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Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, I very strongly support this amendment. If we are to fulfil the Government's commitment made in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report that by 2025 disabled people should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality of life and be respected and included as equal members of society. Disabled people must be able to get into their houses. As the Minister fully acknowledged in Committee, this issue must be addressed. The Strategy Unit report makes commitments to increasing disabled people's ability to live independently at home. I look forward to hearing positive news of the action that the Government are planning to take to address to this issue.
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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, put into its most simple form, the argument is that there is no point in having a flat if, as a disabled person, one cannot get into it. If adaptations are not made to the common parts few flats will be appropriate to their needs. It is all very well for the Minister to rely, as she did in Committee, on the Landlord and Tenant Act 1927, which says that a landlord cannot withhold his consent to adaptations unreasonably. But what is unreasonable for an able-bodied tenant would be quite reasonable for a disabled one. That is why the matter should be put right in this Bill rather than in a housing Act.
The Minister found a major stumbling block in the amendment; namely, who pays for the removal of adaptations once the disabled tenant leaves? They may move to another flatsheltered accommodation perhapsor, most unfortunately, have died.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, this is the common parts amendment, as opposed to the demised premises one. I agree that they overlap substantially but I wonder whether the noble Lord is talking to the second of those two amendments rather than the first.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right; there is an overlap here. The common parts have to be accessible; it is as easy as that. However, if the Minister would prefer me to make most of my speech on a later amendment I am happy to do that. I do not want her to tell us that it was not part of the Labour Party's manifesto to legislate on this, or indeed on the other matter, as she did before. It is not a good argument. We all know that governments fail regularly to enact legislation that was promised in their manifesto. Look at the Labour Party's reaction to this House over decades as a good example. It is only very recently that it has legislated in this area.
We also know that governments frequently legislate for matters that were not in their manifesto, so that argument does not wash, either. I am sure that it is true that this subject has not been part of the detailed thinking about this Bill. The question now is: has any thinking gone on in government on this difficult issue, which must affect the majority of the 16,000 to 18,000 households in the private rented sector? Like the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, I strongly support this amendment.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the Joint Committee recommended that the full Bill should include a specific provision prohibiting control of premises or unreasonably withholding consent for the making of reasonable adjustment to communal areas. In Grand Committee I pointed out that the response of the Government seemed to be in two parts. First, they said that they were not convinced that tenants should be able to make adjustments to the common parts over which they have only limited rights, or that a controller of the premises should be required to allow a tenant to make changes to the common parts. That sounded as if the Government were opposed in principle. They then went on about the difficulty of doing it, saying that it would be complex and so on.
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The Government agree that there is a gap in the law and I am hoping that by Third Reading we might be able to have a resolution on this. The amendment is permissive in terms of the regulations. Stating that:
does not requiring a regulatory power to be exercised. It appears that the difficulties that the Government described in their response to the Joint Committee and in Grand Committee of drafting the regulations are dealt with in the amendment. It also appears that it includes everything that would be in regulations to deal with this problem if the Secretary of State were minded to make them.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I can understand how the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, made that mistake because the amendments are practically identical. Vitally, our amendment deals with the communal aspect, but because the two amendments are so similar I have always made the same mistake. I wrote my few remarks at the last moment, so I can understand that. The speeches in this debate are almost directly applicable to the next debate. I am surprised that the two amendments have not been grouped together because that would make for ease of debates in the House of Lords.
I remind my noble friend Lady Hollis that there was unanimous criticism of the Government's refusal to accept the amendment in Committee. It was clear that Ministers understood the difficulties and complexities involved; they were carefully explained by my noble friend Lady Hollis. But she seemed overwhelmed by the difficulties of consulting other departments. She even said at one stage that she did not know how far the thinking of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister had got. That is a surprising admission by my noble friend, who knows everything about anything, certainly in this field. She is the best-briefed Minister in the House of Lords, indeed in Parliament. Her admission that she did not know how far the discussions had got was very surprising but showed that the Government cannot speak with authority on the matter because Ministers will speak with separate, perhaps different voices.
