Dáil debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Rent Certainty and Prevention of Homelessness Bill 2015: Second Stage [Private Members]


9:05 pm

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Last week we had the anniversary of the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie. Ever since his death, the homeless situation and the number of those sleeping rough have continued to spiral. It is clear the Government's policies are not working and that it has failed to deliver. Under current housing legislation, there is no definition of a person at risk of homelessness, which limits the introduction of preventative measures. This means measures to address homelessness are focused exclusively on those who have already lost their homes. This leads to a cycle of people coming in and out of homelessness without any effective measures to reduce overall numbers through preventative measures.

Rents are not solely to blame, as they have been widely inflated by the shortage of social housing. However, inflated rents are now the main cause of people losing their homes and becoming homeless. The over-reliance on the private market to provide housing by the current and previous Governments has left poor and low income families vulnerable to the whim of the market, which has no care for their basic need for a home but cares only for profit. Rents have soared in recent years, to a point where many tenants pay in excess of 50% of their income in rent and suffer the hardship this causes, while all the time fearing the next rent increase will be the one that sees them homeless. Their desperation is only compounded by the absolute lack of options, as social housing is not being built and private developers show no interest in bringing any affordability to the market.

We are faced with many facets of a serious housing and homelessness crisis, but it is clear that the Government is not doing enough and what it is doing is being done far too late. The Government will attack this Bill, but the numbers make the reality clear for those who care to look at them. We have 130,000 people on social housing waiting lists, some 40,000 more than when the Government took office. We have nearly 100,000 people receiving some kind of rent support, amounting to approximately €500 million in subsidised rents for landlords every year. This is the same as was provided in 2011, but under a different name.

We have fewer homes for rent than ever before and higher rents than ever. Some 17,000 homeowners face eviction. Buy to let mortgage holders are in crisis, with tenants also facing losing their homes. The banks are riding rough shod over mortgage holders and any tenants they may have. We have at least 5,000 homeless people and over 100 people sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin each night. All this time, the Government is building fewer homes than for decades. Rent supplement has been cut twice and the Government has reduced Part V responsibilities for developers.

This needs a comprehensive response and a major package of investment and regulation by the Government. All we have been offered is window dressing, spin and more spin.

Whatever the solution is, it has not been proposed by the Government. That is why we have brought this Bill before the House tonight, not as the one true solution but as a moderate, simple and positive measure which improves on what the Government has accepted is needed. If Government Deputies are serious about preventing homelessness and providing certainty for renters, they will support this Bill. If they do not, then it will be clear that they are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

As I have said, this Bill is no silver bullet that will solve all of the problems in the rental market. It will not end homelessness in isolation or deliver housing where there is none. It does not claim or set out to do those things, and neither I nor my party claim that it will. It will, however, provide for preventative measures against homelessness and give certainty to tenants who have seen their rent go up repeatedly over the last five years.

This is a proposal that has long been called for by groups such as Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, the Peter McVerry Trust and Threshold, among others, which are on the front line of homelessness and housing issues. Although the Government might not accept those groups' expertise in this regard, it is all too ready to hand off responsibility for providing housing to such bodies, along with supports for those who are made homeless by Government policy. Focus Ireland and Threshold are good enough to run the Department of Social Protection's schemes to help those on rent supplement who are unable to afford increases, but it seems they are not good enough to be listened to on how to resolve the wider issue of unaffordable rents. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, famously remarked on his irritation at their critique of his failures.

This Bill should not be looked at in isolation but as a part of a wider strategy to deal with the housing crisis through intervention by the State in terms of both regulations and the provision of real social housing through local authorities. Some Members of the Government will try to pretend that rents are no longer an issue due to the Minister's plans to delay rent reviews for an extra 12 months. They will describe this as a rent freeze, but everyone else can see that it is simply kicking the can down the road. It is welcome only in the sense that it provides the space for more comprehensive and effective policies to be implemented under a new Government. Many tenants have already seen their rent increase considerably in recent months and weeks, as the foot-dragging of Fine Gael and the Labour Party allowed landlords to prepare for these new measures.

9:15 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I apologise for interrupting, but does the Deputy intend taking 15 minutes?

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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Nothing is included in these plans to deal with this matter. The Government's measures could easily have included a section to nullify rent reviews carried out within a few weeks or months of the enactment of the law. Better still, they could have included rent controls and rent certainty and it could have happened months if not years ago. Back then, there was not an election around the corner as there is now.

The Government's plan continues with the failed model of allowing increases within what it calls the market rate. This has been heralded in the media as a new check on rent levels, but it is the same ill-defined model that existed before and does nothing to regulate increases when a rent review happens. Sinn Féin has repeatedly called for Government intervention in the private rental market to deal with unaffordable, spiralling rent rates. We were told originally it was not a problem at all and now we are told the Government will solve it by doing the bare minimum and hoping someone will build a few thousand extra houses. It certainly will not be this Government building them; it has only built a handful of houses this year and intends to build just 1,750 by the end of 2017. It has built less in five years than in any single year preceding its tenure.

In government, Sinn Féin would have invested substantially in the construction, acquisition and refurbishment of social housing for the last five years, creating jobs, providing homes, generating rental revenue and making savings in rent supplement and emergency accommodation by doing so. We would have introduced rent controls to limit the amount that can be charged per square metre based on local area rates and would have limited increases to the rate of inflation. If this had been done, rents would be significantly lower right now and we would not need to spend €70 million a year just to stand still on the homeless crisis.

The provisions of this Bill are the absolute minimum Sinn Féin would do in government and that is why we have put it to the House tonight. We know that the Government is opposed to building social housing; it has shown this in the last five years of inaction and undermining of local authorities. We know it is opposed to intervention in the private rental market because it has allowed rents to increase by at least 35% during its tenure, and up to now its only response was to cut rent supplement twice. The Bill asks very little of the Government, though supporting it would be very positive. It asks that the Minister recognise the need to properly support prevention measures for homelessness and support for those at risk of homelessness.

The amendments to sections 2 and 10 of the Housing Act 1988 were proposed by a coalition of housing and homelessness charities and advocacy groups, but this was ignored by the Government as homelessness spiralled out of control. Now that we have 1,500 children in hotels and bed and breakfasts, will the Government see the merit of such provisions? With 80 new families becoming homeless each month, can we ignore the need for preventative measures?

