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Lord Carter: This was a recommendation of the Joint Committee. We asked the Government not to amend the Bill, but to consider whether the full Bill would be an appropriate vehicle for introducing a register. We stated:
I do not expect the Minister to have the information directly to hand, but can she tell us how the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister encourages this practice? Is it done through guidance? Perhaps she would write to me and to other Members of the Committee.
Lord Addington: This is one of those amendments to which I really should have put down my name. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, on moving it so thoroughly. One can see that this really is an example of bringing forward best practice, which would save the Government moneyor at least the public would save money.
At the least, I hope that the Minister will be able to say that if a register is not being introduced here, it will be introduced somewhere. While this Bill may not be the best vehicle for it, one certainly should be found. However, if this is the only one available, my instinct says that we should go with it.
Let us consider a house or a dwelling that can be easily converted into suitable accommodation. The best starting point is the provision of ground floor flats because anyone with mobility problems, no matter how severe, finds such accommodation easier. If such a flat has been adapted and the tenant moves out, the adaptations may well be removed before a new tenant moves in. But, a few years down the road, they have to be put in again. That is because you start off with only a certain amount of adapted dwellings.
If we accept the Government's position on our earlier amendments, surely making better use of the stock we already havesimply by knowing exactly where it is and when it is likely to become availableis to be applauded. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will be able to tell us when such a scheme will come in. We have been trying to find a slot for it but that exercise might wear a little thin because we might have to wait an awfully long time. With the best will in the world, the political priorities of any government change. To be honest, we do not know what is around the corner or what will be politically sexy tomorrow. How many more dozens of Home Office Bills will be put in front of us?
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I should like to speak briefly in support of the amendment. I hope that the Minister will be able to say where a slot will be found
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for it if it cannot be accommodated in this Bill. Dare I say that it would also help in the thorny question of communal areas because it might be possible to let a flat again to someone else who would benefit from an adapted communal area.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Touché. Increasingly it feels as though I am dealing with a housing Bill rather than one relating to disability discrimination. I am being asked to share with the Committee how far my department and the ODPM have progressed on the disability facilities grant and Part M of the building regulations and on discussions with the DRC about how statutory guidance to local authorities on the allocation of accommodation for disabled people can be strengthened, as well as what progress may be made on housing registers. All that is fine. We all know that government is seamless until it is not. This is obviously an occasion on which we shall need to confer in more detail with our ODPM colleagues.
The amendment would place a duty on all local housing authorities to maintain accessible housing registers of all propertiesunoccupied as well as occupiedin their local authority area. This must include all housing with accessible featuresa grab rail fitted in an owner-occupied house would go on to the registerand housing that could easily be adapted for disabled people's use. The register would also have to provide information on what is available for disabled people who require accessible housing. Finally, the amendment would give the appropriate national authority the power to provide guidance on how to do that.
First, I shall give the Committee some background on the issue of housing registers, some of which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, when he referred to the situation in Reading. The duty on local housing authorities to maintain housing registers was repealed only recently in the Homelessness Act 2002. Several changes were made to the allocations framework of that Act. This meant that housing authorities could no longer determine who qualified for housing and so there was no longer a need for a duty to maintain a register.
However, the Government do encourage local authorities to maintain lists of suitable accessible properties for disabled people. This is set out in statutory guidancethe Code of Guidance on the Allocation of Accommodation. Housing authorities are expected to pay regard to it. I have pages from the code. Page 6.25 states:
"Authorities may provide assistance to help disabled people meet their housing and social needs by helping them to move to more suitable living accommodation (which may or may not require further adaptation). It is recommended that Disability Housing Registers are further developed by local authorities, RSLs [registered social landlords], or other bodies such as Disabled Persons Housing Services. The principle of such a register is to establish . . . a database . . . a register of disabled people . . . and . . . a service matching people to properties".
"It must be recognised that whilst the re-use of adaptations can make a contribution to economy in the use of public resources, for many disabled people further adaptations or modifications will be required to meet their specific needs.
Lord Carter: What is the statutory force of the guidance? For example, if a local authority was not performing the function as it should and it was challenged, would it have any defence or could it be compelled by judicial review, or whatever, to carry out the work?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My experience of statutory codes of guidance is that there is a presumption that, if the authority is not fulfilling its duties, it has to show good reason why not. That is my understanding of the law. It is being confirmed from behind me that that is so. There are occasions when one wishes to depart from that, but that is the presumption. It does not quite have the force of law, but one has to show good reason why one should depart from that. That has been my experience with other statutory codes of guidance. It is quite strong.
The ODPM has gone quite a long way in its statutory code of guidance to encourage local authorities to take on the substantive point, subject to some of these practicalities. Equally, the Housing Corporation, with the National Disabled Persons Housing Service, has prepared good practice guidance on disabled housing registers called A Perfect Match, which is currently being updated.
To go back to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, about how many departments are involved (how long is a piece of string?), the Department of Health, the ODPM and the Department for Education and SkillsI am sure it was involved last time but I left it outhave published a good practice guide called Delivering Housing Adaptations for Disabled People, which advises local authorities on how they can establish a first-class service that can deliver adaptations to the homes of disabled people. It has a specific section on registers. The new duty to promote equality in Clause 3 of the Bill will require authorities to consider how best to promote equality in accessing housing.
In other words, the only difference between us is whether an accessible housing register should be on the face of the Bill or whether it should be left to a statutory code of guidance. Given that the reach of this goes beyond what is currently considered reasonable in the code of practice in terms of owner occupation and so on, it is also the case that the Local Government Association wishes us not to go further than we have. It believes that a separate register of adapted property would be based on historic criteria applying to past household requirements. It wants a more inclusive list,
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which is being pursued, that involves support networks and educational and medical support for contemporary applicants. It worries that the register would not necessarily take into account the issue of area of choice or good housing management issues and that there is no substitute for pre-letting inspections to identify adaptations previously carried out. That is my experience: what tenants say they have put in and what one sees when they vacate is actually very different.
Furthermore, choice-based lettings under the national development of housing allocation policy offer an important chance to describe more accurately the features of the property in new databases that are being assembled by all local authorities in accordance with the 2010 timescale. The LGA, while not complacent, believes that the way it is moving forward meets the substance of this issue and it would not support a register. As a result, my colleagues in the ODPM would almost certainly not, at this time, support a statutory register that encompassed all property. I think that the substance of the amendment is being progressed, not just in places such as Reading but across the country, perhaps in response to these codes. I am sure that that is greatly to be welcomed.
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