Housing and Regeneration Bill

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New Clause 10

Disability equality duty
‘(1) The Disability Discrimination (Public Authorities) (Statutory Duties) Regulations 2005 (S.I. 2966/2005) are amended as follows.
(2) In Regulation 2(3)(d)(iii) for “Part I or V of Schedule 1” substitute “Part I, V or VI of Schedule 1”.
(3) After Regulation 2(6)(d) insert—
“(e) in the case of a public authority listed in Part VI of Schedule 1, 1st December 2009”.
(4) After Part V of Schedule 1 insert the following new Part—
“Part VI
Authorities added by Housing and Regeneration Act 2008
The Homes and Communities Agency
The Regulator of Social Housing.”.’.—[Sir George Young.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Sir George Young: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 10, in clause 173, page 68, line 6, at end insert—
‘(c) the nature and extent of activities they should undertake in pursuance of their duties under section 49A(1) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (c.50).’.
Sir George Young: I hope that this will be a brief debate. The purpose of the new clause is to extend the duty to produce a disability equality scheme for the two new bodies that are set up by the Bill—the HCA and the regulator of social housing. The Committee will know that disability discrimination legislation came into force in December 2006. It places a duty on certain public authorities to produce a disability equality scheme. The HCA’s predecessor, English Partnerships, has been under specific duties to promote disability equality. The Minister implied that the Government were going to do what the new clause does when he said:
“We will table consequential amendments in due course to amend schedule 1A to the Race Relations Act 1976, to include the regulator and the HCA. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995...as amended by the Equality Act 2006, now contain a general duty that applies to all public authorities.”——[Official Report, Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, 10 January 2008; c. 184.]
Will the Minister clarify when we are going to see those consequential amendments? Will he confirm that those two bodies will have specific duties to promote disability equality, as well as the general duty? Will the HCA be added to the list of bodies subject the specific duties, and will he set out a timetable?
Mr. Wright: The Minister for Housing has written to the Committee explaining our intentions regarding the equalities duties in primary legislation, following a degree of probing in the oral evidence sessions in December. She was clear that, in relation to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, there is no need for further legislative amendment as the Act contains a general duty that applies to all public authorities.
I would like to reassure the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members that we also intend to amend the Disability Discrimination (Public Authorities) (Statutory Duties) Regulations 2005 by order during the transition period from the existing bodies to the Homes and Communities Agency—that is the key point on timetabling. That will ensure that the Homes and Communities Agency is subject to the specific duty. Primary legislation is not necessary to do that. We also intend to amend the regulations pertaining to sexual discrimination, so that the agency is subject to the same specific duties under those regulations. I imagine that the same timetable will apply. I hope that he will see that we intend to do very much as he wishes and more in the future.
There may be some confusion regarding amendment No. 10. It would certainly not achieve its outlined purpose as currently worded. Clause 173(1) outlines the general area in which the regulator can set standards, which is basically on social housing and services connected to social housing. The amendment would not impose a statutory duty. It would not require the regulator to do anything. It is also far too detailed to be included in clause 173(1).
There may also be some confusion over the status of housing associations and the coverage of the disability equality duty. This applies only to public authorities like the regulator; it does not apply to housing associations, which the right hon. Gentleman knows are independent, non-public bodies. I lay that down as a marker for consideration next week.
Housing associations therefore have no duties under the section 49A of the Disability Discrimination Act. The Housing Corporation currently encourages them to voluntarily follow that duty and produce a disability equality scheme. Its regulatory code addresses disability and equal opportunity issues.
I hope that I have addressed the right hon. Gentleman’s points, reassured him as to our direction of travel—I think we are in the same car on this—and I hope he withdraws the motion.
Sir George Young: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 11

Choice-based disability housing register
‘(1) The Housing Act 1996 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 167(2E) insert—
“(2F) Subject to subsection (2), the scheme shall contain provision for the creation of a disability housing register consisting of—
(a) a record of existing or planned accessible residential properties in the local authority area, whether purpose built or adapted, with details of the access features relating to each property and location details and other residential properties which would otherwise meet the particular requirements of disabled persons;
(b) a record of disabled persons who require such properties;
(c) a service of enabling and supporting disabled persons to bid for properties so recorded and
(d) a mechanism for ensuring such persons are accorded priority status for such properties within the allocations process.
