I welcome Ms Maeve Regan from the Mercy Law Resource Centre and thank her for her attendance. The centre has provided a full submission, copies of which have been circulated. The submission will also be published on the committee's website after the meeting. I invite Ms Regan to make her opening statement, after which I will invite members to ask questions.
Mercy Law Resource Centre
Ms Maeve Regan
The Mercy Law Resource Centre thanks the committee for its invitation to make a presentation. The centre strongly welcomed the establishment of this important committee and believes a cross-party approach to housing and homelessness is crucial.
The Mercy Law Resource Centre is an independent law centre which provides free legal help for people who are homeless or facing homelessness. Since its establishment seven years ago, the centre has legally advised and represented more than 3,900 individuals and families who were facing homelessness.
The focus of this presentation is a report on the right to housing launched by the Mercy Law Resource Centre last week, on which we worked for approximately two years. I understand members have received copies of the report. I note Mr. Fintan Drury spoke briefly about the right to housing and we are glad he endorsed the idea of protecting the right to housing in a much more formal manner than is currently the case. Our report was launched in what is a desperate homelessness crisis. It discusses what we consider to be an important protection against a recurrence of this type of crisis.
We have not had a homelessness crisis comparable to the current crisis since the foundation of the State. I will briefly provide some context.
The crisis in homelessness appears to have become evident in the early months of 2014 and has grown month on month since then. As a snapshot, between December 2014 and December 2015 there was a net increase in the number of people who were homeless of 1,700 people, an increase of 43%. According to the most recent figures, as noted in our report, in February 2016 some 5,811 people were homeless, 3,930 adults, 912 families and 1,881 children.
In a recent address about the crisis in homelessness, President Michael D. Higgins described it as the most pressing of all the manifestations of inequality in Ireland, nothing less than a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of institutions and morality of the State. That is the context in which we launched the report and made this proposal in a very grounded way.
There is no right to housing in Irish law. Our report assessed the protection of the right to housing in Irish law and outlines the impact that a constitutional right to housing would have. In watching the committee work we hear over and over again that the crisis is due to a failure of policy. In our view the protection of the right to housing would be a positive, strong step for the future to create enduring fundamental protection of the home for every adult and child. The Mercy Law Resource Centre calls for the protection of the right to housing in the Constitution to be a key priority of the new Dáil. The invitation to discuss and tease out this issue is welcome.
A right to housing in the Constitution would not mean the right to a key to a home for all. A constitutional right to housing would, however, put in place a basic floor of protection. It would require the State in its decisions and in its policies to protect the right to housing in balance with other rights. We are speaking here on behalf of the Mercy Law Resource Centre, an independent law centre providing free legal help for people who are homeless or facing homelessness. The centre has been established for the past seven years. Every week for the past two years we meet individuals and families who are homeless who are sleeping in their cars or who are every day looking for accommodation for that night. "Night to night" is the term used. Every day these people are looking for somewhere to sleep at night. They include families with infants and very young babies. The committee is aware of that. The families and people we are helping in this acutely distressing situation are cast adrift. We are helping them because they have been cast adrift, having been told by the local authority that there is no emergency accommodation available or that they do not qualify for emergency accommodation. There is a refusal to provide them with that basic protection.
We meet families who are being accommodated for prolonged and indefinite periods in one room in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. That is grossly inappropriate for their needs, their health and their dignity and they cannot cook for themselves. Often they are long distances from schools. For the children that journey to school may be one they simply cannot take. In recent months we have seen a further evolution of the problem. The families and children we represent are in that accommodation for long periods of nine to 18 months with no end in sight. The severe effects on their mental and physical health mean they are going downhill. That is a new evolving problem we will face.
In regard to private rented accommodation, Deputy Kathleen Funchion mentioned the difficulty for children having to move around. When that is translated into emergency accommodation and night-to-night accommodation, we still do not know the full effects that will have on families and children. There is no right to housing in Irish law. We provide legal help for people who are in this desperate situation. The real effect of the absence of the right to housing is that in these situations there is no clear right on which to rely.
When we represent these families, it is the rights around the edges we must invoke. When we get to the stage of pleadings in the courts, we have to talk about bodily integrity, privacy and family life. We cannot directly challenge the fundamental failure to provide emergency accommodation. The gap in the law in that sense is very clear.
