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Lord Rix: My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long, but as the Disability Rights Commission's 14-page parliamentary briefing on this Second Reading includes Mencap writ large on the cover and as Mencap's Housing Timebomb report is quoted on page 3, I felt that, as president of that organisation, I should take this opportunity to say a word about access to housing for people with learning disabilities.

The policy discussions of recent years have highlighted what I might call the four key facts. First, most of the housing progress of community care over the years has done no more than replace hospital accommodation with community housing without adding to the total. Secondly, most adults with learning disabilities still live with their families, as they did before modern community care began.

Thirdly, accommodation is not enough. If people with learning disabilities are to live in their own homes in the community, they need—to varying degrees—support, as well as accommodation. Fourthly, we have invested rather a lot of resources and nervous energy in implementing and then scrapping and replacing models of accommodation and support, without focusing on what the person who is going to live there, and be supported there, actually wants. It is as if a surgeon were to work on the basis of doing a particular sort of operation, quite irrespective of what the individual patient needed or, indeed, wanted.

We need a housing policy that makes the best use of existing housing stock. Best use means appropriate to the needs of those who need the housing. In the case of people with learning disabilities, that means, in particular, catering for the needs of the very large numbers of people with learning disabilities now in middle life who are still living with elderly parents. For
 
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some of that number, the right answer might be for the family home to be made more appropriate now to the changing needs of the parent or parents and the person with learning disability; that is, to put in extra support now and to plan for the person to carry on living in his or her familiar surroundings once the family who had made the house "home" have gone.

Physical accessibility is not an issue for many people with learning disabilities, whereas having a home of their own to access is. However, the more severe the learning disability, the greater the likelihood of there being associated physical disabilities. In addition, the longer people with learning disabilities live, the greater the likelihood that they, like the rest of us, will acquire physical disability.

My personal dream is of a housing and support programme which—in place of the traditional approach of putting people where we think they ought to go and moving them when it is convenient to move them—enables people to live where they want to live and to stay there as their disabilities increase, if that is their preference. Such a policy requires better assessment of needs and wishes, a starting point in those needs and wishes rather than our theories, registration of demand and of supply, flexible funding policies and speedy availability of the disabled facilities grant and other funding in order to maintain accessibility.

I have been partially reassured by the Government's response to the Learning Disability Task Force on the issue of funding in the Supporting People scheme. It is vitally important that that level of funding is sustained. However, I am still nervous, given the long history of housing benefit cutbacks, that promising housing policies will be retrenched the moment that it becomes clear that they will, for perfectly good reasons, cost rather more than had been originally anticipated.

It has been clear from the earliest days of trying to get that right for people with learning disabilities that a home in the community, with the support needed to live well in that home, is an essential prerequisite for being present in and participating in the community. There is more than one way of funding, managing and monitoring housing and housing support, but the valuing of people and the housing policies that are being developed offer a real prospect of getting it right this time, always provided, of course, as the good book says, that having put our hand to the plough we do not turn back.

When I read of the size of some new private sector developments, and when I notice that local authorities are still unclear how many people with learning disabilities are living with elderly parents—let alone having plans for them—I do worry that we might turn back and stumble and fall on the very brink of success.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, I propose to concentrate my remarks on Part 5 of the Bill: 25 clauses containing important and desirable consumer-protection proposals whereby vendors provide home information packs, including home condition reports, whenever a house is put on the market.
 
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To be most cautious, at least, I should declare an interest as an honorary life member of the National Association of Estate Agents. Though—as other noble Lords have said—that body seems to be officially opposed to the Bill's proposals, I think that the association is divided. Many members—including its very well respected former chief executive, Mr Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy—are very much in favour of Part 5.

Part 5 was fought over on several occasions during the passage of the Bill in another place, but I believe that in this House we should support the mandatory requirements for home information packs because they are intended to make more transparent, more speedy and more effective what is—it is commonplace to say—the most economically important transaction that people make in a lifetime, and very often several times in a lifetime. Key information is to be made available at the outset of the process. Particularly because a house purchase is typically part of a chain with the vendor buying another home, and so on up the chain, I believe that opposition pressure in another place—and from what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, says, perhaps here too—to make the whole idea voluntary would seem a worthless outcome of what the Government are trying to achieve because sales without packs would slow down the connected sales with packs.

It is not surprising that the Government's proposals have received warm support from the Consumers' Association, because there have been so many instances where ignorance on the part of the purchaser about some vital aspect of the property's condition has meant that only when he commissions a survey—usually at a very late stage of the transaction—do the defects come to light. The first-time purchaser is particularly hard hit at present because he or she has to pay for such a survey upfront before he gets on the first rung of the property ladder.

It is even worse if the purchaser is unwise enough not to commission a survey of any kind before committing himself to a price that has been agreed on a false basis of the apparent superficial soundness of the property. Surely Part 5 is good news, for the first-time purchaser in particular. The vendor will provide and—this is a partial answer to some things that the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor's said—be legally responsible for paying for a home condition report with legal responsibility as well behind the wording, the assurances and the terms of that report.

At present, several prospective purchasers may each spend money on separate surveys of the same property, only to end up—or at least most of them—with an aborted transaction. The only profit is to the various surveyors who have undertaken the separate surveys.

The beauty of the Government's scheme—I emphasise the word "beauty" before coming to the criticisms, many of them legitimate, at least in terms of queries to the Government made by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor—is that when a vendor proposes to put his property on the market he commissions a survey and that is made available to every genuine intending purchaser.
 
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That is a major cultural shift from the situation in which at present a purchaser makes an offer for a property on the basis not of what it is, with the reality of its imperfections as well as its good points, but on its superficial appearance and a spot of estate agent's hyperbole. It is not surprising that at present a high proportion—many estimate as high as one third—of all transactions fail when only at a late stage does a survey reveal what lies behind the false mask of the so-called particulars of sale.

Some noble Lords may recall an estate agent called Roy Brooks who operated during the 1960s. He never used hyperbole in his particulars of sale, rather he was blunt to the point of extreme frankness. He would refer to "this rundown dump which is in need of extensive renovation". He was a successful estate agent, but sadly no other estate agent—a rather unimaginative lot, I think—seems to be bold enough to follow that example.

The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, raised a number of serious issues. It is impossible to cover them all this evening, but I am very glad that they have raised these important matters. Certain questions have to be answered by the Government. In so far as the Government did not respond to them fully in the other place, they need to be answered here. Among them is the costs, not only the overall cost of the new scheme but also the cost of each transaction. Also to be detailed is the recruitment and qualification of the inspectors. I mention the question of indemnity and the legal rights people will have if a home condition report turns out to be inaccurate. Those are important issues which I believe can be answered, even bearing in mind the Minister's important statement about the intention that the scheme should come into effect not tomorrow, but in 2007. I think that Part 5 is a worthwhile part of this Bill.


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