Adjournment Debate. - NATO Dispute.

I thank the Chair for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. It is not so much the issue of the failure of the Minister to meet with the National Association of Tenants Organisations but the failure of the Government to resolve the dispute involving NATO and to resolve the current rent withholding campaign.

I can appreciate that perhaps the reasons were beyond those stated, but normally one is confined to the subject matter of the request. The question referred to the failure of the Government to meet with NATO. I take it the Deputy will not stray too far away from the consequence of that failure.

In raising this question it is important to outline the history and the significance of the National Association of Tenants Organisations. They were founded in 1967, an organisation promoting in their constitution the desire to develop the economic and cultural interest of all members of the tenants organisation. This organisation have a general secretary named Mr. Matt Larkin. They are a nationwide organisation and since their inception and particularly since 1983, after a protracted rents strike, they have enjoyed the position of negotiator on behalf of local authority tenants throughout the country with the Government in relation to the issue of rent fixing, conditions in local authority housing of a general nature, and so on.

To their dismay, in 1985 they were notified by the Minister, Deputy Fergus O'Brien that he saw no further purpose in meeting with NATO to discuss the issues concerning NATO, especially the review of the 1983 rents scheme. This decision was resisted by NATO and it was roundly condemned by all parties in Opposition in the House, including the party in Government now. I draw the attention of the Minister to a motion in the name of the spokesperson in Opposition, Deputy Ray Burke, on 4 November 1986:

That Dáil Éireann calls on the Minister for the Environment and the Government to rescind their directive giving city and county managers the power to fix local authority rents and to restore to local authority tenants representatives, the National Association of Tenants Organisations their right to negotiate a national uniform rents scheme on behalf of tenants.

Despite repeated representations and efforts to intercede with the Government NATO were compelled to fall back on the only really effective method available to them which was to exert political pressure by organising a nationwide withholding of rents. I refer to it as withholding because it was not a strike in the usual sense. It is to the credit of NATO that while they are advising tenants to withhold rents, they are organising a scheme of bank accounts throughout the country where these rents are being deposited to be available immediately to the corporation and the local authorities as soon as the dispute is resolved. It is an appalling state of affairs that such a reputable long standing organisation have been literally cast aside so readily by the previous Government and have not, as yet, had the opportunity to meet the current Minister to discuss the situation.

The Fianna Fáil Party in their manifesto leading up to the general election said that Fianna Fáil totally opposed the decision of the Fine Gael/Labour Government to renege on the undertaking of successive administrations in regard to the method of determining local authority rents, that they believed there should be a nationally devised scheme of rents and that, on election to Government, there would be consultation with the representative of the local authority tenants, prior to determining local authority rents on a national basis, as was the situation before. During the campaign the Fianna Fáil head office people met with NATO to clarify what they meant by consultation and to emphasise that the representatives to which the manifesto referred were NATO. Those clarifications were delivered and consequently it was believed by NATO and me and other members of The Workers' Party that immediately on the return to office of this Government they would meet with NATO and that without any great difficulty, beyond meeting a commitment given during the election campaign, the NATO action could be terminated and the badly needed funds would be released to local authorities without delay.

It was as a result of representations from all sides of the house that the Minister had the opportunity to advise me today that a letter has now gone to NATO inviting them to a meeting. That invitation will be taken up.

I will outline some of the issues NATO will want to discuss with the Minister. It is essential that the Minister appreciates these points because resting in his hands almost exclusively, is the opportunity to end the agitation currently being pursued by NATO on a national basis. It is crucial that NATO should be restored to their pre 1986 position as national negotiators on behalf of their members throughout the country. Negotiation is not simply consultation. Negotiation means sitting down and arriving at a fair and democratic decision involving both parties. That decision will then have to be conveyed from the Minister's office as a directive to the local authorities concerned. The Minister should not be afraid of that process. It has worked effectively over the past 12 years. It is curious that the previous Government wanted to abandon it.

In fairness to NATO, they are not opposed to rent increases. They simply want the opportunity to have the voice of tenants heard at a negotiating table. If the need for this must be emphasised, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, acting in another function, attending at our city council meetings will appreciate the importance of such negotiating procedures. The methods of local authorities are so unfair and undemocratic that they have led to widespread reaction both at elected council level and at local level among members of tenants associations throughout the city, to widespread reaction at elected council level and at local level among residents and tenants' associations throughout the city. No doubt, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you will have had the experience of many people having come to you, in desperation, explaining that overnight their rents had been increased three, four and five fold. It is an unfair system — and I think you will be aware of this also, which involves not even consultation with elected representatives. In Dublin City Council we were presented with a scheme, perhaps the first we learned of it was when tenants began arriving at our advice offices complaining of major rent hikes. On numerous occasions elected representatives of Dublin City Council attempted to raise the issue, using the democratic process of motion and counter motion. The City Manager was able to meet us on every such occasion and, despite the fact that we had put a motion down in Dublin City Council, he indicated that legally he was obliged to proceed, and did so intend to proceed, with a scheme which he had unilaterally devised for Dublin for ensuing years.

