Thursday, 16 February 2017
Social and Affordable Housing
Go raibh míle maith agat a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim an-bhuíoch dó as teacht isteach. Táim an-bhuíoch don Chathaoirleach, a roghnaigh an cheist seo. Is ceist iontach práinneach í atá ag teacht chun cinn.
I have been given documentation which suggests a senior management official with Galway City Council was allocated a house by another council official under the affordable housing scheme and that he was not eligible for this. It is claimed the income limit for the scheme was €36,500 and that the income for the position he was known to be in would have been at least double that, which should have deemed him ineligible for the scheme. It is asserted that the official in question has since retired and received a pension lump sum. It is claimed that he already had a primary residence prior to purchasing this house and that this new house is now being rented out.
I am told a number of other senior officials also acquired houses, which are essentially assets of the taxpayer, and they would appear to have profited financially in that the houses have risen dramatically in value, with a significant dividend accruing to them at a cost to the taxpayer. The documentation also indicates that other officials were awarded houses in excess of their need; for example, some were given three-bedroom houses when their need was only justified as a one-bedroom or two-bedroom house. It is alleged that officials were allocating the better houses to their colleagues and that they were getting priority over other people on the waiting lists. If these allegations are true, it is a very serious situation. Questions need to be asked as to how the Minister of State, Deputy English, and the Department will ensure that such irregularities cannot happen. If the Minister of State has any knowledge of the case I have mentioned, I would be interested to know. If so, what does he intend to do about it? I would also like him to clarify whether his Department is aware of similar cases happening in other local authorities.If this is happening, it is grossly unfair to the thousands of people with a legitimate housing need who are being pushed down the waiting lists due to these irregular allocations. I have sought this debate because we need to investigate these serious allegations.
I note, from media reports dating back to May 2014, that an investigation was begun by the former city manager, Joe O'Neill, and was being continued by the current manager, Brendan McGrath. It did not, however, become public until media sources submitted lists of questions to city hall in the previous week regarding the fact that an internal investigation was taking place and that the alleged improper allocation of dwellings involved a number of staff members understood to be in the Galway City Council housing department.
That internal investigation was ongoing at the time and we were told that there was going to be a report issuing soon after. My understanding is that report has not been made available. I do not know whether the public representatives on Galway City Council have seen it. I understand they have not. Has either the Minister of State or the Department been made aware that this investigation was happening? If so, has the report been received. If it has, could the Minister of State furnish us with a copy of that report in order that we might see what were the findings? In a time of huge crisis in housing, when people are under massive pressure on very long housing lists, to even think that officials within a housing department were allocating and cherry-picking houses that were available to the local authority beggars belief. It would also be extremely serious. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I will highlight the statutory basis for the provision of social housing support. Under the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated regulations made thereunder, the assessment of households for social housing support - and the allocation of that support - is a matter for individual housing authorities in accordance with the prescribed criteria. Households that qualify for social housing support on assessment are entered onto the housing authority's waiting list and are considered for the allocation of suitable tenancies in accordance with the authority's allocation scheme made by the elected members under section 22 of the 2009 Act.
As indicated, the assessment of individual housing applications and the allocation of accommodation to qualified households are matters solely for housing authorities. In the context of housing matters generally, the Minister has limited powers to give directions and guidelines to housing authorities under sections 4 and 5 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. However, section 6 of that Act specifically provides that these powers do not permit the Minister to exercise any power or control in the context of any particular case with which a housing authority is or may be concerned. I must also highlight the independence of local authorities in performing their functions, as provided for under section 63 of the Local Government Act 2001. The Minister has no role in the normal day-to-day operations of individual local authorities. The Minister's role in respect of local government is primarily to provide the policy, financial and legislative framework within which local authorities perform their functions.
In that context, it is important to note that the Local Government Act 2001, Part 15, includes important provisions in relation to the ethical framework applicable to the local government sector, including providing a statutory basis for a code of conduct that has been issued for all local authority employees. In the ordinary course of events, it would be a matter for the relevant local authority, in the first instance, to investigate any allegations of malpractice regarding the operation of its housing allocation system. Subject to the outcome of any such investigation, it would then be for the local authority to consider what further action, either internally or by way of referring the matter to other relevant appropriate authorities, may be required. Matters concerning the allocation of social housing in one local authority have been referred to in correspondence received by my Department and this is the subject of ongoing engagement with the local authority concerned.
If the Senator is aware of any cases which he considers require investigation, he should forward details to the appropriate authorities, be that the chief executive of the relevant local authority or, in the event that criminal conduct is alleged, An Garda Síochána, or through such other channels as may be appropriate.
I thank the Minister of State for the response but it sounds like a classic kick to touch. It does not answer the question I asked about this specific case in Galway City Council, whether the Minister of State is aware of it and has received the report. That report was to have been done in 2014. Surely by now the Minister of State should have got a copy of that report if it has been done. If so will he correspond with me to let me know whether it has been received. I will contact Galway City Council on the issue and if I feel it necessary I will contact An Garda Síochána and any other channels.
The Minister of State does not indicate whether there are similar issues in any other local authorities. If it is widespread, that would be a matter of great public concern. To say that the Minister has no responsibility is not good enough. We need the Minister to take control of the situation in order to ensure that we have a fair, transparent and open allocation system that cannot be abused by officials, particularly those within the housing department who deal with people that are under huge pressure to find homes. Will the Minister of State indicate whether he has received that report from Galway City Council. If he has received it, will he supply a copy to me? Will he also indicate whether any other local authorities are undergoing investigations of this type?
I have tried to answer the question as best I can, and I think I have answered it. The Senator asked were there other examples. I said very clearly one local authority has been referred to in correspondence with us. That is being dealt with. I cannot be any clearer than that. One has been referred to us and we are investigating it.
The Senator raised a few different issues. They are all very serious and should be dealt with. Any information the Senator possesses should be handed over through the appropriate channels. It is up to the Senator to judge which are appropriate. I have outlined the various options. If the Senator has such information, that is very serious. He is absolutely right to say this is taxpayers' money and we have to ensure that housing policy and allocation of houses is managed correctly throughout the system. It is a combination of local and national government. The Senator should pass along any information in his possession.