Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 3 October 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017: Discussion
At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and those in the Visitors Gallery are requested to ensure their mobile phones have been turned off completely or switched to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device used, for the duration of the meeting. It is not sufficient to leave them in silent mode as it will maintain a level of interference with the broadcasting system.
No. 5 on the agenda is detailed scrutiny of the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017. In our first session we will hear from the sponsor of the Bill, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and her legal adviser. In our second session we will hear from officials from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. On behalf of the joint committee, I welcome Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and Mr. Finbarr O'Malley.
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 committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, 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.
I call Deputy Jan O'Sullivan to make her opening statement.
I thank the members of the joint committee for inviting me to present the Bill for discussion. It is a Bill entitled an Act to make provision in relation to requests for accommodation by homeless families and for that purpose to amend the Housing Act 1988 and to provide for related matters. I introduced it on First Stage in Dáil Éireann in 2017. It was supported and unopposed on Second Stage on 15 November 2017 and referred to the committee. I have submitted a statement to the committee. I do not propose to read it in full, but I will go through some elements of it.
We all know that there are wider issues surrounding the provision of housing and homelessness, of which members of the committee are very well aware. There is a specific need to address the issue of children and families affected by homelessness, particularly in the context of the referendum on the rights of children. In the context of the wording of the amendment inserted into the Constitution, there is a need to ensure laws are drafted in order that those rights can actually be vindicated in a practical way. In particular, they would require local authorities and the State generally to recognise the rights of a child in a family unit when applying for accommodation or other forms of assistance.
We started to draft the Bill following an incident people will remember in which 12 families with 30 children between them could not be accommodated by homeless services in Dublin on 23 May 2017 and were sent to Garda stations because there was nowhere else for them to go. It has been reported that at least one of the families slept in a public park. The 30 children had no right to protection, safety or a roof over their heads, except as the dependants of their parents. Since the Bill was passed on Second Stage, Ms Margaret Cash and her children slept in Tallaght Garda station because they had no alternative. Whatever disputes we may have about the actual homeless figures, we know that close to 4,000 children are living in homeless accommodation. We are also aware of the effect this has on children and the fear and anxiety they face, including about losing contact with friends and communities, etc.
The focus of the Bill is on the perspective of children. Statistics published by Trinity College Dublin show that 42% of homeless adults are women, many of whom have dependent children in lone-parent households. It is clear from the research that there are not enough services available to cater for the needs of these families. This underlines all the more the need to specifically provide protection for the children, as well as their mothers.
Homeless charities have stressed the importance of strengthening the law on families in crisis, but I want to mention Focus Ireland, in particular, because it worked very closely with us in drafting the legislation. Mr. Wayne Stanley is in the Visitors Gallery. I also refer to the Mercy Law Resource Centre. Some members were present at the launch of its most recent report entitled, Children & Homelessness – A Gap in Legal Protection, when the Ombudsman for Children pointed to the need for legislation to protect children and families affected by homelessness. I do not know if the committee plans to hold further hearings, but if it does, I suggest Focus Ireland, the Mercy Law Resource Centre and the Ombudsman for Children be invited to appear before it. It may decide not to do so, but if it does, I recommend that course of action.
A family who are homeless present to a local authority and a housing assessment is undertaken by a staff member. If the parents are assessed as homeless under the Act, they may be offered emergency accommodation. In recent years it has become common practice, particularly in Dublin, to require a family to identify their own emergency accommodation in a hotel or a bed and breakfast, with the local authority's being responsibility reduced to paying for the room. It is commonly known as self-accommodation. No assessment is carried out to identify whether the family are capable of securing such a room or the impact of the uncertainty caused on the children. Over 500 families in Dublin are in self-accommodation without any support from a case worker. Most such families do secure accommodation, but where this is not possible, some local authorities, particularly in Dublin, provide a number of "contingency beds" which are made available as a last resort. Where no such rooms are available or they are unsuitable, there are no official guidelines on the advice that should be given to the family or how the incident should be recorded or reported.
I have provided some detail in the written statement on Focus Ireland and the statistics it has given us. Most startlingly, it told us that between January and the end of August it had no alternative on 180 occasions but to recommend that families go to a Garda station. In 21 cases it was confirmed that a family had, in fact, slept in a Garda station. There was some improvement when contingency beds were provided, but we understand the problem is again becoming acute. Focus Ireland has told us that a legislative provision to provide direction for local authorities in these difficult circumstances is necessary. The Bill will also ensure there will be an holistic response in the support of families in hotels and hubs, not only in providing a roof over their heads but also wider supports for the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family home.
I will provide more detail on the technical aspects of the Bill. In mechanical terms, it is a short Bill, with just one operative section which will insert a new section, to be numbered section 10A, immediately after section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 which relates to the provision of accommodation or other assistance by housing authorities for homeless persons. Under section 2 of the Act, a person is homeless if he - the Act uses the term "he" rather than "she" - is unable to provide accommodation from his own resources and there is no available accommodation which he, together with any other person who normally resides or might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably be expected to occupy or remain in.
This includes cases where persons may be living in a night shelter or similar institution for want of any alternative accommodation. Under section 10 of the Act, a request for accommodation may be made to the housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person. The housing authority may then, subject to ministerial regulations, make arrangements with an approved body to provide accommodation for the homeless person or directly provide the person with appropriate assistance, including financial assistance, or rent accommodation, arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of accommodation or lodgings for the person.
As I said, the Act refers to a person as homeless if there is no accommodation available which he, together with any other person who normally resides with him, or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably be expected to occupy. There is no explicit recognition in the current scheme of those other persons, as persons in their own right, with entitlement under law. In 1988, there was no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit, nor is there any statutory recognition of the constitutional rights of homeless children. Under the constitutional amendment, the State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and it must, as far as practicable, by its laws, protect and vindicate those rights. That is the crucial outcome we are seeking to achieve today. The sole purpose of our new section 10A is to oblige housing authorities to recognise persons in accommodation crises as a family unit and to have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families.
I do not know how much more time I have. I can give the committee some more technical information.
The new section 10A is headed "Homeless persons and children" and applies where a request for accommodation or other assistance is made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person when another person who normally resides or who might reasonably be expected to reside with the homeless person is a child. In such a case the housing authority must, when making a decision on the request, including a decision about whether to provide interim or urgent assistance, recognise the persons concerned as a family unit and must regard the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration. The housing authority must have particular regard to the need, by practical means, to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation in order to support and encourage the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family home.