The right to housing would mean that the courts could look at the State decision or policy and consider whether it was proportionate by reference to the right. It would mean that government and State policies and actions would have to reasonably protect the right. For example, if the State decided to cut funding for homeless accommodation, the courts could review that. We cannot review such decisions directly now. The courts have no oversight over that issue. The failure of rent supplement to meet market rate could also be challenged by reference to the right. As mentioned by Ms Clare Naughton from the Law Society of Ireland earlier today, the fact there is no legal aid, particularly in the case of evictions, could be challenged. People are evicted from their homes without any legal representation at court level. That could be challenged by reference to the right.
This is not simply about going to court, as cases are rare. The right to housing would mean that legislation and policy would have to be proofed to ensure they reasonably protect the right, in the same way as they are proofed in regard to other substantive rights. This would ensure that at that early stage a check would be in place to ensure the legislation or policy reasonably protect the right to housing. This would mean that policies on housing and homelessness could not be based on a political whim or simply based on the philosophy of the reigning government. Policy would instead be grounded in the basic obligation to respect the right. In that sense, it would be an enduring protection, a fundamental floor.
The right to housing is recognised in Europe in the constitutions of Belgium, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden and it is recognised and protected in the legislation of Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. Around the world, the right is recognised in 81 constitutions. The right is very evolved. It was first recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It was recognised in that declaration as an international human right. This right was then made binding in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which came into force in 1976 and it is also recognised and protected in the European Social Charter.
Another important point in regard to where this sits in regard to our position is that in 2014, the Constitutional Convention, which comprised citizens from across the country and was set up by the Government and tasked to consider changes that would be appropriate to our Constitution, considered this right. It considered economic, social and cultural rights and the right to housing, in particular. The convention voted overwhelmingly in favour of protecting the right to housing in the Constitution. Some 84% of participants voted in favour of it being protected. This was the same convention the marriage equality referendum came from. However, in this situation, the Government has not taken any further substantive action on the issue.
What we are putting forward in regard to the right to housing builds on what has gone before. We are at a time now where it is highly appropriate and necessary to look at this issue. The Mercy Law Resource Centre calls for the protection of the right to housing in the Constitution to be a key priority of the new Dáil. This call forms part of our broader policy work, including a call for legal aid for evictions and a rise in rent supplement levels to meet market rent. Both of these would be easier to achieve if we had a right to housing in the Constitution. The right to housing would help those now facing homelessness and would be a fundamental safeguard against the recurrence of the current unacceptable crisis. This right is really a recognition that a home is central to the dignity of every person.
The crisis is a call to us to ask ourselves what we consider an evolved, decent and humane society should protect for every person.
I thank Ms Regan. Before I allow members to contribute, I have one minor question. Ms Regan referred to the right to housing being included in a number of other constitutions and protected by legislation in other countries. The previous speaker Professor Drudy suggested that legislation might be quicker and easier than a constitutional change. Perhaps Ms Regan would clarify which change would afford the better protection of the right and is there a significant difference from a legal point of view? This is based on our discussion with the previous witness.
Ms Maeve Regan
Yes. I heard Professor Drudy's point on that and it is very good to tease it out. The better protection and the more enduring protection is in the Constitution because the Constitution is the people's document. Once it is changed, it is not easy to change it back and that is its strength. Legislation can be changed by Governments. Successive Governments can change it and, therefore, it does not become an enduring protection. In the Constitution, it endures. While protection in legislation would be welcome also - if nothing else was possible it would be better to have that protection then none - within the Constitution is where the real protection lies because it is with reference to the Constitution that all policies and legislation would have to be made.
I thank Ms Regan for her presentation. I warmly congratulate her for the report itself. A fair number of members were at the launch. It has been a long time since I have attended the launch of an NGO sector document in Buswells Hotel that was as well attended. That says much about both Mercy Law Resource Centre and this issue. I recommend that people read the report. It is a short document and very accessible and I would commend it to members. Sinn Féin published a constitutional amendment Bill on this very subject last week and it is something we are hoping to bring before the Dáil when it is up and running.
