Other Questions

Rented Dwellings Register

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Social Protection if she is considering revising the rent caps in urban areas in view of the recent reports that rents are increasing in urban areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18803/13]

Bernard Durkan

Question:

8. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Social Protection if any consideration will be given to increasing the maximum level of rent in respect of which rent support will be offered with particular reference to the need to address local market issues throughout North Kildare; if her attention has been drawn to the discrepancy in rent levels throughout the county due to market forces which in turn impact on persons on local authority housing lists who have to rely on private rented accommodation in lieu of local authority housing; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18933/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 8 together.

The Government has provided more than €403 million in 2013 for over 86,000 rent supplement recipients. The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation. It should not to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer. It is essential that State support for rents are kept under review and do not distort the market in a way that could increase rent prices for other people, such as low-paid workers and students. Analysis shows that there are properties available within the maximum rent limits for rent supplement recipients in County Kildare. The number of rental properties available in north Kildare is somewhat lower than the numbers available in the rest of the country. This has an impact on the number of accommodation units available for rent supplement purposes. According to the latest figures, there are 4,400 rent supplement recipients in County Kildare, over 1,000 of whom reside in the Leixlip, Kilcock, Maynooth and Celbridge areas of north Kildare. This indicates that it is possible to secure accommodation in such locations under the current rent limits. An analysis of recent reports has shown that rents have increased in Dublin, Cork and Galway, with rental asking rates falling in other cities and in rural areas. I gave a previous commitment to complete a review of maximum rent limits by the end of June. The officials have done a great deal of work on this. I am pleased to say I am confident that the review will be finished by the end of May, with new rent limits in place by early June.

We have finally heard some good news.

Can I bottle that comment?

I hope it really is good news. I am glad the rent limits are being reviewed. It could not have come a moment too soon. I ask the Minister to consider a random sample from daft.ie of rents in the south Dublin area. In the case of bedsits, there is not a single rental property in south Dublin that is available today under or on the cap the Minister is proposing.

This is causing havoc for people. I hope the Minister will take a lead from the local authorities in this regard. There seems to be an acknowledgement that, for example, while the rent cap for a couple with two children is €925, local authorities that are doing deals with landlords under RAS are actually agreeing to pay between €1,050 and €1,300 because they understand that the caps are utterly unrealistic.

Will the Minister in her review take into account the fact that deals are being done under the rent caps? This means she should not conclude that there are many properties available at rents lower than the caps. Just this week I heard about the case of a couple, Emma and Keith, whose two children live with their father, but the father is deemed not to exist in terms of accessing rent allowance so they are paying €1,200 in rent despite receiving rent allowance which is capped at just €950. They have to cobble together the rest out of their social welfare payments. In her review, the Minister needs to consider the fact that, in reality, a large number of people are being forced to cobble together money to pay rent which is far higher than the caps. That is not acceptable.

I acknowledge the Deputy's analysis of an increase in rents in south County Dublin. The Department constantly checks all of the available information ranging from that on www.daft.ie to information we have available to us from organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, as well as the information available to community welfare officers who work in the area.

I want to stress again that we are spending a great deal of money on rent allowance for what was meant to be a short-term scheme. While we will have this review carried out by early June, we know there are parts of the country in which rents are still falling. We have to be careful, in a scenario in which the Department of Social Protection is responsible for renting somewhat more than 36% of all private rental accommodation in Ireland, that we do not drive rents up, particularly for workers on low wages and those such as students who commonly rent. It is for this reason that, with regard to people in long-term rented accommodation, I have been involved with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in plans to move the rent allowance scheme from my Department to that Department. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has introduced proposals for a new housing allowance payment which will be paid by that Department.

I am sure the Deputy is aware of the current problem whereby, if a person on rent allowance gets a job, he or she risks losing all rent support. That is something we can only effectively change if we can move long-term renters to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and have a similar scheme to that applying to differential rent in a local authority house. If somebody gets a job, he or she can calculate that the rent will be, say, 15% to 20% of his or her income, and will know that he or she will not be charged a huge amount extra. It is a complex area and we are working to reform it.

I thank the Minister for her extensive reply and in particular for the review that is taking place, which she indicated in reply to a previous question. I also thank her for her understanding of the situation, which is becoming precarious for many people in north Kildare, where private rents are higher than they are in most parts of Dublin by virtue of competition. As the Minister has just acknowledged, this results in serious hardship for those who are caught in a poverty trap and cannot go to work because they are dependent on rent support. They are on the local authority housing list and are in receipt of rent support in lieu of local authority housing, a situation the Minister understands exactly.

