Thursday, 11 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
9. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government if local authorities have discretion in their application of the recent changes to the household means policy issued in March 2021. [54983/21]
17. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government if the amendments to the household means policy of March 2021 allows for recent changes in circumstance to be taken into account; his views on the fact that these amendments have meant that persons with significant time on the housing list are being struck off the list entirely; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54982/21]
The recent change in the circulars regarding income thresholds has had a seriously adverse impact on many families. It has knocked people off the housing list who have been on it for eight, nine or ten years in a way that is arbitrary and wrong. I do not believe that there was any intention for that to happen. It is an unintentional consequence, but it is a problem that I would like to be addressed. I ask the Minister to give it his attention.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 17 together.
The 2011 social housing assessment regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority, in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. The 2011 regulations do not provide local authorities with any discretion to exceed the limits that apply to their administrative areas.
Under the household means policy, which applies in all local authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI, universal social charge and additional superannuation contribution. The policy provides for a range of income disregards and local authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature. The determination of whether an applicant household meets the income criteria is based on a calculation of their preceding 12 months' net average income prior to the date of receipt of application. This ensures that the most comprehensive picture of a household's current and previous income is available at the point of carrying out the assessment.
Social housing support is intended to address a household's long-term housing need. Rent supplement is a short-term income support for people in the private rented sector. If there has been a recent change in a household's circumstances and the household requires short-term support with its rent, it is open to it to make application for rent supplement. It remains open to that household to apply for social housing support at any stage, subject to meeting eligibility and need criteria at the point at which they apply. The documentation required with regard to proof of income is set out in the social housing application form. A degree of discretion is permitted to the local authorities as to the extent of documentation the authority deems necessary to ascertain a household's average income over the preceding 12 months.
Under regulation 28 of the assessment regulations, a household's qualification for support may be reviewed at the discretion of a local authority. Regulation 29 provides that the household's qualification for support shall be reassessed at the point of allocation of support. It has been the case since 2011 that where a household on the waiting list exceeds the income limits at the time of review, it may be removed from the list. The household means policy has not changed that position. It provides for a standard method of assessing households means, which applies right across all local authorities.
There are a few points I wish to raise. I will provide examples of what this policy change is doing. I will re-emphasise that I do not think there is any agenda here. These are unintended consequences, but they needs to be fixed. The Minister of State has emphasised the point regarding discretion. That is not the local authorities' understanding of it and it is not my experience of it in Cork. From listening to other Deputies, it is also an issue in other local authorities. It is not a case of one tor two local authorities misunderstanding the situation. Local authorities are reading it as being a case of them having less discretion. That is the reality. I would probably like the circular to be revised. here is a wider issue about how low the income thresholds are, but in the meantime, the level of discretion needs to be strongly emphasised to local authorities and made very clear to them.
I have dealt with well over a dozen families who have lost places on the housing list. The Minister and the Minister of State know that that is money in the bank for people. The problem is that there is a rigidity to this and applicants cannot go back and get that once they come off the list. If they are on the list for six, seven or ten years and then come off the list, they are gone and the clock starts again. I know of one family who were on the list for seven years and had an offer of social housing taken from them on the basis of this new policy. They had to start again. I know of another family who were on the list for nine or ten years and were taken off it. They had to move in with parents.
Our ethos is to ensure that the most vulnerable families are protected and not taken off the list. That is why I have emphasised the point regarding discretion in my response to the Deputy. However, if he wants to get in touch with me and provide me with examples that he has raised in the House, we will try to clarify the situation. If that means sending out a clarification to the local authority network on the point of discretion, we will do that. We do not want to see vulnerable families losing their places on the social housing list. I have highlighted quite clearly in my response the discretionary aspect of the policy. As I have also stated, there is a review ongoing in that regard. We are trying to frame it in the context of the other affordable measures that are coming through under Housing for All, the Affordable Housing Act 2021, cost-rental schemes and other options available to individuals. We will clarify the point if there are concerns. I ask the Deputy to liaise with me and provide examples of that.
Both Ministers will receive examples today. We can be critical of local authorities at times, but my experience of the officials who are involved in these assessments is that they want to enable people who need housing to get it. They want to work with these families. It is more likely to be an issue in the large urban centres, where incomes and rent are probably that bit higher. I think €37,500 is the highest net income threshold for a couple with children. It does not take very much for a double income family to be above that threshold. Many families are skirting the edges of that threshold. A 12-month average applied too rigidly can mean that even though what someone was earning last month and what he or she is expecting to earn at the end of the year might be below the threshold, doing a few months of overtime or a new project in work can take him or her above the threshold. I imagine what the Minister is saying to the Minister of State is that the discretion is still there. That does not seem to be how it is working on the ground. The local authorities do not seem to be getting it.
Given that going over these thresholds takes someone from receiving 80% support with his or her rent to zero, when will the cost-rental thresholds and conditions be published?
This is what people will have to fall back on if they are not on the eligibility list.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire and I recently met officials from the Department on this. We had a detailed discussion and one of the key problems is that where somebody's employment circumstances have changed in the past 12 months and their income has fallen, local authorities rigidly state it is the 12-month average irrespective of a change. This is not the flexibility provided for in the circular. The circular provides for flexibility with respect to a one-off payment. This needs to be changed. I will also send details to the Minister of a family in exactly this case. Their income is now below the threshold but their previous income as calculated over the previous 12 months was not. They have been removed after nine years on the list. This is simply not acceptable.
I hear the views that have been expressed and we will clarify it on foot of the examples the Deputy will give. I have highlighted that as we see it, the discretion should be carried forward through the local authority network if someone's circumstances have changed. It is beyond their control. The last thing we as a Government want to see is the vulnerable people that I meet every week in my clinics being knocked off the list due to unintended consequences, as have been cited here.
With regard to Deputy Bruton's question on cost rental, we will publish the regulations and details before Christmas and they will be very clear for people. These will be on the new pathway of tenure that will be below market rent and will offer sustainable options for people. This is part of a suite of measures we are introducing in the affordable sector that were supported through the House.