I have some practical questions for Ms Regan. People who argue against the constitutional right to housing make references to both the cost and the implications thereof. Even under the South African model, to which Ms Regan refers in the document, there are some caveats in South Africa's constitutional protection within available resources, etc. I would like to tease out that particular debate and hear her response to the argument put forward by opponents of the right to housing within the constitution. It is also interesting that Ms Regan uses two phrases in the document and again in the presentation, namely, "basic floor of protection" and "reasonably protect". Those phrases clearly have a meaning to her as a practising lawyer. They might mean something different to people outside of the legal sector. Perhaps Ms Regan could explain, in more practical terms, what the phrases mean and what tools would they provide to lawyers and to those who advocate for people with housing needs if they were included in the Constitution. Ms Regan talks a great deal about South Africa. However, I would have been more interested to know about a more comparable EU member state. Is there one EU member state she could pick that has a constitutional right to housing and could she tell us the benefits to that country? It would be a better comparison for us than South Africa.
Ms Maeve Regan
I thank Deputy Ó Broin. The argument used against any economic, social or cultural right is that it affects resources. The way the convention voted - and the way this right is defined in international human rights law in the convention - is that because it is an economic or social right the obligation is to progressively realise the right. It is not an absolute right and must be progressively realised to the maximum of available resources. There is always a caveat in respect of resources. How the right is understood - and it is built into how the right can be developed - is always in the resource choices the State has at a given time. That is the only realistic way that any of these rights could be interpreted. When we speak of resources it must be remembered that other rights which are fundamentally accepted in the State also cost money; civil and political rights, the right to a fair trial, the right to vote, the provision of legal aid. These all cost money and the right to housing is no different in that sense.
They are rights that we fundamentally accept here, and they cost money also. As I said, it is also to be progressively realised to the maximum of available resources and that wording would be most appropriate in a constitutional provision.
In terms of what "reasonably protect" means, this makes clear that this is not an absolute right but that there are choices and balances to be made. There is a reason we refer to South Africa in the report. I completely see the point that it would be interesting to look at an EU country and our next report - our follow-up report - will be on comparing EU countries, because people will be interested to see how that works. The reason we use South Africa is because the courts there have been very good at explaining how they interpret the right. In terms of what is "reasonable", they will not get into the minutiae of the decision but they have to be able to see that there was a reasonable protection of the right by reference to what the State was doing with that particular policy, if that makes sense.
The EU member state point is a very good one. The country I would refer to is Portugal, which has a constitutional right to housing. However, we are developing that research because we want to bring it down and compare it to Ireland. We are currently working on that and would be happy to provide that when we have done it. In terms of what it does, in any European country, it provides a floor of protection. In Scotland, there has been a proactive approach to ending homelessness, basing it in law. It has been very effective in Scotland. The law, based on a constitutional right, which we would be calling for here, can be very effective.
I would not have a problem with having a constitutional right to housing. Similar to what has already been touched on, does Ms Regan believe legislation would not be enough? The reason I raise the question is that Britain does not have a constitution but it has a right to housing. I think most European countries do not really have constitutions. Would Ms Regan advocate for legislation to be introduced straight away to assert those rights?
The reason I raise the issue is that I have a problem with the Constitution being continually invoked as the only way one has rights in this country, if Ms Regan knows what I mean. It is very hard to change the Constitution, for example, to repeal the eighth amendment and so on. Sometimes it is overly invoked, but I would not have a problem with the premise.
At the launch last week, it was mentioned that families were being forced to stay in emergency accommodation for nine to 18 months. From what Ms Regan found, are these lengths of stay becoming normalised? Ms Regan mentioned the impact on families, parents and children. What is the longest she has come across of a family being in emergency accommodation?
The other reason I raised a question about the Constitution is that children are meant to have rights under the Constitution. However, we all know it means nothing. It is ignored daily. Women are not meant to have to leave the home to get a job but, obviously, that has been ignored for a long time. This morning, Edmund Honohan mentioned the possibility of compulsory purchase orders on the basis of children's rights in the Constitution, that is, that homelessness is impacting on children and that one could use the law and the recent children's referendum. Does Ms Regan think that is a possible basis for keeping families in their homes, be they in private rental accommodation or in mortgage arrears?
At the launch last week, Paul Sweeney from TASC questioned whether we can finance a major housing programme to deal with all the major housing problems. He said the answer was an unequivocal "Yes". Would Ms Regan agree? Would she agree that the only way to provide fully for the right to housing is by ensuring the State, in particular, builds public housing, or "local authority housing" as my comrade over here on the right was arguing for this morning? I agree the term "social housing" is now becoming a term of stigma. In the past, local authorities built roughly one third of housing. When I was a child, that was the way it was.