The ideal situation is to transfer responsibility to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, whose responsibility it is to meet the housing needs of the community. In the absence of that, I ask that the Minister for Social Protection try to ensure those who are under the greatest pressure in terms of rent support are at least acknowledged in the short term. If necessary, she should apply a deadline for the situation to change over.

On a point that has been the subject of other parliamentary questions, I particularly ask that she consult with her colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to try to ensure that a major capital housing programme is initiated. Some 100,000 families are on local authority housing lists, 8,500 of those in County Kildare alone. Critics will say they only want the rent support. However, they do not have a house of their own or anywhere to go, and they have no means of housing themselves and their families other than through the rent support system.

I have spoken on a number of occasions recently about my own view that we should have a housing stimulus programme, which would address some of the issues Deputy Durkan has raised but would also help get people back to work. We have a difficulty in certain areas where there is a shortage of housing. The previous Government abandoned the building of council housing because, I suppose, at the time Fianna Fáil was encouraging everybody to take out a mortgage. We have inherited a situation in which we need to move long-term rent supplementation for tenants to the local authorities. As I said, I have had intensive consultations with both the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. In certain areas, particularly where there has been an influx of foreign direct investment - north Kildare has done very well in that regard, as have parts of south and south-east Dublin - there is a lot of competition for very scarce accommodation. In addition, the recent changes in regard to bedsit accommodation have affected availability, although for a good reason - namely, to improve standards in what people used to call bedsits.

I concur with the Deputy's sentiments. When I have met the Deputies from Kildare and when the survey is completed, I will speak about this in the House again.

I agree it is an improvement to move rent supplementation to local government, for all of the reasons outlined by the Minister, particularly in terms of people seeking employment. I agree also that the long-term solution to this, or even the medium-term solution, is a major social housing programme, which would be better value for everybody and would far better secure the wants and aspirations of people for a secure roof over their heads. I hope the Minister will announce that we are to move away from the disastrous Fianna Fáil policy and towards building social housing. In the interim, however, rent caps in areas where rents are rising must be dealt with as a matter of urgency because, while I accept rents are falling in other areas, we must have realistic caps.

I also ask that action be taken to make it illegal for landlords to say that rent allowance tenants will not be accepted, which is, frankly, the modern Irish equivalent of "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish", the phrase on the horrific signs that were used in Britain not 20 or 30 years ago. It is used to prevent people who need to rent property from getting it by landlords who seem to discriminate against people simply because they are unfortunate enough to need rent support or are unemployed. It is obnoxious and is also a major obstacle to people in finding the little bit of affordable rental accommodation that is available.

I echo the sentiments of Deputy Durkan about the requirement to review this issue on an ongoing basis and welcome the Minister's commitment to have an announcement in May. I assure the Minister that south Dublin is not the only area seeing rent increases, particularly for three-bedroom homes. It is happening across the major urban areas in Dublin, although it is confined to individual towns in Fingal as opposed to south Dublin, where it extends to substantial parts of the county. I will give the Minister an example.

Could the Deputy ask a question? It is Question Time.

I will be quick. The point I wanted to make and about which I put a question to the Minister some weeks ago concerns the disparity between areas in Fingal - for example, Balbriggan in the north, and an area 26 km from the boundary in the south. There should be a vast difference in the cap between those two areas, because the rents are vastly different. The review should be ongoing for areas such as these.

I also wish to focus on Fingal, which is an area close to home for the Minister and me. The issue in question is the rent cap for accommodation for lone parents with one child, which is currently €775 per month. I am aware of the case of a person who has been in accommodation for the past seven years. The rent was reduced previously, she negotiated it down to €950 and it has now been reduced to €775. There is no way that person can stay in her home with her child unless she gets help from her family and lies on her application and her landlord is prepared to lie as well. That is the position the Minister has forced people into by having rent limits that are completely out of line with market rents. Her officials have admitted that. I welcome her statement today that a revision of rents will be announced next month, but will she give an instruction to her officials between now and the introduction of the new levels not to move against any existing tenants who are in the process of having their rent supplement applications reviewed or are appealing an earlier decision to refuse it on the basis of the level of the rent? Will she give a very clear instruction to officials to hold off and not make people homeless because of delays in the Department in coming up with the new levels?

