Wednesday, 15 June 2016
Poverty and Homelessness: Motion
That Seanad Éireann:notes:- the most recent Central Statistics Office (CSO) Survey on Income and Living Conditions that shows the number of households suffering deprivation has risen from 24.5 per cent in 2011 to 30.5 per cent in 2013 and the number living in consistent poverty has risen from 6.9 per cent to 8.2 per cent; andcondemns:
- that the CSO also shows that the levels of deprivation and persistent poverty among one-parent families are even worse as the number of one-parent families suffering deprivation has risen by 13.7 per cent in just one year to 63.2 per cent in 2013 and the number living in consistent poverty has risen from 17.4 per cent to 23 per cent in the same period;- the consistent rise in poverty, deprivation and hardship amongst families in Ireland that has resulted in up to 5,000 families and children being homeless and housed in temporary accommodation across our cities and towns; andand calls for:
- the policies that have created a situation whereby the latest statistics from 2013 show that 12 per cent of children aged 0-17 years are living in consistent poverty, up more than 137,000 from 9.9 per cent in 2012 and double the 6 per cent figure of 2008;- urgent action to be taken to reduce the number of children being housed in emergency hotel accommodation;
- all local authorities to prioritise renovations to houses that need refurbishment so that children can be taken out of emergency hotel accommodation;
- funding to be made available to implement the recommendations from the Committee on Housing and Homelessness particularly to enable short term and co-ordinated actions to be taken to deliver more housing for families;
- an emergency building programme to directly build, as a matter of urgency, more social and affordable housing; and
- to increase rent support to a level that ensures no-one is made homeless or forced into poverty by unaffordable accommodation costs.
While I am on my feet, I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach on his election. With my Kerry connections, I am delighted to a see a Kerryman in the position. I wish him the best of luck for the coming term.
I propose this motion on behalf of my Fianna Fáil colleagues, as we believe the scandal of over 2,000 homeless children in the State needs to be addressed and resolved immediately. I thank the Minister of State for making himself available today to hear this debate. At a pre-budget submission by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul yesterday, it was noted that it receives, on average, 2,300 calls per week from families that require its assistance to meet essential basic costs such as heating, food and clothing, and that is at a time of growth and recovery. One in nine children is in consistent poverty, which means these children live in households where the income is below 60% of the national median income. Children in lone-parent households are at a particular risk of consistent poverty and deprivation, and this deprivation can mean going 24 hours without a substantial meal, or being cold due to the fact that the parent cannot afford to heat the home.
Given these increases in poverty levels, homelessness among families has risen to what is now accepted to be a crisis level. As I mentioned, more than 2,000 children are currently without a home and in emergency accommodation. This figure does not include the many more thousands living in overcrowded homes, and thousands more still are one small step away from losing their homes. Urgent action is needed to end the practice of housing homeless families in hotel rooms. In the past number of weeks, Focus Ireland warned that the record number of homeless families combined with the pressure on hotel rooms due to increased economic activity means that the risk of families sleeping rough has re-emerged. This is putting additional stress on parents and children in an already stressful position.
Hotel accommodation is wholly unsuitable for families, as children do not have space to play, a table on which to eat a meal or complete homework, or the privacy to develop and grow as individuals. Educators and charities supporting children living in emergency hotel accommodation report that children are not able to get a proper night's sleep and are arriving at school sleep-deprived, which naturally has a knock-on effect on their ability to learn and thrive in school. Often, hotel accommodation is far from schools, and this leads to days being missed more frequently. This disruption to education has a lasting and long-term effect. Children often report they feel the stigma of homelessness more acutely due to the fact they live in a hotel, as others who see them in their school uniform in a hotel know instantly that they are homeless.
We are all aware of the existence of empty local authority housing in our constituencies, and priority must be given to refurbishing these housing units so that families with children can be moved from hotel accommodation as quickly as possible, thereby giving these children the security of a permanent and high-quality roof over their heads. Only with this stability and security can they enjoy a happy childhood and thrive. I very much look forward to the publication of the report from the Committee on Housing and Homelessness this Friday, and I take this opportunity to thank the members of the committee for their diligence and commitment over the past number of weeks. However, the recommendations of the committee regarding homeless families in emergency accommodation will only carry meaning and worth if the funding is provided to enable immediate and swift action; otherwise, they are moot.
It is acknowledged the lack of available housing has caused this crisis and it will only be solved on a long-term basis by the construction of more social and affordable housing. We are calling for an emergency building programme to do this. My colleague, Senator Murnane O'Connor, will speak further about this. Families experiencing poverty and deprivation but who are currently in private rented accommodation need to be given assistance to remain in their homes in a climate where rents are ever-increasing. It is much easier to keep a family in its home than to help a family that has lost its home.
Childhood is short. The experiences we have as children shape the adults we become. Children living in poverty and children living without the security of a permanent home live life on the margins of society. They are unable to participate fully in the cultural activity of their community and struggle to reach their educational potential. This has an impact on their health and opportunities in life. Children who have experienced homelessness are far more likely to experience homelessness as adults and find it extremely difficult to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. In the centenary year of the Easter Rising, in particular, we must ensure all children have a home to call their own. Therefore, I call on this House to support the motion.
I gladly second the motion, as it is critical. The Minister of State is aware we have a very urgent housing crisis. I welcome that all local authorities recently received a new assessment of the social housing needs that will qualify people and let them know exactly what housing support exists. I want to know the figures for people on housing support and those who depend on rent supplement.Can the Minister provide those figures separately? Also, can we have separate figures for Dublin and for the rural counties? I would appreciate figures for both.
Second, the Minister will be aware that we have accommodation that is unfit, overcrowded, unsuitable or unsuitable due to exceptional medical needs or on compassionate grounds. These are people in real need. Their low priority is an indication that the Department has never highlighted them as a particular group. When one goes to the local authority, one's name is put on a housing list. Regardless of whether it is unfit or unsuitable accommodation, one's name goes on the housing list, but one is not in a particular group. I ask the Minister to address this because it is an urgent issue. These people in need must be made a priority.
The Department has long been informed of several sources for capitalising house purchases, whereby the rental money could be used to purchase houses instead of renting. I have a major issue with this. I believe the current crisis is due to the fact that we are renting or leasing and it is costing the Government and the country a fortune. There are cases where the Department is promoting the leasing of units and has prohibited councils from purchasing priority housing for a small amount of money. Councils are seeking to buy houses, but the Minister is not providing the money. He is saying, in effect, that we will continue renting but will not buy the houses. That is unfair. I have some statistics from last year. In 2015, some €67 million was spent on renting, leasing and on hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation. We must look forward and progress. We must buy and, as my colleague said, we must build housing.
I have a query for the Minister about capital construction. This is construction of local authority houses. There is a four stage plan for every local authority when it is building houses. I ask the Minister to reduce this four stage plan to a single stage plan. As he knows, when a local authority brings the first stage to the Department, it might not be returned for six months. After sending the second stage, it could be another six months to get it back. The timescale with this is not good enough. We have a housing crisis so the Minister should change the four stage plan to a single stage plan.
There has been a housing crisis for the past two years, but I do not understand why the Minister and the Department, through the national spatial strategy, have reduced the amount of land zoned for housing. Under the spatial strategy, local authorities have had to do what we could call de-zoning - we have de-zoned lands. However, there is a need to build houses. There is a report in the newspaper today of a recommendation to the housing Department to consider building 50,000 local authority houses. I ask the Minister to change the national spatial strategy to enable us to build houses and give planning permission to build them, because we must.
There is major potential for the credit union sector to issue home loans to assist in meeting the major social need for housing. I ask the Minister to examine this aspect. In addition, I read a newspaper report today, although I understand this information emerged yesterday, that the Government is considering introducing legislation to put a moratorium on repossessions. I beg the Government to do this. This is probably one of the most urgent requirements of the Government - that it keep people and children in their homes. We have a crisis and unless these simple things are addressed it will not be solved. Renting is the reason we have a housing crisis today.
I have a question for the Minister relating to my local authority in Carlow. Carlow is always forgotten. A maximum rate is set to get on the local authority housing list and in Carlow it is €25,000. If one is earning €25,000 one does not qualify to be put on the local authority housing list, yet in the neighbouring counties of Kilkenny, Laois and Wicklow the maximum is €30,000. Why is Carlow forgotten again? Why is that Carlow people cannot be put at the top of the scale at €30,000 like everybody else? I urge the Minister to answer all of these questions, because they are serious issues.
In this day and age, it is criminal if every county in Ireland does not have a women's refuge for women and their children. Carlow does not have a women's refuge, nor does it have emergency housing. There is talk of €200 million being allocated to emergency housing, so I ask the Minister to ensure that every county in Ireland has a women's refuge. At present, there are buildings which are being sold for reasonable prices and I am aware that the Minister must work with the HSE and Tusla in this regard. It is about everybody working together, but this must be done. As I said, we are in a crisis.
I welcome the new tenant purchase scheme. It had not been given to local authorities for over two years. Who writes these schemes for local authorities? Again, the most vulnerable in our community are not allowed to purchase their house. The new tenant purchase scheme provides that there must be a 50% income coming into the household. Old age pensioners who have just retired do not qualify and are not allowed to buy their house, even though they might have come into a certain amount of money or they might have been made redundant. People who inherit money or who perhaps win money are not allowed to purchase their house. Once again, the new tenant purchase scheme only suits very few. Who drafts these schemes? It just does not make sense.
My colleague referred to child poverty and homelessness. Over the past year in Carlow, we set up a soup kitchen; we called it St. Clare's Hospitality. With the summer approaching there will be more children and families attending, as the children are not in school. We are trying to keep these families fed. We also give food parcels to families that are most in need. I am ashamed to say that when St. Clare's Hospitality set up the soup kitchen over a year ago, we could not get any streamlined funding from any Department to fund it. We have a homelessness crisis and a housing crisis and we are setting up soup kitchens because people are hungry, but there is no funding from the Government. With the €200 million in funding and with all the Departments working together, the Minister must look after the poor and most vulnerable in our community. I seek answers to my questions but I also seek results. I want funding to go to these areas.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, and wish him and his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, well. They face a real challenge. I welcome the motion tabled by Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael agrees with much of its content and, in fact, much of what it proposes is already under way.
