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The Earl of Listowel: I rise to speak briefly and declare my interest as a landlord. I wish to raise a particular concern about the 18,000 individuals who have attempted to make necessary changes to their residence because they have a disability but have been unable to do so because their landlord has refused consent.
I am reminded of when I went with a health visitor to visit a family in a bed and breakfast in Newham several years ago. The mother was on a pair of sticks and had three children: an infant, a six year-old and a 10 year-old. The six year-old had difficulty sleeping and was bedwetting. There were no facilities in the accommodation. She could not even heat milk for the infant and had to breastfeed. Therefore, if I remember
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correctly, she could not take her medication. Everything was against that family and against that mother's ability to care for her child.
My concern is that among those 18,000 individuals with a disability are parents with young children who have been impaired in their ability to care for those children because they have been unable to have necessary and reasonable alterations made to their accommodation. Therefore, I support the amendment.
As a landlord, I need to be reassured that the proposal would not put an unfair burden on landlords. I have not talked over the matter with a lawyer, but it seems to me that the interests of landlords are protected. I am also pleased with the, in many ways, very sympathetic response of the Government to this suggestion. I look forward to the Minister's response.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, on her introduction to this long and complicated amendment. It is clear that many of the issues discussed in relation to Amendment No. 61 also read across to Amendment No. 64. As such, I do not wish to dwell on points that have already been made, except to say on "the small niggle" that where there is a will, as there clearly is in the Committee although not in government, there is a way.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Morris, I understand that the test of "reasonableness" does not apply to the communal areas of old or current buildings. This is an issue that, indeed, needs to be addressed to ensure the social well-being of those who are disabled. However, I have a few ideas on this amendment that I should like to thrash out with the Committee.
I note, of course, that the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, said that her amendment was not perfect, and so I have several questions. When she said that it was not perfect, I do not think that that was unduly pessimistic and so I am afraid that I disagree there with the noble Lord, Lord Addington.
First, does the amendment allow for a situation involving a share of a freehold? If the landlord owned a share of the freehold in a block of flats, in order to allow any adjustments to the areas in question he would also have to obtain the approval of all the other members who shared the freehold. In the case of a disabled person, would the onus fall on him to persuade all the other freehold owners or their landlord? How would the amendment work if one member of a freehold "unreasonably" withheld consent?
Secondly, I want to ask the noble Baroness about listed buildings. These often create problems in terms of planning permission and the alterations that may not be allowed to external access and communal areas due to the listed status of the building. Can the noble Baroness inform me whether the fact that a building was listed would be considered a reasonable reason for rejecting a request to alter the communal areas? If the
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adaptations are made and, as the noble Baroness explained, the reinstatement of the original premises occurs once the disabled person has moved onagain, assuming that funds are available to do sowhat sort of costs are we considering to restore the building to listed requirements? In fact, as I do not have a Survey of English Housing with me, can any Member of the Committeeperhaps the Ministerinform me how many of the reported 18,000 disabled people living in unsuitable accommodation are in listed buildings?
Having dealt with old buildings, I now turn to those that are new or currently under construction. In the 1980s, more senior Ministers and I spent years of our lives trying to bring about reasonable access for disabled people to new buildings. It was, as Members of the Committee will judge, no credit to me that Part M came into existence after I left both the DoE and the DSS.
Those regulations required builders to construct new housing to standards that would permit disabled peopleparticularly those who were wheelchair-bound or had other mobility problemsto visit the ground floor of a new house and use the facilities. The regulations would surely go some way to meeting the correct adaptation of external and communal areas in all new build for those with disabilities.
However, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report in August 2003 that stated that many builders and building control officers did not understand Part M, with the result that it was variably and inconsistently interpreted across the country. In response to a Question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, on the matter, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, announced on 25 October 2003 that there would be a review of the operation of Part M which they expected to start before that Christmas and to take two years. That was followed by an ODPM press release on 10 March 2004 stating that the proposed review of Part M was still "forthcoming".
I am led to believe that now, two years on from 2003indeed, nearly the time when the review would have been ending if it had started when it was meant toit will only be starting in April 2005 and will still take two years. There is a lot of disappointment over the lack of progress with respect to Part M, which some would have said is a sad indication of the lack of seriousness that the Government attach to the barrier of access to housing for disabled people.
Can the Minister inform the Committee of the start date of the long-promised review? Surely the failure to address that is only compounding the problem of adaptations needed to the communal and external
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parts of buildings which we are discussing today. As the Minister said on Monday, access to common parts is,
Every Member of the Committee, with the sole exception of the Minister, is trying to get progress in this area. I hope that she will be a lot more positive today, even though I do not believe that this amendment is the way forward.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It has been a very interesting debate on a very important and very difficult topic. In our debate on Amendment No. 61 we set out and discussed the problems of housing legacy, to which the noble Lord referred towards the end of his speech. I shall not repeat those comments, except to say that we are well aware of the issues.
