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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 11 Nov 2003

Vol. 574 No. 1

Private Members' Business. - An Bille um an Seachtú Leasú is Fiche ar an mBunreacht (Uimh. 2) 2003: Dara Céim. Twenty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill 2003: Second Stage.

Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share my time with Deputies Ferris and Crowe.

This Bill seeks to enshrine the right to adequate and appropriate housing in the 1937 Constitution. The right to housing is central to Sinn Féin's commitment to building an Ireland of equals and has long been central to our housing policy.

The context of the introduction of this legislation, the Twenty-seventh Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill, is an unprecedented housing crisis, affecting virtually every family, as well as the failure of successive Governments and especially the current one to address that crisis. After six years of unbroken reign which came during the biggest economic boom this State has ever known, this Administration managed to increase the number of homeless and the social housing list to more than 48,000 applicants, representing in excess of 100,000 people.

The average price of a new house across the State increased from €125,000 in 1998 to more than €222,000, or by 177%, by the end of June last. The average price of a second-hand house across the State in the same period increased from €134,000 to more than €267,000, or by 199%. Official figures for 2002 showed 5,581 homeless in the Twenty-six Counties. Tenants' rights are unprotected, housing for the disabled is underfunded and those people are badly catered for, and Traveller accommodation programmes have not been implemented.

Sinn Féin believes that the absence of a constitutional right to housing has contributed to the severe housing crisis and resulted in a poor commitment from Government and officials to address the housing issue. A lack of adequate housing and homelessness are inextricably connected to increased levels of mental illness, marginalisation and disenfranchisement. Our amending Bill would force social policy to be centred on delivering this basic right as opposed to the current situation where the delivery of adequate housing is left to the whim of politicians and dependent on the economic climate and political priorities. A constitutional right to housing would oblige statutory bodies to provide adequate and appropriate housing for all the people of this State and would ensure that a basic standard of housing provision would be upheld. It would also ensure that the voiceless and most marginalised in society would not be penalised by their lack of political strength or representation.

The wording of the Sinn Féin amendment is in line with the language of other fundamental rights measures contained in the Constitution. The Bill states: "The State recognises the right of all persons to adequate and appropriate housing." We believe that adequate and appropriate housing, in accordance with various United Nations instruments, refers to accommodation and housing which is secure, affordable, access ible and culturally adequate. It also involves adequate privacy, space, security, lighting and ventilation, basic infrastructure and adequate facilities and services. The word "appropriate" takes account of the cultural requirements of differing sections of Irish society such as the right of Travellers to accommodation which is appropriate to their culture and tradition.

The State would be obliged to recognise the right to adequate and appropriate housing and respect this right. The Bill also states: "Where practicable, the enjoyment of this right should in the first place be ensured by the initiative and effort of each person." This qualification ensures that priority will be given to those social groups living in unfavourable conditions and ensures that legislation will not be designed to benefit already advantaged social groups at the expense of others. The needs of the most disadvantaged must come first.

The Bill further states: "Where persons or their dependants are unable sufficiently to exercise or enjoy the right to adequate and appropriate housing, the State, as guardian of the common good, guarantees, as far as possible, by its laws to defend and vindicate this right, in accordance with the principles of social justice." This ensures State intervention where a person, for whatever reason, is unable to access adequate and appropriate housing. The inclusion of the words "as far as possible" qualifies the obligations on the State in similar terms to the qualification in Article 40.3.1º and, therefore, does not, as may be suggested by the Government parties, leave the Oireachtas with no option but to discharge the cost, whatever it might be, as determined by the Judiciary.

It is important to emphasise that Sinn Féin has not asserted, and does not assert, as the Government will no doubt infer, that the insertion of a constitutional right to housing will on its own magically resolve the complex housing and homeless crisis. It represents a first step, which must be followed by legislation which will bring about the progressive realisation of this right. We foresee that a constitutional right to housing will bring about a fundamental change in how we as legislators address the housing crisis and the housing needs of the people of this State.

Following the enshrining in the Constitution of the right to housing, Sinn Féin envisages a review of all relevant legislation with a view to making the housing Acts compatible with the constitutional right to housing. A review of existing housing policy would also be required. Sinn Féin also envisages that a national housing strategy, with targets and priorities for the progressive realisation of this new right, would be developed at an early stage. Legislation would have to be brought forward to support the right to housing and to ensure access to adequate and appropriate housing. In the words of the Simon Community: "Legislation would have the dual effect of making the right to housing meaningful in the short-term, and overcoming the difficulties of the judiciary guiding the legislature on the protection of rights in the absence of clear policy." The realisation of the right to housing will be brought about through public investment, Government regulation of the economy and the land market and incorporation of the right to housing in the overall development objectives of the State.

The Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Noel Ahern, recently stated, "the Government's view is that it would be inappropriate to include a legal right to housing in the Constitution", yet he does not think it is inappropriate to ignore the housing crisis.

A survey carried out on behalf of the Simon Community found that 71% of those surveyed support the inclusion of a right to housing in the Constitution – that survey was carried out last year immediately prior to the general election. The majority of people in this State reject the Government's position. Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities of Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and numerous other organisations have made the case for the inclusion of a right to housing in the Constitution.

As will be outlined by my party colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, when he addresses the State's obligations on the right to housing, as contained in international instruments, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended that Ireland "incorporates justiciable economic, social and cultural rights into domestic law", but that has not happened.

Sinn Féin is confident that an overwhelming majority of the people of this State support the enshrinement of the right to housing in the 1937 Constitution. We hope the Government will accept the Bill and that a referendum on the issue will be brought before the people at the earliest opportunity.

Homelessness has almost trebled since the introduction of the Housing Act 1988. Across the State 48,000 applicants are on the housing waiting list, which translates into more than 100,000 people waiting for housing. The average cost of a house in Dublin is now more than €300,000. Across the State as a whole the price of a new house is almost €250,000. Homelessness has increased in our cities while rents and evictions in the private sector have quadrupled. The last decade has seen a crisis across all parts of the housing sector.

Numbers, statistics and figures give us an overview of the housing problem but they cannot give us the full picture. Numbers do not tell us what it is like to sleep in a doorway in the middle of winter. Statistics cannot explain the stress a mother feels trying to raise her children in bed and breakfast accommodation. They do not tell us how she is supposed to boil a hot bottle for an infant or what she does during the day when she is forced to leave such accommodation.

Figures cannot tell us the frustration a young couple feel when starting out in life with a mountain to climb, if they are ever to own their own home. For tens of thousands of young people the prospect of owning their own home is now but a pipe-dream. The pursuit of an affordable house and a better quality of life has forced many to travel great distances to and from work every day leaving them with less and less time to be with their families. For others, the option of having a child has had to be put on hold as the need to repay exorbitant mortgages puts a terrible financial burden on an increasing number of couples.

