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
No. 6 on the agenda is a discussion of the role of the chairperson of the Housing Agency and related matters, with particular reference to recently articulated views on the level of homelessness in Ireland.I welcome Mr. Conor Skehan from the Housing Agency.
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the devices used. It is not sufficient to set them to silent mode as it will maintain a level of interference with the broadcasting system.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
During private session we agreed to divide this session into three sections if we were under time pressure. We will take Mr. Skehan's statement in the following order: the Housing Agency and its roles; Mr. Skehan's role as chairperson; and his recently articulated views. I hope members will adhere to that order, where possible.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I thank the Cathaoirleach and members of the joint committee for the invitation. I was appointed chairperson of the Housing Agency in 2013. The agency has 64 staff and an annual budget of €114 million. It deals with a very wide range of issues, detailed descriptions of which I have provided in an attachment to my statement. We deal with housing supply services, support local authorities in housing management, conduct research, support approved housing bodies, operate the regional and national mortgage-to-rent schemes, co-ordinate national housing policy for people with disabilities, provide procurement advice and support for local authorities and approved housing bodies, operate the pyrite remediation scheme, regulate approved housing bodies and provide advice on a wide range of issues, including policy development, technical advice and project management.
We have been very vigorous and very active. I have given members an attachment showing the extent of that work.
In my role as chairman, I lead a team, the board, which sets the strategy and oversees the implementation of the agency's activities. These roles are guided by our published vision, mission and values. Identified as our core values are independent influence, quality expertise, innovation, a focus on solutions, a respected reputation and collaboration. They are outlined in detail in the attachment. One of my roles as chairman is to meet the Minister periodically to discuss our performance. It is my practice at such meetings to advise the Minister on housing issues and priorities. I usually do this the first time I meet a new Minister. I have given a typical briefing in appendix 4.
Since I took up my role, the agency has expanded in scope and scale considerably. An attachment sets out how much it has grown. I notified the Minister in 2016 that I would not be available for re-appointment because of my belief that the continued expansion of the agency would demand a chairman with deeper skills in financial and human resources management than I possess. To this end, I instigated and implemented a succession programme that resulted in the Public Appointments Service identifying and recommending replacements, who proved to be unavailable when offered the position. As a result, I agreed in December 2017 to continue in the role until a replacement could be appointed. The Minister assures me the appointment process is proceeding as quickly as possible.
On homelessness and my recent comments in the media on this matter, I draw members' attention to the fact that, prior to stepping down as chairman, I agreed to give one press exit interview. It took place on 2 December, lasted for about two hours and covered the topic of what I had learned in the past five years. Once it emerged that I was not going to be stepping down, I let the journalists know. The Irish Timessubsequently published six articles based on my interview over a period of two weeks. They covered the matters that I understand this committee wishes to discuss. The matters, as I understand them, are my reported views on the following aspects of homelessness: that there are too many homelessness charities; that homelessness is normal; that people may be gaming the system; that there is a need for vigilance regarding housing numbers; that homelessness is a result of affordability; that attention to vacancies and arrears should be given higher priority; and that housing behaviour among millennials is affecting supply. I am happy to discuss these and any other topics I am directed to discuss by the Chairman and other members of the committee.
I thank Mr. Skehan for coming here. I appreciate that. I want to go through the points in the order I received them. Much of this hinges on the interview. Mr. Skehan said he gave one exit interview. I read a number of press clippings, and I am not necessarily saying they were interviews. Mr. Skehan gave a very extensive interview to The Sunday Business Post. He mentioned The Irish Times. There were many interviews. I do not understand the reference to one interview.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
As a matter of fact, we have to be very specific. There was one interview. That is a very important point because there is an enormous amount of commentary based on the outcome of a single interview. I will stress a number of times the importance of understanding that the statements being reported repeatedly are the results of a single interview and a single aspect of a single comment, to which I will come back time and again.
Some comments have been reported. I will single out some of them and Mr. Skehan may comment on them when I am finished. I understand he has given a series of interviews. He targeted homelessness charities and said there were too many of them. There is due process here and I would like Mr. Skehan to correct me when I am finished if I am wrong. He referred to the Apollo House activists as misguided. Why does he believe that? Does he still believe that?
Mr. Skehan said the homelessness crisis is normal. This is my understanding of his commentary. I have read and played back some of his commentary, and this is what I have taken from it. He said people are gaming the system and declaring themselves homeless to be prioritised on the housing list. That may or may not be the case. I am not disputing it but I just want to tease it out with him. He might also refer to Government policy. A certain amount of Government policy stated the homeless were to be prioritised and that there were to be quotas in each of the local authorities. Many people found the phrase "gaming the system" very offensive. Many discussed this with me and said they found it exceptionally offensive that somebody with Mr. Skehan's responsibility was saying people were gaming the system. When did it come to his attention that people were gaming the system? If he believed that, what did he do about it? In some ways Mr. Skehan's name became a byword for the idea — this is important — that there is official indifference to the human cost of homelessness. That is what some people thought.
I want to pass on what I picked out of the commentary. I found Mr. Skehan's remarks offensive. I am not without a home. I met people who are homeless, people in hospitals and people who worked in the sector, and they found the comments offensive, particularly given Mr. Skehan's position. Will he clarify whether he made the comments? If he did, he clearly gave a lot of thought to them. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Skehan and have attended conferences that he addressed, so I believe he would have given some thought to his comments. Does he still stand over them? If so, is he fit to stay in office at this juncture? That is a view of mine on which I would like him to respond. Did the current Minister summon him and express concern over the comments he made?