I imagine Ms Regan is not only advocating legal changes but she is simply highlighting this point in particular. Fundamentally, the only way we can guarantee people's right to housing is if the State recognises that it should not be left to the private sector as a source of speculation. The State must intervene and build housing on a major scale.
Ms Maeve Regan
There is a good deal in what Deputy Coppinger said and I thank her for that. Her first point was on the question of whether legislation would be good enough instead of the constitutional change. Our point is that constitutional change would be best of all and would represent the most enduring and sound change. We would still need legislation. Court cases could evolve what is needed but the better thing would be to have legislation that protects it. There are two things about it. It would be quite helpful if we were to protect the right to housing in legislation. However, the concern is that legislation gets changed and amended. It can be quick but equally it can be changed quickly. That is our greatest concern in the case of legislation protecting this right. Since it is a fundamental right, we consider its home to be in the Constitution.
Some points were raised this morning by Clare Naughton from the Law Society of Ireland. There are areas where legislation would really help. I do not intend to go into those areas in detail now but a number of issues arise. One relates to priority. I have no wish to go off the point but let us consider what happens when a person is given homeless or medical priority. At the moment, if a person is given medical priority, it really does not mean much in terms of how quickly he or she is housed. There are certainly areas where legislation could assist. An obligation on local authorities to provide accommodation does not exist in legislation at the moment and certainly it would be helpful if there was legislation in that area. There is a real role for legislation, in particular, when it comes to getting into the detail of what is going on. However, the right is a fundamental one and it is best protected in the Constitution, although certainly legislation can help and alleviate the situation for people.
The question of length of stay and whether a nine to 18 month stay was becoming normal came up. Our organisation is working with people who are at the most desperate edge of homelessness. They need legal help to access basic entitlements. Organisations like Focus Ireland would be better placed to do a statistical overview of what is happening in terms of length of stay. However, we work with families regularly in accommodation from between eight to 18 months. The longest situation we might encounter might be nearly two years. In a recent case, the family was ultimately housed, which was good news, but it was only after a lengthy representation. That family with young children were almost two years in emergency accommodation.
Reference was made to children's rights. I know the Master of the High Court adverted to compulsory purchase orders by reference to children's rights. We are unable to speak to that with expertise. However, I can comment on children's rights as an approach to alleviating the situation for people on an individual basis. We try to invoke children's rights in respect of the family situation. However, the extent to which we can do that is limited. In fact, we are working on how we can use those rights in our cases but they are evolving. We know this is not going to be the direct route as such, although in certain cases it is helpful. I am unsure whether that answers the question about children's rights.
Reference was made to Paul Sweeney. He is the chairman of the TASC Economists' Network and he spoke at our launch. His bottom line was that we have the money. We are not economists but it would appear we have it. When we were far poorer, social housing was built in the 1960s and 1970s. We were well able to do it then, so why can we not do it now?
One question was whether local authorities should be building. I am unsure whether that was Deputy Coppinger's question.
Ms Maeve Regan
Deputy Coppinger asked whether local authorities should be directly building social housing and taking charge of it. I gather that was the point the Deputy was making. Is that correct?
Ms Maeve Regan
We would not be experts on achieving a greater level of social housing. We would not be in a position to comment on that but we would endorse the need for it and would call for it to be built. The need is the major cause of homelessness. That is fundamental.
I thank Ms Regan. I had not heard of Mercy Law until I received the invitation to Buswells Hotel. I was very impressed and did some research on it. I compliment the witnesses on the work they do. It is not something we have access to in the country. They are doing fantastic work. We are trying to come up with ideas to put forward some solutions quickly. Would it make any difference in the short term if this was enshrined in the Constitution?
Ms Regan mentioned that there is no legal aid for people being forced through the courts for evictions. I presume she meant there is no free legal aid.
Ms Maeve Regan
Could Ms Regan give us a little more detail on that? I was very surprised to hear that, because free legal aid is there for anyone. It was reported in the media recently.
Has any other group or organisation tried to have the Constitution changed in this regard? Is Mercy Law the first group ever to try to do this? If people tried before were they unsuccessful?
Ms Maeve Regan
I thank Deputy Butler. In response to the question about the short-term effect of enshrining this in the Constitution, when we meet a family with a child who has a severe disability which is not being given emergency accommodation or are given accommodation that is totally inadequate – and we see this often - we would be able to challenge that in court. Before we go to court, we get in touch with the council and try to find a solution. Sometimes the council will change the policy based on what we point out is the law. That is a very effective result. In that sense we could point out where there was not a reasonable protection of a person’s right to housing. It would have an immediate effect where it is invoked and brought to book when people point out that a policy or legislation needs to change.