The Government believes that there are 4,060 people homeless in the Dublin area. Homeless groups such as Simon believe that this number is a significant underestimate of the real homeless problem in the city. The Minister, Deputy Cullen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, are so out of touch that they are reacting to a crisis while in denial of the full extent of the problem.

The housing crisis is caused in the main by uncontrolled vested interests in the private house building sector; underfunding of local authority house building programmes by central Government; and the failure to plan for the long-term housing needs of a growing population. Until these elements are tackled we will slide from crisis to crisis but, instead of tackling them, the Government has made the situation worse since coming to power. Despite three expert consultants' reports and a commission on the private rented sector, there is still a housing crisis. This Government has presided over an economy that brought huge wealth into the coffers of the State but failed miserably to provide housing for its citizens.

One of the first decisions of the Minister for Finance was to eliminate the first-time buyer's grant. He saved an estimated €40 million and, in the process, extinguished the hopes of thousands of young couples. Rising house prices have made the option of owning a home unaffordable for most couples on the average income. To buy a house in the Dublin area, two incomes and, increasingly, generous parents are needed. Dublin house prices have increased by 15% in the last year alone, an extra €35,000 on the price of an average house.

The Minister could have saved €60 million by removing mortgage tax relief for investors in second properties but that would have meant tackling the investment lobby. He could have saved millions by removing the seaside resort scheme which has added to house price inflation in rural areas. As a result of this scheme, the price of housing has shot up and more and more people are denied the opportunity to own a house in the area in which they were born, but its abolition would have meant tackling the investment and speculator lobbies.

We were told by the Progressive Democrats that the free market would solve all our problems, even those in housing. It has not and it will not. The market serves only the interests of the developers and their friends in the construction industry, the land grabbers and the housing speculators, the people appearing at the tribunals, the same people who bankrolled the establishment parties. Many would say it is money well spent judging by the substantial returns on their investments. In every decade of the last century there was a housing shortage which successive Administrations failed to resolve. A basic requirement of any civilised, developed society – a roof over the heads of its citizens – has not been provided. Is this not another example of the failure of market-led politics in this State?

I support the legislation brought before the House tonight by Sinn Féin. It is a reaffirmation of our belief that social and economic rights are every bit as important as civil rights. I urge other parties and representatives in this House to support this proposal and show their support for a rights-based approach to resolving the ongoing housing crisis.

Following the contributions of Deputies Morgan and Crowe in support of this Bill, I would like to make a number of points on why Sinn Féin believes that social and economic rights and, in particular, the right to housing must be enshrined in the Constitution.

Sinn Féin believes that in an equal society, social and economic rights are as important as political and civil rights. One cannot advocate civil and political rights and oppose social and economic because of the interdependence of both these sets of rights. As stated by the United Nations, "The indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights find clear expression through the right to housing." An absence of a right to housing can and does curtail the ability of many of our citizens to enjoy the civil and political rights which are already contained in the Constitution. An example of this is the inability of homeless people to vote. It is also worth noting that the World Health Organisation has asserted that housing is the single most important environmental factor associated with disease conditions and higher mortality rates.

The exclusion of socio-economic rights leads to increased inequality, marginalisation and poverty. This exclusion is in contradiction to Article 40.3.1º of the Constitution, which states, "The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practical, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of every citizen."

The need to guarantee the right to housing is obvious to anyone who looks at the current situation in this State. There are 48,000 people in need of homes. The homeless we meet in the doorways and at ATM machines are only the most stark examples of the failure to provide people with accommodation. There are thousands more living in sub-standard, over-priced accommodation to which they have no real right beyond the fact that they continue to pay out a disproportionate amount of their income in rent. Of course there are people who will argue this is something that is the responsibility of individuals themselves. This Bill recognises that as far as practicable, this ought to be the case, but we also realise that this is not always possible. It does not always have to do with whether someone lacks initiative, is too lazy or otherwise incapable of doing so. We all know many people who work long hours, scrimp and save but who simply find it impossible to secure adequate accommodation. This Bill would require the State to take proactive measures to ensure that everyone has a place to live.

What would this mean in practice? Some, no doubt, will try to argue that it is a recipe for the abolition of all private property in housing. It is not. It is a means to place the onus on the State to ensure there are enough housing units at affordable prices to cater for all those who require accommodation. That does not mean there will be no private housing but it would entail the State intervening to control rents and the price of building land and houses.

We all know the enormous increase in the cost of land, housing and rent in recent years, particularly since 1998. Again, people will argue that these prices are set by market demand. This is not borne out by any analysis of the way in which rents and house prices have risen well beyond the level of increase for other commodities. People are mostly aware of how this has affected Dublin and surrounding counties but even in my own county of Kerry, house prices have increased dramatically over the past decade. New house prices doubled between 1997 and 2002, while second-hand homes increased by even more.

The curious thing is that while over 1,400 households in Kerry were in need of housing at the end of the third quarter last year according to the local authority housing lists, only 1,261 houses were built in the same period. Supply is not keeping pace with demand even though there are currently 1,000 acres of zoned, serviced land available that would be sufficient to build almost 11,000 houses. If the market was genuinely responding to demand, and certainly the incentives exist to sell the land and build the houses, would this demand not have been met? Or is it the case that there are people who are content to sit on the land and deliberately control its supply to the housing market to ensure that prices continue to rise?

Kerry is not the only county where this is the case. In Dublin city, where demand is massive and where mortgages and rents have reached ridiculous levels, there were over 3,000 acres of zoned residential land in June 2002 which, by my calculations, would be enough to build over 60,000 houses. There is obviously something amiss.

The other interesting statistic from County Kerry is that of the 1,261 completions, only 104 were built by the local authorities. More than 1,200 remain on the local authority housing lists as a result. If the local authorities were to play a more active role in house building, by intervening in the land market and purchasing the zoned land at a reasonable rate, then they would be more than capable of meeting the demand from their own housing lists. It would also stimulate private developers to build more as they would have to compete with the local authorities. The importance of young people in our developing society cannot be understated. However, in many rural areas when they buy a site they pay more than the actual cost of a house. Young couples starting off on their lives together expect to spend the next 20 years paying off a mortgage for a site and a house.

I ask Members to support this Bill to enshrine in the Constitution the rights of our people to the housing programme they deserve and to which they are entitled.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Finian McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I support this Bill. However, I note it is a little on the simple side. All Members support the right to housing, but that right must be backed up with adequate resources to allow it to happen.

It is an understatement to say that housing is more than just bricks and mortar to vulnerable people. There has been a discussion in the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution on the right to shelter. However, that is not enough. In Africa, there is a right to shelter, but Ireland as a modern society needs the right to housing. This proposed amendment to the Constitution will provide a focus and a framework on which to build.

There is no point in amending the Constitution unless it is acted upon. The Government has signed up to a number of international conventions and covenants on housing. These, in turn, should be adopted in our Constitution, just as the right to housing assistance is incorporated in the draft EU Constitution.

