Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1985: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

At the stage I moved the adjournment on Tuesday, 3 December last, I had indicated the general objectives of the Bill and the changes it proposes in the area of local authority housing. I have circulated the full text of my speech of 3 December plus its continuation which I intend to deliver now so that Deputies will not lack any information. I had also given some of the background to the measures in the Bill dealing with the homeless and had dealt with section 2, which defines essentially any homeless persons for the purposes of the Bill. The housing needs of homeless persons will be given greater recognition through the new statutory framework for the local authority housing programme proposed in the Bill and outlined by me in some detail on 3 December. This can be illustrated clearly by reference firstly to section 8 of the Bill dealing with overall housing requirements, including both private and local authority, and sections 9, 11, 17 and 24, dealing more specifically with the local authority housing programme.

Under section 8 a housing authority will include homeless persons in the estimates of the housing requirements of their area. Similarly, the annual assessment of the need for local authority housing will pay particular regard to the needs of homeless persons. In addition, in order that homeless persons who may not have applied for housing might be brought to attention, housing authorities will be required to give advance notice of the making of the assessment to adjoining housing authorities, health boards, and to other bodies providing accommodation, shelter, or welfare in the area.

Section 11 deals with schemes of letting priorities and provides that a housing authority may determine to set aside a particular number or proportion of dwellings for a particular category of need such as homeless persons. Housing authorities will be required under section 17 to maintain reasonable balance in their house construction programmes to cater for the various identified categories of need, again specifically including the homeless. The provision in section 24 for the payment of housing subsidy include the payment of subsidy in respect of hostel accommodation. Heretofore, housing subsidy was not available for hostels but only for the provision of houses for renting. The provision of hostel accommodation by some of the larger urban authorities, in particular, may well be an appropriate response to the housing needs of some homeless persons.

Section 10 sets out the new responsibility and the additional powers of housing authorities in regard to homelessness. Housing authorities are being given a statutory duty to take such steps as they consider appropriate to ensure that suitable accommodation is made available for any homeless person who is capable of living independently in a dwelling and unable to provide accommodation from his own resources. To meet this obligation housing authorities will, of course, under their existing powers be able to provide accommodation from their own rented housing stock. However, a housing authority may not always have vacant accommodation readily available to meet the urgent needs of a homeless person or the provision of a local authority dwelling may not in all cases be the best response to the particular circumstances of a homeless person.

Section 10 (2) provides local authorities with a range of possible options additional to their existing powers in order to provide a flexible and appropriate response to the needs of each homeless person. Local authorities will be enabled to make arrangements with voluntary bodies for the making available of accommodation for homeless persons. This will, of course, involve the authority in contributing towards the cost in addition to any assistance which the authority might make available to that body under section 5 of the Bill for the actual provision of the accommodation.

In this context I would also like to refer to the significant improvements which I announced during the course of the Adjournment Debate on 19 December last to the scheme for the provision by voluntary bodies of accommodation for certain categories of persons, including the homeless. The maximum fully subsidised loan of £16,000 per unit of accommodation which has applied since the scheme was introduced in March 1984 has been increased to £20,000 with effect from 1 December 1985. This is effectively a £20,000 grant per unit of accommodation provided by a voluntary body under the scheme.

In addition, where a voluntary body raises the necessary finance by borrowing from sources other than the Local Loans Fund they will qualify for the loan charge subsidy on the same general terms and conditions. While a number of voluntary bodies have provided accommodation for elderly persons under the scheme, I would like to see more voluntary bodies bringing forward projects to assist homeless persons. I hope that the revised terms will assist this objective.

Section 10 also provides for the giving by a housing authority of financial assistance to a homeless person which in particular circumstances could be the more appropriate way of ensuring that the person can secure accommodation. Finally, as a last resort, the authority may arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of such accommodation or lodgings.

Local authorities will be recouped 80 per cent of the expenditure incurred by them in securing accommodation for a homeless person other than in their rented housing stock or in assisting a homeless person financially. If a housing authority provides a homeless person with a local authority dwelling the normal 100 per cent loan charge subsidy applies.

These new provisions, taken together with the changes to the local authority housing system contained in the Bill, provide an integrated and effective response to the problem of homelessness in our society. I should emphasise that the additional responsibility being given to local authorities is to make accommodation available for a homeless person using as appropriate the powers available to them. These powers do not give to homeless persons a superior right to local authority housing over and above that of other persons in need of housing. The tenancy of local authority houses will continue to be allocated as heretofore in accordance with approved schemes of letting priorities having regard to the relative needs of the applicants.