In the joint document Preventing Homelessness: the Need for Legislative Change, Focus Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Threshold and the Simon Community concluded that:

Actions to prevent homelessness must be at the forefront of all homeless services. Housing advice and advocacy have a critical role to play in minimising the need for, and the time spent in, emergency accommodation. Tenancy support has an equally important role to play in assisting people in sustaining their existing accommodation, or retaining it where they have moved out of homelessness. While the importance and cost effectiveness of these interventions is widely accepted [...], the current wording of Section 10 of the Housing Act limits the scope of such interventions, with the result that they are underdeveloped and piecemeal.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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I want to put some human faces on the crisis that the Government has in large part created. I have changed the names of some of the individuals, obviously. One of the problems with the housing and homelessness crisis is that so many people do not want their names mentioned or their faces put to these issues. It is quite shocking that the responsible Minister is not in the Chamber to listen to this debate. We do not have the Minister, Deputy Kelly, or the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Given that they are the Ministers supposedly in control - which is very debatable - they should at least be here to hear the discussion.

These are some of the cases I am dealing with in my own constituency at the moment. Tom and his partner are both in their 20s. She is 32 weeks pregnant. They have a total income of €200 a week. They are each on a jobseeker's payment of €100 and they pay €25 each to the council to live in their parents' seriously overcrowded house. They are trying to find a house but cannot. They cannot save for a house or for the imminent arrival of their new baby. Even with their income and rent supplement, every landlord in the county knows they simply do not have the money to rent any accommodation.

Caitríona was transferred to Meath from another county by Women's Aid for her own safety. She cannot go back to her county because she is danger. The council will not accept her housing needs, so the refuge can no longer fund her place. My office spent most of today ringing the Department and the council to see if we could get her some level of accommodation. Today Caitríona is on the streets because there is no place for her at the moment.

Sorcha is living in a bed and breakfast since May with her partner and young kids. This is the second time she has been homeless in the last while. Her older kids are staying with relations. She has a young daughter who, at six years old, has changed school three times. Because of that forced change, her parents see that she is now having major difficulties building friendships with the kids in her class, as she is unsure how long her new school is going to last.

The family is on the telephone all day but nobody is getting back to them.

Fionn and Sonia are 55 years of age. They worked all their lives to make a living. Sonia has just become sick and Fionn is now her carer. Their home is being sold and they cannot find anywhere else to live. While the family is suffering from sickness, they are showing people around the house from which they will be evicted very shortly.

Eilis and Eoin have been waiting 12 years for a house. They have been sleeping in a tent in the Ramparts in Navan, a walk the Minister of State will know because I have met him there previously. That is not a safe place for anybody after dark. They have been in bed and breakfast accommodation and other accommodation that was just not safe.

This is another issue. Councils rely on accommodation for people who are homeless that is in poor condition. Councils feel they have no choice but to use it because if they take this poor-quality accommodation out of circulation, as should be the case in normal circumstances, there will be no place for these individuals to go. I know of another individual in his 60s named Seán who is very ill. He has multiple tumours and limited mobility and has been put into bed and breakfast accommodation. He has now been told to move to the homeless hostel in Drogheda. Noeleen is expected to live in her ex-partner's parents' house. She feels really unwelcome in that house but she has nowhere else to bring her children. She cannot get another house because she is deemed to be accommodated at the moment. Rita has seven children who are living in three different houses because she cannot find a single house for them. She is travelling the country bringing them to school and picking them up.

This is the hidden homelessness that exists in counties around the greater Dublin area. There are dozens of families who are simply trying to find a place to live. One in six mortgages in Meath is in distress, which is a major cause of homelessness. A total of 4,500 people are on the waiting list in Meath while 700 people presented as homeless in the county last year. There is no homeless shelter for men in the county at the moment while women must go to the refuge. This puts pressure on the refuge because it has less space for its intended use. Rents in Meath have increased by 13% to 14% under this Government. According to EUROSTAT, Meath is one of the places where rent is highest as a proportion of income.

What have the Labour Party and Fine Gael done to try to fix this in our county? With 4,500 people on the housing waiting list, their objective is to have 133 new properties in circulation in the county by 2017 through acquisitions and building. That is an abysmal effort compared with the size of the crisis in Meath. On 2 September, I, along with a number of Deputies, met in the county council office to discuss the humanitarian crisis in County Meath, although the Labour Party Deputy did not make it. I put forward a motion that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government meet the elected representatives in Meath to discuss the homelessness and housing crisis. Ninety days later, the Minister's response to the elected representatives in Meath has been zero. Not only has he not been here, he will not sit in a room with the elected representatives in Meath to discuss the housing crisis. That is not a snub to me. What the Minister thinks of or says or does not say to me is neither here nor there. It is a snub to the thousands of people we represent in County Meath and a direct snub to people on the margins of existence with regard to housing and homelessness in my county. That the Minister has not even rung to say he will meet us on a particular date shows a phenomenal level of arrogance. I appeal to the Minister of State, who is in an adjoining constituency that shares some services with Meath, to talk to the Minister and to ask him to discuss these issues the people of Meath. It is very important that the Government focuses on housing and homelessness in Meath and throughout the country. I appeal to it to put the proper investment into it.

9:25 pm

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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As a mother, I understand the pressures and anxieties of finding oneself in a position of having nowhere to live and being homeless. I can sympathise with the feeling of one's child being at risk. Many mothers and fathers in this State are experiencing this to a grave extent. They worry where they can scrape the few extra cent from every month to pay their rent and keep a roof over the heads of their children to provide them with a sense of security and safety. We must take a step back, look around and realise the exact nature of the situations people find themselves in. In my county of Cork, rents have increased by 13.5% in just over one year. The average rent is now €950. These ever-increasing rents put people to the pin of their collars. The research shows that the failure to address the reality has led to ever-increasing numbers of families presenting as homeless. In June of this year, the number of families who were homeless was 531. That is double the figures for the same month last year. The stories in the papers and on television and that are heard anecdotally are all too common. The shock of hearing of these tragic stories has been replaced with a sense of disdain and disenfranchisement. I am afraid it has become just another election issue in the eyes of some rather than the crisis it is.

Six years of recession has seen the income of many families fall sharply due to job losses, pay cuts and/or reduced working hours. The cost of living has shot up and there are more additional taxes to pay such as property tax, USC and pending water charges. Thousands more families are struggling on very low incomes or social welfare and many are falling into serious housing difficulties as rents continue to rise. Some families are becoming homeless as Rent Supplement payments fail to cover the rent. They fall into arrears and end up losing their home.

These are not my words. I am quoting directly from Focus Ireland. As a result, these rent increases, which in some cases are astronomical, put children at a higher risk of homelessness. The implications of this can, unfortunately, be viewed throughout the country. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that this can be detrimental to any child's development. Due to the sporadic and disorganised nature of the way these families are being placed in temporary accommodation, children suffer severely. Developmental restrictions are put in place in respect of the accessibility of schools, a space at home which is conducive to learning and doing school work and what must be a highly strung atmosphere among family members in such small and confined places. Considering the ever-increasing numbers of families presenting to homeless services and that the time families are spending in homeless services is increasing, it is rational to say that the current structures are failing these people.