We are good at signing up to international conventions. We have signed up to 20 conventions and agreements on this matter, from the EU to the UN. It is one thing to sign up, but charity begins at home. The Government must be consistent in this regard. If it signs up to international agreements, it should act on them at home and practise what it preaches. Let us incorporate in our Constitution the good things we wish for others. Many European states have the right to housing incorporated in their constitutions, backed up by legislation. We have enabling legislation which allows the local authorities to assist people to become homeowners. However, we need to move away from this hypocrisy of enabling legislation to rights-based legislation.

There is a human need for proper housing. By ensuring proper legislation and resources to implement it, we will make some progress. I welcome the fact that contrary to rumour the ESRI report does not recommend cuts in the social housing budget. I do not know where the rumour emerged, but it may be a leaked report by Government. The ESRI report called for the social housing budget to be left as it was. However, I argue that it should be increased. The waiting lists have increased by 25% in the last four years. Leaving things as they are will certainly not do the business. How can we make progress if we leave things as they are? If we provide the same amount of money as four years ago, we will not meet the current housing needs.

We have the smallest social housing stock in Europe and we need 150,000 more social housing units. Up to 80% of people on housing lists have an income of less than €15,000. With €225,000 now the average price of a house, this means the cost is 15 times the size of most low incomes. How can they afford houses on their own?

We need a defined revenue funding scheme to ensure that people, the elderly in particular, on social housing can stay living locally. This will give housing associations the courage to proceed and build housing units. Otherwise, we will never realise the full potential of supported housing. We need more co-ordination between social housing and health policies.

We will soon be holding the EU Presidency. The right to housing is incorporated in the constitutions of many EU member states such as France and Finland. In many of the accession states, the housing conditions are atrocious. Ireland, with a modern economy due to the Celtic tiger, should set a good example to these states on this issue. We must show leadership.

There is an unbalanced housing sector where many houses are built, but not for the people who need them most. If one considers that one third of all houses built are bought by investors, are we doing the right job? The balance must be reset in favour of those who need housing. If we incorporate the right to housing in the Constitution, this will make a difference.

Housing is a fundamental and important issue to the infrastructure of local areas. It is more than bricks and mortar. It is about people, giving them a place to stay in their communities and enabling further services to be provided. I support this Bill.

I commend Deputy Morgan and Sinn Féin for introducing this Bill to the House.

I welcome this progressive legislation to amend Article 40 of the Constitution to provide for the recognition, defence and vindication of the right to housing. We must face the reality that we are now in the middle of a housing crisis. It is not good enough to say we cannot do anything. That is the Progressive Democrats, free market, "our-hands-are-tied" syndrome. It is not good enough. The people are crying out for houses and are sick to the teeth of being ripped off. This debate is about doing something practical for working people.

We now have some 50,000 households on social housing waiting lists, which translates into some 130,000 people. These people can never afford to buy a home of their own. There are homes where 300,000 children are living in poverty, with 70,000 classed as living in extreme poverty. After nine years of economic boom, this is unacceptable. It clearly shows where the Government's priorities lie. We must remind those with a decent job and a nice home that 85% of those on housing lists have incomes of less than €15,000 a year. Imagine in 2003 asking a person to survive on less than €15,000 a year. Not only is this scandalous, it is criminal and a shame on those responsible.

This is the real world for sections of society. Of the 70,000 children in extreme poverty, there are between 1,800 and 3,000 who are severely at risk, living in violent and dysfunctional families. This is relevant to the current crime debate and gangland killings as these are the violent gang members of the future. When will the Cabinet, particularly the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, wake up to this nightmare for many children and families? If one does not have a home that is warm and safe, one will not have a happy child. An unhappy child suffering inequality and violence in turn becomes violent and this leads to crime and imprisonment. The housing crisis is linked to the crime debate. A Government that ignores this is not dealing with crime. Good housing equals happy families equals less crime. Among those families living in extreme poverty, some 42% of women experience serious sexual and physical abuse.

I strongly support Sinn Féin's 27th Amendment to the Constitution Bill, granting the right to housing. Section 1 of the Bill proposes to amend Article 40 of the Constitution by inserting a new section 7. This State, in the past, during poorer times, built more homes with an opportunity for those who wanted them. Now most young couples are not even at the races when it comes to buying a home of their own, while other sections of society can own two or three houses. This is where we must stand up against the speculators and landbank owners who are playing a dangerous game with people's lives.

We also must not forget elderly people. It is the desire and right of older persons to continue to live in their own homes, maintaining an independent lifestyle for as long as possible. To this end proper provision must be made for a comprehensive home care package including: special care allowances; extended home help cover, especially twilight cover; and the allocation of adequate resources to cover home adaptation and repairs for older people's houses.

I also have a number of proposals on housing. The cutback in capital spending on the provision of local authority housing should be reversed. Budget 2004 should include an announcement for an inclusive structural review to determine targets for reductions in local authority waiting lists and waiting times. There needs to be funding to ensure the effective implementation upon enactment of the Residential Tenancies Bill and budget 2004 should contain an allocation of €3 million for this. We should also fund a pilot scheme for single homeless access to housing in the private rented sector. In budget 2004, the Minister of State should fund an investigation into the establishment of a housing authority that includes representatives of the community and voluntary sector on its steering committee. Budget 2004 should provide an additional €500,000 earmarked to facilitate access to private rented accommodation in Dublin for eligible single homeless persons.

I urge all Deputies to support this amendment, which sets out do something radical, creative and practical for people on housing lists. Now is the time for the Minister of State to put his money where his mouth is and support the Twentyseventh Amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) Bill 2003.

I wish to share time with Deputy Boyle.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The Green Party supports the amendment to the Constitution before the House today. It is high time that recognition was given to a right to housing within the Constitution. While much can be done without having this article in the Constitution, it is worth inserting it to enshrine the right to housing so there can be no excuses the next time the Government is asked why it is not providing proper housing or dealing with the issue of waiting lists.

Since the Government was formed 18 months ago, we have received a series of excuses for not reaching our targets and achieving the kind of success that was boldly advertised in the Government parties' manifestos. We were promised various initiatives to provide vast amounts of new housing. These promises have proved long on rhetoric but short on substance.

We should look at underused State-owned land, such as Army barracks and land owned by other State institutions to ensure it is turned around and made available to housing in the short-term rather than being put on the long finger. Why are vast tracts of land still lying idle in Dublin's docklands? Why is Clancy Barracks, along with many other Army barracks, still lying completely unoccupied? Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines is on 70 acres of prime land and is significantly underused. Clancy Barracks is on another 20 or 30 acres of land. We should use this land to provide decent housing. It can be a mixture of public and private initiatives. We do not believe that either the private sector or local authorities have everything to give in this regard. We want to see a mixture of housing provided and we feel the entire spectrum of housing agencies can help in doing that.