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to clarify those points because this is, indeed, the essence of the issue as to what I did or did not say. To get to the heart of the matter and to address the extent to which people said to the Senator that what I said was objectionable, hurtful or insulting, if he reads what I actually said, he will note that I said there "may" be an issue and that it "should be investigated". At the risk of false flattery, I will continually draw the Senator's attention to the wisdom he is continually told about in this committee by Deputy Ó Broin concerning the importance of having policy based on evidence, the avoidance of anecdote and the avoidance of emotion. Am I correct in my paraphrasing? The importance of doing what I describe rests on a systematic analysis of whether practices that are reputed by many people to be taking place are, in fact, true. If I am arriving at this committee, I am doing so to say to members that one of the really important pieces of work they must do is to find out whether these things are true. As the Senator said, I have been extremely careful in my words. I was extremely careful not to say that these things are happening but that they may be happening and should be investigated.
To take it further, I draw the Senator's attention to the following two statements that appeared at the same time. The first reads:
There may well be a small proportion of people 'gaming' the system, but there have been chancers since time began. Look at insurance fraud, for instance. But if it is happening, I'm certain it's at a tiny proportion.
The second reads:
No matter what system you have, whether it's a social welfare system or a tax system or a housing system, some people will try to scam the system. That's just a reality. I'm absolutely sure there are some families who are declaring themselves homeless when they may not actually be homeless in order to jump the queue. But that's a tiny, tiny percentage of those families who are actually declaring themselves homeless.
The first of those remarks is by Mr. David Hall, director of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, as reported in the Irish Independent. I will provide the committee with the specific reference to that article. The second comment, on people who are trying to scam the system, is by Fr. Peter McVerry. These are exactly the same pieces of advice that I provided when I said this may be happening, that people may be doing this, and that if it is happening it should be investigated. Those are the actual words. I know this is a busy committee so I will not be tedious and read the article out to the members. It is extremely important, however, that we understand that this is the context. Does that answer the Senator's question on what I actually said?
Mr. Conor Skehan:
That is the matter of gaming the system or otherwise. That is the matter of people taking offence at the things I have said or otherwise. Is it completely clear where that has come from and where it is going?
In terms of the questions asked about describing homelessness as normal - I am sorry, as I keep picking on Deputy Ó Broin - one of the important functions of this committee is to base policy and decisions on evidence. One of the most normal processes in all fields of human endeavour, but especially in the field of public policy, is to benchmark so that we can know how we are doing compared with other places or sectors. Saying that our homelessness issues are normal is a call to examine the ratio of people who are homeless in various categories in Ireland compared with other EU member states overall, other member states in similar circumstances and other parts of the world. That is what normal means. It calls on people to recognise something about the levels of homelessness in Ireland. To use my complete statement, I said that homelessness was a dreadful thing to befall anyone, but we must recognise that it occurs everywhere in the world for more or less the same mix of reasons. It is only by examining that and seeing it in this context that the committee can start to direct the Oireachtas's attention towards policies that are likely to be effective as opposed to those that are merely based on anecdote and emotion. That is the point of drawing attention to the issue.
I cannot read my scrawled handwriting, so if I have overlooked something that the Senator asked, please forgive me. I have referred to "normal", gaming the system and people taking offence. I was also asked whether the Minister summoned me to express his displeasure. On the contrary, the Minister made a public statement that chairpersons were appointed and valued for the provision of independent advice. He may or may not agree with that advice, but that is our role, particularly as an agency that is specifically mandated to be independent and to tell people what they need to hear, even if it is not always what they want to hear. Does that answer the Senator's question?
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.
It has caused deep hurt. It was not Mr. Skehan's intention to do that, but it has caused deep hurt. I think it has undermined the Housing Agency because it suggests that this body, which advises Government, believes there is a problem here when in fact John O'Connor came out in a subsequent interview and said he did not believe there was a problem.
Mr. Skehan is absolutely right. It should be evidence based. If he or his organisation has evidence to suggest that this actually is a problem, then we have a conversation. The one publication we have access to - we had to get it by FOI - does not present it. That is why I think we are in difficulty on this remark. I ask Mr. Skehan to reflect on some of that and come back to me on it.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I thank Deputy Ó Broin, who was measured as ever, for the opportunity to open up those issues. First, I home in on his concern about crossing a line in terms of my role in the agency. The first thing to bear in mind is that I am chairman of the board and not a member of staff. My job as chair and our job as the board is to challenge our executive - sometimes to say, "Well done", sometimes to say, "Try harder" and sometimes to say, "Look harder."
I teach and one of these issues - the one the Deputy is raising here - is the absence of evidence. Absence of evidence is a very specific thing we teach our students. There is an old phrase that the absence of evidence is sometimes not the same thing as evidence of absence. We teach the students that by giving them the following example. We are in a room, I send all the students to the window and ask them to look out on the lawn and tell me if there is an elephant on the lawn. They come back and say that there is no elephant, which is excellent and well observed. I then ask the next student to go to the window and tell me if there are ants on the lawn. The student comes back and says: "I don't know; I can't see any." To which I respond: "Well, maybe you need to go out and look harder."
This is the category of argument I am putting to the committee here. In my role in the agency, people send me stuff. I will read out three or four examples from different aspects of stuff that people send me that give me the grounds for making exactly the remarks the Deputy is so concerned about. If they are true, we should all be concerned about it and if they are not true, we should all be relieved that they are not true because they are precisely that class of data he referred to as anecdote and no basis for policy. Therefore, we are both in complete agreement.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I am holding them up generally. I have blacked out anything that could identify anybody. I will make these available to the clerk to make sure this is clear. This is not in any particular order.
One strand of evidence is social media. Through another business I have I am in the business of watching and seeing what takes place on social media. We relatively commonly come across group chats where people are sharing information with each other about how to improve their condition. Here is a sample in which people are talking about what they can do or cannot do to get into housing. The exact quote is: "Off course u are it's up to urself", meaning get oneself into the list. This woman who claims in this note to be in emergency accommodation says, "Its hard but it b worth it im on it with 3 kids an by god its hard but ill stick.it out too get my forever home u shud strongly think about it".