I still rent properties in the countryside and the city. Since last September, there has been a dramatic change in rents in Dublin city, mainly due to the fact that banks have not been making money available for people to get on the property ladder. Far more people are renting than had planned on doing so, which has had a dramatic effect on rents. I can see that rents have gone up considerably since last September.

I know that new regulations with regard to bedsits were introduced and I welcome them. However, I am conscious of the point made by Focus Ireland that many people on low incomes were dependent on those cheap bedsits. The Minister is dead right to sort out the landlords and those who do not provide proper accommodation but, at the same time, we must be really careful to ensure these people do not end up homeless and that they are taken care of. I very much welcome the Minister's point that social housing is the way forward.

In respect of the question of transferring rent supplement to the local authorities, the Minister may or may not be aware that her own Department supplied a document to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection late last year to say that this would happen on 1 January 2013. Now we are told that extensive and intensive negotiations are taking place. Is this another example of what Fionnan Sheahan recently described in the Irish Independent as the Minister's habit of flying kites and pulling them down just as fast? She is constantly talking about reform, just not implementing it.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to reduce eligibility for the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, from 18 to six months for people receiving rent supplement. However, in reply to a parliamentary question I tabled, the Minister said she was not going to proceed with that. The measure would address the problem she raised regarding people moving from welfare to work because, as she knows, if one is eligible for RAS, one can work more than 30 hours per week. Why is she not proceeding with that very simple change?

I have spoken to community welfare officers in her Department off the record who I am sure have told the Minister that the leases coming before them are a fiction. In order to keep children in the place where they are settled and in the same schools, landlords and tenants are agreeing leases that meet the caps but are in fact going back to the old practice of topping up payments. This is a cut in social welfare by default because the money is coming straight out of those families' incomes. That needs to be addressed.

I concur with Deputy Nulty's comments about top-up payments. I have raised this issue with the Minister on a number of occasions and she has denied that her Department has any information that this is happening. If she talked to the groups she mentioned earlier, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Focus Ireland or Threshold, they would attest to a widespread practice of top-up payments that has been there for years and is getting worse. What steps will be taken to address that?

The bedsit issue is key, and I concur with Deputy Wallace's comments. When will the transfer from the Department of Social Protection to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government happen? Then we will then be dealing with a different Department. Some people are saying that RAS is becoming an unmitigated disaster in the Dublin City Council area because landlords are withdrawing from it and the local authority cannot find enough properties to facilitate it. There is a crisis not just in social housing but for those renting privately who avail of rent supplement. I hope the Minister will be able to address those issues which need to be addressed urgently before she ends up with far more people living on the streets, and, if there is another winter similar to the previous one, dying on the streets.

Does Deputy Durkan have a brief question? He had tabled a question.

I acknowledge the Minister's efforts to deal with a very difficult situation. I also acknowledge the fact that a previous Minister for Social and Family Affairs indicated about seven years ago an intention to transfer responsibility for that particular area to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, but it did not happen in that length of time.

Notwithstanding all of this, is it possible in the interim at least to address the most sensitive issues that have been brought to our attention, including particular pockets where the competition for accommodation is so great that people in difficult circumstances have no option but to live in a caravan or become homeless? I, and I am sure everyone else, have seen situations in recent weeks involving people who were homeless and had nowhere to go. It is an awful, tragic situation that the Minister inherited from her predecessor. I do not wish to blame her predecessors but they should not take the opportunity to crow too much about it either.

I thank all the Deputies who raised the issue. We are ready to transfer to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government as soon as that Department has the necessary legislative arrangements in place. Deputy Durkan spoke about the long gestation period. A previous Minister spoke about this for nearly a decade. All I can say is that the first trial scheme in respect of the housing assistance payment should commence very shortly. One of the difficulties is that the local authorities, particularly during the boom, built up 88 different accounting and IT systems to calculate differential rents and so on.

As the Deputy's Fianna Fáil predecessors in this office came to understand, this was exceptionally difficult to change.

We have achieved a significant number of changes. I am disappointed that more local authorities have not placed more people and used the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which gives security and allows people to take up work on the same terms and conditions as local authority tenants. I hope the housing assistance payment will come into force. The Department is ready to hand it over as soon as the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is ready to take it. There is a large demand for housing in certain areas because employment opportunities are provided by large multinational companies or, for example, at the airport in my area of Fingal.