We want to give greater attention to the voluntary and the co-operative sectors, which are much talked about but have not in practice received the kind of support they deserve from central government. We are witnessing a continual sell-off of land by local authorities. In my county of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, a huge site in the heart of Stillorgan is being sold off because the Government is not allocating funding to local authorities to provide the housing they should provide in order to reduce housing waiting lists. Local authorities are strapped for cash and central government sits there with its arms folded saying: "Go out there and build houses." It is not good enough to say this and claim local authorities have the resources to do it, when they find their services are being cut back and they find it difficult to provide capital funding for housing.

To which site is the Deputy referring?

I am referring to a specific site in the heart of Stillorgan. Rather than dwelling on specific sites that should be developed in the short-term, I want to stress that the Green Party supports the proposal to change the Constitution. This will help to ensure the Government is not let off the hook as it has been in the past when the Taoiseach pleaded problems with the Constitution in providing a right to housing. We look forward to this article taking its true place in the Constitution.

Bunreacht na hÉireann has by and large served this country well. However, the sign of any healthy democracy is an ability of both its elected representatives and its citizenry to engage critically with its basic law and foundation document. While Bunreacht na hÉireann is a valuable source of all our laws, it should be open to adaptation and change.

Unlike other constitutions in other democracies, it has very few stated rights for individuals. Many of the rights that come from the Constitution are implied rights. The right to bodily integrity came out of the Ryan case in the 1960s. The Green Party strongly believes the Constitution should include a series of listed rights, including the right of the citizen to be more informed and to be of a higher status in his or her own country. The right to housing is such a right. The right of shelter is basic in any decent society. I use that term because it is used regularly in our political debate. Any decent society should have this as a basic tenet of its political life.

This change is worthy of debate on Second Stage. Whether the wording is sufficiently precise is a matter for further debate and consideration on Committee Stage. The Green Party strongly supports the principle of having a listed right in Bunreacht na hÉireann that would afford to Irish people the right to housing and it has promoted such a principle in the past. Any constitutional right must be strong and provable. We must avoid having rights for the sake of aspiration. In the past we have had difficulties with aspirational provisions in the Constitution that had to be changed. A right to housing and shelter should be backed up with the appropriate resources and legislation.

We have Housing Acts that oblige local authorities to provide housing for people who are unable to house themselves. This is already a legislative basis for many people to gain housing. However, it is not an absolute right. People find themselves on a housing list for up to ten years depending on the category to which they belong. It is nearly impossible for a single man to receive any type of accommodation from local authorities.

The difficulty in framing proper legislation on housing is that we are caught up in a developer-led housing policy, in which the house is a three or four-bedroom semi-detached unit. We need to aim to having a housing policy based on housing systems rather than the conventional house. People looking for a first house do not need three bedrooms. Single persons and young couples need the bare minimum, they move to bigger housing as they progress through life and to smaller housing in later life. We do not adopt a housing systems approach to our housing policy and any constitutional reference must take into account the right to accommodation appropriate not only to needs but—

Your time has concluded.

The Green Party strongly supports the need to include a specific provision on housing in the Constitution. It will not be good enough for the Minister to respond by listing all the houses being built. They are not being provided for the people who need them and that is what we need to debate.

Housing is one of the most basic social needs. It is central to establishing a sense of personal identity and security. Without good housing arrangements, the stability and viability of society itself are threatened. Housing is not something abstract. It is about matching good quality and suitable accommodation to where people have to work and raise their families and interact with their friends and relations. It is about looking after the special shelter needs of the old, the disabled and socially disadvantaged groups such as Travellers and homeless persons. It is about providing new building land so that an expanding Irish population can supply itself with more houses; and about public and private sector organisations combining so this can be arranged with speed and efficiency.

Ireland's housing performance is responding well to many of these requirements. We are now building some 15 houses per 1,000 people annually, by far the highest rate of output in the European Union, and over four times that of the UK.

It should be crowded.

The Deputy for Kildare North, Deputy Durkan, should know what I am speaking about. We are pressing ahead with the largest area regeneration programme in the European Union, at Ballymun. Our housing stock is relatively new and of high quality, with some 290,000 new units having been built in the last six years. We are modernising the private rented sector through comprehensive new legislation now before this House. We are expanding the range of social and voluntary housing measures and developing more focused responses to special housing needs.

In the real world then, the Government, local authorities, specialised public and voluntary agencies, and a capable building industry are all providing practical solutions to housing needs. However, the present Bill places gestures and rhetoric above practical action and achievement.

That is all we are getting from the Minister of State.

The Deputy is entitled to make his case. The Minister of State is entitled to make his without interruption.

It prefers that we would bring the culture of litigation into housing policy rather than extending housing output and services. That is what Sinn Féin is fundamentally about. What would the provision of a statutory right to housing achieve? It would be a step backwards. It would threaten our ability to prioritise housing policies and measures in favour of those most in the need. That is what we want to do. This is because an approach based on the assertion of personal legal rights could allow less needy persons to litigate their way to the front in the order of priorities. That is fundamentally what Sinn Féin is pushing and the Deputy knows the dangers of starting these sort of things. We are trying to look after the needy, not necessarily those with the best barrister. That is fundamentally what Sinn Féin is trying to do.

That is the biggest laugh of all time. The Government is doing nothing for the needy. It is looking after the most powerful in society.

For the same reason, this Bill would place greater pressure on housing services. Its wider effects on the housing market would be incalculable. Is Sinn Féin's attachment to legal principles worth the risk of derailing a housing strategy which is clearly demonstrated to be having an effect? The Government does not think so and will accordingly be opposing this Bill vigorously.

The Government's strategy on housing has one overarching aim, namely, to enable every household to have available to it an affordable dwelling of good quality, suited to its needs, in a good environment and, as far as possible, at the tenure of its choice.

The general strategy for realising the overall policy aim is that those who can afford to do so should provide housing for themselves—

—with the aid of available fiscal incentives, and that those unable to do so from their own resources would have access to social housing or income support to rent private housing.


That is what we are doing now.

The Minister of State must be allowed to speak without interruption. This is a national parliament and every Member is entitled to put his or her contribution on the record of the House, without interruption. If the interruptions continue the Chair will have to take action to ensure that a Member of the House is allowed to make his or her contribution.

The Government believes that conferring a right to housing on citizens would not of itself afford any greater access for them to the housing services necessary to meet their needs. I believe what Sinn Féin is doing is theoretical and is just academic play acting. The legislation governing social housing in Ireland comprises the Housing Acts, 1996 to 2002. While the legislation does not confer any statutory right to housing, the range and extent of measures implemented under these Acts demonstrate the State's long-standing commitment to ensuring that housing needs, especially social housing needs, are adequately addressed. The Housing Acts provide a statutory framework for measures relating to assessing overall housing requirements and social housing needs, including the needs of homeless persons and Travellers; the provision of social housing for letting, including both local authority and voluntary housing; and assisting people to gain access to owner-occupied housing.

