Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Second Stage.

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

Notwithstanding the magnitude of the domestic and international recession and the resulting first priority of Government to stabilise the public finances, we must continue to plan for the future. In a housing context, this preparation involves, among other issues, the provision of a modern and appropriate legislative framework to allow local authorities to carry out their functions as housing authorities. Central to that work is a requirement to provide authorities with the tools to assess the need for housing in a fair and transparent manner, to plan how that need can best be met; and ultimately deliver and manage housing stock in a sustainable, efficient and cost effective manner.

Housing is an issue that affects everyone and is critical to the wellbeing of the economy. In these turbulent days, we are all only too familiar with the issues arising in the housing sector — not least the human dimension of the steep downturn we are experiencing. This places a spotlight on our public policy and finances. Are we getting value for money from our investment? Are we efficient and effective and, most importantly, are we protecting the more vulnerable sections of our society?

The priority afforded by the Government to housing has been clearly articulated in several important strategic documents including Towards 2016, the National Development Plan 2007-13 and the Government's statement on housing policy, "Delivering Homes. Sustaining Communities". We have made progress in implementing the commitments in these strategies.

The increased investment by Government has allowed for both an expansion and diversification in housing support. All the indications available to us at this stage would suggest that 2008 will be another year of significant delivery under the main housing programmes. Expenditure in 2008 on social and affordable housing totalled some €2.4 billion and it is estimated that the needs of some 19,500 households were met in that period.

I expect that the total Exchequer provision for housing in 2009 will be almost €1.6 billion and while this represents a reduction on the record provision of €1.7 billion in 2008, it is a good outcome in the current circumstances. However, even small scale reductions present challenges for us and for local authorities in maintaining levels of activity. We must, therefore, be creative about how we use the available resources, particularly in light of the 2008 housing needs assessment which has shown a substantial increase in net need.

One way or the other, the extent of current housing need demands flexible and imaginative responses, which can be tailored to take account of changes in our operating environment. The initiative I announced recently whereby long-term lease arrangements would be used for social housing purposes is one such response. Targeting the right accommodation in the right locations will be crucial. Having met these criteria, leasing will provide an opportunity for local authorities to get more for less — to take advantage of the greater value to be had in the current market and the stock of available units. At this time more than any other, the alignment of our social and economic objectives is vital and the deployment of units for leasing, including unsold new stock, will address a real social need while helping Ireland Inc. in a particularly difficult period.

The body of legislation on housing dates back more than 40 years and has developed on a piecemeal basis. This Bill will provide greater clarity and transparency to underpin the housing service of the future. It will give effect to the programme of social housing reform measures outlined in "Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities". It will provide a modern framework for the delivery and management of social housing taking account of the life cycle approach and the objective of delivering sustainable homes and communities.

Specifically, the Bill will provide for a more strategic approach to delivery and management through the use of housing services plans; a more objective basis for assessing need and making allocations; and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It will also provide the legislative framework for the incremental purchase scheme and for the adoption by housing authorities of strategies to address anti-social behaviour.

The Bill, as passed by Seanad Éireann, is set out in four parts with 44 sections and three schedules and I will refer in some detail to the main provisions.

With the exercise of any function it is crucially important that the structures and administrative tools are in place to guide strategic and operational activities. Part 2 outlines, for the first time, the range of functions of housing authorities. The Bill does not alter the basic distribution of functions across the different levels of local government but it does provide for better planning and integration of services by providing for housing services plans, which take a broader strategic perspective at county and city level. The Bill makes it clear that the key function of housing authorities is to provide a housing service. As section 10 outlines, this service comprises a range of different housing supports including social and affordable housing, management, maintenance and regeneration.

Sections 12 and 13 deal with funding issues. Section 12 replaces section 15 of the Housing Act 1988, listing the various types of support for which grants or subsidies may be provided by the Exchequer. Section 13 deals with resources available to local authorities from sales or clawbacks and provides that these should be placed in a single fund to be used for housing purposes with the prior approval of the Minister.

Sections 14 to 18 are at the core of strategic planning and operational delivery of housing services, as defined in section 10. They deal with the making, by local authority members, of housing services plans and with the preparation, by managers, of housing action programmes to implement these plans.

The housing services plans will provide a strategic focus for the planning of housing services, including delivery and ongoing management. The plans build on the multi-annual housing action plans introduced on an administrative basis in 2004. These proved to be a useful tool for the integrated planning of services. Placing them on a statutory footing will provide the necessary framework for engagement with the elected members and will also provide a link to work undertaken in preparing housing strategies in the context of development plans.

Under section 14 elected members are obliged to make a housing services plan not later than six months after the current development plan is made, and section 15 sets out the matters to be taken into account including the development plan, the demand for social and affordable housing and the need to deliver housing in a way that supports sustainable communities. Section 17 provides for a variation of the plan to be initiated by the manager or the Minister.

Section 18 provides for the making of housing action programmes. The programmes will be, in effect, the delivery mechanism for the plans and will be prepared by the manager. It is envisaged that the housing services plans will contain high level goals and objectives while precise annual targets for programmes will be set out in the housing actions programmes, which will probably be of a three year duration. This will allow for appropriate planning of projects and also for adjustment to take account of changing needs and resources.

Part 2, Chapter 3 deals with providing social housing support, which is a crucial component of the broader housing service remit of authorities. It provides the necessary legislative underpinning to the philosophy set out in Towards 2016 and Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities that housing support should be tailored to individual needs as they evolve over their life cycle and that the delivery of such support must take account of the broader sustainable communities agenda.

Section 19 updates and replaces section 56(1) of the 1966 Act and gives powers to housing authorities to purchase, build, lease etc., dwellings or sites and enter public private partnerships for the purpose of providing social housing support through a variety of methods. In providing such accommodation, subsection (4) obliges local authorities to have regard to their housing services plans as well as ensuring that they provide a mixture of house types to meet the needs of a range of different household types and to counteract undue social segregation.

An objective and consistent assessment of individual housing needs is key to providing social housing supports. This is essential for determining a household's priority relative to the needs of other households and to identify the appropriate supports. Section 20 is the basis for the new assessment of need and provides extensive regulatory powers to set eligibility criteria, classify need and determine the form of this assessment.

Section 21 allows for the individual assessments to be summarised in a prescribed form for a variety of purposes, including the making of a housing services plan under section 16. This will replace the current triennial assessment of need provided for in the 1988 Housing Act and provide for a more timely and clearer picture of the scale and nature of housing need in each local authority area and across the country.

Linking needs, assessed in accordance with section 20, to the allocation of resources is the next step in the process. Section 22 replaces section 11 of the Housing Act 1988 and provides housing authorities with a new approach to allocating dwellings. The new system is an attempt to improve consistency and transparency in decision-making, provide a better fit between needs and resources and respond, as far as possible, to the expressed preferences of individual households. Under the new approach, each authority will adopt a new allocation scheme which will allow for local discretion within the national framework. In this way, it is hoped to strengthen the link between local needs and the subsequent provision of resources and ensure consistency in the way in which applicants for social housing are prioritised.

Chapter 4 deals with the rental accommodation scheme, more commonly known as RAS. As Deputies are aware, RAS was introduced in 2005 and is aimed at providing a new housing option for people in receipt of social welfare rent supplement who have a long-term housing need.

Building on the experience of the scheme to date, sections 23 to 27 provide a comprehensive statutory framework for RAS so that it forms part of an integrated suite of social housing options. The main building blocks of that framework are contained in sections 24 and 25. Section 24 contains the power for a housing authority to enter into a rental accommodation availability agreement. Under this agreement, the provider makes the accommodation available for a period either for a sitting tenant or for any tenants allocated to the property by the housing authority. There are certain requirements to be met by the provider before entering into an agreement under subsection (2) and the terms and conditions associated with that agreement are set out in subsection (4).

Section 25 deals with the tenancy agreement to be known as a chapter 4 tenancy agreement between the person making the dwelling available and the tenant. It outlines what should be in the agreement and importantly, in subsection (5), sets out additional obligations to those under the Residential Tenancies Act. These include payment of the rent contribution to the housing authority and provisions in regard to tenancy termination under the Residential Tenancies Act. Any breaches of these obligations can give rise to terminations. The Bill, therefore, will provide a more developed statutory base for RAS to ensure it can continue to evolve and play an important role in broadening the range and choice of social housing options.

Sections 28 to 35 also form part of the social housing governance regime dealing with local authority responsibilities regarding housing stock, including tenancy agreements, rent schemes and a new requirement to adopt anti-social behaviour strategies. I draw the attention of Deputies to some of these provisions.

Section 31 provides for an authority to make a rent scheme setting out the manner in which it will determine rents taking account of national parameters set out in regulations. It is important to point out that the provisions do not alter the basic concept of differential rent, where rents are income-related, with provision for the temporary waiving of rent in cases of financial hardship.

Section 35 requires each housing authority, by reserved function, to adopt an anti-social behaviour strategy for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in its housing stock. I suspect few Members of this House or of society generally have not experienced, directly or indirectly, some form of anti-social behaviour. Anti-social behaviour disrupts the lives of householders and has the potential to destabilise communities. It is important that we make progress in this area and local authorities, as landlords of some 120,000 dwellings, have a duty to secure and protect the interests of their tenants by abating and preventing such behaviour in their estates.

Section 35, therefore, specifies the principal objectives of a strategy, notably the promotion of co-operation with other agencies, including the Garda. This is crucial, as local authorities alone cannot be expected to provide comprehensive solutions to anti-social behaviour issues in their estates. It also outlines the matters that may be dealt with in a strategy and sets out the bodies that must be consulted in drawing up a strategy.

The Bill also amends the definition of anti-social behaviour in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1997. Part 5 of Schedule 2 effects the amendment to extend the definition to include damage to property and graffiti and significant impairment of the use or enjoyment of a person's home.

I turn now to one of the more innovative measures contained in the Bill. Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities made a commitment to respond to the home ownership aspirations of those who face difficulty in purchasing homes on the open market or through the affordable housing schemes by providing paths to home ownership which are additional to social housing.

The incremental purchase scheme, for which provision is made in sections 36 to 41, is one such path. It involves transferring full title of the new house to the householder on the payment to the housing authority or approved body, as appropriate, of a proportion of the purchase price. The housing authority or approved body places a charge on the property in its favour for the portion of equity not paid for, declining over time until the charge is eliminated. In return, the buyer pays the mortgage and accepts full responsibility for the maintenance of the home.

Eligible households, as defined in section 36, include those assessed as eligible for social housing support by reference to section 20 and, subject to some conditions, existing tenants who wish to transfer to homes made available under the scheme. Section 37 provides that incremental purchase may apply to newly-built houses by housing authorities or approved housing bodies and to new houses that are vacant or come onto the market in the coming into force of the Act.