The language used in section 10A is not original. The requirement that in certain cases the best interest of the child be regarded as a paramount consideration is to be found both in the constitutional amendment and the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. It is enshrined in Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which provides that in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration.
Under section 8 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, the two principal general functions of Tusla are to support and promote the development, welfare and protection of children and to support and encourage the effective functioning of families. We have borrowed and adapted that language to spell out the approach a housing authority should adopt when dealing with a homeless family in need of assistance.
I hope that gives the committee some detail on the language used in the Bill. I am happy to answer any questions.
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for the presentation. I fully support the Bill. It is both eminently sensible and reasonable and I hope we will be able to progress it as speedily as possible given its logic. I will use the time I have to reinforce the reasons we need this legislation. I will talk a little about what I am experiencing on the ground in terms of homeless families and children.
Last Tuesday, we had a screening of a film here, "Through the Cracks", which was produced by Ingrid Casey and directed by Luke Daly and Nathan Fagan. It focused on the experience of two families. What was most powerful about the movie was we heard not only the voices of the mothers but also those of the children. It is one of the first times I have directly heard, albeit narrated by actors, children who are living in or who have lived in emergency accommodation, including family hubs, describe what it is like and talk about the impact on them. It was a very moving session.
It is important to acknowledge the reality of referrals of homeless families to Garda stations because there seems to be some level of public denial about this practice. The figures Deputy O'Sullivan quoted are factually correct and have been widely reported in the media. There seems to be a lack of clarity about who is responsible for this and what can be done to stop it.
My main concerns are the length of time families with children are spending in emergency accommodation. I deal with families who have been in emergency accommodation for more than two years. They started with arrangements lasting from one night to the next, before moving on to hotel placements and then family hubs. This is particularly the case for larger families because of the difficulties for local authorities in finding suitable accommodation under the housing assistance payment scheme or council allocations for families with four or more children. We are experiencing families being offered emergency accommodation for only part of their families. For example, a mother with three or four children will be told she can go to a hotel with two children because it will not accommodate her other two children who will be sent elsewhere, with all the negative impacts that has.
I do not understand why Tusla will not provide family supports outside of term time. Tusla will provide Leap cards and other such supports during term time. When the school term stops and a family is in emergency accommodation, for example, in Swords, Meath or Kildare and they are from the west or south of Dublin, those supports should be provided throughout the year because the family still has to travel to see relatives and access other supports.
I am glad Deputy O'Sullivan raised the issue of self-accommodation. I do not understand the reason for self-accommodation, other than to reduce the administrative burden on the local authority. The idea that a person experiencing the trauma of being homeless must ring a long list of hotels every day to secure emergency accommodation makes no sense. We had a particular difficulty in July and August and early September because of the holiday season. These are families who have to ring every day. There is no guarantee of a place. Some of these families are very vulnerable or have other issues in their lives. The idea that this is an appropriate mechanism for the allocation of emergency accommodation is wrong. It leads to relationship breakdown. I am sure other Deputies have experienced individual cases where a relationship breaks down and then there is the complication of who gets the emergency accommodation and access to the children. If this was just for a short period, it would be a reasonable proposition but given it could be for a year or two years, it has all sorts of implications for family relationships, particularly at early developmental stages for children.
I have some concerns about data. For example, we get figures on homeless children in Dublin but we do not get figures for the four local authorities in Dublin. For this reason, I do not know how many children from the South Dublin County Council area are currently in emergency accommodation because we do not get a breakdown of the overall figure. That causes all sorts of difficulties.
The value of the Bill is that it would make many of the practices I have highlighted less likely to occur. It would certainly give those of us who are advocating for families a stronger set of tools to try to ensure those types of practices are weaned out.
I am not criticising the Bill but there are limitations which are a result of not being able to introduce Opposition Bills that place a charge on the State. Other jurisdictions have statutory limits on the length of time adults and particularly families with children can spend in emergency accommodation. Scotland has a 24-week limit and it meets and exceeds it.
Officials from the Department are present and listening. We need the Department to seriously consider whether the Government could introduce legislation at some point providing for such legal limits in recognition of the serious developmental damage lengthy stays in emergency accommodation can do. Focus Ireland launched two significant studies last December which addressed the impact of emergency accommodation on families with children.
We need a much more proactive approach by local authorities in terms of prevention plans before families become homeless. The largest cause of family homelessness is the use of vacant possession notices to quit. In many cases we know six months before a family presents as homeless that it will be homeless. Despite what I hear from some Government Deputies on the floor of the Dáil, when a family presents with a notice to quit, it is told to go away and come back a month before it is given access to homeless housing assistance payments. It is then told to come back again on the day the notice to quit expires. That is clearly not an appropriate solution.
I fully support the Bill. I would like the committee to consider waiving further scrutiny after we hear what is said today in order that we can progress this as quickly as possible because it would be an important addition to the legislative protections for families with children.
We will support this Bill which, while limited, is nonetheless a step forward. I would like to speak about cases I have dealt with over the past three months and how the Bill might affect them or raise questions in terms of how they might be affected. The case of Ms Keely Jones in Cork is well known. Ms Jones chose to go public to highlight her situation. She has nine children. She was living in private rented accommodation but she received notice to quit, leaving her and her children homeless. She spent much of the time over the summer camped in tents on the beach in Youghal with six of her children. They slept in travel cots and on air mattresses. Ms Jones then chose to go public to highlight her case. As I understand it, this Bill would not guarantee Ms Jones accommodation but it would mean that the authorities would have to take into account her nine children when assessing what happens next. If this is an additional point of pressure on the authorities, however small, I welcome it. It is also the main reason for supporting the Bill.
