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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 May 2013

Vol. 801 No. 4

Housing (Amendment) Bill 2013: Second Stage

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

I am delighted to introduce this Bill to the House. The Bill is straightforward, making technical changes to section 31 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 relating to the charging of local authority rents. The amendments in the Bill will remove contradictory text from this enactment, thus enabling section 31 to be commenced in an effective sequence.

It was the intention to commence the relevant provisions of section 31 of the 2009 Act from the beginning of this year, to set in train the process of introducing the new rents system from 1 January 2014. However, the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government advised that text in subsection (5) of section 31 precludes the enactment from being commenced in a sequence which ensures a clear statutory basis for housing authorities to charge rents for their dwellings during the transition from the existing basis for charging rents to the introduction of section 31 rents. Parliamentary counsel also advised that amending legislation is necessary to enable section 31(5) to be brought into operation for a period which will permit housing authorities to make their first rent schemes under the enactment before subsection (3) is brought into operation empowering councils to charge rents under section 31 of the 2009 Act. Hence the need to draft the Bill I present today.

I will take the opportunity presented by this amending Bill to delete text from subsection (6) of section 31 which conflicts with a rent system where charges are determined by reference to household composition and income and, where applicable, the cost of facilities provided to dwellings. I have no intention of departing from the long-established practice whereby local authorities charge rent for their accommodation based on household income and, to this end, I will remove text from the regulation-making power in section 31 which refers to other criteria for setting rent, including local market rents and the cost of providing social housing support.

Local authorities charge rent for their accommodation under section 58 of the Housing Act 1966. Responsibility for setting local authority rents has been devolved to individual city and county managers since 1986, with the result that throughout the country there is now wide variation in rent levels, and the method of their calculation, for dwellings funded wholly by the Exchequer. Section 31 of the 2009 Act facilitates significant harmonisation in rents charged while providing the elected members of local councils with some discretion in setting rent parameters in their areas. Harmonisation will be achieved through regulations that will be made in the period following enactment of the amending Bill. The intention is to charge a base rent for each household member, plus a differential rent based on a proportion of net household income in excess of a threshold which varies according to household composition. Under section 31 of the 2009 Act, individual housing authorities are also empowered in their rent schemes to include charges in the rent relating to the costs of works and services provided to the dwellings under the Housing Acts. The regulations will provide for a transitional period to allow for a phased introduction of material adjustments to rent levels arising in individual cases under the new system.

The intention is to harmonise the approach to the setting of rents in as equitable a manner as possible to limit rent increases for individual households as far as practicable while also ensuring local authorities receive sufficient rental income to manage and maintain their housing stock into the future. It is critical we implement this reform measure properly as it represents a fundamental improvement on the existing fragmented approach to the setting of local authority rents throughout the country.

As it will be of interest to Deputies, I will provide more context through outlining my plans for more substantive social housing legislation in the future. The Department is formulating proposals for the general scheme of a miscellaneous provisions Bill which I hope to bring forward later this year. This will provide for a new scheme of housing assistance payments to implement the Government's decision in principle in March 2012 to transfer responsibility for long-term rent supplement recipients from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities.

In addition, the Bill will put in place a new procedure for the repossession of local authority dwellings to replace section 62 of the Housing Act 1966, which the Supreme Court declared in February 2012 to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights in certain circumstances. The Bill will also underpin current requirements in relation to the entitlement of non-Irish nationals to be assessed by local authorities for social housing support.

I am also planning further housing legislation providing for a new tenant purchase scheme for existing local authority houses along incremental lines and other provisions following on from the implementation of the Housing Act 2009 which provides for, and underpins, many of the reform measures proposed for this sector.

As stated, this is a short and purely technical Bill that is required to facilitate the effective commencement of legislation that has been enacted. I look forward to the co-operation of the House in securing its early enactment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share time with Deputy Kitt.

We will support this technical Bill, which builds upon the legislation introduced by Fianna Fáil in 2009. We realise it will facilitate the introduction of the new rent system for local authority housing under section 131 of the 2009 Act, to be administered by housing authorities within their existing financial and staffing resources. We acknowledge the facet of the Bill which allows local authority members to have an input into that process. That is to be welcomed as it takes cognisance of local knowledge such members have on foot of representations they regularly receive from the local authority sector, as well as their knowledge of the wider area they represent.

The Bill does not set out a definitive national standardisation differential rent scheme, however. The regulations to be made will set out more clearly the matters that may be included in a local rent scheme, including the level, type and source of household income that may be assessed for rent purposes; how dependants will be accounted for in calculating rent; the manner in which the size and standard of any class or classes of dwelling are to be taken into account in determining rent, having regard to the market rent in respect of similar size and standards in the administrative area concerned; and procedures for rent reviews.

The 2009 Act amended previous Housing Acts from 1966 to 2004 giving local authorities a framework for a more strategic approach to the delivery and management of housing services. That framework provided for the adoption of housing service plans, homelessness action plans, anti-social behaviour strategies, new and more objective methods of assessing need and allocation, and a far more effective management and control regime covering tenancies and rents.

This Bill concerns housing law and affects the means by which rents can be assessed and agreed thereafter. It allows us to assess continually the needs and difficulties that have arisen and do arise regularly, more so at this time as a result of the crash that has occurred and the current economic situation.

I welcome the Minister of State's reference to the housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill which will give effect to the decision for local authorities to manage rent subsistence and allowances. I ask the Minister of State to bring that measure forward as soon as she can. I had hoped it would have formed part of the Minister of State's strategy and be alluded to in the Bill before us.

I also welcome the commitment to a further tenant purchase scheme. The Minister of State should consider a Bill we are putting before the House concerning social housing agencies. At present, it is not possible for tenants to buy out such houses. Our Bill will seek to allow tenants an opportunity to do so in future. The Minister of State should respond positively to that measure with a view to enacting legislation to allow that to happen.

By its very nature, this topic brings us to consider the grave housing crisis we now have, which is predominant throughout the country. We all receive regular representations from those in need of housing. The number of those with such requirements has grown to huge proportions in recent times. There are 100,000 applicants for local authority housing services countrywide, which can be described as a crisis.

As part of our own internal policy formulation process, I have discussed these matters with members of our party throughout the country. They include local government reform, water services, urban renewal requirements and the commercial rates crisis. An effort is needed to rebalance the discrepancies that now exist between out-of-town centres and conventional town centres. In response to that process, it has become apparent that the major task for and onus of responsibility on local authorities concerns the housing crisis. There is frustration and despair about the lack of appropriate schemes to meet that need.

The Minister of State has been entrusted with that responsibility which needs to be brought to bear sooner rather than later. I acknowledge the Minister of State's references to certain inclusions in the housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill. It is incumbent upon her, in reaction to that crisis which is so prevalent and is having such an effect on or society, to bring forward a coherent and effective means by which the Government can address that in co-operation with local authorities.

The failure heretofore to utilise NAMA properties to address housing problems is a damning indictment of the failure of imagination on the Minister of State's part to confront these challenges. There was always an expectation that a social dividend would emanate from that source. Unfortunately, as legislators, we cannot say with any authority that such is the case, nor can we point to any success in that regard. That matter needs to be addressed.

I also wish to refer to the new local property tax in the context of local authorities' responsibilities and rents. Unlike the household charge, local authority housing units are not exempt from the local property tax, so councils will be charged for the due sum. There has been much talk about empowering local authorities and increasing the sources of revenue available to them in the delivery of services they are expected to provide, no matter how diminished they may be.

However, in empowering local authorities and formulating and setting in train a concrete means by which funding will be guided towards them, only 60% of local property tax, as collected nationwide, will be equalised and redirected subsequently to the local authorities. As the Minister of State is aware, many local authorities were penalised for their failure regarding the collection of the household charge. I might add this was through no fault of their own but was more as a result of the manner in which the issue was managed and delivered. However, they were penalised quite substantially regarding the funds that had been allocated initially to them as part of the central government allocation and this would have had an effect on many of their programme delivery services and facilities thereafter. Moreover, the Bill before Members, which deals with the setting of rents by local authorities for tenants, makes no reference to the impact of the property tax on local authority tenants. In this context, local authorities are taking varying approaches, with some adding the charge onto annual rents, while others are absorbing it directly on their balance sheets. This flies in the face of the commitment given by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to increase the source of funding to local authorities as they must now subsume this cost instead. As the Minister of State is aware, the tax on local authority housing will be €45 for each unit in 2013 and €90 in 2014, being a full year. Moreover, the level of increases in future years is unknown as the Government, probably inevitably, will seek to hike up the tax and the income derived therefrom. Were local authorities to pass on these costs to ordinary home owners, it would be another sharp blow to the already struggling low-income households nationwide.