I was formerly the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and was appointed to office in 2014 in the middle of the crisis. Without pointing fingers or laying blame, the environment in which the Ministers are currently trying to meet this challenge must be acknowledged. People ask why this happened. The reason was obvious. We had a bankrupt State in which, unfortunately, the local authorities had abdicated their responsibility for building houses for over a decade. As a result of the economic crash, access to credit dried up both for builders and for individuals seeking to build their own homes. In addition, repossessions began to take place. We see the obvious result with homelessness. It is a shame for this country. It is something on which we all must work together, irrespective of party politics. We are depending on local authorities, all political parties and on society in general to respond to this challenge in a responsible way.
I commend the Ministers on the work they are undertaking now. Many of the foundations for that were laid over the past few years. The previous Government, despite the fact that the State was bankrupt when it took office in 2011, committed over €4 billion to the social housing strategy, so it is not a matter of throwing funding at the problem. I believe, as a result of my experience over the past two years, that it is about improving the efficiency of delivery of supply in both the public and private sectors.There is a lot to be learned in this regard. We have systems in place in local authorities and the Department - I am being constructively critical - that are old and which were set up for a day that is long gone. The challenge is of such proportions that we need serious reform, not only of the local authorities and how they deliver houses but also of the Department. Some Senators have alluded to the fact that there are too many barriers or stages in the approvals process. The Minister has committed to undertaking a review of it, which is to be welcomed.
Another measure taken recently is similar to the devolved scheme for schools under which local authorities can apply to the Department for a sum of €2 million and it is then up to them, on receiving approval, to go ahead and build units with that amount of money. I ask the Minister to tell the House how many local authorities have come forward to take advantage of that scheme since it was announced a number of months ago. It is a quick, accessible way to address the housing crisis in many local authority areas and I would have thought that once the scheme was announced, local authorities would be breaking down the door of the Department to get projects up and running. Under the scheme, no further approval is required once initial approval is given by the Department. That is a welcome development and I urge all local authorities to take advantage of the scheme.
On homelessness, I agree with the content of the motion. It is unacceptable that there are young families and children residing in emergency accommodation. However, it is the reality in the current environment that building houses takes time because projects must go through the planning process, infrastructure must be put in place, tenders must be issued and construction must then take place. I note that there has been criticism, some of it deserved, of the last Government and its failure to deliver. However, I can say without fear or favour that funding, approvals and necessary mechanisms have been put in place to enable houses to be constructed. I understand almost 200 construction projects are under way. They were given the green light by the Department and will deliver houses as soon as possible. It is important that local authorities and the project managers therein accelerate and complete these projects.
I agree with the points made by Senators opposite about voids. Obviously, this was an issue that needed attention because much of the local authority housing stock was lying vacant or in a derelict state while people languished on housing lists. That is just not acceptable. Funding for local authorities was prioritised to enable them to refurbish voids as quickly as possible. The figures in this regard are available from the Department. Some local authorities are excellent in dealing with voids, but others are woeful. Some view their housing stock as an asset to be managed and when it is unused, they invest in it and turn around units as quickly as possible, but others leave houses empty for months, if not years. That is not good enough and those local authorities that do not come up to the mark should be held to account by councillors and Members of this House in order that those on housing lists can be better served.
I draw the Minister's attention to a number of issues. First, I believe we should prioritise the quick-wins, voids being the obvious one. Existing stock must be turned around quickly and put back into use as soon as possible. Urban regeneration is also very important because the required infrastructure is already in place in urban areas. While it is welcome that the €200 million fund has been put in place by the Government for critical infrastructure, I point to the many cities, towns and villages in which existing full serviced housing stock is lying derelict and vacant. We need to provide incentives to unlock the potential of these sites and get the owners to either sell or let them. That would increase footfall in the centre of towns and villages all over the country. That would be a quick-win solution and a cross-cutting departmental response will be required to make it happen. I know for a fact that the Department cannot do it on its own. It will need help from the Department of Finance and several others.
Part V obligations and the viability of construction are huge barriers to supply. Builders tell us that they are finding it very difficult to access credit and if they cannot do so, they cannot build. We can talk all we like in this House about the matter, but unless we can find sources of credit for builders, we will not see enough houses being built. The local authorities have been provided with funding and set on the path, but they must be held to account if they fail to deliver. In order to reduce the overhead costs associated with delivery, the last Government reduced the Part V obligations - from 20% to 10% - which exposed it to some criticism and it will be interesting to see how many housing units are provided under the new regime. Unfortunately, for a number of years a Fianna Fáil Government accepted cash from developers in lieu of housing units under the Part V arrangements. Had that not been the case, we would have 10,000 more social housing units in the system today. That measure was simply wrong and when I was in office, I removed that mechanism, with the result that developers are now obliged to provide social housing units under Part V, which is the way it should be.
During the boom years a lot of money was collected by the local authorities under Part V arrangements. That money was supposed to be ring-fenced for reinvestment in housing, whether by way of the maintenance of existing stock or through new builds, but it appears from the figures for voids and new builds that there was very little activity in that regard. I want to know what happened to the Part V money collected by every local authority. I suspect some have invested it in housing, but that others are sitting on it, even to this day. This matter should be examined very closely to determine the level of funding available under the Part V arrangements which can now be used to purchase sites and build new housing developments.
I wish the Minister well in his role, but there is no easy answer to this problem which requires a cross-departmental, cross-societal response. We all have a responsibility. It is not just about throwing money at the problem but also about finding efficient ways to deliver housing quickly. I urge the Minister to tell the local authorities to look again at towns and villages which contain derelict houses and vacant sites, in respect of some of which planning permission has been granted, instead of focusing on greenfield sites. There is a far more efficient way to deliver housing. I will certainly be putting my shoulder to the wheel in whatever way I can to assist the Minister and every other Senator will do the same. This is a national problem that crosses politics and political parties and it behoves us all to respond in a responsible way.
I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach on his elevation today to his distinguished position.
It is an indication of the relevance of Seanad Éireann that on our first real working day we confront one of the major social issues facing the country. I very much welcome the return of Senator Paudie Coffey to the House following his ministerial experience. He has just given a commanding performance, which was really splendid, as was the introduction of the two Fianna Fáil Senators. I note that Senator Paudie Coffey said Fine Gael agreed with most of the motion. I am not sure, therefore, if they will call a vote. Will there be one?
It would be good if we could reach agreement because it would be good if the entire Seanad could support a motion on behalf of people who are at the cutting edge of poverty, misery and deprivation. I urge those involved, the Whips and others, to get together to see if we can negotiate an arrangement whereby we will not have a vote on this matter.
There really is a homelessness crisis. I have just looked at the figures for those who have accessed homeless services in Dublin in the past two years. In 2014 the figure was 2,306. It has almost doubled to 3,777 this year. That gives real cause for worry - the constant incremental increase. We also know that in 2014 there were 20,000 people on the housing list in the Dublin City Council area. I assume there are considerably more than on it now.
I wish to talk a little about the banks. We have had banks putting people out on the side of the road. It is an increasing phenomenon and the Government appeared to endorse the policy. I remind the banks that they were rescued with money from the purses of the ordinary, small people of this country. It was our money, but now they are turning around and putting people out of their houses. It is disgraceful.
One of the most fundamental rights in any decent democratic society is the right to housing, shelter and a home. We now see NAMA and others selling off mortgage portfolios to vulture funds.These are people who will be utterly callous. They just kick people out on the side of the street. Why was it not found possible to offer those mortgages to their original proprietors at the discount at which they were sold to the vulture funds? That would have kept people in their homes and would have been the decent thing to do. Now we have people in hotels. That might sound very grand - as though it would be nice to be in a hotel. I do not think it is very nice. They are stuck in unsuitable accommodation and are very often told they cannot go in the front door but must go around to the tradesman's entrance at the back. They are second-class citizens. The children are not allowed to play and there are no facilities for them. If one looks at the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin, for example, on the night of 24 April this year there were 102 people counted as sleeping rough. There were certainly more than that. Over the years, the gender breakdown shows that between 84% and 91% of these are men, mostly young men. Behind this is a whole nexus of poverty.
We have seen over the past ten years the biggest transfer of money from the poor to the rich that I have ever experienced in my life. We have a situation involving various definitions of poverty. We have the consistent poverty rates. "Consistent poverty" describes the situation of people whose income is below the poverty threshold and who cannot afford at least two of 11 staple items, which I will come back to in a minute. The at-risk-of-poverty threshold is an income of €10,926 - that is, just €11,000. That is about the level of the contributory old age pension. There are 11 deprivation indicators: two pairs of strong shoes - anybody could see it is real poverty if one is not able to afford a pair of weatherproof shoes - a warm, waterproof overcoat; buying new, not second-hand clothes; eating meat, chicken, fish or a vegetarian equivalent every second day; having a roast joint or its equivalent once a week; having to go without heating in the last year through lack of money; keeping the home adequately warm; buying presents for family or friends at least once a year; replacing any worn-out furniture; having family or friends for a drink or a meal once a month; and having had a morning, afternoon or evening out in the last fortnight for entertainment. These are the qualities that give people a human life. It provides not just for decent clothing, shelter and food but also for some degree of human dignity in terms of provision for entertainment. The percentage of Irish people living in consistent poverty in 2014 was 8%. That has nearly doubled from 4.2% in 2008. The consistent poverty rate for the unemployed is 22.6%, which is up from 9.7%, so it has more than doubled in those four or five years. Children remain the most vulnerable age group, with 11.2% living in consistent poverty. It is particularly marked in single-parent households.
The percentage of people who are at risk of poverty was 14.1% in 2013, which was the seventh lowest in the EU. It is very easy to trick around with these figures and say we are doing pretty well because we are the seventh lowest in the EU. Being at risk of poverty is to live on an income below 60% of the median income. If one looks behind those figures and if one takes away the social welfare payments and various things like that, Ireland's position falls: the actual at-risk rate in this country without social welfare supports would be a staggering 49.8%. In other words, without the support of social welfare, nearly half the people of this country would be at risk of poverty. That is a salutary figure that ought to bring us up short. Consistent poverty rates have increased over the years because of the financial difficulties this country found itself in, and in 2014 it was estimated that just 370,000 people were in this category. This is in a society with a very high cost of living. Prices in the Republic were 22.3% above the European average in 2014, making the State the joint third most expensive place in the EU, and we have these levels of poverty.