My questions are about people who are already in emergency accommodation and the local authorities' approach to these people. I will give two examples. First, on a Monday afternoon a couple of months ago, a man walked into my clinic. He had been staying with his wife and children in emergency accommodation - I think it was bed and breakfast accommodation - funded by the State and during that time he had been offered accommodation under the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. The HAP accommodation was unsuitable from the point of view of location. It is a long story but it was a totally unsuitable location for the family. Nobody in authority told him that there was a penalty for refusing an offer of accommodation, so he refused in the hope of getting something better. He was then told by homeless services that he would have to vacate the emergency accommodation because the State would no longer pay for it as he had refused HAP accommodation. He appealed that decision and lost. He then showed up at my clinic. On the afternoon of the day he was due to vacate the bed and breakfast accommodation, the State financial support for the accommodation was to cease, affecting him, his wife and their two children. The children are twins aged ten months old. At this point, the choice for this family was to spend a night sleeping on the streets of Cork or in a Garda station. Thankfully, following some engagement with homeless services the family got a stay of execution, so to speak. Will this Bill deter homeless services making a decision to cut off financial support for accommodation? I presume it does not bar them from making the type of decision made in this case, which was a bad decision in my opinion. Does it apply to this scenario as opposed to a scenario in which emergency accommodation is sought but has not yet been acquired?
The second example is a case brought to my attention this week involving a woman who has been homeless since March 2017 and living in emergency accommodation for 11 months. She has a husband and four children, including a baby girl aged one and a child with autism. She has been told that she can only remain in emergency accommodation for 12 months. She has one month before she faces eviction form emergency accommodation with her children if the council, or she, does not find other suitable accommodation in the interim, which will be difficult owing to the housing crisis and the size of the family. What impact will this Bill have on this woman's rights and her children's rights?
I support the Bill. Earlier this week we heard the story of a woman in emergency accommodation delivering stillborn twins, which is horrific. It is frightening that this is happening in 2018. We must ensure this does not happen again. The point was made to me recently that a generation of children are growing up thinking that "no fixed abode" is an address. Children in homelessness have no home address and they think this is normal. It is not. We have to ensure that in the future we do not have children or families in emergency accommodation such as family hubs and hotels. Reports on families in the hubs and emergency accommodation such as hotels cite stress, arguments and feelings of hopelessness among families and children. This is unacceptable. Worryingly, the homeless crisis continues. Every day we wake up to stories of another family being made homeless. This is unacceptable.
There are 31 local authorities. Every one of them has the means to deal with homelessness. In Carlow, when a person or family presents as homeless the local authority secures accommodation for them. However, like other local authorities Carlow County Council does not have emergency accommodation units and so there is nowhere to accommodate people other than in a hotel. While I welcome the Bill, what we need is secure accommodation for homeless families and children. We need houses and emergency units such that if a person or family presents at my clinic at night or over the weekend there is somewhere I can send them. In some local authorities it is hard to access a service for homeless people. We need to address this issue.
Reference was made to official guidelines. It is crucial that every local authority has official guidelines on homelessness, particularly for children. The main factors in regard to homelessness are high rents and a lack of housing. Unless we address these issues, the crisis will worsen. As I said, I support the Bill but I believe we need proper guidelines in every local authority in order that every local authority is accountable for every family that seeks assistance from it. We have to ensure that people who find themselves in an accommodation crisis on a Friday evening or at the weekend have access to a 24-7 service.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan referred to the issue of cost in terms of what is proposed in the Bill. Cost is a major factor in the homelessness crisis. The Deputy is correct that we need to ensure this legislation is not held up on the basis of cost. I firmly believe that when it comes to the delivery of housing, children with disabilities and access to disability grants and so on the main issue is funding. We have to make sure this Bill proceeds to ensure there will be more accommodation available to families and children in homelessness.
It will be a good Bill and I will fully support it.
I welcome our colleague to the meeting. This is worthwhile, appropriate and timely legislation. I find that the people who are coming to my clinic now get a home when their eldest child is, at minimum, almost nine years old. They have been waiting for a home for nine years. In many cases, they have had a very difficult life. They are initially living at home with one parent or the other. They move into accommodation and then in many cases they become homeless. I saw a family this week with three children who were living in bed and breakfast accommodation. They were walking the streets all day. When they came in to me, the children were absolutely exhausted and fell asleep in my office. I contacted the local authority and we helped them as best we could. The trauma homelessness is visiting upon young children in particular is entirely unacceptable in a modern democracy.
I welcome the work the Minister is doing, the €6 billion that has been ring-fenced for housing and the significant increase in house building in my area. However, we need to do other things to prevent homelessness. One of them is increasing tenants' rights in terms of occupancy. I would support a freeze on all notices to quit, in other words, that tenants could not be put out of rented accommodation provided they are paying rent and are reasonably up to date and provided there is not evidence of anti-social behaviour through the local authority or another State agency. In the crisis that we have, the rights of individuals who are in occupation and paying rent should be sacrosanct and should be placed above the rights of the landlord for at least two years, until the housing crisis is dealt with. That will give security, provided the tenants are paying the rent and are not causing anti-social issues.
Years ago, the local authority was very helpful and had the time and capacity to meet housing applicants to talk about their issues. That is all gone now. People are told when they go in that they are to come back in five, six, seven or eight years. The listening part of life is probably falling to the voluntary and homeless organisations, and we need to make sure that there is adequate and proper resources for them to help families in a very broad sense on this homeless path. I know we have family hubs and I welcome them. However, if people are in bed and breakfast accommodation, where do they go with their children during the day? There is no appropriate place for them to go. We need to look at that as well. We should have warm, well-heated accommodation for them to go into during the day to have as normal a family life as they can in the very difficult position they are in.
The proposed legislation is very timely. Much is being done but we need to do an awful lot more. Supporting this Bill will help people who need housing and will push the agenda forward.
I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for putting forward the Bill. On a general point, my party has published ten Bills, some of which have completed Second Stage, although most have not gone much further. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, talks about listening to the Opposition and asks it to come forward with its ideas. I do not think we have had any element of an Opposition housing Bill even pass through the Dáil, let alone the Dáil and the Seanad. We supported Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's very worthwhile Bill on Second Stage. My concern is that we are just going through the motions. We produce legislation and speak on it on Second Stage and it then gets to pre-legislative scrutiny. However, I do not know where it goes to after that. We have to prioritise some of these Bills to try to ensure they pass the Dáil. The Seanad is then another matter.
Recognising a group of people as a family unit and prioritising children is crucially important. I agree wholeheartedly on that. The Deputy referred to Margaret Cash, and she was not the first mam - or dad, indeed - to have to sleep in a Garda station with her or his kids. I wrote directly to the Minister at the time and asked him to establish a time-bound task force on child and family homelessness. It would take six to eight weeks to bring the stakeholders together and see what is needed, including whether we need legislation like this. I think we do need it because this is a priority that we have to drive.
