Thursday, 21 June 2012
Everybody agrees that the report published yesterday on the deaths of children in care is harrowing. It is worth reading some of the statistics. The report provides details of 196 children who died between 2000 and 2010 by natural and unnatural causes. They include children who were in the care of the State at the time of death, young adults in aftercare and other children who were not in care of the State but who were known to the HSE. A total of 84 of the children and young adults assessed in the report died by natural causes. Some 112 of the children and young adults in care, aftercare or not in care but known to the HSE assessed in the report died by unnatural causes. Of these, 17 were in care, 27 in aftercare and 68 were not in care but known to HSE family services. Five died in house fires, four by accidental drowning, 17 in road accidents, 16 were unlawfully killed and, at least, 28 died by suicide.
I acknowledge the fact that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs ensured the report was published in its entirety and without redaction. I also acknowledge the foresight shown by the former Minister of State Barry Andrews in commissioning the report. The Minister and the former Minister of State showed huge courage in the face of enormous system resistance to ensure its publication. Mr. Geoffrey Shannon and Ms Nora Gibbons have done a heroic job in shining a light on a very dark chapter in Irish life.
The report challenges us as a society. We need to look hard at how children are not only protected by the State which obviously has a very important role to play, but also by families and communities. The report comments on our attitude to alcohol and how children are exposed to it. These are uncomfortable habits that we need to confront. It is important that there be all-party agreement in dealing with the recommendations made. I know the Minister is meeting the all-party committee later. The introduction of a 24 hour social work system needs to be discussed and agreement sought on it as soon as possible. That files on children in care or under the watch of the HSE are either unavailable or missing is so wrong. The computerisation process needs to be speeded up. We need to continue to ensure the social work system and the social worker service are exempt from the moratorium.
The Proclamation states the children of the nation should be cherished. As we know from the report, there are provisions in Bunreacht na h-Éireann that have been identified as presenting a difficulty. Will the Tánaiste outline the legislative timetable for the holding of the referendum on children's rights? Will he confirm that it will be a stand-alone referendum, given the complexity of the issues involved?
We all agree that the report published yesterday is shocking. What it describes is a disgrace, the way in which children died while in the care of the State or afterwards. My own reaction after reading about some of the cases was that this was in the period of great prosperity. The report covers the period between 2000 and 2010, when there was so much partying going on, when there was much clapping on the back about how wonderful the country was, how great we were doing and how much more money we had. However, during this time there were children dying in appalling circumstances. In some cases, they were neglected by the State, in some by their families and in others by those charged, either officially or through familial links, with responsibility for them. It makes for really shocking reading.
I agree with the Deputy that all of us, on a non-partisan basis, need to work to progress the measures needed to protect children. I thank him for acknowledging the leading role the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is playing in that regard. When the Government was formed, we decided that we were going to prioritise the protection of children and meeting their needs. We have made progress across several areas, with the establishment of a dedicated Department, in putting the guidelines on a statutory basis and the ring-fencing of budgets.
It is our intention to hold a referendum on the rights of children in the autumn. It is also our intention that the referendum will be held on a stand-alone basis. As the Deputy is aware, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, has been involved in consultations with Members of the House, with various political parties and with organisations that work in the area of children's rights to finalise matters in advance of the referendum. The intention is that the referendum will be held in the autumn and that the necessary legislation to facilitate it will be presented when the House returns after the summer recess.
I have a concern that there may be a recurrence of what happened in respect of the referendums held last year, namely, that the legislation will be rushed and that the complex issues involved will become lost in that rush. Is the Tánaiste in a position to indicate the date in the autumn on which the referendum will be held or the likely timescale relating to the legislation. I am concerned that the referendum will be hijacked by people campaigning on issues which have nothing to do with it and that they will use the rush to which I refer to create confusion in respect of the genuine issue with which we are - as outlined in the report - seeking to deal. I hope the report we are now discussing will receive as much attention as that which everyone in the House has been reading this morning. I am concerned that a rushed referendum may lead to confusion and may lead to a genuine proposal becoming lost in the melee of an uneven debate.
The referendum will not be rushed, particularly as it has been signalled for some time. It has been made clear by the Government - in its programme for Government - the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Taoiseach that the referendum will proceed and the intention is that it will be held in the autumn. As the Deputy is aware, there is a set timetable in respect of the introduction of the legislation, the publication of the proposal etc. That timetable will be complied with.
In the context of other issues affecting the campaign, the Government's intention is that the referendum will be held on a stand-alone basis. We have had some experience of referenda being held where two or three proposals were put to the people on the same day and in the ensuing melee, the debate on one issue can have an impact on that relating to another. As a result of the importance of the issue under discussion, it is intended that the referendum will proceed on a stand-alone basis. Those of us in this House should endeavour to provide unified leadership on this issue. One of the issues that is identified in the report is the necessity for early intervention in many instances. When the Minister brings forward her proposals, the House should endeavour not to politicise the issue or take partisan positions on it - I acknowledge Deputy Calleary's commitment in this regard and thank him for it - rather, we should do what is in the best interests of the children of the country. We should also ensure that a clear proposal is put to the people and that they be given the time, space and opportunity to consider, debate and reflect on this and then vote on it in the referendum.