The entitlement to civil legal aid is limited and the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, are the oracle on the entitlement - or lack thereof - to legal aid. They highlight that civil legal aid really applies to family cases and there are long waiting lists. In terms of other legal aid, Ms Clare Naughton pointed out this morning that there is no entitlement to legal aid for disputes over rights to, and interests in, land. That has been interpreted as including housing. Not only does that apply to people being evicted from local authority accommodation but now it will be determined by the District Court under new legislation, which is to be welcomed. The District Court will decide whether this is a proportionate eviction but there is no entitlement to legal aid for that. The only circumstance in which, in theory, a person would be entitled to it and it is not an absolute entitlement but it may be allowed if a person has an infirmity or a disability. We have tried with no success to invoke that at the legal aid board that we refer people to. We, as solicitors, cannot represent the person who wants legal aid. They have been told there is no such entitlement. It is being worked on at a policy level to try to make that exception at least work. There is no entitlement and it is a big gap.
One other situation we have seen is that this affects not only people in social housing but also in private rented accommodation who are being evicted. We worked with a family who were evicted from private rented accommodation because it was acquired by a receiver.
They were told in the Circuit Court just before Christmas that they had seven days to vacate. This person came to us in our clinic faced with this. She was now over-holding and had had no legal representation. On a basic level, if she had representation, a stay would certainly have been put on it. Even if it is not possible to do much more, it is possible to hold the situation and negotiate. It is a huge lack that there is no legal aid there. That is one of the things we are calling for and working on.
Did anybody else ever try to bring forward this legislation?
Ms Maeve Regan
I do not want to speak for others but, as they have been vocal about it, we know that what we have been calling for is also supported by the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, Threshold and the Dublin Simon Community. These organisations have all called for the protection of the right.
As has the Constitutional Convention.
Ms Maeve Regan
Indeed. That is a very good point.
I do not mean to cut Ms Regan short. I wish to indicate to Deputy Butler that the primary focus of Ms Regan's contribution was this constitutional change. The debate is open in respect of other affected issues. We have been conscious of some of those. Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, will be appearing here at some stage to follow up on exactly those points.
I agree completely on having the right to housing in the Constitution. I am also glad to see Ms Regan bringing up mental health in respect of children as it gets overlooked a lot.
There is a type of case which I often come across. The tenant is put on notice to quit and, although the landlord follows all the rules in terms of the number of days' notice depending on the length of the tenancy and so on, nobody can ever get to the reason for the notice. Generally the landlord is doing this to increase the rent or because he does not want to be in the rent allowance category. It is very difficult. The house is there and there is really no reason to be evicting tenants but once the landlord goes by the rules in terms of giving the tenants their letter and their right notice, there is very little scope to challenge it. Would constitutional change help in situation like that?
Ms Maeve Regan
It is a very good point. On one level, this is not the answer to everything. It is just not. It is one aspect of a pathway through the crisis. The case Deputy Funchion raises is a thorny issue. Often, for people who are faced with that situation, we are trying to negotiate more time. Would a right to housing help? It would depend on the situation. Perhaps if there was a receiver - although this would be a difficult legal argument - and a family in a very severe situation with illness, disability or young children, it might create the ability to negotiate in some way. It would be difficult, to be honest.
Where a right to housing might assist would be in drafting legislation to provide greater protection in those situations, particularly where receivers are taking over property. The landlord may have a very valid reason for evicting a person. There is always going to be that balance of interests. Where a constitutional right to housing might help is in terms of making sure there is the right balance of protections in legislation.
We often see that there is no real reason given in these cases, although maybe landlords are not supposed to be doing that. Next thing, the property is up on daft.ie for an extra €200 or €300. While I know the constitutional right is not the answer to everything, I wonder if it would help in tackling that kind of stuff.
Ms Maeve Regan
If a landlord is doing that and there is not a valid reason - first of all he should have to give reasons - there are ways of challenging it through the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB. It may not be a valid notice to quit, for starters. There is legislation there, although there may not be awareness of it. There are protections. We have been before the PRTB challenging notices to quit on the basis that they were not valid in that kind of situation.