Fianna Fáil supports this Bill. We have other legislation which would complement it and which we will publish next week. It will be an addition to this Bill. My only question is about the Deputy's interaction with the Department and the Minister. Is she in any way confident that this can go to the next Stage and that we can clear Committee, Report and Final Stages? I hope she is. What sense does she get from the Department?
I could go through different testimonies, as others have done, which we are all receiving. We are all meeting people every single day of the week. The housing crisis is not getting better. Certainly for families and children it is a massive issue and we have to work together in the Oireachtas to resolve it. That is why I urge Government to look in real terms at Opposition Bills, take them on board and enact them.
I have a couple of comments to make as well. I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for bringing the legislation to the committee. If this Bill passes, what will change the following day? What is the difference between it and the 1988 Act? The committee has been invited to visit numerous supports that are provided for homeless families in emergency accommodation, such as family hubs, wet and dry hostels and the physical and mental support services that are provided to families in very difficult situations. One or two of us have gone on those visits although for various reasons other members could not go. I was made very aware of the support services that are provided within the family hubs. Although they vary, they are generally similar, whether they are the physical supports of supporting a family and all that encompasses, a place finder who works with them to find accommodation, or somebody to look after their children while they visit accommodation to see if it is suitable. There are 22 place finders within the various local authorities.
Deputy O'Brien is right that we all have people regularly attending our clinics. Some of us choose to keep those visits confidential, deal with the families appropriately and help them in the way that we deem suitable in the circumstances. I will not name people here as it would not be appropriate to do so. I would prefer to give people their dignity and respect and keep it confidential when they visit me. I have met people who tell me they have been advised not to take HAP or go into a family hub or other type of accommodation being offered to them and instead, for whatever reason, to stay in a hotel. My fear is that they are not getting this advice from a person who is qualified or experienced to give it. There is a lot of misleading information out there that preys on vulnerable people when they need support. That is my fear. I do not know if that issue will be covered in this Bill in any shape or form. I know a great deal of work is being done to give people the right information about what services are available to them.
Within six weeks of the Mater Dei family hub opening, 13 families had left because we found accommodation for them. This is a better way of finding accommodation that is suitable to an individual or family. Nobody ever said family hubs were the answer. They are for the interim. Likewise, nobody ever says where we will house families and individuals while we get supply up and running. That is the pinch point in the system.
We all have various stories that we could bring here, all tragic and involving people in vulnerable situations. However, this committee is about finding solutions for people. I welcome Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's Bill.
What would change tomorrow if the Bill passes and what would the differences be vis-à-visthe 1988 Act? Section 1 proposes to insert a new section 10A(b) with the words, "another person who normally resides, or who might reasonably be expected to reside, with the homeless person is a child,". Is something missing from that line? It is a technicality and I do not need an answer now.
We had a constitutional amendment. For that to be real there has to be legislation to give children and their families the opportunity to vindicate their rights. Deputy Ó Broin and Senator Murnane O'Connor asked how far we can go with an Opposition Bill. We cannot cause a cost to the Exchequer so I would be delighted if the Department and the Minister strengthened the Bill because the Minister can bring forward legislation which has a cost to the Exchequer. We all want to achieve stronger rights for families. Whether that means the Government bringing forward legislation or amending my legislation to make it stronger, it is fine with me. Deputy O'Brien asked about interactions with the Department and I hope it will give a positive response. The indications are that it will but, as is often the case, it may have issues with the language we put into legislation. I hope it will be strengthened rather than rejected. I take Deputy O'Brien's point that there are a large number of Opposition Bills. This Bill was published approximately a year ago.
I would love to have been able to put statutory limits into the legislation, as they have in Scotland, but I could not do so as an Opposition Member as it would not have got through. The Chairman and Senator Murnane O'Connor asked what difference the Bill would make. It would require guidelines and protocols for all local authorities to follow. Focus Ireland and other charities have given guidelines to staff on how to deal with people who present as homeless but the Bill will immediately oblige the State and the Department to provide clear guidelines and protocols on how front-line staff should respond when people present as homeless.
Deputy Barry asked about people who were already in emergency accommodation and the Bill covers that, with the following proposal for a new section 10A(b)(iii) that the housing authority should have particular regard to the need by practical means to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation, in order to support and encourage the effective functioning of families, and the development, welfare and protection of children within a family home. In this way it deals with people who are already in emergency accommodation.
The case of one specific separated family was referred to, where the mother was sleeping in a tent, and the case of Margaret Cash was mentioned by Deputy O'Brien. In both cases the reference to "family unit" in subsection (b)(i) of the new section deals with where the accommodation provided is not big enough.
Deputy O'Dowd referred to tenants' rights. We all agree that we need to strengthen tenants' rights in general and I believe every Opposition party has now published legislation to strengthen tenants' rights. I agree with the Deputy but separate legislation is required for that.
The Deputy spoke about Focus Ireland, which does a very good job. I have recently had cases where I rang the local authority and was told it had to set up meetings with Focus Ireland. One cannot just go to see the charity. This is not working as it should and it cannot be right to have to go to one's local authority and request a meeting. We might bring Focus Ireland before the committee for a meeting on this subject and I will speak to Mary Hurley about it too. This does not address the needs of homeless people. The two different bodies need to work together on it.
I referred to Focus Ireland because I worked with it in drafting the legislation. There are other voluntary housing associations doing wonderful work on the front line and I would hope that there could be co-ordination with local authorities. I am not familiar with the particular problem the Senator raises.
We all want people to be seen as soon as possible.
I did not answer the Chairman's specific question about the wording. Maybe there should be a comma after "homeless person". I am not sure. The point is that it applies where the person is a child.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Mary Hurley and Mr. David Kelly from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
Before we begin, I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that 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 committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or 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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now call on Ms Mary Hurley and Mr. Kelly to make their opening statements.
Ms Mary Hurley:
I thank the joint committee for the invitation to attend to consider the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017 which seeks to impose an obligation on housing authorities to recognise the family unit and have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families in crisis accommodation. I am accompanied by my colleague Mr. David Kelly, principal officer with responsibility for the homelessness and housing inclusion supports division of the Department.
