg to move.

8.15 p.m.

The Earl of Balfour: My Lords, perhaps I may just point out one of the practical problems involved in such applications. There is a government scheme whereby a 75 per cent. grant is available for replacing lead pipes. I had the problem of replacing lead pipes for part of the estate in my own home. The local authority said, "Yes, you may go ahead and replace them, but we are sorry we have run out of money and can't pay you the grant". Such a situation can sometimes arise. I say that because the end of a financial year for a local authority falls at the end of March. Therefore, by January, the authority may well have run out of money. It may well give a person permission to start the work in March and say, "Yes, you may start the work now, but we are sorry we can't pay you for it until next year". From a purely practical point of view that can indeed be a problem. I agree with my noble friend in that respect.

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