Focus Ireland

I draw the attention of members and witnesses to housekeeping notices. I ask members and witnesses to switch their mobile phones off or to flight mode as they cause interference not only during, but in the recording and broadcasting of, our proceedings. I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2008, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I welcome Mr. Ashley Balbirnie and Mr. Mike Allen, the representatives of Focus Ireland. Their submission has been circulated to members and will be published on the committee's website afterwards. I invite Mr. Balbirnie to make his opening statement and I will then open the meeting to colleagues for questions.

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

I am the chief executive of Focus Ireland and have been in office for just over a year. My colleague, Mr. Mike Allen, director of advocacy, will probably be much more familiar to a number of the members. I thank the members of the committee for the invitation to make a direct presentation to them on the housing and homelessness crisis that confronts us. I commend them on their work to date, the range of submissions they have heard and their close and detailed questioning around the key issues. Focus Ireland has long called for homelessness to be treated as a political priority and the hard work and diligence of this committee is a practical expression of what being treated as a political priority looks like. This work has been given added significance by the publication of the programme for Government, which includes a commitment to produce an action plan for housing within 100 days of the Government being formed. We welcome this and also the commitment to arrive at the plan through a collaborative process. We see this meeting as an important element in that collaboration.

Focus Ireland has made a comprehensive submission to the committee which covers a number of the issues that need to be addressed. As we note in the submission, a comprehensive strategy designed to bring an end to homelessness would include a wider range of measures related to general poverty, mental health, the justice system and support for young people who grew up in care.

We do not want these issues to be forgotten but we consider the approach of the committee to be reasonable in the present circumstances, that is, to concentrate on the immediate crisis which confronts us and is driven primarily by a severe shortage of affordable housing.

Focus Ireland, formed over 30 years ago by Sr. Stan, is one of the leading homeless organisations in Ireland with a presence in most parts of the country. We run a range of services from providing long-term homes for people who need ongoing support, through tenancy sustainment, training, and advice and information. The core of our work is in the areas of preventing homelessness and supporting people to exit homelessness and while we work with anyone who is homeless or at risk of homelessness, we have a particular recognised expertise in the areas of families, young people and Housing First. We are the designated housing action team for the homeless families in the four Dublin local authority areas and, on behalf of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, we provide case management support to families across the city. Our submission is based on the front-line experience of our staff across the country, supporting over 12,500 people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness during the last year.

While we are more than happy to take any questions arising from any aspect of our submission or, indeed, any other dimension of our work or advocacy which is of interested to the committee, bearing in mind the committee has heard many submissions and covered many aspects of this issue already, we want to use our time here, if we may, to concentrate on one aspect as we thought our time would be best spent by doing that. The area we would like to concentrate on is the importance of preventing homelessness, in particular family homelessness. We want to concentrate on prevention because if we do not do something to slow down the flow of families into homelessness, the system will move from crisis point to breaking point and significant damage will be done to many lives while we wait for the longer-term solutions to kick in.

The numbers are stark. I refer the committee to the two tables in my submission. In terms of the official figures for families who are accommodated in emergency accommodation nationally, no official figures are available prior to June 2014 but from other work that Focus Ireland undertook at the time, we estimate that approximately 150 families were homeless in February 2013. One can see the movement in the figures since then, with the official figures showing 291 families in June 2014, moving through last year, with the figures rising all the time, to now over 1,000 families and, crucially, over 2,000 dependants - children - in homelessness. As I said, I joined Focus Ireland just over a year ago and shortly after I joined, the number of children topped over 1,000. At that time, there was significant commotion and media interest in it, that it had sort of magically passed this figure of 1,000, and the ISPCC, Children's Rights Alliance or others were rightly extremely vocal on the subject. I stress that the number is now twice that, at over 2,000 dependants, but comparatively, I would say there has been hardly a murmur, even though those figures have doubled in just over a year. We believe it is truly scary.

The second table shows the growth in the number of newly homeless families in Dublin over a slightly longer period, dating back to the start of 2013. Crucially, the point we would make out of the second table is that there has been a doubling in the average number of families each successive year. There were on average 15 families in 2013, 34 in 2014, 62 in 2015 and 92 in 2016 to date. The crucial question we would ask is what is fundamentally changing that will stop that continuing because we and others involved in the DRHE area are struggling so hard to contain the numbers as they stand at present. We all are having difficulty in seeing how we can cope with those increased figures.

