Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend in this and in doing so I need to declare an interest, which I should have done at the beginning of the debate. I declared my interest in Committee in that I have submitted an application for a home improvement grant. I hope that that will be taken as my declaration of interest for the whole of this Report stage.

In rising to support my noble friend in this amendment, perhaps I may point out that one of the difficulties, which I believe the Government accept, is that it is sensible for someone who is hoping to acquire a house or is proposing to acquire a property--or however it is defined--that is, for someone who is aiming to do so, but is not yet the owner of the property, to submit a grant application. There is a whole range of

18 Apr 1996 : Column 815

reasons involved, but we are talking predominately about making a judgment as to whether it is sensible to go ahead with the project of purchasing the house, bearing in mind the individual's own resources and any resources that are likely to come from the local authority in terms of renovation grant. One has to make an assessment as to all the resources that will be available from different sources. It is sensible, therefore, to enable an application to go forward even though the applicant is not the current owner of the property.

Someone may intend to buy a property, but that intention may be frustrated at some point by, say, the owner turning round and saying, "I don't want to sell to you". The owner may suddenly push up the price so that the project is not viable. What is the situation of the applicant for the home improvement grant at that stage? One of things that worries me is that if we leave the wording as it is on the face of the Bill and do not amend it as my noble friend has suggested, an applicant who is in this limbo before ownership may well have the best of intentions but, because of force of circumstances, may fall foul of the Act. I would hate that to happen. Therefore, I hope that the Government will recognise that in the vast majority of cases involving home improvement grants, people will make totally legitimate bona fide applications and that they should not be held to have fallen foul of the system just because of the actions of another person who has put them on the wrong side of the law, if I may put it like that.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, we have given this matter some thought since Committee. We have decided that we like things the way they are. The wording in the Bill is, at first sight, less logical than the wording of the amendment, but it is wording that was evolved by the Law Commission which has been in use in housing law since 1985 and which works well.

When we come to the practical effects, most of the practical advantages which would seem to be in the amendment are negated by the fact that in practice a local authority can reject an application by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to buy Ditchingham Hall or some other great property, until he can show that he has a reasonable prospect of acquiring it. So it does not involve local authorities in unwarranted work. Its wide application allows for all sorts of means of beginning to buy a property which might in some way fall foul of the phrase "in the process of acquiring" in ways we do not yet know and in which we would prefer not to get involved because we are happy with the way things are.

With Amendment No. 7 there would be the additional disadvantage that it would open the door to serious abuse of the system by allowing someone to make a tenant's application, with the stated intention of living in the dwelling, when the applicant's intention is to buy the property, improve it with the benefit of grant aid, and then let it, thus evading the separate landlord's means test. We would positively dislike the effects of Amendment No. 7. With that explanation I hope that the

18 Apr 1996 : Column 816

noble Lord will feel able to withdraw, and not press, what I accept are two amendments which are helpful even if they are not the right ones.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I was interested in relation to Amendment No. 6 to hear the Minister describe local government practice in terms of what it should be if the amendment were passed, rather than in terms of what the Bill actually says. In other words, he was saying that local authorities will interpret the clause in the way in which my amendment suggests rather than in the way it is worded.

In the hope that between now and Third Reading the Minister will think again, let me try him out on the use of the words in a slightly different context to highlight the point. If I were to say to him, "The Conservative Party proposes to win the next election, but the Labour Party is in the process of wining the next election", that shows that there is a marked difference between the two expressions. I do not want to force this matter any further this evening. I hope that the Minister will think again between now and Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 [Renovation grants: prior qualifying period]:

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 5, line 27, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (2A),").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to government Amendment No. 9 and, with the leave of noble Lords concerned, I shall cover also Amendments Nos. 10 and 11.

As was indicated in Committee by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, the Government recognise that there may be individual cases or general circumstances where it will not be appropriate to require a grant applicant to have both owned and lived in a property for three years before being eligible for grant assistance. The discussion in Committee included many well made points from noble Lords for which I am grateful, and in view of those points we have looked again at this provision.