It is my earnest hope and belief that the provisions of this Bill represent a major advance in the position of the homeless and should contribute significantly to the elimination of involuntary homelessness in this country. At the same time, the approach taken in the Bill avoids upsetting well established policies of ensuring that local authority housing is allocated to those whose needs are most acute in accordance with recognised criteria. One of the most significant features of the Bill is, I feel, the recognition given to the fact that the best way that local authorities will be able to discharge their duties to the homeless under section 10 may involve formal and ongoing co-operation with voluntary housing groups. Voluntary bodies can often respond to situations more speedily and more flexibly than a statutory agency. In addition, it must be recognised that a voluntary body can often deliver a more supportive and personal type of care, than a housing authority could. However, I must emphasise that the duty to secure accommodation for homeless persons will be that of the housing authority and not, as it is sometimes now regarded, a responsibility of the voluntary housing sector.

It will only be through the mutual co-operation of the housing authorities, health boards and voluntary housing groups that the problem of the homeless will be solved. In particular, it will be to the mutual advantage of voluntary housing groups and the housing authorities to establish good working relations. Housing authorities should encourage, foster and promote the development of an active voluntary housing sector in their areas in order that they might better discharge their duties under section 10 and to improve the range and type of housing accommodation available to those who cannot secure adequate housing from their own resources.

There are a number of provisions in the Bill designed to improve the living conditions of travellers. Section 6 provides statutory authority for the recoupment by the Minister to local authorities of the salaries and expenses incurred by them in the employment of social workers in connection with the accommodation of travellers. Section 13 deals with the provision of residential caravan sites and facilities for them. Under section 9 housing authorities must have regard to the housing needs of travellers in their annual assessments.

The provision concerning the travellers which has evoked most controversy is the proposed amendment of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, contained in section 26. This amendment would enable a manager to undertake works which he regarded as urgent and necessary to provide a reasonable standard of accommodation for any person. It would be all too easy to retain the status quo in this area but this would not alleviate to any significant extent the appalling living conditions suffered by many traveller families which must be our primary concern. Following a thorough and comprehensive review of all aspects of the serious and sometimes intractable problem of the settlement of travelling people, the Government announced on 20 July 1984 a range of measures designed to alleviate their plight.

This statement recognised that the provision of accommodation was a critical element in the provision of services for travellers and indicated the Government's determination to ensure that the accommodation programme is stepped up rapidly. The provisions in the Bill to which I have referred, give a statutory basis for doing this. Subsequent to the issue of the Government statement, I issued a detailed circular letter to housing authorities drawing their attention to suggestions about the approach to the housing of travellers which were recommended by the Travelling People Review Body. In the meantime a special monitoring committee have been set up under the aegis of the Minister for Health to review progress not just in relation to accommodation needs but also of services such as health, welfare, education and so on, for which other Ministers are responsible. I am very pleased that the monitoring committee in their initial report have welcomed the provisions in the Bill and regard them as being of importance to travellers.

Section 3 provides a statutory basis for the mortgage subsidy scheme. The amount of the subsidy, currently a total of £3,000 payable in annual instalments over five years, may be specified and varied by regulations. While the mortgage subsidy is normally payable in respect of new houses, it is also paid to persons availing of the £5,000 grant scheme who buy an existing house. The subsidy may also be paid to a person acquiring a new house who was previously an owner occupier but who is in need of housing following marriage breakdown. The conditions are the same as those set out in section 22 under which the new house grant may be paid following marriage breakdown, that is, the applicant must be legally separated, in need of housing and refusal to pay the grant would cause hardship to the applicant or his or her dependants.

With comparatively high real interest rates there is a continuing need for the mortgage subsidy scheme and this has been explicitly recognised by the Government in the rejection of the National Planning Board's recommendation that the new house grant and mortgage subsidy schemes should be abolished. As was clearly stated in paragraph 5.78 of the national plan the Government regard the new house grant and mortgage subsidy as indispensable incentives to private housing which also reduce pressures on local authority housing.

Section 5 of the Bill extends significantly the existing powers of a local authority to assist an approved voluntary housing body by a loan, loan guarantee, periodic contribution, grant, subsidy or a contribution in kind. In certain circumstances assistance given by a housing authority may be recouped by the Minister. This section provides the statutory basis for the scheme of loans and 100 per cent loan charge subsidy up to certain limits which was introduced by the Government in March 1984. I outlined earlier the recent improvements made to this scheme, in particular increasing from £16,000 to £20,000 the maximum fully subsidised loan for each unit of accommodation. I hope that the revised terms will enable more voluntary housing groups to bring forward schemes for the provision of houses, particularly for the homeless, but also for the other categories of housing need including the elderly. Section 23 deals with the payment of capital grants in the case of accommodation provided for disabled persons, deserted wives, single parent families and families on local authority waiting lists under the voluntary housing scheme which was superseded by the March 1984 scheme.