Ba mhaith liom ar dtús báire mo chomhbhrón féin agus comhbhrón mo pháirtí a dhéanamh le clann James Nolan, a fuair bás go tragóideach sa Pholainn agus glacaim go mbeadh gach duine sa Teach seo ag luí leis sin agus go nguimid suaimhneas síoraí ar James féin agus tá ár smaointe ag dul leis an chlann ag an am tragóideach seo.
I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the impact of Government cutbacks in respect of the 94,000 people who are in receipt of rent supplement. Between rent supplement, the rental accommodation scheme and leasing arrangements, private landlords are being subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of well more than €500 million. This is the wrong approach to take to housing but the Government is determined to continue subsidising landlords in this way, despite the fact that it would be far more cost-effective to invest in the purchase of social housing via NAMA or otherwise. Is the Tánaiste aware that less than half of the €500 million used to subsidise private landlords is spent on social housing, which would come under the control of local authorities? Surely the logic of this must jump out at him and others in the House who are of a socialist persuasion.
The Government's decision to lower the rent caps and force individual tenants - under the threat of being made homeless - into often unwinnable negotiations with landlords is causing untold misery and upheaval for families throughout the country. If immediate savings are to be made in the rent supplement scheme, why does the Department not - in line with the proposal contained in the programme for Government in respect of other services for social welfare recipients that are subsidised - negotiate directly with landlords to secure reduced levels of rent? My office and those of many other Deputies, including those whose parties are in government, are dealing with families that are being obliged to move out of their homes and the areas in which they live and move their children to other schools as a result of this heavy-handed approach to negotiating with landlords.
I should not need to inform the Tánaiste, the leader of the Labour Party, that those in receipt of rent supplement are among the most vulnerable in both our society and the rental sector. The already live in accommodation that is at the bottom of the price scale. Where exactly are these people supposed to go if their landlords refuse to reduce their rents. Some community welfare officers have suggested that they approach the homeless service. The numbers sleeping rough in Dublin and, I presume, elsewhere throughout the country have risen. The increase in Dublin in this regard stand as 20%. Where will these people's children attend school in September? Many of them are being obliged to move far from the areas in which they previously lived. Will the Government reconsider its heartless decision and come up with a fairer way to find the savings required? Will the Tánaiste encourage the relevant Department to negotiate directly with private landlords and not leave the onerous burden in this regard on the vulnerable tenants to whom I refer?
Ba mhaith liom ar dtús aontú leis an gcomhbhrón a rinneadh le clann Nolan de bharr bhás James Nolan sa Pholainn. Mar is eol don Teach tá ambasáid na hÉireann sa Pholainn ag comhoibriú leis an chlann faoi láthair.
I wish to clarify a number of points. The budget in respect of homelessness has been maintained and is not being cut as alleged by Sinn Féin. A considerable sum of money is being paid out through the rent allowance system to support tenants in the payment of rent. The purpose of placing a cap on the amount of rent to which that allowance can be applied is precisely to ensure that the State will not be subsidising landlords but that instead it will provide assistance to tenants to enable them to pay their rent. Another purpose of the cap is to ensure that landlords will not exploit the rent allowance system to hike up rents in anticipation that the State will cover people's rent in any event.
The Government has made a decision to transfer long-term rent supplement to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government next year. The purpose of this is to achieve better co-ordination in respect of the way in which the rent supplement system operates and to integrate that system with that which relates to the provision of housing. There is ongoing engagement with NAMA in the context of acquiring housing from it to be made available as social housing. Again, this should be of assistance in reducing the amount paid out in rent supplement.
What we must do in the first instance is ensure that people's housing needs are met. We must also ensure that those who are in private rented accommodation are given support in circumstances where they are unable to pay their rent. That support will be provided through the rent supplement system. As the Deputy is aware, the RAS scheme allows local authorities to enter into longer-term arrangements with landlords. Under this scheme rent is negotiated between housing authorities and landlords, usually on a four-year basis. We would like to see this being done to a greater extent, rather than have rent negotiations conducted exclusively between a tenant and a landlord.
I had not suggested the homeless budget was being cut. In fact, it will probably have to be increased as tenants whose landlords will not reduce their rent are obliged to depend on services for homeless persons.
I note what the Tánaiste said about the use of NAMA properties for social housing purposes. Is it the intention to lease such properties only or will the Government take the economically savvy decision to acquire the properties outright or transfer them, which would be logical, thereby addressing the housing waiting lists and the illogical spend to private landlords?
Has there been any discussion of the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which the Tánaiste mentioned? People who avail of the scheme are now being removed from the housing waiting list, despite the fact that the tenancies offered are short term and, therefore, insecure in the longer term.
I thank the Deputy for acknowledging that the homeless budget is not being cut. It is, in fact, being maintained.
With regard to arrangements with NAMA and discussions on acquiring housing from the agency, it will depend on the houses available. In some cases it will be appropriate to acquire houses and in others to rent them. Leasing terms will depend on the set of circumstances involved. The intention is that residential property currently under the control of NAMA will be made available as social housing for those in need of it. That work is being progressed by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.