The decision to impose local property tax on local authority homes generates real and increasing financial difficulties for embattled councils, which have already had their funding slashed, when one considers other sources of revenue streams to which they had become accustomed or on which they had been dependent. I am conscious of issues such as commercial rates and the collapse in revenue in that regard, mainly as a result of the failure to address that issue when one considers that rents have fallen by 75% in many cases but local authority rates have only fallen by a maximum of 5%. This is based on the decision of local authority members, in their best efforts and interests, to try to reduce the burden but who are being hamstrung by virtue of the archaic system that still exists and which must be overhauled. In addition, by virtue of the fall-off in planning and development activity, there obviously has been a fall-off in planning fees, development charges and so forth. Some local authorities are seeking to be innovative by slashing such development charges with a view to trying to encourage inward investment and development in their respective counties and I commend them on that. However, there must be greater leadership from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to tackle and overhaul the revenue streams, to take account of the difficulties in that regard and to come forward with innovative ways and means by which such local authorities can attract investment into their towns.

As Members are aware, differential rents are calculated in a differential rent scheme that assesses the income levels of the principal earner. However, this varies from council to council with, for example, the lowest rate at present being 10% in the South Dublin County Council area, whereas the rate in County Offaly is 22%. These differing rates reflect the discretion available to local authorities and I acknowledge this to be quite right and appropriate. However, members of the electorate should be aware of the difference and should hold to account their local councils in this regard. These differential rent rates should be published by some means on a regular basis to enable people to access them at any time. As for waiting lists and NAMA, I note the Minister, Deputy Hogan, stated that 2,000 housing units would be made available in 2012 for people on social housing lists. However, this was not the case and one must analyse honestly and appropriately the reasons for this and then learn from them with the aim of putting in place an effective means and manner by which this might be improved when the Minister of State brings forward her miscellaneous provisions Bill. I reiterate that NAMA was committed to a social dividend in its work by using its property portfolio for local authority housing. This goal is even more necessary considering a point I should have made in respect of the revenue stream. The conventional housebuilding mechanisms employed by local authorities in the past have been washed away and the private development dividend arising from the Part V provisions obviously also has been wiped away.

From Fianna Fáil's perspective, the technical aspects of the Bill are agreed, are necessary and take account of the current situation. I welcome the measures included to allow a better and more appropriate balance in the formula devised by local authorities in setting the rents. However, as I stated, the broader issue must be addressed. As I noted, conventional housing construction on the part of local authorities is now a thing of the past as the level of funding being provided to them simply does not allow this to take place. Similarly, the amount of funding provided towards housing repairs has been slashed to almost nothing and, as I stated, the Part V provisions have been lost. I acknowledge and was glad to hear the Minister of State's comments on house purchase schemes. I ask her to consider the Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil, which would add social housing units to that equation. The trend that has evolved regarding funding towards housing adaptation, in both private and public housing, is extremely worrying. From a local authority perspective-----

The Deputy should be aware that 13 minutes remain in the slot.

Yes, I am about to conclude and will then allow my colleague to finalise the contribution. For example, in 2010, the allowance in County Offaly for this scheme was €350,000, whereas it is €46,000 or €47,000 this year. There has been a complete collapse, which leaves that county council in no fit state to address the adaptation measures that are necessary to accommodate those who, through no fault of their own, unfortunately cannot but must avail of appropriate facilities in their housing and who need housing adaptation. The position regarding the private sector allocation for housing adaptation is similar in that the funding levels through Offaly County Council in 2010 were €2.25 million, while this year they amount to €625,000. Some of my constituents have been assessed as having a category one status, which means they are in dire need of adaptation and of extensions or facilities to meet their current medical needs. However, through no fault of the local authorities, they are receiving letters stating that based on the funding trends, they will be on a waiting list for three to five years. It is extremely painful for me or any other public representative to be obliged to convey this message to people who are in such dire need.

On the whole, I look forward to the bringing forward of a miscellaneous provisions Bill. I expect, hope and have no doubt that based on the representations the Minister of State receives, as do other Members, she will take a holistic approach to addressing this issue in the requisite manner, based on there being a crisis. Rental assistance, the rental accommodation scheme and all those schemes were almost a quick-fix solution when the well ran dry a couple of years ago. However, there has been time to assimilate their effectiveness or otherwise. There has been time to investigate and be aware of the drastic situation that obtains at present. It is now time for the Government to prioritise and to make tough, hard decisions on the basis of the extant needs within each relevant Department. I have no doubt but that having been made aware of this issue on a regular basis by her constituents and by local authority members and colleagues, this will be brought to bear in the allocation the Minister of State succeeds in achieving from the Department.

More appropriately, a mechanism or scheme that addresses this will achieve the level of finance required.

I thank Deputy Cowen for allowing me some of his time. I welcome the Bill. As Deputy Cowen noted, similar legislation was introduced in 2009 by a Fianna Fáil Government and this Bill, which is technical, will build on that legislation. It gives us an opportunity to look at the whole situation, namely, the big housing waiting list, estimated to be 100,000 people on local authority lists waiting for social housing. It also gives us an opportunity to discuss how to utilise the NAMA properties to help to deal with waiting lists and the provision of housing. Local authority rents have a certain impact on property taxes and council finances, whether the council is imposing charges on tenants or absorbing them onto its own balance sheet.

I support what has been said about the new tenant purchase scheme mentioned by the Minister of State. I hope she might consider a situation whereby voluntary housing tenants could buy out their homes. I have been raising this issue for a number of years, as has Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl, who is to publish a related Bill. People in voluntary housing often believe that no allowance is given for the length of time they are in a house. They believe their rent should be going towards a house purchase or to have some such provision. If we continue the way we are, most tenants will go to the local authority for housing, hoping they will one day be able to buy the house they get. Meanwhile, we are in a kind of limbo situation. People are waiting for a new tenant purchase scheme to see if they might get a better deal than what is offered by the current scheme.

I refer to homelessness. I have written to the Taoiseach's office in respect of the campaign by many housing non-governmental organisations for the right to a home, in an attempt to have this proposition added to the second phase of the Constitutional Convention. I hope it will be debated at the convention because it is an important issue. I also welcome the commitment by the Minister of State and the Government to end long-term homelessness by 2016. We should focus more on preventive measures in respect of homelessness. In particular, we need more housing units in our major cities and towns where this has been a very serious issue for some time. There was very little about young people in the policy document published by the Minister of State. I do not know if we have complete figures for those who are looking for housing because of youth homelessness. I hope the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, will look at that issue in particular, as was mentioned by Government.

The Simon Community has stated that every week in Dublin up to 50 new people are turning to homeless services, which gives a clear indication of the scale of the crisis. I hope the Government will give a commitment to deliver a road map, as it has stated it will do. In recent times we had a briefing from Focus Ireland on the effect of the half-rate social welfare payment for young people, especially those experiencing homelessness. It was a very useful briefing but I understand that on foot of parliamentary questions from Deputies and other inquiries made, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has argued that this is primarily a housing issue and not the primary responsibility of her Department. This is like the chicken and egg situation - which comes first? I hope the Department of Social Protection will look again at the situation of claimants aged under 25 years of age so that an income can be provided for those people. At present, the reason given for the reduction in the payment is that there should be an incentive for young people to take up training or work experience but it is most unfair that this decision is affecting their opportunities to get housing. I am told the Minister, Deputy Burton, is to have a meeting with the relevant people in her Department, provisionally dated for 8 May. I look forward to that and hope we can resolve the problem.

In today's Galway Advertiser there is a headline stating: "Galway's homeless are homeless longer than they should be", which comes from the non-governmental organisation, COPE. It makes the point that many people in Galway city are ending up homeless for much longer than they need to be because of the shortcomings in the rent supplement system caused by increasing cap levels. This has made it very difficult for people to get accommodation. I hope the Department can simplify the application process and allow social protection officers to have discretionary powers in regard to the exceptional payments that can be made available. That was the difference in the past; community welfare officers had more discretion. Now that they are under the Department of Social Protection I do not see them having that discretion, which is very regrettable. A submission has been made to the Department of Social Protection by COPE Galway and the voice of its client forum. I hope the measures they propose will make it possible for people to secure affordable accommodation in the city.

If I may, I will give some figures on rent levels in Galway city. Some 17 of the 162 properties advertised fell within current rent cap levels and these accepted tenants on rent supplement. The survey found that one-bedroom properties in particular were in very short supply, the average rent in the city was €630 per month and the monthly rent cap for a single person household for this property size is €450 and €540 for a couple. The situation families face in finding housing within the rent cap levels is no less challenging, with an average monthly rent of €762 for a three-bedroom property which is well above the current rent supplement of €700. One of the COPE Galway people stated:

Our experience in working with and supporting those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to find accommodation is that rents are simply too high for people depending on rent supplement. This is resulting in people being homeless for much longer than is appropriate or necessary.