Local authorities are obliged under section 13 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1979, to put houses being sold to tenants into good structural condition where they are not already in such condition. Where a house is not in good structural condition section 20 provides that the local authority and the purchaser may enter into an agreement for a reduction in the house price sufficient to cover the cost of the works required. This should help eliminate delays in the sale of local authority houses which can occur where there is a backlog of pre-sale structural repairs to be carried out.

In addition, there are a number of largely technical sections contained in the Bill which I have not addressed specifically so far. I shall now mention these briefly. Section 7 validates payments made before the enactment of this Bill if these payments would have been valid after its enactment. Section 14 removes a doubt about the security for mortgage loans of a title based on a transfer order where houses bought by tenant purchasers are subsequently sold. Section 15 extends to mortgages advanced by other lending agencies the simplified system for the discharge of fully paid mortgages which has heretofore applied to building society mortgages. Section 16 extends certain technical provisions regarding the payment or withholding or reduction of grants to all grants, subsidies and other assistance given by the Minister or a housing authority. Section 18 updates the definition of a housing authority for the purposes of the Housing Acts to reflect the provisions of the Bill.

Section 21 clarifies and consolidates the power of the Minister to assist by grants towards their administrative and general expenses a small number of representative or advisory bodies in the voluntary housing area, namely, the National Association of Building Co-operatives, the Housing Centre and Threshold. Section 25 is a technical amendment to afford to purchasers of local authority flats the same entitlement to have their flats put into good structural condition as applies to purchasers of local authority houses. Section 27 is an amendment of the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963, consequential on the lapsing of the Housing Act, 1969. Section 28 amends the Building Societies Act, 1976, in two minor respects. Section 29 deals with offences under the Act and provides for fines not exceeding £500 for knowingly furnishing false or misleading information or withholding material information in connection with obtaining accommodation or assistance from a local authority.

In conclusion, I would now like to draw together the main policy directions running through what is a major and far reaching Housing Bill. Firstly, and most importantly, the Bill will establish a new framework for the local authority housing programme. The effect of the Bill's provisions in this regard will be to require local authorities to re-evaluate on a regular and formal basis the type and nature of housing needs which they should meet in their individual housing programmes. For the first time ever local authorities will be obliged in their programmes for the provision of houses to have regard to the results of the assessments of housing needs in their area and to maintain a reasonable balance in their programme between the needs of different categories of persons. This will ensure in future an improved mix in the type of accommodation being provided so as to reflect the needs of particular groups, for example, one and two person households which now form an increasingly significant proportion of applicants on local authority waiting lists.

The provisions of the Bill dealing specifically with the homeless are, of course, of major social significance. New responsibilities are being entrusted to local authorities to ensure that homeless persons have access to housing. These have been very widely welcomed though some reservations have been expressed on certain points of detail. I will, of course, be fully considering before Committee Stage all of the views put forward and in particular the contributions of Deputies during the Second Stage debate.

The Bill also embraces a number of major housing initiatives taken in recent years including the highly successful £5,000 grant scheme for persons surrendering local authority or Army accommodation to acquire a private house, the scheme of remedial works for certain rented local authority housing and the improved scheme of assistance for the provision of houses by voluntary organisations.

A Housing Bill traditionally affords Members of both Houses of the Oireachtas a valuable and indeed essential opportunity to consider and review the major issues of housing policy. Members bring to a housing debate a wealth of experience and knowledge gained at local and national level and a shared concern to improve the housing conditions of all our people. The Bill is, therefore, a significant and important one and I look forward to and welcome the views of Deputies in the Second Stage debate.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for introducing this Bill because it gives Deputies on both sides of the House an opportunity to debate the important issue of housing. The general thrust of the Bill in relation to the powers of local authorities and the homeless is very significant. There are also some provisions regarding the travelling people but we have some reservations about the power given to managers to solve certain problems with regard to that matter. Elected public representatives must continue to have a role in the provision of housing and halting sites for the travelling people. Their plight is one of the great social evils in Ireland and the problem must be solved.

I am sure the Minister will agree with me that the councils have played a significant role in providing quality housing. I have been associated with Roscommon County Council for the past 11 years and they have been first-class in their policies. Housing for the homeless has always been catered for by caring local authorities. The provision of demountable houses has been very important in providing houses for the homeless. This has been in operation since the 1966 Act.

The cost of housing for local authorities has increased dramatically over the past few years. It has placed a major burden on those authorities to continue with their housing programmes which were at a record high level five or six years ago. There is reference in the Minister's speech to mortgage subsidies. I am sure he is aware that quite a number of people who obtained SDA loans some years ago when they were in employment are having enormous difficulty in meeting the repayments now. I refer to this matter particularly in relation to the mortgage subsidy which plays a significant part in repayment of county council loans for the first five years. I ask the Minister to obtain a report from local authorities on loan repayments generally from people who obtained loans when they were employed but who are now probably on unemployment assistance.

