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Column 991elderly and disabled people live in the worst conditions, yet are least able to improve them. Exempting these groups of applicants would thus be an effective way of targeting resources on those most in need.
Elderly people see means testing as stigmatising and degrading. Many are put off making applications. They need encouragement and help to improve their property--hence the Government's support for elderly home owners' advice services. The Minister thinks that strong dislike of means testing is a thing of the past. If that is true, why is the take-up of other means- tested benefits by elderly people today so poor?
Amendment No. 195 is about enabling the local housing authority, in its assessment of applicants' grant entitlement, to take account of significant changes in needs or resources.
While recognising the problems of reassessing grants, local authorities need to be able to reassess grant entitlement if the financial circumstances of an applicant worsen significantly. It is easy to envisage circumstances in which a grant level is fixed on the basis of earnings from employment, for example, following which the applicant suffers a permanent disability which requires the end of full-time employment and a signficant and permanent drop in income and yet in which the applicant is unable to escape the financial consequences of the improvement work.
The divide in this debate is not between the Minister and me, or between him and the other sponsors of the amendments on both sides of the House. It is a divide between the Minister and all the major organisations of and for disabled people. We are reflecting their deep concern, and I implore the Minister to give the House a constructive response to these important amendments. It would be utterly wrong to proceed with the clause as drafted.
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton) : I shall speak briefly to emphasise the all-party nature of amendments Nos. 317 and 318 and shall return briefly to some of the debates that we had in Committee when we discussed this subject. I again pay tribute to the Government for introducing new clause 10, as it then was, which went a substantial way towards meeting the anxieties of those who represent disabled people.
I should like to press the Government a little more on some of the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris). It would be helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister could explain why the Government have changed their mind on what appeared in the original consultation paper. There was a principle there with which most of us could identify, which said that for normal repair or improvement work unrelated to a person's disability people should be exposed to a means test when they apply for an improvement grant. In the case of adaptations which helped people to meet the needs of their disability, they were to be exempt from the test of resources.
That principle was understandable in that it enabled disabled people to come to the starting post at the same time as everyone else, and the rules would be exactly the same. The withdrawal of that proposal in the consultation paper has caused some anxiety and amendments Nos. 317 and 318 refer to that. In his response to the Committee
Column 992debate, my hon. Friend the Minister said that he would reflect again on this in the light of letters from George Wilson and Peter Large. Is he now able to move a little towards the position pressed on him by hon. Members in all parts of the House?
Mr. Trippier : One of my difficulties with the amendment is that I do not think that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) is speaking as a representative of the all-party committee of which I was a member before I became a member of the Government. I think that he devalues the currency of what he says because he did not start his speech by making exactly the same comments as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young).
The whole purpose of the clause is to give additional resources to the disabled. That is what my hon. Friend has just said. The point was effectively made in Committee, but only by him. I have great respect for the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe for the work that he does for the disabled. However, I am surprised at him because he missed a great opportunity to acknowledge how the Government have moved in this direction.
I cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton the comfort that he seeks because it is not clear to me what hon. Members would substitute for a test of resources. Perhaps the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe is saying that all pensioners and all disabled people should qualify for 100 per cent. grants irrespective of their ability to afford the cost of the work. I entirely accept that it is perfectly legitimate to hold that view, but I am not at all sure that it would be fair to people who are not in those categories, for example, those on low incomes, nor am I sure that all local authorities would welcome the resource commitment that it would bring. Nobody has mentioned that.
We expect pensioners and the disabled to do well out of the new grants system. If they do not, we have failed in our precise intention. We did not think that the former system was fair. I assure the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe that many of the people that he mentions will qualify for help with the full cost of the work. We have also said that we shall look carefully at the possibility of passporting particular groups of people whose needs have been assessed for other purposes. We shall encourage help for pensioners and others in order to increase their take-up of grant.
I remain of the view that where a pensioner or disabled person has the resources to fund the work either wholly or in part, it is not unreasonable for them to do so, not least because it encourages a degree of independence which many elderly people and others value a great deal.
Amendment No. 195 touches on the issue that we discussed in Committee--the matter of redetermining grant entitlement where the circumstances of the applicant change after grant has been approved. We understand the arguments in favour of that, although I am not sure about why the redetermination should be one way, as the amendment would provide, if an applicant's income increased following grant approval. For instance, why should the grant not be reduced? There are practical difficulties in providing for the determination which the local authority associations acknowledge, even if Opposition Members do not. We are seeking to keep the test of resources as simple and straightforward as possible. Redetermination will mean
Column 993placing a duty on applicants to inform the authority whenever their circumstances change. That could happen on a number of
occasions--certainly more than once--between the time of approval and even by the time the grant is paid. Would the authority, for example, need to redetermine grant each time or just once? That is not an idle debating point. It must be seriously considered, certainly in terms of legislation. We gave an undertaking in Committee, and I repeat it now, that we are prepared to consider that matter further with the local authority associations. I hope that, in those circumstances and on that understanding, the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Alfred Morris : I assure the Minister that the whole of my submission about amendments Nos. 317 and 318 was based on information made available to me by organisations of and for disabled people which are widely respected on both sides of both Houses. At the same time, I made it clear that the two amendments were those of the all-party disablement group in the House.