Section 38 provides the power to sell a dwelling under the arrangement by means of a transfer order and sets out the terms and conditions that should apply. Section 39 sets out, in detail, how the incremental features of the scheme will operate. It requires the housing authority or approved body to put a charge, by way of a charging order, on a house that it has sold under the scheme. The charging order creates a charged share in favour of the housing authority or body, equivalent to the discount granted off the purchase price. The charged share is reduced in equal proportions over the period of the charge. The reduction in the charged share for the first five years of occupancy is not applied until that period has expired and the section also provides for the authority or body to clear the charge when it expires.

Section 40 deals with the control on resale of incremental purchase dwellings. If the incremental purchaser wishes to resell the house during the charge period, the housing authority or the approved body concerned has the first option of buying it at the proportion of the market value equivalent to the prevailing share of the equity that is not charged. The resale of an incremental purchase house in the market is subject to the consent of the housing authority or body, which may refuse consent for specified reasons, including anti-social behaviour by the prospective purchaser or in the interest of good estate management. Where an incremental purchaser resells his or her home in the market he or she must make a payment to the authority or body calculated as the proportion of the market value of the house equivalent to the prevailing charged share.

The incremental purchase scheme offers a number of key benefits. For families, the scheme offers the earliest possible start on the path to home ownership for those willing and able to undertake a house purchase. In addition, giving the buyer responsibility for repair and maintenance of the home helps build up the householder's stake in the property. The scheme is also structured to make it attractive for people to put down long-term roots in the community and to commit to an area, thereby contributing to more stable and integrated communities.

For the State, the scheme will provide an opportunity to extract additional value for money from capital expenditure through our social housing investment programme. It will allow for capital funding to be recycled quickly which can be then used to provide additional social housing without the need for additional Exchequer finance. The full details of how the scheme will operate will be spelled out in regulations to be made under the Act in due course. This is a worthwhile and innovative initiative deserving of the support of the House.

The final part of the Bill deals mainly with the application of claw-back arrangements to the provision of sites for private housing and grants paid for extensions under the adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability. In the latter case, the claw-back applies in the event of the extended dwelling being sold within five years of the grant payment while, in the case of what is known as the low cost sites scheme, the claw-back mirrors the arrangements already in place under affordable housing schemes.

The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is an important milestone in the development of housing policy. It provides a more strategic approach to delivery and management through housing services plans and housing action programmes. It presents a new, more objective and comprehensive basis for assessing need and allocating housing. It provides a more effective management and control regime covering rents and tenancy arrangements and a more developed statutory basis for the rental accommodation scheme. It is innovative as it introduces an incremental purchase scheme aimed at helping those seeking social housing support, and existing tenants, in some circumstances, to become house owners.

While the Bill addresses a wide range of issues, other aspects are still under development, which I hope to bring forward for consideration on Committee Stage. As the House is aware, the drafting of workable proposals for the sale of local authority apartments has proved problematic. My focus has been on establishing a sufficiently robust framework to allow sales to proceed, given that past endeavours had to be abandoned. In conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General, work is continuing to resolve the outstanding complex issues with a view to finalising proposals for a viable sales scheme in time for consideration during the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas.

I am also keen to progress work on a number of other issues, including the introduction of an affordable homes purchase scheme which, in the longer term, would facilitate the purchase, through a single equity based mechanism, of property under the various affordable housing schemes. In addition, during the Bill's passage through the Seanad there was considerable debate on providing a statutory basis for the preparation and adoption of homelessness action plans and I am also determined to bring proposals on this matter before the House.

We are living in difficult economic times. This Bill does not and cannot offer more finance to underpin the provision of social and affordable housing in this country and the Government has already demonstrated its commitment in that regard. It does, however, define for the first time in legislation what we mean by housing services.

It sets out a framework to allow for the delivery of these services in a way that meets individual needs, but respects the concept of developing sustainable communities and provides for a system where individuals and households are dealt with fairly and consistently across the country. It describes, in detail, how rental accommodation and incremental purchase arrangements are to be undertaken and prepares the groundwork for dealing with anti-social behaviour.

It is a forward-looking Bill which recognises the complex and changing needs of the household and the variety of mechanisms required to meet those needs. I commend it to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which is long overdue. I welcome it but note it is deficient in many areas. Homelessness does not seem to feature prominently in the Bill and details regarding the delivery of much needed social housing are vague. During the course of my contribution I will outline some amendments which I request the Minister of State to take on board before the Bill is finalised. Fine Gael will table more amendments on Committee Stage.

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is responsible for housing policy and states its aim is to provide affordable housing to every household. Sadly, Fianna Fáil's housing policy over the past ten years has failed. It has not provided affordable housing for many people and now, unfortunately, many people find themselves and their homes in negative equity. More than 100,000 people are in this situation, which is disgraceful.

The Bill introduces, for the first time, a new incremental purchase scheme which the Minister of State described as very innovative, and that is to be welcomed. It will help to promote home ownership for existing social housing tenants whose income is too low to qualify for affordable housing. I welcome this scheme, which reflects Fine Gael policy and thinking in this area. Under the scheme the home owner will, for the first time, have full responsibility for the property from day one. If a person owns a property he or she will respect it much more than if he or she is in a home which is rented from the local authority.

Local authorities will no longer have responsibility for maintenance of the house and, therefore, will be able to save on expenditure. In addition, capital moneys received from purchasers can be reinvested to provide more social housing without the need for extra Exchequer funding, and that is to be welcomed.

The Bill is necessary because the Government has failed to deliver promised social and affordable housing. The collapse of the construction industry, caused by the Taoiseach's boom and bust economics, has made the delivery of new social and affordable housing difficult. The legislation does not address the issue of purchasing local authority flats. This is a major issue in Dublin where there are many local authority flat complexes. Long-standing residents must have the opportunity to purchase their homes and they cannot be left to pay rent indefinitely and, perhaps, after 30 years, still not own their property. I welcome the fact that the Attorney General is addressing the issue and will make a final decision and that the Minister of State hopes he will be enabled to provide for the purchase of flats by local authority tenants.

The Bill attempts to deal with anti-social behaviour, which is welcome, because it is the scourge of many communities throughout the country. Local authorities currently tackle such behaviour by threatening eviction or evicting residents. The legislation will enhance the power of local authorities to handle this widespread problem. The definition of "anti-social behaviour" will be broadened to include behaviour that causes damage to a person's home or impairs the enjoyment of his or her home. Local authorities will be more proactive in this area because they will be permitted to vet potential residents and exclude tenants who engage in, or who have engaged in, anti-social behaviour and who are on housing waiting lists. Section 34 requires that every housing authority adopts an anti-social behaviour strategy within a year, which will ensure a more co-ordinated approach. There will be improved co-operation with the Garda to ensure such behaviour does not take place.

The cost of the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, has spiralled through the roof over the past five years. It cost the HSE €441 million in 2008, which is a sizeable sum to pay to rent housing without the State taking ownership of it. This issue must be examined more closely in next month's budget, as no value for money is provided through this scheme. The Minister of State has proposed an additional rental scheme, under which €20 million will be invested to rent 2,000 housing units for between ten and 20 years. This is the wrong policy to adopt because renting does not provide permanent housing for those on the local authority waiting lists and developers will only have guaranteed rental income for between ten and 20 years. The interest of the tenant should be sacrosanct. Will the Minister of State elaborate on the new rental scheme? Will it be confined to 2,000 units or will a larger scheme be rolled out to rent more properties?

In 2004, the National Economic and Social Council highlighted a number of problems associated with the RAS, which need to be taken into account, including the insecurity of tenure compared to local authority social housing and the potential stigma attached if particular buildings become identified with the scheme. The Bill does not make provision to review the scheme, which is a serious flaw. The scheme needs to be urgently reviewed and it should continue to be reviewed on a six-monthly basis.

We have a housing crisis in Ireland. More than 56,000 people are on social housing lists. This a shockingly high figure, when one considers the boom experienced in the State over the past ten to 15 years and the resources that were available to deal with these lists. However, they are a direct consequence of inaction. I am also concerned that the numbers will continue to increase given the number of houses being repossessed. The Minister of State must consider a longer moratorium for homeowners who get into difficulty than the six-month period provided under the recapitalisation scheme. The moratorium should be extended to two years to give them breathing space during these difficult times.

I am appalled at the latest available figures, which indicate that more than 5,000 local authority houses are vacant. The failure to turn around properties in a timely manner does not help, with more than 56,000 currently on waiting lists. The Minister of State needs to issue a clear directive to local authorities to turn properties around in a timely manner. In my constituency of Dublin North East, at least 80 houses are boarded up. Last week I was contacted by a resident who mentioned that the property next door to her has been boarded up for the past two years. The system is failing if houses are being boarded up while people on waiting lists are not being housed. The Minister of State needs to provide 15,000 additional houses annually over the next four years to reduce waiting lists. Questions need to be answered as to why he is handing money over to local authorities without introducing regular checks on performance delivery. At the very least, strict targets on social housing delivery need to be set for them.

The legislation does not adequately address the maintenance and regeneration of social housing estates. Throughout the country social housing estates are in dire need of regeneration. Many estates in my constituency need to be regenerated. The Government has failed to deliver on regeneration schemes for Dublin. Last December, the assigned property developer pulled out of the Croke Villas public private partnership, PPP, which was to build 30 badly needed social housing units. In addition, Bernard McNamara pulled out of five PPP projects leaving residents devastated in various parts of the city. Dublin City Council lost €5 million in the process and will now only proceed with three projects. To add insult to injury, residents are in limbo until 2010 and 2011 when these projects are supposed to commence and this is a serious blow to them. This should not have happened. Unfortunately, the less well off in society are always the first to suffer in such a scenario and we need to learn from these examples to ensure strict penalties are imposed on developers who renege on their planning conditions and the problems with these PPPs are not repeated elsewhere.

The omission of provisions to deal with homelessness is a major oversight in the Bill. The Make Room campaign has been active in this area, issuing many e-mails to notify Members about the difficulties and problems in this area. The four organisations involved need to be commended for the work they have done to tackle homelessness, as they are trying to eradicate the problem. Their campaign is designed to ensure the Minister's strategy, The Way Home, is included in the legislation so that local action plans and fora on homelessness are put on a statutory footing and the rights of homeless people are vindicated. The organisations seek a new legal definition of "homelessness" and standardisation of housing needs assessments and local authority allocation schemes.

Homelessness is still a problem with more than 5,000 people homeless in the State. This figure is probably not accurate, as it does not take into account the invisible homeless people. I remain unconvinced that the Government will deliver on its promise to end homelessness. For instance, last July the HSE imposed a funding freeze on services for homeless people leading to people being turned away from emergency accommodation, which is shameful. It is a scandal that local authorities can build shelters and facilities for homeless people, which remain closed because the HSE refuses to pay to staff them. Homeless services should be moved under the authority of one agency or Government branch. The current flawed system allows them to fall between the cracks. The Fine Gael Party is seeking to have this matter addressed and it will be contained in our future policy document on local government reform.