We are crying out for a different tack that focuses more on a preventative strategy rather than a knee-jerk reaction, as was done through the introduction of expanding the time span between rent reviews which does nothing in respect of striving towards affordability but rather prolongs inevitable and extortionate increases. A report, entitled Family Experiences of Pathways into Homelessness: The Families' Perspective, by Dr. Kathy Walsh and Brian Harvey was launched in September by the Housing Agency. The researchers concluded that, "a striking feature of this research was the families we consulted had a sense of powerlessness when dealing with private landlords". The researchers said that, "any argument with the landlord about their 'rights' was perceived to put that prospective reference immediately at risk". These are only two quotes from what appears to be a particularly damning report.

We also must highlight the issue of child protection and how 1,500 children in this country are potentially subjected to danger as a result of the lack of regulations. It puts these children in potentially harmful positions. This Bill calls for a more preventative approach to stem the flow of people presenting to homeless services and to give those at risk a sense of financial and social security. We must protect our most vulnerable to the best of our ability and I sincerely hope for cross-party support in this regard.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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During the term of this Government, there have been many examples of the Opposition bringing good motions and Bills to this House and the Government just voting them down without proper consideration simply because they originate from the Opposition. I am asking the Government to support this Bill because the people who are homeless in this State need it. The human suffering caused by high levels of rent and the current shortage of social housing is too much for people to bear and is too serious a matter to play politics with. The crisis is out of control.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, who is responsible for homelessness promised 1,000 social housing units this time last year when Jonathan Corrie's body was found outside this building. He delivered 20 in the first six months of this year. In Tralee, there are 1,500 people waiting for one and two bedroom houses or flats. There are more waiting for three and four bedroom houses in the town of Tralee. More than 5,000 people are on the waiting list in the county. Every one of these people is being disadvantaged by being homeless. Children who are homeless will suffer the consequences for years, in their schooling, social skills and their lack of familiarity with normal family life in a normal family home. The solution to this crisis is to build houses. It is not complicated. It is very simple.

More than 130,000 people are in need of housing in this State. That is a little less than the entire number now housed by local authorities. That figure represents families, couples, single people and children who are all in need of secure, adequate and affordable homes. The Taoiseach likes to shout about the €2 billion being invested in housing but he does not mention how the first €1.2 billion of that sum does not go to build houses, the proper and simple solution. It has been allocated to coax landlords into providing housing. It is earmarked for rent allowance, rental accommodation schemes and housing assistance programmes because the Government does not want to build social housing. It would prefer to subsidise landlords and allow its precious market rule over all even if that means people living in overpriced, badly constructed, damp, cramped, under-managed housing units or couch surfing with family and friends.

Real people are suffering from these policies. I know of one case in my constituency, a mother who lost her husband and one of her children tragically a few years ago. She lives in family accommodation with her four children, one being treated for cancer in Dublin. There are six children and two adults in that two and a half bedroom house. One child is prone to contagion from other illnesses as a result of the treatment for cancer. Nothing has been done despite the best efforts of Kerry County Council. Nothing has been made available to this woman or her children. It is an absolute disgrace. Some years ago I visited the homeless section of Kerry County Council maybe 18 months after it had been set up. It had separate offices. I was the first and the only elected representative from this House to visit it. It does tremendous work despite all the obstacles put in its way. Some months ago, during the festival of Kerry, there was an unprecedented number of people homeless in Tralee and surrounding areas. Kerry County Council told me it was getting no support or help from the Department. That is an indictment not just of the Department but of this Government because it has failed miserably to look after the people most in need.

9:35 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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This Bill is a practical approach which offers real solutions and stands in complete contrast to the Government’s ineptitude and incompetence and its approach to the housing problems. There has been much talk of the human stories and of a crisis. We all know it is an emergency but is it really a crisis? It is not a crisis if it is a policy. That is the problem: refusing to invest in social housing has been a policy of this Government. This was planned for. Refusing to think beyond the next budget is the Government’s policy.

I have recently quizzed various Ministers about how their Departments have responded to the housing crisis. The figures are shocking. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, know this well because they have reigned over failure after failure in respect of one failed scheme after another to help the struggling homeowner who is facing eviction and homelessness. We all know the results, unfortunately, as has been outlined by my colleagues.

Under the Labour Party's then Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, and under the present Minister, Deputy Kelly, a State-wide mortgage to rent scheme was launched to give struggling home owners a chance to move from mortgage to renting while staying put in their family homes. The State banks were to be forced to make this work and councils were to be given a fund to help them participate. We were told the mortgage to rent scheme was one of the main planks of the plan to take us out of the mortgage crisis. The Labour Party told us 3,500 families would benefit.

What happened under Deputy Jan O’Sullivan and the present Minister, Deputy Kelly? More than three years have passed and only 246 families have been able to avail of this scheme. Only three homes in the whole of Donegal have been helped by this scheme in three and a half years. Not a single successful conclusion under the scheme has taken place in Galway, Longford, Monaghan or Sligo. We were told it was being revamped in July and was now fit for purpose but since then, only 53 homes have been moved from mortgage to rent under this scheme. The Government owns 99% of AIB but the bank has concluded only a grand total of five sales. We own this bank and can give directions to it but the Government sits on its hands. Of the €20 million fund for local authorities to participate in this scheme, only €6 million has been spent. It is a shocking failure the Minister has presided over for the past few years.

Surely a Labour Party Minister for Social Protection would have protected the advice services available to people feeling the housing crisis. Surely in times of a debt crisis the State steps up to the mark and makes sure the vulnerable people are protected. That is not the case with this Government. When this Government came to power, we had an excellent Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, on which many people relied. It was funded to the tune of €18.3 million per year. In 2013, it received €19.1 million and yet it has received a 7% cut from that point to today. More than €1 million has been taken away from the MABS budget. When people needed it most, the Labour Party stood over cuts to the advice services to struggling families.

MABS is not alone. Over the term of this Government, Citizens Information has suffered a 10% cut at a time when MABS in 2013 reported a quadrupling of demand for its services. If anybody needs reminding, the Labour Party promised that MABS would be strengthened to a personal debt management agency with strong legal powers but as Deputy Rabbitte would say, that is what people say at election time. When people were down, the State was not too long about keeping them down. We see the results in the numbers waiting for housing now.

The Minister for Social Protection’s other great initiative was to set up the independent financial advice service to help struggling home owners and others. She told us the banks would foot the bill and it would cost them €10 million. She told us a crack team of 2,000 accountants would be available; that this was going to be the panacea and the saviour. What happened? Based on the figures the Minister gave me last week, it appears that each of these 2,000 accountants has given advice to one person over the term of the scheme, which is another spectacular failure. When I asked the banks how much of the predicted €10 million the scheme had cost them, I was told they had not even bothered accounting for it. That is how little they thought of this scheme from the Labour Party.