What upsets the organisations of and for disabled people is the Government's change of policy since the consultation paper. I heard nothing from the Minister about the change of policy. It is not possible for me now to press the amendments, for reasons the House will understand, but I implore him to try his best between now and the debate in another place to review the Government's policy on this important issue. I hope that there will be significant improvements to the clause before the Bill becomes law.
No. 322, in page 93, line 2, leave out unless' and insert if'. No. 323, in page 93, line 16, leave out paragraph (c) and insert-- (c) facilitating access by the disabled occupant to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a room used or usable for sleeping.'. No. 324, in page 93, line 29, leave out from dwelling' to end of line 30.
No. 325, in page 93, line 24, leave out paragraph (f) and insert-- (f) providing or enhancing heating and lighting systems and providing or adapting the controls thereof to make them suitable for the disabled occupant ;'.
No. 194, in page 93, line 30, at end insert--
(h) providing a structure, carport or suitable area for the purpose of parking a motor vehicle used by the disabled occupant which is accessible to him, or facilitating access to and from such a facility by the disabled occupant.
(i) providing a source of power, light, heat, insulation and ventilation for the disabled occupant.
Column 994(j) providing suitable accommodation as part of the dwelling for a person living with or regularly attending the disabled occupant for the purpose of caring for him.
(k) providing an additional room or rooms for the purpose of regular medical or associated treatment of the disabled occupant.'. No. 326, in page 93, line 30, at end add--
(h) providing adequate thermal insulation, including double-glazing and draftproofing ; and
(i) facilitating access to, or providing for the disabled occupant, a garage or covered carport where the disabled occupant is dependent on a road or pavement vehicle for mobility outdoors.'.
Sir George Young : Amendments Nos. 321 and 322 are linked and the Government could concede them without any loss of face. They simply change the emphasis and would require a housing authority to approve an application if it was satisfied, as opposed to asking it not to approve it unless it was satisfied. That would be a more consumer-friendly approach towards processing applications for improvement grants from the disabled, rather than the current wording, which I find somewhat negative.
Amendment No. 323 seeks to push on the generosity already displayed by the Government by making access by the disabled occupant more extensive. Subsection (2)(c) as drafted allows a grant where it would facilitate
"access by the disabled occupant to a room used or usable for sleeping"
In other words, he can get a grant if he changes a sitting room into a bedroom, but he cannot get a grant for adding a new bedroom to the house. Changing a sitting room into a bedroom is likely adversely to affect the whole of the household and should be avoided when it is possible to build an extension to the house which the disabled person could use as a bedroom. I hope that the Minister will look favourable on that amendment.
Likewise, amendment No. 324 deals with subsection (2)(g), which I find somewhat restrictive. It facilitates
"access and movement by the disabled occupant around the dwelling in order to enable him to care for a dependent relative." Surely the disabled occupant needs access and movement around the dwelling for his or her own sake, not just to look after a dependent relative. Why should it be restricted to
"care for a dependent relative"
when many disabled people have friends whom they look after? Indeed, others have friends who look after them, and they may need to be helped when temporarily unwell. Is it possible to move the boundaries of that provision further and more generously?
Amendment No. 325 affects paragraph (f), which deals with "facilitating the use by the disabled occupant of a source of power, light or heat by altering the position of one or more means of access to or control of that source".
I am not sure that it is enough merely to facilitate the use of existing heating or lighting systems. For example, partially-sighted people may need a greater intensity of lighting or more directed lighting as well as change of the controls. The need for adequate heating for disabled people with impaired mobility is accepted by everybody, but provision of it is not eligible for a grant under the clause as drafted.
Amendment No. 326 would add some provisions to the end of subsection (2). Extra heating could be provided by paragraph (h), but bearing in mind that in general disabled people have less to live on than non-disabled people, the
Column 995extra heating could be economically provided by improving standards of insulation. The amendment would provide for this. Paragraph (i) enables access to a garage to be funded through improvement grant. Access to a garage is important to anyone unable, or virtually unable to walk, as evidenced by the fact that they have been subject of rate rebates, and the provision of a cover for a car and/or powered outdoor wheelchair is essential.
Basically, these amendments represent a modest package of improvements in mandatory grants for the disabled, on which I hope that the Government will smile.