The Government has failed to deliver on affordable housing. Under the programme for Government and the national development plan, 17,000 affordable houses were to be delivered between the years 2007 and 2009. In 2007, only 3,500 units were delivered. In the first nine months of 2008, only 3,274 houses were delivered. The local authorities should have received a large kick-back under Part V, but that measure gave developers an opportunity to pay cash in lieu of providing housing. In this light, it is no wonder that waiting lists for housing are so high. Will the Minister of State comment on Part V's failure and detail the plans to change it? More than 6,500 people are on Dublin City Council's affordable housing list and 732 on Fingal County Council's list.

The affordable housing scheme poses another serious problem. As market prices have decreased, it has become cheaper for some people to buy homes on the open market instead of via the scheme. Consequently, there are large-scale rejections of offers by local authorities. Fine Gael wants them to decrease or discount their prices so that affordable housing can again become attractive. Dublin City Council and Meath County Council should be commended on reducing their prices, but we need a ministerial directive to ensure that all local authorities will follow suit and make affordable housing affordable once again.

In budget 2009, the Government's equity scheme was introduced. Through it, the Government will acquire a stake in a property based on a house's market value. The equity stake of 25% to 30% will leave the buyer vulnerable if market prices increase during the house's sale. While this scheme is intended to replace the affordable housing scheme and its full details are still to be ironed out, we must ensure that people are not hit unfairly when they sell property.

The Government also introduced a home choice loan scheme to provide up to 92% of the market value of a new property for first-time buyers unable to obtain loans from banks. Fine Gael has opposed the scheme from the beginning because it encourages people to borrow up to seven times the value of their salaries, potentially trapping them in bad debt and negative equity, given the decline in the housing market.

Initiatives to help first-time buyers are welcome and should be encouraged, but the scheme's timing is wrong. The scheme is unsuitable. It is also questionable in that it only seems to relate to new homes. Many have asked why it does not relate to second-hand homes. That only four people have so far applied shows the concerns over the housing market. They are waiting to see when the market will level out. Current predictions put that at another 12 or 18 months. This is a major reason for people staying away from the home choice loan scheme.

Section 14 deals with the housing service plans. Housing authorities must provide a housing services plan outlining their aims in providing those services. Section 15(2) states that the Minister may direct local authorities to include in the plan details of the quality of housing owned and plans for regeneration. Fine Gael seeks to insert an amendment to make these conditions compulsory. The Minister states that the plan should last for the duration of each council's development plan. Fine Gael wants compulsory six-month reviews of those plans so that they stay relevant.

There are many problems regarding the allocation of social housing. Many view the allocation system as unfair and not transparent. An amendment has been suggested by the MakeRoom Alliance, which comprises Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities of Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold. It wants regulations for an allocation system for dwellings. Each local authority approaches housing lists and allocations in a different manner, but the alliance wants consistency in this vital State service.

The Minister of State must lay the draft regulations before the relevant Oireachtas committee for debate, the recommendations of which he should consider before signing final regulations. Members of the committee remain in close contact with many of the people that these regulations are trying to help and could provide constructive suggestions to amend the draft regulations.

For the past ten years, the housing boom witnessed developers building estates without providing necessary facilities, which should have been stipulated in planning permissions. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government informs us that this matter will be addressed under the new planning Bill, which is yet to be introduced in the House. However, nothing is to be done to address the problem of estates that have been left unfinished. Many legacy housing estates were built during the Celtic tiger years. Their problems with roads and inadequate foot paths and facilities must be addressed.

Power should be given to local authorities to address this problem in the new planning Bill. In my constituency, a DART station is yet to be provided at Clongriffin, yet it was a stipulation of the planning permission that, once 1,000 had moved into the area, a DART station would be up and running. Thousands of people have moved into the area in the past five years or so, yet there is no station. A town centre was promised to those who bought homes in Belmayne, a new development. However, the plan collapsed because the developer claimed that he had no money, leaving residents high and dry. They were promised proper shopping and civic centres. Many questions remain unanswered.

Some 300 recorded unfinished estates should have been completed two years ago to taking-in-charge standards, but there is no sign of completion dates for them. Unfortunately, unfinished roads and facilities appear to be the norm, with many new housing estates remaining in bad conditions. Under section 180 of the Planning and Development Act, a local authority must, if requested to do so by a majority of owners and occupiers, take in charge an estate that has been completed to the standard required. Clearly, this is a provision of which home owners are not aware. It must be communicated to them.

Standard taking-in-charge policies need to be followed by all local authorities. In terms of taking estates in charge, the enforcement timeframe also needs to be reduced from seven to four years. Heavy penalties must be imposed on developers who fail to complete housing estates in a timely manner. Local authorities must be more proactive in monitoring all housing developments in their areas. They must also send information to residents explaining the taking-in-charge process.

Moreover, the Bill does not address the issue of property management companies and the problems associated with them. Apartment living in Ireland is flawed and the Government has failed to introduce measures that would protect apartment owners from management companies. Although more than half a million people live in apartments and there are more than 4,600 property management companies, no legislation governs such companies at present. Apartment owners nationwide experience constant frustration with their property agents. Many homeowners are being ripped off to the tune of thousands of euro and receive very little service for the money they are paying. In the present economic climate in which people are looking much more closely at their payslips and outgoings, they question the outgoings they pay to property management companies.

The absence of regulation in this regard is a disgrace and a scandal and homeowners must be protected from the lack of regulation and accountability in the sector. For example, annual general meetings are not taking place in many such complexes, the residents are unsure of their rights and are unsure to whom they should turn if they experience problems with their property management agents or companies. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous practices are in operation within this industry and many owners are in the hands of cowboys, who appear to raise service level fees as they wish. Clearly, no basic communication is taking place between property management companies and homeowners or between management companies and agents. Meetings are not being held with residents to inform them on the uses to which their fees are being put or the extant difficulties within such complexes. This entire issue is a can of worms that has not been tackled over the last ten to 15 years. It is an area that Fine Gael has raised constantly and on which it has sought the introduction of the necessary legislation. Hopefully, the Minister of State will be able to expedite legislation in this regard.

The Government set up the National Property Services Regulatory Authority in 2005, to which a director was appointed in July 2006. The authority has acquired a permanent premises in Navan and a staff and has been allocated a budget of €700,000 and €930,000 in 2007 and 2008, respectively. While I am uncertain as to its budget allocation for 2009, the authority has no statutory footing and is toothless. I believe it is engaged in some preparatory work in this area but there has been little communication as to current developments in respect of this authority. The authority's lack of statutory powers ultimately must be addressed.

I understand that two Bills are forthcoming in this area. The property services regulatory authority Bill will put the aforementioned regulatory authority on a statutory footing. There also has been discussion of a multi-unit development Bill, for the purpose of dealing specifically with issues pertaining to the property management companies. The other Bill will deal with the regulation of estate agents and so on. The Minister of State should provide clarification and an update in respect of developments and should provide Members with a timeframe and some hope in order that they can inform people that their issues with management companies are being taken on board and soon will be addressed by the Government.

The Bill does not address the fire safety issues that exist in many flats and apartments throughout the city and I am extremely concerned about fire safety matters in apartment complexes. In October 2008, a fire broke out at 4:30 a.m. in an apartment complex in Clongriffin, which is located in my constituency. The fire is believed to have been started by mindless thugs who set alight industrial bins in the car park. Shockingly however, no fire alarm went off in the apartment complex when the bins were set ablaze. Had a few residents not been returning home from a previous evening out, who were able to inform and evacuate the complex's other residents, the outcome could have been far worse. Moreover, the fire brigade had difficulty in gaining access to the complex. Many such complexes are gated and the fire brigade does not have the codes with which to gain access to tackle a fire. This is a major issue that must be examined.

This complex contains neither fire extinguishers nor blankets on each floor and the fact that the fire alarm was not working raises many questions. This apartment complex received a fire compliance certificate from the local authority, which is highly worrying. Certificates are being given to apartment complexes that contain no fire fighting equipment. Alarms are not being tested on a regular basis to ensure they are properly functioning and fire drills do not take place in many of these complexes. Unfortunately, residents do not know who are their neighbours and there are no fire marshals or wardens on the floors. This issue is a ticking time bomb and ultimately, it must be addressed.

Legislation must be urgently drawn up in respect of property management companies and fire safety matters. The Government must perform an audit to ascertain how many apartment complexes have in place inadequate fire prevention equipment. Fine Gael seeks amendments, either through the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill or through the fire safety Acts, which will state in law that management agents or management companies have a duty to check on a weekly basis that all fire safety equipment is present in buildings and is operational. Moreover, such amendments should state that fire evacuation plans must be placed on all floors in apartment complexes and that fire drills must take place on a more regular basis.

The Government has failed to ensure that rental properties are inspected on a regular basis. In 2006, only 3% of all rental properties were inspected. Although the Minister of State has brought forward measures to deal with rental accommodation that came into effect from 1 February last and which deals with the issue of bedsits, 78% of private rented properties in the area under Dublin City Council's remit did not comply with basic legal minimum standards, according to the Centre for Housing Research. Greatly increased levels of inspections are required and if the Minister of State is serious in this regard, he will ensure that yearly inspections take place of all properties nationwide. He also will ensure that fines are increased severely and not simply by €2,000, which already has taken place. One must ensure that local authorities are on top of their brief in this regard and that they ensure that people are not being hit or being put into poor properties.

The Deputy's time has expired.

In conclusion, housing is a right of everyone and the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill includes innovative measures in respect of various schemes. However, it must prioritise homelessness. At present, there are massive social housing waiting lists of more than 56,000 people who are waiting to get a home from the Government, there are management companies which are unregulated at present, as well as the issue in respect of fire safety.

The Deputy must conclude.

After ten years in office, the Government will leave behind many legacies. While the Minister of State has not been in office for all that time, one issue that will not be forgiven pertains to talking up the property market. More than 100,000 people now find themselves in negative equity and they will not forget. I look forward to debating the further Stages of the Bill.

I welcome the long-awaited Second Stage Dáil debate on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The Bill provides Members with an opportunity to develop an expanded programme for social housing, new measures to deal with the problem of homelessness, stronger protection for tenants in rented accommodation, measures to combat anti-social behaviour in housing estates, as well as legislation to regulate the activities of management companies or to give an indication in that direction.

There are more people than ever on social housing lists, an unprecedented number of families face the threat of having their homes repossessed and the level of homelessness is a high as ever. Recently published data show the social housing waiting list has increased in the past three years from 43,700 to nearly 60,000. These truly shocking figures show the extent to which Fianna Fáil has squandered the boom, leaving tens of thousands of people high and dry without adequate housing. An expanded social housing programme would not only provide families with badly needed accommodation but would help to kick-start the construction sector.

No Member of this House needs to be reminded of the unacceptable level of homelessness. Every evening as we leave this House, we see the people huddled in porches and alleyways around Kildare Street and Merrion Square. It is shocking that, on average, 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness at any one time. What is even more shocking is that 487 of them are under the age of 18.