(2G) For the purposes of this section—
“accessible residential properties” means dwellings, flats and houses in multiple occupation in England and Wales which provide a reasonable means of access in and around the property and ease of use for disabled persons or which may easily be adapted to provide such access and ease of use;
“residential properties which would otherwise meet the particular requirements of disabled persons” means properties which would be suitable, either in terms of their size, particular features or location, for disabled persons who have disability-related requirements other than or in addition to access requirements.
(2H) This section is without prejudice to the right of disabled persons to bid for properties other than those mentioned in subsections 2F and 2G above.
(2I) In performing their duties under this section, each local housing authority shall have regard to any guidance given from time to time by the appropriate authority.’.—[Sir George Young.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Sir George Young: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Again, I hope that this debate need not be too protracted. The new clause would introduce choice-based disability housing registers. Disability organisations are very keen on that and they want local authorities to set up accessible housing registers as part of choice-based lettings. Accessible housing registers would gather consistent data on vacant accessible or adapted homes and ensure that the properties are let to disabled people who need those features and that they are given priority over others in the bids for them. This would save money by ensuring that more efficient use is made of existing accessible and adapted housing. Unless local authorities operate something like that, all the evidence is that disabled people in housing will wait longer than non-disabled people for a property that meets their needs. Disabled people can be placed in residential care or face longer stays in hospital while an accessible property is found. Many adapted houses are let to non-disabled people as a housing department strives to meet some of the targets that the Government invite them to meet in void turnaround times. Often that is because they cannot locate a suitable prospective tenant within the time limit.
Research shows that for lettings in the social housing sector, on average only one in six wheelchair-standard dwellings was let to a household containing a wheelchair user despite an overwhelming demand for wheelchair-standard property from wheelchair users. That is a frightening statistic and an economic and social waste. If adapted property is not used efficiently, it leads to adaptations being ripped out and thrown away, in contrast to the ballooning demand for disabled facilities grants, to which the Minister referred.
In a nutshell, operating one of those registers would enable a more efficient allocations process by more accurately matching people to a property that meets their needs. It would provide more accurate information on future and current housing demand, and that information would inform the local authority’s assessment of future housing need in their area. It would save money by enabling a disabled person to move out of a hospital or residential care more quickly. It would also enable the recycling of adaptations as the register would identify those who needed them. The late Disability Rights Commission calculated that if all local authorities in England had operated one of those registers in 2006, more than £70 million could have been saved, money that could have been reinvested in meeting housing need.
6.15 pm
Alistair Burt: I rise to support the general tenor of my right hon. Friend’s remarks. I am not aware that local authorities have quotas for the number of houses that should be available. I had an issue recently with one of my own local planning authorities on behalf of a constituent where it was difficult to ascertain whether there were sufficient properties in the area available for those with disabilities. The council quite properly believes it is providing for the reasonable needs of those in the area but it was difficult to work out quotas or anything else because no accurate figure exists.
This all fits with remarks I made earlier about the issues of an ageing society where more people are in need of that sort of property. Our general approach is to try to be transparent and permissive and the proposal would help by making information available for organisations and individuals. It would assist local authorities without necessarily demanding or requiring that they adhere to a fixed number, which might change at any stage. We could all do with such information.
If the Minister is not minded to amend the legislation perhaps he might indicate how, through some other form of guidance, the information might be made available to the public, because it would help developers, local authorities and those with responsibility for the provision of housing in the future. It would certainly help individuals or families who are looking for information about what is available in their area and would give a general sense of the sort of issues we face, and the number of properties that might be needed. It would be valuable information, some of which might surprise the general public. If they were aware of just how acute the need was, they might realise that provision was not nearly as great as they thought.
Andrew George: I hope the Minister will address the question of what legal restrictions under present regulation there are on local authorities to apply such a disability housing register—in other words, to favour someone with a disability for whom a property would be appropriate even though otherwise they have a lower housing need than someone else on the housing register. In implementing a decision to favour someone with a lesser housing need, and thus a lesser rating, what are the restrictions on local authorities at present?
I fully endorse everything that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said but it would be very helpful if the Minister could give clarification, which could be conveyed to many local authorities that do not much differentiate in their decisions on properties—often scarce properties—that are already adapted to meet the needs of a disabled person.
Mr. Wright: I rise with trepidation to respond to a debate which includes a former housing Minister, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, and a former Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire—very good Ministers, given their political complexion.
I have enjoyed the debate and understand and appreciate fully the sentiments behind the amendment. I recognise that, as the right hon. Gentleman and others have eloquently said, it is of enormous importance that people with disabilities and access needs are housed appropriately.