I was at the launch last week and was very impressed. I think a constitutional right would be effective in an extreme case. For example, Travellers are to be evicted from a so-called illegal site in Dundalk today.
It would provide grounds for a legal appeal or place new or extra obligations on local authorities to ensure that if and when it comes to that stage, they must have exhausted all of the other possibilities. If there was a court case, they would be required to enumerate and outline what they had actually tried to do. Decisions in cases where there was no alternative to eviction would require those making the decision to evict to carry out due diligence and give all due consideration to the decision in terms of consultation with community welfare officers and local authorities. That is the strength I see in such a right.
At the same time, if it was clear that a person was having parties 24-7 and behaving in an antisocial fashion in housing estates, there would have to be a requirement that such people would behave reasonably. People could not behave unreasonably, such as selling drugs or whatever. There are issues which would mean that nothing would be absolute. The key point in selling this would be to enumerate the areas around it in order to clear up issues. A person with a reasonable income may refuse to pay rent. I am thinking in particular of antisocial behaviour, which is a major issue in my area.
Previous speakers referred to those with significant medical problems. If I, having had a stroke, lived in a house where the toilet and bathroom were upstairs, I would no longer be able to go upstairs. Yet, local authorities have a limit to the funding they can use for housing adaptation. A change in the rules would assist in those cases and would place a greater obligation on local authorities and the State to meet those very significant human needs by adjusting accommodation to suit disabilities. I do not know whether the witnesses have analysed the issue. We need to broaden the entitlement of individuals who are in very difficult situations.
I know of a woman who has to have a very serious operation. She will be in a wheelchair, unfortunately, and nothing can be done for her. The council has to find her another house, but she and I feel things are not happening quickly enough. Suitable homes are on the market. She should not have to chase a local authority to vindicate her rights. Rather, they should be vindicated by an amendment to the Constitution which would strengthen the case of such people.
Ms Maeve Regan
Deputy O'Dowd made a very good point. Generally, the cases involving rights are extreme. He said cases cannot be absolute because severe antisocial behaviour may be taking place. That example is a very good way of identifying that somebody else's right to housing is being interfered with by such behaviour. A balance must always be struck.
The Deputy referred to people with severe medical need and asked whether a right to housing would help them. Overall, it would because as the right has evolved and been defined under international human rights law, a number of different elements have developed. Adequacy is fundamental to the right.
One would hope a constitutional right would ensure that policy and legislation would come in to line with the right. For example, the scheme of letting priorities for transfer would better cater for that situation. It would filter through to the policies in place. This is not about a case-by-case situation. In the best case scenario, it would make policies and legislation more balanced and protective of the right.
Deputy Durkan indicated that he had a question.
This is a subject matter in which I have an interest. Ironically and surprisingly, I am not all that convinced that the placing of a constitutional right into the Constitution is of great assistance. If we, as legislators, are doing our job adequately and reflecting the needs of the communities we represent, it should not be necessary to place such a provision in the Constitution. I have had this argument before with many people, as the Chairman probably knows.
A constitution is supposed to lay down basic fundamentals or cornerstones which protect the rights of the people in all instances. I do not think it is preferable for it to be that way in this case. One tends to use the Constitution as a means of providing legislation. I do not think that is the right way to go about it. It is far better to produce the legislation in line with the ongoing requirements of the people we represent, while having due regard to the fundamentals laid down in the Constitution and the constitutions of various countries. I accept that the UK does not have a written constitution but it does have the Magna Carta, which it still operates and has regard for.
I must have the record on this committee because I know of more than one case of people being in emergency accommodation for three years or more in appalling circumstances despite numerous representations. Due to the scale of the housing need at the present time, all these people get squeezed in the crush and it causes a huge problem.
Ms Regan made reference to the suitability of meeting the requirements of adults and children with special needs. It is appalling to see the degree to which individual HAP families have to try to strive all the time to deal with the requirements arising from special needs, housing needs and the failure to adapt a house in line with the special needs of the people concerned. It is tear-jerking and horrifying to look at. There are many people in these circumstances at the present time and that number is growing. It shows that there are other things we need to focus on. What I am afraid of is seeing a situation developing in which we have to go to court in order to grant somebody the right to a house. It should not be that way. We must either reflect what is a good and honest response or we must not do it at all.