I now quote from meeting minutes from Fingal County Council on Tuesday, 16 January item No. 5 on housing numbers. Is this okay? This is an official record.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
Question: Councillor K. Redmond. AI040417
"That the Chief Executive reports how many of those currently counted on Fingal’s homeless/housing list has been offered an accommodation option and turned it down.
Please provide the answer with an up to date total number on the list for comparison"
There are 7961 housing applicants on the Council’s housing list with 413 families deemed to be homeless or at risk of homelessness.
68 offers of accommodation were refused in 2017, 36 of which related to applicants in homeless circumstances.
That is specific. This is the type of stuff that Deputy Ó Broin rightly demands that we base decisions on.
I have a third item which again I will give to the committee. This is one where I have been specifically told I can use this person's name and I have specifically checked with the county manager that it is in order. It is a county councillor's name and it is specifically addressed to me. I have been specifically told that I can use it at this meeting. Is that acceptable? I will not read the person's name out just now.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
Fine. In that case, I will synopsise it because we do not have a huge amount of time. Essentially they say that there are three case studies that would be of assistance on the basis of the personal experience of the councillor. To be really clear, I went back and checked this with the county manager afterwards and the county manager confirmed that these are cases.
A young woman who had been living with her father in Council accommodation contacted me in the latter half of last year. A problem arose, as her father had no permission to allow people stay with him. She found herself becoming homeless and contacted myself and other Councillors in our electoral area. The problem was resolved and the Council advised she could remain living with her father.
She was most disappointed at this... because of the difficulty with her father he would no longer allow her to live with him. The council agreed to provide emergency accommodation in a nearby hotel.
She only stayed in the Hotel room for one week and then moved back to her family home and now uses the hotel room to meet her partner a few nights a week, but as far as she is concerned she is now living in emergency accommodation... This lady is counted in our homeless figures and nothing could be further from the truth.
This is the information I am being sent. I would be remiss in my role if I did not challenge my executive to find out if this is true.
A young lady approached me two years ago who told me she was homeless and sleeping in her car with her three children under the age of 7. She had been living in a council house with her father and claimed that he was being physically abusive to her and her partner and they had to leave the home. I asked if she could stay with her mother who was in another council house close by and she told me she had not spoken to her mother in years and that there was no chance of her mother agreeing to this.
I attended the Council offices with her, her partner and her children. It was impossible for the meeting to be held, as the children were [very noisy]...
[I arranged a meeting the following day] To my surprise she called her mother who arrived in her car and took the children home and arranged with her daughter to see her at the house later, when I questioned her about what she had told me in relation to her mother she said [that]... this was the best way for her to enter emergency accommodation. She had a council house six months later.
This is what I am being told. This is what I am being asked to draw to the committee's attention.
Some months back at the launch of yet another fundraising drive by the homeless charities I watched a video... of a young child struggle with the steps of a B&B because he was in temporary accommodation. It was an appalling site [sic], and one that was viewed over 500,000 times on you tube.
When I realised that this child was a member of a homeless family from Fingal I approached our executive and sought an explanation as to how this was happening on our watch.
It was only then I learned that this family had been offered alternative accommodation, including a brand new 3 bed specially [adapted] home in a new development and refused it as it was a ten minute bus journey from where they had hoped to secure a home.
The same family also refused a transfer to a hotel nearby where they could have had a room [adapted] for people with special needs, as it was not close enough to the mother’s family home.
This next piece comes to the heart of looking harder for evidence.
When the facts in this case were brought by me to RTE and Independent Newspapers they both investigated and confirmed the story, both indicating they were anxious to run it and both then reverting and advising me that it was too dangerous legally to deal with the story.
I will not deal with the rest of it.
Let me respond to that. This is very important and in some senses I am even more concerned now than I was at the start. Again I will be as measured as I can be. Third-party accounts of very complex family situations are not evidence. I am not disputing that the person who sent Mr. Skehan that may believe that. However, that is not evidence of people gaming the system. That is somebody's interpretation of a set of circumstances.
Mr. Skehan's first quote, for example, was from a young woman on social media. None of us knows from that account if this person was made homeless from a notice to quit from a landlord, if there was abuse in the family relationship or other family circumstances. I appeared on a radio show recently talking about this and a very similar social media post was used by an interviewer.
The implication is that this person is not genuinely in there when it is clearly not demonstrated from the information that Mr. Skehan has given.
I will go back to what I say. I hear all the time all sorts of things. I hear that a mother with one child can easily get a three bedroom house in the local authority area in which I live. That is not true. I go and check it out whenever I am told this and I look at the complexity of the situation. When somebody presents as homeless and Mr. Skehan should know this, given his position, there is a very rigorous test, there is documentation required. They engage with professional local authority staff at the front line who make very difficult decisions every day to allocate very limited volumes of emergency accommodation. If it is suggested that even one family slips through that process, we are suggesting that a wrong call was made by one of those staff. Likewise, if somebody is in emergency accommodation and they do not stay in that emergency accommodation of a single night, that emergency accommodation is taken away from them straight away by the local authority, the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive. I have no difficulty with somebody who might be in bed and breakfast accommodation in a hotel going back and staying with family and friends for some relief. In many of these emergency accommodation locations, one cannot spend the day there. There is nothing in what Mr. Skehan has said that provides any evidence of gaming the system. A councillor and another individual informed Mr. Skehan that they think there is a problem. All I am saying is that this is the report of his organisation. The Housing Agency looked at the matter and while it is said there may be a problem it provided no evidence for it. If Mr. Skehan is concerned that the Housing Agency's report is not good enough, in the first instance it should be his responsibility to get the Housing Agency to do proper research and produce a new report.
