Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Supporting Children out of Emergency Accommodation and into Homes: Statements


1:30 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the House for the opportunity to speak again on this important issue, which I think touches everyone's heart. It is important that we focus on it here in the Dáil and in committee, which I know has happened recently. It is timely that we are having this discussion again. The last time we had a debate on this matter was last May. A great deal has happened since, including the publication last week of two reports on child and family homelessness by the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was probably the main person behind the former report, so I am glad she is here for this debate. I have read through both reports and there are many recommendations in them, which we will study. Some reflect the work that is ongoing and perhaps changes and tweaks to it, and then there are some other new recommendations and changes to legislation. We will look at all that. I did not read all the submissions to the report but I read some of them. There was some acknowledgement during those discussions that in certain areas we are making a little progress but that we must make a lot more and try to continue with this. We always say in these debates that we all accept that until we have ended the situation in which people are living in emergency accommodation long-term, we must keep our focus on this and keep making all the changes possible.

Resolving homelessness is one of the most important challenges facing the State and is, without doubt, one of the key priorities for my Department, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, all our colleagues in the Department and the Government. The Government welcomes the publication of the reports. As I said, we will examine them. Both reports show that the number of families and children who have need of emergency accommodation remains far too high. I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House the measures that have been put in place across Government to tackle this issue. We will go through and try to deal with the recommendations at a later stage.

The initial response to this, for the first couple of years, is about Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. We must ensure that this does not happen again. I refer Deputies to Project Ireland 2040 and the long-term commitments contained therein. I am conscious that some of the submissions to the various committees - certainly those from Mike Allen of Focus and the Ombudsman for Children - referred to when the next crash will come, what will happen then and whether we will have changed anything. We do not intend for that to happen ever again. I strongly believe that if this House sticks to the plans we have put in place, with long-term planning, management of housing and commitment to delivery of social housing, that will not happen again. Governments will come and go, but I hope that when it comes to housing policy, we stick to long-term thinking and plans which involve managing State lands and resources and delivering housing at a steady, sustainable pace, not a boom-and-bust pace, and that we will build plenty of social housing in good years. It does not matter how, where or why, but we are in this situation because of a mismanaging of housing in general for a many years. If we manage it properly, that will not happen again. That is why it is important that, apart from the initial Rebuilding Ireland response, money is set aside for the next ten years to bring over 12,000 or 13,000 social houses on stream every year. We need to continue and build on that because if we keep at that pace, there will not be a social housing shortage in the long term.

From the point of view of housing construction in general, a key part of Rebuilding Ireland is that we would have a sustainable construction sector and that we would deliver those 28,000 or 30,000 houses every year for the next 20 years, not 90,000 one year and 10,000 the following year. That is the important part. I hope that will do away with the fear that this could happen again. It should not. Financial crashes and other events can happen worldwide , but this country should be able to manage its housing stock regardless of such occurrences.

Under Rebuilding Ireland, we have set out a commitment to deliver 50,000 new social houses into the system across all the various streams while availing of approximately 87,000 housing assistance payment, HAP, supports, including through the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. I recognise the calls in some of the committees that we not rely on the private sector for our housing. This is only a short-term reliance. Naturally, as we rebuild social housing stock we should not have to rely on the private sector through HAP and so on. However, if we had not had it in recent years, we would have a major problem. People would not have had homes to go to. I hear a lot of commentary to the effect that people do not like HAP, but where would those making such comments expect 50,000 families to live if we did not use HAP in the short term? Naturally, we do not want to stay with it long-term. I recognise that Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, who is here, and the former Minister, Deputy Burton, made some changes to the rental scheme at the time to bring in HAP, which I believe is a better scheme because it encourages people to go back to work if at all possible rather than penalising them, which was the case in the past. By the end of this year more than 100,000 households will have had their housing need met under Rebuilding Ireland through all the various schemes. The numbers on the housing list have fallen from 91,600 to 68,000, which is a 26% reduction. It is a little bit of progress - no one is saying it is not - but we still want to go a lot further.

I am speaking about people on the housing list whereas the focus today is on those who are homeless, but both are linked in various ways. Delivering more social homes is the key to this. Last year over 8,000 were delivered. We have just finished a round of negotiations with the local authorities. We will be over the 10,000 mark this year, which is a good step up from where we were two or three years ago. It does not give us enough housing to give a house to everyone who is homeless or on a waiting list, but the trend for the delivery of housing is going in the right direction and we need to continue it. However, the trend for people becoming homeless and the prevention of homelessness is not right, and that is what we want to focus on today along with the child aspect of it.

In the Dublin region, where family homelessness is particularly challenging, important work is being undertaken in the area of homelessness prevention. For every two families who presented to homeless services in the first nine months of this year, one was found a home immediately without the need to enter into emergency accommodation. That is the key part. If those families presented two or three years ago, we would not have been able to do that; they probably would have entered emergency accommodation. Today we can find a house straight away for 50%, or at least one out of two. Then, sadly, the other family would enter emergency accommodation. We are trying to ensure that that is for a shorter period. I am conscious that individuals who become homeless and families presenting as homeless have different needs, and these are addressed in both reports. Some are economic, some are rental, but the breakdown is roughly half and half. Others are social and so on, but rent pressures and the inability to access private rented accommodation are causing about half the problem. This is well recorded in those reports. We are intervening much earlier now to prevent this in the first instance. It is important that we continue to do this while we deal with families who become homeless and enter emergency accommodation.

The number of families presenting to homeless services in Dublin remains high but is falling. In fact, it has dropped by 9.5% in the first nine months of this year compared with 2018. Again, the figure is far too high, but at least if we can stop it rising and then reduce it gradually, we will be on the right track. That is the case in Dublin. I recognise that the figure is going up in other areas. The figures started high in Dublin and then went up in other places, so it makes sense that one would seek to bring the figure back down in Dublin, which would eventually have an impact outside the city.

We must remain focused on this. Over the same period, 786 families have exited hotels, hubs and bed and breakfast accommodation and moved into their own homes in Dublin. This is a 48% increase on the exits recorded during the same timeframe in 2018, which proves that we can do this if we focus all of the necessary resources on it. The issue is being able to reach all of the affected families. It is not enough to only enable a certain number of people to exit homelessness; we must do more and get to the rest as well.

One of the key priorities for my Department is preventing the flow of families and children into homeless services. We know that many of the families presenting as homeless have previously resided in a private rented property and we are committed to strengthening and improving security of tenure for tenants. The key focus of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act which became law in May is to deliver on a number of commitments flowing from Rebuilding Ireland and particularly the commitments made in September 2017 to provide the RTB with additional powers and resources to deliver enhanced protections to both tenants and landlords. That will certainly have an impact in the months ahead. The key measures and reforms are designed to enhance the enforcement powers of the RTB, provide greater security of tenure for tenants and further underpin the operation of the rent pressure zone arrangements.

