I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Housing Bill is a major social measure. Its main concern is with the provision of adequate accommodation for those persons who cannot afford to provide it from their own resources. Most importantly, it will provide a new statutory framework for the development of social housing whether provided by local housing authorities or by voluntary housing organisations.
However, there are many other important aspects to this Bill and I would like, therefore, to start by mentioning briefly some of its main objectives which are to revise and update the statutory basis for the provision, improvement, management and letting of local authority housing so as to ensure, in particular, that the needs of categories such as the homeless, the aged, disabled and travellers get due priority; to increase the powers of housing authorities in regard to the accommodation of homeless persons; to put in place arrangements to facilitate the sale of local authority houses to tenants at prices which reflect the present condition and market value of the houses; to provide statutory backing for a number of schemes of grants, subsidies, loan guarantees and assistance for housing introduced in recent years; to provide an easier procedure for discharging mortgages in certain cases; to amend the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, in relation to the provision of emergency accommodation and, in particular, in response to the accommodation needs of travellers; and to repeal the offence of "wandering abroad" which is contained in the Vagrancy Act, 1824.
In preparing this Bill careful consideration was given to every aspect of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1985. The provisions of the 1985 Bill, which were considered necessary and appropriate, have been retained. In other areas new provisions have been devised. The Bill — as indeed the 1985 Bill would have been — is the most farreaching revision of housing legislation since the modern housing code was laid down in the Housing Act, 1966.
The provisions of the Bill on homelessness have attracted most comment since the Bill was published and I would expect that this area would be one of the main concerns of Deputies in this Second Stage debate. Comments on this aspect have concentrated in the main on whether legislation should place upon housing authorities a statutory obligation to secure accommodation for homeless persons. Section 10 of the 1985 Bill attempted to provide for such an obligation but one must pose the question, was that the most appropriate and effective response to the problem of homelessness? The proposed obligation was included in section 10 of the 1985 Bill not because it was legally or otherwise correct nor indeed because it was likely to significantly improve the lot of the homeless. It was included basically because of commitments made by the previous Government in the course of a difficult debate on a Private Members' Bill in the Seanad.
I would like to deal briefly with some of the issues which would be raised by a legal obligation to provide accommodation for any single category of housing need. The first problem is that any obligation required certain safeguards against abuses; this the 1985 Bill attempted to do. First, it provided that a person claiming to be homeless could not force a local authority to provide him or her with accommodation if he or she had become homeless deliberately. A second qualification was, in effect, that housing authorities would only be obliged to secure accommodation for persons who were capable of independent living.
Both of these, though in themselves reasonable and necessary, posed many difficulties for housing authorities. I suggest no reasonable person would advance an argument that local authorities should be obliged to house people who are not genuinely homeless but were merely abusing a provision in law to force a housing authority to provide them with alternative accommodation. Similarly, I do not believe that housing authorities should have imposed on them an obligation — enforceable through the courts — to provide accommodation for a homeless person who did not have the capacity to live independently. This would not be an appropriate response to the needs of that person. The ad hoc Committee on the Homeless which reported to the Minister for Health in December 1984 recommended that homeless persons who were incapable of independent living should be the responsibility of health boards rather than housing authorities. This is clearly the sensible approach. Health boards have available to them the medical, nursing, caring and other services needed to care for these people; local authorities do not.
The basic response by local authorities to the needs of the homeless remains the direct provision of accommodation but there will always be limits to the accommodation available to a local authority. The powers of local authorities to deal with the homeless therefore need to be expanded so that the smaller local authorities, in particular — who have very limited housing estates and very few vacancies becoming available — would have new powers to help them meet the needs of the homeless. These powers are provided for in section 10 of the Bill. They include a new power for housing authorities to secure accommodation for a homeless person with a voluntary housing organisation and to pay that organisation in respect of the accommodation so provided. In addition, housing authorities will be able to provide assistance, including finance, to a homeless person in order that that person may secure accommodation and, finally, a housing authority will be able to rent accommodation or lodgings for a homeless person.
In addition to the new powers provided for under section 10, housing authorities will be obliged for the first time to fully integrate the needs of the homeless into the planning of their housing programmes. Homeless persons have not previously been identified in legislation as a specific category of housing need. The provisions of this Bill will, however, ensure that housing authorities will in future be required to take into account the needs of the homeless at every stage of the planning, provision and allocation of local authority housing. Under section 9 of the Bill, housing authorities, prior to carrying out their annual assessment of the need for local authority housing, will be required to notify adjoining housing authorities and health boards and voluntary organisations who will then have the opportunity to bring the needs of any homeless person to the attention of the authority. Under section 11, housing authorities will be able to set aside a specific number or proportion of houses coming forward for letting to meet the needs of the homeless and other categories.