In the midst of this, we have 140,000 children in this country at risk of poverty. That puts into context all the bleating about treating all the children of the nation equally. Fergus Finlay, the chief executive of Barnardos, who is well known to this House, has said the child poverty rate is "a national scandal". He has said:
We would expect to have seen the beginnings of a reduction in child poverty rates in 2014 [...] However one in nine children still live in consistent poverty and more than a third of children experience deprivation, while the number of children at risk of poverty has not improved since 2010. This puts paid to the rhetoric that ‘a rising tide will lift all boats’ [...] two children in every classroom are living without access to basic necessities through no fault of their own or their parents. They are going without warm winter clothing, living in substandard housing and even going hungry.
What condition are those children in to absorb the lessons of education?
I pay tribute to the sponsors of this motion. It is a very good motion. I hope agreement can be reached so that Seanad Éireann puts its muscle, its back and its united effort behind those Ministers seeking to address this most urgent problem.
I feel it is a great elevation from the Dáil.
Unfortunately, we do not have to walk too far from the gates of Leinster House to see the extent of the homelessness crisis. Doorstep after doorstep in Dublin provides unacceptable accommodation for people who are living at the margins of society. This worthwhile motion is very welcome. We can work together across all parties to try to sort out the homelessness crisis. Outside the large cities, homelessness may not be as visible, but it is no less a challenge for those who want their own homes but have to rely on the couches or floors of family and friends or emergency accommodation. Much human despair is unfolding every day for families. We have also heard worrying reports of homeless children being accommodated on blow-up beds in adult hostels. How did it come to this?
Ten years ago we had housing estates being built. When I was on the local authority, I felt the apartments or housing were of a great standard. We felt we had addressed the housing crisis, although there was no crisis then. One of the reasons is that there were many buy-to-let investors who were involved in business and decided they would buy apartments to let. I was probably one of them. However, many of them have now lost their properties because of the downturn. I see many buildings for sale that are vacant for three or four years because the owners are still trying to deal with the banks. That is no good to the homeless who want a place to live. There is an issue with many of the banks, which have been very slow to get these properties sold to local authorities to ensure people can move into them.
We talk about ghost estates. We think of these as estates that were built in the past five or ten years.To me the new ghost estates in my own town are places such as Marian Road - so-called because it was built in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the people from such areas - which I would call quite good housing stock - moved to newer estates. The ghost estates now are the local authority estates that were allowed to deteriorate when most of the families moved out. The local authorities should have done much more work to address this issue. It is very good-quality accommodation, as we are all aware from canvassing. We go into the old traditional estates that I canvassed 16 years ago, and there is nobody living in them now. These were quite good houses. There is a need for joined-up thinking, and I know the Minister will do this. That is where a lot of the work is being done. I am pleased that the Dáil agreed to establish a special Committee on Housing and Homelessness to review the implications of the problem of housing and homelessness and to make recommendations. I believe these recommendations are logical.
On the main street in Boyle, Bridge Street, where 150 people grew up 40 years ago, I think my mother is the only person living over the shop. There is high-quality accommodation in every town and village. I speak of a small area in County Roscommon; it is not the same as in Dublin. Even around Dublin, over shops, there is high-quality accommodation. There is a need for some type of incentive to encourage people to live over the shop or to live in the towns and villages again. We cannot have a situation akin to that in the US, where there was a quick exodus to the suburbs. The suburbs were nice and they were great, but there is a need to reinvent the towns. As a person who grew up over a shop - we did not even have a back door - I was very happy, and I still live there. Could one raise a family there? It may not be acceptable today, but many families were raised over shops years ago. The fact is that there are people who are homeless, and we need to do something about that.
The scale of the housing construction challenge is huge. Recently, local authorities estimated that more than €1 billion per year is needed over the next five years to address the social housing shortage across the country. A capital funding commitment is a major challenge, but it is not about money - it is about joined up thinking, such as the special Committee on Housing and Homelessness. In this Chamber we can work together to try to ensure we sort out this issue.
The banks have much to answer for because they have been slow to wash out many of the properties that should be opened up immediately for housing. I have seen apartments empty for four or five years. On the question of allowing somebody in for nothing, the local authorities have been slow to address that situation.
In regard to the emergency measures to tackle the crisis, much more needs to be done. There is a need to build approximately 30,000 to 35,000 houses to make up for the lack of building during the past five years. It is an issue of which we lost sight, and it crept up. It was a perfect storm, although that is no good to the people who are living on sofas or in hotel rooms. As a Government, I do not believe we will oppose the motion. Hopefully, this is the new politics - the cross-party politics where we can accept motions and work together to try to alleviate the problem of homelessness. In two years' time we will have another issue, but I hope it will not be homelessness.
I commend the Senator for bringing the motion to the House and I support it.
I move amendment No. 1:
After "calls for:", to insert:"- the Government to declare a state of emergency to recognise the scale of the housing crisis and to:- double investment in social housing;
- fast track the approval, procurement and tendering process for local authorities;
- introduce rent certainty, linking rent to the consumer price index;
- legislate for a moratorium on home repossessions until adequate measures to deal with mortgage distress are enacted; and
- introduce emergency legislation to give tenants in private rental properties greater protections when properties are bought by vulturefunds."
Déanaim comhghairdeachas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach as ucht a cheapachán. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh sé sin leis. Having heard so much about the new politics, and seeing everyone so happy-clappy, I hope we will get full support for the amendment. It is unbelievable to listen to both sides of the coin singing to the same tune for the first time in a long time. The substantive motion has very little that could be of offence. Of course, Fine Gael will support it; it has no choice, as it does not have the numbers to oppose it. There is an element of brass neck from Fianna Fáil in coming forward with such a motion today, when it was the architect of the disastrous situation we find in the housing sector in Ireland. For five years in Government, Fine Gael continued the broken policies. To say it had not realised there was an issue or that it crept up on us is astounding coming from a Fine Gael Member, because we certainly raised those issues time after time in the Houses with all the Deputies and Ministers who came forward.
We have tabled an amendment because the motion simply does not go far enough. We are calling on the Government to declare a state of emergency, as it is more than a crisis. We are asking the Government to declare a state of emergency, admit how bad the issue is and recognise the scale of the housing crisis. We are calling on it to double investment in social housing, to fast track the approval, procurement and tendering process for local authorities, to introduce rent certainty, linking rent to the consumer price index, to legislate for a moratorium on home repossessions until adequate measures to deal with mortgage distress are enacted, and to introduce emergency legislation to give tenants in private rental properties greater protections when properties are bought by vulture funds. We hope there will not be a vote because we hope all Members will accept the amendment, but we will certainly push the amendment to a vote later.
At the latest count by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, there were almost 6,000 homeless people in Ireland, including 2,000 children. The most recent figures for the number of homeless children in Dublin show that there were 1,723, in 839 families. The recent Housing Agency report for the Government put the number of vacant homes across the State as high as 230,000 and included a vacant home tax among its recommendations. Sinn Féin calls on the Minister to take action immediately, because there may be as many as 230,000 vacant homes across the State. I am informed that in Dublin there are 255 vacant units. There is no point in talking about the issue; these have to be turned into homes for families.
There are up 130,000 households on local authority housing waiting lists, including well over 10,000 in Galway as we speak. Rents and house prices are spiralling out of control. It is simply not good enough for the Government to sit on its hands and do nothing about vacant properties when so many families are in severe housing need. We have been told repeatedly by the Government that the central cause of the housing crisis is an undersupply of housing, particularly private housing, yet the Housing Agency has prepared a report for the Government which includes a mention of empty houses. This does not include holiday homes. We want to see these empty houses turned into homes for families.
There has been a little talk about repossessions. Last month I decided to go to the repossessions court in Galway to see it with my own two eyes. What is going on there is an absolute disgrace. I had a misconception that many of the people in the repossessions court had totally defaulted on their mortgages, but the opposite is the truth. In many cases, banks and vulture capitalists are chasing people for a couple of thousand euro. These are people who are maintaining a certain level of payment - a substantial amount, in many cases - and who have paid hundreds of thousands of euro towards their mortgages over a number of years, so it is not the case that those in the repossessions courts are total and utter defaulters who do not want to pay their debts back. There are vulture funds in a land grab to take the houses from people who have very little debt left to repay. It is an absolute scandal. Even the set-up of these courts is an absolute scandal. Cases are not heard by a judge. The court in Galway is tiny. I counted 21 seats, nine of which were taken up by solicitors and barristers. The others were taken up by people from NGOs and agencies supporting people in distress. Most of the people who had hearings could not get into the courtroom. They had to queue in the corridor and down the stairs in Galway courthouse, which is an absolute disgrace. That issue needs to be addressed. They could not get a proper hearing.
Sinn Féin calls for legislation to give tenants rent certainty.I again put it to Fianna Fáil that if it is so serious about this crisis, it should support the Bill going through the Dáil today, and I say this to all others present as well.
Rents across the State continue to rise as the watered-down rent certainty measures introduced last year by the former Minister, Deputy Kelly, failed to make any dent in the rental prices. I believe Galway witnessed the highest increases in rents over the past quarter and numerous reports have illustrated this fact. The recent quarterly rental report showed an increase in the average rent nationwide of 9.3% in the year to March 2016, with average rents now at a rate of more than €1,000 per month. In Dublin, the report showed rental inflation for the year to March at 8.8% and that it costs an average of €1,663 per month to rent in parts of the city. It also demonstrated that nationally, rents were 8.6% higher in the first three months of 2016 than in the same period last year. Galway definitely has a perfect storm in this regard because it has a huge student population, as well as a number of reasonably affluent companies and consequently, people who come to work for those companies are taking up a lot of the better private accommodation. In addition, Galway has rent caps that do not recognise the cost of rented houses in the rental market and a new phenomenon has emerged in Galway. I attended the briefing held yesterday by the Society of St. Vincent De Paul and raised the issue of the hidden homeless because I wished to ascertain what was the society's experience in this regard. There is a whole cohort of people who are couch-surfing. I am aware of many single parents in particular who are staying with their children in the homes of friends or family, including sisters or brothers. While some might state they are lucky to have relatives to look after them, and they are, but the stress this puts on those situations is unbelievable. These people have the right to their own home and a right to proper accommodation and to their own space. It is causing mental health issues and great stress and is putting huge pressure on all the families involved. This issue of hidden homeless also must be addressed.