This Bill comes before the House against the background of the increase in the numbers on the social housing list from 43,700 to almost 60,000 and the continuing problem of homelessness. There must be an effective inspection regime for housing standards in the private rental sector. Residents in both apartments and housing estates face ongoing difficulties as a result of the unregulated operation of management companies and the failure of the Government to honour the commitment in the programme for Government to expand the delivery of social and affordable housing options to meet the needs of almost 90,000 households.

In the course of this debate, I will put forward a series of amendments on behalf of the Labour Party. Among these, I will propose that steps be taken to ensure, where possible, that existing unsold housing units are secured for the purpose of social housing. The Labour Party proposes that we make rent supplement more employment-friendly by bringing means assessment into line with differential rent schemes, enhance families' access to rental accommodation schemes, and adequately resource and fully implement The Way Home, the Government's strategy to address adult homelessness. We must amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide for the creation of a national inspection regime in respect of housing standards in the rental sector, along with the provision of definitive and efficient timeframes within which disputes should be resolved. At present, such disputes can take 18 months or more to be concluded. We must also reform the law on multi-unit developments, including apartment developments; strengthen the powers of local authorities to deal with anti-social behaviour; and broaden the terms of the tenant purchase scheme allowing local authority tenants the right to buy their apartments.

A housing crisis can be defined in different ways. In one sense, there has been a housing crisis in this State for the past ten years. It is a question of priorities and policies. Do we see houses as commodities or homes? Do we want to build developments or do we want to create and sustain communities? Do we want developer-led government or government-led development? When this Government came to power, the average house price was approximately three times the income of a working family, spread over a 20-year mortgage. Just before the housing pyramid collapsed, the cost of an average house had increased to 12 times the average income, with a mortgage of more than 30 years the norm.

In the period 1997 to 2007, residential mortgage debt increased by an extraordinary 522%. Many people made money from home buyers as the market rose. Many will continue to make money as these mortgages are paid off in the coming decades. Hard-working families and couples have been fleeced in the past decade. A system was in place, facilitated by the Government, which saw massive loans being given to developers to purchase properties at over-inflated prices, with a transference of the financial cost and, more specifically, the financial liability, down the line to first-time buyers. Hence, we had a massive percentage increase in the cost of buying a home when measured against income and almost a doubling in the scheduling of mortgage repayments from 20 years to 35 years. That has been the significant aspect of the Government's social housing policy in the past ten years.

How did this happen? The answer is simple. Those who had a duty of care, including the Government, regulators and banking institutions, all neglected that duty with the result that this country's future was invested in a property bubble. An example of this mind set was best captured in April 2006 when then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, referred to the "health" of the housing market and sneered at economists who predicted a collapse. With his chest puffed out on the "Six One News", he proudly proclaimed that people who listened to the "lulas" would miss the boat and would have to pay more for their houses. This was frightening talk then and it is even more frightening with the benefit of hindsight. It was the mantra of the dodgy salesman encouraging people to buy a dodgy product at an over-inflated price.

It did not matter to the former Taoiseach or his Government that the cost of buying a home was running beyond the grasp of working people. It did not matter that families were being locked into mortgages that would take their entire working lives to clear. Nor was the Government concerned, in those sunny days, that people would be in danger of losing their homes, when the rainy day inevitably came, because of the reckless practices it allowed to continue.

This Bill affords us an opportunity, once and for all, to banish the mind set that the primary purpose of housing development is profit for speculators. If the Bill is to succeed, it must be based on the principle that housing development, whether private or public, is about long-term security, that is, meeting the needs of society in providing people with homes of a quality standard, at an affordable price. The consistent theme in recent years has been the focus of the Fianna Fáil developer-led Government on sorting out the developers and getting new developments built. Such issues as schools, transportation, green spaces and common areas would be sorted out at some time in the future.

Figures I have obtained, and to which I have referred repeatedly in this House, show that less than one in ten homes in the private rental sector are inspected to ascertain their compliance with standards. Figures produced by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, show that only 12,000, or just over 6%, out of 188,000 registered private rented dwellings were inspected in 2007. The figures for 2008 are not much better. Of the 12,000 inspected in 2007, 2,379 were found to be substandard. However, legal action ensued in only 25 cases, or a fraction of 1% of the total number.

Earlier this year the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, issued guidelines and referred to a dedicated stream of money for local authorities to carry out inspections. However, neither the determination nor the powers to ensure inspections are carried out and standards enforced have been put in place. Despite promises of legislation, vulnerable private tenants are left without adequate protection because guidelines and standards only matter if proper enforcement is organised.

Like social housing, the private rental sector fulfils an important function, providing necessary housing for hundreds of thousands of people. Without question, the majority of landlords are compliant. In many cases, were it not for the private rental market many people could not find housing because of the absence of a clear strategic social housing programme over the past number of years. However it is unacceptable that, despite the legislation governing private residential tenancies and the promise of more legislation this year, adequate enforcement of standards does not take place. This is something the Minister of State is examining and I emphasise the urgency of the matter.

There is blatant avoidance of registration by landlords in the private rental sector by choosing to opt into licensee agreements. This is openly advertised on the IPA website and it is an encouragement to undermine the legislation. I suggest the Minister of State corrects this anomaly immediately and substantially increases the fines for landlord actively avoiding registration because of this loophole. A national inspection regime is required to ensure standards in private rented accommodation and social housing are enforced. This would guarantee the establishment of effective and efficient timeframes in which disputes could be resolved. Local authorities could determine an acceptable period in which urgent repairs should be carried out.

Every Member of this House, particularly those who have served on local authorities, is aware of two difficulties in social housing. One is the turnaround period after a property comes back into the possession of a local authority and before it is reallocated. It is not unusual for this delay to run to years. It is incumbent on the Minister of State to penalise local authorities that facilitate such delays when the work can be done. When a house becomes available in a local authority housing estate, which had been purchased through the tenant purchase scheme, the house is in immaculate condition on the day it is purchased and a tenant could move in on the same afternoon. For some reason, it takes months or years to turn these properties around and one can question the quality of work done in some of the houses. They seem to be allocated in poorer condition than when they came back to the local authority.

The second matter related to urgent and necessary household repairs. Local authorities should be issued with more than guidelines, perhaps a directive, so that if an elderly person or someone with a disability has a major housing repair requirement, this person is not waiting up to 12 months. There should be a specific timeframe in which to deal with this work. If something similar to the National Treatment Purchase Fund is required, whereby the local authority must look outside its capacity to carry out this improvement, so be it. Just like any landlord, local authorities have landlord obligations to their tenants. If we do not accept low standards in the private rental sector, why should we accept low standards in the public housing sector?

The problems relating to management companies are well understood and have been analysed by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. These companies, many of which were set up by developers, need to be regulated in the interests of the residents not the developers. In the absence of overdue legislation this problem has grown particularly acute where people are being held to ransom by these companies with no come-back and no Government support. Despite successive promises, there has been no regulator and no legislation brought forward by the Government. Homeowners have been abandoned by the Government and they find themselves on their own when a management company or agent provides a bad service.

The fact that these companies are currently in a legal no-man's land is causing endless trouble for affected residents. For several years, the Government has talked about the need for legislation in this area but we are continually fobbed off with policy reviews and committee meetings. Much talk has come from Government about this issue. What is needed is less conversation from this Government and more action.

This Bill is long-awaited and I envisage it will be significantly different by the time we get to Report State. I hope the Bill will remedy some priority issues if it cannot remedy most difficulties. It is very disappointing that when first published the Bill made no reference to homelessness. In later drafts homelessness was mentioned. I hope this was the result of an oversight by the Minister and the Department rather than an indication that homelessness is not a priority for them.

The response in the Bill to anti-social behaviour raises many questions. It appears to provide an additional load of bureaucratic nonsense for local authorities while giving them no additional powers. All this will do is further increase the frustration that currently exists when residents make a complaint and find their situation is no better, if not worse, at the end of a long and futile merry-go-round. We need legislative changes in penalising people who engage in anti-social behaviour, not broadening the scope of bureaucratic activity for local authority officers.

The Bill stands indicted for showing that the mentality of the Galway tent is still alive and well when it comes to the promotion of tenant purchase. The significant changes in this area are targeted towards shifting property to what is described as new build. This is code for empty housing estates built in areas without proper facilities or resources, which are now abandoned and may be filled due to ongoing lobbying of the Government by the Construction Industry Federation. This means there will be no incentive to regenerate existing communities through incentivising tenants to purchase their existing homes. With the exception of the established tenant purchase scheme, we are now seeing a movement of incentivisation of tenant purchase exclusively to the new build. When this is decoded, it refers to empty houses.

The Bill could well create a repeat of the circumstances of the 1980s, which led to an exodus of earning residents from local authority estates. To this day we are still picking up the pieces and paying the price of that mistake both in societal and financial costs.

In its current format, the Bill continues to leave tenants of local authority flats, who for years have been left in the lurch, without the right to buy their own home. The Minister has spoken about the requirement of a legislative framework for this to happen and this has been before the Attorney General. It has been indicated that on Committee Stage, amendments will be introduced. It is critical that the Minister, in his response to the debate, gives a clear commitment that such amendments will be included on Committee Stage.

People have been waiting for ten or 15 years or even longer to have the right to buy the home in which they live. That right is afforded to every other local authority tenant living in a house but not those prohibited from it because they live in a flat. Over that period, people have grown older and because mortgage schedules must be completed within one's working life, if somebody is 50 when trying to buy the flat, he or she only has 16 years to purchase it. If this anomaly is corrected, an opportunity which could have been put in place a number of years ago will unfortunately not be available to those people.

The Minister has talked about new builds and intends to introduce a purchase scheme confined to new builds, where people assessed for social housing can get a loan up to €285,000 from a local authority once they have been refused a mortgage by two lending institutions. This is ironically called the home choice purchase scheme. Everybody knows, particularly in recent months, that there are two reasons for refusing a mortgage. One is that the evidence indicates the prospective mortgagee will not be able to pay back a loan, and the second is that a property could be overvalued.

What purpose does this scheme serve other than to provide a sub-prime lending service and set a false floor price for new houses in a declining but still overvalued property market? There is a duty of care issue in this which I have put to the Minister, and I would like him to expand upon it. Given that there are performance and bonus payments to local authority officials, will this scheme be tied to bonuses?

A prospective house buyer may go to two banks and be refused because the banks, on good grounds, turn down the application after considering wages and seeing that the loan amount cannot be repaid or that a property is overvalued. If that person goes to a local authority and acquires a loan, will the person signing off on that loan receive a bonus at the end of the year because he or she has completed so many transactions within a schedule? If that is the case, serious questions must be asked. The Minister should send out a directive to those who put performance bonuses in place to prohibit such activity. The scheme should be banned in its entirety but if the Minister proceeds, it is critical that a bonus is not in place for local authority officials in facilitating the scheme.