When Mr. Skehan comes out as the Chairman of the Housing Agency - and I understand the role of the board - he is perceived to be a spokesperson for that organisation because the ordinary punter on the street does not know the difference between a board member and a chief executive officer. When one uses the words "gaming the system", even though there is a caveat before the words, it sends out a signal that there is a big problem. Nothing of what Mr. Skehan has said suggests there is a problem. There may be, there are some people who think there are, or there is some speculation about problems. I think it was incredibly ill advised. I say that with the greatest of respect to Mr. Skehan. In the period that Mr. Skehan remains as chairman of the Housing Agency, I ask him, given the vulnerability of families who are in emergency accommodation and the staff dealing with them on the front line, to please be thoughtful in how he uses these words. For a social scientist in a university lecture, most of what he said is fine, but back out in the world of families dealing with homelessness and workers dealing with the stress of trying to respond adequately, those same rational, logical social scientist conversations, can be deeply hurtful and can feed into a narrative that many of these people are in there to short circuit the long housing waiting list and are turning down properties.
I do not have a difficulty with a person turning down an offer of accommodation, if the reasons are legitimate. Nothing in what Mr. Skehan has said has given me any facts from the original source that those refusals might not have been legitimate. I have dealt with two homeless families, one family with a child with special needs in particular on whose behalf I fought with them tooth and nail because the offers of accommodation they were given were so wholly inappropriate for them, that I think the council made a mistake. The council eventually agreed and they were put in long-term accommodation, appropriate for their needs. Again, we need to be careful that we do not feed, unintentionally, a whole set of prejudicial narratives about what is going on. If those few emails and posts are the basis of Mr. Skehan making the claim, that is very disappointing, given the fact that he is a very smart man who understands the need for evidence and the organisation which he chairs, the Housing Agency, which has done a report has not provided any.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for raising the issues and giving me the opportunity to address the most important of those points, which is that the report, to which he alludes, was prepared two years ago. It was prepared because our main client groups, the housing authorities of Ireland raised their concerns. As soon as the new initiative came out to allocate the proportion of social housing to homeless as was laid out, we immediately had red flags raised the length and breadth of the country by our client housing authorities, saying that this could, unwittingly, give rise to people seeking to move from a conventional housing list into an accommodation list. Members will agree that this is the time we are talking about. Deputy Ó Broin, as ever, is correct. There was no evidence at that time that this was occurring and that is why no evidence was included in that report. The Housing Agency was doing what it is supposed to do, which is to send up red flags into the system to say there is a potential problem here: Be aware of it. That was the agency doing its job. To the Department and the Minister's credit, they did something about it, almost immediately. That is a very important point that Deputy Ó Broin is raising and there is a reason that the report did not have the materials in it.
In the matter of vigorous scrutiny, the next piece of evidence is similarly from one of these social media sites. This is why we need to look for something other than elephants, this is why it may be so difficult to spot the ants. This one has a heading on it "ANON POST" and reads: "Hi there, I am a Social Welfare Inspector and was wondering if one could have this post anonymous in the group."
On a point of clarification. When somebody is in homeless accommodation, emergency offers of accommodation are not made on the same basis, so that very often somebody will be offered accommodation not in their area of preference but so far away from their area of preference and family support networks that it is not an appropriate offer. That is an important distinction to make. Increasingly, and my own local authority has two areas of choice, so it is not like people get to choose a housing estate, one has a choice between either north or south of the Naas Road. That is why for example there are occasions where somebody is in emergency accommodation, they get an offer of accommodation but when one looks at the details of the family and the offer, it is wholly inappropriate. It is not that they are choosing to turn something down, it does not meet the complex and important needs in family support networks of those individuals.
There is one very small point. Mr. Skehan is absolutely correct, the report dates from 2016 and the logic of the report was the dramatic rise in the increase in the number of families presenting as homeless. What he did not mention, but I am sure it was an oversight, was that this was also the period when we had a dramatic increase in the number of landlords increasing rents, but before we had an adequate response from Government. There was a crisis in the rental sector. The consequence of that report, notwithstanding the fact that no evidence was provided for strategic presenters, was the 50% priority allocation was allowed to lapse and in all four of the Dublin local authorities, the 50% priority allocation dropped to a range of levels from 20%, 25% and 30%. What is very important is the number of families presenting as homeless, notwithstanding that the original suspicion that led to the call for the report was the rise in this number, but the number of families continued to rise in spite of the fact that the priority allocation fell. That was because of the rental crisis continuing to spiral out of control. We are now in a situation where many local authorities who have never applied a priority allocation system are seeing very dramatic rises in family homelessness. None of that is conclusive evidence, but all of this information is very important to the context. The suggestion, and it is only a suggestion contained in the 2016 report that there is a link between the number of family presenters and the availability of a 50% priority allocation is not only inconclusive but is counter proven by the fact that the increasing levels continued after the withdrawal of the 50% priority allocation in Dublin, and in those counties that have never had a priority allocation.
I will bring Deputy Barry in and Mr. Skehan might respond to both.
I would like to ask Mr. Skehan about what his presentation described as "recently articulated views". I had intended to focus on recently articulated views to the effect that homelessness is normal, and that people are gaming the system, both of which were comments made last year. However, I will now ask about views articulated far more recently than that. What Mr. Skehan has said in this room in the last 30 minutes does not just continue down the path of his comments about the normality of homelessness and gaming the system. It has actually brought things to a point of even greater seriousness than when the invitation to attend this committee was first extended to him.
I have listened to the examples Mr. Skehan has listed, and I have heard scraps of information. I have heard hearsay. I have not heard anything that would constitute real, hard, serious evidence for the line of argument he is making. I have heard people who are in very difficult and vulnerable positions being wheeled out as examples. Mr. Skehan mentioned not one but two young women who are in difficult relationships with their father. For one of these women, physical abuse was part of the issue.
Mr. Skehan has done this while engaged in a particular action, and that action is to defend his position from the criticism he has received in recent times. The effect of his comments is to add fuel to the fire of a narrative that is out there, pushed by sections of the right-wing media. I refer to the old Victorian idea that there are the deserving poor on the one hand and the undeserving poor on the other. His comments add fuel to the fires of prejudice and backward attitudes towards people who find themselves in a very difficult position within our society. I would like to deal with some of the specific points he has raised.