The Government's view is that it would be inappropriate to include a legal right to housing in the Constitution on the basis that the funding commitment to the various housing programmes is leading to increased outputs and that decisions regarding the allocation of financial resources are a matter for the democratically accountable Government and not the courts.

This is in line with the 1996 report of the constitutional review group which concluded that the Constitution should not confer personal rights to freedom from poverty or to other economic or social entitlements. The group regarded these as being essentially political matters which should be the responsibility of the elected members to address and determine in a democracy. The review group pointed out that solving economic and social problems is an integral part of any political system, and that the degree to which a solution can be found must depend on the resources which the community is in a position to make available at any given time. The final responsibility on the overall redistribution of the State's resources for the common good rests with the Executive as it works through the political system.

The review group considered that it would be a distortion of democracy to transfer decisions on major issues of policy and practicality from the Government and the Oireachtas to an unelected Judiciary. It would not accord with democratic principles to confer absolute personal rights in the Constitution regarding economic and social objectives and to leave the Legislature with no option but to discharge the cost, whatever it might be, as determined by the Judiciary. The concept of the separation of powers is at the centre of the Irish constitutional order. Under our Constitution all political power derives from the people of Ireland with this general power divided into the three major arms of government – the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. These powers are separate and distinct. We, the elected Legislature, along with the Executive, are jointly responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy and for the expenditure of public moneys.

That is the problem. The Government is not implementing policy.

I would ask the Deputy to come to order.

We are accountable for our actions. Does Sinn Féin in bringing forward this Bill want to remove the decision-making process from the Members of this House and the Government and give it to a non-elected Judiciary that has no mandate, democratic, constitutional or otherwise, to legislate? That is our job. That is what we are doing and we should all be supportive of that and not try to give it away. The Judiciary is not, and in a democracy should not be, politically responsible for its decisions.

The National Economic and Social Council examined the broad issue of social and economic rights in its November 2002 report. It emphasised the complex philosophical, political, legal and practical issues involved in the identification, creation, legislation and vindication of rights, especially social and economic rights. These included, among others, the basis on which socio-economic rights are defended; the task of identifying what duties arise from the existence of socio-economic rights; the need to distinguish between moral rights and legal rights; and the fact that the assertion of rights cannot provide an escape from scarcity, trade-offs, balances and compromises, including conflicts between rights themselves. The council saw the challenge of social and economic rights as involving the task of creating effective institutions and policies for social and economic services, implying that we focus on the connection between rights and standards. Accordingly, in the new national agreement, Sustaining Progress, particular emphasis is placed on ensuring that standards of public services are identified, monitored and achieved. This requires further substantive improvements in the delivery of quality public services, including housing, and also requires a renewed focus on setting and achieving standards for the delivery of such services and monitoring progress.

When will that happen?

It is in the new agreement with the social partners.

It is not being delivered.

Housing remains at the top of the Government's agenda. We have taken a wide range of measures over the course of our two terms in office to reduce house price inflation, increase housing output to match demand, remove infrastructural and planning constraints on residential development, afford greater access to the housing market to first-time buyers, and improve affordability for first-time buyers and lower income households. We have a proud record of achievement in delivering housing across the broad spectrum of housing needs.

If the Minister of State is proud of that, he is a sad person.

Since 1997, our efforts have brought a substantial rise in output, with a consequent moderation in the increase in house prices. Last year, 2002, was the eighth consecutive year of record housing output with completions of 57,695. This will be another record year. It is only when one looks at that table and the building of houses in recent years—

We realise how much the Minister of State is codding himself.

A mere ten years ago—

The Minister of State should look under the table as well.

Just ten years ago in 1993, some 21,000 houses were built. Last year the total was 57,000.

It was woeful in 1993 and it is still woeful.

Deputy Durkan will have an opportunity to contribute.

That is a quite extraordinary increase. In ten years, house building increased from 21,000 to 57,000. This year looks like being the ninth year in a row of record production.

The ninth year of record inaction.

Supply is the basis of Government policy. Deputy Durkan should listen to the facts.

They are not facts.

If the Deputy looks around where he lives in north Kildare, he would see a great number of new houses.

The Minister of State should address his remarks through the Chair.

The Minister of State is hallucinating.

If the Minister of State addressed his remarks through the Chair, he might not invite interruptions.

I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle. The context in which housing policy operates has changed dramatically in the recent past. The unprecedented demand for housing brought about by a number of economic and demographic changes such as rising disposable incomes, historically low interest rates and changing household formation patterns, has placed pressure on housing supply and house prices.

Rising disposable incomes.

This demand has remained strong, notwithstanding the recent slowing of economic growth and it seems likely that the demographic changes underpinning this demand are set to continue. Recently published CSO data on the 2002 census of population points to a decline in the size of families. Coupled with population growth and inward migration we now have the highest population since the census of 1871. This decline in household size is increasing the demand for housing.

The national development plan estimated the total demand for housing required an additional 500,000 houses to be built in the ten years to 2010. We are well on target to achieve that. Population forecasts underpinning the national spatial strategy generally confirm this position. The Government is firmly committed to the continuation of the measures which we initiated in our previous term to increase the supply of housing. These measures have included increasing investment in the provision of serviced land for housing and more effective use of that land through improved planning guidelines on residential densities. We are also examining issues around the cost of land required for development and affordable housing in particular. The Taoiseach has asked the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to assess the possibility of placing a cap on the value of development land, having regard to the constitutional and practical issues involved.

It is a stalling tactic.

The Government will consider any recommendations made by this committee, including any recommendations for change to the Constitution. In addition, my Department is looking at identifying other necessary measures aimed at moderating land costs for housing and other essential public infrastructure.

Did the Minister of State never hear of the Kenny report?

Our success in increasing supply is reflected in the eighth consecutive year of record house completions achieved last year. Even with housing output at record levels and unique in European terms in regard to population – we are still faced with difficulties in meeting the ever-growing demand for housing. I referred earlier to the European index of 15 new houses last year per 1,000 of population. We are not just ahead of other countries, we are miles ahead of them. The comparable UK figure is three new houses. Our rate is more than four times that level. Sweden, which we regard as a modern, developed country builds one new house per 1,000 of population.

If the Minister of State keeps saying it he might believe it.

I think that the Portuguese rate is nine. We are not just ahead of what is happening elsewhere, we are streets ahead.

The housing list is growing.

Deputy Morgan, please allow the Minister of State to speak.

The overall objective of the Government is to ensure that output responds to the projected housing demand. The affordability of the housing we provide must improve in line with increasing supply and our policy is focused on this objective. I am acutely aware of the need to get as many people as possible onto the first rung of the housing ladder which is why I placed great emphasis on the delivery of affordable housing. Activity under the affordable and shared ownership schemes has played an increasing role in assisting low income households to purchase their own homes. The affordable housing scheme, launched in 1999, accounted for the needs of just under 900 households in 2002. That scheme is operated by local authorities.