I know of instances where the local authority are moving to evict families in my constituency. The move was made but they were stopped at the eleventh hour. I am sure the Minister is aware of the difficulty that has arisen. I have great sympathy for people who are genuinely unable to repay loans. It would be worth while to obtain reports from the local authorities on the deficit with regard to repayments. In Roscommon alone there is about £600,000 overdue and quite a number of orders have been made in the courts for repossession of houses. As a consequence of this action we will create a new form of homelessness. If local authorities evict families from their homes they make them homeless and under this Bill a council has the responsibility to rehouse them. In view of the genuine problems of people, there should be some provision whereby the local authorities on humanitarian grounds could rearrange the loan repayments, either by extension of the repayment period or by putting a moratorium on repayments for a period to allow families to readjust to their present circumstances. The managers inform me they have no powers under the 1966 Act to make such readjustments in respect of SDA loans. The Bill would allow for powers to be vested in certain circumstances in the managers whereby they would have this flexibility in respect of the problems that have arisen. This crisis is a recent one, but the problem is genuine. From a humanitarian point of view the Minister would be doing a good day's work by providing in some section for power for himself in this area.

The arrangement whereby a £5,000 grant can be paid to those who are prepared to vacate local authority houses is to be welcomed but I should like to hear from the Minister as to the numbers who availed of this facility in 1985. Reference has been made to a number in the region of 2,000 but I suspect that in rural areas the response has not been very great. In Roscommon, for instance, only about five people would have vacated their houses during the year. However, the facility is a major incentive to families who are occupying council houses to provide private housing for themselves. In addition there is the benefit whereby the opportunities are increased for those who are unable to provide housing for themselves and who are on the waiting list for local authority housing.

We welcome also the provision relating to letting priorities. Every authority, as envisaged by the Minister, must make provision for proper letting arrangements. Down through the years, as a member of a local authority I have experienced the difficulty that a proper list was not kept. This resulted in the situation whereby people who had been waiting for a number of years for housing were passed over when a more serious problem arose in respect of some housing application. That was unfair to those who had been on the list for a long time.

Regarding the general housing policy and the development by local authorities of housing estates, there has been a serious lack in terms of good planning in respect of some estates. In other cases the planning has been excellent, but generally the tendency has been for the planning to be on an ad hoc basis with the result that what have been developed are to some extent concrete jungles. Having been involved as an architect in planning, I can see that the environment has been damaged by the lack of proper planning, especially so far as local authority housing schemes are concerned, though the same applies in the case of many private schemes. I would urge local authorities to take steps to revitalise housing estates where possible. This can be done by way of planting arrangements, by redesigning cul-de-sacs and generally by improving the environment in which the estates are located. The complaint I hear most frequently relates to the drabness of housing estates. The provision of small support community centres in estates of 100 or more houses would be very worth while. I understand that local authorities are empowered to provide areas in estates in which services can be provided for the people. I am encouraging Roscommon County Council to provide, in co-operation with AnCO and voluntary organisations, small rooms where people can come together, receive advice and discuss their common problems. If the Minister could provide within this Bill for a grant for local authorities to enable them to build what would be modest meeting areas in housing estates he would be taking very worth while action. People on these estates often have difficulty in integrating and in getting to know each other. The facility I am talking of would be a major help in that direction.

Regarding housing for the elderly, there is great difficulty in rural areas particularly in relation to the provision of smaller units. Generally, local authorities have encouraged group housing for the elderly. That is very desirable in many instances but there are many elderly who are not prepared to leave their own areas or to leave their land, so perhaps county councils could plan for small type permanent housing for the elderly.

Down through the years we have provided accommodation for them thereby avoiding a serious crisis but that has been only in the short term. County councils tend to move people from their local areas to the bigger centres of population, but the revitalisation of villages is very important. I am aware that there is nothing in the Minister's policy that would be against county councils building in rural areas but some county managers and officials tend to orientate the housing, from an economic point of view, towards towns where the various services are available thereby denuding rural areas of housing and of population. In many cases local authorities are not prepared to build a cottage in a rural area on the basis that the applicant concerned should be provided with accommodation in a town. This policy is a major setback for village life.

While the grants for disabled persons are to be welcomed they are inadequate in present day values. Therefore, the Minister should review the £4,000 disabled person's grant and allow for far more flexibility in relation to the categories that can be assisted under this support. The grant that has been available for some time has provided much needed accommodation for the disabled. It has allowed many families to keep their disabled at home rather than send them to institutions. In Roscommon the availability of this grant has had a major impact and the Department should be complimented on providing the necessary grants to the county councils. Again, the special aid for the elderly which is being provided through the health boards has been of considerable support for people in emergency situations. The Minister may not necessarily be financing this scheme. It may be financed through the Department of Health and Social Welfare.