It has been suggested that housing authorities may not respond to the needs of the homeless, or properly operate the new powers they are being given. I would point to the fact that housing authorities, even without these powers, provided accommodation for over 1,800 homeless persons in the past two years. I think the majority of Deputies would agree with me that housing authorities will act responsibly in using their new powers and will seriously address the problem of the homeless in their areas both directly and in co-operation with the voluntary housing organisations and the health boards.
A number of sections of the Bill relate to voluntary housing. Section 5 in particular will provide an updated basis for the development of the voluntary housing movement which can play an important role in meeting social housing needs. As in many other countries, voluntary housing was the first organised response in the nineteenth century to the appalling housing conditions of the poor. However, the scale of the housing problem facing this country in its early years was such that the State through the local housing authorities began to play a greater and greater role in meeting social housing needs. For many years the potential and, indeed, the need for an additional arm of social housing was lost sight of in the mistaken belief that the State could solve all housing problems. In recent years, however, a successful scheme to again encourage voluntary housing has been put in place. This scheme comes within the wide range of powers conferred by section 5 on local authorities to assist the provision and management of voluntary housing accommodation. Finance to enable local authorities to make fully subsidised loans for voluntary housing is already being provided by my Department. In March 1984 the scheme of assistance for voluntary house accommodation was extended to include accommodation provided for homeless persons. However, between March 1984 and the end of 1987 only six units of accommodation had been provided for the homeless. It was necessary to encourage greater take-up of this scheme by organisations working on behalf of the homeless and with this clear objective the scheme was modified so that accommodation for the homeless would attract in effect 95 per cent grants rather than the 80 per cent that is available for the other eligible categories of housing need. The technical standards and guidelines for accommodation under this scheme have also been revised to take account of the particular needs of homeless persons. The Minister for Finance announced in his Budget Statement that an additional £3 million over three years would be made available for the provision of accommodation for the homeless under the voluntary housing scheme — £1 million of this being provided in 1988. This brings to £4 million the capital available this year for assisting voluntary organisations in the provision of housing accommodation. This compares to expenditure of just £248,000 under this scheme in 1984. I am very pleased that there has been a great response to the special provision of £1 million for accommodation for the homeless in 1988 and already one project which will provide accommodation for over 50 homeless persons has been approved in principle.
The local authority housing programme in the mid-sixties still faced major problems of clearing unfit and overcrowded housing. Families in very bad housing conditions often had to remain for years on local authority housing lists before being offered accommodation. Recently, however, local authority housing has been available more or less on demand to families in bad housing conditions. In the seventies and indeed in the early eighties single persons, unless they were elderly, had little real prospect of local authority housing. Recently there has been a dramatic change; for example, two-thirds of lettings by Dublin Corporation last year were to one and two person households.
While the total number of approved applicants for local authority housing has fallen by one-third in recent years, this does not fully reflect the real decline in housing need. More than anything else this has shown itself in a situation where reasonable accommodation has to be offered to a number of applicants before it is accepted. A further consequence of the current supply position on local authority housing is the problem of vacant dwellings. While some vacant dwellings cannot be entirely avoided, particularly in the case of a larger local authority, an undue number of vacant dwellings is a waste of resources and presents a serious and expensive management problem for the local authorities. It is a problem that is not met by simply boarding up houses and this is an area where a more positive and creative approach by local authorities could yield many benefits.
Section 9 of the Bill provides a new procedure which is designed to ensure that the provision of local authority housing is in future better matched to the real needs of persons seeking such housing.
There is little doubt that the emergence of smaller households as the dominant element in social and, indeed, overall housing needs was not adequately reflected in the local authority house building programme either in type of housing unit provided or in choice of location. I believe Deputies will agree that a local authority housing programme of a much smaller scale than that of the early eighties is now necessary. This limited programme must be directed at the needs now dominating the waiting lists and not solely at family type houses. The housing needs of a one-person household are not best met by the provision of a three bedroomed house or flat. When almost 60 per cent of applicants for local authority housing consist of one and two person households then it is wrong that the local authority housing programme should be dominated by three and four bedroomed family type accommodation. All the evidence is that average household size will continue to fall and this point must be clearly understood and addressed by housing authorities in presenting proposals for new local authority housing.
