Wednesday, 24 October 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Social and Affordable Housing Eligibility
I am thankful for the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. I am glad the Minister of State is present to respond to what I have to say. I have become increasingly aware of this difficulty in the last 18 months, since I was elected to the Dáil. It has been raised with me by individuals in my local area on many occasions. If that experience is replicated throughout the country, it is a big problem that needs to be addressed. As the Minister of State is aware, if one is to qualify for local authority housing and get one's name onto the local authority housing list, one must be deemed to have a housing need. If one is to qualify for the payment of rent supplement, one needs to be on the housing list or be able to prove one has been living in private rented accommodation for six of the past 12 months. If one's name is already listed on the deeds of another house, one will not qualify for inclusion on a local authority housing list. Although this condition generally makes absolute sense, we need to consider the circumstances of couples that have recently separated. That is the point I am raising. The impact of separation on a family unit is huge.
It is big enough, given the trauma involved for both partners and the children when they reach the stage where they realise they need to go their separate ways, for whatever reason. The lack of a place to live is extremely stressful and an added difficulty.
The recently published census results for 2011 record the number of separated persons at 116,194, up marginally from the corresponding figure for 2006. Unfortunately, a number of separated persons, some with children, whom I have met are not finding it possible to source housing owing to their names remaining on the deeds of a home in which they can no longer live because their ex-partner is living there. One of the cases of which I am aware involves an individual who bought a property with his then wife. He has recently separated from her and she has remained living in the family home with their children. He had some underlying health issues and depression was a problem. He has done his best by his family by moving out and trying to deal with his own specific circumstances. The couple have separated amicably, but he has no options and nowhere to go. He is sleeping on the couch of an extended family member. This is because his name is attached to the deeds of the property and he is deemed not to have a housing need.
Another factor impacting on this problem is the length of time taken by financial institutions to reach solutions on non-performing loans. I am aware of one case in which a house is due to be repossessed by a bank. The couple have separated. The husband remains in the home, while his wife and their two children are searching for accommodation without success. They are, therefore, literally homeless. Once the bank completes the repossession, both parties will become eligible for housing, but this could take months. In the meantime, the wife and children have nowhere to live. They have approached the community welfare officer for help, but they can only receive an emergency needs payment, a once-off payment which cannot be used as a basis for securing access to any property.
I have spoken to staff in my local authority, Kildare County Council, about some of these cases and, while they are hugely sympathetic, they consider their hands are tied and they have to operate within the rules, rules which do not appear to offer significant discretion for persons who find themselves in the very difficult situations to which I have referred. Often, those most affected are newly separated who have had to move out of the family home, perhaps at short notice or after a lengthy period of difficulty in a relationship. The decision to leave the family home is not an easy one, but sometimes it can be in the best interests of the partner and the children.
I am aware that, once a separation process has been gone through in the courts and forms of legal separation have been agreed, there can be more discretion under the housing system. However, this is of no help in the cases with which I am dealing in which those involved have not yet reached this stage of the process and find themselves with no housing options. I ask the Minister of State to review the regulations in place to see if discretion can be applied in the cases of individuals who find themselves in these very difficult situations. It should be possible to either free up staff in the local authorities to have more directions in these cases in the short term, or else consider integration with the Department of Social Protection in order that community welfare officers will have discretion to deal with these cases as they arise. It is a very big issue and I am glad the Minister of State is here to deal with the topic.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and allowing me to outline the current position. I would like him to know I have commenced a review; therefore, we recognise there is an issue.
The Government's housing policy statement, published in June 2011, serves as a framework for a sequence of legislative and policy initiatives in the short to medium term. Based on a number of fundamental principles and goals that form the foundation of a substantial reform programme, the framework for housing policy responds to current and emerging conditions in the housing sector, taking into account the current economic environment. Central to this approach is maximising delivery of social housing support to those with greatest need within the resources available. In terms of the delivery of social housing, the policy statement clearly identifies that the main focus in terms of supports provided by the Government will be on meeting the most acute needs, namely, the housing support needs of those unable to provide for their accommodation from their own resources.
One of the greatest concerns the Government had was the disparity of procedures across the various housing authorities in accessing social housing support. The 2011 social housing assessment regulations were introduced to provide for a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing in every housing authority. The ultimate aim of the new system is to create a fairer, more consistent and transparent approach to eligibility for social housing support. The regulations providing the legislative basis for the assessment are continually under review in an effort to ensure they achieve that aim.
Regulation 22 of the 2011 regulations addresses the issue of alternative accommodation, with regulation 23 addressing the housing need criteria. It is a matter for each housing authority to assess the need of each applicant household within the terms of the regulations to determine eligibility for social housing support. Paragraph (1) of regulation 22 of the social housing assessment regulations of 2011 provides that a household with alternative accommodation that would meet its housing need is ineligible for social housing support. Paragraph (2) of the regulation effectively ensures paragraph (1) does not operate to exclude from eligibility for social housing support an applicant who owns accommodation occupied by his or her spouse from whom he or she is separated or divorced. The regulation is worded in such a way that once there is a deed of separation in place, this aspect of eligibility for social housing support can be determined. There is no need, therefore, to await judicial separation or divorce to get a decision on eligibility for social housing support in these cases. I consider that this provision is reasonable in most cases. However, I acknowledge the Deputy's point that exceptional cases arise that may not easily be dealt with under the current regulations. As part of the programme of social housing reform which I am advancing, I am reviewing the implementation of the 2011 regulations to ensure they are operating as intended. I will issue revised regulations and guidance, as necessary. As part of the review, my Department will consider what wider discretion might be given to housing authorities to address the difficult and complex cases which may present to them. As I said, I recognise that there is an issue in the case of newly separated persons.
I thank the Minister of State for her detailed response and very much welcome the commencement of the review to which she refers, which makes this Topical Iissue debate timely. She stated, "It is a matter for each housing authority to assess the need of each applicant household within the terms of the regulations," and then sets out the position under paragraphs (1) and (2) of regulation 22. The difficulty arises where a couple are not legally separated or divorced. A deed of separation is an agreement between two parties setting out the terms of the separation, often negotiated through a solicitor. It can be legally binding and includes items such as custody of children, maintenance obligations, ownership of the family home and liability for mortgage payments. However, these issues are not sorted out immediately, whereas the timeframe to which I am referring is the period immediately after the separation when the couple have gone their separate ways and before the deed of separation is prepared. The current regulations do not properly take account of this short period and we need some discretion to allow either the local authority, the community welfare officer or some other party to provide short-term support for those persons who find themselves in this situation.
I am glad the Minister of State referred to current economic conditions, on which I wish to pick up. In some circumstances, couples may have their deed of separation, but, owing to the depressed state of the property market, they cannot sell their property, even though it is on the market. While I hope this will not be a long-term problem, it is a problem for now. Again, flexibility in this regard is needed to get people through this very difficult period. I again thank the Minister of State.
All of us in the Chamber probably know of some of these complex cases. There is a certain amount of discretion under the current regulations and one of the issues I am considering in reviewing the regulations is the position of couples who are separating and genuinely have a housing need that must be addressed. While I do not know exactly how long this will take, I will be doing it as expeditiously as possible.