We provide the money for it.

The health boards are administering the scheme. The Minister should bring the scheme totally within the responsibility of local authorities. The health boards are taking from the local authorities the management of this scheme. The Minister may not be aware of what is happening. To date local authorities have dealt with the administrative details of the scheme. Therefore there was more integration between the disabled person's grant, the essential repairs grant and the special aid for the elderly. In many cases an applicant was entitled to all three grants. This had a dramatic impact on the financial circumstances of people who were unable to provide any financial assistance to a builder to undertake this work. In many cases the local authorities carried out the work and claimed the grant in the proper manner. That is a very desirable situation.

Some health boards, particularly the Western Health Board, have withdrawn administration of the scheme from the local authority and taken this task unto themselves. That occasions a certain amount of duplication between the relevant local authority, health board and the Department of the Environment. Local authorities are best equipped to undertake the administration of these grant schemes. They have undertaken extremely useful social work in relation to the special aid for the elderly. It is a very small grant — approximately £1 million spread throughout the country.

It is £1,500,000.

In relation to County Roscommon it amounts to something in the region of £25,000 to £30,000 per annum. It constitutes a small amount in relation to what are very desirable works. In many cases it has obviated the necessity of having elderly people rehoused or institutionalised. It has proved to be a most attractive grant. It was introduced during the term of the last Fianna Fáil Administration. I contend it is one which should be fully supported and financed.

The needs of the disabled are very special. Parents and families who provide this accommodation warrant every support it is possible to be provided by the State. Indeed, it is a good public investment to allow a disabled person remain in his or her own home or environment. The work being carried out under the provisions of this scheme has had a dramatic effect in regard to the care of the disabled. I contend that this work should be expanded and other categories of people, not necessarily totally physically handicapped or disabled, should be brought within the umbrella of this scheme.

In regard to the mortgage subsidy scheme and the £2,000 new house grant, under the provisions of this Bill the Minister has allowed a concession to legally separated husbands or wives. There is an anomaly in relation to widows who have been debarred from obtaining grants because their late husbands may have owned or bought a house at some stage in the course of their lifetime. Under the provisions of this Bill the Minister is making a concession to people who have been legally separated. Surely a widow or, for that matter, a widower should be included in this category. In many cases widows experience great difficulty providing a home for a young family. I know of a particular case, of a widow who applied for a new house grant because her existing house had been burned down. The Department refused categorically to give her a grant. I even went to the extent of making representations to the Ombudsman to ascertain if he could intervene on her behalf but the Department categorically refused her application. Indeed this Bill affords any Deputy wishing to highlight any such hardship case an opportunity to raise the matter with the Minister. I will bring this case to the attention of the Minister but it is useful to highlight it here because similar cases could arise. The widow lost her house through fire. She had to build a new house. The Department contended that the house which had been burned was reconstructable and so maintained that she was not entitled to a new house grant. She was further informed that even had the house not been reconstructable she would still have been debarred from receiving a grant because her late husband had bought or built a home for himself — in fact he had vested a local authority house. Therefore that widow was victimised on account of her late husband's purchase of a house.

I should say to the Deputy that I will look at the circumstances of any given case brought to my attention. In the case of widows it is usual that they inherit the house of their husband if it is in his name. However, if the Deputy has encountered particular difficulties in a given case I will have them examined.

The Minister is here granting a concession in relation to legally separated spouses. Widows or widowers are permanently separated. Yet they are being treated less favourably than those spouses who have been legally separated.

It is only where a separated person has moved out of the home, where there is a legal separation, where a spouse has lost the home of, let us say, their estranged spouse and they find themselves without a house but somebody remains in occupation of the family home. It is only the spouse who is left without a home who will be considered.

I welcome that concession. Probably it was an anomaly which had been brought to the attention of the Minister. I believe a widow should have the same facility provided as that afforded a legally separated person. That concession had been granted by a predecessor of the Minister. Therefore a precedent has been established. I contend it should be formally included in the provisions of this Bill — that a widow or widower would be granted a similar concession to that of a legally separated person in regard to a new house grant. It would not be very costly because it does not arise very frequently. The Minister will find from departmental records that there was recognition of these circumstances at one point, that a precedent has been created but has since been broken. I think that concession was granted by a previous Minister for the Environment in 1978 or 1979; I have the relevant letter in my possession. The Minister should adopt a humanitarian approach to widows and widowers as he has adopted in the case of legally separated spouses who encounter difficulties in this area.

