Dáil debates

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Adjournment Debate

Private Rented Accommodation.

10:00 pm

Photo of Michael NoonanMichael Noonan (Limerick East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State for being here to reply. I am raising an issue in my constituency that I know has resonance in other constituencies as well, particularly in the cities and urban areas.

A minority of tenants in private rented accommodation are causing havoc. Some of them are involved in criminal activity, others in anti-social behaviour and some are involved in unauthorised businesses such as car repair on the front driveway. Again, others will not even empty their rubbish and it is stacking up in back gardens. This is about a minority of tenants, who live in private rented accommodation. Many of my constituents believe it arises from the recent practice of the two local authorities in the city acquiring houses and renting them to people on the housing list, but this is not so. The local authorities vet their tenants well and have tenant officers who go around. Most importantly, they have a code of conduct.

On the other hand, the HSE, which administers the rent allowance scheme simply carries out a means test and decides who is eligible for serious amounts of money and as soon as the rent allowance commences, that is the end of the matter. It washes its hands of all responsibility for the behaviour of its tenants and yet the amounts of public money being spent are very significant.

This is unacceptable. In Limerick in 2008, rent allowance, taxpayers' money, cost €20 million and more than 3,000 tenants were assisted. It is a minority of tenants who are causing trouble but it is not good enough for the State to give such sums of money for which there is no recourse when people come into neighbourhoods and cause havoc. It is not fair to the residents. All they want is for people to behave as neighbours should do - living normal lives, sending their children to school, and not being involved in anti-social behaviour or criminal activity. That is all that is required.

There is now an opportunity to act because the Government has decided to transfer responsibility for rent allowances from the HSE to the Department of Social and Family Affairs. I am glad it has done so and I fully support that decision. However, there is an industrial relations problem of which the Minister, Deputy Mary Hanafin, has informed me. She says she hopes it will be resolved early in the new year. When the Minister takes over responsibility for administering the rent allowance scheme, she should put in place a code of conduct for tenants. It would be very simple as there are such models in every local authority in the country in respect of their own tenants. A similar code of conduct should be applied to persons in receipt of rent allowance. If they do not comply with the code of conduct, the rent allowance should be taken from them by discontinuing payment. That kind of sanction would ensure good behaviour in neighbourhoods. It would do more than community gardaí are currently doing to ensure that anti-social behaviour, minor and major criminal activity was stopped in rented houses.

The private rental sector is vital to the economic and social life of the country, and particularly in cities. Private landlords provide an essential service and I am not criticising them in any way. However, it is not enough for the HSE to say that this is a matter for the landlord and tenant, as it is providing the money and cannot interfere. This must be changed. It is essential that, when the Minister takes it over, a condition will apply involving a code of conduct similar to that which pertains to local authority tenants who apply for eligibility for rent allowances from the HSE. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Charlie O'Connor, is nodding in agreement with me. I know well that in parts of his constituency what I am saying is ringing a bell with him. I am referring to exactly the same situation, which is unfair to neighbourhoods and everyone concerned.

I believe in mixed housing and have no problem with it. Many of my neighbours originated in corporation estates in the city. They are the finest people I ever met. My children played with theirs and they were great friends, but that is not the issue. The issue is that if people come into a neighbourhood under a subsidised State scheme, the least one could expect is that there would be a normal code of behaviour. The Government will be negligent if it does not take this opportunity to put in place such a code of behaviour now that the Department of Social and Family Affairs is taking it over. Deputy Mary Hanafin is a progressive Minister, but she missed the point when I tabled a question about this recently. Her reply explained all about the industrial relations problems, although the issue concerns a code of conduct attached to the eligibility for a rent allowance. If people do not comply with the code, the rent allowance should be discontinued. It is a less onerous code than that which applies in local authorities. In the local authority system one must comply under pain of eviction. I am simply saying that one should no longer get the allowance for private rented accommodation.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I also recognise the problems described by Deputy Noonan. I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. The community welfare service, CWS, administers the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, SWA, which includes rent supplement on behalf of the Department of Social and Family Affairs. In February 2006, the Government decided, inter alia, that the CWS should be transferred to the latter Department. Provision has been made in the Social Welfare and Pensions Acts 2007 and 2008 for the transfer of the administration of the SWA scheme from the HSE to the Department. These provisions are subject to a commencement order.