Mr. George Howarth : The Minister has already given an undertaking to look again at discretionary grants, particularly those suggested by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation. We should like the Government to enlarge the existing criteria.
As I understand it, the commitment is only to look at such factors as enabling disabled people to get through their front doors, to have one living room and one bedroom, to build an accessible bathroom or lavatory, to adapt a kitchen so as to be able to reach heating, lighting and other power switches, and to allow access to the home for a dependent relative. We should like to expand the criteria by bringing in such factors as access to car parking and the provision of heating, accommodation for carers, and a special treatment room. These are not dissimilar to the aims of the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says because disabled people are concerned about such matters.
Mr. Trippier : It would be unreasonable not to approach the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) about amendments Nos. 321 and 322. I accept that he is suggesting that the wording of this part of the clause appears negative. The difficulty is that the solution that he has come up with--it may be the only one that he could think of or on which he has been advised--goes much further than he intended. The same would happen to me if I did not have the facilities available to me through our super Civil Service. The amendments, if passed, would impose a duty on local authorities to approve all applications for disabled facilities grants, which is not necessarily what my hon. Friend is seeking to achieve.
I shall examine the wording of amendments Nos. 321 and 322. I can give no other undertaking and I cannot promise that I shall find alternative or improved wording. However, in view of the spirit in which my hon. Friend spoke to the amendments, I feel under an obligation to look at them again.
Amendments Nos. 323, 324, 325, 326 and 194 make specific additions or amendments to the purposes for which mandatory grant will be available. The Bill already provides for mandatory grant for an extensive range of works previously available only at the discretion of local authorities. It would be possible to extend that list in a variety of ways, all of which would assist the disabled person to remain in his or her home. However, it is unrealistic to propose that all of them should be requirements on the local housing authority. The resource implications could be large and go far beyond what is necessary.
Column 996In any event, subsection (3) enables authorities to provide assistance at their discretion towards the cost of other works that are likely to make the dwelling suitable for the accommodation, welfare or employment of the disabled occupant. They could include all the items listed in the amendments. However, I suppose that there must be a difference between my hon. Friend and me in the end, and the difficulty is that I do not accept that those provisions require mandatory status. I may add that subsection (3)(f) provides mandatory grant where, additionally, specialised adapted heating and lighting controls are necessary. Lighting, heating and ventilation are provided for in the new basic standard of fitness for the property concerned.
I urge the House to resist the amendments and in so doing to support the balance between mandatory and discretionary help for which the Bill already provides.
characteristically generous reply, and I do not wish to press any of my amendments. My hon. Friend will know that the disabled lobby in another place takes an enormous interest in the parts of the Bill that we have just debated. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend's remarks will be studied and that improvements may be made in another place.
The Committee was unable to come to a decision on the issue to which the amendment relates without the intervention of its Chairman, who used his casting vote in favour of the Government. The amendment relates to the length of time that a local authority can take to process an improvement grant application. The proposition was made in Standing Committee that the authority should have 12 months, but there was a strong feeling that that was a somewhat leisurely period of time and that six months would be more appropriate.
The record of the Division in Standing Committee G states : " The Committee divided : Ayes 112, Noes 11."
As only 25 right hon. and hon. Members served on the Committee, it appears that that is a misprint. The report adds :
"The Chairman : In accordance with precedent, I give my vote to the Noes."- -[ Official Report, Standing Committee G, 25 April 1989 ; c. 1085.]
I believe that the score was 11 all.
Given the pressure that the Government rightly place on local authorities to process right-to-buy and planning applications more quickly, 12 months is a long time to deal with an improvement grant application. In forcing the matter to a Division in Committee, I hoped to strengthen my hon. Friend's hand in his negotiations with local authorities. I trust that he will be able to tell the House that the period allowed will be only six months.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I declare an interest as an electrical contractor associated with the subject matter of clause 104. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and my hon. Friend the Minister for covering the point raised in
Column 997Committee and agreeing to the amendment. I draw attention to a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister dated 19 May in which he accepts the need for electrical work to be included in the grant provisions. He writes :
"It is often the elderly, living in a home of long standing, who have the most urgent need of assistance with rewiring."
As that need is considered to be urgent, I ask him to consider that a time limit of six months rather than 12 would be better. Nevertheless, I thank him for acknowledging that the previous anomaly needed to be rectified.
Figures for deaths and accidents arising from fires and faulty wiring show the importance of reaching a decision sooner rather than later. Latest statistics show that 3,600 fires in dwellings were directly attributable to faulty electrical wiring, and that they resulted in 22 deaths and 320 non- fatal casualties. The sooner the decisions can be made, the better.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for accepting the need for the change to be made, but in practice local authorities are reluctant to accept the need for the grants which are still discretionary rather than mandatory. I should like my hon. Friend to consider the inclusion of the Electrical Contractors Association in the proposed working party which will provide guidance notes on the working of the Act to local authorities. Perhaps my hon. Friend will bear that in mind when he considers whether the period should be reduced from 12 months to six months.