I also visited the refuge for homeless women in Galway recently, Osterley Lodge, where the waiting list is simply incredible. Accommodation is not available for women who may be in abusive situations, particularly due to domestic violence. They have absolutely nowhere to go and service providers such as COPE Galway simply cannot control what is going on. It is time for Senators to put their money where their mouths are. If this is the new politics, Sinn Féin has tabled a progressive amendment to this motion. If Fianna Fáil wishes to prove it really is reinventing itself, this is the time to show Members what it intends to do. One must remember that Fianna Fáil has the control here, in that it has the balance of power. Its Members can force through any of these measures because Fine Gael must come on board to get the majority to put through any measure. I am calling on and putting it up to Fianna Fáil Members to make sure these measures in the amendment are included, after which Members together will push collectively the Government to deliver on the promises I hope all Members will make in the Seanad this evening.
I second the amendment and will divide my few words into two parts. I first wish to talk about child poverty. Members are aware that poverty and the hardship caused by poverty and social exclusion are not new phenomena. They are aware that in 2010, under the Fianna Fáil-led Government, more than 200,000 children lived in households experiencing poverty. Moreover, the number of children at risk of poverty rose by more than 35,000 in the three years between 2007 and 2010. One major disservice and wrong done by Fianna Fáil in 2008 was to get rid of the Combat Poverty Agency. It was the only agency dedicated to addressing poverty and because the Government did not like what it had to say - it was saying exactly what Members are saying in the Chamber today - it axed the agency. Had the Combat Poverty Agency been listened to at that time, an awful lot would have been learned because it had the information and evidence available for Members to formulate policies that would have prevented the crisis we face today.
Child poverty cannot be addressed in isolation, but must be considered within the wider issues of poverty and all households must be lifted out of poverty by Government policies and joined-up thinking. I am not simply talking about properly-paid employment but about essential public services such as access to health services, equal access to education and a level playing field. In particular, I refer to a level playing field for children who are living in homes that are not conducive to their full participation in either the education system or society because of what they are going through. As a nation, we have failed to address poverty and social exclusion. Even when this country was awash with money, we gave more to the rich and we robbed the poor. The protection of the golden circle was more important than keeping open community development projects, homework clubs or projects that addressed social exclusion and addiction or which helped poor mental health and many other social issues. Eight successive cuts were imposed on lone parents alone and the price now is being paid for the failure of successive Governments to invest in families and communities. Many of the young people who now are shooting and being shot all over this city and in other cities were children who grew up in communities that were crying out for investment and attention and we have failed them. As Senator Norris observed earlier, a rising tide does not lift all boats and targeted comprehensive interventions are needed to tackle the injustice of poverty in all its forms.
In respect of housing specifically, it is scandalous that thousands of units are left vacant by local authorities. However, from my time as a member of Mayo County Council, I am aware that local authorities are starved of resources and when they do get some money, the manner in which it can be spent is highly restrictive. I ask the Minister of State to address this point. Local authorities must have autonomy on where money can be spent and how it can best be used, rather than it being purely prescriptive because local authorities and the Government are among the most reckless landlords in the State. I know of people who have been renting council houses for 30 years and more but who are without central heating or insulation and whose windows and doors have not been replaced throughout that time. However, they are being asked to pay rent and to live in these conditions, which is not right. Even though money was available last year, which I welcome, this money cannot be spent on the refurbishment of the local authority stock or if it can, the local authorities certainly are unaware of that. Consequently, I call for immediate investment into the existing local authority stock.
However, as the Sinn Féin amendment stated, an emergency response is needed. Local authorities must be able to buy private houses, as well as those that are available through the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. The procurement process is holding everything up and the Government is aware it can announce however many millions of euro for housing in the next week or ten days in the full knowledge that this money cannot be spent because of the restrictions and delays in procurement. There also is another issue in that because of the moratorium, there is not a sufficient number of housing officers within local authorities to be able to prepare the procurement papers and everything that must be done to fast-track that. Local authorities must be allowed to have a response and the response by the local authority in Mayo may be different from the response needed from Dublin. Many vacant private units in County Mayo could be brought up within weeks and used as social housing and I suggest this be done rather than building new homes. In addition, this obviously would serve both rural and urban regeneration whereby families then would be living in those communities, which is badly needed to keep open the schools, post offices and everything else in rural areas.
I wish to comment on the housing assistance payment because rental limits are forcing families to break the law by lying about rent.The Minister says time and again that there is flexibility around rent limits and what can be paid in different areas. I categorically refute that. Mayo County Council is not one of the local authorities given the flexibility to do that so if a tenant needs a home, they must say they are paying a certain amount in rent and go with that in the fear that they may be found out and have to pay back all that money to the Department of Social Protection.
I will finish with the issue of repossessions because I attended the court in Castlebar last Monday. Like Senator Ó Clochartaigh, I saw how families are being put out of their homes. One incident backed up what Senator Ó Clochartaigh said. The housing debt was €66,000. Last January, somebody offered to pay €50,000 on behalf of the family and the bank refused to take it. Where is the write-down and the discretion? Where is the cut-off for families after all we have done for the banks and how the banks have been supported? There is a major loss of revenue to the Government in respect of deals given to vulture funds. It is not only the haircuts; it is the loss of revenue where these vulture funds, which are based abroad, do not have pay VAT. There is drainage from the State. That money could be put towards housing.
The Minister might consider training for housing officers on the dynamics of domestic violence because very many of them do not understand these dynamics. They need to remove the barriers in order that it is easier for women and children living in horrific conditions to escape from violent homes. I ask the Minister to support the amendment because while I have no problem with the Fianna Fáil motion, the amendment is more comprehensive in respect of what we are trying to address here.
I welcome this debate. It is important that we look at where we are in respect of housing. Yes, we have problems and there are many measures that can be taken immediately to resolve some of them. I will give the Minister a simple example that relates to downsizing. Quite a number of my constituents who occupy three or four-bedroom houses have told me that they have been contacting their local authority for four, five or, in some cases, eight years looking to move to a one or two-bedroom unit that is more suitable because they have moved on in years and need to be near shops and services. There are suitable units available for them but they find there is no response from the local authorities. They are occupying three or four-bedroom houses that would be suitable for families. I am astonished. If one goes to other areas, be they in the private or public sector, there is a much faster response in respect of dealing with issues. This is one area where local authorities could react immediately. I know of at least six houses in one local authority area that would be very suitable for families.
I do not understand why it can take up to two years to bring a vacant house back into use. I am talking about houses that are handed back after a person has died. There seems to be a huge delay. I understand that some local authorities will send out a different person to look at the house and one could find at least six to seven different people going out to look at a house regardless of whether it is the plumber, electrician or the person who will look at the windows. Why can local authorities not set up a team that would go out on the same day and carry out an assessment of what needs to be done? I know of one local authority where the keys are handed back to the housing department, the housing department then sends them down to the electrician or plumber to go out, it takes another six weeks for the keys to come back to the housing department, they are then sent out to another person to go and look at the house and it takes another six weeks. It seems to go on and on. Surely in this day and age, we could co-ordinate house inspections and how this matter can be managed to ensure the house is brought back into use at a very early stage. Somebody contacted me last week who surrendered their house to a local authority because they had entered a new relationship and moved in with their new partner in another area of the city. Unfortunately, the relationship did not work out and the person contacted me to find out whether they could move back into their old local authority house. I told them that I did not think the house would be vacant to be told that it was and that all the shutters were up 18 months later. This raises very serious questions. At a time when we badly need houses, we are not responding in time.
Some of my colleagues have raised the issue of how we manage finances. We are paying out money in social welfare and rightly so because we need to give supports to people regardless of whether they are retired or on various allowances such as disability allowance. However, we are paying out €20 billion per annum, which works out at €57 million per day. I do not like the impression that is created that the State is not giving the necessary support. Yes, there are areas where not all the supports that exist cater for some people, but in fairness to the State, we pay out €57 million per day in social welfare. It is about ensuring people who fall between the two stools because they do not qualify for the various supports are identified and dealt with. Likewise, we must ensure housing support is provided to people who require it.
When one looks back over the past 20 years, a scheme once operated under which if someone put money on deposit, another 25% was added to it over a period at a time when we were getting a huge amount of money in from housing. If one looks back to before 2008, it is sad to see how little of the money coming in between PRSI paid in respect of people working for building contractors, VAT paid by building contractors, capital gains tax and stamp duty was used at the time to provide local authority housing when we needed it. It is always difficult to say that we will rely totally on the private sector because that is exactly what happened. It was fine relying on the private sector when there was an oversupply of housing but that suddenly changed. When the Government changed in 2011, there was an oversupply of housing at that stage. This has changed in the past two years.
We also need to look at structures relating to housing, for example, how letting in the private sector is short-term. In other European countries, one can get a 20-year lease and the same is true if one is in the commercial sector. Someone renting a shop unit or office can get a 20-year lease with five-year rent reviews. They are then obliged to fit out their own offices so they are not relying on the landlord. We need to look at arrangements in other European countries for people who cannot afford to buy a house but who want certainty and permanency. They are able to save some money and invest in a property. In Germany, a person renting a property carries out all the internal work in a property such as putting in the fitted kitchen, bathroom, curtains and flooring, but they have a very low rent for 20 years so they have certainty and security of tenure.They also have far lower costs in terms of wear and tear compared to our system. We need to examine new structures like that. In order to do so, the necessary legislation must be in place. If we want to make any change in housing policy, we have to provide certainty for people who are renting in the private sector and that is what we need to focus on. We need to develop a structure very quickly.
I very much welcome the motion and thank Senator Clifford for proposing it. There are some very positive measures we would welcome. We welcome that one of the first debates in the House highlights and focuses on such a vital, important and crucial issue. The motion and supplementary amendments that have been proposed by Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil offer very constructive and positive measures. I and, I believe, many others in our group would be very interested in driving forward an all-party consensus and in moving forward together in terms of highlighting these issues. That is something we can do constructively.