I welcome the opportunity to outline the existing provisions under the Housing Acts for the welfare of children and families who are experiencing homelessness. I also welcome the opportunity to update the committee on the Department’s work in supporting families who are experiencing homelessness.
The existing provisions of the Housing Act 1988 set out the requirement for a person or household to be regarded as homeless by a housing authority for the purposes of the Act. Under its provisions, it is a matter for the housing authority concerned to determine whether a person is to be regarded as homeless. In the case of any person determined to be homeless, the housing authority seeks to put in place the most appropriate immediate accommodation response which it may arrange or which may be operated by a State-funded service provider without the requirement for the person to undergo a social housing assessment and be approved for social housing supports.
The existing system generally has provided for the emergency accommodation needs of homeless families with children at a time when significant numbers of families have been presenting to services. The current homeless assessment arrangements give housing authorities the flexibility that is essential to respond quickly and effectively to the various needs of individuals and families who present to them and housing authorities make every reasonable effort to address their accommodation needs. While every case that presents to homeless services is different, housing authorities always endeavour to ensure the response they provide is the most appropriate to the particular circumstances of each case.
As I have set out, statutory responsibility for the provision of homeless accommodation and related services rests with individual local authorities. The Department’s role involves the provision of a national framework of policy, legislation and funding to underpin the role of local authorities in addressing homelessness at local level. Funding is provided for local authorities on a regional basis. Regional allocations are delegated to a lead local authority in each of the nine local authority regions. Under these arrangements responsibility for assessment and decision-making on the funding of services rests with the relevant regional lead authority. The allocations are made and overseen in accordance with protocols agreed between the Department and the lead local authorities.
With the increase in the incidence of homelessness in recent years, the Government has increased the funding available to the Department for the provision of homeless services. In 2018 it provided Exchequer funding of €116 million for the provision of homeless services, an 18% increase on the 2017 budget allocation. This funding is allocated to local authorities to fund the operational cost of providing homeless services. Under the statutory arrangements in place, the local authorities are required to fund a minimum of 10% of the operational costs from their own resources. A significant proportion of this funding is for the provision of accommodation for families experiencing homelessness, including those in hotels and, increasingly, family hubs.
Rebuilding Ireland - the action plan for housing and homelessness - includes a range of measures to support families experiencing homelessness. The plan recognises that hotels are not a suitable or secure medium to long-term accommodation option for families. In 2017 the Department began working with the local authorities in the development of family hubs in a number of areas. Family hubs provide a more appropriate short-term solution in accommodating families who are experiencing homelessness by providing cooking and laundry facilities, with greater space for recreational activities, as well as other family-centred supports. Families in hubs are supported by the local authorities to identify and secure independent tenancies. There are 22 family hubs in operation across the country which provide approximately 550 units of family accommodation. The Department is working with the local authorities to deliver further family hubs and making available the necessary capital funding. In that regard, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, recently wrote to the local authorities to request that they bring forward and accelerate as a matter of urgency the provision of additional family hubs.
The Department is also working closely with the local authorities on the homeless HAP place-finder programme. The programme was made available to all local authorities earlier this year and the Department has approved funding for 22 place-finder officers in local authorities nationally. The place-finder officers work with families who are experiencing homelessness to identify a tenancy in the private rented sector and can provide financial support by way of rent deposit and advance rent payments.
Supporting families who are experiencing homelessness is a priority for the Department. We work closely with our counterparts in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla. This includes working together on the interagency group which was established by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in 2017 to ensure the State’s response to homelessness was co-ordinated effectively. Last week at this committee the Minister reaffirmed his commitment and priority to tackling homelessness. While significant numbers of families and individuals continue to present as homeless, record levels of individuals and families are being supported out of homelessness, with 4,729 adults exiting homelessness into independent tenancies in 2017 and a further 2,332 in the first half of 2018. The Department, with its local authority colleagues, will continue to work and support families and other households who are experiencing homelessness, with a view to ensuring they can secure long-term sustainable housing solutions as quickly as possible.
My colleague Mr. David Kelly and I will be happy to answer questions about any issue which arises.
I am concerned that in her statement Ms Hurley has not addressed the legal and constitutional side of things. It was more of a description of what the Department was doing, which I understand. Obviously Ms Hurley is an official in the Department and not the Minister who makes policy. I will quote one sentence from her contribution: "The Department’s role involves the provision of a national framework of policy, legislation and funding to underpin the role of local authorities in addressing homelessness at local level." My concern in the context of the Bill I am bringing forward is the issue of policy and legislation.
Ms Hurley spoke about funding. Many here would question why people are still slipping through the net, as we have seen when families are separated and people are sent to Garda stations. Families are definitely still slipping through the net. There is no legal underpinning of the rights of children following the constitutional referendum. I am not sure if the officials can even answer the question.
My main question relates to the intention to provide legislation and a framework of policy to not just recognise that local authorities which are clustered for the purposes of spending money on homeless services have a responsibility but also to ensure the State will have both a legislative and policy framework and protocols in terms of practice, thereby avoiding, as described, different local authorities having different practices and not having clarity about what exactly happens when a family presents as homeless. I gave the example of Scotland where there are statutory limits for being accommodated out of emergency accommodation. I recognise that those present are officials rather than the political heads of Departments, but it is essential for us get that kind of direction. I will certainly pursue the matter further either through my legislation or legislation initiated by the Government. With others, I believe there is a gap. The comprehensive document from the Mercy Law Resource Centre indicates that we need legislation to underpin the rights of children and families when they present as homeless.
I acknowledge the significant volume of work carried out by Ms Hurley, Mr. Kelly and their team, as well as by local authorities.
It is important to say the criticisms we may have of the Government are political criticisms of policy, not of hard-working individual public servants. I have some factual questions as Ms Hurley is not here to give her personal opinion but the information we require.
There appears to be some confusion in the public arena about the number of exits from homelessness in the last year, of people who were in emergency accommodation but who have been assisted out of it. Will Mr. Hurley give us the most up-to-date figure for such exits, separate from preventions? Perhaps she might have figures for preventions, for people accessing the homeless HAP before their notice to quit date is up or not. That would be helpful because I heard some Government spokespeople - I presume mistakenly - adding the two figures together. It would be good to know the numbers of exits and preventions.
