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Earl Ferrers: As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, said, we are now discussing a fairly long group of amendments which covers many points. I believe the matter which really concerns the noble Lord is how the Government intend to carry out this part of the Bill. If I may say so, it was quite right for the noble Lord to table the amendments because people are most sensitive--and rightly so--to delegated powers and, indeed, there are several such powers in the Bill.
I believe it would be helpful to the Committee if I were to explain how we see those powers working. Many of the provisions are in fact similar to each other. That is because of the way in which the Bill has been drafted. It deals with each grant separately and, therefore, they can be grouped under fairly broad headings.
The first category concerns eligibility. Amendments Nos. 8 to 11, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, Amendments Nos. 12 to 15, which are tabled in my name, and Amendment No. 268, tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, broadly fall into this category. We believe that setting out the scope of the grant regime, including those who are eligible for the works for
Amendments Nos. 12 to 15 tabled in my name convert the powers of the Secretary of State to exclude certain works from grant aid from a direction-making power to a regulation-making power. That reflects the concerns of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred, that the Bill as drafted allows changes to be made on the direction of the Secretary of State, which would be an executive decision. The amendments will therefore require regulations to be made which will be subject to the negative resolution procedure in Parliament.
A second category of powers broadly encompasses means testing and the form of application. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, are relevant to that category. We believe that the means testing of grant applicants is the most effective way of ensuring that the available resources are targeted on households which are most in need of help with repairs, improvements or adaptations. The power for the Secretary of State to prescribe details relating to the financial circumstances of applicants and to obtain details on other matters in the grant application form further protects resources and will help authorities to reach correct decisions in determining grant.
There are several powers concerning tenancy and occupancy requirements. Amendments Nos. 19 and 20, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, are relevant here. We believe that it is an important principle that grant should primarily be to help those who cannot meet their obligation to maintain their property properly. We have attempted to reflect that in relation to the private rented sector. However, it is clear that there are cases where those rules are not appropriate or are difficult to apply. We have tried to cater for most eventualities in the primary legislation, but experience teaches that new cases do arise. Nevertheless, we wish to have in place some general principles and we believe it is right that a variation from them should lie with the Secretary of State if conditions and circumstances change.
Another group of powers relates to the prior qualifying period and the conditions leading to recovery of grant. Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and Amendment No. 85 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, are relevant. A main aim of the grant system is to assist people to remain in their homes. In achieving that aim, we think it appropriate that those seeking grant should meet a prior qualifying period of ownership and residence. It is appropriate also to require grant to be repaid in full if the applicant fails to comply with the grant conditions. However, we recognise that there will be circumstances where, through no fault of the
A fifth group of powers concerns the use of grant. Amendment No. 32, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, falls into that category. We think it appropriate that the Secretary of State has the power to vary the purposes for which renovation grant may be given. This is to ensure that he may take appropriate steps to exclude from grant aid certain works for which assistance is available under other legislation or under a particular government initiative and therefore prevent the risk of double funding. In the past it has also been the case that the purposes have been added to, as was the case for the inclusion of the replacement of lead pipes within the scope of minor works assistance.
There are a few remaining powers which do not come within the categories I have described. The Secretary of State has the power to specify by order a maximum amount of grant under Clause 36 and the total amount or value of home repair assistance that may be given under Clause 76. Experience under existing legislation has shown the power to specify a grant maximum to be important in protecting authorities from excessive demands. While we hope that this will be unnecessary for discretionary grant, it cannot be discounted and therefore we believe it is wise to have such precautions. The use of a maximum for home repair assistance is intended to help emphasise the lesser nature of works intended compared with a discretionary renovation grant. The power to change the maxima is a realistic provision to be able to respond to changing circumstances.
A number of different amendments in this group seek to alter in some way what the Bill proposes, but I thought it helpful to explain to the Committee what we propose, and why. I hope that that explanation will have allayed some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. The noble Lord specifically referred to Amendment No. 11. That amendment would require the Secretary of State, before making an order bringing the clause into force, to publish and to update annually a report explaining how his powers under the clause shall be used. Amendment No. 268 provides that provisions in the Bill cannot come into force until the Secretary of State has published such a report.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, reminded the Committee, the Select Committee on the scrutiny of delegated powers reported to the House on 21st February on the proposed use of delegated powers contained in the Bill. The report stated:
First, one of the advantages of the new regime that we put in place is to give a discretion to local authorities to operate the new grant regime as they think best as regards their local community. There is a downside to discretion but also an upside. It enables a local authority to determine what is best for its local area. The Minister referred to two situations where the Government are effectively taking it upon themselves to restrict local discretion. Perhaps I may give two examples to the Minister. He referred to the three-year wait before grant application can be made. The argument for that is that it enables people to remain in their own homes.
There is a situation at the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps I may cite my own experience. When my wife and I bought our first home it was in need of improvement. We received a local authority grant to do that within a month or so of moving in. Within a year our first child was born. If we had had to wait three years before we received the grant, our children may have spent their most crucial years in substandard accommodation. Allowing local authorities a discretion to determine what is best for their local community will be beneficial.
The other example applies to the long-term and short-term objectives. The Minister cited the example of channelling the limited resources which he implied will be available to those with the greatest needs. We can think of two situations. One is where the bulk of the money is channelled into what might be described as immediate need which gives a short-term improvement to private housing. Within relatively few years more expenditure is required. Alternatively, one can consider investing in long term projects. That provides a life expectancy for a building of perhaps another 50 years. The discretion should be available to local authorities depending on local circumstances. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively.
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