In reply to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, we know that 16,000 to 18,000 tenants are living in the private-rented sector in accommodation that is unsuitable for them. What we do not know is how many of them have sought permission and in what cases it has been refused. I expect that it may well be a large number, but we do not know.
A key issue is to ensure that disabled people have access to the most appropriate elements of our housing stock. I do not think, in this respect, that we should underestimate how much local housing authorities can and already do. I was briefed on one local authority where a tenant who needs oxygen 24 hours a day had been reduced to sleeping in her living room as she could no longer manage the stairs. She and her carer have now moved to a bungalow. Another person in owner-occupied accommodation who has terminal cancer was moved very quickly to local authority housing which was also nearer her son so that he could offer care and support. Those cases are not particularly about common premises; but they are local authority cases from South Tyneside which demonstrate how a local authority that is exercising good practice can and does respond quickly and appropriately to these needs.
Once a need is identified, an assessment is undertaken usingas your Lordships will know, as many of us have this sort of experiencea qualified occupational therapist to assess the situation. Adaptations may then be made. The authority will then maintain a record of such property. Local authorities are developing increasingly sensitive ways of making these types of transfer quickly and effectively. Such intervention can do much to ensure that disabled people have access to suitable accommodation whereas accommodation in the private-rented sector, or even an owner-occupied house, could not easily be made fit. As I recall, under buy-to-let, accommodation that had been extensively adapted was excluded from the right to buy so that we could ensure that it remained accessible to future generations of disabled tenants.
In addition, I understand that the National Housing Federation is launching a good practice guide covering principles and key actions, intended to bring disability issues and access to housing into the mainstream of
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housing association thinking, with examples of how, with good practice, we can overcome all sorts of physical barriers to ensure ready access. However, it is true that the consent of the landlord and, perhaps, of other parties, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, identified, will be required for those adaptations to occur, and Amendment No. 64 is intended to ensure that landlords cannot unreasonably refuse consent to alterations to common parts of premises.
I do not think that there is anything between us on the difficulties associated with inaccessible common areas. As my noble friend Lord Morris said, there is little point in having a fully accessible flat if you cannot get up or down the stairs at the end of the hall. We all accept that. However, disabled people are not entirely without redress: the Bill will require some reasonable adjustments to be made to common parts. Although those tend not to cover alterations to physical features, they may help some tenants with access difficulties. For example, where reasonable, a landlord may have to install a portable ramp or allow a wheelchair to be left in common parts, even though other tenants would never be allowed to store other things such as a pram or bicycle there.
However, we must be careful and measured in other, further legislative steps that we take in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, was right: property law is complex, particularly so when it comes to common parts of rented premises over which ownership and rights do not take a single form. Even now, a block of local authority flats with three floors with three flats apiece may include tenants who have bought their flats, some flats that have been already adapted that can never be sold, some under shared equity and some tenants who continue to rent. They may all have a different relationship to the primary leaseholder, who remains the local authority, which affects the nature of the consent that may need to be sought.
In my experience many years ago of installing a stair climber in a local authority block of flatsthis was before the right to buy, so it was not complicated by mixed ownershipother tenants were very unhappy about it, partly because it narrowed the stairway. A child got its fingers trapped in it and it invited vandalism. The tenants tried to raise a petition to have it removed. We ended up offering the tenant alternative accommodation that was, in any case, far more suitable. Being a local authority, we had the size of stock to make that offer and resolve those problems. The tenants were not being unrealistic because the flats were fairly near a public house and people thought that it was a great joke to come and go up and down on the stair climber and fiddle with it. As I said, there are difficulties here that we should not underestimate.
The Disability Rights Task Force made no proposals about common parts of rented premises. Because of that, that was not part of the Government's response in Towards Inclusion, and therefore not part of our manifesto commitment to legislate. That means
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that common parts have not been part of detailed thinking to meet the manifesto commitment through the Bill. That does not mean that there is not a real problem here; it does not mean that it should not be addressed; but it means that we now start from some way behind the starting line in comparison with some of the other issues that we are debating under the Bill, such as that of being "clinically well-recognised", where we are far further down the line.
Those issues were debated in the House during the passage of last Session's Housing Bill. My noble friend Lord Rooker said that the Government accepted that there is a problem here and that we would work with the Disability Rights Commission to explore possible solutions. However, as he saidalthough it is important that we view his remarks in context, because he was certainly sympathetic to the problem:
He went on to say that our priority was to get the Bill through, rather than to include new issues. So, because it would involve discussion with other departments, it would be unwise to support the amendments, and we cannot do so at present.
However, I understand the arguments that if we do not do it now, when will we get the opportunity, that this is a one and only opportunity, and so on. I understand people feeling that if we could only tag something on to the Bill, we might be able to address the issue. That is to be unduly pessimistic, given the record of the present Government. I remind your Lordships that since 1997 the DRC Act and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act have been passed. Last year, there were the DDA amendment regulations, which were bigger than many aspects of the Bill, and there is the current Bill. So we have had legislation or quasi-legislation approximately every two years under this Government.
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