Thursday, 3 June 2021
An Bille um an Naoú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Ceart chun Tithíochta) 2020: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
Peter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues and bringing forward the Bill. I can confirm that the Government has agreed not to oppose the Bill.
As the Deputies are aware, the programme for Government sets out a commitment to hold a referendum on housing. We have supported this debate and are keen to hear opinions, as we have been, on this important issue. I thank those Deputies who have already contributed to the debate and I will listen to further contributions with interest.
It is important that the Government not rush to the electorate on this commitment. We need to ensure that we give the potential aspects of the referendum on housing and what type of provision can be accommodated within the Constitution detailed consideration. I am keen to listen to all the views expressed in the House this evening and in the further debate that is proposed to be held in the Seanad tomorrow. This highlights the range of issues that need to be considered and the depth of views and feelings across all parties.
Our Constitution rightly affects all citizens. When proposing an amendment to it, we need to be clear on the full implications. We can all agree on that principle. We cannot amend the Constitution without full clarity and knowledge as to what the change means. Since a change can impact on other rights under the Constitution, there must be a balance between them and the proposed amendment. A lack of clarity on all of an amendment's potential implications can result in legal complications for years to come and deflect important resources away from the primary focus, which is the provision of homes for our citizens and the prevention of homelessness. None of us would wish to see that.
This is why the Government has committed to historic levels of funding for housing and homelessness prevention and to ensuring that affordable and quality housing solutions are available to everyone in society. The programme for Government commits to an ambitious range of housing actions, including putting affordability at the heart of the housing system, tackling homelessness, increasing the social housing stock by more than 50,000 units over the next five years, and working with the construction sector to ensure that the number of new builds grows across the economy for all our citizens.
The Affordable Housing Bill 2021, which is progressing through the Oireachtas, will ensure that affordability is put at the heart of our housing system and will underpin the new local authority-led scheme of affordable homes for purchase, the affordable purchase shared equity scheme and the introduction of a new national cost rental scheme. It also includes amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000 to provide for an increase to 20% in the Part V requirement in every local authority area. This will set a minimum requirement of 10% for social homes and up to a further 10% for affordable homes where required. Where not so required, the additional percentage may be used for social housing.
Securing a safe and affordable home for all needs action on the ground. Amending the Constitution on its own will not deliver what is needed. It is appropriate that the Government take time to consider the other economic, social and cultural rights that were recommended to be incorporated by the Convention on the Constitution and were outlined in more detail in the convention's eighth report. These rights must be balanced against one another, as well as the existing provisions of the Constitution, and must take into account interdependencies.
It is important to acknowledge that the commitment is to hold a referendum on housing, not just a right to housing. It will not be restricted to only considering a right to housing at this stage. We do not want to restrict the potential consideration of all options. The text of this Private Members' Bill proposes to delimit the existing right to private property. This raises many complex issues. In the interests of all citizens, substantial research and legal advice will be needed on the interaction of this amendment with other constitutional provisions, such as Article 43 on private property rights. It would be a mistake to think that the right to private property only relates to the very wealthy. The private ownership of one's home is a matter of greater concern to all, and we must not ignore it.
Another commitment in the programme for Government will be critical in supporting the holding of a referendum on housing in a balanced way. We are establishing a commission on housing, which is intended to examine the question of a referendum on housing. Work on establishing this important commission is advancing quickly. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, last week announced the appointment of its chair-designate, namely, Mr. John O'Connor, the retiring CEO of the Housing Agency, who will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to this important post. The commission's terms of reference will now be drafted in consultation with him and having regard to the commitments in the programme for Government and the forthcoming Housing for All plan. We intend to establish the commission by September. Its duration will be set out once its terms of reference have been completed and its reporting requirement has been established. Our approach will bring together experts from various sectors and will allow for the involvement of stakeholders in a collaborative approach. This is an important step in supporting the holding of a housing referendum in a considered and democratic way. The text of this Private Members' Bill can be evaluated further by the commission as part of this process, as can the texts proposed by other stakeholders who have expressed an interest in this referendum. The Minister has had the privilege of meeting some stakeholders already, including the Mercy Law Resource Centre and the Home for Good coalition, which have been keen to ensure that all voices can be heard in a balanced way.
The commission will be asked to consider and evaluate all proposals and undertake research of relevance. Once it has reported on the most appropriate form of words for a constitutional amendment, we intend to consult Cabinet colleagues and seek advice from the Attorney General before putting a form of words to our citizens.
Covid-19 has highlighted to us all the importance of having a secure and safe home. The Government will continue its progress on a range of measures, as set out in the programme for Government. By supporting this Private Members' Bill, as well as the motion in the Seanad, we can inform the development of policy in terms of holding a referendum on housing. This will also inform the establishment of the commission on housing, which will be an important vehicle for the consideration of these related issues.
I thank the Deputies for their input in this debate and I reiterate that we are delivering on our commitment to hold a referendum on housing in a measured and balanced way and to consider the views of all in that process.