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Lord Swinfen moved Amendment No. 3:

Leave out Clause 36.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 3, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 4, which is consequential. At Report stage the Government indicated that Clause 36 was designed to

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assist local authorities with the management of their cash flows and finances. However, there is no evidence that local authorities have requested this provision to defer payments. My noble friend Lord Lucas advised the House that if local authorities had no wish for this 12 month deferral of payment, they had not told him. However, the Department of the Environment should be aware of the response to the initial consultation document as regards the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of District Councils. It is obvious from that response that they see major problems with Clause 36 and do not support it.

My noble friend felt that the proposals in this clause would not result in great inconvenience for contractors. Again, this is not the view of the local authority organisations, nor, I suspect, contractors--in particular, small builders. As many payments for disabled facilities grants are made to contractors in instalments, work is unlikely to start until the date the local authority has agreed for payment. Contractors will be reticent to start work early and wait for payment, as the Government suggest they may. Contractors are businesses with cash flows and financial management to consider. In reality, they are likely to wait until the money is there before doing the work. They may wish to re-estimate the costs because of the delay between the original estimate and the works commencing.

If works do not begin until 12 months after the date of application, it is possible that the disabled occupant's needs may have increased if the occupant has been living in inappropriate or possibly unsafe accommodation for such a long time. The Government wish to make clear in guidance the circumstances in which the deferment may be used. This, however, will be extremely difficult to specify. Decisions about financial management can be very complex and involve numerous factors. Trying to specify within guidance in which particular cash flow situations the deferment may be used could lead to disputes between disabled people and the local authority concerning interpretation of the guidance and the exact financial position. That is surely something to be avoided.

As stated by several participants in the debate at Committee and Report stages, the proposals would cause more than just inconvenience for disabled people. They would add to the already considerable wait for disabled facilities grants and could not only limit the independence of disabled people but also increase the costs of care and possibly vastly increase residential or hospital care costs for those awaiting adaptations before they return home.

Last Wednesday, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities combined with the ADC faxed a letter to the Department of the Environment, a copy of which I have here. I had asked that they should contact my noble friend directly; but unfortunately they have sent the fax to one of his officials. I have authority to quote from the letter. I shall not read it all but merely the relevant parts:

    "The Associations' response to the explanatory paper, 'The Future of Private Housing Renewal Programmes in England', was compiled on the basis of consultation with our member authorities ... further discussions with the Associations' advisers and parliamentary debate of the Bill, have not caused us to change our position, and the Associations' view therefore remains as originally stated".

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The associations again quote the original view which was in their submission. The letter continues:

    "The introduction of deferral of claims for payment of disabled facilities grant for a period of twelve months from the date of application might resolve some of the immediate difficulties, but it will cause other problems. On completion of the work, the contractor will quite rightly expect to be paid and any delays in payment will cause financial problems for contractors who may then not be prepared to carry out disabled facilities grant work. Alternatively, the hopes and expectations of the disabled person will have been raised with the approval of the grant for work, but the contractor may not be prepared to start until towards the end of the twelve month period and may then demand a premium or refuse to do the work if prices have risen.

    "Additionally, the proposal may result in a council committing itself to future expenditure it does not know it can meet as the resource position in future years will not be clear when a deferred payment is contemplated".

I hope that my noble friend will be able to see at least some merit in the amendment and will agree to it. If he cannot do so today, I hope that he will say that the relevant action will be taken on it in another place. It is quite obvious that the local authorities do not want the benefit of the clause that I seek to remove. I beg to move.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, I support the amendment. I thought that others would intervene. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, on his persistence in pursuing the issue. I regret that on previous occasions when the amendment was moved I was already making for home; but today I wish to give it my warm if brief support. It seems that the balance of inconvenience is tilted strongly in favour of the local authority; "inconvenience" is a euphemism where the disabled person is concerned. As we have heard, the 12-month delay may cause real problems for the small builder. We are told that the local authorities do not want the 12-month limit so it seems daft and unnecessary. I hope that the Minister heard from the local authorities and that when the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, read out the fax from the AMA to his official was not the first time that he heard of it. I hope he will be able to accept the amendment or take it away, as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, suggested, and that the Government will bring in an amendment in the other place.

The Minister has shown himself willing to listen and respond positively to many of the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. I am grateful for that and hope that he will do the same with this one for which noble Lords on all sides of the House have argued so consistently and so persuasively.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I support the amendment. I spoke at some length at previous stages of the Bill in support of the principle that the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, enunciated, so I need not speak at length today.

One question which comes to my mind is whether the Government envisage that the clause will be permissive or restrictive. Because of the difficulties local authorities had with the previous grant regime, one of the ways in which they sought to deal with it was to institute a

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system of waiting lists. That meant that mandatory grants were paid in order of the applicant's arrival on the waiting list and that was the mechanism by which grant payments were delayed. Does the Minister envisage that the operation of the clause will effectively mean that local authorities will be prevented from delaying payment beyond the 12-month period? Alternatively, is the clause permissive, enabling local authorities to set a payment date at some shorter period than 12 months?

The power that the Secretary of State is granting himself to institute some period other than 12 months fills us with concern and it might be worth while the Minister addressing the point in his remarks today. I seem to remember that he tried to address it before, but it will do no harm for him to repeat it. I warmly support the amendment.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest: My Lords, I must admit that I am often puzzled by the purport or intention of legislation but this provision totally baffled me. I should be glad to hear the Minister's explanation. It seems to me that Clause 23 is welcome and the Government are to be congratulated on putting it forward. However, at the same time they propose Clause 36 in a grudging way, using the phrase,

    "Where the local housing authority are obliged to approve",
then it may do something to draw the grant back and withhold it. That seems to take the motivation away from Clause 23. It also shows a wish to maximise the irritation and anxiety of recipients and local authorities, at the same time as minimising any savings that might have come from it. I am puzzled. I should not have thought that the Government could lose by acceding to the amendment. They would gain a great deal in terms of the welcome given by disabled people to the provisions.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I wish to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. As my noble friend Lord Murray said, it seems odd that the Government appear to accede to the requirement that there should be mandatory grants for disabled facilities, yet at the same time they are prepared to admit into the Bill a clause which gives them grants on terms of payment which may be extended not merely by 12 months but by,

    "such other period as may be specified by order of the Secretary of State".
In other words, so far as I understand it, the payment can be indefinitely postponed. Unless the Government can give us satisfaction, I hope that they will accept the noble Lord's amendment.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, having listened carefully to the views expressed, I share the opinions of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. On the one hand, the Government accept that special aid should be given to people who are disabled; later in the Bill that is clouded by uncertainty. The situation needs clarification.

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