There are significant benefits to be achieved in transferring the administration of the SWA from the HSE to the Department. The Government's priority is to ensure that the transfer is managed in a well-planned and efficient manner, and that a high standard of service to the public is maintained during the transition. The transfer will alleviate pressure on the HSE and facilitate it in concentrating on its core health and personal social service functions. The transfer will not lead to any changes in the exercise of discretion by community welfare officers when dealing with applications for the supplementary welfare allowance. The flexibility and responsiveness which is inherent in the scheme will remain. This flexibility and responsiveness have been very much in evidence in the role community welfare officers have played in providing financial assistance to persons who have been affected by the recent flooding crisis. In Clonmel, the system certainly worked outstandingly well.

The current transfer proposals involve the community welfare service transferring to the Department initially as a separate branch with its own management structure. The staff involved will change status from public to civil servant. Full integration with the Department's regional and headquarters structure would take place within a defined period. A transition phase of no more than two years is envisaged.

The integration of the community welfare service into the Department will mean that all income maintenance schemes will be managed and delivered within one entity. This will provide opportunities in the medium to longer term for enhanced customer service, achievement of efficiencies, co-ordinated control mechanisms and elimination of duplication of effort, with consequential savings to the Exchequer and better outcomes for users of social welfare services.

The transfer programme is fully consistent with the broader proposals for public service reform being considered following the 2008 OECD study. The transfer of the CWS, in particular, will demonstrate the dismantling of existing barriers to allow movement between the public and civil service. A considerable amount of preparatory work to allow for the transfer has been completed, but progress has been stalled due to industrial relations issues.

Following consultation between the Department and health sector management, the Labour Relations Commission was asked to intervene. The first meeting of the parties took place in the LRC on 22 September 2009 and a number of meetings have taken place since then. Further meetings are planned for January 2010. The management side's intention is to reach a collective agreement with the unions as soon as is practical, so that the transfer can be implemented as early as possible in 2010. Discussions have also taken place with the unions representing staff in the Department concerning the transfer proposal.

There are no plans for a specific review of the rent supplement scheme when the administration of the SWA scheme transfers to the Department. However, the operation of the rent supplement scheme will continue to be monitored on an ongoing basis.

Rent supplement is payable to people who are unable to meet the cost of renting private accommodation, and is intended as a short-term support. There are currently over 92,400 people in receipt of rent supplement, an increase of almost 25% since the end of December 2008. Over half of rent supplement recipients have been in payment for more than one year, while over 32,000 or 35% have been in payment for 18 months or more.

The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which was introduced in 2004, gives local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the longer term housing needs of people receiving rent supplement for 18 months or more. Over 23,400 households have been transferred from rent supplement to RAS units or social housing since 2005.

The Department is committed to working closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in ensuring that the rental accommodation scheme meets its objective of catering for those on long-term rent supplementation, while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role of a short-term income support.

With regard to anti-social behaviour, tenancy arrangements involve a contract between the landlord and tenant. Tenant behaviour in private rented accommodation is a matter for the landlord in the first instance. There are a number of avenues open to landlords in such cases, including the mediation service for landlords and tenants operated by the Private Residential Tenancies Board and-or recourse to the Garda Síochána and-or the courts concerning enforcement of the law on anti-social behaviour. If necessary, the landlord may seek termination of the tenancy which, if effected, would result in the termination of rent supplement. There are no plans to make changes to the social welfare legislation in this regard.

Photo of Michael NoonanMichael Noonan (Limerick East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That does not answer the issue. The officials who drafted that reply are still missing my point. There is a code of conduct for local authority tenants, but there is no such code for people in receipt of large amounts of rent allowance. A code of conduct should be attached, but the reply as drafted totally misses the point. One can get bad landlords and bad tenants, but as long as landlords keep getting the money from the HSE, they are happy and there is no intervention.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I understand the point the Deputy is making and I realise that my reply only partially addresses the issue he has raised.

Photo of Michael NoonanMichael Noonan (Limerick East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Will the Minister of State pass the matter on to the Minister?

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I apologise to both the Minister of State and Deputy Noonan that there is no provision for me to allow a continuing debate on this matter.