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Lord Monkswell: I did not intervene when the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, was speaking to Amendments Nos. 69 and 70 because I had the naive presumption that the Government would accept them. I am absolutely amazed to hear the response of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. In effect, we are hearing the Heseltine syndrome from the Government. Noble Lords will remember an amazing recent public fuss when it transpired that in his youth the right honourable Mr. Heseltine had made his money by not paying his bills on time. What the Government are saying in effect is that it is all right for local authorities not to pay monies due to grant applicants when they are due. They can delay payment in order to gain some financial benefit to themselves. If we consider the implications, by definition--

Lord Elton: Will the noble Lord forgive my intervening? We do not want to spend too long on the matter. My noble friend Lord Lucas has already said that a local authority is under an obligation to pay the

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money as soon as it reasonably can. There is, therefore, no loophole for it to delay payment in order to gain interest.

Lord Monkswell: The Minister said that if the grant application is given approval, there is a duty to notify as soon as reasonably practicable, not that the local authorities should pay the grant due as soon as reasonably practicable. That was my understanding.

It is not only the grant applicants whom we have to consider, but those who will do the work. Most of the adaptations will be undertaken by small businessmen. Are the Government saying that payment to those small businessmen should be delayed by local authorities through late payment to grant applicants? I am not sure that the Government really mean that. I ask them to reconsider the implications of the amendment.

Lord Lucas: The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, is right in part of what he says. It is the determination of the application which must not be unreasonably delayed. When, and if, a grant is granted, the local authority then has the ability to say when it will pay that grant. It has the flexibility to decide on it within 12 months of the date of the application. It has the ability to manage its cash flow by saying when the grant will be available. We recognise that on occasions it may be an inconvenience to the disabled person. As regards inconvenience we have to strike a balance between the disabled person and the local authority, and we believe that we have struck the right balance. It will not inconvenience local traders because the disabled person will know when the grant is coming and can schedule his works accordingly. It is not an open invitation to the local authority to delay payment until it happens to feel like it. It must say when the payment will be made.

Lord Swinfen: The last part of what my noble friend said is encouraging in that the local authority will have to say when the grant will be made. To go back further, I understand the difficulty that my noble friend has with the word "immediately". The local authority must be satisfied that the work has been properly carried out in accordance with building regulations and everything else. It may need time to make an inspection. My noble friend will bear in mind that builders reserve the right to alter their estimates, the figures upon which the grant is assessed. If everything is delayed too long, the estimates will change and probably increase. They will almost certainly not go down. There is also the question of whether a disabled person can raise the funds to have the work carried out as soon as he needs it, rather than having to wait up to 12 months for the funds to arrive to enable him to have the work carried out. That may take another few weeks or months. I shall read what my noble friend said, but I have a feeling that I shall return to this later in the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 64:

Page 21, line 43, at end insert--

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("( ) If, notwithstanding subsection (1) above, the local housing authority fails to give the required notice within the six months therein mentioned, the applicant may apply to any county court for an order requiring such notice to be given within 7 days of the order or such longer period as the court may find fit.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 64, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 65, 66 and 68. The amendments involve the provisions of the Bill concerning notification and decision making. Amendment No. 64 proposes to insert the new subsection into Clause 37 at page 21, line 43. It seeks to ensure that a grant applicant has an enforceable right to a decision upon the application. We have just debated the provision requiring local authorities to give a decision within a period, but there is no sanction if the period is exceeded. It would be possible for an applicant to apply to the High Court for a judicial review, but it requires knowledge and funds which, probably by definition, are not available. It would add to the burden on authorities and the courts in a way which would be, if not unacceptable, certainly not desirable. The amendment provides for a local county court to grant an order after the six months--if that is the period that is chosen for the local authority to make a decision--requiring the authority to determine the application promptly, if it has not been determined. It gives the power to award compensation to an applicant who has not been able to put in hand remedial works.

Amendment No. 65 refers to the provision in the Bill dealing with an "estimated expense". An applicant must submit at least two estimates from different contractors for the cost of carrying out works, but a local housing authority can choose to reject the estimates and fix the expenses at less than the contractor's estimates. If that is done, the applicant should know on what basis it was done. If applicants are not given the information, there is always the danger that the local housing authority's standards will slide and the authority will arrive at an "estimated expense", to use the term in the Bill, which does not reflect the true cost of carrying out the work. Fairness dictates that the applicant should see the reason for the decision. It is only the applicant who will have the information which might challenge the view taken by the local authority.

Amendment No. 66 would require the local housing authority to notify an applicant of the reasons for refusal of an application. It is to encourage fair administration, and so discourage arbitrary and ill-considered decisions. Natural justice requires that an applicant should be heard if that applicant disagrees with decisions. It would be difficult for an applicant to challenge a decision without knowing the reasons for the refusal.

Finally, Amendment No. 68 would provide a right of review to an applicant to give him the opportunity to resolve a misunderstanding in the way set out in the amendment. I suggest that a statutory right of review would help avoid recourse to the courts by way of judicial review. It is desirable that, where a decision is made against the interests of an applicant, he should have the fullest opportunity to address relevant matters. That would go towards the quality of the

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decision-making. I propose a 28-day time limit in order that the efficiency of the decision-making process is not interfered with overly. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: Turning first to Amendment No. 64, I do not believe it would be desirable to involve the county court in what should be a matter of good management within the local authority. The move to a discretionary grant regime should ensure that local authorities have greater control of the grant programme and allow them to ensure that decisions, either approvals or refusals, are made promptly.

While the current pressure for mandatory grant has concentrated attention on the six months' determination period, evidence of those authorities that are not currently subject to mandatory grant pressures suggests that authorities often determine grants in a matter of weeks.

Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 suggest that a duty be placed on the local authority to provide more information on either how the cost of the grant works is arrived at, or why a grant is refused. While I would hope that this kind of information was commonly made available to grant applicants by local authorities, I will take these points away and reflect further on whether specific mention of them should be made.

Amendment No. 68 seeks to introduce what can only be described as "a second bite of the cherry" for those refused a grant. I believe there is an obligation on the local authority to give due weight to all grant applications submitted. In deciding to refuse a grant, an authority will have had to give serious consideration as to how approval or refusal of the application would meet the local strategy. To leave authorities open to requests to reconsider such decisions would seem unnecessary and would add further to the burden on the local authority when, to our mind, judicial review would be the right next step rather than review by the local authority.

I hope that I have persuaded the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment, particularly in the light of the fact that she has had some success.

Baroness Hamwee: I am grateful to the Minister for his comments on the middle of that sandwich. Like him, I like to think that all local authorities will behave reasonably, efficiently and transparently. I proposed the amendments because, sadly, I fear not quite all of them will. Nevertheless, I shall reflect on the Minister's remarks on the bread around the outside of the sandwich, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 not moved.]

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