As Deputies are aware this Bill was introduced by my predecessor, Deputy Kavanagh, Minister for Tourism, Fisheries and Forestry. My reply to the Second Stage debate also affords me my first opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Bill. I should like to thank Deputies who earlier contributed to the debate and to express my appreciation of the welcome the Bill has received from all sides of the House. A number of helpful and constructive comments and suggestions have been made and I look forward to taking up some of these on Committee Stage so that the Bill can be improved and strengthened.
There have been many statements recently regarding the homelessness provisions of the Bill and allegations made to the effect that in the absence of this Bill homeless persons cannot gain access to local authority housing. I would like to clarify the present position regarding the provision of accommodation by local authorities. The supply of local authority accommodation relative to demand has never been as favourable thanks to initiatives taken by the Government. Single persons in need of accommodation are now regularly and routinely housed by local authorities. In many of the recent statements on this issue that fact has not been acknowledged. That is regrettable. I would like, therefore, to point out to Deputies that in 1985, some 14 per cent of all allocations made by Dublin Corporation other than those to elderly persons were to single persons without dependents. This means that over 450 persons were housed by Dublin Corporation last year and already this year over 600 single persons have been provided with accommodation by the corporation. Other major housing authorities are also housing single people in significant numbers, a thing unheard of some years ago. This has obviously brought about a considerable easing of the problem of adult homelessness and shows that the authorities are very much aware of and responding to the problem of homeless persons.
When the Government approved the introduction of this Bill the major objective was to secure access of single homeless persons to local authority housing because for many years their needs had tended to be overtaken by the needs of families living in unfit or overcrowded conditions. Now, in a situation where such a high proportion of allocations by the largest housing authority in the country are to single persons and in the light of the views expressed by Deputies and others I will look carefully at sections 2 and 10 in advance of Committee Stage.
A good deal of recent media comment has concentrated on the problem of homeless children and there appears to be some confusion as to the responsibilities of local authorities and the provisions of the Bill in this area. This Bill does not deal with homeless children who are and should remain the responsibility of the health boards. The Bill deals with the responsibility of the housing authorities. The allocation of local authority housing would not be a solution to the problem of homeless children and it would not be appropriate nor is it proposed to provide in the Bill that housing authorities become responsible for the accommodation of homeless children.
In this connection I welcome the initiative announced yesterday by the Minister for Health to establish a task force to provide an alternative service for homeless boys to replace the HOPE hostel. The task force which includes a representative of the Eastern Health Board has been charged with arranging the establishment of an alternative service within one month. The Minister for Health has also indicated that whatever funding is required for the new service will be made available.
There has been some criticism of the term, "capable of independent living", particularly in the context of section 10 dealing with the statutory obligation on housing authorities to ensure accommodation is made available for homeless persons. However, I would point out that the ad hoc group on homelessness which reported to the Minister for Health concluded that there were among homeless persons some who for medical and other reasons were not capable of living independently in a dwelling and that such persons should be the responsibility of the health board rather than of the housing authority. If the requirement that a homeless person be capable of living independently was removed from the Bill local authorities would be statutorily obliged to house all persons who happened to be homeless. This would include those whose acute needs required in the first instance medical or psychiatric attention and not housing accommodation and who the working group concluded should be the responsibility of the health boards. Deputies will, I believe, recognise that the imposition of a statutory obligation on local authorities to house individuals must be limited to those whose needs is for housing and not primarily for specialist care and attention.
I would also point out that the requirement of being capable of living independently in a dwelling does not apply exclusively to homeless persons as has frequently been asserted. If this was the case I accept it would be invidious; the requirement, however, also applies under section 9 in relation to all applicants for local authority housing. This matter was referred to particularly this afternoon by Deputies Doyle and Barnes, and I intend to give consideration to the wording of both sections 2 and 10. In relation to the remarks the Deputies addressed to the question of allowing the decision as to the definition of "capable of independent living" to be left to local housing officers, it is my intention that the guidelines to be issued under the Act would require housing officers to consult with the relevant medical and social personnel on the difficult decision regarding the capacity or otherwise for independent living. The framework for that procedure has already been drafted by a working party representative of my Department, the Department of Health, the health boards and the local authorities.