The present system denies all forms of consultation and representation. Local tenants, through their constitutionally-founded organisation, NATO, have no right at present to be consulted or to negotiate. Local authorities, comprising local elected representatives, have no right to insist on any input or to any say in the rents and relevant schemes fixed. The power rests entirely in the hands of city managers and county chairmen. We cannot allow this system to continue. It is in the interests of democracy itself that the pre-1986 system be restored.

I do not wish to delay the Minister unduly. I am obliged to the House for having given me the opportunity to raise this matter.

Earlier, Deputy, you referred to the Chair's Government, I assume you would wish to confirm that that was a matter of inadvertance on your part.

Absolute inadvertance.

At the outset I should like to assure the Deputy of my intention of honouring the Government's commitment to consult with the National Association of Tenants Organisations in relation to local authority rents. I am really surprised at the timing of the motion in the light of my written contacts with NATO since assuming office.

On 30 March last I received from NATO a submission in relation to local authority rents and a number of other issues. I wrote to them on 14 April to inform them that I was having their submission examined and would be in touch with them again to arrange a meeting. I have now asked them to contact my private secretary to make arrangements for that meeting which I hope will take place, when they are available, in the very near future. This meeting will allow NATO to put forward their views to me on the present scheme and to submit any amendments they would wish to have considered on the introduction of the national scheme. While I would not wish to prejudice the outcome of the forthcoming discussions with NATO, or give rise to anxieties on the part of local tenants, the reality of the position is that the cost of local authority housing imposes a very serious burden on the Exchequer and on the taxpayers of this country. In fact that has been acknowledged by the Deputy. The present average cost of providing and maintaining a new local authority house is some £76 per week whereas the average rental income is approximately £7 only per week. In 1985, the latest date for which comprehensive figures are available, the ongoing State subsidy on loan charges amounted to £176 million in respect of existing local authority dwellings. Management and maintenance costs incurred by local authorities amount to £64 million which had to be met by the taxpayer. When added to the £176 million of subsidy expenditure this gives a frightening total public housing bill in respect of existing local authorities rented houses of £199 million for 1985. I should say the position is worsening. In 1987 it is estimated that the total cost is likely to exceed £230 million, comprised of £207 million in subsidies and a rental income shortfall of some £25 million. This upward trend cannot continue as the balance of the expenditure must ultimately be provided by the taxpayer.

Nobody objects to the subsidisation of the housing costs of those on low incomes and who genuinely cannot afford to house themselves. Indeed it has been the policy of successive Governments to bear as lightly as possible on such persons when drawing up their rent schemes. However, there are those whose rent contributions are unrealistically low in relation to their incomes and the standard of local authority dwellings now being provided. The critical state of the Exchequer and local authority finances makes it imperative that we take a fresh look at the basis on which rents are determined and that we modify it to ensure that those who can afford to do so pay their fair share. It is crucial, from the local authority point of view, that the level of rental income be maintained. Any reduction in this area will lead not only to neglect of their housing stock but to redundancies and short-time working.

Therefore, I am having the rent scheme examined with a view to introducing a scheme which, in addition to being seen by the tenants as fair and just, will take account also of local authorities' financial positions vis-à-vis their responsibilities for managing and maintaining their housing stocks. Until these new arrangements have been finalised the existing schemes must continue and, of course, rents must be paid. The operation of the hardship clause, which forms part of the existing scheme, should ensure that no tenant is required to pay a rent he or she cannot genuinely afford.

As I indicated, I hope to meet NATO in the very near future for the discussions promised in the Programme for National Recovery. However, I would remind Deputies that this Government, on assuming office, emphasised the necessity of taking a critical look at all aspects of Government spending.

We have taken steps already to rationalise the private housing grants scheme.

This move was necessary. Our examination of the existing rents scheme will now be approached in a constructive and helpful manner. We have not given, nor can we in the future, give to any sectoral interest or any such body the right to determine Government policy in any given area. I do not think the Deputy would wish that. The Fianna Fáil Government will do as they have always done, that is listen to and consider the views of all interested parties and have regard to those views when taking decisions. Our decision in relation to local authority rents will be no different. However, decisions will have to be taken bearing in mind the recognised and agreed financial constraints within which Exchequer spending must be controlled.

I thank Deputy McCartan for having raised the matter. I expect that the meeting he wants to take place will take place next week or in the very near future.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 5 May 1987.