I wish to highlight a number of issues. The figures on deprivation in Ireland are shocking. Deprivation involves not just poverty in terms of income but a lack of any form of safety net, security or capital reserve. Deprivation means the lack of means to purchase the basic necessities of life. That puts into very stark contrast those who want to manage housing in terms of day-to-day spending. I welcome the specific acknowledgement of the very shocking deprivation levels affecting lone parents in Ireland. One-parent families are a cause of concern in terms of the deprivation levels that exist.
I refer to housing and homelessness. While it is important that we highlight the large numbers of people on housing waiting lists, we must also be aware of the large number of hidden homeless. Some previous speakers focused on those who are staying in unsafe and unsuitable situations, particularly people who are dealing with issues such as domestic violence, because of a lack of appropriate housing and the fear of entering what is now seen to be a long and desperate journey to obtain housing or alternative housing, which may involve bringing children into unsuitable situations.
In addition to some of the measures that have been mentioned, which focus largely on emergency measures and initial action, I hope the House may also address the crucial medium-term housing issues which must be considered. Another Senatorspoke of leasing. An over-reliance on the use of leases at local level, which results in a block on the opportunity for local authorities to purchase sustainable housing, means that children who are enrolled in schools have no guarantee that in three or five years' time a landlord will not move them out of their current accommodation. A short-term solution offering five or ten-year leases would leave many children disturbed in the middle of their schooling. Such an approach would affect jobs, etc., and would require families to reroute and reorient themselves after a period of homelessness. Such families will again be thrown into vulnerable situations. We have seen this happen on a case-by-case basis throughout the country. In terms of medium-term measures, I urge the State to build or buy rather than lease housing units.
Another medium-term danger is the capital gains tax waiver which was in place in 2013 and 2014. In effect, it was an invitation to vulture funds to enter Ireland. We must now address the concerns of those who are renting properties from vulture funds. We have seen the need for such people to be given urgent protection. In three or four years' time, when the vulture funds are able to withdraw from Ireland without paying tax thanks to the seven-year condition that was applied to their purchases, we may face a further crisis.
Another speaker said that this matter is not about money. It is about money. We need to say that we value direct investment in housing and are willing to put it on the books - it does not need to be off-balance sheet. A cost-benefit analysis of the recent reduction in inheritance tax might be a more worthy exercise than considering the comparable cost and benefit of investing in secure homes for families across Ireland in the long term. I urge us to move past the no-cost approach to a more dynamic long-term investment approach.
A couple of Senators referred to the hidden homeless. Last year I was with a young man in hospital when he died. We tried to encourage him to undergo treatment for cirrhosis of the liver. The man was aged in his early 30s and lived in a hostel. He chose to die in a hospital bed rather than have to live on the streets again. His fear was that if he went into treatment he would lose his place in a hostel, and instead chose to die. I assured him that I would work with him until we secured accommodation for him in order to ensure he could go into treatment. His view was that it did not matter because he was part of the forgotten homeless. That experience stayed with me. It is part of the new wave of homelessness that is happening and that affects families and local authorities. Another cohort of homelessness comprises those with high levels of need.
In the hostels I have worked in there are men who require nursing home care. The staff in hostels are not nurses, but they act as medical professionals. The current levels of primary care and safety nets for homeless people are increasing their life expectancy. Investment is not being provided to ensure that hostels keep up with the men and women - mostly men - who are reaching an age where they should be in nursing homes. Some of them have high levels of care needs but are being cared for by project workers who are not suitably qualified. They are not being allowed to die with dignity. The hostels are of a low standard. Street drinkers live in them. Even when people die in hostels, they do not do so in the comfort of a bed where they should be at their age.
I recently visited Brú Aimsir hostel to carry out a survey. I welcome that the process will continue and the hostel will increase to full capacity. I call on the Minister and anyone else who is dealing with the homelessness issue not to forget that a cohort of homeless people is not acknowledged in any legislation. Council housing is not appropriate for such people. Rather, they need supportive and traditional housing with structures that allow those with high levels of needs to be cared for.
I will be brief. It is clear from the CSO figures that children have borne the brunt of the mistakes we, as a country and as politicians, have made. We now have an opportunity to reverse that and we need to start with the 2,000 children who are homeless. I ask the Minister of State to enable us to be the eyes, ears and watchdog on behalf of those 2,000 children. The Combat Poverty Agency is no longer in existence but the Minister of State's Department has the ability to provide us with the monitoring information required. There are probably more than 2,000 children homeless today.We should be able to see what progress is being made on behalf of those 2,000 children to remove them from the unsuitable accommodation in which they currently live. It is robbing children of their here and now, their childhoods and their future. It is wasting money which is being spent on hotels and hostels and the money that will be spent on mental health for those children in the future. These are the very people who could end up in homeless hostels further down the line. There is going to be a cost to all this, but irrespective of the cost we are talking about human beings and lives. I would like the Minister of State to come back to us regularly to monitor the information about those 2,000 children and see if progress is being made. I do not care about the difficulties in local authorities or in his Departments. We need to be overcoming them and getting on with it.
On a point of order, I appreciate that this is the first Private Members' time of the new Seanad but this is a Fianna Fáil motion. We are one and a half hours into the discussion and yet we have only had a proposer and a seconder to the motion. There are other people who wish to speak and I believe that latitude should be given-----
Unfortunately, the position now since the previous Seanad is that instead of having four groups, we now have six groups, and that is creating a problem. It is something that will have to be resolved. I can see where Senator Wilson is coming from but the Minister wishes to speak now and the Senator had 15 minutes.
It might help if I am as brief as possible because in many ways this is groundhog day. I was elected to Dublin City Council in 1999. One of the very early arguments we had was about housing in the city and the provision of social housing in particular. At that stage the city management, to a great extent, had made the decision, along with many other local authorities, to move away from the social housing model and allow the private sector to provide social housing, that is, rented, and that the voluntary housing groups would move in to provide that housing. I found that situation unsatisfactory at the time and argued wholeheartedly against it. Unfortunately, I won the argument and lost the war because in principle it was accepted that local authorities would stay involved in the provision of social housing but they never furthered the implementation of that.
Part V has been discussed in the House on many occasions and it was a very progressive idea that 20% of housing built would be affordable and social housing. That idea came from public representatives and community groups in the north and south docklands in Dublin city. In fairness, we had a very enlightened Minister for the Environment and Local Government at the time, the former Deputy Noel Dempsey, who took the idea on board and legislated for it. If that legislation had stayed as intended in the legislation right through the boom years when we saw massive building in the city, we would have got that 20% social and affordable housing. Unfortunately, the Minister was not to stay long enough to see it grow and flourish, and the succeeding Minister, former Deputy Martin Cullen, changed the legislation which allowed the huge building spree within the city without a provision for social housing. He gave exemptions in the planning permissions compared with those provided by the preceding Minister, the former Deputy Dempsey.
It is great to have this debate and discussion and there are many elements of the Sinn Féin amendment which I would support, especially relating to the consumer. Linking rents to the consumer price index is one of the things we fought for within Government but unfortunately were not able to deliver. I commend Sinn Féin on putting that on board.
I hope that when the Minister returns with his response, he may be able to update us on the provision of the 500 modular housing units. It is very important that they would be delivered on time in order that people can start moving out from the unsatisfactory situation of living in hotel rooms.
I put it to the Minister of State that there are many dangers facing us. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, met councillors from Dublin City Council on Monday night to listen to their concerns about housing issues in Dublin. It is very important that the Minister would visit as many local authorities. Councillors are working on the ground, they have solutions that can be implemented, and they can often be pragmatic.
However, we must also watch out for new dangers that might arise. Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn and Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, the chair of the city council's strategic policy committee on housing, are highlighting issues that affect not just Dublin but also other European capital cities and American cities. There is a phenomenon currently of renting homes, for example, through Airbnb and other such companies. There are approximately 1,700 units for rent in Dublin. I am concentrating on Dublin in this issue, because while the situation is also very urgent in Cork, Mayo and other counties and cities, the major crisis in homelessness at the moment is in Dublin. There are 1,700 units advertised between various websites, from apartments to homes for rent, and I believe this is a high percentage of the rental units available to families. These units can make a lot more money if they follow the Airbnb model. One two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Dublin city was able to make €79,000 per annum. Why would a landlord who owns a one or two-bedroom apartment not place that unit on one of those Internet rental sites? There may be a few extra service and management charges but the profits of renting to tourists are vastly greater than renting to families who live here. We need to keep a weather eye on that.
Seattle in Washington state has already moved to bring in legislation, San Francisco is currently reviewing the situation and Amsterdam has brought in legislation. Berlin is also going through a major housing crisis and is moving very quickly now to bring in controls and legislation over the tourism rental market. When we have such a scarcity of units in our capital city, we have to be aware that this phenomenon could have a negative effect, even though there are many positives such as increasing accommodation for tourists and investment. However, while we are experiencing a particular danger, we need to be acutely aware of the situation. We cannot afford to lose 1,700 units from the market in such a very fast-moving area.
During the formation of the Government and the negotiations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, one of the agreements was that rent supplement would be increased by 15%. I urge necessary caution with regard to that increase because the figures I have seen in the Department show that a 15% increase in rent supplement would cost approximately €56 million and would generate slightly in excess of 100 units. Most of that money would go straight to landlords. It would be better spent on providing built accommodation. The uplift from the current protocols is between 20% and 30%, or €220. I fear that the Minister's negotiating team of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were misguided. Their intentions may have been correct to suggest additional funding for rent supplement, but the Minister must be very cautious that he is not just putting in a subsidy for landlords instead of increasing additional units. A blanket increase of 15% would just go to landlords and would not create the additional units we all want. There is a real and urgent need to ensure the protocol continues. Reference was made to its operation in Mayo up to two months ago when it is in fact in operation in Mayo and people are accessing it. The protocol is operational throughout the country unless that has changed since. I would be concerned about that. I would be very grateful if the Minister of State could update us on that.
The Minister of State has a maximum of 15 minutes. The timing is an issue that will probably be resolved at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP. What is happening currently in this new arrangement is that there are two thirds of the Seanad with 50% of speaking time. In my view that cannot stand so something will have to be done, and it will have to be resolved by the CPP. I cannot resolve that. It is a pressure point.For the past five years the mover of a motion got ten minutes and the seconder got six minutes and now it is 12 minutes and eight minutes, respectively. Fewer people are allowed to speak and the make-up of the Seanad whereby two thirds of the Seanad has only 50% of the speaking time will have to be addressed either by extending the time or by some other means but the current situation is unfair. I did not create the system but the pressure is coming on me. The matter will have to be brought up at the CPP.