We have already included a provision in the Bill which would allow the Secretary of State to dispense with the prior qualifying condition in certain circumstances. However, in practice that would dispense with the condition for wide categories of applicants, such as for all empty properties in an authority's area.

We believe that it would be preferable also to allow local authorities to decide when not to require the prior qualifying condition to be met when considering individual applications. That will allow local authorities to develop clear strategies against which an individual application can be measured and a decision made.

Therefore, we have brought forward Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 which give local authorities the discretion they need to dispense with the prior qualifying period generally or for particular cases or for certain types of case.

18 Apr 1996 : Column 817

With his Amendment No. 11 the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, seeks to achieve a similar effect. However, the amendments I have just described go wider than the noble Lord's amendment by allowing authorities also to dispense with the three-year prior qualification generally and in descriptions of cases. The additional discretion given by our amendments will help local authorities act strategically rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

Amendment No. 10 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would give local authorities the option of applying different qualifying periods to different cases. As I have explained, the purpose of introducing discretion for local authorities to dispense with the three-year qualifying period is to help achieve strategic aims such as dealing with empty properties. To introduce the discretion to vary the qualifying period would create uncertainty among applicants and the possibility of the discretion being used to control expenditure on grants rather than achieve strategic goals. I am sure that is something which the noble Baroness would be anxious to avoid.

In view of what I have said, I hope that the House will agree to my amendments, and that the proposers of the other two will feel happy not to move them. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the Minister has in part answered my amendment, which was designed to seek clarification. It does not seem to me to be logical to provide for a qualifying period of three years, or no qualifying period at all, but not to allow a local strategy which may require a short qualifying period, perhaps to establish the bona fides of the applicant. I can see that there might be occasions where a local authority would regard it, in a particular case or in general cases, inappropriate to require a short qualifying period.

I support the amendment. I was one of those who criticised the provision on Second Reading as well as in Committee. It is entirely right that the qualifying period should not have to be applied, so that empty properties can be brought back into use with greater ease and that first-time buyers, who may be the likely buyers of such properties, will be able to apply for grants. Nevertheless, it seems a little odd to say that the qualifying period will apply at one end of the spectrum or at the other, but nowhere in between. That is why I tabled my amendment to the Minister's amendment.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for presenting these amendments and reacting to the debates we had in Committee. It is worth paying tribute to the Government for the distance that they have moved and for recognising the common sense arguments which were put forward in Committee by various noble Lords across the Chamber.

I hope that the Minister will not think me churlish if I ask the Government to go just that little bit further. With these amendments the Government are effectively saying, "Yes, the qualifying period is there, but local authorities have a discretion to dispense with it if they

18 Apr 1996 : Column 818

see fit". The Minister mentioned the criterion of empty properties. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, mentioned first-time buyers. I should define that more closely. We need to recognise the importance of newly married couples as people who need the home improvement grants that they can obtain from local authorities.

We are going to give local authorities discretion in terms of how they disperse whatever resources they feel necessary for home improvement grants. We must ask how they will exercise that discretion. What sort of criteria are they likely to use in determining who receives the grants and who does not?

My concern is that by providing in the Bill the concept of a qualifying period we are nudging local authorities in a particular direction by saying, "This is a useful criterion to use when you are making your discretionary assessment". I hope that we can be a little more relaxed about the way in which we consider local authorities will exert their discretion and will not give them such a pointer. I believe that even the Government recognise that that may not be a good way of exercising discretion.

I hope that we can encourage local authorities to think of discretion in terms of the greatest need, the best impact that limited finances will have in a particular local environment and the way in which local authority resources may lever more private-sector resources into that endeavour. I hope that we can encourage local authorities to come forward with novel and beneficial ways of supporting their communities.

I hope that the Government do not think me churlish in asking whether before Third Reading they can go a little further and dispense with the suggestion that there should be a qualifying period. I hope that they can be expansive with local authorities and trust them to come up with the best criterion for discretion within their areas.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page