The HAP place finder service is playing a vital role in helping families out of homelessness and in housing families who find themselves in emergency accommodation. It is a key service and additional staff have been appointed as place finders to help people. In the past, people presenting might have been handed a HAP pack and told to find a house but that is not the answer for a lot of people. Some people need a little extra help to find accommodation and that is what the place finder provides. It is important work because for certain categories of family it can be very hard to find HAP accommodation. Issues like family size as well as other reasons are relevant and that is where we have to intervene. I have heard a lot of commentary from certain front-line organisations about HAP. They do not like the scheme and do not encourage people to use it. That is fine if that is their view but that can have a negative impact on families because we do not always have vacant social houses that are suitable and those families might not be next on the waiting list. HAP must be used as a short-term solution for many families but sometimes families are discouraged from using it, which is a shame. In the majority of cases, the HAP scheme works quite well. I accept that it does not always work and I am sure everyone here has stories of families for whom it did not work but over 40,000 families are using the scheme quite successfully. It is important to see it as a short-term solution for some families which is far better than living in family hubs or hotels.

Through the aforementioned place finder service, all local authorities are now provided with the option of paying deposits and advance rental payments for any households in emergency homeless accommodation, in order to secure accommodation via the HAP scheme. The place finder positions are funded by my Department and are in place in 23 local authorities. More than 9,300 households had been supported by the homeless HAP scheme nationally up to the end of quarter three of 2019. It is having an impact but I stress again that while we do not view it as a permanent solution in the long term, it is helping in the short term.

Housing authorities also oversee and fund a range of homeless prevention and tenancy sustaining initiatives. A number of ongoing public awareness campaigns, including those by the RTB, Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, are all playing an important role in making households aware of the supports that are available. When it comes to children that are homeless, we work across Departments and agencies. There is an interdepartmental homeless agency team working together on all of the different interventions that are needed. Some do a good job on that, through the various agencies. I accept the reports calling for more interventions which we will go through in the course of today's debate but we are responding to needs as quickly as possible. The issue of children being born into homelessness was highlighted earlier this week. Again, there are extra protections and services available to homeless women who come forward and are pregnant. We have specific accommodation available to address their needs. We wrap services around such women and work very carefully with families in that situation to help them in what is a very difficult time. We also provide ongoing supports thereafter. If there are individual cases of which Deputies are aware, I ask them to let us know and we will make sure that the services are provided. We respond to that need in a different way because we accept that it is a very difficult situation.

I have run out of time. I am happy to stop now and come back in at the end of the debate.

1:40 pm

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The Oireachtas Joint Committees on Children and Youth Affairs and Housing, Planning and Local Government have spent a lot of time on this issue. They interviewed a large number of advocacy groups and those working in the area, including the Ombudsman for Children and Focus Ireland, among others. The resulting report, which was launched in the audiovisual room last week, contains 20 recommendations. As I said at that launch, the committees operated like yin and yang. The housing committee looked at the issue from a practical and mainly legislative point of view. It asked what needs to be changed through legislation to enable progress to be made or to overcome roadblocks to exiting homelessness. The children's committee on the other hand looked at the issue from a very child-centred perspective and offered practical solutions for children.

I will now draw attention to some of the more sensible solutions put forward. We discussed the issue of homeless families in emergency accommodation and the difficulties they faced in filling up the long summer days. One practical suggestion was the provision of Leap cards for all children so that they could travel with their parents. I would love to see that practical solution delivered. Another solution proffered was providing free access to Office of Public Works sites. There are many fabulous OPW sites all over the country. If families had Leap cards, they could leave their emergency accommodation and visit various sites. Families could have a very valuable day out. Homeless children would be no different from other children enjoying a day out with their families and finance would not be a barrier.

We do not want to see homeless families with children having to self-refer for accommodation. We spoke at the committee about local authorities and the need for empathy. When parents present to the local authority homeless service, they are asked questions in a box-ticking manner about whether they have children, how many children they have and so on. The appropriate number would be filled in and that would often be the end of the conversation but we do not want the conversation to finish there. There must be real engagement and understanding of the needs of these children. They need to continue to attend school, be involved in their communities and maintain their relationships with their friends. We all know how important the formative years are in children's lives but homelessness breaks stability. School is the one constant for many families. Parents do their best to keep their children at their local school and to ensure that nobody knows that they are homeless so that they can hold on to their pride. This is why we must try to move away from self-referral and one night only accommodation for homeless families with children. When the local authorities are addressing issues for homeless families, they must listen to the voice of the child. They must include questions about school, involvement in clubs and so on. We need to see more empathy.

The committee also had a wide-ranging discussion on family hubs, not all of which was negative by any means. Indeed, it was a very balanced conversation. The main issue with hubs is how long families can expect to be in them and what is acceptable in that regard. Families do not want to find themselves institutionalised. There must be a timely pathway out of hubs. There are 26 hubs in operation and they are a mixture of good, bad and ugly. We heard various stories about them but the Ombudsman for Children and Focus Ireland were very fair in their assessment of the hubs. The main recommendations regarding hubs is that they are inspected regularly and that all adults using family hubs are Garda vetted to reassure parents that their children are in a safe environment. We also recommended that efforts be made to involve children in the local community and to provide them with good outdoor space.

Finally, there is a significant role for the Department of Education and Skills in this area. It could provide additional funding to schools to enable them to provide a hot meal and a snack before children go home and to provide spare uniforms. The latter would make a real difference when families have difficulties with washing clothes and so forth. Children's pride is very important here so involvement in this regard should be limited to the class tutor and the school principal. The aforementioned committees have put forward practical suggestions that would not cost an awful lot but would make a world of difference to homeless children.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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Homelessness is a national scandal scarring our streets.

Having a secure roof over one's head is the cornerstone of a decent life. It is the basic starting point for every family, but has been denied to many. Unfortunately, children are bearing the brunt of this failure, which has been caused by Government policy. If we are to solve this problem, we must change the Government's mindset on housing, which insists that the market will deliver the solution to the problem and that deep down, homeless people are responsible for their own misfortune. It has allowed vulture funds into our economy unregulated, and that mindset in every other part of Government policy has meant the strong get stronger and the weak in our society despair of any kind of fair deal from the State. The result is that 10,000 people are homeless, almost 4,000 of whom are children. This cannot be allowed continue. We must embrace a housing first approach and ramp up the direct build of social housing. A legislative right to housing should be put in place to clarify people's entitlements and prioritise tackling delays. The Government must stop blaming local authorities and slash the red tape to get to grips with the problem.

The number of homeless people in Ireland has grown from 2,858 in December 2014 to 10,000 today, which is a 360% increase. These are unprecedented levels of homelessness. Despite this, the Taoiseach told us some months ago that the figures were not the worst compared with other countries, which was a scandalous attempt to normalise something that should be unacceptable in our country. This again points to the prevailing mindset of this Fine Gael-led Government. Under Fine Gael, the balance of spending shifted from capital investment in new units to rental subsidies for the private market. Fianna Fáil has tried to reverse that with pressure under the confidence and supply agreement. We need a housing first approach if we are to address this crisis. That means getting homeless people into appropriate accommodation with adequate wrap-around services for their needs, as Deputy Rabbitte outlined in her contribution.