This situation is causing great distress for people. I am informed that in some instances people are entering into informal and illegal arrangements with their landlord to pay top-ups from their income support in order to make up the difference and secure housing. I hope the Department of Social Protection will look again at rent caps and revise the levels and that we can have a better situation in the future.

I refer to NAMA, as mentioned by Deputy Cowen. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, stated that 2,000 housing units would be made available in 2012 to people on social housing lists. I hope we will see a dividend from that.

I understand that only 203 properties have been acquired from NAMA to date, with a further 65 units in negotiation. This is a very small number in when compared with the numbers in need of housing.

Previous legislation dealt with the action plan for homelessness; anti-social behaviour strategies; objective methods for assessing need and allocating housing; and a more effective management and control regime for tenancies. Rent assessment has given rise to major concern because methods appear to vary between local authorities. Deputy Cowen noted that the lowest level for the differential scheme is 10% in South Dublin County Council and the highest is 22% in County Offaly. That reflects the discretion allowed to local authorities. Members should hold their respective councils to account on the rents they are charging.

I thank the Minister of State for introducing this technical Bill and hope we will have an opportunity in the near future for a full debate on housing, homelessness and the difficulties faced by young people who are homeless.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Bhille seo ach tá imní orm maidir le rudaí áirithe. I welcome the Bill in so far as it allows elected public representatives to take part in the setting of rent rates in all local authorities. This already happens in some areas but currently it is not set out in law.

Any system that allows rent levels to be set by a county or city manager without input from the elected representatives who are accountable to the people is wrong. Local councillors are best placed to ascertain the reality on the ground in respect of housing in their areas. They know better than most the cost of private renting and purchasing property. They are acutely aware from their local work of the standard of living of the people in the area, as well as what they can afford, what they need and where they need it. This Bill will allow councillors to do that job and enable the people to hold decision makers to account.

It is unfortunate that we have waited over two years for a Housing Bill. This Bill is welcome but it leaves many important issues to be addressed in two other planned Housing Bills, which I fear will be similarly narrow. Housing remains a major problem in this State. The Government's failure to tackle this problem has allowed needs to grow, rents to rise, conditions to deteriorate and savvy landlords to make profits in the absence of public provision. The Government has failed tenants, homeowners and those seeking a home, and this Bill will do nothing to change that. The Minister of State is aware of these failures and I believe she wants to address them but neither the Government nor her Department has any desire to act. I am tired of pointing out that housing needs are at their highest since the foundation of the State and that many applicants have been on housing waiting lists for years but I must continue to do so while the figures are not decreasing. It is a millstone around the Government's neck that we cannot let it forget. Something can be done but nothing is being done.

The depletion of our housing stock, the over reliance on the voluntary sector and the drive to subsidise private landlords and developers providing below standard housing at a very high price are not new policies but they are being happily pursued by this Government. The Government continues to spend over €500 million per year on rent supplement and RAS. This is tantamount to an admission of failure. Instead of building homes and collecting rent the State funnels huge sums of public money into private hands to provide unsustainable and insecure housing. What has the Government done to cut this bill? It is certainly not providing real public housing.

The Minister for Social Protection, who thankfully will not have her hands on rent supplement for much longer, attempted to use rent supplement recipients as a tool to beat down rents and reduce costs. Not only did this tactic fail miserably in reducing rents but it also left many families in precarious situations and put some on the street. Where once the State provided housing now it is pushing families out of their homes because adequate housing is not cost effective in a housing support system. Focus Ireland reported earlier on this year but nothing has changed. Rent supplement recipients are now being asked to reduce their rent below market norms at a time when rents are on the increase. In 2012 there were four times fewer homes available for rent in Dublin than in 2009. Dublin rents rose by 6% between 2010 and 2012. Rents are likely to increase further as rental properties remain scarce. This is the result of emphasising housing support over housing provision. Housing supports are not about supporting the people who need housing but about shirking the Government's responsibility and subsidising landlords. Yesterday the Government tabled a Bill which will see an increase in repossessions. With nearly 50,000 buy-to-let mortgages in distress, there will be huge repercussions for the rental market and the cost of rent. Landlords who survive will be able to charge even more extortionate rents for flats which are below par.

I have dealt with a considerable number of families facing eviction after the banks rolled in to take control of the homes they were renting. They paid their rent and kept their side of the bargain but now with the bank's desire to sell on the property for a quick buck or simply its unwillingness to act as landlord, these families face being left homeless. Worst of all is the fact that many of these rents are being subsidised by the public purse. Landlords are not using the money they are being paid to secure the homes of these families. This is a disgrace. People on rent supplement and RAS are in low income brackets and are in no position to go searching for new accommodation at a time when rents are spiralling. Increasingly landlords are advertising that rent supplement will not be accepted. I have raised this issue until I have turned blue in the face. I have called for a code of conduct for banks and lending institutions to protect tenants. Sinn Féin has called for tighter control over the rent supplement system to ensure that the best deal is reached for the public purse and that tenancies are managed and secured. None of our recommendations has been heeded. RAS was sold as a great step for people stuck in the rent supplement poverty trap. People who signed up could work and were guaranteed that they would be housed. Now I am dealing with families in RAS who face eviction by banks, some of which are owned by the State and because no social housing is being built the local authority cannot live up to its side of the bargain. These families sit at home waiting for the knock at the door to throw them out. This is not news to the Minister of State or her Department.

However, the problem goes beyond provision of housing. Standards have been allowed to deteriorate or remain poor, particularly in the large urban centres. A recent inspection blitz by Dublin City Council found that 90% of flats in certain parts of Dublin did not meet the most basic of standards. These figures make for disturbing reading even though I was already aware that conditions of housing on the bottom rung are very poor.

Dublin is returning to the days of the slum landlord and it is certainly not alone in this regard. This is not 1913 and the current conditions are not acceptable in this day and age.

When we tell people their rent is too high to continue to be eligible for rent supplement, we are telling them to move to slums because we will not support them elsewhere. People do not choose to live in slums; they live in them because the Government has not provided an alternative. With this in mind, it is especially scandalous that the Government has seen fit to extend the responsibilities of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, while declining to provide the PRTB with any State funding. As a result, the board has been forced to cut staff and outsource services. The Government has given some mealy-mouthed commitments but provided little to assist in achieving them.

Local authorities will have greater powers to act on shared ownership agreements. Seizures are already taking place in this area. The proposed solutions rehash failed policies. As I stated, housing held by the National Asset Management Agency will not be used for social housing provided by local authorities but transferred under lease arrangements to voluntary housing bodies. The ever increasing role of the voluntary housing sector in delivering housing needs at the expense of local authorities is a worrying trend. While there is no doubt the sector performs a magnificent and welcome role, this should not come at the expense of local authorities which have traditionally done a great job in delivering and managing social housing. It is also infuriating that properties leased by NAMA under these arrangements will be returned to developers when the lease agreements conclude in ten, 15 or 20 years. Thus far, only a few hundred homes have been delivered under this arrangement and only for a limited period.

The State cannot run away from the fact that the private sector is neither willing nor able to provide the housing needed by 98,000 people on the housing waiting list. It is failing to provide proper housing for many of the 94,000 people on rent supplement. In addition, the 24,000 people on the rental accommodation scheme are in an insecure position because buy-to-let mortgages are under threat following the Government's decision to close a loophole that is preventing many repossessions.

Sinn Féin has proposed measures to implement a major house-building initiative which would result in work commencing on 9,000 new homes in the next two years and thereby create employment, reduce rents and remove people from housing waiting lists. We have called on local authorities to renegotiate rent supplement and rental accommodation scheme rates and asked the Government to take some appropriate NAMA housing into permanent public ownership. While these measures would not solve the crisis overnight, they would constitute a start and show the Government is serious about providing housing and meeting its objective of ending homelessness.

Landlords are increasingly playing hardball with tenants by resisting cuts in rent supplement payments. People are panicking and frantically searching for new places to live on lower rents based on the new rent supplement rates set by the Department of Social Protection. The special purpose vehicle established in NAMA to deliver social housing through leasing initiatives for local authorities and voluntary housing bodies appears to be proceeding on a "go slow" basis, which is not good enough.

The Minister of State indicated it is her intention to reform section 62 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. Such reform is urgently required as many families and local authorities are seriously worried about some families who are causing serious anti-social problems. The Supreme Court ruling in this matter and the response of the European Court of Justice need to be urgently addressed.

I welcome the decision to remove section 31(6) of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act. Local authorities have traditionally set rents on the basis of household income and it would be wrong to change the position.