It does not work.

Some local authorities are good at it and others are poor. It would be a positive step if those Members who have friends or party members in local authorities would try to push this scheme more strongly. I anticipate that this year in the region of 1,000 houses will be sold under the scheme. The shared ownership scheme is also doing well and between them I expect we will reach the target of 2,000 units under the national development plan.

They never reached that target.

They are doing so. They were in or about that level last year.

It was only a cop-out.

The provisions under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, will also assist in the delivery of social and affordable housing. The changes made to the 2000 Act, which provide for greater flexibility in concluding agreements between planning authorities and developers, will ensure a more efficient operation of the legislation. I understand many authorities are actively engaged with developers in Part V pre-planning discussions and negotiations. In future there will be a significant dividend from that.

How many houses are there so far?

It is zilch.

It is not enormous because, as we all know, any new housing measure takes time to get up and running.

A couple of hundred years.

It will become a major source of social housing in future.

Not a chance.

It will. The first sign of that has come this year. I presume that Opposition Members through their local councils will see to it that it is encouraged and administered at local level.

Deputy Durkan should allow the Minister of State to reply.

I am trying to be good.

Try to be good.

The important contribution that affordable housing provision—

After six years of no action.

—has to make in helping younger and lower income households in providing their own home has been recognised in the new national partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress. The new affordable housing initiative being developed is aimed at further enhancing the supply of affordable housing. I welcome this initiative as another means of bringing more affordable houses on stream.

It is an illusion.

In responding to the proposal, the Government is committed to an ambitious scale of delivery and has brought forward some State land to kick-start the process. Progress will be made in that regard in the future.

The Government is only offering a tiny portion. It is selling off all the other State land.

Meeting increased housing demands in a balanced and efficient fashion requires not only an increased private housing supply but providing for tenure choice. For that reason, the Government is committed to developing and modernising the private rented sector so that the range of effective choices can be expanded. As such, the Residential Tenancies Bill 2003, which I anticipate will be enacted towards the end of the year, provides for the legislative reforms of the private rented sector recommended by the Commission on the Private Rented Residential Sector and accepted by the Government. It introduces a significant measure of security of tenure for tenants and specifies minimum obligations applying to landlords and tenants. It also provides for the establishment of a private residential tenancies board to resolve disputes arising in the sector, to operate a system of tenancy registration and to provide information and policy advice. Furthermore, the Bill restricts rents to market level and contains provisions relating to procedures for the termination of tenancies, including gradated notice periods linked to the duration of a tenancy.

The Private Residential Tenancies Board will be established when the relevant provisions of the Residential Tenancies Bill come into operation. The Government recognises that the private rented sector has an important role to play in meeting housing needs.

The Government has an important role to play.

This Bill demonstrates the Government's commitment to the provision of a new residential landlord and tenant regime. It will develop and upgrade the private rented sector.

The Government can also claim credit for bringing about real and positive changes in the provision of social and affordable housing.

It can claim credit for bringing about a great disaster in social housing.

We have responded actively to the increased level of housing need by expanding social and affordable housing output significantly. Last year saw the delivery of the highest level of output for over 15 years under the range of social and affordable housing measures. The social and affordable housing needs of in excess of 12,700 households were met. In overall terms, the total capital funding for housing in 2003 – Exchequer and non-Exchequer – is over €1.7 billion, which is up almost 7% on the amount provided last year.

Where did the money go? It went to speculators.

May I continue?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:


I envisage this money will provide for the social and affordable housing needs of close to 13,000 households this year. This is in addition to the substantial increases that were provided over the past couple of years. The equivalent capital provision just six years ago was €440 million. To increase from that to €1.7 billion is a enormous achievement. In effect, we are consolidating the very significant progress made in recent years and maintaining a very high level of commitment to social and affordable housing.

Where is the commitment to—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

Order, please. The Minister of State should be allowed to make his contribution without interruption.

He should state some facts.

A key concern of mine as Minister of State has been to meet the special needs of particular categories of households, including those of the elderly and the disabled. This concern is reflected in the funding that has been made available for the task force on special housing aid for the elderly, the disabled person's grant scheme, the essential repairs grant scheme and the scheme of improvement works in lieu of local authority housing.

That is a load of rubbish.

The disabled person's grants are down as well.

Disabled people are waiting on various lists.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

The Deputy will have an opportunity to reply later.

The total number of grants paid by local authorities under the disabled person's grant scheme and the essential repairs grant scheme in 2002 was over 9,200 with a value of €84 million. By comparison, in 2001 just over 6,300 grants were paid under both schemes. That is an increase in one year of 2,900.

That shows the appalling conditions people are living in.

There is a woeful void.

The improvements the Government has made to the terms and conditions of both schemes since taking office have led to a significant increase in activity. Less than 3,000 grants were paid in 1996 at a value of under €13 million.

How many were paid in 1993?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

Please allow the Minister of State to continue.

In seven years the figure has been increased from €13 million to €84 million. The number of grants paid per year has increased from 3,000 to over 9,000. That is a very significant development.

It is not.

It accounts only for construction inflation.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

Order, please. Allow the Minister of State to make his statement.

It accounts for construction inflation.

I gave the Deputy numbers, not just amounts of money. Will the Deputy please listen?

I am listening, and the more I listen, the more worried I become.

I said that 3,000—

The more I listen, the more depressed I get.

The Deputy does not listen, that is his problem.

Obviously, the Minister of State does not hear.

The Minister of State does not have to listen to what we do.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

Remarks should be addressed to the Chair. Order please.

The issue of homelessness also remains a priority for the Government. The need to improve data on homelessness is recognised. According to the assessment of homelessness undertaken by local authorities last year, the number of homeless households was just over 3,700. This was a slight increase over the 1999 figure which was also just over 3,700. As we are all aware, not all of these households are on the streets. Most are in hostel or bed and breakfast accommodation and some live in long-term supported housing.

That is if they can obtain bed and breakfast accommodation.

Different standards are operated by different local authorities. Some local authorities insist that one stays in bed and breakfast accommodation while others require registration and do not necessarily insist that one is in services.

Surely the Minister of State accepts that one is homeless if one is dependent on such services.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

Order, please.

While this situation clearly challenges all public authorities concerned to intensify their efforts, there is evidence of good progress in tackling the underlying causes of homelessness and making preventative strategies more effective. In an effort to improve the data available on homelessness, the Homeless Agency in Dublin is piloting the LINK system among a number of service providers with the support of my Department.

That support is very limited.

This system tracks each individual presenting as homeless to any of these services. It will facilitate the building up of a profile of people using homeless services and their needs. That is lacking currently because people move around from sleeping rough one night to staying in a hostel the next.

What is lacking is proper action by the Government.

We need proper data to track them and to meet their needs.