Fianna Fáil supports a legislative right to housing and is progressing a Bill on this issue that is designed to ensure people's legal entitlements are clear and prioritised by local authorities. This Bill is based on best practices in Scotland. Rather than announce a policy shift to speed up social housing provision, the Minister threatens to strip local authorities of some of their powers when they have too many homeless families in hotels and bed and breakfasts. The root of the problem is that the Government is failing to develop social housing. The Land Development Agency, LDA, has been discussed since Rebuilding Ireland was launched in July 2016. However, the Bill to place that body on a statutory footing is still going through pre-legislative scrutiny. There are serious questions over whether the LDA will be on or off the balance sheet, which has a direct impact on its ability to invest in land. The housing departments of local authorities have been mired in delays over the lack of departmental guidance on the required cost-effectiveness analysis. The Department sets up hurdles but does not inform local authorities on how to deal with them. The Department continues to control spending, yet blames local authorities for not building. In budget 2019, it was agreed to raise the discretionary threshold for local authorities' spend on housing from €2 million to €6 million. Reducing the four-step approval process for developments to a single stage would reduce the current 59-week pre-construction stage by two months, but this change has been resisted by the Government.

We have managed to have a significant impact on Government policy since the February 2016 election. We set a target of 45,000 social housing units. We have achieved first-time buyer support, the revamp of the rent-to-buy scheme and the strengthening of tenants' rights. We have managed to treble the social housing investment from €430 million to €1.5 billion, and establish an affordable housing scheme. This demonstrates that there are answers to this complex problem. However, without the will and a change in the mindset about which I have spoken, it is hard to be hopeful about a solution to the homelessness problem this side of a general election.

1:50 pm

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Mitchell. I am always reluctant to discuss homelessness, and particularly child homelessness, in this way because it means it is accepted. We must first state that it is totally unacceptable, disgraceful and completely unfair. Those words are not even strong enough for the kids growing up in bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels or the family hubs about which we hear so much. There are no family hubs in my constituency but there is emergency accommodation in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. I also think of the children living in overcrowded and difficult circumstances, who are staying with family or friends, and living in sitting rooms or five to one bedroom. That is not a normal existence for children. Most of us in this House are parents or have nieces or nephews, and we would not accept or want that life for our children or families. We should not accept it for other children.

We can have this discussion every week, month, or year, but the figures keep increasing time and again. We need to look at the solutions. It sounds ridiculous as it is so sensible, but the solution is to build houses. We should be doing whatever we have to in order to ramp up and speed up that process. This has gone beyond a crisis. It is an emergency situation. It is hard to believe that we are facing into 2020 and are still having this discussion.

I also want to talk about domestic violence because a number of children are in refuges with their mothers who have had to flee very difficult and dangerous situations. They are not even counted in the homelessness figures, and neither are the children growing up in sitting rooms or with six or seven of them in one spare room. The figures are therefore far worse than what we see. I do not know how often we can say it, but this is completely unacceptable.

We need to look at short-term measures to get people out of emergency accommodation, as well as longer-term measures such as building houses. However, we also need to address the people who fall into that middle category, where they do not qualify for social housing support and are paying such high rents that they cannot even think about saving for a deposit for a mortgage. The councils used to have a scheme that provided people with mortgages on a 3% deposit basis. That was changed in 2016 at the height of the housing emergency and child homelessness crisis. It is absolutely unbelievable that we changed that. That rate has now increased to 10%, which means the councils are no different from a bank or building society. The Government is tying the hands of local authorities, and progressive local authorities in particular. They are very active, and are doing their best to address this situation and deal with very difficult individual cases every day, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. Council staff are going home every day thinking about how they want to get this family or that one sorted before Christmas. We are tying their hands by doing things such as changing the mortgage scheme. We need rent freezes and rent controls like they have in other countries. There are rent controls in New York city, which is one of the most capitalist cities in the world, yet our Government cannot seem to accept that as a viable solution. The reality is that there are too many landlords sitting in this Chamber. We need to get real about that.

It is difficult to know what else to say on the issue because, as I have said before, coming into this House to talk about homelessness is like Groundhog Day. In the run-up to Christmas, children are writing their letters to Santa, getting excited about Christmas, and wondering whether they will still be in a hotel or sleeping on their granny's sitting room floor or couch on Christmas Day. That is just totally unacceptable. Are we actually going to address this issue and change it, or will we just keep having statements on it every week, month or year? We always talk about this issue around now because it is an emotive time of year, but we need to start addressing it. The solutions are there. An all-party Oireachtas committee specifically about housing and homelessness was created in 2016 where those of all parties and none were represented and agreed a set of proposals. It is nearly four years later and those proposals are not being implemented. It is not as if the solutions are not there. It is not a question of funding, because the Government has told us time and again that the funding is there. What is the problem here? We cannot talk about statements on child homelessness as if they are a normal thing, though that is what is happening.

For children in rural areas, there might only be one form of emergency accommodation available, which is far away from their schools or family supports.

What measures are available? I have heard much reference to wrap-around and additional supports but I know of no family which has received supports such as extra money for childcare or to feed children while confined to a hotel room. What supports are available? I ask the Minister of State to outline what the supports are, who receives them and how one can access them. I do not think they exist. Like many things, they exist as a plan on paper but they are not available to people, and certainly not those in rural constituencies.

2:00 pm

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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I could have copied and pasted the speech I gave last year on this issue because the only change since then is that the number affected has increased. There are now almost 4,000 homeless children in this State. That is the Ireland the Government has created, where the better off prosper while those who must do without suffer. The figures do not account for the homeless families who self-accommodate or those who double up with family or friends. Thousands of children are sleeping two or three to a bed in a single room in the home of a relative, while their parents sleep on the floor. No one knows what effect this is having on young children. Homelessness is stealing the developmental years from thousands of children. More important, it is robbing them of their childhood. The Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, of which I am a member, recently launched a report on the impact of homelessness on children. Homeless children are more likely to have poor school attendance, poor diet, inadequate rest and poor living conditions. Numerous studies have shown the detrimental impact of homelessness on children's physical, mental and emotional health.

I believe all Members will agree the State is actively harming children by denying them a home of their own. For what? So that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil can enrich and empower the better off in society, the elite who they have always striven to put to the top of the pile while forgetting about everybody else. Fine Gael crowed about how it brought Ireland through austerity and rebuilt the economy and it now tells us it is rebuilding Ireland. No one in areas of my constituency such as Darndale, Coolock and Baldoyle would agree that it is doing so. Those living in a family hub, where families are crammed in like sardines, would not agree it is rebuilding Ireland. Hannah, aged 8, who was referenced in a report compiled by the Ombudsman for Children and entitled "No place like home", would not agree that Fine Gael is rebuilding Ireland. She described the hub in which she was living as a jail for children. She was worried because her five-year-old brother had tried to run away on several occasions. According to Charlie, aged six, "[Living here] makes me feel sad. There’s nothing nice about how I feel." Rachel, aged ten, stated, "Some days I didn’t even want to wake up because I didn’t want to face this day". The report quoted Thomas, aged 16, as stating, "I don’t tell people I live here, it’s a homeless hub ... it’s embarrassing. It’s horrible, it’s not nice."

The Minister of State will claim that the Government understands. He will mournfully state that it is doing all it can and that no child should experience such horrible circumstances. That is all well and good but what is the Government doing about it? It has done nothing in recent years. The homeless numbers have been increasing since Fine Gael took office. Month on month and year on year, more people have been entering homeless accommodation.