I am aware of some cases of people being removed from the housing list when they have been offered RAS properties. The circumstances vary. Some housing applicants are happy to accept RAS tenancies. In other cases in which RAS tenancies were offered the tenants were assured that they would not be removed from the housing list. In these cases I understand they are being maintained.
Rent supplement was introduced as a short-term measure. The original idea was that rent to a private landlord would be supplemented for a short period of time until a person was housed through the local authority system or rehoused in some other way. It has become a much more long-term provision. The intention is that the longer term element of the rent supplement system will be integrated with the housing provision measures of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and local authorities.
One of the best ways to protect the children of the State is to provide them with secure housing. In the Visitors Gallery is a small sample of the 96,000 families on housing waiting lists. They are the victims of housing cuts and policies imposed by Labour Party Ministers. Leanne Massey who has four children was recently made homeless because of rent allowance cuts. She is now separated from two of her children and sleeping on a sofa in a two-bedroom house with her grandmother and great-grandmother. Mandy O'Brien, Nicola Lapraku and Elizabeth Martin were all recently made homeless as a result of the reduction of rent allowance caps. Paul Corcoran was homeless for seven years and recently forced back onto the streets. Michelle Murphy spent four years at No. 3 on the medical transfer list. Peter Cleary faces homelessness.
Is it not an obscenity that there are 96,000 on housing lists and waiting up to ten years to be housed, when the census figures show there are 230,000 empty dwellings in the State? Is it not an outrage that we are paying €500 million a year in supplements to private landlords and developers when, if we provided council housing for those on the waiting lists, we would save the State €500 million a year and probably generate another €250 million in rental revenue for the State?
Why is the Labour Party abandoning the policy of direct provision of council housing and, effectively, privatising the social housing market to the benefit of private developers and greedy speculators, the very people who bankrupted the country? What is the Tánaiste going to do for those on the housing lists and in the Visitors Gallery?
As Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett said, there are 230,000 empty dwellings in the State. As I said in reply to an earlier question, the Government is working with NAMA to have houses transferred to the public system in order that they will be available for people who need them. That makes sense. If residential property is not being used and is tied up in NAMA, it makes sense to use these dwellings to make homes available for people who need them.
A very large sum of money is being paid in rent supplement. However, it is not a solution, as the Deputy seems to suggest, that the Government stop paying this money. If we were to stop doing so, the people who would suffer are the tenants who need to be provided with housing. Yes, we want to reduce the amount involved. That is why we have capped the rental levels in order that landlords do not exploit the rent supplement system. We do not want them to hike up rents in the expectation that the State will fork out any amount of money they ask for. We have to have a limit on the upper amount that can be paid. We need to continue to pay rent supplement in order that people in private rented accommodation will not be left vulnerable to their landlords and can continue to have secure housing.
We are shifting the responsibility for the rent allowance system to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. We are integrating it with the provision of housing in order that there will be a joined-up approach to the provision of housing. This is a reform that is long overdue. We are joining up the provision of social housing, assistance for people in private rented accommodation and the making available of dwellings that are not being used and could be used to provide housing for those who need it.
That is an unsatisfactory and disingenuous response. We will continue to subsidise private landlords unless the State directly provides council housing. If there are 230,000 empty dwellings, many of them in the hands of NAMA and State-financed banks, they should be transferred directly into council ownership, but that is not what the Government is doing. Instead, it is continuing to pay State money to private landlords, banks or whoever are the private owners of these properties. This is, effectively, privatising the provision of social housing and creating the conditions for a new slum landlord class and tenement housing reminiscent of that at the beginning of the 20th century.
There are people in the Visitors Gallery who are homeless as a direct result of the Government's reduction of the rent cap. Does this not prove that its policy is a failure?
What will the Government do to get those people off the housing list and put them in council houses, either NAMA properties taken into public ownership------
-----or through the direct provision of council houses to end the abomination whereby 96,000 people are on the housing list at a time when we have nearly a quarter of a million empty properties in the State? It is an obscenity.
Deputy Boyd Barrett cannot have it both ways. He cannot on the one hand say that the cap on rents is resulting in people being made homeless and on the other hand say we should not pay the rent allowance at all.
What we need to do and what we are working on is doing what is necessary to get people housed as quickly as possible. I repeat that the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning is working with NAMA to transfer to the State houses and dwellings that are currently in NAMA ownership so that those dwellings will be made available for people who have a housing need. The work is under way and I hope Deputy Boyd Barrett supports it. While the work is under way and while people are waiting to be housed through the local authority system, there is a necessity where they are in private rented accommodation that support is provided for them in paying their rent to private landlords. That is what the rent allowance system is for. The Government does not intend to abolish the rent allowance system but we do intend to join it up with the housing system. However, let us be clear about this. We are not going to pay in rent allowance any amount a landlord thinks he can extract from the State.
Some landlords appear to think that they can jack up the rent to any amount they want and the State, through the rent allowance system, will pay it. We are not having that. That is why we are putting a cap on the amount that can be paid through the rent allowance system and we will continue to work with NAMA to have homes transferred into the public system in order that they are made available for people who need them.