There is an understandable temptation to focus on the emergency side of the issue in the short term. Members of the committee will be familiar with our criticisms of the quality of some emergency accommodation, the long distances from schools, the absence of cooking and washing facilities, etc. These are extremely important criticisms and much more needs to be done to ensure a consistently acceptable quality of emergency accommodation. However, it is also important to recognise the achievement of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive in rapidly scaling up its provision for homeless families and responding to a crisis that was once unpredicted by official sources, grew at an unprecedented rate and is caused by factors largely beyond its control.

I again refer to families. Organisations such as the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Focus Ireland, Peter McVerry Trust and others are trying to budget on the basis of a figure from one year but are dealing with double that figure the next. I am not sure in what context that is possible.

We wish to signal clearly to the committee that there comes a time when a problem reaches a scale at which one simply runs out of available hotel rooms and bed and breakfast accommodation. We are approaching that point. We do not believe there are proposals to provide a significant number of new homes that will bear fruit in the next six to eight months and that, at the current rate of growth, the current rate of provision will suffice. There is nothing to indicate that it is. We need to start providing very different emergency accommodation, well below what is now considered acceptable, which clearly is not an option, or be very much better at preventing people from losing their homes.

Members will have heard earlier this week about a number of families who had to be accommodated on blow-up beds in offices or accommodation for single adults because it was past midnight and no emergency beds could be found for them. We are running out of language to describe this. If a hotel room is “emergency accommodation”, what do we call a room in an adult hostel that is used when the supply of emergency accommodation has run out? What do we call the offices we use when the “beyond emergency rooms” have run out? We tend to call them “a place of safety”. That cold, technical title does not convey the anxiety and fear children must feel late at night when they are finally offered such a place, but perhaps it does make clear the level of risk if we ever reach a night in which we have run out of places of safety. That is the reason we need members to concentrate on this issue. If I had but one message for the committee today, it would be that we have to address the prevention issue and stop the flow into homelessness in some shape or form. Otherwise, we will just keep throwing more money at bigger and bigger numbers to try to turn back a tide that must be tackled at its source.

My colleague, Mr. Allen, will now outline some of the specific measures we have outlined in the submission, although not all, members will be pleased to hear. He will pick out some that might be of relevance and note to the committee.

Mr. Mike Allen

I wish to concentrate on a few areas concerning prevention and perhaps a couple of other points. We are concentrating a lot on the area in which we have the highest level of direct experience, namely, family homelessness. Ours is the lead organisation in that area.

It is important to realise that almost all of the families entering homelessness services had their last homes in the private rental sector. Therefore, there is considerable concern about owner-occupiers and the problems they experience, including mortgage arrears. However, virtually none of these families has ended up in homelessness services. They may be homeless in more general senses in some cases but virtually none enters homelessness services. This should not be regarded as a reason for complacency. If the purpose of public policy in recent years was to prevent owner-occupiers in arrears from becoming homeless, it has been an outstanding success. We should leave that as it is, but it is worth noting some of the reasons. I am not saying there are still not considerable problems in this area owing to indebtedness and the stress on families, but their problem is not formal homelessness.

In the private rental sector, which is essentially from where the homeless families are coming, the two factors which are driving people out are the increase in rent levels and evictions of one sort or another. Unless we are able to tackle these two issues, we will see a continual increase in the number of families being pushed out of the private rental sector into homelessness services.

With regard to rent levels, there are two things one can do. The first involves doing something to moderate the increase in rent levels through rent certainty in some form or rent moderation legislation. We have always advocated that this be done, either in the short term or the longer term, by linking rents with the consumer price index. Some elements in the last Government tried to achieve this, but the Government used a different mechanism which, predictably, did not have the effect required. This was because there was not the political will right across government. Political will is crucial in how these matters are dealt with.

The other way of dealing with the issue is to increase the amount of money in the pockets of those who are being forced out. Virtually every one of the families who have become homeless were, on the last occasion on which they lived in private rented accommodation, in receipt of rent supplement.