With regard to the provision of halting sites and housing for itinerants, some local authorities have undertaken tremendous work in this respect. In my county the local authority have been very progressive and have undertaken major steps to provide such halting sites and housing. I might utter a word of caution here. The concept of the halting site has proved to be extremely advantageous in the interim period of itinerants changing their mode of life from the road to housing. But great care must be taken in this transition. Social workers have a major responsibility here to ensure that the provision of a house for an itinerant in a builtup area will not cause major disruption or repercussions in the area. There appears to be less prejudice and bias now than there was some years ago. It is very much dependent on the individual family. The type of people involved can make a huge difference — for example, if they are prepared to adjust and become involved in the community, but very often they can be so disruptive as to make life totally intolerable for other families in the area. In fairness local authorities and councillors should be deeply involved in this matter. The majority of them are so involved. However, I do not welcome the provision whereby the county manager has been given full power to provide such facilities without recourse to county councillors. In most areas local councillors have been elected by and know the feelings of the people in their areas. They are in a position to assess on the ground the acceptable course of policy. The Minister would be justified in making amendments to this Bill in relation to the power he is proposing to give to managers.

During the 11 years that I have been a member of a local authority I have seen a dramatic change in the provision of facilities for travelling people. The greatest difficulty at present is the mobility of people who are not genuine itinerants but traders who are not interested in being housed or in using halting sites. They are causing more difficulties than the traditional travellers who have become established in particular areas and taken up residence there. The provision of educational facilities for the children of itinerants is of the greatest importance and most of these families are very concerned that their children should be educated. The educational authorities and the nuns have provided excellent facilities for them and local authorities such as Roscommon County Council have provided school transport for young itinerant children. Education will in the long term solve the problem. There has been a radical change in the attitude of itinerants. Younger itinerants are better educated and are not prepared to accept the low living standards which their parents had. The educational system has had a major impact and I hope that the problem will be solved within 20 or 30 years. Certain itinerant families having a yearning to go back on the road, in spite of being housed. This longing for freedom is in their blood and it will take a long time to get it out of their system.

The local authorities are being given full power to provide facilities for the homeless. It is not as big a problem in rural areas as in the cities. The provisions are to be welcomed because the councils are being given full financial support in providing accommodation for homeless people. The local authorities have been carrying out tremendous work in relation to this problem and by providing demountable houses they have taken many people off the roads. Some of them were living in substandard houses or caravans. When a person is prepared to stay in their area, the councils have been most caring in their approach. We must also compliment the work of the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul who have voluntarily accepted responsibility for providing temporary accommodation for homeless people. The health boards have also been very active in the welfare homes, from which no homeless person has ever been turned away. This Bill gives the local authorities more responsibility as well as the statutory power and financial backing to provide housing accommodation and facilities for the homeless.

I now turn to the matter of housing grants. These grants have not kept pace with inflation and the new house grants and mortgage subsidies should be revised upwards. The new grants for improvements to existing houses are very attractive but the new house grants have not kept pace with the cost of housing and inflation. The Minister might be able to bring influence to bear in order to increase the amounts available for these schemes. These grants are very beneficial to those buying or building houses for the first time. The building industry is in a very serious situation, 45,000 people being out of work. Any provision which could assist in providing jobs in the building industry would be very welcome and would give a major incentive to young people to build their own homes. There has undoubtedly been a major drop in the building of houses. It is very expensive to acquire a house and the grant scheme could assist greatly if it were revised upwards in next week's budget.

Each local authority has a major responsibility under this Bill and the provisions must be clearly made known. The Minister and the Department should hold seminars to explain the detailed provisions of the Bill. Many of these provisions could be operated by voluntary organisations, expecially in such matters as providing houses for the elderly or the homeless, but they are not availing of these grants. Seminars should be held with local authorities where the Minister's officials could discuss with councillors and officials the details of the Bill. It would give an opportunity to the councillors to discuss with an expert how best they could implement the provisions of the Bill in relation to the homeless and the travellers so that a scheme could be worked out in consultation with the Department of the Environment. It would be a very useful exercise.

I, too, welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is imaginative, progressive legislation, one of the most far-reaching housing measures since the Housing Act, 1966. If I were to be a little critical I would say that it is long overdue but nevertheless very welcome, especially with its focus on the needs of the homeless, the aged, the disabled and the travelling community, as well as other improvements in the housing and related legal codes. The entrusting of additional responsibilities and powers to the local authorities in regard to the accommodation of homeless persons is particularly welcome.