Sinn Féin tabled a motion of no confidence in the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in September of last year. He survived the motion thanks to the inaction of Fianna Fáil. Those speaking on behalf of Fianna Fáil would do well to remember that it is only its cynical support for a Government it claims to oppose that is keeping Fine Gael in power. Fianna Fáil is directly supporting the Government and its shameful record in addressing the housing crisis that plagues this State. Perhaps Fianna Fáil Deputies will reflect on that.

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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We are again discussing child homelessness in the House. Something needs to happen. We need progress and a change of policy but there is no evidence of those. The most recent figures available were compiled at the end of October and show that 25 more children were living in emergency accommodation than was the case the previous month. Children make up the biggest group of homeless people in the country. New figures will be released next week. I have no great expectation that they will show an improvement in the situation. We normally receive the statistics at the end of the month. Nothing seems to be changing for the better.

I have before me a leaflet produced to promote Rebuilding Ireland, which was launched more than three years ago. Pillar 1 of the plan regarded addressing homelessness. Although it laid out very fine intentions, the situation has consistently worsened. Something must be done to break the cycle. I wish to explore whether there are specific proposals to which the Government will agree. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy English, who is present, is genuinely concerned about homelessness and homeless children, but we need changes in policy, as was noted by previous speakers.

One measure which must be undertaken is to speed up the construction of affordable homes and, in particular, social homes using State land. In spite of the fact that we are told that money is no object, local authorities have indicated that schemes which must go back to the Department are being delayed. The local authorities are not totally blameless either. Information was released today or yesterday regarding funding allocated for Traveller accommodation not being spent by several local authorities and I do not exonerate local authorities either. The Department and local authorities cannot continue to bat developments back and forth between them while more and more children become homeless.

I am aware of several relatively large families from a Traveller background which are in homeless accommodation and some of which have been in hotels for a long time. The Minister previously acknowledged that there is a particular difficulty in respect of large families. Surely, something can be done about that. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy English, to give that issue specific consideration. Most local authorities do not build four-bedroom or five-bedroom accommodation and that needs to be addressed. Construction takes time. I would not normally advocate the usage of funding to acquire houses but we need to quickly intervene on behalf of larger families. The purchase of larger homes is one practical measure that could be taken to reduce the number of homeless children. I know of several large families which are being housed in hotels. It is difficult to find long-term accommodation for them because the local authority does not have large enough homes. That is one of the practical things that needs to be done. It is a very broad issue. I do not know exactly how many of the nearly 4,000 homeless children come from a large family but I suspect it is a fairly large percentage. That is one proposal I ask the Minister to consider.

All Opposition parties support the introduction of a rent freeze.

Fianna Fáil has recently come on board with that idea. The only party unwilling to implement a rent freeze is Fine Gael, which is the party of Government. Such a freeze was previously imposed in 2015 or 2016. Another speaker referred to it being done in other parts of the world. Berlin recently froze rents for five years. It can be done. Many of the families who become homeless are coming out of the private rental sector. It is either because their rents have been increased or they have been given notice of termination. While the Bill we dealt with recently makes some improvements, the Opposition proposed a number of measures that would have reduced the number of families who are kicked out of their homes, particularly where they are being put into homelessness because of the sale of a property. That needs to be tightened up and families need to be protected.

The Minister of State mentioned a place-finder service but in my experience, those HAP place finders are doing a limited amount. I understand that there is a restriction on how much extra money can be allocated to keep people in their homes. I am not advocating putting a pile of extra money in the pockets of private landlords.

Prevention of homelessness is key. Other countries require local authorities to intervene and there is an obligation on them to be informed very early on when a family is given notice. A certain amount of that goes on in Ireland but the system is not sufficiently tight. Also, the intervention does not happen early enough.Those are some of the practical things that can be done to prevent children being forced into homelessness with their families.

As I have mentioned several times, I produced a Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. It went to the committee for pre-legislative scrutiny a few months ago. I thank the members of the committee - I am not a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Bill had good pre-legislative scrutiny and the committee was very supportive of it. I got communication back indicating that the Minister has a certain amount of time in which to consider the Bill before it goes to the next Stage. I strongly urge that the Bill proceed. It will not solve all the problems, but it will oblige housing authorities to take into account the needs of a child as a member of the family, rather than to just treat children as dependents of homeless adults. Organisations like Focus Ireland believe that subtle difference will make a difference in ensuring that they are given absolute priority and that, for example, families are not sent to Garda stations or told to go off and find their own accommodation. If that legislation goes through, it will make a difference.

While that measure would help, Opposition parties have agreed on the right to housing. A number of us were involved in the Raise the Roof campaign, which called for a right to housing, which exists in more than 80 countries. The Ombudsman for Children has advocated for that, as have a number of other human rights organisations. We have seen no movement from Government on that measure.

All of these things make a difference but no single one will solve the problem. What is happening at present is not solving the problem, which is getting worse. We should not have to come back to the House to debate these issues time and again without seeing some progress and seeing the figures going in the opposite direction. I do not believe that will happen unless some of these measures are implemented. Other Members have made proposals similar to mine. We need to see action on the part of the Government. We need this to be treated as the emergency that it is.

I welcome the work of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs in publicising the human cost. Deputy Mitchell cited some of the individual children and their situations. At a conference about two years ago I heard Kitty Holland, a journalist with The Irish Times, describing the effect on individual children she had spoken to who were living in hotels. We have all met in our clinics people whose children are not able to have any kind of normal childhood when they are living in these circumstances.

We are approaching the end of November 2019. We need to see a shift that changes the statistics so that month after month we will not be saying that more children are homeless. I hope we can get some practical outcome from this debate.

2:10 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Paul Murphy and Boyd Barrett.

Almost 4,000 children are living in emergency accommodation. Where is the Minister? He should be here for this debate. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians and the capitalist market are responsible for blighting the lives of thousands of young children. That is no exaggeration. A Royal College of Physicians report indicates that a child in emergency accommodation is more likely to be bullied, less likely to see his or her friends, more likely to have asthma, an infectious disease, suffer poor nutrition or be obese and twice as likely to be hospitalised. It notes what it refers to as clinically significant levels of mental health and behavioural issues in 40% of the children surveyed. With 3,873 children in emergency accommodation, 40% of that number is more than 1,500.

It gets worse. This morning we read that 119 child-protection notices were made to Tusla by managers at emergency accommodation centres in the first eight months of this year, which is more than were made in the entire year from December 2017 to December 2018. Of these, 52 related to emotional abuse, 28 to neglect, 26 to physical abuse and 13 to sexual abuse. These figures under-represent the number of children at risk of harm in homeless services because they only represent the cases covered by mandatory reporting for the managers of the centres.

These horrors are directly related to the policies being pursued by the Minister of State, Deputy English, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the rest of the Government. I could give many examples, but I will give one. Time and again the Minister of State has been offered the chance to support a policy of banning evictions into homelessness. He knows that the majority of these children were previously in private rental accommodation and that such a policy change would have spared them from the horrors of homelessness. However, the Government chose not to support such a policy. It chose to defend the property rights of the landlord class rather than support the rights of vulnerable children thereby supporting the greater good. How the hell do the Minister of State and the Minister sleep at night? I ask that in all sincerity.