The housing sector has become an increasingly large problem and two further housing Bills are due to be introduced. I do not know what was the Minister of State's position on the property tax or whether she resisted the decision to impose the charge on local authority housing. The tax will inevitably be added to rents. Given that local authority housing was traditionally excluded from such taxes, I appeal to the Government not to apply the property tax to the local authority sector.

Thousands of homes are at risk of experiencing problems caused by pyrite. The Minister must urgently progress the measures he has introduced to tackle the problem.

I am concerned about the problems faced by residents of Priory Hall, which is an example of a housing development that turned into a disaster. The problems of the residents have not yet been sorted out and while I accept the matter is before the courts, pressure must be applied to have the problem addressed.

It is a good idea to shift the eligibility criteria for social housing in all local authorities to time on record. The process whereby some local authorities use a points system while others use different mechanisms for allocating social housing is flawed. I concur with the Minister of State on the necessity to standardise the system. This should be done quickly as constituents of mine have been on housing waiting lists for ten, 15 and 20 years without making progress. Moreover, others have joined the waiting list ahead of them and managed to secure social housing, which is a scandal.

The Minister of State indicated that local authorities will assume responsibility for the administration of rent supplement. This is a welcome decision as all matters related to rent supplement should be handled by local authorities. The Minister of State indicated previously that responsibility for the matter would transfer in 2014. Is that still the case? It is important that rapid progress is made on this matter.

While I support the Bill in principle, closing a loophole could open a Pandora's box and result in an increase in the number of repossessions. This possibility should be carefully examined and rules and regulations implemented, including the introduction of a code of practice for the lending institutions. Having spoken to representatives of Ulster Bank and other financial institutions, I was extremely unhappy with their position on this matter. For this reason, it will be necessary to engage further with the lending institutions to ensure the closure of a loophole will not be exploited. The provisions of the Bill could technically provide greater scope to local authorities to repossess homes purchased under the shared ownership scheme. I am concerned because problems may arise for any agreement made prior to 2009.

I look forward to the other two housing Bills the Government plans to introduce. It is a pity they will not be expedited because the housing crisis is getting worse.

I welcome the Bill, which will increase the power of local councillors. Sinn Féin wants stronger local government and seeks the transfer of decision making powers to local councils that are adequately funded through progressive taxation and rates. We want the maximum devolution of power and functions to local government. The Putting People First document is light on detail on the devolution of new roles and functions to local authorities. While it makes some suggestions in this regard, I hope it will result in fundamental powers being transferred from Government Departments to local councils because elected representatives should have maximum control at local level.

Ultimately, they will be obliged to go back to the public and, therefore, they must interact with the public. This will shift a certain amount of power from city and county managers to elected councillors, which is good. In obtaining power to set rents and have an input thereto, councillors will need to tread wisely. They must not impose rents that are too high, particularly on those who are struggling to pay bills and put food on the table. Any rent schemes that are introduced must be fair and equitable.

I cannot find in the Putting People First document a strategy relating to real and substantive reform of local government. However, I look forward to the debate on the matter in the hope that we might extend the parameters to some degree. It appears that the Government is proceeding in a piecemeal fashion and this Bill is evidence of that, particularly as it has been introduced in the absence of a proper strategy. While I accept it is a move in the right direction, it does not go far enough. The Bill has been brought forward against the backdrop of the housing crisis and the introduction of the hated family home tax, otherwise known as the property tax. Local authority tenants will not be exempt from its provisions. It is strange that no information has been forthcoming with regard to how this is going to be dealt with by local authorities. The City and County Managers Association has not indicated how it proposes to proceed in respect of what is envisaged. The Department and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, have also failed to provide any indication of how it is intended to proceed. Local authority houses are going to be valued at up to €100,000. Tenants are concerned that the tax will simply be imposed on them by local authorities through increases in rent. That would be unacceptable. Sinn Féin continues to table motions on this matter at council meetings in an attempt to stop that from happening.

The question which arises is whether local authorities will pay the property-home tax relating to the houses they own. They may be able to do so during the current year because the period of payment is only six months. This means that they will only be obliged to pay €45 per house. The local authority in County Laois, which is small enough, is still going to be obliged to find €180,000 to pay the tax on approximately 2,000 council houses. The council may absorb that cost this year but its members have not been informed as to whether this will be the case. That is extremely interesting because the councillors were not informed about the position with regard to the tax when they set their budget last November or December. If they cannot come up with the €180,000 I mentioned, they will be obliged to find a crock of gold somewhere. Next year, the amount the council will be obliged to pay will be €360,000. I do not believe it will be able to carry this cost unless it manages to perform some kind of Houdini act. The group which controls the council will not want or will be reluctant to impose a charge on tenants in light of the impending local elections and the advent of water charges. All of these charges are beginning to pile up. Local authorities will not be able to absorb the cost of the tax next year. It will be interesting to see what is going to happen. I have heard nothing from the Minister of State, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, the Department or the City and County Managers Association on this matter. The word "property" assumes ownership but local authority tenants do not own even one of the bricks used to build their homes. For this reason, the local property tax is wrong and it should be scrapped.

Everyone recognises that there is a housing crisis at present. Huge numbers of people are on waiting lists, with over 100,000 applicants awaiting housing. This crisis is compounded by the fact that there are over 30,000 empty houses in unfinished estates. Many of these properties are lying dormant. There are 65 unfinished estates in my county. I accept that this is not the current Government's fault. It is the legacy of the light touch regulation that obtained under the previous Administration, the strings of which were pulled by developers and bankers who knew it all. Anybody who opposed these people was damned for doing so. In County Laois there are 1,700 individuals who can only live in hope of being housed at some point in the future. This is at a time when many houses are lying empty. It is unacceptable that the Government is continuing to bail out the banks while the housing list is in its current state. Where is the bailout or the social dividend for the people? The situation in which we find ourselves is absolutely ridiculous.

The Government must do two things. First, it must seek to put those families who are waiting to be housed into houses. NAMA has identified 3,200 apartments and houses which are ready for habitation. It is somewhat shocking, therefore, that according to the most recent figures I have seen only 110 contracts have been signed. That was confirmed on Question Time yesterday. The Department is assessing a further 500 houses on unfinished estates to discover whether they are suitable to be used as social and voluntary housing. Even if these are all approved, it will mean that only 500 out of 30,000 applicants will be housed. That is a disgrace and by any standard it represents a failure on the part of the Government to tackle this issue. With respect, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is moving at a snail's pace on this matter. The Minister of State indicated yesterday that there is a special purpose vehicle within NAMA which was set up to fast-track the response to this issue. I welcome that fact. However, the vehicle in question is not even in first gear yet. It is extremely frustrating that large numbers of houses on unfinished estates are lying idle when there are so many people on waiting lists. Some of the houses in question are near completion and finishing construction on them would provide work for some individuals.

I am not sure whether the Government actually appreciates the depth of this crisis. Priority must be given to investing the resources necessary to assess houses owned by NAMA and on unfinished estates and allocate them to those awaiting housing. I urge the Government, if necessary, to introduce legislation to allow local authorities to purchase these houses at knock-down prices. At present, they are being leased from landlords on a long-term basis. I can discuss the economic madness of this with the Minister of State at another time or I can do so now if she wishes. The Government should, if it proves necessary, use compulsory purchase orders to buy the properties in question at knock-down prices and put them to use as social and affordable homes. There is a precedent for this. In the past, and under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments, the Land Commission purchased unused and under-used land at knock-down rates and leased it to small farmers who did not have enough land of their own.

The second action which the Government must take is to put in place the type of local authority building programme which my party has been seeking for some time. Before, during and after the boom, our repeated request has been for public investment. If the State - in partnership with local authorities - does not take the initiative, then the private sector completely controls the market. That is not healthy. Social housing is something of which we should be proud. This State can certainly be proud of its record in respect of such housing, which gives rise to multiple benefits for the economy, local authorities and communities. Social housing helps to stabilise the market and it provides housing for those who need it but cannot afford it. In addition, it provides badly needed jobs. Far from being a drain on the resources of Laois County Council, local authority housing in the county has given rise to rental income of €3.5 million this year. Rents in Laois are very low. I have seen examples of rents in other counties which are far higher. Less than €700,000 of this €3.5 million is spent on housing and repairs. This frees up approximately €2.8 million in funding. I understand that it costs money to build houses but this can be paid off the capital sum. I am merely pointing out the economics of this matter. When these houses are sold - most of them will be - in ten or 20 years' time, the council will obtain a nice little point of money which it can spend on other capital works. What I am suggesting makes economic sense.