My noble friend Lady Hollis described this as a "very important" topic. I should have thought that a very important topic would be given high priority by the Government and that urgent inter-departmental discussion would have taken place. If we miss this opportunity, another one might not recur for a very long time. It is outrageous that disabled people should
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be confined to abodes whose communal areas are not accessible to them. I hope that my noble friend will find it in her heart to respond constructively.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I firmly believe that I will respond constructively but we shall see whether that view is shared by other noble Lords. We all agree, and the point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that it is unacceptable that disabled people can have a suitably adapted rented flat to live in but then find themselves a virtual prisoner because they cannot get through the common parts. That is where we start.
My second point is that the issue is too big and too complex to be addressed by this amendment on this Bill today. Let me give the example of a not-untypical mixed-use building of 10 storeys in inner-city London. It highlights the variety of interests involved that must be consulted and taken forward, even for something as straightforward as adaptions to common parts for stair-climbers, which account for over 30 per cent of requests, and storage of wheelchairs or mobility vehicles, which is the second biggest issue. In a real-life example of a 10-storey inner-city building, the basement is used for parking, the ground floor for retail, floors one to five are a room-only hotel, floor six is an office and floors seven to 10 are residential. The residents would include freeholders, long-lease holders, tenants and short-term sub-tenants. All of those would have different legal rights towards any enactment on their property. It is not simple; it is exceedingly complex.
In Committee I gave the very simple example of a mixed block of council flats some of which had been sold and others retained. I have deliberately chosen a more complicated, not-untypical example. Noble Lords need only look at how difficult it is, for example, to try to deliver something as seemingly straightforward as commonhold to leasehold tenants to see the complexity involved. Here we are doing something even harder: people believe, misguidedly or otherwise, that the value or appearance of their property may be adversely affected by the proposal. It shows the difficulties with which, I have no doubt, we will have to engage.
I am being pressed on this question today. First, I re-emphasise that there is no way that something as complicated as this can be taken on amendment at this stage in the Bill. It has come up only very late in the consultation processes over the past three years. It was not even raised at earlier rounds of discussions with the Disability Rights Task Force as far as I am aware, but I stand to be corrected on that if I am wrong.
However, I am equally persuaded that we cannot just bank our responsibilities, walk away from it, say that it is complicated and hope that somehow something will happen. As a result, since our last discussions in Committee, we are taking it forward. The DRC has already been invited and has agreed to be a member of a review group. The group's chairman has already been appointed. A senior civil servant from the DWP, who is here today listening to this debate, will head that working party to see how to progress this. Referring to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, it will involve members from the Office of the Deputy
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Prime Minister, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and the Department of Health. I will see whether we should include the Department for Education. Members from the Scottish Executive have already been appointed also.
The group will investigate the need and evidence for change; for example, the number of disabled people affected by inaccessible common parts, the effect on their lives and the nature of alterations needed. It will identify options for change, assess the regulatory costs and benefits of the options identified, and engage with the tangle of hugely complex legal issues surrounding land law. We expect the chairman to report no later than the end of the year with specific recommendations for resolving those issues. If primary legislation is recommended, that report will include recommendations as to possible legislative vehicles.
We have made a huge move in terms of energy and commitment. We have already set up this working party, and we have got people involved in it. They are raring to go on some of the extremely complex issues associated with it. I had some tangential interest in the commonhold and leasehold reform, which was mind-bogglingly complex; this is harder still. Let no one think that it is easy; it is harder still. By setting up this committee I hope that my noble friends on the Cross Benches, as I call them, will agree that we are going even beyond what I was able to say in Committee, where I was persuaded by many of the arguments made. I will not go into it more than that, merely to say that we are making progress. I hope that noble Lords will recognise the positive commitment that we have made. In the light of that, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
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