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.