As such, there is no escaping the fact that the inadequacy of rent supplement levels is a driving force for pushing families into homelessness. That said, we do not believe any of these is a simple solution. There is no simple answer to these things and there are unintended consequences for every action one might take. We argued several years ago that rent supplement should be increased in line with market rents but nothing was done. They have fallen so far behind now that to get families back into accommodation, we are regularly paying 60% to 70% above the rent supplement level to get housing assistance payments under the homeless HAP scheme because we were not willing to pay them an adequate level of rent supplement earlier on. There are ways to deal with rent supplement which go beyond the Threshold intervention. The metaphor I use is that it is as if the entire roof has blown off and the rain is pouring in but Threshold and the Department of Social Protection are running around asking if anyone is getting wet and just putting a bucket there. One can say Threshold's rent supplement measure is successful because it has prevented a number of people from becoming homeless but one must also look at the fact that every month since it was introduced, the number of families becoming homeless has continued to rise.

People are also losing their accommodation through evictions. We very strongly argue for an improvement in tenants' rights, in particular in regard to the loophole whereby a tenancy can be ended if the landlord wants to sell the property. Legislation could be used to fix that up. A final area in that regard involves the policing of the rules that exist. Currently, if a family becomes homeless because the landlord says he is selling his property or his niece is moving in, the tenant goes to the local authority which assesses him or her as homeless. The tenant gives that as the reason but nobody from the local authority goes to the address and finds out if it is actually true. The committee members have passed all this legislation creating all this protection but nobody polices it. It is left to the family that has been made homeless which has other things on its minds to raise it as an issue. It is a simple measure to simply have a trigger for the legislation whereby somebody would go out, check and compile a report to say whether the property is being sold or is for let again.

As a result of the crisis we are in, there are a lot of things that need to be done here which are not very attractive. One of the proposals we put forward and which we draw to the attention of members is as follows. A number of families who lose their secure homes go to live with wider family for a period of time. After that breaks down due to overcrowding or, sometimes, because the local authority says the family cannot live there due to overcrowding, the family goes to homeless services. A proportion of those families could be supported to live in that broader family for a longer period. They call it "doubling up" in the State's homeless services. However, they would have to hold their position on the homeless list and they would have to have a case manager from the Focus Ireland team so that they did not lose out. We put that proposal forward a few weeks ago, albeit the political system has been busy. However, we think there is a significant if not a huge amount of strain that could be taken off families in the system by doing that.

There are three other areas I wish to mention which move away from the prevention area. The first is research and evaluation. Ireland spends an enormous and increasing amount of money on homeless services. It spends no money on evaluating the effectiveness of the measures it introduces. Focus Ireland spends a significant amount of the money we raise on evaluating our services but the State spends nothing. Recently, we had a brilliant talk from a Canadian researcher which set out that 10% of a project's money was spent on research. We are not saying 10% should be spent, or even that it should be 1%, but if the committee as part of its report recommended that 0.1% of the homelessness budget should be ring-fenced for research and evaluation to be carried out by the Housing Agency, it would begin to make a big difference in us being able to see what works and what does not.

The second issue of the three I wish to mention is about under-26s. I might have missed it in the discussion but the particular problems faced by under-26s who are unemployed and not care leavers have not been mentioned. They are on reduced-rate social welfare payments. If they are not able to return to their families or do not have families to which to return and have lost their homes, they are undoubtedly going to remain homeless until they turn 27.

It is an outrageous situation and we are creating the rough sleepers of the future by doing that. A number of measures could be taken to deal with that.

We are very disappointed the Government has so far not decided to continue the enhanced allocations of social housing to homeless households. As members know, the former Minister, Deputy Kelly, introduced a protocol in which 50% of housing units in Dublin, and 30% elsewhere, went to households that were homeless or otherwise disadvantaged. That directive has ceased to operate and has not been continued, which closes off a very important exit from homelessness, given that Cathal Morgan said 1,000 households had moved out of homelessness as a result of that measure.

We know very well it is unpopular, and is particularly unpopular with public representatives. It is taking from people who are pretty poor and giving it to people who are extraordinarily poor. I accept that is not how one would want to run society but in the crisis we are in, if we do not reintroduce that regulation, we will see the numbers of families in homeless accommodation go beyond the number of hotel rooms we have in this city, as Mr. Balbirnie said. During this week, our housing intake team, which we run jointly with the Peter McVerry Trust, was working with a family after midnight and could not get them accommodation. Team members phoned 149 hotels in the Dublin area and in all the counties around Dublin before they finally found somewhere to put up that family. What a waste of their time, what a stress on the family and what an indication of how close to breaking point we are.