I appreciate what you are saying, a Chathaoirligh, your hands are tied but the hands of the Acting Leader of the House are not tied and he can allocate additional time. It is not acceptable for the Minister to take 15 minutes and for that to be the end of the debate. Two speakers from Fianna Fáil, the proposing side, are the only ones who have spoken for the party up to now.
The Leader indicated this morning that he would speak to the group leaders and Whips about setting up a business committee to address the very issues we are speaking about so that everybody has an ample and fair opportunity to contribute. That is the Leader's intention.
In case there is a problem, it would be safer for the Leader to come into the Chamber before the Minister of State concludes. If there is agreement, the time can be extended. I am open to suggestions but the system at the moment is a pressure point. It is not my fault, it is the system that is wrong. We will try to deal with it as we go along. It is our first Private Members' debate. We are wasting time. I call on the Minister of State to proceed.
The Leader can run quite fast so if someone can find him he might get here before 6 p.m. and we can extend the time. I am pleased, a Chathaoirligh, that the time crisis can be solved more quickly than the housing crisis. It is important that we have this debate and I thank Fianna Fáil for tabling the motion, with which we agree and that we accept, but I do not agree with all of Sinn Féin's amendment.
It is important that this House has the chance to discuss the housing situation and the effects it has on the children and their families in emergency accommodation and the solutions to the problem. I am conscious that the Seanad was not formed in time for Senators to be part of the committee that has been debating the issue in recent weeks, which will produce its much awaited report on Friday that will feed into the action plan for housing. In addition to today's debate perhaps the Seanad could find a mechanism to discuss the issue further before we finalise the action plan for housing. As I said this morning when I spoke at a conference, the only way to solve the housing situation is by all of us working together and coming up with ideas. We might not agree with all the ideas but we need to put them all on the table, talk through them and pick out the best ones. That is what we will do with the action plan for housing, which will be published in July. It will set out the stall for what we hope to do over the next six months, 12 months and two years to tackle the emergency situation and to bring about the changes we need to fast-track planning and social housing provision.
The Seanad might find more time to debate the issue. I will meet with anybody who has ideas and solutions to tackle the issue and I will talk through them as best I can. I was involved in the Action Plan for Jobs and the success of the plan was based on stakeholder engagement and for everyone to have a chance to put forward actions and for us to follow through with the implementation of the plans. The same logic will work for housing if we all work together, step by step and action by action to implement the changes we need in order to solve the problem.
Many of the problems relate to the lack of housing supply. Reference was made to that by various speakers. One speaker referred to zoning more land. I accept that might be required in some areas but the country has the potential to develop 400,000 housing units on land that is already zoned. In Dublin alone enough land is zoned to provide 88,000 housing units and enough planning permission has already been granted for 25,000 units.
We must find every way we can to fast-track the process by a combination of public spending and private spending. It is not just a question of social housing, we need more private housing as well. There is a considerable under-supply of housing and that is what we must address. The housing action plan will do that. For those who are new to the House, we used the same process to address the jobs situation and we created an Action Plan for Jobs. When it was first published in 2012 everyone laughed at it and said it could not possible achieve what it set out to do. The target was to create 100,000 jobs. The Action Plan for Jobs exceeded the target and when the private sector is included more than 135,000 jobs were created. I was nervous about the plan when it was first put together but it did work so I have every confidence that a similar process and action plan for housing will address the problem with the lack of housing.
All debates such as the one we are having now will feed into the process. Seanad Members did not get a chance to become part of the housing committee because the Seanad was not constituted at the time but now Members have a chance to discuss the matter in the Seanad, other meetings and through the Department. We will engage with all. Plenty of good ideas have been mooted today. I cannot answer all the questions asked but I will get the information Members need and we will work together on the issues. We will tease out all the good ideas that have been made.
I told the House the Leader could run fast so I invite him to do his business. The motion gives us an opportunity to put on record the Government's commitment to robustly tackling the significant challenges. I pledge that housing is the No. 1 priority for the Government. Housing is the first item on the agenda. We must address the issue as the current situation is not acceptable. We will address the issue and fix it. As the Minister of State working with the senior Minister, Deputy Coveney, it is No. 1 on our agenda. The Department is now called the housing and planning Department and that is what we are about. That is what we will try to fix with the help of the ideas suggested by Members. We will work closely with Members.
We are preparing an action plan for housing that will be published in July at the latest. It should be ready before July. The action plan will build on the considerable work already carried out and under way in this area. It will also draw on the important work carried out by the special Committee on Housing and Homelessness, which is due to submit its report to the Dáil shortly. I hope many of the recommendations following the work that was carried out will feed into the action plan as we move forward.
The plan will include actions to expedite and boost the supply of all types of housing, including social housing, rental accommodation, student accommodation, transient accommodation and all other types of accommodation we need to tackle the issue both in the immediate short term, medium term and long term. The plan will focus in particular on those experiencing most difficulty in accessing the housing and rental market at the moment. Many such people are in emergency accommodation, which is not acceptable. Emergency accommodation is not suitable for the long term and that is one issue we are trying to address.
Both the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I have initiated early engagement with those who have been working in the housing and homelessness area for many years to discuss the broad approach to the action plan. The Minister is on the record as describing the situation as an "emergency", particularly in urban centres. I agree with him in that regard. We must and will tackle the emergency. The housing of families and children in unsuitable emergency accommodation is not right. It is not sustainable and it is certainly not a solution. The Government is therefore firm in its determination to take action and to take it urgently.
In Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the Government set out a child-specific poverty target to reduce consistent child poverty by at least two thirds by 2020. It is clear that only by adopting a whole-of-government approach can we hope to address the serious challenges posed in meeting that target. My Department, for its part, is working with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to deliver on the commitment that every child should be safe and protected from harm with a place to call home. We could all agree that is a target we must achieve and as quickly as we possibly can.
The fact of the matter is that the house building sector is struggling to get back on its feet. With the downturn in the economy the sector came to a virtual standstill and that lasted for the best part of a decade both in private housing supply and also in the provision of local authority housing. We are trying to ramp up capacity again through local authorities in order to build houses so that local authorities can have their own housing stock and not just lease or rent them. The capacity to do that was completely and utterly done away with in local authorities. We must rebuild the capacity as quickly as we possibly can. It has taken longer than we would like but it is happening and we must expedite the process as quickly as possible.
There is also under capacity in the private sector and it is not delivering either. When I addressed the conference this morning I said that everybody has to play his or her part in order to increase the amount of housing stock. We must build at least 25,000 houses a year. In the next couple of years we will probably need 30,000 houses per year. Last year we built 12,500 houses. More than half of them were one-off houses outside Dublin. They were no addition to solving the current crisis in Dublin. The target we must reach is at least 25,000 houses per year, and we must reach it as quickly as we possibly can. After we deal with the emergency situation in housing we must then have a sustainable construction sector that will always be in the range of 12% to 14% of GNP, which is what it should be, not at in excess of 26% which is where it was previously or at 6% where it is today, but in the middle.
I addressed the issue of the availability of land for house building. Affordability must also be tackled. We must try to develop houses at a price people can afford because there is no point in developing houses such as some of the 4,000 houses currently in construction that are way out of the price range for most people and will not help us solve our problem so they are not much addition to us.If people are spending most of their income on mortgages they have a lot less money to meet the many other demands of life. This affects the real economy and people's quality of life and ability to raise families. It also puts many working families in more precarious financial positions and at risk of homelessness, which we cannot allow to continue. The housing situation is, therefore, affecting every sector of Irish society and it is putting at risk our hard-won gains in terms of employment, recovery of competitiveness and the attractiveness of Ireland as a place to work, live and grow a business.
It is important to recognise that we have made a start in terms of addressing the situation. A €3.8 billion social housing strategy has been put in place. The problem is not an availability of funding but our inability to spend that funding quick enough to address the situation. While additional funding will be required into the future, for now money is being made available to address the situation. We are also reforming Part V to make delivery of social housing possible and viable, many of which changes Senator Coffey when Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government was involved in making.
We are implementing a range of actions on homelessness and putting in place rent certainty measures, thereby giving hard-pressed tenants greater stability pending increased supply coming on-stream. We are lowering development contributions and putting in place a rebate scheme for housing at more affordable prices, from which Dublin and Cork will benefit. A vacant site levy is being introduced, although for legal reasons this cannot kick-in until 2019. However, the threat of its application will progress site development at a quicker pace. Revision of the departmental guidelines will also help in terms of the Department's work with NAMA and its plan to provide 20,000 new homes. These are all useful efforts to try to stimulate the housing market. The Government accepts that this is not enough and that it has not thus far helped to solve the problem. Simply providing money is not sufficient. We must drive the spend of that money, work with the local authorities and reform the planning system. The Part VIII system has been reformed but it needs to be driven further with, perhaps, more changes required.
We will try to do a lot more.
Reference was made earlier to the local authorities being allowed to operate a one-stage system. Such a system is now in place in respect of spend of under €2 million on a development of 12 houses. We need to encourage councillors to utilise that process. If that system is not enough and it needs to be tweaked then we will tweak it. The previous eight-stage planning process under Part VIII has been reduced to a four-stage process. Again, if it needs to be reduced further we will look at that. These issues are being addressed through the housing action plan.
I could go on and set out many of the other targets we hope to achieve but that will only take up more time. I am happy to conclude at this point and to allow Senators continue the debate. We are open to all ideas.
The amendment refers to rent certainty and calls for a doubling of housing provision. As I said earlier, we are unable to spend the funding currently available quick enough. I am unable to accept the amendment. The Government has an issue with linking rent to the consumer price index. We addressed that issue last night. The Government does not believe that proposal would bring the solution that Sinn Féin believes it would bring. We need to have landlords involved. Public housing will not be sufficient to address the problem: we also need private housing and public and private landlords. What is proposed in the Sinn Féin amendment could damage that. As I said, this issue was discussed last night.
I am not interested in engaging in a row with the Senator or in forcing him to push the amendment to a vote. All of these ideas can be teased out in the weeks ahead.
