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

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Mr. Burstow: The Minister is right that it is possible for some costs to be picked up through hardship funds. Has any assessment been made of the potential for the maximum amount of cost shunting on to social services when there are not sufficient moneys available for the discretionary funds? That puts more pressure on mainstream budgets in social services, which must meet their obligations under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.

Ms Keeble: I shall give a detailed response to that question in writing. The pressure on social services budgets is very high, and those constraints partly explain why some areas have had difficulties in meeting all the demand.

I shall deal now with the administration of the programme. That is a difficult area and I acknowledge that there is a large volume of local authority ombudsman cases which illustrate the difficulties that exist, a number of which have been put to me by hon. Members. I shall start with the legal position, which specifies the timetable that local authorities should adhere to. First, they must respond to any full grant application within six months. Secondly, they may delay the payment of any grant in cases where they have exhausted their annual budget, but for no longer than one year after the date of the full application. Government guidance states clearly that such delays should not be employed in urgent cases where there is a serious health risk to the applicant.

I acknowledge that, despite such legislative requirements, delays do occur. We do not monitor them all; it would be over-bureaucratic if we did so. Performance will obviously vary from one local authority to another, as does take-up. The hon. Member for Maidenhead had particular difficulties in her area because of the sharp increase in the number of people applying for disabled facilities grants. It might be helpful to consider the take-up rates in some London local authorities. In some instances—Barking and Dagenham, for example—there has been a 26 per cent. increase in allocations, but in other areas there has been a reduction. In the case of the hon. Member

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for Maidenhead, her constituency has experienced a trebling or quadrupling of the number of applicants, although it is not immediately obvious why that has happened. I shall try to find examples of local authorities that have experienced a lower increase in the number of people who applied for disabled facilities grants.

The reasons for the delays are varied. There is a difficult financial management function for local authorities to perform. They are given an annual budget by my Department, but must consider all eligible applications within the statutory time limits that I have just described. Clearly, when there is a larger than expected level of applications in any one year, that can lead to difficulties in managing the budget.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister reflect on whether there is any evidence that local authorities are unable to use the funds allocated because they must hold some in reserve against the possibility of relatively late applications? If they must still meet their targets, they need some money in the kitty to do so.

Ms Keeble: The amount of money that we provide will meet a large proportion of most local authorities' expenditure. The time limits make for an orderly flow of applications. Other issues cause some of the delays, and I shall deal with them.

Many local authorities manage the finances of the programme well. However, there is a need for assessments, which can be particularly difficult, because the needs of disabled people are varied and must be carefully assessed. Applications go through only after needs have been assessed. In most cases, an occupational therapist is required to carry out the assessment and, as the hon. Member for Daventry knows, there is a shortage of occupational therapists, which can also contribute to delays.

In the light of those difficulties, my Department, in conjunction with the Department of Health, is preparing additional joint guidance which will set out best practice on how social service and housing departments can work together to process grant applications as quickly and effectively as possible. We hope to publish guidance in the summer. Kent county council already has good multidisciplinary guidelines for dealing with grant applications; many local authorities would do well to consider them.

At the beginning of my speech, I referred to our wider proposals to give local authorities more flexible powers to deal with conditions in private sector housing. I assure the hon. Members for Daventry and for Sutton and Cheam that our approach is to free up controls on local authority spending, rather than to increase bureaucracy and central control. The hon. Gentlemen made several suggestions that promoted more central control, rather than less.

Mr. Boswell: I do not wish to inject heat into the debate, but perhaps I might respond to the Minister's comments on our attitude. No one seeks to increase the controls on local authorities; they have enough problems without that. However, as part and parcel of any welcome relaxation of formal control by the Department, it must, at the same time and in parallel, step

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up its monitoring, appraisal and—if necessary—gentle encouragement of best practice. The more we consider the matter and unpick the details of practice, the more we will learn about how to spend the limited resources most effectively.

Ms Keeble: We are providing extra guidance and, importantly, extra money, as we free up central control on local authorities. We are doing that through the regulatory reform order, which has had a first round of scrutiny and is moving through its legislative stages. We hope to see it on the statute book reasonably soon.

The regulatory reform order will give local authorities a general discretionary power to provide financial assistance to any person for repair or improvement of living accommodation. Local authorities will be able to use the power to top up or supplement the mandatory disabled facilities grant regime in any way that they see fit.

In addition, an important new power will allow local authorities to provide any person with financial assistance to move to a more suitable house if it is clearly not cost-effective to adapt the existing home. That will be a considerable help in cases involving disabled applicants if their home is not appropriate for adaptation or if the costs would be disproportionate and it would be in the best interests of everyone concerned if they moved.

As a further minor change to the programme, we are extending eligibility to houseboat and mobile home owners.

There will be no need for the discretionary disabled facilities grant when the new, wider and more flexible powers have been introduced and we hope to see them on the statute book fairly soon. Raising the mandatory limit is a small but important part of the programme.

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The proposals before us, the extra money that the Government have put and are continuing to put into the kitty, the regulatory reform order that we are introducing and the guidance that we are producing for local authorities will bring real improvement to the lives of many disabled people throughout the country and ensure that they can remain longer in their homes, in greater comfort and with the support that they need. I urge the Committee to accept the motion.

Mr. Boswell: Very briefly, it is not often that I can claim to have succeeded entirely in my objective. On this occasion my modest objective was to flush out some of the issues, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and the Minister responded in kind. Our discussion has been useful in drawing out some of the Minister's thoughts. We may need to reflect on some of the issues and the hon. Lady will not be surprised if, from time to time, we press her and her colleagues in Government to improve the arrangements. As she rightly said, it is necessary to do more for disabled people to make them comfortable in their own homes and to sustain them there if that is what they want. We have a common objective.

We have had a good discussion and it has not been a collusive exercise. We were interested in the Minister's indication that such matters will be taken into account in the comprehensive spending review, and we wish her every success in that endeavour.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Disabled Facilities Grants and Home Repair Assistance (Maximum Amounts) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 4036).

Committee rose at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Amess, Mr. David (Chairman)
Barron, Mr.
Boswell, Mr.
Brazier, Mr.
Burgon, Colin
Burstow, Mr.
Cranston, Ross
Francis, Dr.
Holmes, Paul
Humble, Mrs.
Keeble, Ms
McDonagh, Siobhain
Murrison, Dr.
Watts, Mr.
Wood, Mr.
Woolas, Mr.

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