Deputy De Rossa suggested that the definition of the homeless person in section 2 should not include battered wives. However, I would like to point out that where a person cannot occupy their accommodation due to violence, they would be covered by the definition in so far as they "cannot reasonably occupy or remain in occupation of" their accommodation.
Deputy De Rossa also queried the procedure being provided in section 20 which would allow local authorities to sell houses without, in certain cases, carrying out what would be regarded as the normal pre-sale structural repairs. That was in contrast with the point being made by Deputy Barnes that in certain circumstances local authority accommodation should be let to people on the local authority waiting list in advance of necessary repairs being carried out, to allow them to do the repairs themselves and to have an interest in their tenancy.
What is intended in section 20 is that, in cases such as those I have outlined, the sale would be carried out only with the consent of the tenant purchaser and the sale price of the house would be adjusted to take account of the fact that structural or other repairs were needed. This would mean that potential tenant purchasers who had the capacity to carry out a certain amount of the repair work themselves would benefit through having the home offered at a reduced price. It is intended that that provision will be carried out on a trial basis. It is thought this may have particular reference, for example, in the sale of isolated rural cottages.
The Bill will provide a new framework for the provision, management and letting of local authority dwellings and I note the welcome given by Deputies to the provisions relating to schemes of letting priorities.
Section 9 of the Bill will require local authorities to undertake an annual assessment of the need for the provision of accommodation for various categories and section 11 will require local authorities to adopt schemes of letting priorities in accordance with the needs identified at the assessment under section 9. The assessment must have regard to the needs of the homeless and of travellers. It is my intention that within the revised framework created by the Bill all local authorities will have a systematic and formal approach to approving applicants for housing and that this will be updated on a regular basis. In this way local authorities will be aware of the level of categories of needs within their areas and will be required to provide and let dwellings accordingly.
The 5,000 surrender grant for local authority tenants and tenant purchasers has proved highly successful since its introduction in October 1984. In 1985, 5,373 applications were received under the scheme; 1,950 payments were made at a total cost of £9.75 million. This year I expect that some 3,800 applications will be received and about 3,600 payments made.
It has been suggested that the scheme be extended to cover members of the Garda Síochána and to elderly owner-occupiers of private houses who might wish to surrender their houses in exchange for being allowed to rent a senior citizen local authority dwelling. Regrettably, I cannot accept these suggestions.
The £5,000 grant was extended to lower ranking members of the Permanent Defence Forces primarily because substantial numbers of these personnel require housing by the local authorities. An important consideration is that the pay and conditions of the Permanent Defence Forces personnel eligible for the grant are generally less favourable than those of the gardaí. While I appreciate the motive behind the suggestion that this grant be extended to elderly owner-occupiers, this does raise serious difficulties.
The available stock of specialised local authority housing for the elderly is limited and it has been my Department's policy to conserve the stock by, for example, excluding such dwellings from sale schemes. However, further consideration will, I believe, need to be given to the problem of elderly owner-occupiers who are unable to maintain their existing private houses and it is possible that local authorities may need to develop a role in this area. I must point out that already it is open to local authorities to purchase private dwellings and, indeed, I have been encouraging them to do so, with very limited success so far. Local authorities may, therefore, where they consider it appropriate, acquire a private house from an elderly person.
The type of housing needs is changing and this is an area where we will have to review our housing policy and local authorities will have to carry out some fundamental re-assessments of their medium and long term housing needs. I know one major local authority has already identified that area. Due to trends forecast by some of the relevant agencies, it now appears that there will be a fundamental change in the composition of local authority housing lists in the medium and long term, and that an increasing number as a proportion of the entire housing list will consist of elderly or old people. That will require a major revision on the part of local authorities and central Government in deciding on the mix and type of dwelling to be provided in the future.
There is no gainsay of the fact that in recent years tremendous strides have been made in the provision of local authority housing generally. As I mentioned some time ago, at one time it was said regularly that we had a housing crisis but we now have adequate housing for those in need. This is an ongoing matter which is dealt with by the local authorities. In no way can the present position be described by any reasonable person as a crisis. In fact, in most local authorities housing does not represent a problem with a capital P.
