Disabled Facilities Grants and Home Repair Assistance (Maximum Amounts) (Amendment No. 2) (England) Order 2001

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Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I am grateful for the opportunity to join the discussion about this scheme, and I welcome the increase in the maximum grant. As we have heard, it is some years since the grants were reviewed. I take an interest in such matters as a member of the all-party disability group in the House and as chair of a local forum on disability issues in my local authority area, and I have a couple of questions about the scheme.

Has the Department undertaken any assessment of whether there are regional variations in the costs associated with work funded through the grants? It would not be surprising if such cost differences existed because of pressures on the building trade in the south-east, London and other places. I wonder whether that has been taken into account in making decisions about the increase and, if it has not, whether such variations could be examined and factored into assessments.

Mr. Boswell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Committee need not be obsessive about the matter, but it is important for accountability and monitoring that any pattern of inflated cost—perhaps because of a collusive arrangement or inadequate tendering—is also picked up in the process and, if necessary, addressed.

Mr. Burstow: That is an important factor and should be investigated. I am sure that no member of the Committee will be obsessed about it, but it is important to examine it.

For some time, the Daily Mail has been running a related campaign against the inappropriate sale of aids and adaptions in people's homes. I hope that, under the new system, monitoring will ensure that people do not wind up as victims of cowboy operations. Will the variations in costs be considered when reviewing the maximum amount?

The interplay between the mandatory and discretionary schemes is another issue. The discretionary scheme allows top-up payments to be paid if the work that needs to be done to adapt a property exceeds the maximum amount. Given that there is increased pressure on capital programmes in local authorities—less capital permission is available to some authorities—does the Department have data on the number of mandatory awards for cases that have needed a discretionary top-up? That would give an indication of the pressures and of whether the maximum amount of mandatory award adequately meets costs. It would also show the regional variations between the costs of works.

We need a clearer picture of potential problems and pressure points in the system. Over the past three years, the local authority for the London borough of Sutton has had to deal with five grant applications of more than £30,000, and I suspect that other authorities have received many more. A worry that has been put to me about the interplay, and therefore pressures, in the system is that there will be a temptation to cost shunt if it is increasingly difficult to find the necessary capital resources to fund discretionary top-ups. The cost of addressing legitimate needs for adaptions in properties will be picked up by other parts of local

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authorities' budgets, particularly by social services budgets, which hon. Members will know are already under intense pressure and face an overspend across the country of some £218 million this year. There is a growing gap between what the Government think is necessary to spend on social services through the standard spending assessment, and what is spent. That gap stands at about £1 billion, and is widening.

Duties will be triggered under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 if there is insufficient flexibility between the mandatory and discretionary schemes. I hope that the Minister will examine that pressure, and ensure that social services will not have to pick up the cost because there is not enough in the pot for discretionary grants.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made important points about the conditions attached to grants, and about whether sufficient flexibility exists to deal with people with low vision or no vision. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chairing a seminar in this place on low vision services, key to which was access to equipment, aids and adaptions. The Patients Association has completed important work on the availability of low vision services, which showed how patchy they are. One thing that can help people with age-related macular degeneration—the principle cause of blindness in older people—is better lighting. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether there is sufficient flexibility in the mandatory scheme to allow for the provision of appropriate lighting.

My final point relates to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Daventry. We should attach importance to the role of disability organisations in selling and communicating the benefits of the scheme. The upward trend in the number of people using grants shows that that is already happening. My local authority holds a forum for disabled people and disabled groups, which regularly reports on the progress of the mandatory and discretionary schemes. Others may want to follow that model. I welcome the increase, and look forward to the Minister's response.

10.18 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Once again, it is a pleasure to serve in a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I am also pleased that the Opposition spokesman is my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Daventry. He was right to say that this is an important issue, and it has been raised in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. A number of hon. Members have written in about specific cases, which are sometimes distressing because they relate to the pressures on families of which one member has become disabled. I welcome the opportunity to set out some of the Government's thinking on this important issue. I shall try to answer the hon. Gentleman's questions, and those of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). I hope that they will intervene if I miss out any of their queries, or I shall reply in writing.

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The Government regard the disabled facilities grant as an important programme to help disabled people to remain in their homes and to live an independent life for as long as they possibly can. The hon. Member for Daventry was right to say that there is increased pressure from the public for that, and I am sure that there is consensus in the Committee that that is the right approach. That is why, when we recently reviewed local authority powers to provide assistance for housing renovations and adaptations, we decided to maintain the disabled facilities grant as a mandatory right for eligible applicants. Although we have kept the money ring- fenced to ensure that it can be used only to help disabled people, a review was carried out early last year, the results of which have fed through into a regulatory reform order, which I shall mention later.