I thank Mr. Balbirnie and Mr. Allen for what was a very focused presentation. Although the issue of housing and homelessness is broad and complex, they focused, in particular, on the issue of prevention. My colleagues, in their questions, might also focus on this area because it is one in which Mr. Balbirnie and Mr. Allen have considerable expertise.

One statistic that struck me in reading the presentation was that 34% of homeless are migrants - 17% from within the EU and 17% from outside the EU. The witnesses might comment on that.

I must declare an interest in that I am a former employee of Focus Ireland and Mr. Allen was my line manager.

Do not be too hard on him.

I told him I would heckle him but I probably will not do that. I have noticed that the length of time families are spending in emergency accommodation in Dublin city and county is increasing. We had found it was about 12 months in Dublin city and six or seven months in south Dublin but it is now hitting 12 months and more in south Dublin and 18 to 24 months in Dublin city. Does Focus Ireland have any figures on the length of time families are in emergency accommodation?

There is an increasing number of families for whom there is no emergency accommodation on any given day and, therefore, those families are either forced to over-hold on private rental accommodation where they have notices to quit, or the family has to split up and make very difficult arrangements, such as multiple sofa surfing among family and friends. Is this something Focus Ireland has experience of and will the witnesses comment on it?

I was not aware the 50% priority allocation was no longer being followed by the four Dublin local authorities, although I knew it had not been extended. My understanding was the local authorities were still applying it but if that is not the case, the witnesses might clarify this.

On rent supplement, one of the issues some of us are grappling with is that if there is an across-the-board increase in rent supplement, at some stage the private rental market is going to absorb that into its overall calculation of rents. I am in favour of the increase in rent supplement to market levels for the reasons given by the witnesses. Has Focus Ireland taken a position on the issue of rent certainty in order to try to provide a cap at the other end? If so, what is its preferred model of rent certainty?

I want to raise the issue of standards in emergency accommodation, particularly for children. Given the fact we are seeing an increasing number of families entering emergency accommodation, have the witnesses specific recommendations in terms of how to improve the quality of that emergency accommodation?

I know the focus is on prevention but I would still be keen to hear their views on that matter, particularly as the organisation's focus is on families that are homeless.

Mr. Mike Allen

I missed the Deputy's final question.

One of the issues for many of the families being placed in emergency accommodation is the unsuitability of that accommodation, particularly for children. That is the case in respect of both hotels and hostels. Do the representatives from Focus Ireland have any comments or recommendations on that?

If the witnesses would like to address those two matters, I will then take a few more questions.

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

I will take the rent supplement question first because this is a subject close to our heart. I know there are two lines of thought on this. At the end of the day, rent supplement is a mechanism which people clearly think has a place in the system. The last increase in rent supplement was in June 2013. Rents have gone up in the region of 35% - certainly in the Dublin area - in the meantime. If rent supplement has a role to play, the amount of the supplement obviously must relate to what the market rent is. It is unfortunate that there has been such a time lag and that such a gap has built up because we now cannot be as positive as we would like to be about the 15% increase being talked about at the moment. It is necessary and a good thing, as far as we are concerned, but a hell of a gap has opened up.

What does Mr. Balbirnie mean by 15%? I apologise for interrupting but he quite clearly said that in 2013 it was set. We are three years down the road and Mr. Balbirnie has indicated that the market has grown by 30% or 35%. Will a 15% increase address the issue at all?

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

It is worth doing and will play a positive role but not to the extent that we would like. One of the arguments was that rent increases are driven or partly impacted upon by increases in rent supplement. I return to the point that there has been a 35% increase - with zero increase in rent supplement - so I am not sure from where that argument comes. The 15% increase is positive. We would like to be warmer about it than we are, but that is purely because of the time lag. It is certainly still worth doing.

Mr. Mike Allen

To answer the question, one of the complexities in working out the implications is that it is certainly our belief that there is virtually no household in the country on rent supplement that is not paying a top-up. The Department of Social Protection says that it has never come across anybody paying a top-up. When people from Tyrrelstown came before the committee, however, one of them admitted to paying a top-up. The immediate response of the Department of Social Protection should have been to withdraw rent supplement and render the person homeless. I hope it did not do that, but we are in this complete hypocrisy of not knowing what is going on. No research has been done by the Department; it just asserts this. The risk, if one increases rent supplement by 15% or anything else, is whether it will be absorbed by reducing the top-up or whether the top-up will remain the same and the rent will increase. That is the dynamic that one does not really know.