I do not have the time to go into the further failures of the Labour Party but the words of Deputy Gilmore when I first raised the issue of rip-off interest rates in 2011 ring in my ear. He told me then that I need be in no doubt that this Government will act decisively and forcibly with the banks. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Labour Party might let us know when that is about to begin. How many families have been thrown to the wolves as a result of their inaction, of their not acting decisively or forcibly with the banks? When will the penny drop and when will they start dealing with this homelessness crisis, which is now at emergency level?

9:45 pm

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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It is difficult to know where to begin with this issue. A secure warm family home should be a right and not a privilege to be granted or withheld by any government. I would see it as being a constitutional right and it should be a constitutional right. However, Members should look at the litany of horror that can be seen in this country. Almost 5,000 people are homeless and 90,000 people are on the waiting list for local authority housing, which equates to approximately 130,000 people when one takes into account partners and children. More than 100,000 people are in mortgage distress, a large percentage of whom are in a serious state of mortgage distress. It is estimated that 12,000 such people will end up in court and 5,000 of them will be forced to surrender their mortgages and will end up depending on the Government to provide a home. No accurate figure is available for the number of people and families who are privately renting at present but are paying a rent they cannot afford and are holding on by their fingertips.

I sometimes think it is a pity Ministers apparently do not hold clinics to which people with problems call in because were they to so do, they would be aware of the impact of all this on these people. It is scandalous that it should be necessary for a family to be reared in a hotel room in any country in the world. That constitutes a scandal in any civilised country. Can Members imagine a child going to school in the morning without knowing whether he or she will be returning to the same hotel that evening? It is impossible to put oneself in the place of such people. Can Members imagine if my grandchild or child was obliged to live life like that? Yet, what do we do? We issue reports and consider the job done, as a good report has been issued. Such reports set out what will be done next year and in the following years but always in the future. Members should imagine how these people feel when they hear the Government crowing about the great wee economy we have, about this growing economy, about the numbers returning to the workforce, as well as the swaggering about how Ireland is the best little country in which to invest, to visit and in which to live. Members should imagine how those people feel when they hear this swaggering and they undoubtedly will hear a great deal more of it as the election draws closer.

The job of Opposition Members is to put forward alternatives to bad policy and for nearly five years, Deputy Ellis and Sinn Féin have been doing that. However, just as the Government is not listening to the pain of people in the community, neither is it listening to the constructive suggestions of the Opposition party called Sinn Féin. Perhaps if it did listen and take on board some of Sinn Féin's suggestions, we would not now be in the crisis we face. This crisis was caused by the policy of the present Government and its predecessor to place the safeguarding of the powerful and the wealthy above the interests of the citizens. It is as pure or impure but certainly as simple as that. It was accurately stated in a commentary following the bank collapse that the banks were too big to fail and the people were too small to matter. The banks still are too big to fail and the people still are too small to matter. I am glad the Minister, Deputy Kelly, has come into the Chamber for the last few paragraphs of this debate. He must make sure that something more than reports outlining what is going to happen in 2016, 2017 or 2020 will happen. He must ensure this is treated as a crisis. On behalf of the Government, he must tell the banks, the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, and landlords that this crisis will be solved and the Government will make sure those tens of thousands of people never again will be obliged to be in this position. He must ensure no mother will be obliged to turn around to her children to tell them she was sorry she could not rear them in a home with a garden but that they were obliged to go to a different hotel room that evening and that she was sorry this State has let them down.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister, Deputy Kelly, has 30 minutes. Does he wish to move an amendment?

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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I will be opposing this Bill. At the outset however, I thank Deputy Ellis for providing this opportunity for Members to discuss again what they all will agree is an extremely important topic, as well as the major reforms the Government is implementing in the private rental sector in Ireland to provide rent certainty for both tenants and landlords and the wide range of actions I and my colleagues in government are implementing in respect of homelessness. This is a top priority and dealing with housing and homelessness is my number one priority. While they are complex and broad issues, it is the number one issue that takes up most of my time each day. Much has been achieved in this regard in a short space of time and I will set out some of the aforementioned measures taken by the Government to tackle this real problem.

Before doing so, however, the Bill before Members this evening clearly is fundamentally flawed in many aspects, including the way in which it is constructed and the way in which it is written. In many ways, its desired outcomes also are suspect. Taken in its entirety, it is so badly thought through that I would go so far as to state it basically is just another attempt to be opportunistic and to attack the Government, rather than actually to find some real, workable solutions that would have an impact in a real way on a day-to-day basis. I also believe it would give rise to unintended consequences and consequently once again when a problem arises, Sinn Féin are strong on rhetoric, as always, but weak on workable solutions.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister has not become any less arrogant.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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I see the Deputy still can make his-----

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We will have one speaker please. As nobody was interrupted on that side, please allow the Minister to speak.

9:55 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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Is it round two?

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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That will be tomorrow night.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary North, Labour)
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Unlike Sinn Féin, we are taking the steps that are needed to address the problems in the housing sector. They are complex and will take time. Houses take time to build. I would love to have a miracle and for them to be up immediately, but there is a time lag between the actions being taken and delivery of new housing on the ground.

Sinn Féin claims the Government has created the problems in the housing market, which is complete nonsense. The Government is dealing with the consequences of a dysfunctional property market, where rents have increased due to, among other reasons, strong economic growth with unemployment at 8.9% and a property sector which was wiped out during the crash caused by our predecessors in government.

However, the House will be aware that some weeks ago, the Government took significant action and I addressed a Private Members' motion on the topic again recently. We have adopted a series of measures to tackle the problems in the housing sector by taking steps to boost supply and give rent certainty to tenants.

The Government is bringing rent certainty by introducing amendments to the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 to address the issue of increasing rents in the private rented sector. Many of the Deputies may have been here for part of the debate on that Bill with the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, earlier this evening. The rapid increase in rents seen in recent years is being caused by a mismatch between levels of supply and demand for rental accommodation in the areas where it is most needed. This is quite obvious. We are addressing the supply problem, but it will be some time before that supply comes on stream. As I said, houses take some time to build.

The primary measure on rent is to change the provisions for rent reviews so that instead of taking place every 12 months, they will occur every 24 months. This innovative measure will give hard-pressed tenants certainty and stability pending the supply of houses coming on stream. The proposal includes a sunset clause that will see the measure expire on the fourth anniversary of its introduction. It will be open to the Minister of the day to deal with that. This is a crucial provision that sends a clear signal to the market that this is a short-term measure pending the restoration of equilibrium in the market as supply starts to come on stream.