For all other types of renovation assistance, we propose to give local authorities greater discretion on how their funds are allocated. Since coming to power, in addition to maintaining the mandatory disabled facilities grant, we have significantly increased the resources available to the programme. The Government meet 60 per cent. of the grant paid by local authorities, which must find the remainder from elsewhere in their budgets. In 1997–98, the amount of central Government resources available for the disabled facilities grant for England was £56 million, and the budget for next year will be £88 million. That is a substantial increase in the amount of money that the Government are making available to help people with disabilities, and it shows the importance that we place on supporting disabling people.

Securing additional resources for the programme is also one of the priorities for my Department in this year's comprehensive spending review but, as hon. Members will understand, I cannot say what the outcome will be.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister is making reasonable points, and I understand the thinking that is required with regard to the Treasury in order to claim improvements in volume, which have been given. Does she or her Department have an index of unmet need? That need not be a formal index of those who apply for a grant—although consideration of such applications might be delayed—but an index of overall need. Sample studies may allow her Department to see how appropriate the present level of spending is to meeting that need.

Ms Keeble: It is always difficult to make an accurate assessment of unmet need because, by definition, much of it will be hidden. However, I intend to say something about the differences among local authorities. There are differences between authorities in various parts of country, and it is hard to analyse and fully understand exactly what those trends imply. The Government clearly have a role in funding some of that need. We have increased our share of the financial commitment to meet need, but there will always be a role for local authorities, and sometimes for families.

The order, which came into force on 21 January, raises the maximum amount that a local authority must pay for a mandatory grant from £20,000 to

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£25,000. The hon. Member for Daventry asked about Wales, where the current grant of £24,000 is going up to £30,000. That is what happens with devolved Administrations; different decisions can be made. The average grant given is £4,500, so £25,000 seems a reasonable level at which to fix the mandatory grant.

The change is, in many respects, a technical one, taking account of increases in building costs of about 20 per cent. since the limit was last reviewed 5 years ago. It is becoming increasingly clear that some of the more expensive adaptations, such as downstairs extensions and structural work, regularly cost in excess of the previous limit of £20,000.

The hon. Member for Daventry asked whether we should increase the level each year. There is a close relationship between the maximum limit of the mandatory grant and the total amount of money going into the kitty. We have concentrated on increasing the total amount going into the kitty, and we have made great progress on that. I think that that has been the right approach.

Although local authorities have discretion to pay grant higher than the mandatory limit, that is not a right for all eligible applicants. We estimate the level of discretionary awards to be about £5 million annually. The Government think it important to set the maximum for mandatory grant at a level sufficiently high to meet most of the required adaptations in the majority of cases. That is why we think that £25,000 is about right.

There is a case for arguing that the maximum limit should be abolished completely. I should point out that the limit was set at £20,000 in 1996 by the Conservative Government. Before that it was £50,000 and before 1993 there was no limit at all. A maximum limit is imposed because resources available for the programme are finite and demand for the grant is very high and likely to continue to grow. We have to strike a balance between those pressures. As I said, the average grant provided is only about £4,500, but there are a small number of very expensive adaptations—it is usually those that hon. Members write in about.

We look to local authorities to fund those adaptations wherever possible using their discretionary powers. Under the current system, we pay 60 per cent. grant towards the cost of more expensive adaptations, but bringing them into the mandatory system could put some local authorities in even greater financial difficulties than they already face, and would put constraints on the total number of grants that a local authority could make.

For the same reason, the disabled facilities grant is subject to a means test. That is often unpopular and, as hon. Members know, it gives rise to difficult cases, especially those involving disabled children. We go to considerable lengths to ensure that the means test is as fair as we can possibly make it by assessing a family's savings and income and comparing that with standard expenditure allowances, including a housing allowance, which is set at a higher rate for families with a disabled child and is annually updated to take account of inflation. The paramount principle of the

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means test is to ensure that the limited resources available go to those most in need of help.

The hon. Member for Daventry asked whether adaptations such as stairlifts could be taken back. That could be done, but, for the reasons that he set out, it is not always practicable. There is an assumption that adaptations for disabled access make a property more valuable, but that is not always the case. If, for example, a bath is replaced by a shower adapted for the disabled, and there is not another facility on the premises, the property can be more expensive or difficult to sell. The next occupants might not want an adapted shower. Some care has to be taken before assuming that a grant for an adaptation would always result in a profit for the homeowner; that is not always the case. Where applicants are required to make a contribution towards the cost of the adaptations work, the interest costs of any loan that they must raise may be met from the social services budget.

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