Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 14 March 2002
[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]
Disabled Facilities Grants and Home Repair Assistance (Maximum Amounts) (Amendment No. ) (England) Order 2001
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Disabled Facilities Grants and Home Repair Assistance (Maximum Amounts) (Amendment No. 2) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 4036).
May I say how pleased I am to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess, in what I hope will be not an unduly contentious, but a mildly informative, debate? May I also say how pleased I am that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble), who is a constituency neighbour, is responding to the debate? I know her well, and I hope that she will respond in the spirit of informative debate.
From time to time it is desirable, if not necessary, for the Opposition to pray against an order—a delightful phrase—to secure a debate and give prominence to one of the multiple and complex parts of government that does not always require or receive the attention it deserves. It is sometimes necessary to let a bit of sunlight into the darkened parts of the Administration. I am not suggesting that there is anything sinister to hide—in this case, that is certainly not so—but we must step back and think about where we are and whether any improvements could be made. To avoid doubt among members of the Committee, I do not intend to advise my colleagues to press the matter to a Division, unless some particularly outrageous remark is made.
The order updates a piece of Conservative legislation, a statutory instrument of 1996, and represents the first increase since that year in the maximum amounts payable for mandatory disabled facilities grants. The increase is welcome and is of considerable importance to disabled people, particularly as the emphasis has shifted even more towards encouraging community care and allowing people to maintain their house and their occupation for as long as they feel comfortable doing that.
The order highlights an issue that receives little attention. From my own experience, I cannot remember when I last received a specific letter from a constituent on the matter. If one looks through the Official Report for parliamentary questions on the issue, it becomes clear that it does not regularly hit the headlines. However, it is important. We should consider it and, in all friendliness, ask the Minister for a situation report on it.
The order simply adjusts one figure. The maximum amount for a mandatory grant rises from £20,000 to £25,000. Interestingly, even before devolution, it was out of sync with the Welsh figure. Such differences
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always interest me, because my wife comes from the Principality. Perhaps the Minister would comment on how the two Administrations discuss the figures.
The order raises the maximum amount for mandatory grant, but it does not preclude and has never precluded a local authority from giving additional discretionary assistance to top up a maximum grant or to provide separate but related facilities. There is no formal limit on such discretionary assistance. We all know—the Minister does not need me to tell her—that local authorities feel that they are short of cash and under pressure. I shall touch on that briefly in a moment, although it is not the main point of the debate.
This debate has been some time coming, and I am glad that it has finally come. As the person who takes the lead on disability issues for the Conservative Opposition, I first became focused on the matter as a result of correspondence last December between Councillor Colin Preston, the portfolio holder for community care in Wokingham unitary authority, and the Secretary of State. Councillor Preston's letter of 3 December last to the Secretary of State was copied to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who has taken a personal interest in and a lead on disability matters in the past and now holds the shadow portfolio for the Minister's Department. She copied the letter to me.
Let us give credit where it is due: today's uprating order reflects the Minister's response to pressure, as expressed by Councillor Preston and, no doubt, others. That is welcome, but I shall pick up on three points made in the letter. The first is implicit and the Minister might like to comment on it: the delay in the uprating of the maximum amount that is effected by the order.
Councillor Preston comments that the order has not been updated for five years. As that is now happening, we cannot complain about it, but can the Minister share her broad understanding of and approach to uprating? Clearly, she does not want it to happen annually, and I expect that she will tell the Committee that that would be unnecessary because the order prescribes maximum amounts. However, it would be useful to have the Department's thinking about whether uprating needs to happen a little more frequently than has so far been the case, or whether there is such significant pressure on the maximum amounts, especially in high cost areas, that uprating either cannot happen or has to spill over into discretionary grants.
The second point in the letter, to which I am sympathetic, although the Minister will have heard it hundreds of times from local authorities, Ministers and Opposition spokespersons, is that the current subsidy allocation—as I understand it, 60 per cent. of the mandatory grant level—
''does not fully cover the local demand for this assistance''.
As Councillor Preston points out, the Government currently offer only borrowing approval, through the supplementary credit approval, for the difference—for amounts above that 60 per cent.