Sinn Féin needs to work with us. If the Senator would rather push the amendment to a vote that is up to him. I would rather we utilise the time available to us in the next month or six weeks to work together on our proposals and actions such that we can put in place a plan that will resolve the problem once and for all.
I am a little confused. There must be a new type of Sinn Féin-love. During his contribution the Minister of State, Deputy English, attacked Fianna Fáil, which has not been in power for the past five years. At the same time, the Government is seeking the support of Fianna Fáil. Life does not work that way with me but perhaps it does in Sinn Féin circles.
I congratulate the Minister of State on coming to the House with an open mind. Deputy English does not live far from me and I know that he is a hardworking Minister. He has listened to the proposals put forward today, for which I commend him. However, there are a number of points with which I take issue, including one made by Senator Coffey. Having been Minister of State with responsibility for housing for some time, Senator Coffey will be aware that many of the problems that have arisen have nothing to do with money or the position which the then Government found itself in. The perfect storm was created. The spatial strategy which was fully implemented deals with only 20% of need indiscriminately across Ireland. The increase in the cost of build also arose on the watch of the previous Government, 30% of which increase was in regard to regulation and oversight.
Construction workers continued to be demonised and there is no support for small self-employed builders. There was also no PRSI net available to builders if they got caught out badly, which many of them did. These measures and others, such as the 20% deposit, have fed into the housing crisis. It is not sufficient for us to put our heads in our hands and say the crisis arose because of a lack of money and so on. All of the measures I have just mentioned have played a part in the development of the crisis. That is the reality.
Yesterday the Minister, Deputy Coveney, referred on radio to the provision of a €200 million fund for infrastructure and the build of between 15,000 and 20,000 houses over three years. He then went on to say that this money would not be available until 2017, which was a bit confusing. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy English, would update the House on that matter. Perhaps I misunderstood what the Minister said, much of which is reported in today's newspapers. As mentioned earlier by Senator Humphreys, it feels a bit like groundhog day in Punxatawney, with the Government caught in recurring groundhog nightmares.
During the election of 2011 we were promised that the lack of social housing would be immediately addressed by the incoming Government. In 2014, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, promised 35,000 social houses would be built or long-term leased and an additional 75,000 house rentals would be provided. They are the facts, which is crazy. We were also told 13,000 new builds would be delivered in 2015. These figures were off the wall. What did we get? How many new social houses were built by 2015? The answer is 75, although I may be one or two off the mark?
The biggest crisis in Ireland is the housing crisis in Dublin yet all Sinn Féin can do is wring its wrists and tell others what to do. I will not be lectured by any party in power which does nothing to address a situation.
I welcome the Minister of State's statement that rent caps will be reviewed. As has been admitted by several Ministers, manipulation of applications for rent supplement and so on is the norm. I appreciate that the Minister of State proposes to examine the issue.This is a step forward. At least if we address this, we can see where they are instead of merely going back to the welfare officer to make a decision on it, give additional rent support or whatever else. It is something that must be addressed.
I appreciate the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy English, today. I appreciate his openness with us and his listening to our different bits and pieces and recommendations.
Many contributions have been made. We are looking at a multifaceted approach and there are just a couple of points I would like to make.
My first point is around the issue of local authorities. We would expect that the local authorities provide all possible incentives to development, both residential and commercial. There is a need for that. However, I understand that in 2013, when Phil Hogan was Minister, guidelines were sent around to every local authority with a request to revise their development contribution schemes, and approximately one third of the 31 local authorities have failed to do so. In some areas in Mayo - where there had been, say, additional investment in water and sewage infrastructure - one could pay up to €5,000 just for that aspect of one's planning contributions on top of the regular price in other parts of the county. In the Minister of State's speech, he referred to dealing with the issue of development contributions. If this circular was sent out to the local authorities and the county manager failed to bring this before councillors for a democratic debate, bearing in mind that these development schemes were set up at the peak of the Celtic tiger era and that, in the case of Mayo, it comes back to the discretion of the manager, that is not any way to do business. Especially in the likes of Mayo, the cost of development contributions is a deterrent to development and one should not have to go cap in hand to a county manager asking him or her to do this or that. It should be done in a democratic fashion, and those who are interested in developing should know where they stand, which, in turn, would encourage them. It is poor that this is the rate, and I would ask that this be taken up with the local authorities that have failed to deal with this to date.
The other issue is the number of empty premises, particularly in town centres throughout the country. Much of the emphasis has been on the main housing crisis in the big urban centres, but there are housing problems throughout. Now that we are addressing these in an ambitious fashion, as the Minister of State described, similar to the Action Plan for Jobs, we must look at the situation of empty buildings in the middle of the market towns. It is something I have spoken on previously. Instead of leaving houses that have a lot of architectural value empty when the last person on a street passes away, and nobody goes into the houses - in rural areas, the problem is that people are building further and further out - we need to revitalise, repopulate and give a bit of a boost to small independent traders. The latter matter must be brought into it, because in talking about sustainable housing one is also talking about sustainable communities. The whole package must be brought to bear. There is a problem in that regard the length and breadth of the country, and no matter how good and how much full employment we get, in going into these towns, many of which are market towns, one will get depressed. I can well see how people would be depressed, because that is what one sees. When going around knocking on doors, I see it myself. It is something that we must tackle and have a vision for.
I would suggest that, rather than having developer-led initiatives as in the past, when sometimes there were incentives for development for which there was no clear market demand, we have a scheme providing for an area in the centre of a town to be zoned in conjunction with the local authority in a holistic approach, such that either an owner-occupier or a first-time buyer would receive either a grant or a tax incentive to buy such a property. We would be going back to places where people are prepared to live. When I go to continental Europe and see lovely towns and villages, I often think they are not lovely by accident. They are lovely because they have had a lot of TLC, a lot of planning and a lot of care. Then we should follow with amenities for these towns and villages - a playground or whatever else is needed. Indeed, in the case of rural areas, we should have a vision whereby within a certain radius one can be assured that one will find an ATM and a GP. Not all of these facilities will be implemented overnight, because there are other factors, including the difficulty of retaining GPs for various reasons. We have this vision, both urban and rural. That would be a way to go, and we must also support independent businesses by helping them, as opposed to the large multiples such as Tesco and Lidl, with commercial rates breaks. The large multiples are a different animal altogether, yet they are all being charged rates pretty much on the same formula. When one thinks about it, they are a different animal altogether, in terms of the market they control, compared to the small independent traders, which give vitality. Of course, the vision must mean that we no longer look at small towns and say that we must have corner shops everywhere. We also must acknowledge that retail has changed. I am going back to the point about communities. Housing and communities go together. Consumers are buying online. We create a different image and vision, and this is the challenge, through debate, that we have.
Finally, one of the objectives the Minister of State cited is for people to stay in their own homes. From my own experience, the practice of mortgage to rent and intervention by the local authority have not been the success that would imagine. Much more attention could be given to that. Then one would see benefits, with people able to stay in their own homes.
One issue that was raised this morning on the Order of Business - the problems of pyrite and mica - comes under the remit of the Minister of State. For those affected - both in Mayo and in Donegal, although I would be more familiar with Mayo, especially with pyrite in the blocks - we all would like to think we know where this is heading, which is that people will get assistance. I understand the complexities. They were overcome in the local authorities here around Dublin and further afield. I heard about a case a fortnight ago in which the person could not sell their house. It was when the person came to sell their house that the survey revealed the problem. I have heard of a couple of cases in which people could not afford to retain structural engineers to do the tests. The expert group needs to get out on the ground, sooner rather than later. It was indicated earlier that would not happen, perhaps, until September. It must happen sooner in Mayo. The drum has been beating for a long time. Things have been looked after here on the east coast. They need to be looked after on the west coast. These are people's homes. In fact, if it is not sorted, these people will be out of their homes and we will have another problem to deal with, aside from the stress that they are going through. I ask the Minister of State whether he is in a position, now or at another point, to get back to me on some of those points.
First, I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and giving his time. I appreciate that he is busy.
It has been a good debate on homelessness and the provision of homes. Both the motion and the amendment are valid and I do not see any reason not to support both. That is my view.
There are many Senators who have personally experienced at first hand the issues in local authorities. I am disappointed to say that the local authority I come from, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown, which would be considered perhaps one of the most affluent parts of the country, built six houses last year. There are 5,500 people on the housing list, many of whom are families. That is not a crisis; it is an emergency. Why are we all skirting? Everyone today has used the word "crisis." Somehow, they cannot use the word "emergency." There seems to be some terrible fear that if we say the word "emergency," we are opening up the floodgates. The reality is that local authorities have got away with it because they have not had a Minister on their case.
I was first elected in 1999. I am aware of the frustration of councillors where county managers have effectively run certain local authorities or where they are being told they cannot bring in cash or sell other assets to deliver houses, and where there are people, to use that horrible expression, "sofa-surfing."They are dragging their kids around from house to house, sleeping on sofas rather than going into hostels in which, quite frankly, I would not put anybody. They have to walk from the suburbs to the city every day, being humiliated as they are asked to register as homeless. It is an insensitive and inhumane way of treating people. The local authorities have got away with it because the staff in the Custom House should have been on to them every week and month asking why they were not delivering.
I will be brief as I am conscious of the time but I want to make a few points. I want the Minister of State, if he has not already done so, to secure an audit of the zoned local authority lands in every county, and within that the lands zoned for critical infrastructure. The Minister of State should ask why there is no housing on that land. Why is there resistance to the direct building of social housing as we saw built in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, of which we are so proud today?
Why did the previous Government introduce a tenant purchase scheme when, for example, the local authority from which I have come has built six houses and when we know there are hundreds of people already applying and qualifying to purchase these houses? Forget about the principle of selling or not selling. We will be forced to sell more houses than we are building. What guarantee is there that when houses are sold, new houses will be built? I am not sure I want local authorities buying affordable accommodation in the market as I want first-time buyers buying affordable properties. Our local authority spent €500,000 on a house that needed to be done up in Blackrock, County Dublin. People cannot buy these houses and we must get back to the principle of direct provision, building and maintaining quality houses while having pride in them.
