Adjournment Debate. - Housing Advice Services.

Mr. Hayes

The Minister with responsibility is not in the House but I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Davern, will give Threshold good news. In the context of the current housing crisis it is essential that necessary housing advice and assistance be made available. A deal between a purchaser and a vendor takes place within quite a short timeframe. Equally when a tenant attempts to gain advice on his or her rights it is often immediately required.

The housing market is complex. People who do not know the rights and responsibilities of a tenant frequently have to make very important decisions within a matter of days. I think I speak on behalf of all Members when I say the work of Threshold in giving direct advice in the housing market provides an indispensable service. Threshold is the only free and independent housing advice agency in the State. In recent years, the volume of queries which have come directly into its offices have more than doubled. In 1992, 6,000 people sought advice and by 1997 this had risen to more than 15,000.

Putting it bluntly, Threshold can no longer cope with the volume of queries unless immediate action is taken by the Government to substantially increase the core funding provided by the Department of the Environment and Local Government on an annual basis. In 1992, £65,000 was provided by the Department which by 1997 had risen to just £80,000. When this is compared with the doubling of queries, the scale of the problem is easily identified.

The situation has deteriorated because of the huge public interest in the services provided by Threshold. One caller is turned away every 15 minutes. There was a 12 per cent increase in queries to Threshold advice centres last year. People with queries relating to all types of housing issues can no longer receive the service they require because of difficulties in funding. It now takes up to one week for a client of Threshold to be given an interview involving detailed case work and advice.

Threshold can no longer cope with the demand for its services. It employs five full-time advisers in its offices in Cork, Galway and Dublin. They provide specialist assistance to thousands of people looking for immediate guidance and advice. While a core element of funding for Threshold exists through the annual subvention from the Department of the Environment and Local Government, a tiny fraction of its annual budget consists of local authority contributions. The State must contribute a large amount of funding towards this essential service.

It is estimated that an additional £100,000 is required next year for Threshold to provide a daily service. All Members will be aware that consistent fundraising by such organisations can sap the energy of volunteers and full-time staff. Threshold provides an invaluable service and it is not beyond the bounds of financial flexibility for the Department of the Environment and Local Government to substantially increase its funding in 1999.

In preparing next year's departmental Estimates, the Minister should consider the need for a specific subhead for housing assistance and advice. Unless we establish a pool of funding for this aspect of housing policy, we will not make much progress as regards the thousands of people looking for advice on a daily basis.

My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Molloy, regrets that he is unable to be in the House to respond to this item and he has asked me to do so on his behalf.

The voluntary housing sector has a key role, in partnership with local authorities, in meeting social housing needs. This includes the direct provision of housing or, in Threshold's case, the provision of housing advisory and research services. As the House is well aware, the Department of the Environment and Local Government provides funding, through the local authorities, to voluntary housing bodies to provide rented housing for people in need. Between the capital assistance and rental subsidy schemes, capital funding of more than £47 million was provided this year for such projects. The Government is committed to a continued voluntary housing programme and will make appropriate financial provision in the forthcoming Estimates for 1999.

In addition to capital funding towards building projects, a small number of voluntary agencies who provide housing advice and assistance also receive funding from the Department in respect of their administrative and general expenses. Four hundred and twenty two thousand pounds was made available this year for these purposes and was allocated to bodies including Threshold, Focus Ireland, the Irish Council for Social Housing, the National Association of Building Cooperatives, Respond, Rural Resettlement Ireland, St. Pancras Ireland and the Simon Community. Threshold was the recipient of the largest allocation to any organisation from this source in 1998, some £80,000. Earlier this year, Threshold also sought financial assistance towards the organisation of a symposium on the challenges currently facing the private rented sector. I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, was glad to be able to help with the request and announced, in September last, assistance of £12,000 towards the cost of its symposium, in addition to the funding of £80,000 already allocated in 1998.

Threshold's application for increased funding towards its general and administrative expenses will be considered in the context of the 1999 Estimates generally and, of course, having regard to the requirements of other organisations providing services in this area.