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I have considerable sympathy with the third point. We often provide equipment and facilities for disabled people without tracking, tracing or making the best use of such aids. Councillor Preston points out that whereas renovation grant—which is within the same broad structure as housing aid—can be recovered when a property is disposed of, there is no equivalent provision at present for the disabled facilities grant. The Minister cannot change that here and now with the order, but I should like her to think about it.
It is essential that local authorities act with sensitivity in such matters. Sadly, from time to time, an example of insensitivity that might be quite uncharacteristic, or that might have happened because of a misunderstanding, hits the newspapers, which rather devalues the currency, so to speak. If, for example, a disabled person has died, the last thing that the family wants is a visit from a local authority official the next week, saying, ''Where is the stairlift, please?'' There is a similar, although perhaps less distressing, situation when an elderly or disabled person moves into residential care.
There should be a necessary constraint on the actions of local authorities, but it would be more sensible if they could recover, refurbish and bring back into use for another person a stairlift, for example, when it was no longer required. The pattern typically is that an item such as a stairlift may be fitted and a grant paid, but that is the end of the matter as far as the householder is concerned. However, I am sure that that process can be negotiated in particular circumstances, even within the present legal remit. In some cases, people may wish to have facilities removed, but they cannot do so without incurring expenses of their own. That is a waste, and I hope that the Minister will reflect on it.
On the analytical side, figures supplied by the Department show a gradual increase in the numbers claiming disabled facilities grants. That is to be welcomed, and it also reflects a gradual increase in awareness of the scheme. It is now strictly a matter for local authorities: the Minister will say that she cannot force people to pay grant except when it is has been applied for and is mandatory. That is a matter for the applicant; those who apply trigger the system. It would be helpful if the Minister would explain thinking and practice in that area. One point that I would ask her to flag up is whether she has information about the level of discretionary grants, which are paid by local authorities over and above the mandatory grants. That may reflect pressure on the system.
On mandatory grants, it would be helpful if the Minister would share with the Committee evidence of any significant trend in the types of grant made for particular facilities, variations in the conditions that require grants, or differences in regional take-up. The Minister knows that the condition of housing stock varies from area to area. The incidence of disability reflected by incapacity benefit varies considerably throughout the country. I mentioned that my wife comes from the Principality; industrial south Wales has a high incidence of such problems. That is outwith the Minister's jurisdiction, but it is useful in policy
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terms to have some idea about the detail of the overall figures.
Disability is not always easy to manage: it may involve multiple conditions overlapping and different degrees of obviousness of those conditions. Perhaps the Minister would outline the variations in take-up according to type of disability or delays in response to particular conditions. I appreciate that there are mandatory standards for the payment or consideration of mandatory grants. The Minister states in one of the documents lodged in the Library that there is not necessarily a constant monitoring of local authorities' performance in that area; I do not want to niggle on that point. The Royal National Institute for the Blind has expressed concern about whether services are really available to those with visual impairment, and notes that there are sometimes considerable delays in bringing them forward.
Many members of the Committee will be familiar with the process of handling visual impairment. A consultant certifies that the person in question either is blind or has a significant visual impairment. That person is registered, then assessed by the local authority. Formally, any grant would be a matter of application, but it must start with the local authority.
I remember vividly an anecdote in a recent publication by the Improving Lives Consortium, which includes the Royal National Institute for the Blind, Northamptonshire Association for the Blind and many other related charities in different areas. Someone had been told that they were severely visually impaired and, four and a half years later, there was a knock on the door and someone from the local authority had arrived to assess them. That is not good enough by any standards, as the Committee will understand. That goes wider than the Minister's remit, but we must ensure that different disabilities are properly addressed by local authorities. Ministers know if there are significant divergences from the trend, and if there are unacceptable delays in making assessments and carrying out the necessary work.
That leads me to my third point. Perhaps the Minister will say something about the efforts that her Department is making in this partnership world to encourage local authorities to adopt good practice and to be aware of the importance of working with other stakeholders—I refer in particular to primary care trusts, community groups and non-governmental disability organisations, which are often the real experts—to market the scheme and ensure that it benefits and accesses those for whom it is intended.
Anything we can do to keep disabled people happy and comfortable in their own homes is cost effective, and is what we and they want. That is the purpose of the grants. They are not contentious, but we must ensure that they work as effectively as possible. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the points that I and other members of the Committee make and ensure that the concept and operation of the grant system is as flexible as possible, and that local authorities and others involved make it work as sensitively and effectively as possible.
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