Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

An Bille um an gCúigiú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (An Ceart chun Teaghaise) 2016: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to a Home) Bill 2016: Second Stage [Private Members]

 

9:00 pm

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Wicklow, Fianna Fail)

Ireland is in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis. Homelessness levels have soared to in excess of 10,000, including almost 4,000 children. The number of people homeless and living in emergency accommodation is at record levels. Latest figures show that in March, 10,305 adults and children were without a home and living in hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and family hubs, an increase of 41 on the previous month. The number of children in emergency accommodation stands at 3,821, a rise of 37 in a month. The social housing waiting list, including housing assistance payment, HAP, recipients, is more than 110,000.

It is incredible that with all of these facts a Fine Gael general election candidate can publicly say that there is no housing crisis outside Dublin. To say there is no housing crisis outside Dublin is at best to show an appalling ignorance of the crisis being experienced in all commuter belt counties such as Wicklow and Wexford and even beyond the commuter belt. In Wicklow a one-bedroom apartment will cost in excess of €1,000 to rent while a mortgage will cost only €663 according to yesterday's daft.ierental report. A two-bedroom house will cost an average of €1,173 in Wicklow, while a mortgage can be reached for €911.

Supply of homes is the issue, not the right to them. It is the State's inability to build enough homes when there is plenty of available land that is at the heart of the national crisis. Ireland is experiencing a severe housing crisis like many other countries. There are growing calls for Ireland to emulate countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and South Africa and enshrine a constitutional right to housing. Ireland has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which prescribes for the State to take "all appropriate means" to provide for the right to adequate housing based on the availability of resources. The Irish Constitution also contains certain explicit property rights, but there is no clear statutory right to adequate housing which can be legally enforced by the courts.

Any amendments to the Constitution or any approach to legislating for a right to housing will have to balance the rights of landowners. In 1982, the Supreme Court found that the Rent Restrictions Act 1960, which obliged landlords to accept below market rents, was an unjust attack on the property owners' constitutional property rights. Nonetheless, there have been successful legislative measures to assist with meeting social housing needs, such as Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which provides that up to 10% of a new housing development must be reserved for social housing. In March 2014, the Constitutional Convention, as part of its consideration of broader economic, cultural and social rights, found in favour of inserting a right to housing in the Constitution.

Fianna Fáil rejected a similar Bill two years ago on the grounds that the finance committee ought to be tasked with assessing the concept of economic, cultural and social rights in the Constitution. That work has not been sufficiently progressed to date, however, and the Government must address this as a matter of urgency. Holding a referendum would cost approximately €15 million, or the same as building 75 social housing units. It is important that we prioritise building and clear solid measures to address the crisis. In Wicklow, 75 social housing units would be a significant development in any part of the county. Last year only 28 units were completed, while the housing list stands at 4,126. We prefer a legislative approach to the problem initially followed by a deeper discussion on constitutional protections. Any change to the Constitution that involves handing powers to judges may have unforeseen consequences and must be carefully considered. That is why Fianna Fáil supports a legislative approach to the right to housing followed by a debate on constitutional changes. We should have all learned the lessons of playing politics with our Constitution for partisan political gain. A botched referendum could result in a lengthy and divisive debate on the nature of property rights at a time when we need to encourage housing development in the rental and affordable markets.

It is unclear what impact the Sinn Féin amendment would have on the Constitution and on subsequent legal cases. The Constitutional Convention was divided on what specific option to take in terms of the realisation of the right to housing, that is, immediate, gradual or progressive. This has been a major impact on public policy and should be weighed up carefully. It is not clear in the wording of the Sinn Féin insertion what the impact would be. This needs to be debated further. While the Government has delayed committee discussions, this does not mean that it should be completely bypassed by a unilateral Private Members' Bill by one party.

With rent levels at such highs, a whole generation cannot save enough to own a home while vulnerable households are at risk of homelessness. Home ownership is slipping away from an entire generation as house prices rise at 13% per annum while wages are only growing at 2.5%. The 68% home ownership rate is the lowest since 1971. Fianna Fáil has shown its commitment to finding meaningful solutions through our role in the confidence and supply arrangement and has not shirked from leading criticism of the Government where it is at fault.

The key test for the Government is delivery. Since coming into power, Fine Gael has launched Construction 2020, the Social Housing Strategy 2020, Rebuilding Ireland, the 2012 capital programme, the 2015 capital programme and the 2018 capital programme. These six separate plans, excluding the numerous relaunches involved, amount to more launches than local authority homes built in several counties so far this year. This needs to change.

It is clear the legal framework around housing needs to be reviewed. We should do so carefully, however, with full consideration of the consequences, not a knee-jerk party political change. Fianna Fáil is opposed to this Bill, which is more about optics than addressing the housing crisis. We need further discussion on what changes we should make to the Constitution. The Government must address its failure to progress discussion of the Constitutional Convention recommendations on these issues. While there are quicker and more important ways to address the housing crisis, we need to discuss the legal framework around housing rights. Fianna Fáil supports initially putting this right on a legislative basis with further exploration of the constitutional protections in the committee system. Any change to the Constitution must always be weighed up carefully to avoid unforeseen consequences. It should not be hijacked by any political party seeking a quick headline before election day.

For the record, I have stated before in the House that the right to housing is a constitutional imperative clearly implied in the common good clause of the property rights article. The common good, the right to housing, the right to a home and the right to shelter need careful and serious discussion before any referendum proposal. The people as a whole need to be part of that discussion.

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