One of the fears some of us have is that while it is right and proper to improve the quality of emergency accommodation for families and children, there is not enough of a focus on prevention, of the difficulties we are having with the rental accommodation scheme in Dublin, where hundreds of RAS leases are coming to an end because the landlords are having difficulty with the scheme, or the continuing problem presented by vacant possession notices to quit that are pushing families into homelessness. Is the Minister or the Department considering other actions to ensure prevention? While it is right and proper to have more and better quality emergency accommodation, it would be even better if we could try to prevent families from becoming homeless in the first place.
Is the Department tracking the length of time families with children are spending in emergency accommodation from the moment they present to when they exit? If so, can we be given data? Is Ms Hurley aware of the difficulties members of the committee have raised about the acute problem larger families face in accessing emergency accommodation and, when they get into such accommodation, exiting it owing to the lack of larger four-bedroom properties in the rental market or council stock?
On the issue of supports for families with children outside school hours, has the Department raised it with Tusla? If not, is it something it could raise with it? It appears to be punitive that one receives a support during school time but not outside it. It would be valuable to raise the issue.
Has the Department examined or considered the statutory time limits in place in other jurisdictions for the length of time families spend in emergency accommodation, Scotland being one? In addition, important legislation was enacted in England and Wales earlier this year which places a statutory obligation on local authorities to put a prevention plan in place 48 days prior to a family becoming homeless. Is this something the Department has considered and, if so, does Ms Hurley have a view on it?
With regard to seeking accommodation in Garda stations, it would be helpful to have clarity on the facts. In her presentation Deputy Jan O'Sullivan outlined the information as we understood it. What is confusing some among the public is whether there is a protocol in place for the referral of families to Garda stations if there is no emergency accommodation available by a certain time. Is it a departmental protocol, a DRHE protocol or a protocol developed by the voluntary sector? In its absence, what is the Department's view of such a protocol? Is Ms Hurley satisfied that after the spike in the number of referrals to Garda stations, there are sufficient contingency beds available to prevent it from happening? Have there been other referrals to Garda stations since the spike in August? Any other information Ms Hurley could give us would be very helpful.
I thank Ms Hurley for her report. I have a question about the allocation of €116 million for the provision of homelessness services which represent an 18% increase on the allocation for 2017. May we have a breakdown for all of the local authorities? It is important to know where the money was spent in each of the 31 local authorities.
Does the Department have guidelines? Ms Hurley has said several times that it all goes back to the local authorities. When a homeless person presents to a local authority, it is up to it to deal with him or her. Does every local authority have guidelines in place? That is an important point. My understanding is that a person one local authority will describe as homeless is not considered as such by another.
Another very important issue raised by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was that of advice. Are there people who will give it?
Ms Hurley spoke about the 22 family hubs, which should not be necessary, but it is good that we have them. They provide 550 family units. In the case of other local authorities such as my local authority in Carlow, is there a protocol for them to provide emergency accommodation? Will the officials tell me what the local authority in Carlow has by way of emergency accommodation? We do not have hubs or other accommodation in which we can put people. If it is accommodation in a refuge that is needed, we must go to Tusla or the health service on behalf of the mother and the children. As I realise this is Mr. Kelly's area of responsibility, what is in place in each local authority area? It is important to mention the 31 local authorities because they have a massive role to play in dealing with this issue which affects people's lives so much. What plan is in place in every local authority to provide emergency accommodation when it does not have housing and other accommodation available?
I note that funding was provided to have 22 place-finder officers available in the local authorities. As there are 31 local authorities, why is the number only 22? I have a great interest in this area. We talk about the HAP and other schemes, but every local authority deals with homelessness. Some are dealing with higher numbers than others, but it is important that every local authority be treated the same.
Ms Hurley spoke about the HAP scheme. I have massive concerns which I have raised previously with the officials. Having rent pressure zones in certain local authority areas and not in others is not going to work. It is not possible for the scheme to work when in neighbouring counties there are rent pressure zones, as in the case of County Carlow. The HAP scheme is fine and a change from the rent allowance scheme, but it must be examined. HAP scheme tenants need more security because they are at the mercy of landlords. That is the reality. If a landlord decides to sell, the tenant is given three months' notice, depending on how long he or she has been in the property. This issue must be addressed.
It also worries me that the Department has only built 500 local authority houses this year. It is a worry in the sense that-----
Ms Mary Hurley:
I will deal with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's queries first. From the Department's perspective, the principle of her Bill - the prioritisation of the protection of children and families - is a key objective. What I have tried to set out are the protections and provisions in existing legislation. The 1988 Act enables local authorities to deal with families with children who present and place them in accommodation. We meet regularly with the local authorities and the regional heads to discuss the operation of the legislation, under which the local authorities are able to meet the needs of families and place them in emergency accommodation. However, the thrust of the Bill - it will be a matter for the Oireachtas to debate it - in seeking to look after families and ensuring they are in appropriate accommodation has been taken on board.
On procedures, the 1988 Act is in place and the Department issues regular guidance on how things should operate at local level when somebody presents as homeless. In Dublin, for example, the DRHE has documented procedures for what is to happen from when a person walks through the door and presents as homeless. There are various steps to be taken along the way in dealing with families who present. We work with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla and there are protocols in place, particularly on child protection. We are very focused on that issue to ensure that when families are placed in emergency accommodation, it is both appropriate and safe.
Deputy Ó Broin has raised the issue of the quality framework on several occasions and that forms part of it. The quality of the accommodation is something we focus on. The procedural operation of the Housing Act 1988 is something we focus on and the issues the Deputy raised in the Bill are ones we will work on as well in terms of the general principles. We are probably on the same page. When the Bill moves through the Oireachtas it will be up to the Oireachtas to consider it but in terms of families and children, through our work with the inter-agency group which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, established, through the various schemes and structures with which we have to deal with local authorities and through the funding we provide for emergency accommodation, we are certainly very focused on ensuring that children should be accommodated in an appropriate manner.