The difficulty with what the Government is doing is that it has bought, hook, line and sinker, into what Michael Finneran left behind him. I am extremely disappointed with the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and her predecessor, Deputy Penrose, in this regard. It has been stated that we are in a recession. However, during the major recessions which occurred in the 1930s, when Fianna Fáil was in power, and the 1950s, when Labour, Clann na Poblachta and Fine Gael, were in power, massive house-building programmes were put in place. What the current Government is doing is leasing houses from landlords. If one takes it that the annual rent on one such property is €8,000, this means that the Government will pay €80,000 over ten years. The property must then be returned to the landlord in pristine condition. As a result, there will be a huge mountain to be climbed at the end of the process because it is going to cost a fortune to return these houses, in pristine condition, to those who own them.

Some €70,000 or €80,000 will also have been spent on rent. Councils could build or purchase houses. In my area, a three-bedroom house in perfect condition could be bought for €50,000, €60,000 or €70,000. These could be rented, accruing up to €5,000 per year in revenue. After ten years, a council would have collected between €30,000 and €50,000 in rent and still have houses to sell, assuming that is its wish. Alternatively, it could rent them until Thy kingdom come.

I understand that money is scarce, but this Bill is bad planning. The European Investment Bank, EIB, has told Sinn Féin that it would be interested if the Government approached it with a proposal like Deputy Ellis's. I am trying to shift the Minister of State away from the idea of social renting. It is economic lunacy. The permanent government in the Department will steer her in that direction, as its officials will not listen to any other doctrine. However, the Minister of State is a so-called super junior Minister and has her hands on the levers of power. She understands what I am proposing, as she sees the situation on the ground every day, just as I do. She and I are starting from the same point. I am not having a go at her. Instead, I am trying to impress upon her the importance of this issue. I will give Fianna Fáil credit for what it did in government in the 1930s, but not for what it did during its last term. I will also give Fine Gael and Labour credit for a good measure they undertook in the early 1950s. Consider all of the Mount Merrions in the country. They were completed in 1954. Every town in the midlands has one. If large housing schemes could be built then, they can be built now.

Social leasing is an economic time-bomb, as whoever is sitting in the Minister of State's seat in ten years' time will not be able to pay the bill to return the houses in question to pristine condition. In the meantime, all of the money will have been spent on rent.

Two years into the Government's term of office, we finally get to discuss housing and a housing Bill. However, it is a one-page, apparently technical, Bill. This is extraordinary. As everyone knows, we are an economic mess. Week in, week out, the Government states it must cut people's pay and conditions, impose brutal austerity on public services and sell off State assets because we have no money. I do not agree with its decisions, but at least it has a plausible argument. The one factor about which it does not have an argument is housing. The State has no shortage of housing or capacity to build it. Were one to ask the schoolchildren in the Gallery whether they understood how 100,000 families could be on the social housing waiting list when 340,000 houses were empty, they would scratch their heads and say "no". They would be right not to understand. In the State's history, it has never had a longer housing waiting list or more empty houses. This is beyond belief. If someone came from Mars and saw that we could not resolve this problem, he or she would believe that we were an imbecilic race.

Like my grouping and Sinn Féin, Labour Party Members know from their clinics how serious this issue is. Every week, more than 50% of the many people attending my clinic do so for housing issues. They have been five, ten or 15 years on the waiting list. Those periods keep getting longer. People who put themselves on the list when their first child was born have still not secured a home by the time their child is 14 or 15 years of age. It is an appalling indictment of successive Governments, including this one, that it cannot resolve the problem. Two years into this Government's term of office, we have been given a one-page technical Bill that will have no impact whatsoever on the problem. This is extraordinary.

I wish to raise the general issue of housing, factors that should be addressed in any housing Bill. Before I do, I will discuss the Bill's contents, as I am not sure that it is a technical Bill. Its stated intention is to ensure the harmonisation of rents and it is asserted that matters other than a household's income, such as market rents, should not be taken into account, thereby providing a greater level of fairness. Elected members of local authorities will have a say and discretion in the setting of rents. This sounds okay on the face of it, particularly given the inexplicable diversity in the levels of rent charged across the State, a fact to which the Minister of State alluded. The Dublin city and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown areas are victims of this inconsistency, with rents that are significantly higher than those found in other parts of the country. If one is a public sector worker, one's wages are the same regardless of whether one is in Dún Laoghaire or County Donegal. If one is a social welfare recipient, one's income is the same in Dublin city as it is in County Mayo. I agree with the Minister of State that this differential is unfair, as it bears no relation to ability to pay. We must address this issue. It is unacceptable that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's attitude in recent years seems to have been that charging people in social housing higher rents is justifiable, given its location and the prevailing market prices. It is not justifiable. Will the Bill address this issue?

Will the Minister's baseline criteria for the setting of social housing rents and the discretion afforded local councillors lead to a levelling down, as I hope, or a levelling up of rents? I suspect it will be the latter. This may be the reason for the Bill. When one considers giving local authorities discretion to raise rents, the first thought that comes to mind is of the fact that the so-called property tax, which is supposed to be a tax on the ownership of residential property, is also to be applied to local authority housing. Local authorities must find the extra money, even at the lower band. The starting point could increase. The amount levied can also be varied upwards or downwards by 15%. Given the chronic underfunding of local authorities, it most certainly will not be varied downwards. Pressure will be applied on local councillors to increase rents to meet their obligations under the new, unjust property tax that the Government will apply on social housing. What is apparently a democratic reform is actually a way to pass the buck of political responsibility for the imposition of the property tax to local authorities.

The big caveat is that there will be discretion, notwithstanding the Minister's baseline criteria for the setting of rents based on income, to increase rents for services provided to the dwellings, namely, the property tax. That is what I think this is about in reality.

Seeing as the Minister of State is worried about rents, another issue she could have addressed – setting aside the other bigger issues and the catastrophic failure to deal with the housing crisis in this country – is the gross injustice of the fact that public sector workers pay higher rents than other people in social housing. It is due to the fact that when determining rents, the pension levy is not taken into account by local authorities. Public sector workers pay 7% to 10% extra on the pension levy, as well as the universal social charge, PRSI and all the rest of it. They have a specific extra burden of 7% to 10%, yet local authorities do not take that into account when it comes to calculating rents. That means public sector workers who might earn exactly the same as equivalent private sector employees pay significantly higher rents if they live in social housing. If the Minister of State is serious about addressing fairness and harmonisation in rents, she must take that into account because it is grossly unfair.

Those are my comments on the Bill. I would be very interested to hear the response of the Minister of State on property tax and the issue I have raised. Apart from what is in the Bill, the key issue is what is not in it.

We really only discuss what is in a Bill.

Everybody else discussed what was not in it.

I was not in the Chair.

What they said was usually relevant.

It was all relevant. It was all about the lack of social housing and NAMA. One could go through the list. None of those speakers was pulled up. We are discussing housing.

Let us not be under any misunderstanding. Could the Deputy resume his seat for a moment and I will explain it to him? This is Second Stage of a Bill where we discuss the principle of the Bill before the House.

I do not mind if a speaker brings in other matters that are related, but that is the Standing Order. If I am in the Chair I am obliged to inform Deputies of that. It is not a case of my trying to be awkward with Deputy Boyd Barrett. All I am doing is saying what is in the Standing Orders. Deputy Boyd Barrett can proceed if he wishes but he must remember that what he says must relate to the Bill under discussion.

I am simply pointing out, a Cheann Comhairle-----

In other words, if that was the case, the Deputy could speak about aviation, for argument’s sake. If he wanted to talk, he could have that sort of freedom. The debate must relate to the principle of the Bill but it is fine if the Deputy is talking about housing.

Housing is what I am talking about. That is fair enough, a Cheann Comhairle. I obviously was not going to talk about aviation.

I am only pointing out to Deputy Boyd Barrett the reason for the Standing Order. I hope the Deputy understands.

I do, a Cheann Comhairle.

Deputy Boyd Barrett can fly a few kites now and bring in that kind of aviation.

I would join in the general hilarity but the issue is too serious. As I said, it is extraordinary that two years into the term of office of the Government, the housing crisis – there is no other way to describe it – has escalated. That has not been addressed in any substantial way in the Bill. We must remind ourselves – although the Minister of State might not need reminding – how serious the situation is. The combination of the utter failure of successive Governments to provide adequate council housing in the State, added to the reduction in rent allowance caps which the Government has imposed, and cuts in social welfare and income mean that tens of thousands of families are in a dire situation that is reminiscent of the slum conditions people faced at the turn of the previous century when the great playwright, Seán O’Casey, wrote of the horrible conditions of slum dwellers in Dublin. That is not an exaggeration. Some people are living either in local authority housing that should have been demolished long ago and still has not been because of the implosion of the public private partnership proposals for the regeneration of local authority housing estates, in particular in Dublin, or because they have been forced into dependency on rent allowance and the private rented sector for years in utterly despicable, squalid and unacceptable conditions. We have failed to address that. Nothing in the Bill addresses it.