In providing for an extension to the period in which rent reviews may occur from 12 months to 24 months, the Government decided on an approach that would bring stability and predictability for the tenant but without changing the fundamental mechanism for the setting and reviewing of rent as laid down in the 2004 Act. Government is mindful of the need not only to protect tenants from the circumstances that currently exist but also not to deter investment, which will limit the increase in supply that is needed. Unlike the Deputy's Bill, the Government approach balances the need to protect tenants with the need to ensure that more supply of housing comes on stream. Therefore, I will not be able to accept his flawed proposal.

Deputy Ellis's Bill seeks to amend the Housing Act 1988 with a view to introducing a definition of a person who is at risk of becoming homeless and creating a role for housing authorities to give such persons whatever financial and other support is required to assist that person remain in occupation of their home. The Bill's proposal to define legislatively someone as at risk of homelessness is far too broad to be workable within the remit of housing authority functions as laid down. Most households could be liable to be at risk of homelessness for reasons that may materialise which are beyond their control, for example, job loss and other economic factors, mental health issues, addiction issues or anti-social behaviour. The list is endless.

The premise of the Bill would create a legal obligation on the State to support financially an indeterminable range of risks, which is simply unworkable. It is not economically tenable and the Bill offers no qualifying criteria or limitations with regard to the circumstances or level of support to be put in place. For example, the wording of the Bill is so loose that it suggests that housing authorities should provide financial support to households with unsustainable mortgages of unspecified amounts. This goes far beyond the current role the State plays regarding housing need and private property. If these flawed proposals were adopted, the State could easily end up bankrolling unpaid mortgage debt on trophy homes. Sinn Féin has not done its homework here and if the Bill were to be passed the State could be open to all sorts of liabilities.

I am also curious about the provision that bodies other than housing authorities could determine whether a person should be considered at risk of becoming homeless and therefore eligible for the range of supports, including financial assistance, which would see that person remain in occupation of their accommodation. What seems to be suggested here is a potential - I am shocked to say this - privatisation of the means both to determine eligibility and to provide financial assistance but in the absence of any meaningful detailed criteria. This again suggests that this flawed Bill was not properly thought through and was put before the House opportunistically. Of course, it would not be the first time that Sinn Féin was strong on rhetoric and weak on substance.

In addition to many other flaws in the detail of the Bill's drafting, it also demonstrates a lack of awareness of the existing suite of tailored supports, offered by a range of Government and other funded services to deal appropriately with the various personal, social and economic issues that can lead to people being in the unfortunate situation of homelessness, for example, the health and social care services offered by the Health Services Executive and Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, economic supports available through the Department of Social Protection, Money Advice & Budgeting Service and others. The Bill would undermine the existing services and expertise that are on offer for specific circumstances and would instead place financial and support responsibilities on housing authorities for a range of complex causative factors, which would be a step in the wrong direction.

The Bill ignores the existing prevention measures which are operational through the Department of Social Protection for those in receipt of housing supports. Under the Department of Social Protection's interim tenancy sustainment protocol, which is currently operational in Dublin and Cork and is being rolled out to other areas, and national tenancy sustainment framework, uplifts - an increase in the level of rent supplement normally allowable - have been granted to more than 5,000 households in the past 18 months.

Furthermore, the Bill shows a lack of awareness of the range of tenancy-protection support and advocacy services currently funded through the various housing authorities that do such excellent work. These include the housing authority-funded tenancy protection service which is provided through Threshold, the housing NGO. This service operates in tandem with the Department of Social Protection's interim tenancy sustainment protocol. The service is aimed at individuals, couples and families living in private rented accommodation that are experiencing housing problems and are at risk of homelessness, especially due to rent increases. They do fantastic work and I want to acknowledge tonight that Threshold does amazing work Under the arrangements, Threshold provides advice and advocacy for tenants who are at risk of losing their homes prior to the case being referred to the Department of Social Protection. This is sufficient in many cases to secure the tenancy.

There are many cases of that kind. The extension of the excellent Threshold service to Galway and the commuter counties outside of Dublin is currently being developed, and it is under consideration to extend it further afield as well. I wish to see it rolled out to further areas because it is such a good protocol. New legislative provisions are not required to allow housing authorities fund proactive housing support services.

Public awareness is a most crucial aspect of homelessness prevention. Research commissioned this year by the Housing Agency found that the surveyed homeless families had little or no prior knowledge of their tenancy rights or of the various State and NGO services that could have assisted them before the loss of their tenancy. Public awareness campaigns have been an important part of the homelessness prevention efforts during 2015. That is something I dialled up, and insisted was dialled up, and through the range of measures I announced a number of weeks ago to protect tenants, we will be dialling up even more. The awareness of their rights by tenants will be part of the process by which tenants and landlords agree their contracts in years to come.

Deputy Colreavy said it is a pity Ministers do not hold clinics. He should be aware that I hold clinics all over Tipperary, in many towns, in my constituency offices and further afield in all the parishes. One comes across housing issues all the time. I am always struck in some cases by the lack of knowledge and awareness of tenants' rights. Given those rights are quite good, broadening awareness of them is something on which all Members should collectively work.

Two public awareness campaigns have been undertaken by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to advertise the services it funds, including public advertisements on Dublin Bus and many hoardings, to ensure members of the public are aware of the services that are in place that could help to support them at a time of distress or crisis in their lives. A significant level of media coverage was also generated, and while that is often critical in tone of State-funded services, it ultimately serves the purpose of creating awareness and building on awareness. We should all be advocates of raising awareness.

The Department of Social Protection has been proactively engaging directly with its clients while undertaking a communications campaign to ensure that rent supplement clients, who are worried about losing their home, are provided with information on the supports available. Initiatives have included text messages to approximately 50,000 rent supplement recipients; the availability of updated website information; information made available through social media in various formats and also through third parties on social media; and updating of the Citizens Information website and its micro site keepingyourhome.ie. A national poster campaign was also implemented, with posters distributed to social protection offices, post offices, citizens information centres, MABS offices, credit unions and to every Member in both of these Houses for use in their clinics.

The Private Residential Tenancies Board has been overseeing a €300,000 national advertising campaign to make tenants aware of their rights and landlords aware of their obligations because it is a two-way street. It is not just about making tenants aware of the vast rights they have under the legislation and the improved legislation that is going through the Houses, but also to make landlords aware of their responsibilities. This campaign, which ran across print, broadcast, online and outdoor media, has been developed on the back of recent research which found that 36% of tenants were not fully aware of their rights as a renter while many landlords are small-scale operators, with 65% owning just one property and 84% having two or one. Sometimes the 65% category is referred to as the "accidental landlords".

The long-term solution to homelessness is to increase the supply of homes. We all agree on that. The Government's social housing strategy 2020 was published in November 2014. The six-year strategy sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion - since then we increased the amount of funding - and restores the State to a central role in the provision of social housing through, inter alia, a resumption of direct building on a significant scale by local authorities and approved housing bodies. Hundreds of sites are under way across the country, which were announced in recent months. In addition, the strategy envisions delivering up to 75,000 units of long-term, quality accommodation to meet housing needs through local authority housing support schemes. There is a range of other measures as well.