At the moment, it is essentially not a crime but, rather, a breach of the rules by the tenant, for which he or she will suffer if he or she pays the top-up, but it is completely commonplace among landlords to do it and there is no penalty for their doing it. Therefore, some sort of greater penalisation, for want of a better word, of the landlords' accepting top-ups as part of the rent supplement package is one issue that could be considered. However, the longer-term solution must be the move to HAP. We have signalled a concern that the way the State is getting around this problem is that top-ups are now considered legitimate in HAP in many areas, thereby forcing tenants well below the poverty line.

Specifically on Deputy Ó Broin's question, we support rent certainty and the linking of rents to the consumer price index as the most appropriate index - not in an absolutist fashion if there are better ways to proceed - but that is what would work most effectively.

As the Deputy knows, it is very hard to get detailed information on duration of stay in emergency accommodation. However, we are examining the position of the families who would have been homeless when the directive issued by the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, first came into place in December 2014. Of those families, the total number who were homeless then and are still in the system is in the region of 60. Some of them have come and gone over that period but approximately 60 are still homeless some 15 months later. It is worth informing the committee that Focus Ireland started a programme in 2011 working with all the families who were long-term homeless at the time.

There were 137 homeless families in Dublin at the time. As part of the project we moved all of them out of homelessness into secure accommodation. The crisis started with almost a clean sheet, which is something for which we should be grateful.

On the directed figure of 50%, the problem is that we know that local authorities are obliged to do it, but the figures and data which are published slowly and painfully show that most local authorities are having huge difficulties in achieving the figure of 50%, even with the directive in place. It might take a very long time for us to find out what their allocations policies are in the absence of such a directive. As an interim measure, we would probably settle for the publishing of data and then see where there was a problem.

The quality of the emergency accommodation provided is of huge concern. As we stated in our presentation, it must be set alongside recognition of the enormous challenge the local authorities' homelessness executive had in scaling up the response and the impossibility sometimes of finding any decent room. If we are looking at a situation in the coming two to five years where a significant number of families are still homeless, the questions of the quality of the accommodation in which they are living and its proximity to schools will need to be strongly addressed. As we put it, we need to support these families to remain resilient while they are homeless without doing things which would turn them into being homeless. That is a big challenge for the system.

We do not necessarily have the level of data or information we would like on the proportion of homeless persons who are migrants. The Regional Homeless Executive is examining this issue and we will also do so. There is a mixture of circumstances, including families who have been in Ireland for considerable periods. According to the 2011 census, an extraordinary number of non-Irish people were living in private rented accommodation. Therefore, it is not surprising that a reasonably high percentage of them are affected by a crisis in the private rented sector. In fact, the percentage is quite low considering where they were living when the crisis took place.

I welcome the delegates. I will take up the point on migrants because one in four people in the constituency I represent was born outside Ireland. Ours is the most diverse constituency. I wager that it has the highest level of homelessness in the country. I have been informed the Threshold helpline is mainly rung by people in the west and north Dublin area, but we also have the figures for homelessness in Dublin and Fingal. Most of those who are homeless in Fingal are in the greater Blanchardstown area.

With regard to migrants, I suggested we needed to bring people before the committee to testify directly about their homelessness. One of the families I had in mind was an African family. Last year I held a meeting in my constituency office with ten homeless families from the area, five of whom were not Irish. Non-Irish people are being hit disproportionately by homelessness. The reason is, as Mr. Allen stated, that they are mainly reliant on the private rented sector, which is the cause and curse of all homelessness, and do not really have the same supports as others if they become homeless such as staying with friends. It is a real issue.

Another issue I want to raise is the absolute sin of self-accommodation, whereby people are sent by the local authority to find their own accommodation. This is bad enough if one is Irish, but if one is not Irish, it is even worse because there are potential language difficulties. The delegates might comment on what they come across in this regard because it has not yet been discussed at the committee.

I want to take up Mr. Allen's points about prevention of homelessness. I agree that it is the first thing on which the committee has to make recommendations. There is vital legislation which needs to be introduced and enacted.

Rent supplement is a cause of homelessness. Mr. Allen has stated the inflexibility of the Department is leading to homelessness. We must nail this. The State, through its intransigence, is making people homeless.