Section 20 will oblige local authorities in providing accommodation to take into account the range of housing needs as revealed in their assessments under section 9 and, moreover, to maintain a reasonable balance as between the different categories of need. These measures were proposed in the 1985 Bill and I believe Deputies will acknowledge that they are, if anything, even more necessary now than when they were orginally proposed.
The new tenant purchase scheme for local authority dwellings is now in operation and is attracting a very high response. Under this scheme, the gross price of the house to the tenant is calculated in relation to market value and having regard to the structural condition of the house.
The continued operation of the requirement for pre-sale repairs contained in section 13 of the Housing (Miscelleneous Provisions) Act, 1979, would clearly be wrong where house prices are being assessed on market value. In addition, the procedure can be very costly to local authorities, can result in long delays in transferring houses and can cause a serious hold-up in sales. Section 23 of the Bill accordingly provides for the repeal of section 13 of the 1979 Act and also for necessary transitional arrangements to ensure that the section 13 arrangements will continue to apply to houses being sold to tenants under earlier schemes.
Section 12 provides for the scheme of remedial works to local authority housing estates. For many years the local housing programme was directed at the provision of new accommodation with little if any attention being given to the need to modernise and improve the existing rented stock. In recent years, however, the easing of the pressure of demand for new construction has allowed additional resources to be provided for improvements to the existing stock. In this way the State's investment in local authority housing can be protected and the loss of dwellings to the rented housing stock can be prevented. In 1988 the allocation for this scheme has again been increased and is now £10 million compared to expenditure of £7 million in 1987 and only £1.5 million in 1986.
There is a danger that the benefits which accrue from the injection of capital funds into the local authority housing stock though the remedial works scheme will be quickly wasted unless there is improved estate management by local authorities. In this regard the role which the tenants themselves can play is of vital importance and authorities must now make every effort to foster and develop tenant interest in the running of their estates. The consultation process under the remedial works scheme should prove to be an important headline in this regard. Many Deputies will already be aware of a renewed spirit and pride in local authority estates which are being upgraded under the scheme.
There are a number of sections in the Bill which relate to the provision of housing, halting sites and other services for the travelling community. Section 6 provides statutory authority for the recoupment by the Minister of the salaries and expenses incurred by local authorities and certain approved bodies in the employment of social workers in connection with the accommodation of travellers. Section 13 deals with the provision of caravan sites and facilities. Section 9 requires housing authorities to have regard to the needs of travellers in their annual assessment of housing needs.
Section 27 amends section 3 of the City and County Management (Amendment) Act, 1955, to enable a local authority manager to undertake works which he regards as urgent and necessary to provide a reasonable standard of accommodation for any person. This measure has been retained from the 1985 Bill and is in effect designed to help with the provision by local authorities of accommodation for travellers. The serious problem of the travellers requires some measure such as this.
Section 24 of the Bill deals with the power of the Minister to make grant assistance available towards the running expenses of a small number of advice and research organisations working in the housing area. For a number of years now my Department have provided annual grant assistance to the National Association of Building Co-operatives, the Housing Centre and Threshold. I am pleased to inform Deputies that a grant of £45,000 has recently been made available to Focus Point in 1988. This grant is, of course, quite separate from the grant of £50,000 to Focus Point towards the cost of a project for the accommodation of homeless persons which was announced by the Minister for Finance in his Budget Statement. It is, of course, also quite separate from any assistance that may be given to Focus Point for provision of additional accommodation for the homeless under the improved terms of the voluntary housing scheme.
Regarding private housing, while the main thrust of this Housing Bill is in the area of social housing and meeting social housing needs, there are a number of important measures related to the private housing sector. Section 14 provides a more up-to-date basis for subsidising the site costs incurred by certain persons of modest means in providing or acquiring housing for their own occupation, for example, through a housing co-operative, the Rural Resource Organisation, or joint venture housing. This section provides for grants to be paid rather than a loan charge subsidy. The current grant level is £1,000 per site.
It is a primary concern of housing policy to ensure an adequate supply of mortgage finance for house purchase. For many years this objective has involved the Government in providing substantial mortgage finance through local authorities for persons of modest means. However, the development of the housing finance system in recent years, particularly the emergence of the commercial banks as major providers of mortgage finance and the availability to the building societies of significant capital repayments from loans advanced in the seventies and earlier years, has meant that house purchase finance is now readily available from commercial lending agencies. This development presented the opportunity of transferring from public to private funding a significant proportion of demand for local authority house purchase loans.