Obviously, the bulk of the responsibility for that catastrophic failure lies with the previous Government. There is no question about that. I acknowledge that the Government came into office having to deal with the mess that the previous crowd created. It is worth pondering just how central to the wider economic crisis is the issue of social housing. The decision of the previous Fianna Fáil Administration effectively to abandon the provision of social housing played a critical part in stoking the property bubble because it meant that a market that was somewhat regulated by the direct provision of cheap, affordable social housing became completely privatised and developers and landlords ran amok, while bankers financed them to so do and the Fianna Fáil Government was cheering on the whole process. That was no doubt because of the cosy relationship epitomised by the Galway tent and the golden circle relationship with the developers and bankers who were the beneficiaries of the madness.

An important point that is not sufficiently underlined is that if we had the level of social housing construction that we had, for example, in the 1950s or 1960s, the property bubble we experienced would not have happened. The reason for that is the provision of social housing has a dampening effect on property values because there is a cheaper, affordable alternative. In the 1950s and 1960s when the State was much poorer than during the Celtic tiger period, approximately 50% of all the housing that was built was social housing built by the State. That exercised some control on the market, private developers and landlords, but the dogs were let off the leash by Fianna Fáil in the 1990s and 2000s. The consequences were devastating for those on the housing list, which trebled under Fianna Fáil’s watch. It is extraordinary that the number of people seeking social housing trebled while we were building 70,000 to 90,000 homes a year. We have been left with an incredible anomaly where we have ghost estates built in the wrong place by greedy developers, financed by bankers and facilitated by politicians, and these are lying empty while we have a shortage of housing in Dublin and other urban centres. The market and greedy people driven only by profit decided that instead of there being rational planning for housing need. It does not get much more basic than housing, putting a roof over one’s head. What sort of statement does it make about the failure of our political system if, in the 21st century, we cannot solve the problem of rationally planning for housing need?

It is damning and all of us are suffering the consequences, not just the 100,000 people on the housing list, which is a disgrace in itself. All of us, at every level of society, are paying off the gambling debts of those bankers and we are also paying €500 million every year in rent allowance to subsidise those same developers and landlords who caused the crisis in the first place. It is shocking. The Government is contemplating further attacks on the pay and conditions of ordinary workers who cannot pay their mortgages, while €500 million a year is going into the pockets of landlords, developers and indeed, the banks, which own many of these properties. Yet again, the banks are being subsidised with public money, when ordinary people are being hammered.

This problem could be resolved if the State provided the necessary social housing. All that money would be saved. This needs to be underlined for the public. If we provided social housing directly for the 100,000 families on the housing list, we would save €500 million per year immediately and we would also generate approximately €250 million per year in extra rental revenue for the State. That is a huge saving and I do not understand why the Government says it cannot afford to do this. As was already mentioned and as I know to be a fact, the European Investment Bank will lend money to any one who puts forward a serious business plan for a capital infrastructure development that can pay for itself over the medium to long term. There is no doubt that a social housing programme could pay for itself and, in the long term, profit the State, not to mind meeting the most basic need of our citizens to have a roof over their heads. Why is the Government, instead of embarking on such a programme, proposing to move to long-term leasing arrangements with landlords and probably NAMA and the banks, the owners of the tens of thousands of empty properties all over the country? Why is the Government proposing to do this, which is simply throwing good money after bad? It makes no sense that we would enter into lease arrangements for ten to 20 years and literally throw money way. At the end of the ten or 20 years, those developers, who will be very glad to have been subsidised with public money, will decide that the market has improved and take back possession of their properties and we will be left with nothing but the bill. One could not make it up. It is an idiotic policy.

There are many problems that the Government can rightly say are difficult to resolve but this problem can be resolved. While I accept that many of the empty properties are no good, I do not accept that the best we can do is to have signed contracts in respect of 110 properties out of the entire empty property stock in the hands of NAMA. That represents housing for 0.1% of those on the housing list. Indeed, it is likely that four to six times that number of people have joined the housing list since the contracts for those 110 properties were signed. It is pathetic.

Is the Government going to exercise some real influence and instruct NAMA to take some of these properties? I know of a development on the Stillorgan dual carriageway that had a large banner across it which read, "The Spirit of Gracious Living". The banner has been taken down because it was so ironic, considering what developments like that one did to the economy. An enormous number of properties in that development are still empty. Why can we not use them to house people on the housing list? I accept that they would not be suitable for families with children but there are hundreds of single people, unmarried and without children, who have been on the housing list for years. Why can we not put them in those properties? I do not get it.

Beyond that, and more importantly, there is already a shortage of housing in general and social housing in particular in Dublin and the other main urban centres. We could create jobs for the 130,000 unemployed construction workers who are rotting on the dole and who want to work, building social housing. Every single house built would save the State money in terms of the social welfare payments that those construction workers would no longer be claiming; the income tax they would pay; the extra rental revenue accruing to the State; and the fact that we would no longer have to pay money to private landlords. I do not understand why the Government cannot do this. I hope the Government will do it but the signals, based on the policy paper published in June 2011, indicate that the Government's answer to this crisis is long-term leasing arrangements.

I could understand Fine Gael proposing that sort of policy. Ideologically, it believes, like Fianna Fáil, in the doctrine of markets. How it can maintain such a belief in view of what the markets have done to housing and to the Irish and European economies is difficult to understand. What has happened to housing is at the heart of the global crisis, not just the Irish crisis. It underpins the crises in Spain, the United States of America and elsewhere. The privatisation of housing has been a disaster for the global economy. Having said that, I can understand the ideological blinkers of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who have always believed in markets. However, I fail to comprehend how the Labour Party can go along with this policy, given the fact that two short years ago its members would have been saying exactly what I am saying now. They would have been saying that it was madness to pay out such sums to private landlords when we could provide social housing.

I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy O' Sullivan to give us assurances-----

I will be responding to the Deputy when I get an opportunity.

I am putting a serious and concrete proposal to the Minister of State and Deputy Stanley did the same. I urge the Minister of State to ask for a meeting with the European Investment Bank and put a proposal-----

We have had a meeting with the EIB already.

I would be very interested to hear-----

Representatives from the bank are in town at the moment, as the Deputy may already be aware.

I ask the Deputy to conclude his contribution and then the Minister of State can respond to him.

Such a proposal conflicts with the policy as set out in June 2011.

I look forward to the Minister of State announcing that we will reduce the waiting list of 100,000 by providing social housing directly, either through taking existing stock into public ownership or through a new social housing building programme. That is what is required to provide housing for those who so desperately need it.

It is heartbreaking for me to meet people, week after week, who are threatened with homelessness, have been made homeless already or who have been on the housing list for ten or 12 years and are living in totally overcrowded conditions. I am weary of meeting people whose families have been split up because they do not want to live in squalid private rented accommodation or cannot get such accommodation because it is too expensive, relative to the rent allowance caps. People are being forced to stay with relatives or to break up their families and distribute them among their extended family. That is common but all of this unnecessary suffering and injustice could be resolved.

I ask the Minister of State to do something about the widespread, outrageous and disgusting practice among private landlords of saying that rent allowance is not accepted. They might as well say that they do not accept poor people. It is directly reminiscent of the signs that used to be visible in England which read, "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish".

It is the same principle, as a certain sort of people are not wanted. It is absolutely outrageous and people should not be allowed to rent property if they operate that discriminatory policy. Action should be taken in that regard immediately.

Deputy Paul Connaughton is sharing time with Deputies Kyne and Terence Flanagan.

I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to the Bill. I welcome its provisions, the main aims of which are to streamline the way in which rents are calculated across all local authorities. I also welcome the fact that the making of a rent scheme is now a reserved function of the housing authority, as this will give elected council members a role in deciding rent policy.

This Bill seeks to give greater transparency to the process by which councils arrive at rent charges, including the way financial circumstances are treated and the allowances available for dependants. The new harmonised structure will come into effect on 1 January and pave the way for the new housing assistance payment scheme, which will see the responsibility for rent supplement switched to local authorities. This represents a sea change in the way in which housing is administered by the State, and bringing the rent supplement under the umbrella of the local authorities is long overdue, as they have the local knowledge to best implement the scheme and are best placed to ensure the State does not pay high rents to private landlords while public housing lies vacant.