When officials from the Department appeared before us recently, I referred to Mr. Allen's assertion that this was universal. Last year or in 2014, the then Minister, Deputy Burton, stated that there was no evidence of it being universal. I made the point that it was the only fraud being committed in social welfare about which the Department did not want to know anything. The reason for this is that the Department knows that people are only defrauding themselves and, therefore, it does not care. Sitting across from us, the officials from the Department stated that it had a more caring and sharing attitude and that if people approached them about their top-ups, it would help them, so let us see if that happens.

Will the witnesses briefly explain why discretionary uplifts will not work, that is, people telephoning and being given something on a nudge-nudge basis? One reason for it not working is that, as the Peter McVerry Trust told us, not everyone knows about these matters. There is an assumption that everyone who becomes homeless is reading legal textbooks and whatever the Department issues on a daily basis. Many do not and are intimidated and frightened. They are not used to getting help and do not know how to get any. I am amazed that people are walking out of houses in which they could have stayed.

I wish to ask about one of Focus Ireland's recommendations, the abolition of ending leases so that properties might be sold, but only where the landlord owns more than one property. I have an issue with this. According to DKM Economic Consultants in 2014, two thirds of landlords owned only one property each. Why must a tenant who is unlucky enough to be with a one-property landlord become homeless, unlike someone whose landlord owns more than one property? If Focus Ireland wants to prevent homelessness, it must advocate this recommendation across the board. Otherwise, the haemorrhage will continue.

I welcome that Focus Ireland highlighted what I have been calling the Baker judgment, which people probably do not realise is what has saved the Tyrrelstown tenants from eviction thus far. They approached the Residential Tenancies Board to make a challenge. We will use other grounds in time, but the judgment is saving many people from homelessness. We made this proposal to the RTB before Christmas, but it was voted down. One must demonstrate that one has made efforts to sell one’s property, for example, contacting an estate agent. One cannot just claim that one is selling the property at which point the tenants must leave. Focus Ireland is asking the Government to legislate properly for this. That is critical, as people need to know that they have this support.

Regarding the point made on one property versus multiple properties, I understand why Focus Ireland has included this clause. I am sure that there are cases of people who would be in great hardship if they could not get their own houses back. I assume that this is why Focus Ireland is making the proposal. We all know people who have needed to move in with their parents because they could not afford to live in the houses that they bought in the bubble era. Different actions need to be taken on that front. For example, there should have been a mortgage write-down, which would have ended many of our problems. If one could prove financial hardship, amendments could be made instead of simply referring to only those with multiple properties.

My final point is on what Focus Ireland called the fatal reliance on the private rental sector in the Government’s housing policy. I do not have time to go into all of the figures, as I have gone into many previously. What are the views of the witnesses on the Government’s targets and figures? It is a broad question, but the Government has a target of 9,000 Part V units by 2020. This is based on 25,000 general private units being built every year, but last year only half of that amount was built. Most were one-off housing that could not have provided any Part V housing. I will be kind and diplomatic, since one is not allowed to say that the Government is "lying", but the figures do not stand up in any way. I would be interested in the views of the witnesses-----

The Deputy has asked her questions.

They are important questions.

I thank the Deputy. Before we come to the witnesses, we will take the other member who has indicated. Does Deputy Durkan have a question?

I thank our guests for attending this meeting and compliment them on the work they are doing and have done for many years. As in the case of all the other witnesses who have appeared before the committee, it is good to engage with people dealing at the coalface with an issue on a daily basis, as opposed to getting information second-hand, of which there is a great deal.

I understand that Focus Ireland recently had a meeting with the Taoiseach at which it rightly set out its priorities. I believe its requests will be responded to. It is only proper that this should be the case in the context of the current housing emergency. When an emergency is not addressed it escalates.

A few issues come to mind. We need to arrest the rate at which homelessness is hitting the market. If we do not do so now the problem will escalate. This issue can be addressed through a multiplicity of approaches, including modular house provision, the purchase of existing houses, the use of suitable NAMA houses and the dedication of the various local authorities. In this regard it has come to my attention that because of an over-reliance over the past ten or 15 years on the private sector to deal with the housing situation the tendency among local authorities has been to not hold a land bank. This lack of land banks is now a serious issue in the context of available land on which to build emergency housing, modular housing and so on.