Deputy Mick Wallace is correct that one of the reasons for the rise in rents appears to be that younger couples who wish to take out mortgages are finding that the banks have been very slow to lend and that their checking procedures are lengthy. The country needs to start developing and building specific accommodation in areas in which it is required. This would provide a stimulus for the economy and help to put building workers back to work. It is an option which would be beneficial for the economy and which the Government is examining.

The review of rents is extremely extensive. Deputies need to bear in mind that rents are falling in certain counties and certain parts of the country. Some areas are experiencing very severe pressure on rents, but equally a previous survey showed that the Department of Social Protection was paying the highest rents in a locality. That does not make sense either. The Department will announce a new scheme in June when the review findings are available.

Jobseeker's Allowance Eligibility

Alan Farrell

Question:

7. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Minister for Social Protection when the most recent review of the income thresholds for jobseeker's allowance took place; the changes made as a result of this review, and if there were revisions or reviews of income thresholds in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 or 2012; if she will outline the changes that were made a result of reviews in these years; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18694/13]

Jobseeker’s allowance is a means-tested social assistance scheme operated by my Department. My Department will spend almost €3.1 billion on the scheme in 2013, which is just over 15% of its programme spend this year. For means-testing purposes, account is taken of the income and assets of both the claimant and his or her spouse or partner, including the earnings of the spouse. Where a claimant or a spouse or partner has earnings from insurable employment, earnings less PRSI contributions, pension contributions and trade union subscriptions are assessed as means. A disregard of €20 per day is applied to the earnings for each day worked, subject to a maximum of €60 per week. The balance is then assessed at a figure of 60%. This provides for a means assessment system, whereby the two adults associated with a given claim are assessed in a similar manner with common disregards and assessment applying to both. This replaced an overly complex system which contained disincentives and poverty traps. The current system of assessment has been in place since 2007 and there have been no changes to the scheme since that date. The earnings are assessed by reference to the earnings earned in the 13 weeks preceding the date of the claim or during a period which the deciding officer considers appropriate, having regard to the circumstances of the case.

Where a person or spouse is self-employed, the claimant can apply for jobseeker’s allowance if his or her business ceases or if he or she has a low income as a result of a downturn in demand for the services. In general, a person's means will take account of the level of earnings in the past 12 months and all expenses necessarily incurred in determining the expected income for the following year. In the current climate account is taken of the downward trend in the economy.

I acknowledge the sizeable part of the Department's budget allocated to this scheme. However, given that the limits have not been changed since 2007, although the manner in which the allowance is allocated has changed, I encourage the Minister to review the scheme on the basis of the number of changes made to the taxation system since 2007. For example, for a family with two children with a single income of €541 a week, the additional universal social charge introduced by the previous Administration amounts to an extra €140 per month. Notwithstanding the exemption by the Government of 320,000 people from payment of the USC, it would still represent a considerable drop in the income of that family. I refer to the number of indirect taxes introduced, with more to come as a result of the economic legacy inherited by this Administration. I ask the Minister to review the income thresholds on the basis of the number of people affected. This issue is not unique to my constituency. A number of the Minister's constituents are contacting my office once a week. I refer to the particular case of a single income family in which the person concerned does not qualify for additional jobseeker supports and the family is literally destitute.

On a further issue, I refer to the educational supports to which individuals are entitled. However, if a person is not in receipt of jobseeker's allowance, he or she may not qualify for State educational supports.

The Deputy has asked a very detailed question about a particular case about which he has been in touch with the Department. I suggest he provide me with further details about it or other cases and I can then respond in detail.

A total of 296,000 people were in receipt of jobseeker's allowance at the end of March. The allowance is paid to a significant number of adults of working age. Compared to the means test in other jurisdictions, the means test in Ireland is not considered to be unduly restrictive. It also provides for a certain figure for those who may have accumulated savings at a certain level. I will bear in mind the suggestion that there be a review of the means test. However, the Department's focus is currently on the changeover to the new Intreo system and helping people to get back to work. The family income supplement scheme has been revamped. The scheme is of valuable assistance to those working for more than a certain number of hours. The Deputy and I may have an opportunity to discuss the details of some of the cases mentioned to obtain additional information or ascertain if there has been a change in circumstances.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.