Last year the banks and the building societies agreed to make £70 million available to provide mortgage finance to persons who would otherwise require loans from the local authorities. As Deputies are aware, local authority house purchase loans continue to be made available as heretofore to applicants who are unable to secure a loan from a bank or building society.
As part of the arrangements to encourage commercial lending agencies to provide this additional mortgage finance for lower income groups, a partial guarantee may be given by a housing authority to cover in the case of default payment of half of the amount by which the loan advanced exceeded 75 per cent of the value of the house. Section 16 of the Bill provides the statutory basis for this new loan guarantee scheme and provides for recoupment by the Minister of all or part of any expenditure incurred by a housing authority on foot of any guarantee given.
Although now terminated, significant expenditure continues to arise under both the mortgage subsidy and the £5,000 surrender grant schemes. The 1988 provision for the payment of mortgage subsidy is £23.3 million and the provision for the £5,000 grant scheme is £3.5 million. Significant expenditure under the latter scheme should not arise beyond this year; however, payment under the mortgage subsidy scheme will continue up to 1993. These schemes are being given statutory backing by sections 3 and 4 of the Bill.
Section 25 provides that a new house grant may be paid in cases where a previous owner-occupier is providing a new house following marital breakdown if the person is in need of housing and refusal to pay the grant would cause hardship. This will be an exception to the normal requirement that only a first time owner-occupier may be paid a new house grant. This provision was also included in the 1985 Bill. Section 4 of the 1979 Housing Act already provides for the payment of a new house grant to a previous owner-occupier providing a new house where the applicant's previous accommodation was destroyed by fire, explosion or Act of God and where refusal to pay the grant would cause great hardship.
The offence of "wandering abroad" is contained in the Vagrancy Act, 1824. A number of groups have sought the repeal of this offence. In addition, its repeal was recommended by the Law Reform Commission in their report on Vagrancy and Related Offences which was published in 1985. While the Minister for Justice is primarily responsible for the Vagrancy Acts, repeal of this offence is included in the Housing Bill as an element in the Government's overall response to the problem of homelessness.
Most of the remaining sections of the Bill are largely technical in their nature and do not involve significant policy considerations. Some of the more important of these are: section 7 validates certain payments made before the passing of this Bill; section 18 extends to all mortgages the simplified system for the discharge of fully paid mortgages which has heretofore applied only to building society mortgages; the provision in the 1985 Bill applied only to housing mortgages but under section 18 the simplified procedure will be available for the discharge of all mortgages and this is, therefore, a significant amendment to conveyancing law; 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 housing authority.
In my concluding remarks, I would like to make a few brief points regarding the overall thrust of housing policy and legislation as indicated in the Housing Bill, 1988. This Bill comes at the end of a period extending from the foundation of the State during which the main concern of housing policy was directed at providing new accommodation to meet a persistent and often chronic housing shortage. In this period much has been achieved. For example, over 40 per cent of the housing stock, or more than 400,000 new houses, have been built since 1971. However, as I have already indicated, as one problem in the housing area appears to have been addressed, new problems emerge to demand our attention, expertise and resources. Problems such as homelessness and other special housing needs appear to require more complex responses than merely setting a target for annual housing completions. Large scale local authority housing estates present difficult management problems for local authorities and, more importantly, offer little satisfaction to tenants. The 1988 tenant purchase scheme is, I believe, most important as it offers local authority tenants the real prospect of becoming owner-occupiers.
Deputies will be well aware of the good results that sales of houses to tenants can bring to the appearance, environment and, indeed, physical fabric of local authority housing estates. However, the sale of local authority houses to tenants cannot be the only response to the vandalism and anti-social behaviour which plague some local authority estates. What is also required is an enlightened approach by local authority housing managers to the management of their estates, particularly by involving and consulting tenants in the running of estates. Locally based maintenance and management appears to have a key role to play in this area. I will be encouraging the larger housing authorities in this direction, as the problem is clearly related to scale with the larger local authorities having the greater problems.
I look forward to the comments of Deputies on the Bill and full and careful consideration will be given to these before Committee Stage. We will also have an opportunity to tease out fully the details of the various sections in the course of Committee Stage.
I commend the Bill to the House.