Currently, there is a wide variation in the rents charged by various local authorities, and this Bill will bring some level of harmonisation to the system while still allowing for an element of discretion. The changes envisaged under the Bill will undoubtedly result in increased rent for some householders, and I recognise that these increases, where they fall due, will be implemented on a phased basis. This Bill is merely paving the way for more significant legislation in the area later this year when the rent supplement scheme is transferred to local authorities. Applicants for rent supplement must already apply to a local authority for assessment of housing needs, meaning the majority of those on rent supplement should already be on the file of the local county or city council. Therefore, local authorities should be aware of where various people wish to live, and people can be offered vacant housing as it arises.

The case of arrears which have arisen many years ago is one aspect of the transition that requires greater scrutiny. In one instance I know, a family left the county of their birth in difficult circumstances and sought to return years later when the issues that gave rise to their leaving had been resolved. However, they were told they could not get back on the housing list as they had arrears with the housing authority relating to the manner of their leaving years before. This family could get on the housing list in every county in the Republic and receive rent supplement in each county except for where they were born and where they had close family ties. Some consideration should be given to such cases before the system is fully transferred to local authorities, and cases where people are barred because of arrears which arose many years ago should have their case re-examined and perhaps be allowed a hearing on the case.

This is one of the few reservations I have about the transfer of responsibility for the rent allowance scheme as, overall, it is a common-sense approach that will yield significant financial dividends for the country's coffers. The local knowledge that the county councils possess will be vital and an increased number of offers to people of vacant housing will see the current high bill for rent supplement reduced significantly in years to come. A sustained campaign in which people on rent supplement are offered vacant local authority houses within 10 km of their current address would result in significant savings for the State and increased rent collection for local authorities.

The issue of staffing in housing departments of local authorities may have to be addressed in the months and years to come if the maximum savings are to be achieved. This may necessitate a reconfiguration of services within councils or in some cases require extra resources that will be more than offset by the savings achieved. Harmonisation of the manner in which rent is calculated is a good idea, as is the harmonisation of the rent supplement scheme, which will see the current two-tier system involving the local authorities and Department of Social Protection streamlined into a more cohesive approach that will see better use of scarce housing resources. This is one of the most important tasks facing the Government and it is using scarce resources well, identifying areas where savings can be made and achieving those savings. This Bill is a further example of our doing more with less.

Although technical in nature, this Housing (Amendment) Bill touches upon some very important housing issues. Our local authorities remain central to housing provision and meeting the housing needs of communities. The various provisions in this Bill will strengthen the role of local authorities, and in particular the Bill makes clear that the design of a rent scheme is a function reserved for the housing authority.

On several recent occasions, this Government has been accused of putting together a centralisation policy at the expense of local authorities or other county-based organisations, but these accusations are without foundation. Without question there are a number of State-funded initiatives and programmes which have been transferred to national bodies with positive results in the main, although as can be demonstrated with this Bill, other important functions in service provision are being maintained or strengthened at county or city council level. The housing needs of a county would be best understood at the county council level, as will the design of the rental scheme to be operated. This legislation will provide for the deletion of certain existing provisions which conflict with the rental schemes determined using the criteria of household income and composition. The Government should provide for overarching strategic leadership by tackling the problems in partnership with various local authorities. We should also realise that the different interconnected and related aspects of this policy area, including changes to legislation governing local authority housing rental schemes, will most likely have an impact on the Department of Social Protection rent supplement scheme, the provision of social housing and other local authority schemes.

An issue related to housing is the regrettable problem of homelessness. Recently, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, published a very welcome homelessness policy which outlined the Government's commitment to prioritise the provision of long-term solutions as opposed to the current system, which relies on a series of short-term initiatives. Today, a local Galway charity, COPE Galway, furnished me with a copy of its submission on the rent supplement scheme, a review of which is imminent. I urge the Department of Social Protection and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to read the submission, as it contains some very workable and sensible recommendations for different aspects of housing.

In 2012, COPE Galway provided accommodation support to more than 330 men, women and children, and the organisation found increased pressure on services because of the requirements of the rent supplement scheme, maximum rental limits and the lack of discretion that can be shown by the Department of Social Protection representatives, formerly known as community welfare officers. I appreciate that there is pressure on the social protection budget and how careful the Minister must be with the rent supplement on account of the often overlooked fact that over 40% of the housing stock in the rental market is involved with the rent supplement scheme. In effect, this means that changes in the rent supplement scheme will have consequences not just for those citizens availing of the scheme but also for other citizens residing in private rented accommodation.

The Government must realise that homelessness is a distinct possibility if the criteria or rental limits of the rent supplement scheme are too stringent and not in keeping with current market conditions. As I mentioned, COPE Galway has furnished a report requesting a number of elements. Among others, it asks that rent cap levels for Galway city be increased so that people dependent on rent supplement can secure affordable housing. The findings of a recent survey on the lower end of rental properties available in Galway city demonstrate that the current cap levels are too low. Additionally, COPE Galway argues that the rent supplement system should be aligned to the prevailing practices in the private rental market in respect of deposit and rent in advance requirements, and the application process for rent supplement should be simplified to make it more user-friendly for both rent supplement applicants and landlords. The organisation also seeks that social protection officers be given greater discretionary powers to breach the rent cap in exceptional circumstances, including when it will help prevent people falling into long-term homelessness.

There is also the issue of using housing stock now under the ownership of NAMA, and I reiterate my suggestion that a portion of the stock be transferred for use in social and affordable housing, as that would help protect against homelessness. I suggest a facility be put in place to enable the transfer of houses and apartments, where possible, from property developers to local authorities in cases of unpaid development levies. These measures may take time to construct and implement ,but I believe strongly that they should form part of this Government's housing strategy.

I welcome the Bill and I thank the Minister of State responsible for housing for being here to listen to the debate and her good work in the area. The Bill is technical, providing for changes to be made to section 31 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009.

The changes involved will introduce a harmonised local authority rent system with effect from 1 January 2014 and a new housing assistance payment scheme. At present there is a wide variation in rents being paid by tenants in various local authorities. This legislation will give elected local councillors the power to set the rent parameters in their local authority areas. It is proposed that a base rent will be charged for each household member in addition to a differential rent based on a proportion of the net household income in excess of a threshold that will depend on the composition of the household. That is much more equitable than the current system.

It is also important that the regulations will allow for a transitional period for households where the rent will increase significantly under the new system. This matter will be discussed later this year when legislation is introduced for the new housing assistance payment scheme.

I welcome the move by Dublin City Council to change from a points based housing allocation system to a system based on the length of time on the list. This is a much needed change. All of us as Deputies receive queries about difficult situations where people are on the housing list for up to ten years. This is the way to go and will be welcomed by the public. The new system will be fairer and more transparent. There will be three levels of priority, with the first band made up of those with medical needs and those experiencing homelessness, the second made up of tenants living in overcrowded accommodation and the third band made up of all other cases. It is fairer to base the system of allocation on the length of time someone is on a housing list than on a points system. There have always been many complaints about the waiting times on housing lists. As the Government faces economic constraints, it is impossible to build brand new stock so we must continue to seek innovative solutions in this area, particularly when 100,000 people are on waiting lists nationally.

The council also proposes to introduce a new applicant-sourced housing scheme, allowing people in need of social housing to rent their own accommodation. This will see the council pay rent to the landlord and the tenant, who will in turn pay the council a tenant rate. I welcome the new measures to address any existing problems in local authority housing. This new rent system will help to make the system fairer and will standardise rents across the State. Those renting local authority housing in any county should be expected to pay the same basic rates.

The Government is determined to address the issue of homelessness and it is quite right that it is a priority. We all know of cases and instances where people find themselves homeless. Nationally, there do not seem to be reliable figures for this. Perhaps the only way to secure a more reliable figure is to carry out a point in time count across all local authorities. The figure is close to 5,000 at present and estimating the problem is difficult when people are out of sight and do not present themselves to the homeless authorities. We are all used to seeing people sleeping rough and when there is bad weather it is not a nice situation for those involved. I hope we can give a high priority to the issue and deal with this as soon as possible.

There are over 4,000 houses and apartments that could potentially be used for social housing in NAMA's stock. I welcome that; it is positive news and shows an element of progress towards a social dividend from NAMA. We have been left with a huge amount of surplus housing all over the State, housing that was built in areas that will never be occupied, and we must consider this further to identify a match up with the housing lists so people could be adequately housed.

There has been criticism of the property tax but in Dublin, those living in bigger houses and richer areas are paying more in property tax. It is certainly fair from that point of view.

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.

I begin by continuing on some of the themes Deputy Sean Fleming mentioned. I strongly agree with his point about people living in one area for a period of time and then moving to another local authority, which is often an adjacent area. They find that their positions on the housing list change radically. I most often hear of such cases, sadly, in the event of a family break-up or difficulty at home. When people move from one part of the country to another and cross local area boundaries they find that any status or points they might have accrued by virtue of being in one area are lost, and in some cases they have to start all over again. There would be justification in having a more standardised and centralised system to deal with those specific cases in a fairer way.