I conclude by making two appeals. My first is to the voters of Cork North-Central, Wexford, Dublin Mid-West and Dublin Fingal. I appeal to them not to give their votes to the parties that have allowed nearly 4,000 children to be homeless. Those parties are Fine Gael, which leads the Government, and Fianna Fáil which props it up all along the line.

My second appeal is to the general public and working-class people in particular. I call on them to join the protest in Cork and Dublin on 5 December to protest against homelessness in the State. We need a total change in housing policy and to get that change we need to start with tens of thousands of angry people on the streets.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Solidarity)
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I find it very difficult to listen to the Government repeat its excuses about the very worst aspects of child homelessness.

3 o’clock

We hear them regularly at this stage. This is presented as a terrible natural disaster, which everyone is working very hard to try to sort it. That obscures the reality that this is an unnatural disaster, one that has been created by the Government's policies. We have children and families in homelessness, which will affect them for the rest of their lives, and we have the flipside of that coin, which is those who benefit from the Government's policies, namely, the one in three landlords on the Government benches and the developers. There are winners and losers from the Government's right-wing, neo-liberal approach to the housing crisis. The number of landlords receiving rent has almost trebled since 2009. Corporate landlords pay nothing in tax while the top 50 construction companies recorded sales of €8.4 billion last year, a 25% increase. They are the winners and the direct consequence of them winning and the policies designed to allow them to win is the horrendous crisis of child homelessness and homelessness in general.

How can Government members sleep at night? I think it is because they are utterly out of touch with the reality of ordinary people's lives and do not care. I thought it was revealed very callously and brutally by the answer given by the Tánaiste during Leaders' Questions when he described the rent increase for council tenants as modest. The Tánaiste thought that an increase of €13 per week for old age pensioners on low and fixed incomes is modest. He clearly thinks that an increase of €3 per week for everybody else is nothing. That is the cost of a latté for the Tánaiste but the reality is that for those families, that is the cost of school lunches for almost a week. The Government simply does not care and is completely out of touch.

I want to put a human face on this with a case with which my office has been dealing this week. It involves a young mother who was living with her family in completely overcrowded accommodation. She was sharing a room with her children and her younger 11-year-old brother was sharing a room with her parents. The situation became worse when she became homeless after family tensions meant she had to leave her family home. The costs of that crisis are immense and include mental health distress and familial breakdown. That left the mother and her children in a very precarious situation. They were not originally considered homeless by the council because they had lived in the family home. She then had to go to a homeless centre to be considered homeless meaning she had to stay away from her community indefinitely and her children's school indefinitely. That is the real cost of the Government's policies, for which it is responsible. It is also responsible for the winners and the profits they are making.

2:20 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The report by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland on the welfare and mental health of children living in homelessness could be summed up by simply saying that the Government is guilty of child abuse. There is no other way to describe it. Its failure to put a secure roof over the heads of 4,000 children means that the State is guilty of abuse. The lifelong consequences for many of those children rest firmly on the shoulders of the Governments that have precipitated and presided over this crisis. In 2011, when Fine Gael and the Labour Party came into Government, the programme for Government promised to end homelessness by the end of the term of that Government. The opposite happened. By the end of the term of that Government, we had reached the worst level of homelessness and child homelessness in the modern history of the State and this has continued to get worse under this Government.

It is important to say that there are winners out of this and they are very conscious of it. IRES REIT, the biggest landlord in the State, declared at the beginning of this year that its portfolio was worth €921 million, just under €1 billion. Its share price had jumped 13% and its net rental income had jumped 13.5% on the previous year. Margaret Sweeney, the CEO of IRES REIT, summed up the situation when she said the following:

Rental demand remains strong and, whilst it is beginning to increase slowly, the supply of residential accommodation remains constrained. The prospects for growth in the Irish market remain good.

That statement sums it up. What is bad for the children living in homeless accommodation, whose welfare is being destroyed and whose futures are being stolen, is good for IRES REIT and it knows it. It is lining its pockets. The worse the crisis is, the more profit it makes. That is true of Cairn Homes, the largest owner of zoned building land in Dublin, which drip feeds housing on to the market to keep prices high and shares out the profit bonuses to its directors each year. It is shameful.

The Minister of State said the Government is improving the situation but the truth is that more than two thirds of its social housing plans rely on HAP, which is paid to private landlords. Even if its plan succeeds, which is doubtful, the net result will be that the vast majority of people will continue to be prey to the IRES REITs of this world, which will continue to line their pockets, and will periodically be evicted into homelessness causing the sort of hardship and suffering pointed out by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. It is shameful.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy never reminds me that I am not watching the clock.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Despite my efforts and those of my colleagues on the left, I am ashamed to be part of a system and a Dáil which think it is okay to have 10,397 people, of whom 3,873 are children, in homelessness as of 29 October. We do not even have the up-to-date figures. I am deeply ashamed of that even though I have done my best. I listened to an eight and a half page speech from the Minister of State. He is a very logical and reasonable man who is very helpful. However, he is here when the senior Minister should be here. He is here trying to defend something that cannot be defended. A Government with a little sense would say at this point, when 10,397 people are homeless, that it is doing something seriously wrong. It would forget ideology and simply say that it is doing wrong. It is not okay to normalise or institutionalise homelessness. We are trying to get over our history of institutionalisation and, once again, the vast majority of people in these institutions are women and children, and some men.

As I speak, 306 families in Galway are homeless. We do not have the figures for children. As of this week, the CEO of Galway City Council told Galway Bay FM that 90 families have been served with a notice to quit. I welcome the Minister of State's comment that HAP is a temporary measure but that is a sleight of hand and is certainly not correct because the change introduced in 2013 by Fine Gael and the Labour Party was a fundamental change in housing policy. In the language used locally to us, we were told that it was the only game in town. Not one house was constructed in Galway city from 2009 onwards. The Minister of State has acknowledged this. The reason no houses were constructed is because money was used for other items such as HAP rather than on building houses. It is not accurate, therefore, to describe HAP as a temporary measure. It was a permanent policy change and therein lies the crux of the problem.

We then saw the use of HAP increase exponentially. More than €500 million is now spent on HAP, not to mention the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and long-term leasing. The Government's policy is to actively support a market that has utterly failed in every aspect of housing. There is a place for landlords and the private market but the Government must be i lár an aonaigh. It must in the middle of the fair. It must send a message to the market that a home is not a commodity to be traded. It is a place to live - the most basic requirement before anybody can live a healthy life and participate in a democracy. That is the message the Government must send out.

Regarding the terrible housing crisis in Galway city, people have been waiting 15 years for a house during which time they have never been offered one. I would like the Minister of State to take this on board. How can it be that somebody on a waiting list for 14 or 15 years has never once been offered a social house?

What is wrong with that system?