It is interesting to reflect that at the end of 1985 the figure on the housing list for the Twenty-six Counties was 22,000 applicants which compares very favourably with the figure for one inner London borough of 26,000 applicants. That has been achieved through a combination of factors — the continuing high output of high quality local authority houses by the Government over a number of years, the introduction of the £5,000 grant scheme, the introduction of the Housing Finance Agency loan — and lately the restructuring of the Housing Finance Agency loan — the increase in the income limit for SDA loans, the increase in the amount which can be borrowed under the SDA system and the introduction of a third type of loan. This means that many of those purchasers who might otherwise be on local authority waiting lists or purchasers who are vacating local authority houses now have the opportunity to opt for one of three different types of loan — the traditional annuity type loan under the SDA scheme, increased to a limit of £25,000 in loan size and an income limit of £10,000; loans under the Housing Finance Agency of either £21,000 or £27,000; or, under the Housing Finance Agency system, a loan which is income related in the first five years and which is convertible to annuity after the first five years of operation. The combination of these incentives has meant that the target of making 9,000 dwellings annually available for letting, which was assessed in the national plan Building on Reality as being a target which should be striven for in order adequately to meet housing needs, has been exceeded comfortably in the last few years. Through a combination of the high output of new local authority dwellings completed and the impact of the £5,000 scheme, last year there were 11,500 dwellings made available for letting by the local authority which was considerably in excess of the target. The indications are that for this year we will again comfortably exceed the target set out in the national plan.
It has been a very commendable record of achievement for the Government that local authority housing has been virtually revolutionised. Figures were reported in the national newspapers recently which suggested that the total waiting list for Dublin Corporation housing was 3,500. The corporation has in one form or another in the Dublin area 2,900 vacant dwelling units. Of those on the corporation waiting list some 40 per cent have turned down accommodation at least once and in some cases two or three times because they were waiting for the construction of a Dublin Corporation estate in an area with which the applicant had connections or in an area near their work. That is an extraordinary turnabout in the housing situation. When I first became involved in politics almost 20 years ago the provision of adequate housing was the question in the minds of most public representatives, certainly at local level. None of us could have foreseen circumstances in which the housing lists would be diminished and the demand would have been successfully met as it has been in the last two or three years.
This afternoon Deputy De Rossa suggested that the £5,000 grant should be paid to tenant purchasers to enable them to buy their existing homes. That suggestion shows a lack of appreciation of the basis upon which that scheme was introduced. If a local authority tenant purchases a private home and in turn gets the benefit of the £5,000 grant and if purchasing a new house also gets the benefit of a new house grant, the unit he vacates becomes available to the local authority for reletting. If the grant were paid to the tenant to assist him in purchasing the local authority dwelling then the unit would not be freed for reletting. The remissions and grants available under the tenant purchase scheme should be borne in mind. In many instances a person opting to purchase a new home would get the equivalent of the grant of £5,000 off the value of the house. The tenant is entitled to a 3 per cent reduction in price for each year of tenancy up to 10 years so that in certain cases where a tenant has occupied the house for 10 years he can enjoy a maximum reduction of 30 per cent. In addition, there is a discount of £2,000 off the purchase price of the house, that being the equivalent of the new house grant. There is a discount also in relation to any rates which might have been paid on the house had it been occupied prior to 1977. In the new scheme which I introduced some months ago I allowed tenants the option to have the gross price of the house before discounts assessed at either the market value of the house or the original all-in cost of the house updated, with the option for the tenant to accept the price most favourable to him. A tenant purchaser now opting to purchase his home under the new tenant purchase scheme has the assistance of the Government in a reduction of many thousands of pounds. In the majority of cases tenant purchasers get discounts and grants amounting to more than £5,000.
Section 3 of the Bill deals with the mortgage subsidy scheme which will be phased out over the next five years with the replacement of the scheme by the new £2,250 new house grant. It has been suggested that recent trends in interest rates undermine the case for the phasing out of the mortgage subsidy scheme. I do not accept that. Trends in interest rates are temporary. Events of the last day or two have served to validate that contention. At any rate, even the most pessimistic commentator does not suggest that mortgage interest rates are likely ever to approach the unsustainably high level of 16¼ per cent which they reached in 1981 when the mortgage subsidy scheme was introduced. Recent increases resulting from unsustainably high interest rates, given that inflation is now at 3 per cent, are of a temporary nature and will not hold over any reasonable period. The problem of borrowers who are experiencing difficulty with their loan repayments under the SDA scheme is one to which local authorities generally should adopt a sympathetic approach. Normally a mutually satisfactory arrangement can be devised to resolve problems. County managers are expected to use considerable discretion in dealing with cases of arrears. It would be wrong of the Department to suggest that there is one right way to deal with all of these cases. This difficulty is a good example of a situation where local knowledge and judgment exercised by the housing authorities are most likely to obtain a satisfactory result.