I especially congratulate the Minister and the Government on all the recent financial assistance to the housing industry. I would mention the £2,000 new house grant, the £3,000 mortgage subsidy, as well as the £5,000 new house grant and the introduction of the house improvement grants which have been so widely welcomed. All these financial enticements encourage people to build their own houses. It is a great characteristic of Irish people that they wish to possess and build their own homes. In this we are markedly different from our continental counterparts who are content to live in apartments and high rise flats. For some reason we do not wish to live in these types of dwellings. It must have something to do with the Irish mentality and character. All these recent incentives must give a stimulus to the building sector.

I welcome the Minister's invitation to the Members of this House to participate in the discussion and to give their views based on their experience. I am a member of a local authority for the past 20 years and we deal weekly and even daily with problems such as arise in this Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I hope that other Members of the House with longer service on local authorities than I will contribute also so that eventually a fully rounded Act will emerge from this House based on the valuable expertise and experience of the many Members who have been dealing with these problems. I hope that the Minister and his officials will have an open mind and take on board many of the valuable suggestions put forward by Members of this House irrespective of the side from which they come.

The Bill has been generally well received by all concerned and I am including those who do work which is often unnoticed but of great value for the benefit of the homeless. I refer to the St. Vincent De Paul Society and the Simon Community. The Simon Community are a little critical of the definition of he term "homeless" in section 2. They feel that it is too narrow and should be better defined and should include a clause about people — women would be the most affected here — who cannot gain peaceful entry to or occupation of their homes. They feel that it should include also people threatened with homelessness, as the British law rightly does. I refer to the British Homeless Persons Act of 1977. The Simon Community feel that people will be put needlessly through the trauma of homelessness in order to qualify under this Bill when preventive measures could and should be taken. They feel that the exclusion of travelling people and people residing in hostels should at least be up front in the definition of homelessness. I urge the Minister to have another look at that to see if the fears and worries of a responsible association such as the Simon Community can be assuaged. They have long experience of dealing with these problems, experience gathered over the years and their criticisms, no matter how small, should not be just cast aside by the Minister.

The Simon Community are worried about the intentionality clause of the Bill. They maintain that this is based on the British Act which they feel has been a disaster in Britain, that it let loose a flood of contradictory and sometimes miserable case law. The British Act has been in operation for eight or nine years now. A Bill is introduced in cold print and only after it has been in operation for a number of years do obvious anomalies, failures and weaknesses in it become apparent. If after the passage of time and the operation of the Homeless Persons Act, 1977, of the British Parliament the obvious failings in it have emerged, we should learn from that Act and avoid the pitfalls. That Act had no precedent to follow, but at least we have the precedent of that British Act of 1977. Perhaps our Minister and his officials will consult their counterparts in Great Britain with a view to avoiding these pitfalls and the failures of that Act.

Section 3 deals with the £3,000 mortgage subsidy. This subsidy is valuable to many young couples who start out to purchase or build their private dwelling houses. It eases the burden of repayments. Heretofore, it was over a three year period, latterly it is over a five year period. Notwithstanding that, it is still a very welcome subsidy. Many a young couple would not think of building their house but for their eligibility for this subsidy. I urge the Minister that it apply much more than it does at present to existing houses rather than specifically to new houses. It applies to secondhand houses in some cases, but there should be no question whatsoever that a secondhand house, if it is a worthy house in the sense that a loan should be advanced for it, should also qualify for this mortgage subsidy. More flexibility and latitude should be applied in this rather than confining it narrowly to new houses.

Section 3 (2) (h) deals with floor area. I am baffled and amazed that there should be any maximum floor area. I can appreciate why we should have a minimum floor area, otherwise people would be living in glorified orange boxes or some such thing. However, the maximum area limit should be abolished and a £2,000 grant should be given to anyone who builds a house irrespective of the floor area to encourage building of more houses and purchase of materials and give very valuable employment. I am critical of the regulation as regards attics. Rather than being penalised for doing so, people should be encouraged to develop their attics. The regulations applying to new house grants provide in respect of attics that only undeveloped attics and basements will be excluded from the floor area and the only development that will be allowable in an attic is that it may be floored for storage purposes. The provision of one window in each of the two gable ends or one dormer window or one rooflight not exceeding 2.8 sq.m. or 30 sq. ft. to provide light and ventilation is also permitted. This is absolutely ridiculous. People should be encouraged to develop their attics and also their basements. Housing inspectors run up attic stairs to check out whether the place is to be converted later into a bedroom or other type of accommodation, and they check out the basement. If the attic or basement do not comply with these very stringent qualifications the person is declared ineligible for the £2,000 new house grant. I am not being critical of housing inspectors in this regard. We Members of this House who tolerate and perpetuate this type of legislation are to be criticised.