This country is no longer as wealthy as it used to be but it is wealthy enough to be ashamed of its record on homelessness. With housing vacancy rates in Ireland at 15%, it is unacceptable that 5,000 people were homeless in Ireland last winter. We need a strategy to enable homeless people to make the successful transition from temporary emergency shelter to long-term accommodation. There is a specific role for the voluntary housing sector in collaboration with local authorities and the Minister's Department to move on the issue.

This can only be done with the proper rehabilitation processes in place, which would require a cross-departmental and inter-agency report involving the Department of Education and Science, the VECs, health agencies and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. There is a significant opportunity to act on this and the Government must take immediate action, starting with the implementation of a national strategy on homelessness, if we are to eventually see the end of the scandalous situation of 55% of people in emergency accommodation being stuck there for three or more years. There is something radically wrong if we are only dealing with shelter accommodation at the crisis end of the homelessness issue rather than moving people into long-term sustainable housing approaches.

I have some recent figures relating to the past three years in Dublin. In 2006, 1,615 presentations were made with regard to homelessness. An additional 280 presentations were already in the system, meaning the total was almost 2,000 people in the Dublin region being categorised, in some way or other, as being homeless. In 2007, there were just over 1,000 new people coming into the registration process. In 2008, a further 1,100 came in.

I welcome the fact that the Department has eventually moved on this but we need a definition of homelessness. I will table an amendment for the Minister's consideration when we get to this aspect of the Bill. If we need one thing on this matter, we certainly need a definition of homelessness if we are to resolve the problem.

The affordable homes issue also came up in the course of this debate and there is a difficulty out there. I will cite one example. A couple came to see me recently who were involved in the affordable homes scheme with Cork County Council. They were given a mortgage in principle for €250,000 by the council, as their earnings showed they could borrow that amount. They were told by the council that they would be granted a house in a scheme that had just been completed with a purchase price of €216,000, well within their mortgage in principle.

The couple went about the business of buying the property only to discover that when the lending institution examined the property, its value was €196,000, some €20,000 below what the council was selling it for. This will be a recurring difficulty and I stress to the Minister the need to ensure there is an examination of how the affordable housing product was put on the market. The prices were decided two years ago in a declining market, which has changed radically. We may well have a case where people will vote with their feet and the affordable housing programme, as it is currently, will come to a standstill, particularly with the introduction of the incremental purchase scheme. When that is introduced, it will be a far more favourable option to the existing affordable housing scheme.

Even in today's falling housing market, couples find that the cost of buying a home can still exceed their ability to pay and house prices are still over inflated. People are on a social housing list, given the unemployment figures received in this House yesterday, are increasingly finding that the list has grown longer and their place on it may be further down. For too long under this Government housing development and housing policy have been driven by the needs of everyone except home developers. I hope this Bill will show a clear change in direction in that respect. We need change badly, and it is time the House made those changes.

Under this Bill we have the choice to build communities and not housing developments. We can look beyond the bricks and mortar and insist that in future housing is built to sustain communities. We can insist on a housing programme that will enable purchasers to buy homes and not to trade in commodities.

Since I was elected to this House, I have asked when this Bill will come before it. I welcome the fact that we are now dealing with it. I acknowledge that since it was introduced in the Seanad significant changes have occurred in the economy and certain measures will have to be introduced in the Bill. However, there are fundamental aspects of it, regardless of whether the economy is buoyant or in a downturn, namely, good standards and long-term planning are critical to any housing programme. I acknowledge that the Minister of State will bring forward a series of amendments on Committee Stage. I look forward to examining those and will support those that will greatly improve the provision of housing in this State. The Labour Party will also bring forward amendments, to which I hope the Minister of State will give due consideration.

I, too, am pleased to welcome this Bill following its long passage through the Seanad. By chance I hit upon some of the contributions made in the Seanad. It received detailed scrutiny there and worthwhile suggestions were put forward, particularly on dealing with the issue of homelessness on which I will comment later.

I very much approve of a Bill of this nature. It seeks to bring together some of the many changes that have happened in housing in recent years and to put some of them on a statutory footing. It is a forward looking Bill. As the Minister of State and those of us who are public representatives and deal with housing matters will be aware, housing is an issue that is constantly presented to us, regardless of what changes are made or what new and innovative measures are introduced. I very much appreciate now, as I did many years ago when I was a local authority member, that the mind set of the Department, which may have been termed the Department of Local Government then, was innovative, as were county managers and housing officers in dealing with housing needs of people. Housing needs constantly change. People's housing needs are complex and they change against the backdrop of changes in society.

It was interesting to read the Minister of State's contribution and to hear the excellent contributions of the two Members who have spoken thus far in the debate. I was a secondary school teacher when I became involved in politics at local authority level many years ago and I recall thinking at the time that if everybody had the chance of a good education, the world would right itself. I later began to think that as well as a good education everybody should have the opportunity to have a decent house and that if they had a good education and a decent house, they would be set on a fair path in life. I have not altered my mind on those matters. Increasingly more people come to see me about housing matters. Members may well say they are matters for local authority members and they may ask why am I dealing with them. Be that as it may, I want to deal with them because I am intensely interested in housing and in ensuring that people get a chance to set themselves up in a decent house and can avail of the various schemes available.

This is a time of economic stringency and the Minister of State stated that openly. He said this Bill was being introduced against a background of strong housing provision in 2008 and equally strong provision, albeit by a small margin, in 2009. There will not be a bottomless pit in terms of such provision, therefore, it is important that departmental officials and ministerial officials adopt an innovative approach to overcoming difficulties. As the Minister said, there should be a modern and an appropriate legislative framework in place to allow local authorities to carry out their functions as housing authorities. The implementation of new schemes is often imposed on local authorities. When the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, was introduced, I recall local authorities were simply told it was a new scheme that was been implemented. This legislation is well thought out and all the new schemes will be put on a statutory footing. They can then be expanded or deleted as required. I very much like the way the functions of the housing authority are set out in the Bill, as well as the housing services plan. Those provisions are useful. Local authority members will now have a strong say and will provide the basis for the managerial carry through of housing action programmes. The programmes will be the delivery mechanism of the plans and will be prepared by the manager, but the basis of the plans will have been agreed by the local authority members. That is also a positive aspect.

Putting the rental accommodation scheme on a statutory footing is a good measure. Not enough people know about it. Local authority staff in town halls and county council offices will advise clients about it. However, when this Bill, as amended, is passed in this House and ratified in the Seanad, it would be useful for the Minister of State and his Department to issue a comprehensive booklet detailing the various schemes available through housing authorities at town hall or county council level, setting out that they have a statutory framework and how the people can inquire about them. The Minister of State's Department is good at doing that.

I have dealt with some clients who did not know about the RAS scheme. It was introduced at the end of 2005 or early 2006, but it has not been utilised enough. When I mention it to people, they appear not to have heard of it. Local authority officials will explain it to people. It is a good scheme. It gives a sitting tenant or a person on the social housing list a chance of getting decent housing and it has the added bonus that the landlord is spancelled in terms of what he can charge in rent, which is a good feature of the scheme.

When the affordable housing scheme was introduced, around the same time as RAS, five or six years ago, it was hailed as a good idea, which it was. It caught people's imagination and was the flavour of the month. People were in full employment and could consider purchasing an affordable home. Two factors arose, namely, the boom in the economy which enabled a person who was earning enough money to purchase his or her own home and the fact that the council could supply the home under the affordable housing scheme. I have two caveats. First, that was then and this is now. There is no doubt that in a time of declining employment I am coming across people in difficulties regarding the affordable housing scheme. At least they are with the local authority which will have a measure of justice and approachability in dealing with people getting into difficulties. There is a particular caveat I have in mind. I do not ever think the affordable housing scheme should be part of a giant local authority housing scheme with a very large number of housing units. I am aware of one such scheme that has not worked out. I know the original idea was to have social housing and affordable housing cheek by jowl very happy — they are not. In many cases people tell me they would love their houses if they could bring them somewhere else. That is not possible, as we know. I agree it was a fine philosophical point to have affordable and social housing side-by-side. While I accept it is accompanied by a very strong anti-social behaviour strategy, there are considerable dangers in such an approach in a very large housing scheme where difficulties abound.

There are two issues with affordable housing. One is that it was affordable when the person or couple first got it but it may not be affordable now in the changed economic climate. That should be closely monitored. While I am sure we will continue to have affordable housing, it should be at a very practical level and affordable homes should not be in a very large local authority project — I know there is a general move away from that. It is interesting to note how housing provision waxes and wanes. It moves from large schemes to smaller schemes and then back again to larger ones. Based on my local knowledge the best kind of scheme is one of manageable size that will allow people, whether in social or affordable housing, to encompass one and other while also having some OPDs. It is very useful for older people to live in a scheme where they see children going to and from school and see people going about their daily lives. I never believed in enclaves of OPDs, which are like Florida at home, so to speak, and I do not think highly of them. There should be a mixture, albeit a small-scale mixture.

The Minister referred to anti-social behaviour in strong terms. Joint policing committees have been established in urban and county areas. I attended the initiation of one in County Westmeath. Those bodies working through the local authorities will have a very positive effect on anti-social behaviour. It is not good enough that people get a fine local authority house in a good urban neighbourhood and then proceed to play pup. I would be all for being tolerant and I am noted for being very social minded, but I cannot see how people are able to give to free rein to their excesses in all sorts of ways and disrupt other people who wish to live their lives and rear their families in a fairly decent way. Some good people are benighted by behaviour such as is carried out in many housing estates.

This behaviour used to be just in one housing estate and people would refer to it as a bad estate. It is now creeping. I do not know if some of the blame can be placed at the door of the enormous wave of consumerism that hit us in the past five, six or seven years. I do not think so. Parents have children who need minding and caring regardless of their age. Therefore the seeds of anti-social behaviour can be often based on lack of responsibility. If people have a house, it is their house and it is up to them to mind it. I would strongly encourage the local authorities, local Garda and local joint policing committees to develop a strong anti-social behaviour strategy.

I understand the Minister of State will deal with homelessness in a series of amendments on Committee Stage, of which I greatly approve. Homelessness is real and is not something we dream up. One of the previous speakers spoke about people lying in porches and porticos of buildings throughout the city. We all know there is homelessness. Some people do not want to be helped and we need to come to grips with that. There are people who, regardless of how much help is proffered to them, do not wish to avail of it. That is their free will and they cannot be bludgeoned into taking whatever help is on offer. Leaving that to one side, there is a real need to deal with genuine homeless people. I know the Minister of State means well in his proposed amendments.