We all know the lack of sufficient construction activity in the Dublin and Cork regions, in particular, has been a major contributing factor to the current lack of housing supply, with knock-on impacts in terms of homelessness that are obvious to everyone. A number of important measures have been taken already, such as initiatives to improve financing, legislative changes around the vacant site levy, of which I personally am a huge advocate, reductions in development contributions which were announced in recent weeks, and amended Part V provisions which deliver real homes instead of giving options to local authorities to take revenue for use in different areas. The new provisions will deliver real homes, turn-key homes, which is to be welcomed.

These measures, and the units earmarked under the social housing strategy, will take time to fully impact on supply, and in the meantime shorter-term measures must be implemented. The measures will include the enhanced supply of more affordable starter homes in key locations through a targeted rebate of development contributions in Dublin and Cork for housing supplied under certain price levels; new national apartment planning guidelines to reduce the cost of apartment building in Dublin city by approximately €20,000 per unit and; changes to aspects of the operation of strategic development zones to enable swifter adjustments to meet market requirements. All of those measures are very positive and could have a real impact on supply in years to come. Collectively, they could have a significant impact in particular in the areas where we have such demand, namely, the greater Dublin area and in Cork city.

This debate also requires that we acknowledge the significant activity that is, and has been, taking place to address issues of homelessness during 2015. Homelessness is a complex phenomenon and measures to address it require an integrated approach across Government, agencies, many NGOs, local authorities and many Departments. A range of measures is being taken to secure a ring-fenced supply of accommodation for homeless households and to mobilise the necessary supports in order to deliver on the Government's 2016 target. These measures have been identified in the Government's implementation plan on the State's response to homelessness, and in last December's action plan to address homelessness. The plans represent a whole-of-Government approach to dealing with the issues associated with homelessness, namely, the many aspects of housing and intercepting people, the welfare of all those who find themselves in a vulnerable situation and in health care, because many people, in particular rough sleepers, have very complex needs that have been discussed in this House by many Deputies on all sides.

It should be noted that of the 106 measures identified in the two plans I referenced, just 80 are still in progress while just 13 have yet to commence. This demonstrates the scale of activity in a very short space of time, with half of the identified measures already dealt with.

I want to refer briefly to a number of actions that we have taken. There has been a 32% increase in direct emergency homeless funding for 2016 and an increase of more than 50% over two years. This is funding with respect to my Department for emergency accommodation and so on. Much more funding comes across the whole of Government, all the agencies and local authorities. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive pilot of the housing assistance payment, HAP, including recent enhancements, allows an increase in the limits available to 50% above rent supplement levels. This increase will improve the competitiveness of homeless households on HAP in the private rental market and increase their likelihood of being able to transition to stable tenancies.

I also want to remind members of the ministerial direction I put in place requiring key local authorities to prioritise homeless and other vulnerable households in the allocation of tenancies under their control. That obviously has had a significant impact. Under this direction the Dublin region authorities must allocate at least 50% of tenancies to homeless and other vulnerable households, while the authorities in counties Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford have been directed to allocate 30%. We analyse these percentages quite a bit and we can recalibrate as we see fit.

The significant programme of restoring void local authority units - units that are boarded up and not in use - to productive use is in operation nationally. This is something in which I have taken a direct personal interest, because turning around such voids, as we all know in the political sphere, is the quickest way of developing new units anywhere in the country. We have exceeded targets in this respect. A total of 2,333 void units were returned to productive use during 2014 and the expected figure for 2015 is in the region of 2,500, which is nearly 5,000 units in two years. I say again in the House for the umpteenth time that Dublin City Council and the other local authorities in Dublin have been notified by me that they can establish as many teams as they want to open as many voids as they can anywhere across this city and that funding will be provided directly for that.

The high-level task force on social housing and homelessness, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, meets weekly. This task force has overseen the identification and delivery of properties to accommodate homeless families in the Dublin region, including the delivery of a NAMA property which is now operating as a 65-unit homeless facility with a single assessment centre for homeless families, and the acquisition of approximately 100 units ring-fenced for homeless households.

The provision of modular housing is another such action designed to provide immediate options. The Government has approved the delivery of 500 units of modular housing for homeless families across Dublin. This programme of modular housing provision is being implemented to mitigate the issues associated with an increasing number of homeless families accommodated in inappropriate commercial hotel arrangements. These units will provide emergency accommodation in the first instance, with each unit providing accommodation for a single household at a given time. While the placement of households in these units will be on a temporary basis, such placements will offer a greater level of stability than is possible in hotel accommodation while move-on options to long-term independent living are identified and secured. This is an innovative solution that will help deliver new units for homeless families in as short a timeframe as possible. It is yet another example of the determination of this Government to tackle the problems in the housing sector and to tackle homelessness as quickly and effectively as possible. I mentioned moving on people who have come through into homeless services. I acknowledge that hundreds - a thousand, by the end of the year - families or individuals will have been moved through emergency accommodation into accommodation by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. I particularly acknowledge the work of Cathal Morgan and all his team, who do fantastic work every day of the week.

I thank the House for again providing me with an opportunity to update Deputies on all actions that are being taken to address homelessness and in the area of housing, and the pressures in terms of housing and rent. I am acutely aware of the values held by our society and the threat that is posed to these values by homelessness, and we are taking urgent action across a range of areas to tackle it. It takes up most of my time every day. We are all appalled - I am no different in that respect - that anyone would sleep rough on the streets of our capital or any other city or town in the country, and that there are children who will spend this Christmas in emergency accommodation. However, it is a very positive reflection on our society and our political culture that an ongoing debate is taking place. There are very few nations across the world that place such an emphasis on the plight of the homeless, and fewer, even among our EU colleagues, that are so effective in implementing responses and bringing about solutions. When one has discussions with one's counterparts who deal with this issue in other countries, one will find that too, as I have on a regular basis.

On that note, I will conclude by referencing the Dublin Region Homeless Executive cold weather action plan, which is now in place. This proactive measure sees an additional 175 beds in place throughout the winter period. Accordingly, no one should sleep rough in Dublin this winter unless it is through their own personal choice. There are beds available for anybody who wishes to avail of them, and transport is available to take individuals to safe, suitable facilities. We are the only capital city in Europe that can guarantee a bed for anyone who is sleeping rough who wants one and will take one. Unfortunately, there are small number of individuals who obviously are in distress and have complex needs, mainly as a result of addiction, mental health issues or other complex issues, who do not want to avail of emergency accommodation. All efforts are made to assertively engage with such individuals and to direct them to the appropriate HSE health care and social services.