Mr. Trippier : I shall be happy to look at the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham). On a more general point with regard to the powerful advocacy that we have heard both from him and from my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), to use one of the favourite expressions of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton, I am anxious to smile on the amendment and on him, and to be user-friendly. I am therefore prepared to accept the amendment. It may be a lesson to the hon. Member for Newham, North-East that, if he is nice to the Minister who knows what he might get?
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made : No. 125, in page 95, line 15, at end insert-- (2A) Where an application for a grant is approved, then, except-- (
(a) with the consent of the Secretary of State, or-- [Mr. Trippier.]
Amendments made : No. 42, in page 98, line 16, leave out and (6)' and insert to (6A)'.
No. 43, in page 98, line 34, at end insert--
(6A) In any case where--
Column 998(a) within the period referred to in subsection (2) above an owner makes a relevant disposal of the dwelling concerned (not being an exempt disposal), and
(b) the authority having the right to demand payment from the owner as mentioned in that subsection are satisfied that he is elderly or infirm and is making the disposal with the intention of going to live in sheltered housing or a residential care home as his only or main residence.
the authority may determine not to make any demand under subsection (2) above and, on the making of such a determination, any condition under that subsection shall cease to be in force with respect to the dwelling.'.-- [Mr. Trippier.]
(i) shall give assistance as mentioned in subsection (2) below for the provision or improvement of thermal insulation in a dwelling and/or the provision of improvement of draughtproofing to doors and windows, and
We talked earlier about discretionary and mandatory grants. I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that grants for improving heating installations in existing houses either through the homes installation scheme or through energy grant are at present mandatory, particularly for those on income support, family credit and housing benefit. Rather than making a grant aid discretionary, as the present form of clause 117 would require, will the Minister leave it as a mandatory grant, not least because it is basic to people on low incomes? Making it discretionary would represent a worsening of the current position.
Mr. Trippier : I will try to explain to the hon. Gentleman why that would not be a good idea. The point about the new grant regime and the grant for a range of minor works is to give local authorities some flexibility in the way in which, for example, elderly home owners can be helped to stay in their own homes. It may be that draught-proofing or insulation is the most pressing need and authorities can recognise that by approving a minor works grant, even though more substantial work needs to be done on the property later on. There may, however, be a stronger case for the repair of a gutter or a down pipe, and it may make sense for insulation work to wait until other related work can go ahead. Authorities need that degree of flexibility. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in a position in which insulation work will have to be carried out even though more urgent matters are in need of attention. I hope that the hon. Member will seek leave to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment made : No. 165, in page 106, line 20, at end insert-- (5) In the application of section 516 of the Housing Act 1985 (contributions by Secretary of State towards expense of grants under Part XV of that Act) in relation to a case where
Column 999(a) an application under section 461 of that Act has been approved by the local housing authority after 14th June 1989, and
(b) the date which is the certified date, as defined in section 499(3) of that Act, in relation to the works to which that application relates falls on or after the day appointed under section 154 below for the coming into force of section 92 above,
for subsection (2) there shall be substituted the following subsection--
"(2) In the case of any grant, the contribution--
(a) shall be equal to a percentage of the amount of the grant determined under subsections (3) and (4) below ; and
(b) shall be payable in one sum or by two or more instalments, according as the Secretary of State may determine.".'.
.--(1) Where a dwelling which is for the time being subject to a secure tenancy is transferred under section 143 above to a person as mentioned in subsection (2)(b) of that section (in this section referred to as an "approved person"), that person shall not dispose of it except--
(a) with the consent of the Secretary of State, which may be given either unconditionally or subject to conditions ; or
(b) by an exempt disposal, as defined in section 81(8) of the Housing Act 1988 ;
and any reference in the following provisions of this section to an initial transfer is a reference to the transfer of a dwelling to an approved person under section 143 above.
(2) Where an estate or interest in a dwelling of the approved person who acquired it on the initial transfer has been mortgaged or charged, the prohibition in subsection (1) above applies also to a disposal by the mortgagee or chargee in exercise of a power of sale or leasing, whether or not the disposal is in the name of the approved person ; and in any case where--
(a) by operation of law or by virtue of an order of a court, the dwelling which has been acquired on the initial transfer passes or is transferred from the approved person to another person, and (
(b) that passing or transfer does not constitute a disposal for which consent is required under this section,
this section (including, where there is more than one such passing or transfer, this subsection) shall apply as if the other person to whom the dwelling passes or is transferred were the approved person. (3) Where subsection (1) above applies--