The point Deputy Fleming made about the quality of private rental accommodation is a matter I have raised with the Minister of State previously when debating other housing Bills and also as a Topical Issue. I acknowledge the progress made by Dublin City Council and laud the work it is doing in this area. Last Friday, The Irish Times brought to the public eye work of which I have been aware for quite a while and which I have mentioned to the Minister of State. In recent months Dublin City Council inspected 1,500 privately rented flats across selected parts of the city. Those inspection teams include trained Dublin City Council officials, sometimes with officials from other State authorities, who arrive at a property to ensure that minimum legal requirements are being met. The statistics from this work are startling as are the consequences. Of the 1,500 flats inspected, the council found that 1,400 did not meet the minimum legal standards for private rented accommodation. They had various deficiencies, including unsafe electrics, no private bathroom, rooms without windows, damp, mould and inadequate heating. They carried out 2,230 inspections on these 1,499 properties - in other words, some were inspected more than once. The council has been forced to issue 1,544 legal notices to landlords requiring them to upgrade the standard of accommodation provided.

In many cases we are talking about the most minimum of standards. I have been in some of these flats, which are inhabited by constituents and neighbours of mine, and the standards in a small number of them have been deplorable. I recognise the pioneering work the city council is doing in tackling this. It is very hard work. Unfortunately, in some cases the officials must work in close co-ordination with An Garda Síochána because of the difficulties they encounter.

Two important consequences of this are relevant to the Bill and to the public housing policy issues we are discussing. It proves to me what I believed based on anecdotal evidence - that a large amount of money has been paid in the form of private rent supplement in respect of properties that do not meet the standards we want. The Comptroller and Auditor General is carrying out a report into the operation of that payment and its interaction with overall rent levels. This is clear indication of that.

The second consequence, which will present a new difficulty to us, is the number of landlords who either cannot afford or do not want to update their properties to meet these new standards. As the areas involved are in the public domain, I will list them. They include a section of the North Circular Road, which I mentioned previously, and Cabra Park in Phibsborough. The landlords are now putting many of properties in these areas up for sale. I am speculating that many of these properties were subject to the inspection regime and landlords, in some cases through no fault of their own, will consider the quantity of housing stock they have there and say they cannot afford to upgrade it.

The new difficulty I am beginning to encounter is that of people who were in such private rental accommodation, who are now finding that accommodation might not be available to them in the future and are wondering where they can go. That section of the private rental market was providing single-unit bedsits or very small apartments, frequently for single men and women. My concern is that by virtue of our doing the right thing - let me be clear that what we are doing is absolutely the correct thing to do - the supply of those units in our major cities could contract much more quickly than we had anticipated because, alongside those changes, as the Minister of State is aware, other changes have been made to the taxation of rental income, which is having an effect on landlords' cashflow.

I laud the quality of the work the city council is doing in this area. We should support the introduction of that model throughout the country. Dublin City Council is able to do this because the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government made €1 million available over a three-year period to fund the scheme. We should be doing more of it and in parallel we need to come up with an alternative accommodation model for people who are living in these homes.

That leads on to a point that comes to the fore whenever we debate housing policy or public housing.

The extraordinary and bitter irony for a country which went through a housing boom is that we still have more than 100,000 people on our public housing lists. This shows the manifest failure of housing policy during the period under the previous Government. In many of the communities I am so privileged to represent I meets residents and constituents who have been on housing lists for between five and eight years looking for a particular form of accommodation. Dublin City Council is doing its best. These are individuals for whom rent might not be an option and for whom purchase is not an option, and they now find themselves locked in very long waiting lists despite the huge effort of the city council to deal with it. The Government and the Minister of State are already examining the role voluntary housing associations, such as Clúid, can play in this and how we can support them in their work.

I am still certain that in the model for future public housing provision in our cities and counties local authorities will continue to play, and must play, a role in building housing stock themselves. When we get to better days, as I am sure we will, I hope we will examine the type of financial support we can give to voluntary housing associations and local authorities to continue their work in dealing with the 100,000 people who have been left on these lists despite homes being built throughout the country for years. We have a duty to support them. I acknowledge the work done by our local authorities in trying to rise to this challenge.

Deputies Eamonn Maloney and Michael McNamara will share the next speaking slot.

I welcome the Bill as other speakers have done on all sides of the House. As a former member of a local authority for 11 or 12 years of my life, I am aware that the amendment being introduced by the Minister of State has been spoken about for years but nothing has been done about it. The principal activity of local authorities is the provision of housing for those who cannot afford housing themselves and surely it is a responsibility councillors should have in their gift. In many respects it is good they have this and I commend the Minister of State for it and for the introduction of the Bill.

Other speakers have gone into the details of the legislation, including Deputy Donohoe, so I will not do so. The great advantage of technology is that one does not need to be in the Chamber to hear the debate and one can listen in one's office to the contributions being made. I was close to jumping out the window at one stage when I heard Sir Richard Boyd Barrett blame the Minister of State for not building any houses. I do not know how the Minister of State replied but I did not realise she was responsible for the collapse of the Irish economy. If one bases one's economics on a Ladybird book one will have difficulty.

Unlike some who get into a false rage about local authority estates, I was born in one and live in one and I am proud to do so. The last thing I need is a critique from people about what it is like to live in a local authority housing estate. Having said this I know if things were different it would be to the great credit of both parties in the Government if the Minister of State could announce we were commencing a great programme of building local authority houses, but the country is bankrupt. People prostitute the issue of homelessness and the thousands of people on the list, which was discussed eloquently by the previous speaker, but the lists have spiralled out of control and there is a reason for this. I do not think the finger can be pointed at the Minister of State. It is a difficult situation and I look forward to the days when the country gets out of the mess it is in and is in better shape economically. Those of us who support the Government look forward to the day we can take people off the list and provide social housing.

I concur very much with what Deputy Donohoe said and it is something I have spoken about directly to the Minister of State in the Chamber. Along the lines of what Deputy Donohoe stated, at a recent meeting with Clare County Council officials I was very pleased to learn the inspection regime is being stepped up there. County Clare is not unlike anywhere else in that quite an amount of private rented accommodation is inadequate in the extreme. I sat as an adjudicator on the Private Rresidential Tenancies Board and while at times I was shocked by the evidence of what tenants had done to properties, I was equally shocked by some of the entirely inadequate properties being let to tenants, in particular under schemes funded by the Exchequer and often paid for by the HSE. I am glad that not only in this august Chamber where it is easy to discuss these matters, but on the ground the inspection regime is being stepped up.

Deputy Maloney mentioned we would very much like to see a greater number of houses being built by local authorities and everybody would agree, whether on the left or right of the Chamber, that this would be socially beneficial. I wish to draw the attention of the Minister of State to the fact that there is insufficient money to renovate and repair existing housing stock in Clare which is lying idle. There is not a lot, it has to be said, but there is some and these are times of pressure on State resources. Clare is rarely exceptional in any instance and has been described as a bellwether constituency and county. I know the Minister of State is very well acquainted with it. It would be good if money could be made available for this housing stock. It would also be good if money could be made available for building, but at the very least perhaps money could be made available for the repair and renovation of existing housing stock to ensure people move into it.

I wish to discuss the great difficulty housing arrears cause local authorities with regard to their budgets and financing. I am aware the Department has sought to address this since the Minister of State has taken up her role, and an amendment to the household budgeting scheme to provide for mandatory deduction of local authority rent was introduced in December. This will help local authorities address their concerns regarding the build-up of rental arrears. The mandatory provision provides local authorities with strengthened power to help manage their tenancies, as when the provision is commenced customers will have to obtain written permission from the housing authority prior to cancelling the household budget rent reduction. The requirement to enter into a household budget rent reduction scheme is nothing new but many local authority tenants entered into it when they entered into their tenancy but then cancelled it and commenced building up arrears. They will no longer be able to do this. The difficulty still arises with existing tenancies, of which there are many with considerable arrears. We all appreciate many people in local authority housing are in considerable difficulty but some people take advantage of the situation.

Of course, that puts further pressure on the local authority and on other people who could be benefiting from local authority housing but are not because others decide to take advantage of the system.

I have received various assurances on this issue from Ministers. I do not expect an update today from the Minister of State on what will be done regarding existing tenancies, but I hope that in the weeks ahead her Department will be able to outline what will be done with regard to such tenancies and arrears. Specifically, will it be legally possible to insert a clause concerning this household budget rent deduction scheme into existing tenancies? If so, under what legislative provisions will it be done? Something like that would be very useful, not just for Clare County Council but for all housing authorities across the State.

Debate adjourned.