I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this Bill. It is a small, technical Bill and while I want to deal with some of the specifics in it, I also want to address the housing situation generally.
I welcome the proposal to give elected members of councils a role in determining rent policy. That is a controversial area and until now many councillors did not fully understand how rents are worked out. It is important the system comes before elected members. It is positive because councils will not be able to adopt a policy without advance publicity, which will offer people an opportunity to contribute to the debate before policy is decided. Also, it will be decided in public by elected members rather than by officials with no public accountability. That is important and will allow the Minister to make regulations prescribing the specific matters each housing authority must include in its rent scheme. It is important there be national regulation for this because there cannot be variation from local authority to local authority. Many of them have contiguous boundaries and we cannot have schemes that are inconsistent depending on which side of the road a person lives on.
The Bill also requires a housing authority not later than a date to be prescribed by the Minister to make a rent scheme providing for the manner in which rents and other charges will be determined. I hope there will be consistency across the State and councils will move uniformly, unlike the way they dealt with development plans, where there was no consistency or single approach. One county could finish a plan while the next county would not start a plan for another five years. Some plans are up to date and others are out of date. There should be a timetable and local government given a six or 12 month period to complete the process but it would have to happen within a definitive timescale with consistency across the State as a result.
Also to be included in this will be the manner in which financial circumstances of households will be taken into account in determining the amount of the rent or a method of calculation of any allowances in respect of rent that might be made for dependants. It is also proposed to delete the section in the previous legislation where charges are determined on the basis of household composition and income and, where applicable, the cost of the facilities provided.
That often comes into it, especially when someone is building an extension to a local authority house and there will be a rent charge on the extra accommodation. I am sure the practice of how they arrive at that figure can vary from one local authority to another.
It is an inescapable fact that there are up to 100,000 persons on the housing list. That has not been adequately dealt with in recent times. There has been a housing crisis. Many hoped that some of the NAMA properties would be used to help in this regard, and that has not happened to the extent expected.
The Bill does not set out a definitive national standardised differential rent scheme and I would like to see some consistencies being required by the local authorities. I do not object - some would object to this - if they have to go back to the Department for perusal or comment as part of that process but, ultimately, it will be a decision by the elected members. At least there is an opportunity for national consistency.
An important issue for local authorities is rents and there is no mention in this legislation about the issue of the local property tax. We cannot discuss local authority housing and rents without discussing that and its implication for local authorities. There is no reference in the local property tax legislation or this Bill as to whether the tax, or how much or how little of it, is to be passed on to the individual tenants. There is a gap in the legislation. We are here passing more legislation and, like the elephant in the room, we are avoiding dealing with this issue. I have a couple of points to highlight.
There are mixed views as to whether local authorities should have to pay local property tax. I subscribe to the view everybody should pay something. Every house in the country is supposed to pay for a television licence fee and most of them do, and I do not see why this property tax should be any different. I could stand up here and demand exemptions all over the place, and there is a case for an exemption where residents are in mortgage arrears and financial difficulties, but as a general principle there should be some level of contribution. One must even pay some contribution to the cost of medicines if one holds a medical card. It is not the amount of money involved, but the principle. Even if one has only to pay 50 cent or €1, one feels one has some involvement in it.
There is a slight unfairness. It is typical of how legislation works here in Ireland and I thought we had got away from it. When a law comes in, it should apply equally to everybody in the country. Departments should not be able to step aside from what is the general rule for everyone else. It used to be the case years ago that local authorities and different planning authorities did not have to go through the same planning process but, thankfully, now they must go to An Bord Pleanála. At least, they must go through some planning process other than their own. Everybody must pay the local property tax for this year on 1 July but no local authority has to pay a penny of local authority tax for this year during the year. They are getting an exemption until the beginning of next year. I object to an inconsistent approach in terms of the payment dates. That should not be the case. If the Government is sincere about that, it should be dealt with this year. The legislation stated specifically that it was payable on 1 January. That is probably to give local authorities the ability to factor it into their estimates for next year. Possibly, the local property tax was not factored into the estimates, many of which would have been done around the time of the previous budget and before they knew the specifics of it. There is a specific exemption so that local authorities need not pay the tax. Presumably, they should have to pay the 2014 tax in 2014. Local authority tenants, perversely, even though there was an intention to help the situation, will have to pay 18 months of local property tax in 2014, and that is not right either. When one tries to help somebody, sometimes one can take an action that causes another problem.