Approaches can be made to the local housing officer, for example, in the town hall in Athlone suggesting that the council should consider purchasing a good house in a good terrace that is for sale with a view to giving it to somebody on the housing list. We did a lot of that, particularly last year. There is a fear this year that the finance will not be available for such houses. However, I regard it as the very best way of dealing. The market is down regardless of whether it is in Dublin, Donegal, Dingle or Athlone. There is an opportunity, therefore, for local authorities to purchase decent homes in settled communities. I know the Minister of State is battling manfully to retain finance for this area. As the Bill shows, it is not always the provision of finance that is the defining matter for homelessness. It is the provision of ideas and creativity as well as putting things on a proper footing and having a framework for housing. All of that can be dealt with even in a time of stringent economic conditions. It does not close down one's mind — one's mind stays open and can see the big picture, which is reflected in the Bill. However, I hope the provision of finance to purchase existing houses in decent neighbourhoods — not necessarily posh neighbourhoods — at affordable prices continues and that there is not a reduction in the provision of finance for such purchasing by the local authority.

I strongly admire the women and men in local authority offices. Obviously, I can speak only for those in my own county and town, who genuinely seek to meet the needs of those on their housing lists. Housing lists are growing, which is why putting these schemes on a statutory footing and widening them to help people is very important. Those officers deal with people sensitively and with great patience. They also deal with us, elected representatives, with great patience as we continue to approach them on behalf of our constituents.

Early in my political life I decided if one had a good education and had a chance of a good house, one had a chance to serve the people. I remain very strongly of that mind as I deal with people every week on the provision of housing. I welcome the Bill and look forward to its passage and to listening to what people have to say. I look forward to seeing the Opposition and Government amendments. I know the Minister has already signalled his intention to introduce a raft of such amendments. I look forward to being part of that process, but I hope the Bill does not go on forever. While I hope anyone who wants to speak has a chance to do so, I would like to see the provisions coming into play. I commend the actions of the Minister of State in dealing with this very important issue.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, a colleague from a neighbouring constituency. I compliment him on his hands-on approach and on the work he has done in his portfolio since he took over as Minister of State with responsibility for housing. He has performed extremely well, which is widely acknowledged throughout the country. I always give credit where it is due. I hope he keeps up the good work in the portfolio.

The Minister of State has been good to his neighbouring counties. I acknowledge his support for Granard recently in allocating funding for housing there. County Longford needs more public housing, particularly in Longford town and Ballymahon, and I ask the Minister to allocate sufficient funds from his budget for additional housing in those two areas. There are also areas of County Westmeath where funding for housing is needed. I know when we approach the Minister of State, he will not be found wanting in supporting us and giving us the necessary funding for housing, which is badly needed. Close to 600 people in the small county of Longford are on the waiting list for public housing. There is huge demand and anything the Minister of State can do to alleviate the problems in our counties will be welcomed.

Last July, in a scene that would not be out of place in a movie on gangland warfare, dozens of people armed with hatchets, iron bars, shovels, sticks and stones rioted in a housing estate in Mullingar, in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath. Petrol bombs were thrown and weapons of all types used, with a complete disregard for the safety of the residents of the area. What deeply concerns me is that this breakdown in civil order took place during the school holidays, when young innocent children were playing in what should have been the safety of the open area of their own housing estate.

To date, 55 people have been charged with offences relating to public disorder and have been remanded on bail to appear in court again in May in regard to this breakdown of the norms of society. A number of men were charged under the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act with possession of a variety of implements, including a golf club, a sword and a shovel.

This case is by no means unique across the country and, in so far as it addresses such problems, the Bill is welcome. Any measure that would allow decent law-abiding citizens to live in and enjoy the facilities of their home areas in peace and safety must certainly have the support of all sides of the House.

Deputy O'Rourke referred to the joint policing committees which have been recently set up throughout the country under the local authorities. They are a perfect example of co-operation between local authorities, Members of the Oireachtas and local Garda superintendents. I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural meeting of the Longford committee last week. Such a united effort to develop policy to bring law and order to our cities and towns is very welcome and should be a powerful force for change.

The provision for the making of an anti-social behaviour strategy is the major strength of this legislation. On the one hand, it could be said to be long overdue, and I am glad the Minister of State has taken this on board, given his responsibility for housing. On the other hand, however, the escalation of violence on our housing estates to its current level was undoubtedly difficult to envisage. It has now presented itself to us in its most outrageous manifestations and must be tackled before innocent lives are lost and built environments destroyed. We have evidence of this in many parts of the country, in particular in many of our large towns, although it may not be evident in villages.

The issue of graffiti that wantonly destroys the appearance of the built environment, despite the best efforts of residents to maintain the appearance of their estates, is one that must be urgently tackled. In conjunction with efforts to enforce law and order, the initiative under restorative justice in which the offender must right the wrong is particularly applicable in this regard. We want to see those who cause graffiti, anti-social behaviour and damage dealt with and it is important this has been addressed in the Bill. If youths feel the need to deface property, it is important they be made clean it up. We cannot have a softly, softly approach to this problem in any of our local authority areas. When this legislation is passed, it is important the directors of services and senior officials within local authorities are brought in and asked to implement it to the last letter of the law. It is fine having laws in place but the implementation of these laws is vital and will breathe life into housing estates.

The issue of the tenant purchase scheme is now more important than ever. The recent decline in the public housing stock, allied with high property prices, has played its part in lowering the number of tenant purchases. The tenant purchase provision as outlined is disappointing in so far as it allows for a discount of only 30%. I ask the Minister to reconsider this because it needs to be examined with greater attention. The Minister of State might be open to an amendment on this issue as such a discount is way below that offered in the past.

The sale of the century took place when the late John Boland was Minister for the Environment and it was a great success. More people took control by buying out their houses under the tenant purchase scheme and there were fewer problems in housing estates. It is important that we have a good social mix of tenants in such estates.

It is no longer acceptable that people in voluntary housing schemes such as those linked to Respond, Clúid and Focus are precluded from purchasing their homes as this flies in the face of fairness and equality. It is certainly a thin line of argument to refuse them this facility as these agencies are funded by the State and local authorities. Can the Minister enlighten me as to why, and on what grounds, such purchases are disallowed? Perhaps he will consider including them. When people own their property, they have a greater sense of pride in that property and will maintain it to the letter of the law. We all have a sense of pride in our homes and want them to look well, particularly when they are privately owned rather than in public ownership.

In 2000, the Government launched a report entitled Homelessness — an Integrated Strategy. This report related to accommodation, health, welfare, education and preventative measures. Of concern to us in regard to this Bill was the proposal in the report that local authorities were to be responsible for the provision of accommodation for the homeless, including emergency hostel accommodation, with the health boards, now the HSE, being responsible for in-house care and health needs. Supposedly building on what was considered to be strong progress made under the integrated homeless strategy, The Way Home, which is described as a new strategy to address adult homelessness in Ireland between 2008 and 2013, was published last year. The stated core objectives are to eliminate long-term occupation of emergency homeless facilities and the need to sleep rough — which we see in plenty — and to prevent the occurrence of homelessness as far as possible. This should be the aim of all of us.

There are currently more than 5,000 homeless people in Ireland. Although the Bill encompasses measures that could be said to step outside the usual housing provision, it does not mention those people who lack basic living accommodation. Housing, or shelter, is a basic human right and entitlement. That this right is not mentioned, or considered as an option to be discussed in the Bill, is an insult to those among us who are forced to live in doorways and cardboard boxes, in a Third World manner.

There is a man I pass every day who sleeps on doorsteps in Molesworth Street, across from this House, day in day out, rain, hail, snow or sunshine. We might consider how different his circumstances are from those of tourists, or, of Members of the Oireachtas who book into the hotel across the road from where he sleeps. Many of us stay in Buswell's or in other hotels close by and we see great numbers of homeless people. This man is only one of those who sleep rough in doorways within 150 metres of this House.

Life is relative. It is not given to everyone to have a well-appointed house or, in some cases, two or three, but surely it is possible to give this man regular accommodation. The Government does not appear to see him or others like him. It must open its eyes to the issue of homelessness. There is nowhere better to start than with this Bill and I ask the Minister of State to take this on board. I would appreciate if he were to do this. He has shown a hands-on approach from the outset and therefore I have no doubt he will do so and that he will accept amendments from this side of the House concerning these issues.

One report after another is published, each one supposedly building on the wonderful progress made by the proposals in the preceding one. The process is repetitive. MakeRoom, the campaign alliance of Focus Ireland, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Threshold Alliance have launched a campaign designed to highlight the scandalous omission of the issue of homelessness from this legislation. They rightly ask the Minister to put homelessness at the heart of the Bill. I am sure those agencies have corresponded with the Minister of State as well as with Members of the Opposition.

I am shocked that a country which has placed such importance on housing since its inception should, in this Bill, ignore the most needy and vulnerable and fail to provide for them under its provisions. The omission by the current Government should be a cause of shame. Perhaps the Minister of State might talk to his advisers about this. Historically, the Free State Government made the first large-scale attempt to provide houses on a large scale under what was known as the "Million Pound Scheme". Local authorities provided £225 million which was matched by £1 million in State aid for the provision of houses in each area. Up to 2,000 houses were built under that scheme. The Housing Acts of 1931 and 1932 were particularly significant, effecting slum clearance and giving greater assistance to local authorities for the housing of displaced families. Over 75 years later we are still trying to achieve equitable housing provision.

The Celtic tiger years of 1995 onwards saw figures of those in employment rise from 1.1 million to 1.7 million. Unemployment fell below 4%, effectively full employment, and housing demand and prices rose along with income levels and the greater participation in the work force by women. This should be acknowledged. I heard a discussion on "The Ryan Tubridy Show" today about the value of women in employment. I very much support what was said in that programme.

It is intolerable, after a decade of prosperity, that we still live in a society where homelessness is a part of life for so many and the valuable initiatives started in the opening years of the State have not led, despite the extremes of wealth reached in the intervening years, to basic housing provision for those unfortunate enough to be living on the streets. It is vital that the root causes of homelessness such as poverty, drug and alcohol dependence be tackled but, more important, Bills such as this one must recognise the problem and put in place measures to deal with it. This cannot be emphasised often enough. With the spectre of homelessness hanging over so many, as the Government takes the earnings of the low and middle income earners, leaving many of them unable to meet mortgage repayments, surely now more than ever is the time to face the issue of homelessness rather than bury it and refuse to deal with it.

An associated issue is repossessions. When I spoke on the debate on the Investment of the National Pensions Reserve Fund and Miscellaneous Bill 2009, I highlighted the plight of frightened people throughout the country who have been made redundant and are now falling into mortgage arrears. This situation is widespread. I am sure that in his weekend clinics the Minister of State is, like myself, very much aware of this problem. I call on the banks to work with home owners who find themselves in this unenviable situation. The banks must take a more humane approach, forgetting repossession orders or legal proceedings in the short term, or until all other initiatives have been considered. All Members should call on the banks to do this because this House has been very good to the banks. We have pumped approximately €7 billion into them over the past few months and it is important that they should be considerate to their customers at this stage.

