THE PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

(HANSARD) in the third session of the fifty-third parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the thirteenth day of june in the fiftieth year of the reign of HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II

FIFTH SERIES

VOLUME DCLVI SECOND VOLUME OF SESSION 2003—04 House of Lords


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Monday, 5 January 2004.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Truro.

Disabled Facilities Grant

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I wish the House a very happy new year.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government, in light of their announcement on 4 December that the means test on parents of disabled children for the disabled facilities grant is to be abolished in Northern Ireland, whether they will now abolish this means test in England and Wales.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I reciprocate.

This is a very serious issue about which there has been pressure on the Government for some time. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, jointly with the Department of Health, will be reviewing the disabled facilities grant programme, including the operation of the means test, in the context of the spending review 2004. We will announce our conclusions later this year. The position in Wales is, of course, a matter for the Welsh Assembly, but I am led to believe that it will also be undertaking a review of this important issue this year.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful Answer. In doing so, I declare an interest as patron of HoDis, the National Disabled Persons Housing Service. Is my noble friend aware of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation research published over a year ago which showed that one in three families

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who, as a result of the means test, were assessed as needing to make a contribution towards an adaptation to their home for their children's needs could not afford to do so and no adaptation was made? As a result, thousands of disabled children are living in homes which blight their life chances, restrict their social development and cause their parents acute stress, back injury and sometimes loss of employment.

Is the Minister also aware that that same research shows that a fundamental weakness in trying to address the housing needs of disabled children is the lack of sufficient focus within the legislation? Are the Government planning to address this in the Housing Bill?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not think it is addressed in the current Housing Bill, but I take the point about the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. There is no doubt that in respect of the disabled facilities grant there is a perverse disadvantage for children, because the chances are that one or both parents will be working. Only 5 per cent of disabled facilities grants relate to children; out of about 30,000 such grants, some 1,500 are for children. The average grant for a child is twice the average figure—about 12,000. Nevertheless, as has been indicated, there has been a change in Northern Ireland, affecting a smaller number of people. This is an important issue, which we need to review. As I said, we will fully review the operation of the system in the context of the spending review 2004, and we will come back to the House with a decision later in the year.

Lord Rix: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Audit Commission review of 2003 also highlighted the necessity for housing for parents caring for a disabled child?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, yes. The disabled facilities grant is the last of the mandatory housing grants still operating in England and Wales. In some ways, it is an area in which local authorities have no discretion. There is a ring-fenced amount of money available. The amount

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has increased from 56 million to 100 million in the last four or five years, so it is not as though the issue is not being addressed. Nevertheless, there is still an unmet need out there, some of which is caused by the perverse operation of the means test in relation to children because, unlike elderly people—the main recipients of the grant—one or both parents probably works.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, approximately how many families are at present subject to this means test in England and Wales?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot give a figure in that respect. However, of the 30,000 disabled facilities grants in England and Wales, 5 per cent relate to families with a disabled child—about 1,500. They are all subject to the means test. As to how many actually have to pay, I looked at the calculations and, frankly, I am not prepared to stand here and try to explain to your Lordships' House how this grant is awarded. It is based on the housing benefit structure, and anybody who knows anything about that knows that we have a real problem on our hands. So there is a difficulty here. The effect is that some families do not apply, resulting in an unmet need, although we do not know the precise figures.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, may I ask the Minister how much it costs to administer this means test?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness can ask, but I am afraid I cannot answer. I will get an answer. The total amount of money in England and Wales is about 175 million, and the cost to central government is about 100 million. We repay to local government some 60 per cent of what they spend, but they can spend more, as there is a discretionary element. No one has yet asked me about the estimated cost, so I will give the figures. In terms of lifting the means test for children, our estimate is somewhere between 10 million and 20 million a year.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, in the light of the Minister's response to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy, are there any plans to review the criteria for the means test?

Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords. The implication of the Answer I first gave is that we are reviewing whether there is a justification for the means test for children. We will review this in the context of the spending review 2004.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I am encouraged by the noble Lord's replies. When the Government consider the situation in Northern Ireland, will they take account of people who are not eligible for the grant? If more people receive the grant, the Government will

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ensure that the benefit is more widely distributed to those people who need it. Will such practice be used as an example in relation to all other such moneys?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are talking about only one specific mandatory grant. I do not know what the effect of the decision regarding Northern Ireland will be. As stated in the Question, the decision was announced only just before the end of last year. The extra cost of the change in Northern Ireland is estimated at 150,000 out of a budget of 8.5 million. It is estimated that some 30 families in Northern Ireland withdrew their applications because of the means test. One cannot be certain about what will happen until the change takes place. Therefore, it is not possible to give a precise view of what will happen in Northern Ireland, but obviously with time we shall have the answer.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, in view of the Minister's encouraging replies, I hope that I may ask two further questions. First, how soon can we hope that the means test is removed? Secondly, the measure concerns children, but many of these disabled children have grown up and are now in their twenties. Can we hope that the matter of dependent older children in other households is considered?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I hope that I have not given too much encouragement in this regard. I said that there would be a full review of the operation of the disabled facilities grant programme, including the operation of the means test. I pointed out that there is a perverse effect, particularly where children are concerned, because of the way in which the means test works. As regards the decision that we are discussing, technically the 2004 spending review has not started. I suppose that it will start shortly. I presume that the Chancellor will announce the relevant decisions in the summer within the global figures. It will then be up to individual departments to determine how they allocate their resources.

A decision will be made later this year on whether or not the grant itself will remain mandatory. It is a fairly fundamental principle. It is the last of the mandatory housing grants; everything else is now discretionary. As is implied in the Question, the measure has specific effects with regard to disabled children. People over the age of 18 are adults and can apply in their own right.

Government Advertising: Expenditure

2.45 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will invite the Committee on Standards in Public Life to review quarterly, and report to Parliament on, levels of expenditure by government departments on advertising and related campaigns; and to do so up to the date of the next general election.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government believe that there are already sufficient arrangements in place for the reporting of expenditure on government advertising. Government advertising is conducted in accordance with the guidance on the work of the Government Information and Communications Service. Departments account for advertising expenditure in their annual reports which can, of course, be audited by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. In addition, the Advisory Committee on Advertising monitors the effectiveness of COI advertising.


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