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Lord Williams of Elvel: I am grateful to the noble Earl. There is very little between us. We all agree that the agencies play an important role--I would say that they play a vital role--in helping people to get the proper measure of grant to which they are entitled. They become more important as we move towards discretionary grants rather than mandatory grants.

I have no particular brief for saying that the agencies should be statutory in the sense that a local authority is statutory. They are clearly voluntary agencies. Of the 200 agencies in England, 125 receive about 30 per cent. of their core funding from the Department of the Environment. As often happens with voluntary organisations, that brings them half into the public sector in the sense that without such core funding they probably could not exist. That is the case with a number of voluntary organisations. Other funding comes from housing authorities, charitable trusts, housing associations and, increasingly, from health and social services. I recognise that the Government increased the funding of the agencies in the recent Budget. The Department of Health has also realised the community care potential of the agencies and is funding research into their benefits.

I hope that I would be the last person to recommend that we should place those agencies in the public sector by law. If the noble Earl understood my amendment in that way, I am afraid that the amendment must be badly drafted, because I did not mean that. I shall rethink the context and drafting of the amendment: what I meant to say was that in my view it would be wrong to introduce a discretionary grant system in the United Kingdom--in England and Wales or wherever--which did not allow the most vulnerable in our society the sort of benefits which are already available from the 200 agencies which already exist in England. In other words, anybody who feels that they need such advice should have access to that advice from somewhere. I do not know how that should be funded.

As I have said, there is not much difference between us and the Government, but perhaps the Minister could reassure me that at least throughout England and Wales there will be access to an agency such as Care and Repair, even if it is mobile. The Government should make sure that there is such access. That is the view of the national co-ordinating body for home improvement agencies, Care and Repair, which has,

I do not approve of that word, but I am quoting--

    "provision of a home improvement agency that cannot possibly meet the local demand is to be avoided".

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I am pressing the noble Earl a little further to make sure that the Government take on board the view that I am expressing in this amendment, unsatisfactory though the drafting may be. Without such a network of agencies, the discretionary grants system will not be satisfactory for the most vulnerable people in our society. If the noble Earl will agree with me on that, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Ferrers: As the noble Lord said, there is not very much between us on this. I think that the work that these people do is remarkable and is of great benefit; so does the noble Lord. We want to see that work continue throughout the country; so does the noble Lord. I accept that his drafting may be wrong but it is difficult to see how the Government or anyone else can promote what is basically a voluntary body. Such bodies have to grow and to move out as a result of efforts made from within. It is difficult for governments to say, "We will plonk"--to use another bad word--"a voluntary agency in a certain area".

I shall consider the noble Lord's point, but my difficulty is in seeing how we can promote a voluntary agency which will expand in various directions. I believe that that must come from within. However, I shall certainly consider the matter and see whether there is any way in which we can do so. It would not be right to provide for that in statute because many complications would be created.

Lord Williams of Elvel: I am grateful to the Minister. One of the ways in which the Department of the Environment could encourage the growth of such voluntary bodies is by ensuring core funding. No doubt that is a matter which the Minister, in his expressions of good will, will be examining. Various estimates have been made of the necessary expenditure out of the public purse to encourage such voluntary agencies. I take no view on that but say simply that it is one of the ways in which the Government could, were they so inclined, encourage those and other voluntary organisations. Perhaps in some areas spontaneous growth is sufficient but it may not be so in other areas.

I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Ezra moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 2, line 14, at end insert--
("( ) No grant shall be payable under this Part until the Secretary of State has made an order under section (Report on Secretary of State's contributions to local authorities) below.").

The noble Lord said: I ask the Committee to note that Amendment No. 4 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 6, 111, 112 and 114. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that proper consideration of the level of resources necessary to secure the effective and practical operation of the grant system proposed in the Bill is achieved and to provide for proper accountability of decisions by making public the assumptions on which they are based.

In recent years there has been a progressive reduction in the amounts available for renovation grants. In the early 1980s the annual level of public investment in

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renovation grants was about £1.5 billion. By 1994-95 that had fallen to £0.5 billion. The number of grants has correspondingly fallen from a peak of 200,000 repair and intermediate grants in 1984 to fewer than 40,000 renovation grants provided by local authorities some 10 years later.

Understandably, therefore, there is concern that the removal of a statutory right to a renovation grant will further reduce the priority given to grant expenditure and lead to even larger reductions in investment. The current grant system, which is based on mandatory grants, has, as was revealed in the research carried out by the Government in 1993, highlighted the worst housing and the poorest households. At the same time, it was clear that a growing number of local authorities were finding it difficult to operate the system within the resources allocated. For that reason the mandatory system is intended to be replaced with a discretionary system.

In introducing the proposals on Second Reading, the Minister stated that that would enable local authorities to take a more strategic view of their responsibilities in this area. That is fine and highly desirable, but it will be difficult for them to do so if the amount of resources is to be continually eroded. For that reason, and because of that fear, the amendment proposes that the Government should indicate in broad terms their own assessment of the need for spending on private house renewals and the contribution that they intend to make to the main elements of the system. Without such a framework the effectiveness of discretionary grant will be undermined. I beg to move.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel: I have a good deal of sympathy with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. However, I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 112 and 114 which stand in my name. Amendment No. 112 requires the Secretary of State to:

    "have regard to the housing strategies set by local authorities for the purposes of the housing investment programme process when determining contributions".
The point is that local authorities are required to prepare housing strategy statements which set out their policies and programmes looking at least three years ahead. That is part of the process for allocating resources for housing capital expenditure. Those strategic documents are required to present a picture of housing needs and resources across the whole area covered by that local authority. Therefore, they cover not only action by the local authority but the contributions made by others, including private sector individuals, banks, housing associations and so forth.

Allocation of 60 per cent. of housing capital resources at regional level is currently made at the discretion of the Government's regional offices. It is currently proposed to increase that to 100 per cent. in 1997-98. However, I understand that that is the subject of consultation. The primary criterion for the use of such discretion is an assessment of the efficiency and

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effectiveness of each authority in the region. The key evidence for that assessment is currently provided by the local authority housing strategy.

Department of the Environment guidance on private sector renewal strategies requires that the policy be based on information about the current state of the private stock--we return to a previous amendment that I moved--and its occupation, and, where possible, that policy should draw on sound and recent surveys taken by the authority. Many authorities have undertaken such surveys. However, the problem is that there is a need for a system which draws not only on local information but on national information when assessing the condition of private housing, in determining the resources necessary for grants expenditure, and in considering the means by which that should be allocated. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, raised the issue of resources. Amendment No. 112, which deals with resources, is relevant to that issue.

Amendment No. 114 requires the Secretary of State to take account of the need for clearance action when determining the level of resources available for renewal activity. The current subsidy system for private housing renewal was introduced, among other things, to encourage balanced decisions between clearance and renovation and to direct the energies of local authorities towards particular types of activities such as area renewal. Prior to that local authorities could, in the main, disregard the financial regime. Decisions made on the balance between clearance and renovation were taken on the basis of physical, social and local political acceptability. Most local authority decisions on clearance were taken at operational rather than strategic level and were concerned with whether dwellings were unfit, whether they could be improved, at what cost and so forth. But the current subsidy system, in its ability to encourage balanced strategic decisions about clearance and renovation, now appears to us to be being undermined, not least--and I come back to what the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said--by the inadequacy of the available national resources for private sector renewal.

These two amendments are attached to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. I believe that that is for the convenience of the Committee so that we can have a discussion about resources and how they should be allocated. However, although the amendments to which I have been speaking come later in the Bill, they are not unimportant; in fact, they are extremely important.

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