Deputies, including Deputy Barnes in the last 15 minutes, referred to poor planning and design of local authority housing schemes and to the need for improvements in existing local authority housing stock. In 1982, my Department issued a very comprehensive memorandum to housing authorities setting out standards of planning and design for local authority housing schemes. In recent years there has been improvement generally in the standard of layout and design of local authority housing estates. We have moved away from the rather stark military lines of houses without a focal point, or adequate provision for community recreational or other facilities.
The requirements of the Department expect local authorities to have schools, churches, health services and other facilities within a reasonable distance of new housing schemes. Where playgrounds or open spaces are not already available in reasonable proximity, provision must be made for them in the scheme. In the national plan to which I referred a section was included which introduced a major new scheme to enable local authorities to come to grips with the problem of some of their older local authority houses and what were known as low cost housing schemes. Under the new scheme councils can obtain a subsidy of up to 80 per cent for necessary works to those houses. So far, 30 schemes suggested by local authorities have been approved by my Department for remedial work. I want to assure Deputies it is my intention to increase investment in this type of work over the coming years.
In relation to my remarks earlier regarding the satisfactory meeting of the needs of those on national housing waiting lists, we must look carefully at the question of the older stock of local authority dwelling units, houses or flats. In that regard, I have been anxious for some time that Dublin Corporation, who have a very high number of flats as part of their housing stock, should look more actively at the question of refurbishing and redesigning quite a number of those flat blocks. I am not sure if it was advisable for the corporation — I am not saying this in a critical way — to continue to build at the rate they did, with the agreement of the Department, new housing in green fields on the outskirts of the city up to very recently while, at the same time, they have quite a number of flats in inner city locations which fail to live up to what I and most people regard as an adequate standard in relation to sanitary and other facilities. There is a need to look at a major redirection as to whether it is better to consider concentrating a large part of the resources of housing capital towards lifting the standard of older local authority dwellings which were provided initially without basic facilities or which, because of their construction, have become fairly run down and require major works of a remedial nature.
We have sanctioned 30 remedial works schemes around the country and a further 18 schemes are before us at present. The carrying out of those major remedial works in estates will increasingly occupy the housing section of my Department in the coming years. Because of the success of meeting the housing demand by many local authorities, they should now look at their existing stock especially in relation to the major authorities in urban areas, many of whom have an older stock of flats. They should pay particular attention to seeing what can be done in that respect.
Deputy Barnes also spoke about the need to have a proper mix of houses to ensure that the provision of new local authority housing does not merely result in the creation of different types of ghettoes. The Deputy was also very concerned regarding the use of words or titles which she suggested might stigmatise certain areas. We all know to what the Deputy is referring and perhaps in the past, in the enthusiasm of trying to meet genuine housing needs, sufficient attention was not always given to the need to blend different types of housing and to ensure it was done in conjunction with the provision of all the facilities which are needed to create proper new communities.
Deputy Barnes mentioned two other areas which are not the responsibility of my Department, one in relation to the question of security of tenants in their relationships with the owner of the dwelling. That area is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice and the question of tenancies arise in regard to my Department only in relation to tenancies of local authority houses.
Comments were also made regarding the housing needs of the elderly. While the provision of dwellings for the elderly has been fundamental to the local authority housing programme for a number of years — one and two bedroomed dwellings have become an increasing feature of new housing estates to the extent that over 10,000 have been provided since 1972 — it is relevant to realise that because of demographic changes it will be necessary to consider the needs of the elderly to an increasing degree in the years ahead. In addition to the new dwelling units provided for the elderly, assistance is also provided through the essential repairs grant scheme and the special task force on housing for the elderly. The essential repairs grant helps to prolong the useful life of dwellings in rural areas and the task force gives grant aid for necessary work to houses owned by elderly people throughout the country. The essential repairs grant scheme lets many elderly people in rural areas to remain in their homes instead of having to move to new local authority houses, perhaps quite a distance away. The task force on housing aid for the elderly, which is funded by my Department, is operated by the regional health boards and ensures that those who have day-to-day contact with the elderly, especially the public health and welfare staff, can see that necessary repairs are carried out to houses occupied by elderly people. That arrangement has proved to be very satisfactory and the scheme has been tremendously successful in improving the living accommodation of many elderly people in different parts of the country.
