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Lord Lucas: My Lords, it was made clear both in Committee and at Report stage that we share the

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concerns of noble Lords about the use of Clause 36. I explained that mandatory grants restrict local authorities' ability to maintain control over their resources, and that our purpose in bringing forward Clause 36 was to strike a sensible balance between the needs of the disabled person and the requirement of a local authority to operate within an annual financial budget. I said that we envisaged that the provision would be used only in exceptional circumstances.

My noble friend has told the House that the local authority associations do not see a need for Clause 36 and that local authorities will not use the power set out in the clause. That is good news as it is our intention that the provision should not be widely used.

My noble friend maintains that if we are seeking to help local authorities, we are under a misconception because they do not want the help we are offering. However, it is the duty of Government to look beyond what some say they want today and consider what they might need tomorrow.

I have to say that I interpret the signals in a different way. When the department published its paper in June last year explaining the proposed changes to the private sector renewal regime, local authorities and interested parties had the opportunity to comment. We received 283 responses, the majority of which were from local authorities. Of those, only 72 expressed concern about the proposal to allow local authorities to defer payment of mandatory disabled facilities grants.

As noble Lords would expect, the majority of concern centred on the needs of the disabled person and not on the principle of a deferred payment. The joint response from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and Association of District Councils initially suggested that one option could be to extend the period in which a local authority has to approve a grant from six to 12 months. They were clearly conscious of the financial squeeze that they might be under. They preferred to give themselves a general permission to take 12 months to approve an application. We felt that certainty for the disabled person was preferable, that a tighter rein was preferable, and that is why Clause 36 is in the Bill rather than the more extensive proposals which were in the AMA's and the ADC's original response. Indeed, my noble friend did not read out part of the letter from the AMA. In referring to its review, it stated:


    "Whilst it is therefore a representative view, it may not necessarily reflect the position of every individual local authority".

We consider that the needs of the disabled person are paramount and believe that as a rule local authorities should approve grant at the earliest possible time, and certainly no later than six months after an application has been submitted. However, our responsibility is to all those who will be obliged to offer mandatory grants and not just to those who have expressed concern. While some local authorities, their representatives and other organisations may believe the provision to be misconceived, it is a matter of fact that, under the provisions for mandatory disabled facilities grant, a local authority may be obliged to pay a grant at a point in the year when to do so would cause considerable financial difficulty.

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We are not suggesting that local authorities should be silting up the future year's programmes with commitments. Instead what we are offering is a mechanism that may be used by a local authority if it is facing a particular resource problem, perhaps because of the constraints of the financial year. No one can honestly say that this situation will never arise. Surely it is better to have a system in place where local authorities can confirm that a grant will be available, but in a few months' time, rather than be put in a position where they have to resort to informal delaying tactics, as has been the case in the past.

If local authorities do not want to use the provision, they will not be obliged to do so. I can assure the House that the guidance from the department will discount any suggestion that the provision could be used as a deliberate delaying tactic. We will make clear that the provision is for use in exceptional circumstances and should be used only where a needs assessment of the applicant confirms that a delay would not be prejudicial to the applicant's long-term health.

My noble friend Lord Swinfen asked about the impact of delayed payment on builders. Our proposal deals with the payment of grant between the applicant and the local authority; that is one relationship. Another relationship is between the grant applicant and the builder. Nothing in Clause 36 suggests that the builder need undertake works in advance of the applicant's ability to pay. Any builder who has tendered for grant-assisted works will know that a guaranteed payment will be made by the local authority at some point so long as the work is done well. It is for the contractor to weigh up that benefit against the possible delay in either commencing the works or being paid, should he decide to commence the works before the agreed payment date specified by the local authority when it approved the grant.

Should a contractor demand a premium if he has to start work later and thereby incurs increased costs, a local authority will have the power to redetermine the grant amount when the works commence.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, asked whether local authorities will be able to operate waiting lists, as they do at present. Yes, there is obviously the ability for local authorities to operate waiting lists. But that is within the constraints of the time limits in the Bill: six months to determine an application; and 12 months maximum to pay. Within those limits there is a permissive power to operate waiting lists and we shall be giving guidance on that subject.

We have no intention of changing the 12-month limit. It is there to enable us to adapt the Bill to experience. But there is no short-term intention, and we have no feeling that 12 months is anything but the right period at present.

We consider that Clause 36 is a sensible provision which should be available to authorities as a last resort and which need not cause applicants to face unreasonable hardship. I understand my noble friend's concern, and I hope that he can understand why we

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cannot accept his amendments. I trust that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment, albeit with a slightly heavy heart.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, that seems to have been a far tougher response to this group of amendments than my noble friend gave on either of the two previous occasions. I find that somewhat surprising.

By leaving Clause 36 in the Bill, it gives me the impression that mandatory disabled facilities grants are being emasculated, which is not to be desired. My noble friend said that only 72 of the local authorities expressed concern at the provision. He will also have noted from the letter from which he, too, quoted that only a minority of the local authorities dealt with the matter in their submissions. Therefore, it does not mean that only 72 were concerned about the issue. Only 72 dealt with that specific matter.

My noble friend states that there is no need for the work to be undertaken by a builder before the applicant is able to pay; and that if there were a premium, or the costs of the work increased, the local authority could redetermine the amount of the grant. That in itself, I assume, could start the whole delaying process of 12 months all over again. I do not find that a satisfactory position. However, I have seen the size of the Government's majority on the recent Division. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, indicates that the Opposition did not vote, but there was a paucity of Members on the Benches of the official Opposition. I believe that this matter will be taken up again in another place. If I now call a Division and lose, my right honourable friends in another place will cite that as an excuse: that the House of Lords disagreed with the amendment.

So I feel that it would be wiser for me to withdraw the amendment and allow someone else in the other place to fight on another occasion. As my noble friend said, it is certainly with a heavy heart that I do so. But I believe that it is the wisest course at the moment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 37 [Payment of grants: conditions as to carrying out of the works]:

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

5 p.m.

Clause 103 [Construction contracts]:

Lord Howie of Troon moved Amendment No. 5:


Page 58, line 10, leave out from ("capacity") to end of line 11.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the course of the discussions at Report stage on Part II of the Bill, to which we have now moved, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that I would discover as the debate progressed things happening beneath the surface--as he put it--for which I would be grateful but which had not yet poked their heads above the surface in the form of amendments. I was grateful for that.

I had hoped that one or two of those things happening beneath the surface would have poked their noses just above the surface by the time of Third Reading. None

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of them has. That is why my amendments have been tabled. I speak generally at the moment. I shall come to the particular amendment, Amendment No. 5, as soon as I can.

I tabled a series of amendments, most but not all of which refer to undertakings or half-undertakings and to nods or winks that we received from the Minister in the course of the debate. He followed up those undertakings or semi-undertakings with letters in which he spoke about the Government's position and what their possible attitude to our activities was likely to be. My amendments asked the Government to put in the Official Report their views on these amendments--which were discussed at great length at Report stage and which we shall not discuss at great length again today--so that they will be on the public record.

Amendment No. 5 was discussed fully and I do not need to go into it in detail. It removes from Clause 103 the exemption for the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall from the provisions of the Bill. In the course of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was reasonably welcoming (Hansard, 22nd April at column 916), though he said that he could not be more helpful at that moment. But he welcomed the amendment, which was the same amendment that I have now tabled.

That amendment has been brought forward in order to ask him how far that welcome has gone. It has not gone so far as to bring out an amendment from the Government today. I wonder whether he will give an undertaking that the Government will bring forward an amendment when the Bill goes to another place. I beg to move.


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