Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Role of Chairperson of Housing Agency and Related Matters: Discussion
I thank Mr. Skehan for attending. I will make a couple of initial comments. I am a strong defender of free speech. People have a right to express their opinions and I would not try to curtail that. Likewise, the rest of us have a right to respond to those publicly. People in public bodies should express their views even when they do not necessarily coincide with the views of politicians in opposition or government.
When I commented on this matter over Christmas and the new year, I tried to be measured and accurate in my remarks regarding what Mr. Skehan said as opposed to what some misreported him as saying. I have no difficulty with his description. However, there is a difference between Mr. Skehan and Mr. David Hall and Fr. Peter McVerry in the sense that Mr. Skehan chairs a body that is tasked with providing independent and evidence-based research to the Government. Regarding potential strategic presenters in the homeless system, his organisation has had a great influence on a significant Government decision. The input of Mr. Skehan and other members of the agency, be they on the board or staff members, is potentially significant. I will revert to this matter in a moment.
I will respond to two of Mr. Skehan's comments. Like many of those in the homeless sector, I believe that there are too many homeless organisations. A reason for this is that the failure of the State over a long time has meant that the voluntary sector, often charities and religious organisations, had to step in and provide services. Mr. Skehan stated that voluntary service providers should have performance indicators. They already do. It is required by their service level agreements. Their reporting requirements have become onerous. The people in the voluntary sector with whom I spoke had no great difficulty with Mr. Skehan commenting on the number, as there are more than 40 homeless service providers in the city and county of Dublin, but with the specific issue of the existing performance indicators. Indeed, it has just been revealed that another State agency was trying to insert in its service level agreements additional elements that would have been detrimental.
Normal, as I understand the word, has a tendency to mean something that is not exceptional. There is a normal, common or typical way of doing things. While there is no doubt that every modern industrial society has homelessness, the levels of homelessness that we have experienced in recent years, especially child homelessness, are exceptional. This is not my view, but the view of the FEANTSA cross-country comparison and the OECD study. The concern that many of us had when the word "normal" was used was that it sounded like a suggestion that this was not exceptional and that it was typical. If Mr. Skehan's intention was to say that, on the basis of homelessness being a problem in many places, it was not unusual in Ireland, I would have no difficulty. However, that is not how it came across in the interview. For some people, including me, it sounded like the old Christian saying about how poverty would always be with us and we should just accept it. That is not Mr. Skehan's view, but I want to convey to him that this is how it came across in the radio interview. It caused difficulties.
I will turn to the issue of people possibly gaming the system. Most committee members have conducted many interviews and left unhappy with how our phrases were presented or kicking ourselves at our choice of words. We do not all get it right all of the time, particularly in a two-hour interview. However, I have a specific concern because, after Mr. Skehan's interview, I felt that he had crossed a line in his position as chair. I am on public record as saying that I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Skehan, have a good relationship with him and believe he contributes positively to our housing debate. The Housing Agency undertook a study of this issue at the Government's request during the review of the 50% priority allocation. I read the report unofficially at the time and later when I received it through a freedom of information request. While it states that people may be gaming the system on the basis of anecdotal evidence, it presents no evidence whatsoever to support the idea that is it happening in our housing system. It is a report that Mr. Skehan's body produced and of which he is aware. There has been a considered discussion on this issue among the Dublin local authorities, the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive and Mr. Skehan's organisation for a year.
I was surprised, but not that Mr. Skehan had said this at the start of 2018. Rather, given that this research had been done and no evidence was provided, that we had had this debate and that the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive subsequently stated publicly its belief that people were not getting through the system as a result of strategically presenting, it was unwise even to suggest that people might have been doing that. It plays into a public narrative - Mr. Skehan is not the narrative's fault - that these people are not genuine, are queue jumpers and are trying to get into a council house quicker. Mr. Skehan presented his remark as a theoretical comment as a social scientist would, but it was a bad choice of words, especially given the current context.