Seanad debates

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Housing Schemes

12:00 pm

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to address what I feel is an important matter for many people in this country, especially those in my county, Kildare. I am sure that, like me, the Minister of State has assisted many people and families with what has always been a worthwhile grant. The grant has made such a difference to the day-to-day lives of so many older people and families with medical issues who needed assistance with the quality of life of their loved ones. Over the past year, many families have found themselves unable to afford the work which is recommended in the context of these grants and which can make people's lives so much better. Rising building costs have practically stopped many people from being able to access these grants. An urgent review of the grants must be carried out. In recent months, my office has received an increasing number of calls from people. Many are at their wits' end and are asking for help for their loved ones who, in some cases are still in hospital waiting for the promised work that can bring them back home, where they and their families want to be.

As I said recently in the House, in one case, the cheapest quote that the person dealing with my office received was more than 200% above the maximum grant payable, which is €30,000. The quote that person sought was for the works recommended by the local authority's occupational therapist. The person had engaged with five different contractors to try to get a cheaper quote but could not achieve that. There are many similar cases. Another issue is that more and more builders are demanding that the cost of the grant be paid up front because they cannot afford to wait on the council payment system. With so few builders now completing council work, families have no option but to borrow from where they can in order to secure these building services and get the work done. This puts added stress on families who need our help rather than finding themselves under more pressure.

Another issue relates to the means test for older people, where the private pensions that they worked hard for all their lives are reducing the amounts they are offered via the grant. They are turning to family members or credit unions to try to fund the difference. The type of works involved will allow members of our older population to remain in their homes where they want to be. Too many of our older population find themselves unable to access a grant which, at their time of life, is essential to their well-being and which, as I have said on countless occasions, is needed for all their work and contributions to the State over many years.

These issues are having a knock-on effect. In some cases that I am dealing with, the applicants have to remain in hospital because the family cannot afford the cost of the works to bring them home. In an ever-increasing number of cases, people can no longer continue to live in their own homes and this is causing an additional cost to the State through the nursing homes scheme. In many cases, I turn to another arm of the State and try to engage the community welfare officer service to see if it can come up with the difference to secure these payments and ensure that grants are paid. These issues are causing much stress, as the Minister of State can imagine.

I know that staff dealing with these grants are inundated with queries from worried applicants, fearing that they will not get work done on their homes. We need to provide additional resources to local authorities to cover the administration of these grants. The ever-increasing waiting times for some of these grants are a worry, both at the beginning of the process and when payment is due. I have raised the need to create permanent posts in our local authorities rather than the contracted positions that seem to be on offer at present. We need to offer staff security in these positions, which will have a knock-on benefit in the context of these grants.

Time is not the friend of many of these families. There is an urgent need for a revised grant. I know from previous discussions and replies to parliamentary questions from my Labour Party colleagues that a review will be carried out by the end of the year. I ask the Minister of State to speed up this review to change these life-changing grants now and allow those who need these grants the most the benefit of works that will change their lives for the better.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank Senator Wall for raising this issue and providing me with an opportunity to give an update on the matter on behalf of the Department. The Department provides funding to local authorities under the suite of housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability to assist people in private houses to make their accommodation more suitable for their needs and also to facilitate an early return from hospital stays. The grants include the housing adaptation grant for people with disability, the mobility aids grant and housing aid for older people, which are 80% funded by the Department with a 20% contribution from the resources of the local authority. The detailed administration of these schemes, including assessment, approval, prioritisation and appointment between the three schemes, is the responsibility of the local authorities.

Funding of €75 million is available nationally in 2021 from the housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability scheme. This funding has increased year on year since 2014. As part of the budgetary process, consideration will be given to increasing this funding in future years in line with the programme for Government commitments and the policy statement on housing options for our ageing population. The housing options for our ageing population policies statement emphasised the Department's commitment to streamlining the application process and ensuring the grounds were more accessible to applicants. In this regard, the Department met all 31 local authorities in 2019 to review the detailed administration of the grants in a series of workshops countrywide. The Department also met key stakeholders, including the National Disability Authority, Alone and Age Friendly Ireland, which helped to bring clarity and guidance to the issues raised at the workshop.

A revised single application form to cover the three grants, which was tested for plain English, was issued to all local authorities in December 2019 together with revised guidelines for implementation by the end of January 2020. The Department is working to ensure full implementation of the new process, which will make the grant application process more user-friendly and accessible as well as standardising the individual local authority approach to administering the scheme.

The receipt and processing of housing grant applications has continued throughout the pandemic. Carrying out of such works was specifically exempted from the construction restrictions under the public health regulations which were in place. It is accepted, however, that the pace has been affected by the effects of wider restrictions and revised work methodologies necessary in response to the pandemic. Inevitably, this has led to a backlog of applications in some local authorities. Officials in the Department are engaging with local authorities and emphasising the importance of urgently reducing any existing backlog through the provision of additional resources and ensuring that all applications are dealt with in accordance with departmental guidelines.

As detailed in Housing for All, housing policy objectives Nos. 6 and 7 give a commitment to undertaking a review of the range of housing grants, which I understand is what the Senator is seeking, and specifically meeting housing needs for the ageing population and people with a disability. On the specific issues raised by the Senator, I also dealt with many of these schemes in my time as a local authority member. They are fantastic schemes but the issue of cost is now proving prohibitive to many people. The other issues the Senator raised, such as builders demanding that they be paid up-front and the additional resource burden on local authorities, suggest to me that we need to carry out a review of the current set of challenges with this scheme.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply, the final few sentences of which addressed precisely the problems people have raised with me. It goes without saying that other Senators are dealing with similar matters. Building costs have risen exponentially over the past 24 months and the grant has not kept pace. I have had people cry on the other end of the telephone line as they told me that a loved one was in hospital and could not come home to them. Increasing the grant by a relatively small amount could make the difference and allow a loved one to be brought home. Unfortunately, local authorities are restricted to providing the prescribed amounts. An urgent review is needed because people cannot continue to have loved ones in hospital settings.

I raised previously the issue of permanent contracts. More and more contracts in local authorities are temporary. This does not allow them to recruit the staff they need to carry out works and inspections. That is having a knock-on effect on the grants.

I ask the Minister of State to examine those two issues and convey my views to the Minister. A review is urgently needed.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Following the stock response that we have given the Senator, as well as the specific issues the Senator has raised here, the Department needs to come back with a specific set of answers. The workshop that was held with local authorities was useful in teasing out these issues. A new set of challenges has come about as we emerge from the pandemic. Building costs are surging. There is another issue around contractors and their availability. Many of them are probably taking work that is easier to come by. Hence those issues that the Senator has raised. It is therefore important that our Department comes back with a specific response on that set of challenges, as well as on the permanent posts in local authorities. It is a worthwhile suggestion. We will get back to the Senator with a response from the Department.