In response to the crisis, the Government finally set up a task force which I welcomed. It put senior people on it, although some of them had presided over the failure to highlight the housing crisis in the first place. Be that as it may, we have heard nothing from that task force. The announcement of its establishment was made to great fanfare - inappropriate fanfare I might add during a housing crisis - but we have still heard nothing. No minutes have been published. There is no evidence of meetings being held. Most importantly, there is no plan for a city which has no overall housing plan. The Minister of State’s colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, agreed with me that Galway has, once again, developer-led development. There are acres of land around Ceannt Station and the docks, as well as other public and institutional lands. However, we have no overall master plan to build public housing for everybody and for the common good. Everybody should have a right to public housing, if that is what he or she wants, with a controlled rent. That sorts out the whole problem of stigma and the utter nonsense of who should live beside whom. Public housing must be built. There is any number of precedents across the world.

I was at my wits’ end listening to an eight-page statement which did not reflect on the seriousness of the problem or offer to change policy.

2:30 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I agree with Deputy Connolly that the title of this debate is shameful for the Oireachtas and the country. It is particularly shameful for the Minister of State and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government that there is a debate on supporting children out of emergency accommodation. Children should not be put in emergency accommodation in the first place. If it were completely necessary, it should be for a short time and then they should be rehoused into permanent and secure accommodation the following day. In the UK, there is a six-week time limit on homeless families being kept in unsuitable temporary accommodation such as hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. In Scotland, a seven-day time limit applies.

Babies are now being born into homelessness. Focus Ireland reported recently during the launch of its Christmas appeal that 140 babies of families with which it is working were born into homelessness. Focus Ireland has seen increases in the number of families it has helped but that only 9% of the children it works with have a child support worker. I have raised this issue many times with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone. At the end of September 2019, 3,873 children were kept in emergency accommodation, of whom nearly 3,000 were in Dublin.

Many colleagues have quoted from the report from the Royal College of Physicians about the shocking impacts of homelessness on children. We have all seen it in our constituency offices. These children are fearful and shaking at the prospect of losing their homes. The Minister of State must know that too, yet he has failed to take the requisite action. The European Observatory on Homelessness referred to the shocking lack of privacy, the lack of space for children and nowhere to bring home friends. Most importantly, there is the stigmatisation that children suffer. Going to school from homeless accommodation puts an incredible burden on these children at primary and second level which I see in my constituency. Just because of the Government’s ideological background, it has failed to address this issue.

Fifteen years ago, long before this Government came into office, FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless, defined child homelessness as the most extreme form of child poverty. As Deputy Boyd Barrett rightly said, it is also a form of child abuse being practised by the Government, for which it may be held accountable many years from now. When we look across the EU, of course, we can see the situation allowed to develop in Ireland is among the worst examples of family homelessness in the 28 member states.

The most recent study from the European Observatory on Homelessness at the end of 2017 found several countries such as Denmark and Portugal with low numbers of homeless families with children. Even states like North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany and Flanders in Belgium show proportionately how much worse the levels of child and family homelessness are in Ireland. Sweden effectively has no long-term homeless children because most homeless families are found long-term accommodation almost immediately. There is the Housing First policy in Finland where its Government will not allow people to become homeless and takes direct action by creating the necessary social housing. The UK, which we resemble most and constantly copy, after nine terrible austerity years under a savage Tory Government, has been a model for the disgraceful conditions which have been allowed to develop in parallel in this country. Yet Ireland’s GDP per capitais higher than almost all of the other 27 countries. Even when we count our national income as GNI*, Ireland is still among the wealthiest countries in Europe, yet the Government has permitted 4,000 of our children to become homeless and remain in emergency accommodation for up to and over two years. The bulk of the Government’s housing solutions are based on the housing assistance payment. The delivery of social housing by the Dublin and Fingal local authorities has been at a snail’s pace.

I commend the recommendations of the housing committee’s report, including the right to housing to be enshrined in the Constitution. Our group has a Bill before the Dáil on this. The committee also recommended a statutory duty be placed on housing authorities to regard the best interests of the child as paramount.

While all the report’s key recommendations are worthwhile, the problem is that the Minister of State has no intention of implementing them. Hopefully, in the forthcoming general election we will substantially address this matter.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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To say I am happy to speak on this important issue would be wrong. Like Deputy Connolly and others, I agree it is a shocking situation.

Last week, the Oireachtas housing committee released its report on family and child homelessness. It is a stark and sobering assessment of the damage being perpetrated on children by the current homelessness strategy. Like previous speakers, I have no axe to grind with the Minister of State, as he is doing his best. However, it is a scandal and a disgrace that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is not in the Chamber for this debate. If it was opening an envelope or turning a sod for the third time on the same site, he would there with his hard hat. Cá bhfuil sé inniu? Níl sé anseo.

The housing committee intensively engaged on this issue for some considerable time. It heard from all the main stakeholders and its assessment is pretty damning. What is clear is that the current approaches are simply not working. That is why the committee made 14 recommendations aimed at bringing improvements and, more importantly, relief for families and children into the equation. The Minister of State must know from his constituency clinics about these desperate situations. We have them every day of the week in our offices but we cannot do anything for them. The committee recommended the Housing Act 1988 be amended to place a statutory duty on housing authorities to regard the best interests of the child as paramount, as well as to have regard to the needs of the family and to make provision of suitable accommodation for the family unit to ensure its effective functioning. A family cannot function if it is sleeping on the street or in emergency hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation. The Minister of State is a family man himself and knows no family could do it.

We need to urgently limit the amount of time a family can spend in emergency accommodation in order to minimise the risk of long-term adverse outcomes.

This is why we are calling for the Housing Act 1988 be amended to place a limit on the amount of time. It is entirely unacceptable that we continue to allow a broken system to persist. It is a system that is destroying the well-being of children and creating permanent damage to families in every town and village in the State.

The April homeless figures provided by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government show the total number of homeless families at 1,729, which includes 3,794 dependants. Figures issued in May by Focus Ireland show that a total of 94 families with 137 dependent children became newly homeless in Dublin alone in April. What is going on? This morning, the Tánaiste spoke about his record in housing. Is Deputy Eoghan Murphy the sixth or seventh Minister with responsibility for housing? Would we be better off if we never had a Minister with responsibility for housing? We all welcomed it and thought it was great but there is such inertia and inability. It is a shame the Minister of State does not have colleagues with him to support him and the Minister is not here either. It is shocking.

In a briefing note to the committee, Focus Ireland made a number of clear points. It noted that the latest Government figures exclude families who have been assessed as homeless by local authorities, are receiving homeless support funded by the Department with responsibility for housing, or are living in emergency homeless accommodation that has its own front door. The figures are being manicured day in day out. There are all kinds of nuances there and the figures are wholly and entirely deceptive.

Focus Ireland has called for the number of families living in own-door emergency accommodation to be published each month along with the headline figure. Until we get this honesty, clarity and direct assessment and see the real figures, we are going nowhere. If we cannot do this, it is a sad state of affairs. Focus Ireland advises this is the practice in England and Scotland, where similar properties are used to accommodate homeless families. It gives a clearer picture of the nature of the problem for policymakers and services. If they can do it in England and Scotland, why are we hiding? It is the same in Northern Ireland. If a house becomes vacant, it is let again within six weeks. Here, we have them closed for three years. They are an absolute blight on our towns and villages but it is an absolute scandal when there is such a need for houses.

