Wednesday, 14 November 2018
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
71. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government his views on a constitutional right to housing; if he is examining the implications of such a right; the steps he is taking towards realising that right for persons here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46921/18]
Given our experience over the past decade of poor performance in the delivery of social housing, does the Minister agree with the many excellent civil society groups, including the Mercy Law Resource Centre, who argue that we should insert a right to housing into our Constitution? Numerous Opposition Deputies have tried to bring forward motions and Bills on this issue, including Deputy Thomas Pringle who introduced the Thirty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill 2018. Is it now time to include the right to housing in our Constitution?
I thank the Deputy for his question. As he may be aware, the eighth report of the Convention on the Constitution recommended that a range of economic and social rights, including the right to housing, should be inserted into the Constitution, subject to available resources. A motion to refer that report to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach was passed by the Dáil on 28 September 2017 and by the Seanad on 11 October 2017. I look forward to the committee's deliberations on the matter in due course.
I have previously stated that the convention's proposal merits further thought and due and careful consideration, paying particular attention to the role of Government, rather than the courts, in deciding on the allocation of resources. I also firmly believe that the best way of ensuring that the State fully meets its obligations to those who need a home is through continued delivery on the ambitious programme of action set out in the Government's Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness and the development and implementation of further policies and measures, as required.
The significantly increased Exchequer investment in housing since 2016 is resulting in a substantial ramping up in social housing delivery and a consequential reduction in the numbers on housing waiting lists. The wider programme of actions being implemented is also resulting in considerable increases in the supply of housing in the market generally. This demonstrates how an unprecedented level of political and financial commitment can deliver housing supports on the ground for those who need them most, responding effectively to the housing needs of our most vulnerable citizens while positioning others in society to meet their housing needs themselves. The Government remains firmly focused on making the further progress necessary in this regard, irrespective of what transpires following the Oireachtas committee's consideration of the Convention on the Constitution's report.
Does the Minister agree that including a right to housing in our Constitution would provide a basic floor of protection for people? A total of 81 jurisdictions around the world have either a constitutional or legislative right to housing. In Europe, countries such as Finland, Scotland and France have legislatively or constitutionally insisted that people have a right to shelter. This right is also included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Social Charter. All of this would indicate that the Government should move on this issue.
The Minister seems to be suggesting that including a right to housing in our Constitution would impinge on the Government's ability to deliver housing. However, the Government has not delivered and is only beginning to ramp up delivery now. We are often told that Articles 40 and 43 of our Constitution lay down the right of private ownership and the general right to transfer, bequeath and inherit property and while there is a section which delimits those rights, it needs strengthening. Surely this is something with which the Minister would like to be associated, given that housing is his ministerial responsibility.
As the Deputy knows, we recently made three important changes to our Constitution but this followed on from processes involving the Constitutional Convention and Oireachtas committees. In that context, I am happy to let the committee do its work, to deliberate on this matter and come back with recommendations to the Dáil and the Government.
Countries that have a constitutional or legal right to housing have not been able to provide the basic floor to which the Deputy refers. Those countries with a constitutional right, including South Africa, Belgium, Finland, Spain and Sweden, all have a homelessness and housing problem. Those countries that have a legal right, including Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Scotland, also have homelessness and housing problems. Enshrining such a right in law or in the Constitution will not necessarily provide the floor the Deputy mentioned.
I agree that people have a right to security and dignity and that the Government has a responsibility to provide housing. That is why we have such an ambitious programme of housing delivery, starting with 50,000 homes under Rebuilding Ireland. Under the new national development plan, the target is to provide 110,000 social housing homes between 2018 and 2027. In addition, we will also deliver subsidised homes through various affordability schemes that we are rolling out. The Government is working, through both policy and resources, to do everything possible to meet peoples' housing needs. We do not need a constitutional right or a legal obligation to do that but will do it anyway. If the committee makes a recommendation in that regard, we will consider it.
If such a right were in the Constitution or in legislation, it would be possible to go into court and argue and advocate for people who are homeless, something that is precluded at the moment. What is the Minister's own view on this? What does he think about the proposition, as the Minister with responsibility for housing? Is this an issue on which he is prepared to take the lead? Generally, we have seen political leadership on some of the other matters to which he has referred. The Minister may not be in favour of a general constitutional right to housing but given the fact that more than 4,000 children are in emergency accommodation, with thousands more living in overcrowded accommodation, would he at least favour a constitutional amendment to give children a right to housing?
There has been strong criticism from, for example, the Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ms Emily Logan, who has stated that homelessness is an acute denial of the human rights of children.
I do not need someone to go to the courts to advocate for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. We are doing a great deal of work with the local authorities and through funding our partner organisations, such as the Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland, to put in every care and support we can for people sleeping rough, people in emergency accommodation or people at risk of entering emergency accommodation. Next year, the Government will spend more money on housing than it has ever spent in a single year.
That is the commitment and dedication we are giving to solving our housing problem and our homelessness crisis. We have to ask ourselves a question about the balance of power and responsibility between the Judiciary and the Oireachtas when it comes to the allocation of resources. That is something the committee is looking at. That said, we can find ways within the existing constitutional provisions to look at the current balance of power between the individual and the collective to see if we can rebalance it towards the collective.
In the context of rent pressure zones, we are capping the amount of money people can earn from their properties. We are also changing other rights in this regard as well. Within the existing provisions - and without making a change to the Constitution - we can rebalance things in favour of the collective in order to meet people's demands and needs when it comes to housing and, in particular, when it comes to the terrible crisis relating to homelessness. That is what we are doing.