While repossessions are not directly related to this Bill, it is important for us to consider their impact on social housing provision, with the potential increased demand for public and affordable housing. I support this Bill but not in its totality. How difficult can it be to stop skirting around the major issue of homelessness and tackle it head on? I know the Minister of State has the ability to do this and I shall keep an eye on his progress in this regard. The first step must be to make good the omission at the heart of this legislation. I have no doubt the Minister of State will consider the many amendments this side of the House will put forward. He will doubtless put forward his own amendments to strengthen the legislation. We have a golden opportunity at this time to bring in good law and we do not need to rush to legislation. I appreciate that we are giving plenty of time to this important Bill over the coming days.

I acknowledge the wonderful services provided by the staff of local authorities, especially housing staff around the country. Deputy O'Rourke referred to those people in part of my constituency who work for Westmeath County Council. I acknowledge the invaluable services given by officials in counties Westmeath and Longford. I pay special tribute to a man the Minister of State knows very well in my own county, Mr. James Clark, who recently retired as director of services for housing with Longford County Council. He was a model senior official and was very well thought of——

The Deputy's time is up. He will have to find another way of informing the Dáil of Mr. Clark's merits.

He was very well thought of in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Members of the Dáil and of local authorities in the midlands and his council colleagues in County Longford, wish him well in his retirement.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Mary White. I welcome the Minister of State.

The Bill has many beneficial features and will likely add value to the management of local authority housing and provide a governance framework for the delivery of housing services by local authorities. However, there are some gaps in how the Bill will affect the delivery of housing services on the ground. The most pressing one is that the Bill is in essence a local authority housing Bill and it overlooks the fact that currently, housing associations are responsible for providing between one quarter and one third of new social housing each year and there are now in the region of 20,000 units of social housing being managed by this sector.

The sector, through the Irish Council for Social Housing, has identified that a strong legislative framework is now required to underpin the work of housing associations and it would be a shame if the opportunity to address that gap in this Bill was missed. Voluntary housing associations are active in every county providing much-needed social housing and support services to some of the most vulnerable and deprived people. The voluntary housing sector has a special role in providing much of the social housing for the elderly, people with disabilities and homeless people. In addition, the impact of these schemes on local communities is immense, often ensuring smaller towns remain vibrant by providing community facilities on-site and by providing employment locally, for example, in the construction sector, in developing such new projects.

Housing associations are involved in serving more than 400 communities throughout the country from larger urban areas to a small rural parish and the cumulative effect of their work extends well beyond the mere provision of social housing as they provide significant social capital to local communities.

There are currently 718 approved housing bodies which have been granted approved status by the Minister under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002. The Government's statement on housing policy, Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, as part of its overall reform of social housing, states the intention on page 15 to, "improve governance of the voluntary and co-operative housing sector". There are numerous powers for the Minister regarding governance of social housing delivered by local authorities. However, the governance of the voluntary and co-operative housing sector has been overlooked. It is still not clear from the Bill what is the proposed governance framework for approved housing bodies in this Bill.

Section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992, is the relevant legislative power. Does this provide sufficient powers to remove approved status? Clearer instruments for the governance of approved housing bodies should be set out. The powers dealing with approved status should be updated to reflect the size, scale and diversity of the sector with a need to update section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992.

The term "approved body" should be changed to "approved housing body" to distinguish from other approved bodies approved by other Departments, as it becomes confusing and the term "approved housing bodies", would provide greater clarity about the role and function of the organisation.

The basis for housing association tenancies is still not clear. In the Bill they are part of the social housing sector but in legislation the status of tenancies originates in the private rented sector. However, they do not come under the auspices of the PRTB. As the status of the approved bodies' tenancies is effectively unclear, the Bill should include powers to allow for approved housing bodies access by regulation, if required, to relevant parts of the PRTB Act or relevant housing legislation.

I am currently a board member of The Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, which is the national federation of housing associations in Ireland. The ICSH has more than 300 affiliated member housing associations providing accommodation for families, single people, the elderly, homeless people and people with disabilities. Housing associations which in legislation are referred to as "approved housing bodies", are non-profit organisations formed for the purpose of relieving housing need and the provision and management of housing. They are established by a voluntary management board to benefit the community in which they are based. Approved non-profit housing bodies, housing associations and housing co-operatives, currently manage in excess of 20,000 dwellings. In 2007 housing associations developed 1,685 units of accommodation and are estimated to have provided a similar or greater number in 2008, especially with the additional capital funding which the Minister obtained to meet commitments for Part V projects which was very much welcomed in the sector. Projects undertaken by housing associations may be in response to the needs of the elderly, people with disabilities, homeless persons or families and single people on low incomes. Some housing associations may be formed to specialise in meeting a particular housing need while others develop with broader aims.

The specific housing services offered will depend on the aims or concerns of the members, the needs of tenants as well as the financial and other resources available for both capital costs and ongoing management running costs. Depending on the type of housing need to be met by the housing association, the accommodation provided may be in the form of ordinary rental houses or flats or specially designed supportive sheltered housing with on-site communal welfare facilities, group homes or hostels. It is a very broad range.

Along with the ICSH, I welcome the publication of the Bill and consider it a wide-ranging piece of legislation. I recognise that it seeks to add clarity to many aspects of the provision of social housing. I note that improvements in the legislative framework for the reform of social housing have been sought for some time and I recognise this Bill is a step towards providing greater legal clarity. The reform measures outlined in Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities, are reflected in the Bill to some degree but require strengthening. While welcoming in general the publication of the Bill there are a number of aspects to which I seek to draw attention and which will need to be addressed. These aspects include significant areas of reform which are required but have not been included in the Bill's provisions.

The Bill as it stands requires amendment. I welcome the strengthening of the role of elected members in adopting the proposed local authority housing services plan. However, it would be useful if the same level of consultation were in place for the local authority housing action programme. This would be essential in allowing elected members to be able to measure progress of the implementation of the targets in the housing action programme which is often part of local authorities' housing-related strategic policy committee role.

It would also be essential to have consultation with the voluntary housing sector in adopting the local authority housing action programme. In many local authority areas, housing associations in the voluntary housing sector play an increasing role in delivering commitments and targets in the housing action programme. It is only logical that the organisations being asked to deliver would have a meaningful input. I know from my own experience with the voluntary housing sector that one of the greatest frustrations is not knowing or being denied information about the former housing action plans on social housing targets in different areas. It is very frustrating. In addition, the new guidelines for voluntary housing associations developing new housing projects require preliminary and detailed appraisals to be undertaken before any project can proceed and as part of this process the housing association has to show that the proposed project is in line with the commitments in the housing action plan. This will be impossible if the information in the housing action plan or programme is not forthcoming.

If the voluntary housing sector is being asked to work in partnership with local authorities then access to information in the housing action programme is crucial. The more comprehensive approach in the Bill to the future housing needs assessment process undertaken by local authorities is to be welcomed.

I ask the Minister of State to arrange for more regular or real time assessment of housing need as every three years in the current climate does not allow for up to date planning. I know from my own area in south Tipperary and west Waterford there has been an increase in the demand for social housing since the last assessment in March 2008. I ask the Minister of State that the Bill would allow for an annual assessment in this current climate.

Previously, there has been a greater emphasis on the physical aspects of social housing support. Even with special needs groups, this has focused on the very important grants for older people and those with disabilities. However, the Bill should contain a direction to local authorities to the effect that social housing also focuses on aspects such as onsite supports as well as sheltered and supported housing.

The provisions on anti-social behaviour are welcome in terms of providing reassurance for the vast majority of good tenants. A strengthened Bill will achieve a better outcome and greater clarity for the Minister of State's Department, local authorities and the voluntary housing sector as well as, importantly, for tenants and the public.

I welcome this Bill and believe it creates a very important roadmap for housing policy and the Government's schemes in this area for the coming years.

As the Minister of State said this afternoon, it is very important that despite the financial challenges being faced by the Government, we have a strong sense of where we are going with housing. The right to housing and the strong sense of entitlement to it in this country are enormously important for people and Government policy must adapt and change with new trends and in new economic times.

The regulatory impact assessment prepared for this Bill had very strong aims and principles such as the need to focus on the long-term housing needs of people, not just in the short term, as well as the need for greater social mix in estates through the geographical dispersal of social housing and the need to improve co-ordination of housing activities by strengthening the role of housing authorities in housing provision, along with support services generally. This last aim is very important if we are to get local authorities to ensure greater planning of housing needs within county development plans.

I warmly welcome the provision in the Bill to oblige local authorities to make a housing services plan within six months of a development being planned. Let us have no drift with regard to that time limit because it is so important to have housing copper-fastened in the county development plan. Equally important is the requirement on the county manager to ensure the plan's implementation.

Another important aspect of the legislation is the section dealing with measures to address anti-social behaviour. Other Members of the House have addressed this but I am aware from the experience of my constituents in Carlow-Kilkenny of the terror that overtakes those living in areas where hooliganism can be threatening, abusive, extremely noisy and can turn peaceful estates into nightmarish areas. I am not only referring to a few eggs being thrown at a window but rather joy-riding on green spaces, trees being cut down, galloping horses on greens and even the discharge of firearms, as in County Carlow recently, and the ever-prevalent scourge of drug dealing. There are probably other aspects of anti-social behaviour of which we are all aware but if we could eradicate and make it more difficult for this type of behaviour to be indulged in on estates, it would make for much more peaceful communities.

The redefinition of what constitutes anti-social behaviour and the protection given to the operation of social and affordable housing from unrealistic demands emanating from those who are anti-social is important. Chapter 4 of the Bill, with its provisions for the rental accommodation scheme, is extremely detailed. These new powers for housing authorities will improve the standard of housing accommodation available for those renting through councils. One important aspect of the new provisions in this chapter is the facility for local authorities to inspect the dwellings being rented from private landlords by those on social housing. We have all had complaint after complaint where rented accommodation is sometimes abused by the landlord, who does not maintain it properly, or indeed by the tenants who avail of private rented accommodation. Where such inspection is not possible by local authorities, the danger of exploitation is significant. This provision in this part of the Bill means a local authority can work with a tenant to ensure that the scheme is being respected by landlords.

The provision in Part 3 for a new incremental purchasing scheme is to be welcomed as a sign of further empowerment of those in need of social or affordable housing to move towards full housing independence. I believe Deputy Bannon raised the matter of the need for people to buy out the Respond houses. The jury is out in that regard because if the housing stock is all sold off the local authority will be in a parlous position in not being able to provide rented accommodation in times of need.

Looking forward, the implications of negative equity must be factored into all provisions of the Bill, and to a considerable extent they are. However, I hope the Minster of State ensures that the considerably changed housing market, even from the time this Bill was published, must be considered in all purchasing schemes. I should also like to see the Minister of State explore the possibility of allowing tenants the right to purchase local authority apartments, something that is currently prohibited. This would be a very welcome step forward in adding provision and security of housing for tenants. Why should they not be able to buy local authority apartments? It makes sense in these tough economic times in terms of smaller housing units, built in nice areas and well maintained. I hope the Minister looks at this proposal sympathetically.