Will the Minister of State explain about the 500 modular houses? There was great fanfare last year about them, but where are they? There is none in my constituency. Councillors and members of the great political parties here have consistently opposed social housing, so why have the party hierarchies not hauled them in? They have taken the Whip and are members of these organisations so it should be indicated that it is unacceptable not to support the provision of social housing in our communities. We do not divorce ourselves as a political body because we are in the Seanad, Dáil or the council. If members are representing a party on the ground in the community, they must be held to account as to why they would not support the provision of social housing, in line with party policy and what is being espoused by the Government in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
With the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, billions of euro of property in Ireland has been sold at a knock-down price, and at a time when we have a national housing emergency, we have allowed such properties go to vulture funds. We tried to ask the Department how many houses were offered by NAMA, but talk about trying to get an answer. We asked how many apartments were made available and where they were. We were told NAMA sold them. Why is there no pressure on NAMA to have an audit of properties? It is ridiculous.
There are major social consequences when people are not provided with a home and the dignity and comfort associated with it.
There are social implications for the children and there is exposure and vulnerability for families. There are also issues of child protection and safety, as they are hauled around the streets and into hostels before going back to councils, humiliated. We need to support people with other difficulties, such as disability and adult literacy problems, who come to housing agencies. A woman came to my home two weeks ago saying she approached a local housing authority three times, speaking through a plate glass about her social issues. She was asked to complete a form and it was an ordeal to complete that application. When she was asked to fill in the form, she went away - that was her third time - as she did not know how to say she had numeracy and literacy difficulties. Nobody offered support or assistance in filling in the form. This is an issue about training and care. I do not want anybody to have to stand in front of plate glass speaking about their personal issues and circumstances. We need a more humane, understanding and compassionate system to deal with people.
That is the reality. There are key issues that must be answered. We must do something. The really important point is that the Minister of State is newly responsible for housing. He and his staff must be on the case of all chief executives in councils every week, asking what is happening. We need to know, as this is more than a crisis. This is an emergency and it must be treated as much.
I echo the passionate comments of Senators Boyhan and Ó Clochartaigh. We are a society beyond crisis and in an emergency that is only growing. We have had at least two years of emergency and it seems we have done nothing but grind to a halt. As public representatives we have a moral responsibility to demand adequate resources to guarantee the provision of homes for our people. Previous Governments failed miserably and ignored what was coming down the road. I have put that to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, as they ignored an issue that was not rocket science, the lack of homes being built in the face of the growing needs of our population, especially in the Dublin region.
Homelessness has hit thousands of ordinary families and our mindset on the issue has changed from the single man spoken about earlier. The count was 109 last night. Our image now has changed to ordinary families who have lived precariously but have had jobs, with children being comfortable and looked after. When the jobs were lost in the downturn, they lost their homes because of greed, increased rents and a lack of social housing when many people have to wait at least ten years for such housing.
As another Senator mentioned yesterday, I am concerned about the mental health and well-being of the 2,000 children currently in emergency accommodation. As an experienced councillor with a mental health profession, I see these people come to my clinics every week. Children who are seven, eight or nine are beginning to suck their thumbs again. They are beginning to be incontinent and doubly incontinent again. Most tellingly, they have gone dumb and cannot speak of their distress and anxiety. They are reverting to infantile behaviour and refusing to continue to walk, jump and play. They are sitting in a corner, dumb. Day in and day out they are being reared in prams. They have to get out of accommodation during the day, roam the streets and be accepted, quietly, at night, as if they are an embarrassment to the owners of these hotels.
There are thousands of so-called hidden homeless who are unaccounted for in box rooms throughout the State. Every family with a spare room has offered their daughter, son, friends or other family members the space of box rooms. This cannot go on as it is an emergency. We must treat it as such. Let us stop using the word "crisis". We are accountable to those in dire need and we are public representatives. Let us stand up to the plate. Fianna Fáil had a good discussion about women's refuge and we must take the issue in the context of the Women's Aid report. It had horrific findings of damage and destruction - physical, emotional and mental - done to women and children. We must ensure there is adequate financing and resources for people caring for women and children in such cases.
I ask Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to stop shouting from the rooftops, as they so eloquently put some of their speeches, and support the amendment moved by Senator Ó Clochartaigh, along with the motion for rent certainty to prevent homelessness. It would go some way to mitigating the increase in rents by linking it to the consumer price index. I do not have much more to say.The democracy of local authorities, promised by the former Minister, Phil Hogan, in Putting People First, Action Programme for Local Government, does not exist in the mandate of councillors, especially when it comes to housing. Local authorities have been starved of finance and personnel over recent years and that has been difficult. In the local authority I worked for there is a 12-week turnaround for housing, which is quite good. I think it is similar throughout the country. My suspicion is that because this is coming from Fine Gael it is a question of disinvesting public services whereas I want to invest in them. I do not want the disinvestment that will lead eventually to privatisation which is the ideology to my right.
We have witnessed our first Bobby Ewing moment in this new Seanad. It is as if our colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael woke up this morning as born again social democrats with a lifelong commitment to investment in housing. The reality, however, was not a dream, it was a nightmare born out of an ideology of the hard right, that said the State does not need to invest in housing any more, it can leave it to the marketplace. That is what Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did and the result was a social catastrophe. Let us remember how we got here.
Having said that, if we are serious about endorsing new politics, here is the first test: is this an exercise in rhetoric or are we serious? If we are serious we should all be able to agree not just on the motion, and I commend Fianna Fáil for the motion, which is well worded, but also on the amendment. If we are not serious about tackling rent certainty we cannot say we want to tackle the housing crisis. If we can endorse this motion and the amendment we can speak with a united voice and be serious about bringing real change and challenging this Government on housing. Otherwise, it is an exercise in rhetoric.
I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well with this brief, probably one of the most important any Minister of State could now have. Much good has come out of this debate. We can all look back with hindsight but this is a case of looking forward, although we have to learn from the mistakes made by all concerned. Who in this room can say they have not made mistakes or done things they might regret today? I agree with Senator Devine that this is an emergency. We throw out statistics: tonight 2,121 children will sleep in emergency accommodation, 1,700 of those in this city alone but as the Senator said, behind each of those is a family. We can only look in horror at what the repercussions of that situation will be in years to come.
There are two ways to tackle this emergency. First, introduce emergency measures, such as increasing rent allowance, which is all we can do. There is no silver bullet solution to the housing crisis. We need a strategy and a vision. In my county we talk about the number of hectares zoned for housing. How much of that zoned land could be built on tomorrow? How much infrastructure is there? In my county there is a serious shortfall in infrastructure. Without the infrastructure, zoning land is a waste of time.
Second, we also must explore what type of housing we need. Families today are much smaller than they were 20 or 30 years ago. There are more separations and divorce, partners move out and need accommodation. Those are all factors. We need to consider long-term leases on property. For a long time the mentality in this State was that renting a house was a short-term measure, for six months or a year. Now people can end up renting for 20 years. Families need to be protected and perhaps we need legislation to give them long-term security, so that they will know where they will be and will not get a letter one day telling them they have two or three months to vacate the property.
I was at a conference last weekend where a gentleman quoted a statistic from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, that every week 200 houses go out of commission in this country. That is a frightening statistic. I was not aware of it before then. What do we do about that? Do we tax that property? Do we give the owners an incentive to bring them back into commission? We need to consider all these issues.
The tenant purchase scheme is back in vogue, whether we like it or not and we can argue about its economics. Those in Part V housing are precluded from purchasing their houses. The Minister of State might consider that.
I thank all the Members who contributed to this debate with their insights into this housing crisis. I thank Fine Gael for supporting the motion. It means a lot that this House is passing this motion on an agreed basis. As Senator Norris said, this sends out a very clear signal that this House is prioritising housing and homelessness.
In her very eloquent contribution Senator Devine said how important the issue of homeless children is. In my work I have come across the infantile behaviour these children are reverting to. I have seen children who live in buggies and have not developed their core strength and cannot walk at the correct time. This lack of development will work against them later in life and we should take this into consideration too. It is an emergency.
Senator Coffey referred to the timing between granting funding and delivering these housing units. These children do not have that time. We should seriously consider some system to take care of these children. I think it was Senator Kelleher who referred to a system for tracking these children. That is a very good suggestion and we in Fianna Fáil would support it to monitor these children as they move through the system.
Senator Coffey referred to the Part V requirement. He mentioned the cash in lieu of abiding by the requirement. I admit it was perhaps a mistake and we hold our hands up. However, I put it to him that moving the requirement from 20% to 10% will have the same effect as accepting cash in lieu. The Minister of State might reconsider that.
Senators Coffey, Mulherin and Feighan referred to urban regeneration. Senator Feighan reflected on his experience of growing up over a shop. Many generations in Ireland were reared on main streets, above shops. I support what Senator Mulherin said, that perhaps we should consider a tax incentive for first-time buyers and owner-occupiers to come back into towns and villages and live over the shop or take over terraced houses. There could be a grant for them to upgrade these properties and bring them up to modern living standards.Senator Norris also referred to how vulture funds have put people out of their homes, which is something the Government should look at. It was referred to by another speaker that a four-year window will close rapidly and that will present its own problems in another few years.
Senator Mulherin referred to the pyrite situation in the west of Ireland. The east coast has not completely resolved the matter. In my constituency of Dublin Fingal we have a serious pyrite problem. I have met families who bought starter homes but cannot move home due to the pyrite problem. Some families want to remain in their starter homes but want to perform home renovations and add extensions to accommodate their growing families. Unfortunately, they are unable to carry out such works until the pyrite situation is resolved. People have put their lives on hold for ten or 11 years at this stage. I urge the Minister of State to look at the matter and to make sure that people no longer keep their lives on hold.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh said that Fianna Fáil had a brass neck to table this motion. The only brass neck in this Chamber belongs to Sinn Féin. As my colleague, Senator Davitt, has pointed out, Sinn Féin is in power in local authorities in Dublin yet the party has done nothing.
Senator Ruane raised the issue of rough sleepers. She made the valid point that we should not lose sight of rough sleepers. Now that more families are falling into the homeless cycle the focus has gone off rough sleepers. The Senator quite rightly pointed out that we need to resume our focus on rough sleepers. They have high needs and high dependencies and I ask the Minister to address the matter.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to Fianna Fáil and its lack of investment in families. I want to point out to the House, and in particular to Senator Conway-Walsh, that Fianna Fáil introduced special needs assistants and increased child benefit. We also introduced a free preschool year that levelled the playing field for children in low-income families, which is something that we are very proud of.