I have always said that special needs housing is best dealt with by the voluntary agencies. The local authorities are not at all suited to meeting that requirement. They do not do it well and they do not do the things that are necessary. This is not by virtue of the fact that they are reticent, it is simply that their structures do not lend themselves easily to it.
The constitutional rights of one person should not override the constitutional rights of another. If we do not recognise that, we are missing something. By putting something in the Constitution specifically to guarantee the rights of one group, we might have a situation in which somebody is creating anti-social behaviour. He or she will go to court and will win the case on the basis that he or she is also protected under the Constitution.
My final point is with regard to Travellers' housing rights. We have a responsibility to deal compassionately with every case that comes before us, regardless of background, country of origin, race, creed, colour or whatever the case may be is. If we are not doing this or if we are doing it in pretence, we are not doing our job. It follows that we should not have a situation in which Travellers, or any other body in society, are forced to live at a crossroads or in the middle of a roundabout in appalling conditions while we all stand around and wring our hands. That is not doing the job that we were given to do. There is already cover under the Constitution to deal with that, if we exercise ourselves.
Usually I do not comment on witness contributions, but I wish to comment before Ms Regan responds.
She mentioned the Constitution and discussed whether legislation would be necessary. Legislation has to be constitutionally sound. Among the issues about which we have spoken at this committee are access to land for house building and the question of hoarding. The former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, was explicit to the effect that he was restricted in what he was able to do with the vacant site tax because of the advice he received. The purpose of the vacant site tax was to front-load land and make development land more available, but he felt restricted because the existing property rights outweighed the right to housing. We need to have some regard to the constitutional position as that would lead to subsequent legislation. The Minister indicated that he would have liked to have been stronger in what he did but the tax was pushed out to 2019 and the rate was lower than he would have liked. We are asking whether a right to housing in the Constitution would be a balancing right. I do not expect an answer from the committee but I add it to Deputy Durkan's comments because to some extent it counterbalances what he said.
Ms Maeve Regan
If the job is being done adequately by the Government and by the Oireachtas, then there is no problem. However, a healthy society has separation of powers where each body keeps a check on the other It is important, as a last resort, to have some oversight where the job is not being done properly. This notion is premised on the idea that the right to housing is a fundamental right. Professor Drudy said that housing was a fundamental need and the right to housing a fundamental right. Perhaps the homelessness crisis is making us see that this is not about money but shelter, home and security. This is recognised as a fundamental right in international human rights law, so it would sit as comfortably within the Constitution as the right to education.
Tomorrow, Ireland is undergoing its periodic UN review and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, is in Geneva for it. One of the big issues being raised by the missions there is what is happening in Ireland in regard to homelessness. They want to hear what the State is doing because it is considered to be a breach of the right to housing as a fundamental right. It is recognised as fundamental in the human rights structure.
It is absolutely true that every right has to be balanced with other rights within society. There has been a lot of discussion in this committee on the right to property under Article 43.2 of the Constitution. The rights to property are very well enshrined in the Constitution but they relate to ownership of property and we have no counterbalancing right for any other form of home, but that is what the right to housing is about. It is about home, not simply property ownership, and in that sense it is exactly what the Chairman said about balancing rights.
That is true. I will put a scenario to Ms Regan that illustrates practices that prevailed during the boom, which we all remember although not with so much fondness. A property is sold by an individual who traditionally owned it to a second party, who in turn transfers it to a third party, who in turn transfers it to a fourth party and that property is then transferred to a fifth party and subsequently to a sixth party, as happened on one occasion of which I am aware, escalating its value, in some instances, by up to ten times its original price. Where do we come down on that practice? What is the original price of such a property; what is its current price; and, to what extent does it reflect and impact on the cost of house prices now? My view is that huge speculation was involved in such cases. Not a sod was turned. It was based purely on speculation through the availability of funding from lending institutions and that effectively prevented housing from being worthwhile or available to a large number of people.
Does Ms Regan wish to comment on that?
Ms Maeve Regan
That is absolutely true in terms of how house prices have escalated, as a separate point.
That concludes our questions. I thank Ms Maeve Regan for attending this afternoon. Some of us attended the launch, which was impressive. As a result of the launch a number of colleagues asked if Ms Regan would be prepared to attend before the committee today. That is the context for her appearing before the committee. The documentation that was provided will be available on the website after the meeting.
That concludes today's meeting. We will next meet at 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 May 2016 when representatives from the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, will appear before the committee.