An aspect of social housing which is perhaps beyond the scope of this Bill is important in terms of developments in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It concerns the roll-out of retrofit schemes for social housing. Socially, environmentally and economically the sooner the retrofit scheme is implemented, the better. I have one last plea, which might not be in the remit of the Minister of State. I was in a local authority estate recently where one could not kick a ball on the miserly little green space catering for about 30 houses, while next door one could fit a couple of stadiums the size of Croke Parks and which was beautifully landscaped with lovely trees. We should put a good deal of effort into our social housing units, to ensure there are nice places for mothers to sit out with their children in buggies, for children to play or for older tenants to be able to enjoy a peaceful part of their housing development. That should be factored in. In very tough economic times we must ensure that the provision of housing and the aspect on which dwellings look out helps people enjoy where they are living. That aspect should be addressed in the Bill.

I welcome this Bill. When we consider the number of housing-related Bills we have had over the last three or four decades we might expect that the end product would update the many shortfalls exposed in a practical manner as a result of this Bill. Unfortunately I cannot see much improvement in many areas, welcome though many of the Bill's provisions are.

Given that the Minister of State is a rural Deputy, I am astonished that there is not one mention of rural housing in the Bill. We have concentrated on the problems and difficulties we have in urban and city locations, and these are many, but there is not a single reference to the provision of rural housing. The difficulty with that, as the Minister of State knows, is that people from rural families on housing lists must, in the main, return to an urban environment to be housed. People from rural communities going into urban situations can cause problems, and they encounter difficulties when they move there.

With regard to the cost factor, very often somebody from a rural background in need of housing may have a site available. This normally might be made available for a nominal amount and provide very competitive prices, albeit for once-off housing development. There is a lack of competitiveness in terms of price per unit for a rural house in a once-off housing development as against those in large estates.

We have a Green Party Minister with overall responsibility for the environment but I have not seen anywhere in the Bill, and I am open to correction on this, any emphasis on a new response in terms of the need for greener energy measures, either through design or density. There is no facility to highlight the green agenda. Is it not important to have some indication that there could be a diversification away from the standard house design to include solar panels, the need for very high standards of insulation, communal heating systems and so on? There was an opportunity to modernise the Bill in that area but, unfortunately, it is lacking in that regard.

I refer to the question of design. The Minister of State may have been a member of a local authority when a former Member, Bobby Molloy, as Minister with responsibility for the environment, allowed for the construction of large estates and the houses did not have chimneys. Where those houses still exist they are a monument to his Ministry.

That would be funny if it were not for the fact that we continue to design and construct houses that do not have a back door. I visited an estate recently and a tenant told me that they had to bring their fuel through the hall door, down a narrow hallway, out through the kitchen and into the back garden. There is a responsibility to have standards in design. That area must be monitored but it appears there is no monitoring of any kind in terms of design standards. Is it a case of wanting to put as many houses as possible into those areas and doing them as cheaply as possible? That creates serious problems for the future because even the most careful tenants in many of those houses find that certain furniture fittings, the heating, flooring, insulation or whatever are inadequate and immediately seek to have repairs done, which results in additional expenditure on those houses. That should not be necessary if proper standards were adhered to.

I do not know whether it is the responsibility of local authorities to appoint architects and design teams for large housing estates or if this is done centrally but most people would say that when they go into a large housing estate and see a repetition of the same design, standards, elevations and so on, it lacks a community element from the outset. There is nothing that would encourage even the most enthusiastic community minded people to want to belong to that community and be proud to live in it. It would be irresponsible to suggest that a young couple or family in need that gets a house from a local authority are not delighted with it but when the other difficulties to which I referred arise, the community spirit that should be engendered is not there.

It is penny pinching in the extreme that local authorities are not provided with the funding to appoint liaison officers who would liaise between council housing sections and the tenants in the various authorities. They do not have to be available day and night but if there was a presence, even on a periodic basis, they could knock on the tenants' doors and ask if there is anything they want or if they can follow up on anything for them. There is a breakdown in that regard. There is no point in presenting a key to a new tenant, letting them close the door and the council walking away and saying they are finished with them and that is another one off the list. That is not good enough. The Minister of State said he does not have the funding to provide for what I would call liaison officers to represent the local authority housing section but if they were appointed it would at least eliminate the many difficulties that may arise in the future.

There have been approximately 12 or 14 housing Bills over the years. New phenomena arise all the time and the one that was raised by numerous speakers is the question of anti-social behaviour. We cannot blame the housing authority personnel, the director of housing and the housing officers, for this. Like many previous speakers I want to pay a special tribute to the housing section of Galway County Council under its director and officers for the excellent way in which they deliver the resources and the housing within the county and rural areas in County Galway. Traditionally, they have been exemplary. I am sure Members representing other counties would say the same about their areas but for a large county like Galway, and the great number of houses it provides for many families throughout the county, Galway County Council must be complimented.

Having said that, many difficulties present themselves to those people and some of them are dealt with in the Bill. Section 62 of the 1966 Bill must be amended as a matter of urgency and incorporated in this Bill and I will outline my reason for saying that. There is a frustration on the part of directors of services in housing throughout the country because of the inadequacies of their powers to go into court in cases where there is identifiable anti-social behaviour. The tenants responsible for that anti-social behaviour cannot be taken to task quickly and evicted from their housing because when the council goes to court there is such a proliferation of laws that somebody will bring up one of them in court.

It is equally important that there are support services available for tenants who are experiencing difficulties. I am not suggesting we eliminate those but where there is identifiable and blatant anti-social behaviour, the hands of the housing directors and those responsible within local authorities are tied because they cannot move quickly enough with the current systems to evict those people.

We are talking about local authority housing but I want to refer to the private rental scheme where the Health Service Executive is providing rent allowance on an ongoing basis to people who are behaving in an anti-social manner. Private landlords are also hampered in the way they can deal with the problem. The best way the problem could be dealt with is by withdrawing the rent supplement but that does not happen. I accept it is a drastic step but drastic circumstances require such measures. There is an urgent need to give the necessary powers to the local authorities and involve all the agencies involved. Deputy O'Rourke mentioned the joint policing services earlier and the important role they have played, particularly in small towns, with regard to co-operating with local authorities to eliminate some of the difficulties that arise.

Another provision in the Bill which struck me is the section which refers to a timeframe within which the matter has to be dealt. Initially it is eight weeks, then four weeks and some other number of weeks before, at last, the final report is available to the Minister. The important thing is there is no indication, as far as I can see from the conditions here, where there is an onus on the local authority or Department to highlight and advertise the conditions in this Bill.

I do not know if the consultation period and facilities to bring groups together are adequate or what ideas the Minister has for the future to highlight existing estates and future developments, or where councils intend to build or provide housing. Therein lies a major difficulty. I checked in my local authority as to the landbank available to the council. Unfortunately, the landbank has been eliminated. That is not to say there is inadequate housing for the many people on a waiting list.

There was a time when local authorities had landbanks. There were difficulties and one could retort by arguing that if a local authority had a large stretch of land it would create a ghetto. That is not what I mean and it does not have to be the case. With proper design, density requirements and provision of facilities integrated into such developments we could have very solid communities from social housing. The spread of such houses, within the conditions of this Bill, is very welcome, whether it is affordable housing, other rented accommodation or the eventual purchase of houses. The Minister of State may be able to address the matter of landbanks in a future reply.

I remind the Minister of State that local authorities, the Government and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have never been presented with such a golden opportunity. Throughout the country there is an oversupply of houses, which are wonderful, constructed to the highest standards and available at good prices. There is a hesitancy on the part of councils to buy those houses. It is important to note that these estates, in the main, are already completed and landscaped, and have in place all the required services, which we would not normally associate with council houses for a long period of time after tenants have moved in.

There always have been difficulties in parts of the country where there has been a shortfall in resources and money for the provision of basic services such as lighting, open spaces and playgrounds. If the Minister of State lets this opportunity go without including these factors it will be remiss of him.

On the issue of the timescale, I emphasise to the Minister the importance of having open consultation with all interested groups, other agencies such as the HSE and the Garda Síochána and housing and community groups throughout the country, who are all willing to participate. Many people say public meetings will be held and there will be horrific statements about various groups. That is not what I have in mind. If a proper presentation is delivered and a explanation is given of what is involved in this Bill, the questions and difficulties which now exist could be very easily and readily eliminated.

I ask the Minister of State to reconsider the timeframes he mentioned for the plans he has devised. A time of four weeks to describe housing circumstances in writing and a period of six months is mentioned for another situation.

I wish to raise the issue of the 1966 Act. The Minister of State should make it clear that when directors of housing in local authorities have to go to court, they can do so and adequately make the case regarding a person brought before the court on a matter of anti-social behaviour, and that the person will be dealt with adequately, sufficiently and fairly.

One section of the Bill concerns the provision of caravan sites. They have led to very serious problems and difficulties and have given local authorities and officials a very bad name when halting sites are provided with no services. There may be running water but it is cold. There are no washing facilities, communal or otherwise. When a Minister allows that we are asking for trouble. Difficulties have arisen in many areas. The Traveller community will be discontented when there is a failure to provide adequate or reasonable facilities. We commit a very serious error by not providing adequate facilities.

If the Minister of State proposes to allow local authorities to provide such facilities in the future, no tenant, no matter what the urgency, should be allowed into a site until adequate facilities are in place and there is constant monitoring by a liaison officer. If funding is not provided for this more problems will be generated down the line.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, which will improve housing services and delivery by giving effect to the programme for social housing measures outlined in the Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities policy document published in 2007.

In welcoming the Bill I wish to make some comments on the homeless. I welcome the publication of this Bill and believe, when passed, it will improve the quality of housing services provided by local authorities. However, with constructive amendments, we can make a positive impact to end long-term homelessness. In particular, I would like to see the provisions outlined in the Government's programme on the homeless strategy, The Way Home, included in the Bill. Placing the issue of long-term homelessness on a statutory footing will ensure all local authorities and statutory agencies will have to meet their commitments.

I would like provisions on the right to housing for those in need, a new legal definition of homelessness and a greater level of standardisation in housing needs assessment and local authority allocation schemes included in the Bill. I ask the Minister of State to put the issue of homelessness at the heart of this Bill.

The standards and quality of local authority housing have improved enormously. It is now difficult to identify whether a scheme has been built by a local authority or a private company. Unfortunately, there are people involved in anti-social behaviour in some local authority housing schemes. It is imperative that all of us, particularly those in local authorities, ensure people involved in such behaviour are eliminated from the communities and not allowed to destroy an entire estate or community. Everything must be done in accordance with the law. The new policing boards will have an important role to play and they should have an input into the assessment of the suitability of people for local authority housing.

Debate adjourned.