The minutes of Fingal County Council were mentioned. Some 68 offers were refused, 36 were refused by people in homeless services.
Homeless circumstances. To anyone here who is a public representative, who has worked as a Deputy or as a councillor in a local authority, that figure would not be a shocking one. We deal with people in those circumstances all the time. There can be any number of good reasons, which would stand up, for someone in homeless circumstances to refuse the offer of a house. I had many debates on my old council, Cork City Council, when conservative politicians said a certain woman would not accept an offer because it was too far away from her mother. They would make a big issue of that. The reason they would make a big issue of it is that they live in a different world to a lone parent who is on a low income, in a stressful situation and trying to improve their situation by getting a part-time job and earning a few bob, but cannot afford a babysitter. They need support from relatives and family. People who do not live in communities like that, who live in a different and more affluent world, do not understand that these are the realities of life for many working-class people with low incomes.
I have seen people turn down the offer of a house because there is someone living across the road or around the corner who has been threatening or violent towards them in the past, or is a known drug dealer with whom they have had difficulties. These are the realities of life for many people. I suspect that there are people high up in the Government, the Civil Service and, with respect, in the Housing Agency, who do not understand the realities of life that people are struggling with in situations such as this.
I refer to the example Mr. Skehan gave involving people with difficult situations with their fathers and physical abuse. In my experience, difficult family situations show the opposite to the narrative of people gaming the system. For example, how many times have I come across this story? A relationship or family unit breaks down and people move back in with their mother or father. That house is then overcrowded. There are tensions, which become unbearable. The people present as homeless, and the reason given is family breakdown. Are they gaming the system? They have been evicted. They have been subject to huge rent hikes. In fact, they tried to do the exact opposite. They tried to avoid having anything to do with the system. What do they get? Do they get help? Do they get assistance from Mr. Skehan's comments? No. They perceive that they are at the butt of a cruel jibe.
Mr. Skehan might say that they are not the people he is talking about. He said today he was referring to a tiny percentage of people, and that it may be an issue. If I walked out onto the plinth and said that I thought there may be corruption in the Cabinet, and then I qualified my comments by saying that it may be an issue or that it is a tiny percentage of Cabinet members, I know that my qualification would not be the headline in the newspapers tomorrow. I know that because I have been around the block. I have a little bit of experience of how sections of the media operate and the way in which comments are taken up. Mr. Skehan is the chairperson of the Housing Agency.
I remind the Deputy that witnesses are expected to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration, and at all times are protected by absolute privilege. That applies to the committee members too. I am reminding the members of this.
No. I am not agreeing with anything Deputy Barry just said. I am being impartial. I am trying to protect the members and the witnesses. Everybody is protected by absolute privilege in here, and that is all I am reminding the Deputy of. Does the Deputy want Mr. Skehan to answer his questions?
I will finish my point and then ask him to reply. I am merely using an extreme example to make a point. The chairperson of the Housing Agency should know better. He should know how his comments would be taken up. I will be blunt with him. I suspect that he did know. I think he knew how those comments would be taken up, and I think that there are people who are in high places in this country, high up in politics and the Government, who like the narrative of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It is a divide-and-rule narrative. It is a Tory narrative. Mr. Skehan is being called out on it, and the comments he has made today are at least as bad as those he made previously, if not worse. They are grounds in and of themselves to ask for his resignation, which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government should do. He will not, because Mr. Skehan is playing quite a useful role for the Government. I will leave it at that.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I will start at the end and work back. The person described by the Deputy who said it was a tiny percentage is Fr. Peter McVerry. I did not say that. The person who said it was a tiny proportion was Mr. David Hall. I did not say that. I was very careful in the words I used, which was to say that if it was happening, it might be in one or two constituencies only. I am careful with my words.
In terms of the deserving and undeserving poor, it is the opening slide in my lecture that I give people about housing. Housing is one of the subjects I teach in DIT. I specifically draw attention to the potential for this to be kidnapped or hijacked by people who want to use it for socially divisive means so I am well aware of the potential for hurt. I am well aware of the potential for people to feel defamed or otherwise injured by these but I am not making this comment on the 400 or 600 people in Fingal. I am saying this for the 85,000 people who are on our housing waiting list - the 85,000 people who, to use the words of Fr. Peter McVerry, may find themselves having a queue jumped. I am not even going to talk about what happens when one starts the business of identity politics of saying "you're in my group or the other". The whole point of drawing attention to this is because the Housing Agency's remit is all of housing - everything in housing, which is everybody who is need of social housing - and to make sure that everybody in social housing is treated fairly and given a fair opportunity. The 100% is the concern of the agency, not the 1% causing a distortion, which are the words used, in the application of social policy. It is the 85,000 people about which I am worried.
In terms of defending my position, far from it because I have literally nothing to lose; I am in here to defend those 85,000 people. I am in here to make those statements to make sure that the majority of people who are entitled to social housing and who we as a society should be proud of, are provided with it and dealt with equitably and fairly. We are a fantastically good country. We deal with people who are in need. When we get out into the business of proportion and look at some states in the US where a significant proportion of the population of the entire state live in trailer homes, the 100,000 units of social accommodation we provide every year is the kind of thing we can and should be proud of. We can always do better. We have a waiting list of 85,000 people. It is down from 91,000 last year to 85,000 this year so it is going in the right direction. It will never be good enough.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
The point is that we are dealing with the majority of the people in those circumstances to make sure the system works as equitably, efficiently and fairly as possible and to make sure the needs of all of the people who are entitled to social housing and who we should be proud of are provided with social housing, get what they are entitled to and get it as efficiently as possible. They are the people we are all serving.