The Minister of State accepts the system is inadequate.

This is what is known as living in cloud cuckooland.

It is intended that the system will be extended to all homeless services in the Dublin area. Almost all the three-year action plans to tackle homelessness which were required by the integrated strategy have been completed by local authorities. Good progress has been made. It is important to point out that enormous resources have been provided to address homeless issues by the Department in recent years. Recoupment by my Department of current expenditure on accommodation related homeless services by local authorities has increased significantly from €12.6 million in 1999 to an expected €50 million this year.

This is not dealing with the issues, and the Minister of State knows that.

It must be.

He should walk across the road.

These increases are clear evidence of the Government's determination to provide the funding necessary to address the issue of homelessness.

Huge progress has been made to meet the housing needs of Travellers. Over the past three years alone, €65 million has been spent on Traveller specific accommodation. A further €30 million has been allocated to Traveller specific accommodation in 2003. This is in addition to expenditure on standard local authority accommodation in which Travellers are also accommodated. As a result of this expenditure, a total of 323 new units of Traveller specific accommodation, including group housing and permanent, temporary and emergency halting sites, have been provided. A further 239 units have been refurbished and an additional 420 families have been allocated standard local authority accommodation.

I know Travellers who have been on the housing list for 35 years.

While the number of Travellers on the roadside is dropping, it is, sadly, still too high. The Government's record on housing speaks for itself.

It does indeed.

While the legislation governing social housing in Ireland does not confer a statutory right to housing, we have responded to the numerous and diverse challenges with a credible and wide-ranging set of measures to ensure that housing needs, especially social housing needs, are adequately addressed. The overall focus of the Sustaining Progress commitment to the provision of social and affordable accommodation is on reviewing the effectiveness of programmes designed to assist low income groups, including those with social housing and special housing needs. We will work with the social partners to ensure that our housing programmes are effective in meeting these needs and that the substantial resources the Government has made available are spent in a manner which contributes effectively to breaking cycles of poverty and social exclusion. The Government considers that the most appropriate way of addressing needs in regard to housing is to continue the various programmes and fiscal incentives currently in place, to secure the necessary level of funding to support them, to review their operation on an on-going basis to ensure they are meeting their objectives and to put in place new programmes or measures as required.

What does the Minister of State mean by "as required"?

I call on Dáil Éireann to oppose this Bill and seek the continued support of the House for our actions in the housing area.

We need some action.

The Government has been giving us inaction.

Action is what counts rather than theoretical academic play-acting.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

The Minister of State should conclude.

He should have concluded some time ago.

This year we invested €1.7 billion into the area and, when one examines the statistics in the past few years, the Government's investment in social housing is enormous.

It has been atrocious.

While there are still considerable numbers on the waiting list, we are making progress.

Shame on the Minister of State.

I wish to share time with Deputies Durkan and McCormack.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Fine Gael believes that the principle behind this Bill is commendable. Every child of the State should be seen as equal and the right to a roof over one's head seems fundamental. However, the Bill as proposed is flawed because it is too general to warrant anything other than a general welcome. Unfortunately, it will not go anywhere towards solving the housing crisis in which we find ourselves.

It is an absolute disgrace that, in its seventh year in office, having inherited the best set of economic statistics in history, the Government should have failed so dreadfully on this issue and that the only response to an escalating crisis in the housing sector has been sympathetic words and an utter lack of action.

We debate this Bill against the appalling background of the average house price in the country nudging €250,000, the average price of a house in Dublin standing at an incredible €300,000 and local authority waiting lists standing at 52,000 families, that is 120,000 individuals. Progress in the provision and completion of social housing units has been painfully slow and, most shockingly of all, there are almost 6,000 homeless people in one of the richest countries in the world.

Fine Gael holds the Government primarily responsible for the intolerable housing situation we are facing. However, my party condemns those who have speculated on the likely bursting of the property bubble. I say to property speculators and bankers that we are not playing a game. Housing is a social issue and the predictions of boom and bust do no great service to the housing sector and certainly not to those who are attempting to get on to the property ladder.

It gives me no pleasure to detail the litany of Government failures which have led to the housing crisis, but it must be done. One of the more high-profile casualties of the broken promises of the Government was the first-time buyer's grant. There was no mention of its demise in the Fianna Fáil manifesto, the Progressive Democrats' manifesto or An Agreed Programme for Government, and yet, with a stroke of Deputy McCreevy's pen, it was gone. The number of families on local authority waiting lists has reached at least 52,000, which is an intolerable situation in a modern economy like ours.

Where did the Deputy get that figure?

I sat opposite the Minister of State recently and he did not know where his figures came from. He disgraced himself when he could not tell us how many homeless people there were.

He still does not know.

He should not question my figures. I do not have an army of civil servants to feed me statistics and speeches. There are some 4,000 people on the waiting list in Cork city alone. Will the Minister of State confirm or deny that? That is the status of the public housing programme.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul yesterday made its pre-budget submission calling for the completion of 6,000 social housing units next year. Let the Government have the guts to prom ise to meet that target, which is set out in the national development plan.

We will pass the 6,000 unit mark.

Against this awful background, the Taoiseach had the brass neck to suggest that we should wait for a report into the Constitution on housing and land issues. The Taoiseach thinks it is acceptable for the people to wait eight years for the Government to tackle a crisis which has been emerging since he took office. This is a cynical insult to those who are putting up with substandard conditions and dreaming of owning their own home but who, in reality, will never be able to afford it. The supply of land for houses and the number of houses built has not been sufficient. Proactive action is necessary to bring balance back into the market.

This Bill should be allowed a second reading because it offers the potential, if amended, to provide a basis upon which the solution to the housing crisis can be found. Many things can be done now without the need for a referendum or any reference to the Constitution or this debate. At an IMI conference in Killarney earlier this year, the Taoiseach spoke about housing and once again promised action to tackle the cost of building land. He said he would solve the problem, even if it meant changing the Constitution.

A friend of mine who recently returned from Australia, although he was not on the Oireachtas rugby trip, handed me a May 2003 edition of The West Australian new homes supplement, which had an advertisement for a four bedroom, two bathroom house with an impressive elevation, large tinted windows, an outdoor patio area and a fully fitted gourmet kitchen.

It sounds like the Minister of State's house.

The cost of this house was just $83,990 Australian. Potential purchasers could also qualify for a federal government first-home owner's grant of $7,000 Australian, which is equivalent to about €6,000. Unfortunately, our Government abolished the first-time buyer's grant. The root cause of high house prices is not just the price of land, as suggested by the Taoiseach. In Australia, one can have a good house built for as low as $25 per square foot and an excellent top class finish for $50 per square foot. Friends of mine at home have been quoted anything up to €100 per square foot for a reasonable finish and costs in Ireland are now about five times those in Australia.