The issue of homelessness is complex and is about much more than simply having a roof over one's head and much more than just funding and money, as I have said many times before. I reassure all Members that I and my colleagues in Government will continue to do our utmost to tackle the ongoing and intricately connected problems in regard to homelessness, rent and the supply of housing for the future. Let no one have any doubt about the determination that I have, and that this Government has, to tackle the problems in the housing sector. We need to boost the supply of housing, both social and private, and I have set out above the many measures the Government is taking to do just that. The Government has also taken action to stabilise rents and to give rent certainty to renters, and to give additional protections to tenants.

Despite Deputy Ellis's best intentions, I believe this Bill is deeply flawed, has unintended consequences, is ill thought out and, clearly, does not represent anything like a workable solution to the problems in the housing sector or homelessness. Therefore, on behalf of the Government, I will be opposing this Bill.

10:15 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I understand Deputies Kitt and Cowen are sharing a 15 minute time slot.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I will take five minutes of that time allocation. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and I congratulate Deputy Ellis on its introduction. I heard Fr. Peter McVerry on "Morning Ireland" this morning talking about the anniversary of the death of Jonathan Corrie. He said also that this month a year ago, 40 families a month were becoming homeless.

A year later 73 families a month are becoming homeless. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland described this as "the changing face of homelessness" as many families are now becoming homeless, as distinct from individuals. Fr. Peter McVerry went on to say that even though additional beds had been opened, the number of homeless was higher than last year. He said on "Six One News" that, "As regards rough sleeping, very little has changed." He rightly talked about the prevention of homelessness and the need for radical action. Examples he gave were renovating and refurbishing vacant houses, expanding the mortgage to rent scheme and, especially, giving people their own space in the provision of housing. This is one of the important issues that should be put to the Minister. Fr. McVerry gave the example of 50 people sleeping on a floor, which is unacceptable because there are issues relating to people's dignity and the security and space they need. As he said, people can be terrified staying in dormitory-type accommodation. That is what happens in emergency accommodation. If people are sharing rooms, they fear for their safety and experience a lack of security.

I spoke recently about the increase in rents in County Galway. Rents increased in Galway city by 12% between July and September, because of which families lost their accommodation. The supply is not adequate, an issue which has to be addressed. The Minister announced the construction of 54 houses in the Galway County Council area this year and I hope money will be provided to allow construction to start because the issue of housing supply is so important. The county council has a waiting list that is eight to ten years long and the city council has an even longer waiting list. When people make inquiries and are told they will have to wait eight to ten years, it is hard to take. It is more difficult for a homeless family to make inquiries in these circumstances. People are moving nine or ten miles outside the city where rents are also increasing but where there are more opportunities to secure housing. It was interesting to read headlines in local newspapers about students at the end of August. One headline read "Rental Chaos for Students". They should have been able to find accommodation in the city, but they had to move nine or ten miles from it.

The Minister's party colleague, Deputy Derek Nolan, spoke well about the 50% increase in rents in Galway in the past four years. He gave an example of a three-bedroom semi-detached house. The rent increased from €800 per month in 2011 to €1,300 per month this year. This follows a housing shortage and house price increases. What has happened in Galway is similar to what is happening in other parts of the country. There might be some one-off housing constructed by people on their own sites and a small number of properties developed by NAMA. Can the agency not do something about the social housing issue? We want more social housing, not just private housing.

Threshold states rent certainty measures could be introduced by making amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 and points out that the law, as it stands, does not protect tenants or landlords from rapid increases or decreases in market rent levels. This creates a risk of homelessness for tenants and uncertainty for landlords as to their rental income. Rent certainty measures must achieve a fair balance between the property rights of landlords and the interests of the community at large.

10:25 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Like Deputy Michael P. Kitt, I welcome the opportunity presented by Deputy Dessie Ellis and his party to discuss this issue and the contents of the Bill, to acknowledge their right to do so and to compliment them on their efforts. I would not call the Bill "flawed". Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and many others have made suggestions in the past few years and if they had been taken on board, we might not have reached this juncture. If the Bill is adjudged to be opportunistic by the Minister, he should acknowledge that the opportunity was handed to them in the form of a penalty kick in so far as it was plain for them to do so.

It is important that rather than attacking the policies, proposals or suggestions made by the Opposition in the past few years, the Minister adequately attack the problem and allow us to look back in any given year at improvements that might have been made. It is particularly poignant that the Bill is being discussed on the first anniversary of the death of Mr. Jonathan Corrie. We, again, collectively send our condolences to his family. I acknowledge the hurt, difficulty and trauma experienced by many people on a regular basis and their families who are affected by the terrible dilemma that is homelessness, the threat of homelessness, the worry and fear of being left without a home and the greater trauma and frustration of knowing that should that eventuality become a reality, the State will not be in a position to help with what some have rightly described as a human right.

With many others, I hoped this terrible incident 12 months ago would be a watershed moment and the catalyst for the Minister to act where the Government had failed to act in the previous four years, albeit with different Ministers, namely, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and former Deputy Phil Hogan. However, having played a small role in the negotiations initiated by the Minister, for which we commended him with the best of intent and which were conducted in good faith, a year on the commitments to end homelessness or go a long way towards it, unfortunately, have not been realised. That is not just my opinion or that of various Opposition Members; it is also coming from those at the coalface. Others have referred to the commentary by stakeholders earlier today on Mr. Corrie's anniversary, including the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, Simon and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Local authority officials will tell the Minister that this problem has not gone away and that it has deteriorated further. It was a problem initially, it became a crisis and has now become an emergency which the Minister seems unable to unravel, which is most unfortunate. The resolutions he eventually brought forward in recent weeks were too little and too late. The vacuum in the meantime, not to mention the vacuum created by inaction in the previous two or three years, has resulted in significant increases in the rents being sought and paid by many, as previous speakers said.

The immediacy of the problem remains, notwithstanding the Minister's efforts, some of which have been commendable, as late and as little as they were. Rent certainty, rent controls and the deposit protection scheme are welcome developments which should have happened long before this. Somebody who could not afford to pay the rent or who was finding it difficult to do so six or eight weeks ago before the Minister's announcements still finds it difficult and many people cannot do so. We discussed the details of the Minister's proposals in the debate on the residential tenancies legislation earlier, but unfortunately they do not address the dilemma faced by the people concerned.