I have not finished asking my question. From what Mr. Skehan said, I took it that we should be proud of the fact that we do not have that scenario here. I am asking him whether he thinks it appropriate as chairman of the Housing Agency at a time when there are more than 8,000 people in emergency accommodation, including a record 3,000 plus children, to say we should be proud that we do not have hundreds of thousands of people living in trailer parks as is the case in the US. That is an incredible comment. It is an offensive comment.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
Deputy Barry is correct. A housing list is a normal means of allocating social housing. It is a system that is like a conveyer belt. People come on to and move off it. As a society, we would like people to be on it for as little time as possible and for as few people as possible to be on it. That is a normal way of allocating resources. The Deputy is absolutely correct. None of us should be proud of the fact that we have people in emergency accommodation in this country. It is called emergency accommodation for a reason. It means that aspect of the system is not working. I would not like for a second for anyone to record, understand or believe that I think that is in any way normal or acceptable. All of us must try to increase our endeavours to make sure that this particular category is removed as quickly as possible. There is not a hair's breadth of difference between the Deputy and me on that.
I thank Mr. Skehan for coming before the committee today and seeking to clarify the comments he made or the context in which he made them and the way in which they were interpreted. With regard to my reaction to the comment about gaming the system and the subsequent comments we heard today, from an accountability perspective, the buck stops with the Minister. When the Minister said in the public domain that there was no evidence to suggest that, I will accept his word and leave it at that if that is okay.
With regard to homelessness being normal and the right and the expectation to investigate the situation in other countries and to compare our figures against their figures, there is nothing wrong with doing that. There could be much to gain from doing that but I would simply ask that when the comparison is made, that this comparison is qualified with like-with-like figures because the methodology regarding how figures are compiled in some countries differs from the methodology used to compile them here. It might suit some quarters to give the impression that it is all done in a similar way and, therefore, we can say it is normal. That is far from being the case and I wish Mr. Skehan could acknowledge that so that is clarified as well.
Two issues relate to a point Mr. Skehan made. I do not think it was even in the context of that interview or articles he mentioned. Mr. Skehan said at one stage that "the point that starts a crisis, and the thing that makes them worse, is data being produced by people who have skin in the game. We now have people saying we need up to 50,000 houses a year, and that's rubbish". That was the quote. We now see the likes of Davy, Goodbody and the American Chamber Of Commerce Ireland putting the figure that is required to meet demand at 40,000 to 50,000. The ESRI says 35,000 to 40,000 units are required. The Housing Agency appears to be the only organisation that believes the demand is 20,000 to 25,000 so I ask Mr. Skehan to reiterate his confidence in that figure being the one to which we should aspire rather than 50,000.
Can Mr. Skehan confirm that he acted in an advisory capacity to Phil Hogan while he was in opposition? If so, does he believe the scale of that involvement with that party in some way colours his viewpoints and public statements? I would imagine not but Mr. Skehan needs to clarify that. In doing so, he could acknowledge that this connection is open to being drawn upon and could consequently lead to the assertion to which Deputy Barry referred. It is understandable if that assertion is made on foot of that connection.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
The Deputy has the gift of brevity. He packed a lot into those five questions so I will do the best I can to answer them in the correct order. The Deputy should correct me if I leave anything out. The Deputy is correct that the Department and the Minister said they have no evidence of it. Our advice back to the Minister is the elephant and the ant one - look harder Minister. That is our job - to give independent and objective advice and to tell people things they do not want to hear. That is the Minister's position. I say things he may not agree with or like. That is my job - to call the shots as I see them, end of. That is clear.
With regard to the question about normalising homelessness, I can do nothing except agree with the Deputy.
The Deputy has made a very important point, namely, that using international comparisons as benchmarks is absolutely riven through with difficulties of having comparators across the line. The public commentary, in particular by advocates for the housing charities, is that some countries count people couch surfing as being homeless and others count someone living beyond a certain amount of time with their parents as being homeless. It is a problem that bedevils the system. The Deputy is absolutely correct. Again, one of the things we are pointing out is the need for us to have access to those type of international comparators. No game, no contest. The Deputy is correct.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
That statement is a misconstrual of what I have just said. There are major housing crises in every major European country at this point in time. If I could show the Deputy the cover of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitunghe would see that homelessness is a huge crisis in German cities. We can all speak English and read the English newspapers at the moment. Theresa May said two weeks ago that she was giving priority to dealing with homelessness above dealing with Brexit. That is how big it is in Britain. It is a huge issue all over Europe, for more or less the same suite of reasons. We are not unique. We should be a little bit careful about mixing the two things. I agree with Deputy Cowen that there is a need for a standardised way of examining homelessness but I do not agree that our levels of homelessness are out of step. If one thinks the situation is difficult in Europe one would want to go to a few major cities in the United States.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I will come back to that point soon. Point taken. We do not disagree with that. The next issue relates to data and skin in the game. One of the most certain ways to bring about a housing crisis is to have an oversupply of unwanted dwellings. I should not have to go into any more detail in this particular chamber as to how that has affected Ireland. In 2008 we built 98,000 units in Ireland. As a result of the oversupply the market for housing dried up. People who had borrowed money to buy and build those houses lost their money to such a degree that this country experienced one of the most catastrophic falls ever experienced by a western European democracy. The primary cause is inaccurate data that are not delivered on time. The mechanism for bringing about the collapse of a housing market is people continuing to invest in a market long after the demand has dried up. The agency has specifically been mandated by the Government to produce an annual housing needs assessment. We do it every year because of the complexity of housing and those changing numbers. Our current estimate is between 20,000 and 25,000 per annum. Poor old Cathal Mac Coille - that is not said badly - but the Davys and those types of people and I argued long and hard about the lack of wisdom of people making excessive projections as to what the housing supply should be. I will not name any of the people the Deputy mentioned a few minutes ago who produced projections but they are all the same people who told us we were going to have a soft landing.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
Okay, fine, we will move on as we will not agree on that particular one. We have talked about the ESRI. There was also a reference to Phil Hogan. That is an amazing one. I confirm that for many years while it was in opposition I provided advice to the Fine Gael Party generally about matters to do with the environment, planning and other such matters. Opposition is the really exciting time in politics. The poor parties in government are stuck with defend, deliver and announce. I have been around this game for most of my adult life. The really sweet time in politics is when one is in opposition and one has the time to think, talk, explore and develop new ideas. I have no apologies to make for enjoying that so much. I have advised Jim Mitchell and Avril Doyle. The list is as long as one's arm. The last one, just as Fine Gael went into power was Phil Hogan.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
Yes. Absolutely. I have nothing to apologise for over that. Whether that means one can associate that - I presume by that the Deputy means Fine Gael, and I presume by Fine Gael he means a party that is to the right rather than to the left of politics, is that the Deputy's implication? - is a separate matter altogether. In terms of my role as chairman of the Housing Agency, I repeat our duty is towards the majority and in particular the majority who may not have as much skin in the game as those people who have imagined access to power and money. We have to be the voice of the voiceless and that is what I am trying to do here today, namely, to make sure that every single one of the people who is on the social housing waiting list is treated equally and that there is no distortion of that. That is the reason I am here and that is the reason I make those statements. I make no apologies for doing that.