Focus Ireland research shows that even a short period of homelessness often has a very negative impact on families and their children. Could any of us imagine not having a home? More than 40% of the families who are homeless in Dublin have been in emergency accommodation for more than a year. Emergency accommodation is for a week or two and not for 12 months. I do not know where Fine Gael's moral compass has gone. I knew it was never really interested in the ordinary little people, but my goodness, the figures we have now are shocking. I take great umbrage at the script read out by the Minister of State because it was waffle. He knows himself that-----

2:40 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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You did not even hear it. You were not even here for it.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Were you even here for it?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I was here.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Did you hear all of what I said?

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Of course I was here.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Do not tell lies. You were not here for it.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I was here for the start of it and I watched it in my office. Okay?

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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You were up and down and around but you were not sitting and listening to me.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I heard your thing and I read it. It could be used in a different part of this building. Focus Ireland also said the current situation would be much worse without its work as it helped more than 400 families, in partnership with the State, to secure a home last year. It did not do it on its own. I salute it, Fr. Peter McVerry and all of the other groups. Those 400 families were helped to move on from homelessness. The charity stressed that much good work is being done but the crisis will continue without a substantial increase in social housing provision and a move away from a reliance on providing more emergency accommodation and hubs. That is what we have to do. We built them in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1970s and 1980s. When we had no cranes or equipment we built houses by the hundred.

The greatest con is being perpetrated on the people as the Government moves figures around and moves announcements. The Government thinks it is conning the people but it is not. It might be codding some people in this Chamber but it is not codding the people outside this Chamber. They are fanacht libh. They are waiting for the Government to come to the door. I am sure they are getting it in the by-election campaigns already. As I have said, we must move away from the reliance on emergency accommodation. It is huge money.

Focus Ireland has called for a number of key actions to be taken by the Government to help ease the crisis, but will it take them? It has called for the introduction of a specific substrategy to address the needs of homeless families, given the scale of the crisis. It has also called for the setting of time limits, whereby no family or person will be homeless for longer than six months. This will require new measures to prevent men, women and children losing their homes and improved measures to help those who are already homeless. Of course, the Government will not bring in these measures because it would mean upsetting its friends in the banks. It will not stop the banks. Fine Gael had its former MEP out the other morning with mealy-mouthed words. He could not condemn the CEO of KBC Bank when he wanted to close the page on tracker mortgages. That is the arrogance. Fine Gael sent in its former MEP to be the spoofer for the banks. He is getting a fine remuneration. He could not even condemn the words. He said they were unfortunate. That is the thinking Fine Gael has. That is the respect it has for the people who are homeless.

Focus Ireland has also called for a commitment to building more social housing in sustainable communities, but the Government will not do this. It tells us it is building houses in Tipperary, but we cannot find them. Focus Ireland also called on the Government to ensure that local authorities publish guidelines for their staff setting out what a child first approach to homeless families would involve. I salute Tipperary County Council front-line staff who are at the coalface every day of the week in Clonmel, Nenagh and elsewhere. Focus Ireland also called on the Government to ensure a stream of social housing is made available for vulnerable people leaving care who would otherwise face homelessness.

We need to have respect. The Government should cut out all of the codswallop and spin and make meaningful efforts. We speak about fast-tracking and various schemes introduced by the Government. They are all Ponzi schemes and the Government knows it. They are not accessible. For example, the home purchase loan schemes in Tipperary are just not working. The system is broken and the Government is unable to fix it. It cannot even face the people. The Minister of State is here on his own with not another Fine Gael or Independent Alliance member. The Minister of State should hang his head in shame and send a message to his boss, the Minister, that he is hiding. He cannot hide from the people with their pinn luaidhe when they go to vote. The Government will have no place to hide when the people write uimhir 1, uimhir 10 or uimhir 0 on the paper. The Government cannot hide from the people because the people have found it out. Its contempt for the people is just staggering.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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We are discussing a very grim topic, and by bringing it into the House we are almost normalising it and saying it is something that is a common occurrence. Of course, it is all too common these days. Homelessness is a national scandal that blights our streets and communities. Having a safe and secure home and a roof over one's head should be the cornerstone of a decent life, but many people are deprived of this. Children are bearing the brunt of the failure of many Government policies. Almost 4,000 children are now experiencing homelessness, and this is absolutely appalling. We need to do far better in the House and in the communities we serve. We need to embrace a housing first approach and ramp up the direct build of social housing. A legislative right to housing should be put in place to clarify people's entitlements and prioritise tackling delays. The Government has to stop blaming local authorities and slash red tape to get to grips with the crisis that confronts us.

In the House we speak a lot about housing and homelessness. On the Government side there is an awful lot of superficial activity. There is a lot of talk and commentary, and there are a lot of announcements, ribbons being cut and yellow hats, but there is an extremely lack of tangible action such as the creation of supply, which absolutely means building.

I have to hand a litany of commitments and supports promised by successive Ministers. I also have a litany of Government failings in respect of developing social housing. This is where the real problem lies.

The Land Development Agency, LDA, has been talked about since the Rebuilding Ireland launch in July 2016. It still has not come to fruition and the legislation is still subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. There are serious questions over whether the LDA will be on or off the balance sheet. It would have a direct impact on its ability to invest in land.

On red tape, Ministers are always talking about local authorities and what they should be delivering. From dealing with Kildare County Council on an ongoing basis, I can state honestly that the hurdles set up for local authorities are in many cases insurmountable. There is red tape and there is a lack of departmental guidance. There should be a far more effective and streamlined process.

On spending thresholds, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government continue to control spending, yet they are blaming local authorities for not building. They have refused to raise discretionary spending from €2 million to €6 million. That should be done. In budget 2019, it was agreed to raise the discretionary threshold for local authorities, reducing the four-step approval process for developments to a single stage. This would reduce the current 59-week pre-construction stage by some two months but this has been resisted absolutely by the Government. The biggest crime of all is over-reliance on the private sector. Fine Gael has overseen a shift away from building homes towards pouring money into the private sector. The amount spent on rent supplement and HAP payments, as opposed to bricks and mortar, is appalling.

I would like to consider the impact of homelessness on children in education. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, I can attest that the committee devoted a lot of time and effort to this. There are 105 adults in Kildare who are homeless today and 145 children. That is 250 homeless in emergency accommodation in my county. A recent survey by the Irish Primary Principals' Network found there are children experiencing homelessness in 27% of primary schools. The impact is very negative in terms of school attendance, adequacy of diet, and motivating and supporting children. A report issued yesterday by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland states research has proven that 38% of homeless children have significant mental health, developmental or behavioural disorders. That is absolutely frightening. There is no Government policy to cater for the educational needs of children living in emergency accommodation. These children are not mentioned in either the action plan for education or the statement of strategy of the Department of Education and Skills for the period 2019 to 2021.

Many children experiencing homelessness do not attend DEIS schools so do not have access to the supports that students in DEIS schools are provided with. This is a great anomaly and it needs to be addressed by the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the Minister for Education and Skills.

The future of our society depends on our ability to foster the healthy development of the next generation. We are failing the next generation of homeless really badly. Toxic stress has been described by academics in many universities examining the impact of stress on children. There can be no greater stress than when a child and his or her family have been made homeless.