There is another issue that is equally important. There is a certain anonymity in regard to how the current housing situation is being dealt with. Members here who are former members of the local authorities will know that previously officials in the local authorities knew everything that needed to be known about individual applicants, including their particular circumstances and their health circumstances. Public representatives were equally well versed in that regard. This tended to push applications towards resolution in a much quicker way than has been the case in recent times. Nowadays there is anonymity in the system with one name on a screen surpassing another as a more serious problem arises. However, we can deal with those cases separately. It is vital that we try to arrest the speed at which people are being evicted and becoming homeless. We must do all we can to prevent this, including instructing people not to vacate their houses.

I am not fully convinced about the need to increase rent support. I recently dealt with a case in respect of which the rent has increased by 100% in the past month. That is not an isolated case. There are many landlords who have a social conscience, believe in social justice and are very conscious of the need to look after their tenants in the best way possible, and they do so, but there are other landlords who do not, unfortunately. The latter are the ones the committee, Focus Ireland and all the other voluntary bodies have to deal with. We must strive through a combination of measures to slow down the rate at which landlords are evicting tenants and provide alternative housing as quickly as possible while at the same time meeting our medium to long-term housing requirement. We need to deal with all of these issues at the same time, otherwise we will always be dealing with emergencies.

I disagree with the political point made by my colleague, Deputy Coppinger. I believe there is a focus in Government on the need to deal with this issue. This issue is taking up a great deal of Government time. The Taoiseach has informed the House that this is a priority matter and that all Departments who have a remit in this area will be called on to make an input. There is no point in our back-biting each other in regard to how serious we are about addressing this issue. I am not here for the publicity or because I enjoy meetings. I am here because I believe that like everybody else present, I have a role to play in resolving this problem.

If we apply those principles in general and work towards the objectives already set out then we can solve the medium, long-term and emergency problems.

I thank Deputy Durkan. Before our witnesses comment, I remind members that if this committee formulates proper responses to the evidence provided here and proper recommendations, they should not be alien to anyone's philosophy. They should be businesslike solutions, based on the evidence and the challenge for the Government will be to implement them. That is why we are hearing from expert witnesses like the Focus Ireland representatives, who have particularly focused on prevention today. We are very pleased about that focus because those who have come before us have had different levels of expertise. It is incumbent on all of us to address the evidence presented to the committee and come up with businesslike solutions that can be implemented.

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

I wish to make a number of general points before Mr. Allen responds to one or two specific questions. I cannot let the phrase "endless increases in rent supplement" stand when the last increase was over three years ago. I must stress that it is not the case that there have been endless increases and we hesitate a little about how effective the proposed 15% increase will be because such a gap has built up.

The belief or hope that the private rental market will solve all our ills is a busted flush. Everybody we talk to, on all sides of the political divide, will now put their hands up and admit that it has not worked and is not going to work. At least there is now agreement on that.

Focus Ireland, like many other organisations, does not particularly want to put the squeeze on landlords; we want something that will work for landlords as well. It is only then that we will get some genuine stability in the marketplace. That is why we want a system that will provide an element of stability for both landlords and tenants.

Finally, in terms of the rent supplement and the private rental market, if there are people in private rented accommodation, we need to keep them there. We must do whatever is necessary to keep them there because it is so much better for those families and far more cost-effective for everyone involved. If families are in private rented accommodation, we must keep them there, by whatever means available.

Mr. Mike Allen

I will respond to the question as to why discretionary uplifts will not work. They can work to a certain extent if there has been a small misalignment or there are particular needs to be addressed. Discretionary measures have always been part of the rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowance, SWA, systems. While the Threshold initiative is very welcome, it is actually putting into effect something which has always been in the SWA system. Discretionary measures will not work, however, in the face of the scale of the current problem. The principle of all social policy dealing with people who are poor or vulnerable is to find them, target them and give them support, while not giving support to people who do not need it. Would that not be wonderful, but how do we find those people? The very people who are the most vulnerable for various reasons including language issues, stress, literacy problems and so forth are the ones who do not hear about the system and about the existence of discretionary payments. They are the most vulnerable but they do not benefit from the discretionary interventions. That is why there is a constant debate in social policy circles about universal versus targeted measures and if we cannot find the people to target, we are going to have to employ more universal measures. That is our position on the rent supplement.

It is also worth saying, in the context of Mr. Balbirnie's point about the scale of the problem in the private rented sector, that there are very few people who would not accept that it was a catastrophic error to have so many people who were vulnerable to poverty housed in the private rental sector, with the taxpayer footing the bill if rents increased. I do not know anyone who would defend that or claim that it was not a mistake. The question now is who pays for that mistake. While we are talking about an enormous amount of money being given to private landlords to pay for it, the alternative is to make the people living in the private-rental houses pay for it. Nobody can say that it is good social policy to give lots of money to landlords; it does not make any sense. However, we are not starting from that point.