The main discussion points have been on a couple of comments that were made before Christmas. Those have been well addressed. I wish to focus in more on the work of the Housing Agency and the role it has in delivery of housing supply services. Mr. Skehan mentioned that the social housing list has gone down from 91,000 people to 85,000 in the past year. I and members probably know that but good news stories like that are not in the press. How does the Housing Agency support local authorities in their roles and management functions?
I asked how the Housing Agency supports local authorities in their housing management functions. In what way does the Housing Agency support approved housing bodies? I would like more information about the mortgage-to-rent scheme. I know it was slow to get off the ground but there has been more success in recent times. It is something we want to explore much further and we want to put more emphasis on the area because it is getting to the root of the problem more so than dealing with the symptoms. I would also like to hear more about what is coming down the line. Deputy Ó Broin might want more information in that regard as well.
We have a meeting coming up on the reclassification of approved housing bodies and I would welcome Mr. Skehan's views on that. If I have time I will ask a couple of supplementary questions afterwards. Does Deputy Ó Broin wish to ask a couple of questions?
Yes, I will just throw them in quickly here. Data accuracy is one of the things we talk about a lot. The recently announced Government housing needs assessment figures of 80,000 plus is for June or July of last year. I have subsequent figures from every local authority under FOI of the same net need figures from September and they are 99,000. I would not get too excited that there has been as big a drop as they say.
I would also say we have 32,000 households on the housing assistance payment, HAP, which is a short-term response to their particular housing situation. We have 20,000 households on the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. One could argue that we have a gross housing need of approximately 130,000. The reason I say that is because all of us in here represent all of those people in our constituencies. I am in a constituency where there are more than 4,000 households on the waiting list just for Dublin Mid-West, and perhaps 250 families in emergency accommodation. We all want to ensure the system is fair. It is also important to emphasise the significant majority of those people who exit emergency accommodation do not go into a council house. In fact, if one looks at the most recent data, the majority of them go back into the private rental sector through the housing assistance payment. I say that in case anybody listening or watching thinks that people are automatically getting access to council houses.
It is also important to stress if one looks at Focus Ireland's most recent research via the intake team, because it has the data, that the key driver of families into homelessness is a notice to quit. The rental crisis is still driving. Whereas the Dublin Region Homeless Executive has said that family breakdown is the largest reason, it only asked people what was the last address they had. The Focus Ireland data goes back three addresses. A large number of those families who are coming from family breakdown got a notice to quit.
However, they chose not to go down the homeless route because they understood the major difficulties that would create for them and their children. Instead, they chose to go into family accommodation, which was unsustainable. I make this point because it is evidence to counter the theory that there is a gaming of the system.
Given Mr. Skehan's strong belief that the 2016 Housing Agency report is out of date, at what point did he make a formal request to the agency to do a further study based on the anecdotal information he was receiving?
I have a brief question. Mr. Skehan provided the joint committee with information from a variety of sources to support the view that there are at least questions about people gaming the system. Some of this information was from social media sources. While I stand to be corrected, I understand Mr. Skehan indicated he was involved in an entity or business and had obtained some of this information in the course of this business which monitors social media or does similar work. He then provided some anecdotes. What exactly is the other business in which Mr. Skehan is involved that gave him access to this information? Is it appropriate that he has shared this information in this forum?
Mr. Conor Skehan:
I will first answer the Chairman's questions, after which I will respond to Deputies Ó Broin and Barry in that order. To start at the beginning, the work of the Housing Agency with the approved housing bodies and local authorities extends across a broad spectrum. It runs from giving them research, which we heard about, to providing practical supports. For instance, when the housing assistance payment, HAP, was introduced, we worked closely with the local authorities, starting in Limerick city, followed by Limerick county and so forth, as we sought to find out the flaws in the system, correct these flaws and move forward. Incidentally, the introduction of the HAP was a very good model for introducing any new process provided for in legislation. Under this model, it is not assumed that everything will be perfect from day one. Instead, the system is rolled out gradually and the problems with it are identified before it is extended. This means when it hits a place the size of Dublin, many of the issues that need to be resolved have been identified, although the system will still not be perfect. That is the type of role the Housing Agency adopted and we worked very closely with the local authorities in that regard.
In terms of our work with the local authorities and approved housing bodies, we also work at the financing end by helping to secure financing and helping local authorities with sites they may have acquired. We look after these sites with the local authorities and approved housing bodies.
I probably do not have to say this but much of the stuff that makes a difference in housing involves boring work in which no one is interested, for example, the regulation of approved housing bodies. One of the major problems these bodies face in accessing international finance is being able to show they are monitored and supervised. This involved the tedious and bureaucratic task of introducing a whole system of regulation, registration, inspection, monitoring and certification of approved housing bodies. This task, which has been completed, is the type of work we do. We help these bodies with direct money and advice and also provide subtle infrastructural work. The work of the joint committee also includes ensuring that this type of slow background work is done. The data gathering that I repeatedly refer to is part of this.
