Seanad debates

Friday, 4 June 2021

9:30 am

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)

I welcome the Minister of State and I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing this Private Members' motion to the House today.

What does a right to housing mean? The Simon Communities defines a right to housing as, at the most basic level, the right to have housing needs met by the State if a person cannot meet them from his or her own resources.

In 2020, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission carried out a survey. Some 82% of people in the country believed that such a right should be a human right. In 2020, a total of 8,200 people, including dependants, were homeless in this country. In 2020, if there had been a right to housing in our Constitution, the Government would have been guilty of infringing on this right 8,200 times.

Every good argument has two sides and. In the case of whether the Constitution should have a right to housing, the two sides of the argument must be carefully considered. Many are in favour of a right to housing. Home for Good is a group of organisations and individuals who believe that constitutional change is an essential underpinning for any successful programme to tackle our housing and homelessness crisis. The group argues in favour of a right to housing. It considers this proposed right to be necessary to rebalance the Constitution.

Is there an imbalance in the Constitution? Currently, Bunreacht na hÉireann expressly protects private property in Article 43 and states that such private property rights can only be infringed on for the purposes of the common good. However, there is no definition of the common good. The Home for Good position paper explains how this has had consequences in the past. On 12 separate occasions over recent years, pending legislation to reform Ireland's housing crisis failed to progress in the Dáil when Article 43 was raised as a barrier. These 12 tranches of legislation could have helped one or all those 8,200 homeless people in this country.

The other side of the argument raises the question of whether these 12 tranches of legislation would have compromised the private property rights of our citizens. Home for Good claims there is an imbalance in the Constitution, but in the interests of balancing rather than shifting the weight, another question should be asked: what consequences do we face if the people vote in favour of a constitutional right to housing? A vote in favour of a right to housing would make the right an enumerated right. This is a right outlined and enshrined in the Constitution. The Constitution has several enumerated rights, such as the right to freedom of assembly, the right to association and the right to freedom of speech. We have other rights which are not enshrined in the Constitution. These are unenumerated rights. The right to marry, the right to privacy, the right to earn a living and the right to bodily integrity are examples of unenumerated rights. These rights are not written in the Constitution but instead are derived from rights which are enumerated. In the case of McGee v. Attorney General the right to marital privacy was derived from the protection of marriage in Article 41 and the protection of personal rights in Article 40.3. In a recent Supreme Court case it was speculated that the right to a clean and healthy environment could be derived from Article 10 protections on the ownership of natural resources and State property as well as other constitutional protections of the home. If the right to housing becomes an enumerated right, what rights will the courts derive from it? Will there be new rights the Government and the people do not get a say on?

The Dáil voted against the introduction of a proposed right to housing in 2017. Perhaps, as the Home for Good paper suggests, this was laziness.It is easier to use Article 43 as an excuse than to reform. Perhaps it was because creating rights has consequences and creates responsibilities.

The right to housing is being sold to us a solution to a problem we have. Yet, is it a solution? The UN has recognised the right to adequate housing as a fundamental human right. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Ireland has ratified, includes a right to adequate housing in Article 11. Countries, including South Africa, Scotland and France, have incorporated a right to adequate housing into their constitutions. Nonetheless, homelessness exists worldwide, nonetheless, housing markets still have supply shortages and rising demand and, nonetheless, problems remain.

It is not a negative but a cautious note I want to impart as we consider the motion. Creating a right to housing does not only create a right to housing. It empowers the courts to create rights that go beyond a right to housing. Moreover, with rights come responsibilities, which the Government, businesses and taxpayers have to carry. Yet, with rights solutions do not necessarily come. The ESRI does not recommend a right to housing. The institute recommends we double our investment. It recommends building 35,000 homes a year when we are only building 15,000 to 20,000. It recommends we borrow more and build more. With rights only come responsibilities. Is the Government prepared to take on such responsibilities? I doubt it.

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