Local authorities also provide housing for the disabled as an integral part of their housing programme. They have been encouraged to provide special dwelling units to meet the needs of the disabled. The guidelines of the National Rehabilitation Board published in 1981 set out particular standards of design of housing for the disabled and were circulated by my Department to county councils requesting them to have regard to the recommendations of the board.
As part of the house improvements grant package announced a year ago, I am pleased that the recoupment by my Department in respect of grants for disabled persons was increased to £2,500 which means that local authorities can make grants of up to £5,000 available to build on an extra room or to undertake necessary work to make a house more suitable for a disabled person.
A number of very important points were made by Deputies and many comments and submissions have been made by various interested groups since this Bill was published. The Bill sets out to meet a number of particular, not necessarily conflicting or competing, objectives. It is the first major housing Bill introduced since the Housing Act, 1966. As such, it behoves the Government to examine the various aspects of responsibility and to charter a course for the future with regard to the responsibilities of housing authorities. To some extent, some of the comments that have been made with regard to the provisions of the Bill have been made by groups who have a particular concern for a particular sector who are in need of housing accommodation. We must ensure that the statutory conditions lay down the ground rules in such a way that housing authorities can, in equity and in practice, provide adequately for the housing needs of those who are not in a position to house themselves. Deputies expressed a degree of over-apprehension about the safeguard provisions which have been included in the Bill. If a Bill were being introduced to provide specifically and exclusively for the housing needs of particular sectors or groups it might not be identical to some of the provisions in this Bill.
This Bill sets out to up-date the 1966 legislation and to provide a charter for housing authorities. In doing so, it has to recognise the problems which have to be tackled and solved. It also has to recognise the pragmatics of the situation facing individual housing authorities. For example, problems which may be more relevant and more likely to occur in urban areas must be provided for within the statute but in such a way as not to put unnecessary demands upon essentially rural housing authorities. What caused a degree of concern in certain areas, unnecessarily I hope, is that the Bill set out to ensure that a statutory obligation be put upon housing authorities to provide adequate housing accommodation for those who cannot house themselves. At the same time, it was recognised that irrespective of whatever scheme is introduced there will always be a certain number of people who will identify clearly the composition of the scheme and its restrictions and who will then set out as carefully as they can — often with a surprising degree of ingenuity — to devise ways to get around the restrictions and take themselves to the top of the list for that particular sevice.
The statute and the operation of the provisions have to be designed in such a way to ensure that not only is there an attempt made to provide for equity but that safeguards are introduced so that individuals cannot set out successfully to upset the intention of the statute in a way which benefits themselves, and in a way which was not intended, perhaps to the detriment of other more deserving cases. Endeavouring to meet those competing objectives is a difficulty which always faces those who prepare complex, far-reaching and important legislation.
I welcome the submissions which have been made by the various groups, mainly voluntary bodies, in connection with this Bill and the points made by Deputies. I have experienced a slight difficulty in that I did not introduce the Bill. Therefore, this is a Bill which I have not lived with from its inception. This debate is particularly useful to me in that I can evaluate the points made by Deputies and I can reflect upon the perspicacity or otherwise of those who decided to reserve their comments so that they may fall upon us like rays of enlightenment at a later stage. This debate also gives me the opportunity to examine the submissions which have been made by the various groups in the light of the discussion which has taken place in the House today and earlier and to see in what way on Committee Stage either we can improve or strengthen the provisions of the Bill or merely in certain cases clarify for people some of the provisions about which they are unnecessarily apprehensive.
The Bill is primarily one which will usefully be teased out on Committee Stage. I look forward to the debate and to an indication of this new school of thought on housing which is apparently being prepared by the Opposition. From time to time one comes across Bills where a political party will say that the debate can be more usefully expanded upon on Committee Stage.
It is rather unusual to discover the Opposition indicating that they are so anxious to have a Bill debated that they are not going to participate in the debate at this stage so as to allow the debate to expand at a later stage. That is intriguing my mind and I wait with eager anticipation to see how the Opposition will endeavour to help us improve and enact the Bill.