Some of the questions Deputy Ó Broin raised sit well with the questions raised by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. He raised questions about prevention in particular. With the increasing number we are seeing coming through the doors, prevention is something that we are very focused on at the moment. We are always looking at new ways of trying to prevent families from going into emergency accommodation. On the place finder service, which Senator Murnane O'Connor raised, we have offered it to all local authorities. Some 22 of the 31 local authorities have taken it up but it is there for everybody and for each local authority. We see that as being critical because with a proper place finder service in place, if people present when they get their notice to quit, they should be able to work with the place finder service to find accommodation. One of the issues I will follow up on is the issue Deputy Ó Broin raised whereby people are being told to come back a month later. That is something I will follow up on but in terms of prevention, we see place finder, and dealing with families at an early stage, as important. There are also a range of supports that have been put in place at local authority level, so that when families present there is engagement with them and with their family in situations where they are living in the family home. There are community and social supports in place as well. Prevention will certainly be something we will focus on more. There are a number of prevention actions in place at the moment but it is something the Minister is very keen that we would focus on.
On tracking the length of time in emergency accommodation, we know that 48% of families are spending fewer than six months in emergency accommodation and we want-----
Ms Mary Hurley:
I can get the Deputy further data on that as well. We know that is the current situation and we want to improve on that. At our recent housing summit we had a number of the approved housing bodies, AHBs, in and Respond was able to tell us that in its hub, people are moving out to a HAP tenancy in an average of four and a half months.
To be clear on the reason for that, I presume it is that the hubs have a more dedicated place finder or key worker service so that the families in the hubs are getting greater levels of support than the families in the hotels. Would that be correct?
Ms Mary Hurley:
The hotels now have place finder services and Focus Ireland and a range of the NGOs now work in the hotels and have done so for some time in order to move people out. When people move into the hub what we find is that the environment when they come in is directed towards exiting into a sustainable tenancy and the supports are there-----
Ms Mary Hurley:
Yes, and the allocations are a matter for the local authority. It presents challenges when large families present. It is very rare that families would be split up. If they present very late in the day, local authority workers will do their best to try to keep them together and if it is not possible that night, they will work to bring them together as quickly as possible but it can be very challenging when a very large family presents. It is something we are looking at in the delivery in our social housing programme so that we have that stock of large homes. We have asked the place finder service to go after it in terms of HAP properties for those large families. We regularly meet the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, about this. It is very rare for the family unit to be separated and largely happens where a family presents who do not have identification and the local authority is not certain about the family unit.
On the quality of emergency accommodation, hubs obviously provide a much more secure and better quality of accommodation. We have been working to finalise the quality framework on all emergency accommodation but one of the issues that we are very focused on in the Department and at local authority level is to ensure the correct supports are in place in the accommodation we roll out. I know Senator Murnane O'Connor, Deputy Ó Broin and the Chair have been out to the Mater Dei hub and to other hubs and the physical quality of the premises along with the child and social supports there are immense.
Deputy Ó Broin raised the Homeless Reduction Act 2017 in the United Kingdom. We have met our opposite numbers in the UK about it and it is something we are looking at. There are interesting issues in it and we are teasing some of them out.
I will ask Mr. Kelly to refer to the issues around numbers. He has been working very closely with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, and he works with the regional heads on exits and the Garda stations. Before I pass over to Mr. Kelly, I refer to a question from Senator Murnane O'Connor. We can certainly set out how our funding is allocated and what the spend is. On emergency accommodation in Carlow, the practice where there is not a hub or a State facility is to refer somebody to a hotel. That is the current practice. There is no hub in Carlow so a person who presents there would certainly have his or her needs taken care of but it would be in hotel accommodation or some other form of emergency accommodation.
They only let a family or an individual stay for a few nights. It causes problems because they are back and we have to try to find HAP for them. In the long term we might need to look at getting a hub or somewhere stable for a few months so that we can find a place for a family or whoever it may be because the short timescale of the bed and breakfast-type accommodation is causing problems. Ms Hurley knows it is not nice to have children going into bed and breakfast accommodation or a hotel in their school uniforms, so I ask that the Department look at this for Carlow. We need something short term so that people can stay longer than the few nights they can currently stay in a bed and breakfast or a hotel.
Ms Mary Hurley:
On guidance from the Department, one of the actions we carry out in terms of the operation of all our schemes is to provide regular circulars to local authorities on how to implement a scheme or how to implement guidance on general legislative provisions. We provide that guidance to local authorities but local authorities are the statutory housing authorities so it is a matter for them to implement those recommendations or schemes based on the need that exists in their local area.
I agree with Ms Hurley but there is a problem because only 22 local authorities have taken up the place finder service while others have not. With this emergency, every local authority should have this in place to get children and families back into homes. That is something we all need to look at. Every local authority needs to focus on this because it is crucial that every one of them takes this up.
Mr. David Kelly:
On exits from homelessness, the exit data is recorded in performance reports prepared by the regional lead authorities for each quarter. They are linked to the funding arrangements. Each local authority, or each lead authority, is required to prepare a report. That report includes exits from homelessness. That exit data is based on individuals who have been assessed as homeless. It is not necessarily people who have been in emergency accommodation. It includes people who have presented as homeless and where it has been prevented through HAP.
On that point, which is quite an important distinction, the word "exit" gives one the impression that someone is in emergency and has left. Is Mr. Kelly saying that it is not possible to separate those who were in emergency accommodation and have exited it from those people who were in a notice to quit situation, but via homeless HAP, were able to avoid going into emergency accommodation. That is a fundamental difference of-----
I appreciate the Deputy's bona fides in this, but I really do not want to get into classifications here because we are dealing with a housing Bill. We have a meeting on 16 October. I have no problem if the Deputy wishes to continue this discussion after the meeting but I want to stick with the housing Bill that we are dealing with here, if possible. I ask Mr. Kelly to continue.
Mr. David Kelly:
I am happy to continue. The figures at the moment are on the number of adults who have been assessed as homeless, and who exit from homelessness into an independent tenancy. The Minister has requested that we improve the data we collect. It has been discussed at the inter-agency group. We need better reporting and better data to support our policy-making and we are working on that.
On Senator Murnane O'Connor's comments on the place finder service, I note her concern that not all the local authorities have taken it up but I assure her that some local authorities are dealing with this from within their own resources in their housing sections. We also have a small number of local authorities where homelessness would not be an issue. We probably do not need to fund place finder officers in each of the local authorities.
I thank Mr. Kelly for the information. Two questions were not answered - one concerning the Garda stations and the other on whether there has been engagement with Tusla about the supports for families outside of term time.