Property experts tell me one of the causes of such big differences between Australia and Ireland is the huge Government tax on every item of material and every transaction. The Government takes about 40% of the price of a house. In other words, for a €200,000 house, the Government takes €80,000 in tax. The Minister of State is shaking his head but these are CIF figures. He should know them and if he does not, he is a disgrace.

The cost of building materials is another major problem along with the constitutional protection for land owners, which was mentioned by the Taoiseach but he did little about it. The percentage-based fees of the legal profession and other professionals and the strong links between the political system and the construction industry are all contributory factors to high house prices. I do not come to this debate without proposals and, if I had time, would outline about six or eight which Fine Gael believes would help alleviate the housing crisis.

The purpose of the Bill is to amend Article 40 of the Constitution, which would ensure that the State recognised the right of all persons to adequate and appropriate housing. It is indicative of the times we live in that such a motion had to be tabled. I welcome the Bill, although it will not solve the housing crisis, but it will open up a debate on it.

The average price of a house in Ireland is now €250,000. The local authority housing waiting list now stands at over 50,000. There are 1,500 people on the waiting list in Galway city and the waiting time is now six years. The figures in County Galway are just as bad. I have sympathy for the Minister of State who had to come into the House to read that speech. It was like a leaking bucket – holes in it from beginning to end.

He started off proud of the number of houses built. In the past half an hour he mentioned so many houses he had built that I thought I would see the cement dust rising from his clothes. He was proud that 15 houses were being built for every 1,000 of the population. The average family size is just over 2.1 but the Minister of State's figures mean just over six people per house. He is going to house one third of the people and leave two thirds without houses and is proud of that.

That is an international index and just gives relative comparisons.

I do not know where the Minister of State got his figures but somebody wrote his speech for him. He said that the Government strategy on housing has one overcharging aim. I think the aim is to overcharge for houses. That is the only overcharging I can find in this regard but he says the strategy aims to enable every household to have available an affordable dwelling of good quality.

The Deputy should look at it again, he is misreading it.

Most remarkable of all, the Minister of State says that housing remains at the top of the Government's agenda. He says the Government has taken a wide range of measures over the course of two terms of office to reduce housing prices. It has taken the exact opposite course of action. In the last budget it abolished the €3,800 first-time buyer's grant and added 1% to the cost of housing materials. In a sleight of hand the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, in the Local Government Act, introduced a regulation which will oblige local authorities to impose development charges. Every local authority must decide how much it should impose to meet the Minister's request. My local authority must add €10,000 per house. I understand the Wicklow local authority will add anything from €12,500 to €25,000 per house, depending on the size of the house. Is that what the Minister of State means when he says the Government has done everything possible to reduce the price of houses? It has done the exact opposite of anything that would reduce the price of houses. My sympathy lies with the Minister of State on that.

How the Minister of State's speech dealt with grants was a laugh. He mentioned the disabled person's grant and the essential repairs grant. Those grants enabled people to keep inadequate housing stock adequate for them. All local authorities of which I am aware have ceased processing essential repairs grants because they have no money. Disabled persons looking for a bathroom or downstairs toilet cannot get a grant because local authorities cannot sanction funding. The waiting list for funding for the disabled person's grant from our local authority is now over two years in some cases. People are kept waiting. They must wait for the health inspector's visit and report but the inspectors are not going out because of the lack of money. This is the Minister of State's responsibility.

I had some respect for the Minister of State when he was on the back benches but he seems to have lost the common touch since he became a Minister of State. I often met him in the bar, not that either of us are bar people, where he seemed to have the common touch. However, he seems to have lost it since others began writing his speeches for him. I am utterly disappointed. I am ashamed to think that the Minister of State would present this. I must read it more carefully in my office.

Please do.

I must issue a press release on it because it is comical.

If housing is at the top of the Government's priority list, I would hate to find out what will happen the issues at the bottom of it. If housing is an indication of how the Government has treated its priorities over the past six years, I am sorry for it because the electorate is waiting to teach the Government a lesson.

I know the Minister of State is, as my colleague said, a decent human being. At least he indicated he was so in the past. However, I cannot understand how he has managed to remain impervious to the needs of the people who need houses. Everything he said in this debate is rubbish. He has let down the new generation, the people on council housing lists and the generation who want to buy their own houses. He has ensured that landlords rule.

This is happening now at the behest of the Government and will happen for the foreseeable future. Every new levy introduced will create a further burden on the heads and shoulders of the new generation and will drive people further from ever being able to provide housing for themselves. I am not just talking about those people who qualify for social housing but about all those who are entitled to a house.

I can understand the frustration that drives the Technical Group to introducing a constitutional amendment. I know there are difficulties with it.

It is Sinn Féin that is introducing it.

Whatever, it comes from the heart. Suddenly people recognise, especially in this House – and I thought it had been forgotten about here – that this is a serious issue. People have talked about their various constituencies. Cork is a large county and Cork city is a big city. County Kildare, which is much smaller, has 5,000 families on the housing list at present. By the time the Minister of State is 104 years of age, he will have got through that list if the people of County Kildare are lucky enough that he lives that long. Otherwise they have not got a hope in hell of ever being able to do other than pay someone else's mortgage as they will never own a home of their own. Not alone that, but local authority tenants are now getting letters in the post telling them their rent has increased to €100 per week, etc. What a wonderful contribution.

The Minister of State mentioned the partnership agreements. Whatever agreement was entered into through partnership was flawed. It was never delivered on. The Government led the social partners to the table and shook their hands. They thought they had done a good deal but were let down.

I am fond of the Minister of State and believe he is a nice guy. I know he means well in his heart. However, he is doing nothing and is a total disaster. I do not want to be personal about this issue. I have a letter from my local authority which proposes to offer a shared ownership loan to a constituent where he or she buys half of the house. The maximum loan is €130,000 on a 40:60 loan-rental basis and is about half of the price of a medium range local authority house in my constituency at present.

The Minister of State's heart must be in the right place. I had occasion to visit his constituency recently—

The Deputy should look after his own.

There I found that the maximum loan is considerably higher at €225,000. I know the Government and the Minister of State want to treat all the people of the nation equally but I hope all the Government's backbenchers know that the Minister of State's constituency is getting different treatment to the poor people of County Kildare who obviously do not have the same power and influence as those in that constituency. I do not say that the Minister of State's constituents do not deserve it, they do.

If it was an equestrian centre it would get it.

The Minister of State accused the Opposition of play-acting. He knows all about it. It has been happening on the Government benches for a long time.

I have not had time to talk about the serious problem of the homeless. In the past five years I have dealt with a number of cases. The most horrendous cases with which I have dealt were those of the mothers of two young children. When their babies were less than six months old these mothers were forced to sleep in the open. That was during the summer. There was nowhere else for them to go. This happened in a so-called Christian society, on the back of the so-called Celtic tiger, at a time when there was unprecedented economic growth. If I were in the Minister of State's shoes, I would be ashamed of that record.

Debate adjourned.