We are all shocked when we hear the homelessness figures that emerge. New figures are due next week and I do not expect them to show an improvement. Many of those affected are in the greater Dublin area. Interestingly, however, we heard that the percentage increase is actually higher outside Dublin. Homelessness has increased by 11.5% outside Dublin. The significantly negative experiences of the children are shocking. When a child loses his or her home, he or she loses a sense of place and, in many cases, a sense of identity. It is absolutely awful because he or she also loses his or her primary source of support.

Families lose their houses for many reasons. If they are renting privately, they may have been evicted. This is happening all too often because of the great increases in rents. Family homes can be lost in circumstances involving domestic violence or family break-up. The reason does not really matter because people in homelessness suffer on many levels. We must determine how we can best help them and their children.

Last year, I met a number of families with children who were sitting State examinations. I recall a girl who was sitting her leaving certificate examinations. Her parents were heartbroken and felt they were failing her. Parents suffer when they are unable to give their children security, routine, predictability and the ability to form and develop friendships. In such circumstances, a school often has to take over to offer support. The affected individuals should be given supports because sometimes school is the only safe place where a child can enjoy a routine that he or she may have been used to.

Being homeless affects every aspect of a child's education, including behaviour, attendance, educational attainment and social response. The lack of cooking facilities in emergency homeless accommodation can mean children do not get proper breakfasts and that they are unable to bring proper lunches to school. Schools have not received any communication or correspondence to support them in dealing with such circumstances. No more than parents, teachers in schools are doing their best to support the children. A cross-departmental approach, involving extra funding for non-DEIS schools and home-school liaison, is needed. Society continues to fail these children at many levels. Teachers, schools and parents want to do the right thing. It is up to us in the Oireachtas, including the Minister, to provide the children with the supports they need.

2:50 pm

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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I will try to touch on some of the issues. I can address more through correspondence. In the past few minutes, Deputy O'Loughlin outlined best why it is so important that we focus on solutions. I said in my opening remarks, which not everybody present heard, that this subject touches everyone's heart. It is a matter we all want to address. It is important that the Houses respond and have debates like this to focus on what we are trying to do and what additional steps we can take.

The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, could not be here today. He is out of the country. He sat down with me last night and we went through the issues concerning this debate. When I speak here today, I speak on behalf of him, my Department and our Government. He tries to be here as much as he possibly can. He has contributed to the past two debates on this matter. He is very much involved in driving the change we are trying to bring about. We are bringing together all the relevant Departments.

Deputy O'Loughlin was correct that there has to be a cross-departmental approach to tackling all forms of homelessness, especially child homelessness, and to providing all the various services. The authorities responsible for education, social protection, Tusla and so on are all involved in this. They are all around the table. That is what Rebuilding Ireland was about. It is to bring everyone together to focus in on this. They are all trying to make the necessary changes and do more.

It is absolutely the case that not enough is being done if there are still close to 4,000 children in emergency accommodation. We all recognise that. I started my opening statement by saying we know that not enough is being done here. It is untrue to say there is nothing being done, however. Not enough it is being done. Until everybody is out of homelessness and has a house, we cannot stop. There is no doubt about that but one can only fix this action by action and piece by piece, not by waving a magic wand or hoping it will go away.

It will not go away. We must focus every day and every week on what needs to be done across every Department. As Ministers, our job is to ensure that is being done, to track it, follow it, put the money behind it and to change policy if need be. Change will happen as we go along.

It is not true to say that nothing is being done or that the Government is blaming the local authorities. We are not. That is the media commentary; we did not say it. Earlier this week I complimented local authorities on their response and the turnaround in delivery. I want to be very clear on that. We have gone from only 75 houses being brought forward at the end of 2015 to more than 10,000 social houses being brought into the system this year. Approximately 6,400 houses are direct builds. We met with all the local authorities in the past two months to check all the figures, as we do on a weekly basis, to make sure they are on track. They are on track. I compliment the delivery of housing, which has completed turned around. It is not being held back by red tape or a lack of funding. No local authority CEO has ever asked me to change the €2 million in funding to €6 million, which Fianna Fáil keeps harping on about. That is not the issue. If it were, I would hear about it from them because they are the ones we ask to do it, and they are doing it. We asked them to do more and to put more of a pipeline in place in the future.

3:00 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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They are all too cosy.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
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Let us be clear on that. I get a sense from some of Fianna Fáil Deputies that they believe this is an attack on the LDA. I spoke at the outset about the importance of making sure this situation does not happen again. At the presentation of both of the reports we are discussing today, some speakers, in particular the Ombudsman for Children, talked about this happening again when the next crash occurs. It cannot happen again. That is why we must put in place long-term plans. I will not go back over my entire speech, but I made the point that we have made long-term plans to prevent housing difficulties such as we are experiencing now and to prevent the situation from ever happening again. The LDA is part of the long-term solution. It is not mentioned in Rebuilding Ireland as part of the short-term solution in the first couple of years. It is charged with managing the State land to deliver more than 150,000 houses over the next 20 years.

Other speakers, including a Fianna Fáil Deputy, referred to mindset. They said it is the mindset of the Government not to provide social housing. I did not make political points in my opening statement, but I remind people of why we are here. When 90,000 houses were built in this country in 2007, only 4,000 of them were social houses. That is approximately 4% of activity. We have not built enough social housing in the past and that is the reason we have difficulties today. Thankfully, this year, more than 30% of the delivery of more than 20,000 houses will be social housing. That is how we must address this in the future in order to prevent it from happening again. Members should not tell me about mindset: this is not about mindset. It was in the past, but that is no longer the case. It is about how quickly we can deliver houses. In fairness, Deputy Funchion touched on this. The solution is housing. The Deputy referred to what the committee asked for in 2016. Number one of the committee's many recommendations was the delivery of 10,000 social houses a year. That will happen this year. Next year we will build 11,000 houses, but it must happen every year, not just when Fine Gael or Labour are in government but no matter who is in government. All parties must commit to that and hang on to it. I have not heard those commitments from everybody else. Very few solutions were outlined today. The two reports contain recommendations and we will implement most of them. It is not correct of Deputy Broughan to say that we will not. We will look at the recommendations and if they are worthwhile, we will implement them.

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked a specific question about whether we would buy large houses for families who are caught in emergency accommodation. We are doing that. There are large families, in some cases Traveller families, who find it very hard to find a solution through the rental market. We do step in and we will use money to buy housing for them. Local authorities have been asked to do that. There are many other solutions. People asked about the hubs and the training of staff. I wish to be clear: all staff in family hubs are vetted and linked in with the various agencies as well. We provide services through the Departments involved as well. I could go back through it all here, but I will send messages on that as well. To be clear: there is no reason for someone to be in emergency accommodation long term. Thankfully, the majority of people now are in emergency accommodation for fewer than six months. I remind Members that of every two families that present, we find at home for at least one of them immediately. In the past, we could not, but now we are. It is still not enough and I do not say it is but it is going in the right direction.

While we are building and replenishing the housing stock we must work with the private sector. There is no choice but to use the HAP scheme because, without it, 40,000 families would not have a home tonight. However, people on the front line who claim they are operating with the best interests of families do not recommend HAP as a solution. It is a solution in the short term and it is better than a family hub or hotel on the journey to a permanent house. I cannot be any clearer in my message on that as well.