The city manager in Dublin uses a great phrase drawn from the social sciences to draw attention to this issue. He refers to housing as "a wicked problem". In this context, the word "wicked" does not have the same meaning as it does when used by people in Dublin. It refers to an issue that has many intertwined parts and a change in one affect all the others. Unfortunately for the joint committee, its remit is to deal with this incredibly complex mix of issues, all of which - data, regulation, social attitudes, social expectations and national policy - come together, and as each one changes, it has an effect on all the others. We are trying to deal with these.
In terms of each of the systems, to return to the mortgage to rent scheme, the complexity of housing and the variety of expectations and demands are so vast that there is a major lesson to be learned. This ties back into Deputy Ó Broin's question on the three major strands of housing provision, namely, direct provision, the housing assistant payment and the rental accommodation scheme, and people float in and out between these strands. The issue is that something like this is prone to being exploited. Deputy Ó Broin is absolutely right that we have to continue to look at the big picture and we must not fool ourselves or be complacent by saying, for instance, the housing list is reducing while ignoring an increase elsewhere.
The housing assistant payment and rental accommodation scheme may be in place for other reasons. Deputies from rural areas will know that the housing assistance payment is not always for an apartment or a house in an estate. Many houses in rural areas are paid for by housing assistance payments for reasons to do with communities and what people want or do not want to do in terms of admitting their financial status. Such people will avail of the HAP. This is a highly complex issue covering a very wide range of areas.
I will speed up at little as I note it is 4.30 p.m. I do not want to get between members and the end of their day, although I can come back with more detail. Deputy Ó Broin's point about the complexity and overlap of the three strands is absolutely correct. To amplify the Deputy's point, the work the joint committee is doing on Focus Ireland is exactly the type of work that needs to be done. This complexity means realising that somebody who has eventually reached the point of presentation, if I can use that word, may have had a problem in his or her family because he or she may have been moved previously to unsuitable accommodation, for example, accommodation that was not large enough. This places stress on a family. The question is whether this is a fair summary of what can sometimes happen and it results in people being pushed in and there is then a cascade. We need to do that type of work.
We will agree to disagree that the reasons for homelessness in the Eastern Region Homeless Executive studies go into flux and change from time to time. All of these data are like something one would write on water in that they change all the time. For this reason, it is not good enough to do studies once. The Deputy is right about the need to ask the agency to do a further study because these studies need to be done repeatedly. We will never arrive at the point at which the data are perfect and allow us to make perfect decisions. While Deputy Ó Broin is dead right that we must be led by evidence, it is also the case that the evidence will never give us all the answers.
Deputy Cowen is also dead right that international comparisons will always change and be in flux. We can only do our best by trying to run to catch up with the data. We will always be behind the data, however. To go back to the international housing comparisons, people had a field day saying they were based on out-of-date information. The information is out of date because it is based on census data which covers the period from 2011 to 2016 or whatever. This means one will always be running to catch up with census data. This is normal and tough and we must make brave decisions based on the best data available to us.
Deputy Ó Broin asked whether a further study should be called for.
Would it not have been appropriate to ask the agency to do a study before floating the idea publicly that he was not satisfied with the 2016 report? Would that not have been more sensible given that Mr. Skehan is the chairman of the body?
Mr. Conor Skehan:
No. To be clear, the Housing Agency has, among other roles, a research function. We have a wonderful research officer, Mr. David Silke, who presents his research priorities for the following 12 or 18 months to the board every year. Again, this is a rolling programme. I do not always agree with Mr. Silke's priorities but it is his job to tell us what he believes we need to examine. He presents his priorities to the board every year and we accept them and move on. That his job and he is very good at it.
Given Mr. Skehan's concern about the possibility of gaming the system and his view that the 2016 report was out of date and in light of his statement that part of the job of the board is to challenge the Housing Agency, why did he not ask the agency to conduct a follow-up report on this issue?
Mr. Conor Skehan:
It is not a "Yes" or "No" question. The Deputy should see the list of things we give poor old David Silke every year. They are in accordance with the priorities. We basically ask him what he is doing to study vacancy or affordability. The list is the list. I gave the joint committee a copy of the list of priorities and I make no apologies for having priorities. That is good management and gives a clear steer to the board.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
Deputy Mick Barry asked a question on social media. I am the chairman of a company that helps people to protect their reputations online. People who are involved in social media sign up and the company, which is called RiskEye, monitors what they do to see if they are getting in trouble. If they are getting into trouble, we give them advice to get out of it.
Occasionally information like this gets entrained. That means one is watching a site because, for instance, a beauty blogger got herself in trouble because she made outrageous claims and people are giving out to her about it. That kind of stuff crops up. It is called entrainment. It is entrained with a big, long flow of stuff that is being looked at. Does that answer the question?
Are there any further questions for Mr. Skehan? No. I thank Mr. Skehan for coming in. Nobody could underestimate his passion in this area. I thank him for the manner in which he appeared before the committee. He answered all the questions that were put to him. If there is information he thinks is relevant to the committee which would allow it to make informed policy, I would appreciate it. We can forward it on to members and it might inform our work programme in the future.
Mr. Conor Skehan:
The Minister assures me I will be gone sooner rather than later. My request to him was to relieve me of this burden a long time ago. He assures me it will happen sooner rather than later, so this may be my last time before the committee. In the lectures I give to students, I emphasise that these committees are the anvil of the Oireachtas. The work the committee does is incredibly important. Most of the content in Rebuilding Ireland came out of this committee. The committee has to get it right. It has to listen to Deputy Ó Broin. It has to have data and evidence from the full spectrum of people. I am sorry for that rant but the committee has to do it. The work is too important to be fed by anecdotes and emotions. It is way too important.
I thank Mr. Skehan for his attendance today and wish him well. I thank members for attending today. The meeting is now adjourned and the next meeting of the joint committee will be held at 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 February to discuss the reclassification of approved housing bodies.