Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Housing Grant Payments
To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government if he will provide a breakdown by county of funding provided for the housing aid for elderly persons scheme and the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013; the impact of these changes on his disability strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12863/13]
To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government in view of the overall cut of 11% to his Department's 2013 budget, the reason his Department imposed a cut of 76% in funding for housing grants for elderly and disabled to Laois County Council.; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12867/13]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 74 and 75 together.
I am keenly aware of the challenges we face in delivering housing supports to a range of vulnerable households and groups. The difficulties facing the State's finances and the necessity to reduce public expenditure to sustainable levels are impacting on capital programmes all across the public service. My Department's housing programme is no exception. Deputies will be aware that the amount of capital funding available has decreased significantly in recent years along the lines highlighted in the medium-term Exchequer framework for infrastructure and capital investment 2012-16. Regrettably, these steps are necessary to bring stability to the public finances. As a result, capital spending on housing programmes in 2013 is down on last year.
Reduced capital budgets inevitably give rise to difficult choices and decisions in allocating the available funding. This means balancing the available capital across a range of important areas and spreading these scarce resources in a way that meets the needs of those concerned to the best extent possible. In addition to the private housing grants, the housing capital budget needs to cover important measures such as regeneration, estate-wide improvements, energy retrofitting and meeting the housing needs of older people and people with physical, intellectual and mental health disabilities. I am allocating €167 million for these measures in 2013.
The Government's housing strategy for people with a disability 2011-16 aims to support community based independent living for people with disabilities. My continued support for special needs housing provision will assist in this regard. The strategy recognises the role of the adaptation grant schemes as part of a broader framework of supports. I am reviewing the terms of the grant schemes and will monitor operations to ensure effective implementation of the strategy generally.
This year I am allocating 12.4% of the housing budget, some € 34.2 million in all , to the grant schemes compared to 13.2% in 2012. In allocating the available funding across all 34 city and county councils, I did so in as transparent and as fair a way as possible. In framing the 2013 allocations my Department wrote to each local authority requesting details of the numbers and value of grants where work had been approved to commence. Between them, local authorities reported contractual commitments in respect of approved grants totalling €18 million. Local authorities were always encouraged to maintain continuity in approving and paying grants and commitments carried forward into the new financial year always had first call on the available funding. This year each authority was allocated the full amount of its contractual commitments. Only one local authority, Laois County Council, reported a zero commitment for grants approved.
The balance of the available funding was allocated on the basis of each authority's share of the new applications on hand in January 2013. I believe this is a fair way of apportioning the funding. I appreciate this approach has resulted in lower than expected allocations for some authorities. Should particular difficulties arise in some local authorities in the course of 2013, I have a contingency in place to deal with this. I have set aside a small capital reserve and I will consider applications from local authorities for a supplementary allocation once the initial allocation has been exhausted.
A detailed table setting out the information on the combined Exchequer plus local authority own resources allocations for the years 2010 to 2013, inclusive, will be circulated with the Official Report.
|Local Authority||2010 Allocation||2011 Allocation||2012 Allocation||2013 Allocation|
|Sligo Borough Council|
|( with Sligo Co Co figure for 2013)|
I thank the Minister of State for her response. These cuts were made in the same week as those to the mobility allowance. It is amazing, insensitive, callous and targeting vulnerable people in the most ridiculous way. I heard the Minister of State say there are cuts across the board not just in her line responsibility but in every Department. When I measure that against some commentaries we heard in recent weeks, it is different, however. We had the deal on the promissory note, which we welcomed, but we doubted if it would have any immediate impact on the ground. That has since been borne out. With all the talk about the country having turned the corner and green shoots of recovery, these kinds of cuts hit at the heart of our society. I know Laois County Council gave a commitment to these grants by virtue of their available funding. This has been reduced over several years because of the demands and constraints on its budget. Letters were sent out in the county earlier this year in which many people were told they would have to wait three to five years for these grants.
Will this mean it will now be five to seven years? The range of cuts is from 29% to 70%. Is the Government's disability strategy in tatters by virtue of the cuts that have been made across a range of services? If a commitment was made in the programme for Government to implement a disability strategy, where stands it now? When will the strategy be redrawn? What can people seeking these grants expect? Has the retrofit scheme that was involved in many budgets over the past number of years been exhausted to such an extent that the Minister can now look at this area to fill the gap?