Another issue with the local property tax and social housing arises where in a number of estates throughout the country the local authority acquired houses under the Part V process where a percentage, somewhere between 15% and 20% of all new estates, was designated for social and affordable housing. Some local authorities took money to avoid having to put local authority houses into private estates. Laois was one of the few counties, and I would go so far as to say practically the only one, that refused point blank to deal with developers who wanted to buy their way out of that so that the local authority could house tenants in local authority housing somewhere else. The developers all came in stating they could not possibly get funding from the banks and the people possibly would not buy these houses if there were local authority tenants in the house beside them. We in Laois refused to budge on that and some developers criticised us from outside the county. We held firm, and we were right. However, this has led to another problem of fairness on property tax. The reason I raise this is it has directly to do with local authority tenants. Where, for example, there are 100 houses in an estate in County Laois, ten are social houses. I leave aside the ones that were bought under the affordable scheme because those residents now own them and must pay for that, but take the ten in social housing. The legislation states that all local authority houses will pay the local property tax at the minimum rate for houses valued under €100,000, which is €45 this year and €90 in a full year. Coincidentally, last night, on an unrelated topic, I had a parliamentary question tabled to the Minister for Finance for answer next week and when I was looking at this legislation this morning, I said I would raise it in the House today. I do not understand why one house will have a local property tax of €45 this year because the legislation deems that because it is owned by the local authority it should pay the minimum rate and the house beside it - it could be an identical semi-detached house joined to it - might have to pay a property tax, based on a band on a value of €200,000 or €300,000. It may be even higher in some of the major cities, but I refer only to County Laois. There is a perversity in some of that and it has not helped.
On housing generally, I support tenants being able to buy-out houses from voluntary housing schemes on the basis that the funding went back into the voluntary housing association for further housing development. I note we have not gone that route in the past, but some of them are almost entities in their own right. I am not saying the money should be used for any other purposes. It is unfair that a person who was allocated a house from a voluntary housing association - we in Laois are familiar with those such as Respond or Clúid - who did not see the difference between taking that house and taking a house from the local authority then finds that those who got their houses from the local authority in the estate beside them can buy their houses out after two years if they are in a position to do so but, because they have a voluntary housing association house, that does not apply in their case.
Another issue, which needs to be dealt with here when we are dealing with local authority housing and with which I have always had a problem is the issue of vacant houses and the time it takes to re-let them. Houses become vacant for a variety of reasons, such as where tenants move on or pass away. There are quite a few thousand vacant houses around the country, although the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, might say it is a small percentage of the housing stock. I understand that local authorities must send in the guys to board up the windows, put up the shutters and close off the place for fear of vandalism and robbery, but the quickest way of avoiding that the minute the key comes back from somebody leaving a local authority house is to have the clerk of works go in that same day. There should be panels of contractors because the local authorities get annual quotes from them to do work. If work has to be done, somebody should be in immediately. Sometimes the local authority states it costs €10,000 to upgrade a house and it does not have it, but my view is the sooner the local authority does it, the sooner it would get a rent roll from a new tenant. It is counterproductive to leave a house lying idle where it deteriorates and will cost more in the long run, and the local authority loses all its rent in the meantime while the house is vacant. It is an issue about which there is a lethargy in all local authorities and about which I ask the Minister of State to inquire. The local authorities will give her the statistics, for example, that there is only 2% of their stock idle, but that is not the point. The question should be what percentage of houses that return to local authorities are idle after one month, two months, six months and 12 months. The Minister of State, in her constituency, is looking at houses boarded up for years. There might be particular cases in particular areas, but there is not a sense of urgency in local authorities. If it was a private landlord, he or she would try to get the house moved on to a new tenant as soon as possible, and I ask that the local authorities do likewise.
I refer to the housing lists. It is a difficult issue. Generally, one can only be on the housing list of one housing authority. Everything at Government level operates on one's PPS number and one should be able to be on a housing list. Part of my constituency is right on the border of Carlow town, where a person can be from one side of the street and happen to rent on the other side as that is the only place where a house comes up, in Graiguecullen or wherever - I am sure this arises between Limerick city and county in different areas as well. A person is not allowed on the housing list in one area because he or she is not a native of the area. The person has lived 100 yd. from the area for 40 years and is told he or she has no contact with it.
I can understand people wanting to play it both ways - to be on two housing lists and see whichever comes up first. I am sure that is why people have now got strict on the issue. There should be a mechanism to allow housing officers in adjoining local authorities to compare lists in the knowledge that people may be on both. At the moment it is too restrictive, as a person may be told there is no possibility of being on the housing list in the area in which they are renting because they were not born and reared in that local authority area, even though they may be from a place a hundred yards down the road.
Much money is being paid out on rent supplement to people who are registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. I hope no one is getting rent supplement for an unregistered property, and shame on the Department if that is happening. Let us hope the matter has been sorted out. Part of the fee people pay to register goes to local authorities for inspections. I do not believe adequate inspections are being carried out. What percentage of houses are being inspected? Officials in local authorities know immediately from an address whether a house is in a new housing estate in a good area or is one of a group of old houses that have always given difficulties. Rent supplement should not be paid for houses that are not registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. Local authorities should step up their inspections to ensure houses are of an adequate standard.