I propose to take Questions Nos. 78, 80 and 81 together.
As Deputies are aware I have recently introduced a number of changes to the supplementary welfare allowance scheme under which rent and other supplements are paid. The main effect of these measures is to refocus the supplementary welfare allowance scheme on its original objective of providing short-term income support.
The measure that has attracted most comment is the requirement that a person applying for rent supplement must have been renting for six months. With certain very important exceptions, it will no longer be possible for a person to become a tenant in the private rented sector with the support of rent supplement unless the local authority is satisfied that he or she has a housing need. However, nobody who is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need and who meets the normal means and other qualifying criteria will be refused rent supplement.
The new measures were the subject of extensive discussions within my Department over a number of months. Their impact was fully assessed and the manner of their implementation has been carefully designed to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups such as the homeless, the elderly and the disabled are fully protected. The six-month prior to renting requirement will not apply in their case. In effect, the only people who will no longer qualify for rent supplement because of the six month rule are people who, in the opinion of the housing authority, do not have a housing need.
In any event, none of the measures which I have introduced affect the discretion of a health board to make a payment in cases where a board considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant.
Regarding consultation with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputies will be aware that a planning group on future rent assistance arrangements has been in place for some time, with representatives of both Departments, the Department of Finance and others.
Arising from the work of this group, an action plan is being developed on housing needs. Some of the measures that were announced in the Book of Estimates, including the six-month rule, were first considered in the discussions on the action plan prior to the Estimates announcements in November 2003.
My Department has also had detailed consultations with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government following the Estimates announcement, and in the context of preparing the regulations which gave effect to the rent supplement changes and the circular to health boards which set out the detail of the changes.
My Department also consulted with health board representatives, including community welfare officers and their managers. Discussions were also held with relevant Departments on other aspects of the Estimates announcements.
I also met representatives of a number of organisations who expressed their concerns to me regarding the changes. At that meeting, I explained the background of the changes and I outlined the specific provisions that are being made to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups are fully protected in the course of implementing the measures.
I also met representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions as well as the community and voluntary pillar of the social partnership, including the Disability Federation of Ireland, the INOU, the St. Vincent de Paul and others. These discussions gave me an opportunity to hear a broad range of views and to explain further the purpose of the measures and the manner of their implementation. I indicated my support for their desire to keep under review the impact of the new measures under the provisions of the social partnership agreement Sustaining Progress.
It is estimated that the new measures will lead to savings in the region of €19 million per annum. This is equivalent to about 3% of spending on the SWA scheme. I am confident that the changes which I have introduced will not have a negative impact on vulnerable people but instead will better target available resources and provide an improved outcome both from the point of view of claimants and also of the need for an effective and streamlined system of State assistance for people with a housing need.