Tuesday, 26 January 2016
Social Housing: Motion [Private Members]
Since 2012, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of families with children in emergency homeless accommodation. Currently, 1,600 children are living in emergency accommodation. In 2013, some 20 families were becoming homeless in Dublin every month. In the past few months, this has more than tripled to over 80 families every month. These are families with no history of homelessness and they have never been homeless before. There are approximately ten homeless families with children for every 100,000 people in Ireland. By comparison, there are only three homeless families for every 100,000 people in England. How does that bear out on the international stage? That is a damning indictment of this Government's policies.
This is not a legacy issue. This is the policy the Government which the Minister has been part of has pursued in the past number of years. It is not just the members of the Opposition who are saying this or the various NGOs working in this area. Two international committees have been highly critical of the Government and its handling of this issue. Last year, the UN committee on economic and social rights was highly critical of the Government for its failure to provide adequate housing for vulnerable families, especially vulnerable children. This committee actually referenced the housing crisis and the huge number of families in emergency accommodation. Earlier this year, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, was before the UN committee on the rights of the child. We should remember the referendum for which we all so vigorously campaigned to enshrine the rights of our children in our Constitution, three years ago. Where is that referendum today when we are talking about the rights of the child? Where is that referendum when we are talking about the basic fundamental right of all our children to have a roof over their head, a place to call their home? Tonight, 1,600 children do not have a place to call their home. Earlier this week the committee to which I referred, while it has not issued its report yet, was highly critical of the Government's response to this issue.
The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy James Reilly, seems to have had a change of tone in his response to the issue of homeless children and the responsibility of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, because I have questioned him in past years and months as to what role his Department played to ensure our children had a roof over their head. He said:
Policy responsibility for homelessness in so far as it extends to my Department relates to children under 18 and any child welfare and protection concerns that may arise in the context of the Child Care Act 1991. Young people who are homeless, either singly or as part of a family unit, and not falling within this category, are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and local authorities.
Shame on the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. That is not a champion of children's rights sitting around the Cabinet table. As a country we are clearly in breach of Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states there is a right to the enjoyment of the highest standard of health for a child. I do not believe children living in one room of a hotel with no access to adequate facilities or services is the highest attainable standard of health. The right of housing is a gateway to so many other rights. It is the right to an adequate education, it is the right to adequate health care and many other rights to which children are entitled under international law.
Homeless children are missing many of their life chances. All of us only have one childhood. This Government is depriving children of their childhood. A total of 1,600 children are being deprived of their childhood by being subjected to living in temporary and, in some instances, substandard accommodation. They will not meet their educational potential.
A stigma is attached to children who are living in temporary accommodation. Children who are in emergency temporary accommodation who continue to attend the same school, although often that is not possible, cannot invite their friends to come around after school and play in their house. They do not have a house to which they can bring a friend. They cannot retain a certain connection with their families because, in some instances, they are removed from their families. What type of stigma is that to attach to children today? Also, the issue of children living in emergency accommodation raises profound child protection issues. This country has a sorry tradition with regard to child protection issues. It ill behoves this Government to leave children in a vulnerable situation. Not only is it leaving children in a vulnerable situation from a child protection perspective, but it is also leaving the State in a vulnerable position should people choose later in life to sue the State for leaving them in such a vulnerable situation.
A number of days ago there was a report on the front page of The Irish Timesabout a social worker who was working with a homeless family living in emergency accommodation. The social worker's proposal was to separate that family because the family was living in substandard temporary accommodation. Due to this State's failure to provide adequate housing we have a situation in which social workers are proposing to separate families. That is the legacy of this Government with regard to homelessness and the 1,600 children who are homeless.
The Government has an opportunity, with this motion, to change the path on which it is travelling. A total of 20,000 houses are due to become available from the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. The Government should accept this motion and have a 50:50 split, at a minimum, ensuring that 10,000 of those houses go to social housing. We can therefore try to address the social housing waiting list, which the Government has allowed to explode in the last five years. The Government should also review its current position regarding void houses. There are 3,000 local authority houses lying idle. It should not be the case that in every instance in which more than €30,000 is required to make a house habitable it must go from the local authority to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to receive approval. That delays the process, and the longer one delays the process the longer there will be 1,600 children in emergency accommodation.
What will the situation be when the tourism season starts? Where will those children stay? Many hotels will no longer wish to provide emergency accommodation when they can get more money in the tourism industry. I support the motion and I commend Deputy Cowen on its introduction.