We are starting from the fact that we have had 50,000, 60,000 or 70,000 households living with that level of vulnerability. We are considering how the Members of the Oireachtas, as the successors of the legislators who made those errors, can deal with the fact that so many people are now living with such risks. It might mean spending money in a way that would not have made much sense if we turned the clock back a number of years. We have given a great deal of money to much more undeserving people on foot of mistakes they have made in the past.

We were also asked about the delivery of social housing numbers. Certain assumptions were made about the speed with which the private developing market would pick up and start generating new housing estates, and consequently Part V properties, that would build into the plan as written. It transpired that those assumptions were not true. The question of whether that might have been foreseen is a different one. The new Minister has said a few things that give me some faith that he recognises the current position and believes that alternative things need to be done, rather than waiting for the private sector to generate social housing as a by-product. Time will tell whether that is the case.

We were also asked about single landlords. It is really the same issue about targeting people. It is right to say we did not want to get into a position where we were saying that one's right to terminate the lease when one wants to sell should be abolished. In such circumstances, we could be inundated with people with severe disabilities who need to sell their homes, or people who need to move back into their houses, who are caught by the new rules. I agree that there might be more nuanced ways of identifying who should or should not be allowed to sell a rented house, so that there is no blanket right to sell. A higher level of proof must be required and a longer period of time must be provided for. It is important to remember that the buy-to-let part of the Irish private rented sector is based on the notion that a house is a commodity which an investor can sell to get a return on his or her investment. It is not based on the notion that the owner of such a property is actually running a business, the business of which is to provide somebody else with a home. We cannot change that overnight, but we need to be moving in that direction very quickly.

I thank Mr. Allen. Although we are near the end of this session, I will take one or two brief comments from Deputies Moran and O'Sullivan.

Many families and small children are becoming trapped in the homelessness crisis. I recognise that it is a significant problem. Family homes are being affected by what is going on in the banks. We are talking about what is going on in the State. Two ordinary people with a mortgage on their house might be spending €900 per month on repayments. If one of them loses their job, the person who is left paying the mortgage might be able to afford to pay €400. What would the witnesses think if the State were to intervene in such circumstances, for example by providing a top-up payment to help them with their mortgage? I suggest such an approach would prevent people from needing to go to agencies like Focus Ireland and the local authorities and it would stop us from looking to hotels for a solution. What is the view of the witnesses on that? If we could find a mechanism for making such payments, we could make provision for reviews to take place when circumstances change after three, four or five years. When people get back into the job business, they might be able to pay off the debt that is owed to the State. I suggest this would be better than allowing such people to be evicted onto the streets. I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on that.

It would be useful if the witnesses could give us details of a couple of aspects of the Scottish model, which was mentioned as an example last year when we were working on a Private Members' Bill on the prevention of homelessness, so that we might include them in our report.

Would Mr. Allen or Mr. Balbirnie like to make any concluding remarks in response to the final points we have heard from the members of the committee?

Mr. Mike Allen

I will respond to a couple of specific points. There are various models for people in mortgage arrears which would allow them to deal with the situations they are in. I refer, for example, to various forms of loans from the State or equity purchases. While this would not be our area of expertise, we would be supportive of such measures. If the committee wishes, we can include a couple of points about the Scottish model in a short written memo. As somebody who was born in Wales of an Irish family, I should mention that the Welsh model has come onto the map as a result of the introduction of very effective legislation about preventing homelessness. The legislation in question is well worth studying. Rather than taking up the committee's time by speaking about such matters now, we can submit a note about them at some future stage.

I do not mean to rush Mr. Allen and his colleagues when I ask them to do so sooner rather than later because this committee is working to a deadline.

Mr. Mike Allen


Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

We would like to conclude by saying the message will be the same regardless of the research one examines or the country it comes from. Every penny one spends on prevention, as against emergency accommodation of one shape or form, will come back to one in spades.

I thank Mr. Allen and Mr. Balbirnie for their written submission and the presentation they have made today. In particular, I thank them for the focused nature of what they were presenting. The committee will find their presentation useful in its deliberations.

Sitting suspended at 3 p.m. and resumed at 3.05 p.m.