The Taoiseach refused the suggestion again today, as he, the Minister and others have continuously done over the last 18 months to two years, and will not entertain the possibility of increases in rent supplement. We accept and acknowledge that the supply situation will take time to unravel despite the late start that has been made. I reiterate that it has been a late start. It was too easy to say that the funds were not available. It is too easy to say that the Government would not help the construction sector during that time because it owed it something because of the association with a previous Government. That, at least, is the picture the Government wants to paint. It held water with the public and was an excuse for inaction on the Government's part and for many other issues pertaining to the previous election. That election campaign could be re-run in the next election. People will not buy that anymore. They are not interested in it anymore. As I have often said, people gave the Minister, his party and Government colleagues a huge majority and asked them to take their role seriously. It asked all members of Government who were given the responsibility and the privilege to enact legislation, to address difficulties, propose initiatives, put policy in place, allow it to be debated with colleagues here and the Opposition, to allow legislation to be scrutinised and amendments sought and accepted and ultimately to put better legislation in place to address these issues. The Government has let itself down in many areas in that regard. I can point to the highest level of guillotining of any Government. That was the sort of arrogance that took hold. It has been reiterated and repeated on several occasions against a backdrop of, supposedly, a 6% growth in the economy, of us having gone into recovery over 12 months ago and of an extra €1.5 billion being pulled out of the hat in the recent budget. The Government believes that budget is one which will allow the Minister and his Government party colleagues to be re-elected, because it has addressed the USC and taxation issues and has put more money in people's pockets, or so it believes. The increasing car insurance, let alone health insurance, puts paid to that.

Let us forget that scenario. The Minister has failed to listen to the best suggestion for addressing this issue in the short-term and for addressing the immediacy of the problem in order to stabilise the situation to allow the Government's building programme eventually to take hold, namely rent allowance and subvention. It will be the Government's greatest downfall. Only today the Taoiseach refused to entertain that suggestion.

There is no doubt there will be many Departments across Government which will come in under budget in the coming weeks. That is the election war chest that will be used to fight fires as they arise, if they arise, around the country in various constituencies. It should be incumbent on the Minister today to recognise the fact, on this day of all days on the anniversary that occurs, that in an area where the Government has failed miserably it should correct that wrong. Funding should be sought and collected from those sources and set aside to address this rent issue immediately in the form of rent supplement. That, at this late stage, would be welcomed by all sides of the House as a reasonable method by which this issue could be stabilised and people could be prevented from becoming homeless. That is what is being faced. There was also the eventual correction to the insolvency legislation whereby the bank veto gave them the power to ensure that families were put at risk, against the backdrop of housing not being available.

I do not understand why the Government is allowing the sale by NAMA of Project Arrow. A portfolio worth €7 billion is reputedly being sold for €1 billion, with 50% of it being residential units. They could be available for people on housing lists if the Government got them for €100,000 a pop. That is on the basis of the Government having been informed by NAMA in recent months that there will be a €2 billion surplus or dividend available to the Government when its work is complete.

They are just some final suggestions, at the eleventh hour, in the hope that the Minister might take them on board, despite the fact that he has failed to listen to them and acknowledge them in the past. I add my voice and support to the Bill. There may be elements that could be amended but that is what I would expect a caring and understanding Government to do. That is something I can live with. Any Member of the Opposition is entitled to play his or her part by virtue of the opportunity he or she been given by the electorate to represent them in a fashion that they see fit. If a Member sees fit to put forward legislation, a Bill or motion, that seeks to address the inaction of Government over five years which has brought us to this scenario, he or she is more than entitled to do so and deserves my support at least, if nobody else's.

10:35 pm

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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How many times will we discuss housing and homelessness without seeing measures that will make a difference? I know from my office and those involved directly in homelessness and housing that things are getting worse. There have been a number of strategies to prevent homelessness over the years, all of which have been unsuccessful. A preventative strategy is needed, a system whereby the local authorities can engage with people before they become homeless. It is acknowledged that section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 is now out of date. As the Minister said, housing advice, advocacy and tenancy support are all important. They are effective and cost-effective but interventions are limited in the current section 10. If the measures were as robust as the Minister said in his speech, we would not be seeing a worsening situation. The reality is that in the third quarter of 2015, rents rose by 3.2% and are increasing every month in Galway and Cork.

The lead in to the rent certainty was far too long. It should have been introduced almost immediately, overnight if necessary, with a lengthy discussion on it here. By doing so, the landlords would not have had the opportunity to increase rent, which is what we are seeing. I am losing count of the number of calls to my offices because of rent increases. The rent supplement has increased in some 5,000 cases but the Government is adamant that there is no blanket increase in rent supplement. I do not want to see extra money going to landlords for substandard accommodation but are there figures comparing the cost of increasing the rent supplement to the cost of emergency accommodation in B&Bs and hotels?

I wish to make a point about children in homeless accommodation and the long-term damage that is doing to them physically, mentally and emotionally. In my community, there are calls from various groups for extra supports to go to those parents. Like other Members, I was outside when the protest took place tonight. One image that really struck me was when somebody on the stage asked how we have got to the point now where we have normalised individuals and couples sleeping in doorways and in sleeping bags on pieces of cardboard.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, United Left)
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I support the Bill introduced by Deputy Ellis because it is part of the process of discussing and teasing out exactly what is happening on the ground. It is not an accident that today is the anniversary of the death of Jonathan Corrie on the doorstep across the road. We in this House should all remember that tragedy. The people who supported the demonstration tonight outside this House include Help 4 the Homeless, Ballyfermot, North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community, the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, the Dublin Simon Community, Brother Kevin Crowley from the Capuchin Day Centre, Housing Action Now, Merchant’s Quay, the Young Workers' Network, Dublin Council of Trade Unions, SIPTU, Right 2 Change unions, and the Migrant Rights Centre. They are all people who are experienced on the ground and they say that one year on the situation is getting worse rather than getting better. If that does not register with the Government then there is something desperately wrong. The point was made tonight that in 2013 approximately 20 families were presenting as homeless. In 2014, the number increased to 40 families per month and in 2015 it increased to 80 families per month. There is something desperately wrong. There are 3,500 people homeless.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Many families are couch-surfing. I have families attend my constituency office every day of the week with their children when they find themselves homeless. One particular family from Walkinstown was offered a place in Clontarf. Their children go to school in Walkinstown, meaning the cost of travelling across from Clontarf to the children’s school on social welfare payments would be impossible. The family in question ended up staying with their parents, which is causing untold problems in the home.

The demands are simple: house the homeless, introduce rent controls, and build social and affordable housing. The Minister said that it takes time to build housing. Only yesterday, at the housing committee in Dublin City Council, we were told the modular housing proposed for Drimnagh will not be built until June of next year. In 2007, a covenant on the land in question in Drimnagh stated it should provide housing for the elderly. In the time that has elapsed, officials could have had services and housing for the elderly built there. There is something strategically wrong with the way the Minister is going about providing social and affordable housing. Fr. Peter McVerry said tonight that the Government will not go to Europe to call for a national emergency in housing because it is too busy trying to present Ireland in a different image to Europe and not the reality on the ground where people are suffering homelessness.

Debate adjourned.