We are faced with the inevitable cuts in terms of the amount of money available. That is the reality in which we have to live. I have got a small contingency fund and I am satisfied every local authority has enough funding to meet their commitments made in the previous year. During the second quarter our officials intend to speak to the local authorities about these grants. After that we will have a good idea of how they stand. We will then look to allocate the amount of money left over.
I am anxious to reform this scheme and examine the upper limit allowed in the grant which is quite high. I am examining lowering the upper limit so it can be spread over more applicants. We have already introduced a reform measure for the retrofit scheme. Before the money was for voids up to this year but from this year on there will be retrofitting done on occupied local authority accommodation. I am trying to use moneys as wisely as I possibly can, albeit with a limited amount.
These grants cut to the heart of housing policy, but we should be trying to keep disabled and elderly people in their own homes. The fact is that this is happening at the same time as the cut to the mobility grant, and it follows cuts in the respite grant and household benefit package in the past two years. It amounts to tightening the noose and making things more difficult for the cohort of people who have a disability but who are trying to live independently, as well as elderly people.
I know of grants amounting to as little as €2,000 that are being used to keep people in their homes. It can cost as little as €2,600 or €2,700 for a simple straightforward stair-lift. Typically, only a small amount of money is needed to keep people living independently. Let us consider it from a Government point of view: surely we should try to keep people in their own homes. That is logical and sensible as it is where they want to be, but even when considered from an economic point of view, it is where we want to keep them.
The allocation for Laois County Council is down 76%. The Minister of State indicated that she wanted to ensure the council had enough to honour the commitments it had entered into on 1 January, but Laois County Council does not allow anyone to enter into commitments on 1 January until it secures the allocation. The Minister of State should examine the record for what is a relatively small county. She will find that the council has been using this grant well, spreading it over a large number of people to benefit the maximum number and prioritising it in a careful and systematic way. If the council was not doing that I would be giving out about it. It is important. The council is being punished for doing exactly that.
The overall cut in the budget of the Department was approximately 11%. I realise that is difficult for the Department, but the cut to this grant in Laois was 76%. Does the Minister of State agree that this is having a negative impact on Laois? The fact is that Laois County Council has kept its house in order well and it has been running a good ship, yet it is being penalised for this. This is one of the things Laois County Council does particularly well. Does the Minister of State agree that this should be examined again?
I agree with Deputy Stanley that we want to keep people in their homes if at all possible and that relatively small amounts of money sometimes make the difference. That is why I am examining the upper limit, which is €30,000. We cannot change the limit for those who have already been approved, but it may be different in future. We are looking at it on an immediate basis to determine whether it would make sense to reduce the upper limit in order to spread a greater number of grants of smaller amounts in order to keep more people in their homes. I agree fully with Deputy Stanley in this regard. I remarked that we have a contingency fund and we will certainly be examining Laois as well as other counties in some months' time to determine whether it is appropriate that they should get further funding. I understand the position in Laois is different to that in other counties.
Will the Minister of State briefly explain the position? The allocation last year was so many million euro, but how much is the contingency fund this year after an 11% cut? My impression of the contingency fund, from the way it has been explained, is that massive, stinging cuts have been imposed throughout the country - up to 76% in some counties - and it seems the Department has decided to take the flak and put a contingency fund in place to pacify a few of those who cry the loudest, perhaps some of those in our own best constituencies throughout the country. This gives the impression that there is some appeasement, but that is far from the case.
We are dealing with a cohort of people who do not have the clout or representation that many others do, and who are left in a terrible predicament. In my county, as in many others, there is a five-year waiting list and the council is doing its best to spread the fund. Any further spreading will make no difference. The Minister of State must sit down and get this back on track. These are areas where a difference was being made.
There are 116 people on a waiting list in Laois and a further 24 cases are listed as very urgent.
They instructed constituents, clients and contractors to submit all bills and have everything paid, signed off and in order by 30 December. I ask the Minister of State to examine this case. Laois County Council did not come in on 1 January without applications. A bundle of applications are partially or almost complete; some 116 are fully complete, in addition to 24 that are urgent and seven that are going to be approved immediately on an emergency basis. Approximately 150 cases are serious and need to be dealt with. I ask the Minister of State to bear in mind that we are not beginning with a clear slate.
I reject any suggestion of favouritism. This was done using a clear and transparent formula, whereby the cases approved received money first and the remainder was divided on an equal basis according to the amounts requested from the various local authorities. The contingency fund of €2 million is available to allow us to address any case that may arise in the second quarter of the year.