Every Member of this House and every member of a local authority have had many of these applicants coming to them in utter desperation, unaware of these regulations and finding themselves excluded from and declared ineligible for these grants because they developed the attic or the basement or, indeed, the garage. According to the regulations, areas that will be calculated in the floor area include any garage or basement where development works have been carried out which would suggest that it is to be used as domestic or habitable space, and areas described as garages but clearly designed to be integrated into the dwelling area will also be regarded as part of the floor area. We have had many constituents and other people coming to us because at some later date the garage might be included in the housing area and their grant has been disallowed. A workshop, office and stores area, boiler house and fuel store will be excluded from the housing area if their area is not more than four square metres or 43 square feet. It is ridiculous to be taking up the valuable time of housing inspectors with such matters. I have a particular young couple in mind whose area of house was within the regulations, being not more than 125 square feet. They wanted a larger fuel store which they built, but that made them ineligible just because the fuel store was larger than stipulated. I contend that regulations of this type discourage young people from building houses and they should be dispensed with.

Let me refer also in passing to the house improvement grants. In the past if a person unknowingly or unwittingly started work on improvements he or she was immediately ineligible for these grants. I think there should be a nominal fine of perhaps £100 or £200 for starting work before the inspector has time to inspect the place, rather than totally excluding these people from the grant. That would be a more equitable and just way of dealing with the matter. This matter has been discussed many times, but I urge the Minister to reconsider it.

Section 4 deals with the £5,000 grant to tenants or tenant purchasers of local authority houses who want to purchase private dwelling houses and surrender their houses to the local authority. This has proved very popular and there have been hundreds, even thousands of applications, resulting in each local authority having extra houses ready for re-occupation. I would suggest an addition to this scheme to include owners of private dwelling houses who in the autumn of their lives, perhaps for personal, financial, or medical reasons, find their houses too large or too old for them; perhaps due to failing health they are unable to negotiate the stairs. Some, in fact most, would gladly surrender their family sized house for a smaller, more compact, more manageable senior citizen's house if they got a suitable financial entitlement or some compensation. At the moment there is no way in which a local authority could pay anything near the value of such houses. I urge the Minister and his officials to look into this matter to see if perfectly habitable houses could be transferred to the local authority in exchange for a senior citizen's house. One could argue that these people are getting a new house, but it should be made a condition that there would be absolutely no right to bequeath that house to anybody, that it would be strictly for their lifetime alone. It would serve a double purpose of making available a family sized house to the local authority for a modest sum, £5,000, or pro rata, or perhaps a lesser sum. A number of people who approached me on this matter would willingly and gladly transfer their house if given something in the region of £1,000. Unfortunately, the local authorities have no scheme under which they can accommodate the wishes of these people.

Section 4 (1) (a) (ii) provides for a grant to be paid out to a person who:

in the case of accommodation allocated to a member of the Permanent Defence Force, provides the Minister for Defence with vacant possession by surrendering it.

Could this concession apply to members of the Garda Síochána? A number have approached me who are at present in residence in Garda houses or accommodation attached to Garda barracks and they would willingly vacate these houses. Some are building their own private dwelling houses. They were hoping that this £5,000 grant would apply to their members and I would urge the Minister to heed this request and to be flexible in this matter, if at all possible.

Section 5 deals specifically with the assistance by housing authorities of certain bodies, whether a housing authority or one approved of by the Minister for the purposes of this section. I have in mind one such body, the Rural Resource Organisation, Shannon. Shortly before Christmas, at a seminar held in Clonmel, I met Fr. Harry Bohan, the director of that scheme. He and his organisation have done tremendous work in revitalising rural Ireland, encouraging people to come back and live there by providing houses for them. He has given life, vitality and vibrancy to many small towns and villages which would otherwise have been deserted. I was amazed to learn from him that county councils have not taken, or indeed are not permitted to take, responsibility for public lighting of these small schemes in each of these villages and towns. I hope the Minister and his officials will examine this matter and give positive proof of their support so that the very scarce resources of the Rural Resource Organisation would be freed for building further houses.

Section 8 deals with a greater co-operation between housing authorities, not only between local authorities within the same county council area, but between urban councils vis-á-vis the county council and between county councils. The practice of mutual transfers between urban and county councils and between county councils should at all times be encouraged. Some arrangement should be made by which a local authority can offer a tenancy or offer to pay compensation in kind or in finance — a type of exchange control of housing on a reciprocal basis between such bodies. All Deputies and county councillors have been approached from time to time by emigrants residing in England who wish to return home and I would hope for an extension of that type of mutual transfer between England and Ireland. I know that there would be many administrative problems, but if the social welfare administrative problems have been ironed out there should be some system under which people residing in local authority houses or in flats in England who wish to return to Ireland could be rehoused here with some arrangement being made for so doing between the two local authorities involved.

Debate adjourned.