We have mentioned the disabilities facilities grant a number of times today. Each year, that programme helps about 35,000 disabled and older people to live safely and independently in their homes by making adaptations and improvements such as wheelchair ramps, stairlifts and downstairs bathrooms. I have mentioned the increase in funding from £57 million in 1997 to £138 million in 2007-08, rising to £146 million next year.
I appreciate how important it is that disabled people looking for social housing have the right level of priority for housing that meets their needs, and I hope that addresses the point that the hon. Member for St. Ives touched on in his contribution. That is why the Government recently amended the legislation governing how housing authorities allocate social housing to make it clear that giving reasonable preference for an allocation—giving priority for local authority housing to people who have medical and welfare grounds for moving house—includes people who have to move because of a disability. The amendment in section 223 of the Housing Act 2004 came into force in April 2005 and was intended to meet concerns that the term “medical grounds” was being interpreted too narrowly by some local authorities and that people with disabilities were being disadvantaged as a result.
The Government want local authorities and social landlords to make the best use of housing stock, including accommodation that is accessible or has been adapted. I recognise that the so-called accessible housing registers can be useful in that regard. However, I frankly do not believe that forcing local authorities to compile registers is the right way forward. I believe that it would be burdensome and could be counterproductive; rather, it should be for local authorities—to return to the point about local discretion—to decide whether a register would meet their local needs and, if so, to set it up in a way that best suits those needs.
Furthermore, although I appreciate that information about the overall stock of accessible housing can be useful, I believe it is more important for disabled people to have information about suitable, accessible property that is actually available to them. The Government see the merits of disabled housing registers and have taken a number of steps to encourage local authorities to adopt that approach. The current code of guidance on allocations recommends that housing authorities maintain lists of properties that are suitable for disabled people and other special needs groups.
My Department’s disability equality scheme, which was published last December, included a commitment to examine the role and effectiveness of disabled housing registers within the context of our choice-based lettings policy. My officials will commission that work in the next few weeks, with a view to issuing good practice by the end of the year. The Department’s disability equality scheme is also committed to the development of the national register of social housing, which sets a national standard for measuring accessibility and calls on social housing landlords to produce consistent accessibility information for each dwelling by April 2010.
Furthermore, anecdotal information suggests that local authorities are recognising the benefits of accessible housing registers and that take-up is increasing. We have just announced that we are making available an extra £168,000 to assist in implementing a London-wide accessible housing register as part of the pan-London choice and mobility scheme called Capital Moves.
The London accessible housing register was launched last September and will be implemented over the next 18 months. I pledge to the Committee and to the hon. Member for St. Ives that I will ensure that good practice emerging from that exercise is spread to other social landlords to encourage and assist them in implementing an accessible housing register.
Although I recognise that it can be useful to have information about the stock of accessible housing in a district, I have found that disabled people really want to know whether the house or flat that is available to rent meets their access needs. The key lies with social landlords adopting letting schemes that offer tenants more of a say in choosing where they live. Under a choice-based lettings approach, landlords can ensure that the advert for an accessible vacancy specifies the type and level of adaptation and who was allowed to bid for the property. Local authorities could thus ensure that accessible housing was prioritised for disabled people, who could then choose housing that met their individual and specified access needs. That is the best way to make sure, as far as possible, that disabled people are matched to suitable housing.
The new clause would require local authorities to put in place a service to support disabled people in bidding for properties on the register of accessible properties. We recognise that some people with disabilities may need additional assistance or support to take part in a choice-based letting scheme, which is why we introduced a provision in the Homelessness Act 2002 that required housing authorities to ensure that such assistance is available free of charge. The draft statutory CBL code of guidance, to which I referred a moment or two ago, provides detailed advice on how local authorities can support disabled people and enable them successfully to take part in CBL schemes. The good practice that we are commissioning will back that up with practical guidance, drawing on the experience of choice-based letting schemes, so, with the greatest respect to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, that aspect of the new clause adds nothing to what the Government are already doing.
Finally, the new clause envisages local authorities maintaining a register of disabled people. In the Homelessness Act 2002 the Government repealed the duty to maintain a register of housing applicants. It would seem to go against the grain of moving towards minimum regulation and minimum added burdens, to introduce an obligation on housing authorities to maintain a register of disabled applicants only.
I hope that I have set out the Government’s intentions in detail—we are probably on the same page with both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman. On that basis, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the motion.
Sir George Young: That was a hopeful response. I detect that the Committee wishes to make progress. I was pleased to hear what the Minister said about promoting good practice, so against the background of that reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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