I do not doubt for a second that Ms Hurley genuinely believes when she says local authorities are able to meet the needs of families and place them in emergency accommodation. All I would like her to take away from this - this is pertinent to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's Bill and is one of the reasons she proposed the Bill - is that the experience of many of us is that is not the case. It is not because the local authorities are not trying. It is either because emergency accommodation is not available and, therefore, the local authority is not placing anybody anywhere. The local authority is giving a list of hotels and telling the families to self-accommodate. The self-accommodation can take quite a long time, forcing families with children to overhold and get into very difficult legal situations with their landlords. Even when they are in the emergency accommodation - August was a particularly acute point but it was not the only time - people fall in and out of the emergency accommodation placement they are in because of hotel beds not becoming available, etc.
I am aware Ms Hurley cannot comment on this from a political point of view but all I would ask her to consider is that the reason Deputy Jan O'Sullivan is looking to strengthen the child focus of the homeless legislation is because we all have large numbers of examples where the current framework is not strong enough. If this Bill was to go through, we believe it would give that extra focus.
I would be interested in responses to the questions on the Garda stations and the Tusla supports.
Ms Mary Hurley:
I will speak on two pieces before I hand over to Mr. Kelly to talk about the Garda stations.
On self-accommodation, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is very clear and strong in saying that we need to reduce the amount of self-accommodation. We need to bring that right down. We are all agreed on that. That is why he has been driving a very ambitious hub programme, particularly with the Dublin local authorities over the past few months. We are working with the Dublin local authorities to try to put in place a robust programme around hubs. That means that when families present they are not going to try to self-accommodate themselves or directly into a hotel. We are all agreed that self-accommodation is something we need to bring to reduce and bring to a close.
On capacity during August, the Minister put in place a working group around the Papal visit. We knew we were going to come under significant pressure during August in respect of accommodation and visitors and tourists coming into the city. We put in place and brought forward a number of contingency rooms and beds for people who would present. They are still in place so there is capacity. Only this week we discussed this with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, which has confirmed that there is capacity for families who present at the moment. That additional accommodation we brought in during August is still in place. It is saying it can accommodate people who present now. If people present early, it makes it easier to place them. It is the late presentations that create significant challenges to the system, when somebody comes in late in the evening, and people are trying to find accommodation for them. There is spare capacity in the system at the moment, as confirmed by DRHE. The working group the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, established around additional accommodation and beds has really paid off because we have retained the accommodation in the system so there is capacity. I checked this morning and there is those spare rooms in the system.
I will pass over to Mr. Kelly now. We are all on the same page as to self-accommodation which is why the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is driving the ambitious hub programme. As to capacity, nobody should have to spend the night in a Garda station as we have the capacity in the Dublin region at the moment in terms of beds, and that is where the pressure is.
The experience of the hub programme to date has not seen a reduction in the number of families entering the hotels. Is Ms Hurley confident that if there is a further expansion of the hub programme, we are not going to see an expansion of the hubs and the same or an increased level of families in hotels as well? That has certainly been the pattern to date.
Ms Mary Hurley:
We want to see a reduction of the number of families in hotels. If that means an increase in hubs, it is better accommodation. We have a group of numbers and the objective is to reduce the reliance on hotels and have more people in the suitable hub accommodation. The overall objective is not to have people in emergency accommodation at all. If someone has to be in emergency accommodation, the best short-term temporary solution is a hub.
I will pass on to Mr. Kelly to respond to the question on the Garda stations.
Mr. David Kelly:
The Garda Síochána has been advised by the DRHE that if any family arrives at a Garda station, it should contact the DRHE which will seek to arrange accommodation. The DRHE would not refer families to a Garda station unless there are doubts about their identity. They may be referred there to verify their identity, which is important in protecting those who are presenting.
My understanding - this is an important point that relates to the Bill - is that if the intake team does not have accommodation for a family with children by a certain time in the evening, for child protection reasons, it will refer them to a Garda station. At that point, a decision is being made that there are no emergency beds. I am confused because everybody is denying there is a protocol in place on this, but clearly something is going on. What is Mr. Kelly's understanding of that situation where a family with children, late into the evening, has not been placed in emergency accommodation and is referred by the intake team to the Garda station? Is Mr. Kelly aware of that protocol? Is that a protocol that has been agreed with the Department and with the DRHE?
Has this been communicated to gardaí? In some instances, when a family present at a Garda station, gardaí do not know anything about it. Will Mr. Kelly clarify the matter because it is important for us to know.
Mr. David Kelly:
It is important to note that responsibility for the service has moved back to the Dublin Region Homeless Executive which from 1 October took back responsibility from Focus Ireland for the out-of-hours service. The arrangements that had been in place with Focus Ireland may now be different. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive does not refer families to Garda stations unless there is a doubt in verifying their identities. That is our information. It does not as a matter of course refer families to Garda stations.
Mr. David Kelly:
That is the information that has been provided for us. As Ms Hurley said, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive is retaining contingency beds for late presentations. There are 71 contingency units available for families who present late to avoid families being sent to Garda stations.
Mr. David Kelly:
We are working with Tusla on the inter-agency group. Rather than establishing bespoke services for families in emergency accommodation, part of Tusla's objective is to link them with existing services such as family resource centres. It is something we can discuss with Tusla, but it is not our understanding services stop outside school terms.
That is important. One of the services that does stop is provision of a Leap card. For example, a family living in emergency accommodation in Swords whose children go to school in Clondalkin receive a Leap card but only during term time. There was a real problem during the summer. Naturally, during the summer the family in the example given would want to travel to Clondalkin to be with those in their support networks and the friends of their children, but they would have to bear the cost in doing so. It would be a small consideration and I ask Mr. Kelly to raise the issue with Tusla. It would not add an awful lot to the bill to add the extra three or four months and it would make a huge difference to the families in question. I have written to Tusla about it and have to say the replies to parliamentary questions have not been very encouraging. I cannot see why a valuable support such as this is provided during school time but not outside it.
On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms Hurley and Mr. Kelly for coming before us and their ongoing engagement and communication with us which has always been robust and detailed.
The next meeting of the committee will be held at 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 11 October to discuss the issues of housing standards, fire safety and damp.