Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, for bringing this important legislation before the House and the extent of work she has undertaken on it, along with her colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Housing provision is an issue that has required attention for some several years.

Public housing is within the remit of the local authorities. There is no doubt in my mind about that. Unfortunately, over the years there has been a gradual off-loading, outsourcing and avoiding of the responsibilities in that area and it was agreed in policies pursued over ten or 15 years. While I do not wish to go into the history, we now must deal with the inherited difficulties arising from a failure to provide a proper public housing programme over at least 15 years. There is one commentator in the public area who might admit that I reminded him at least 15 years ago that the biggest issue to face this country in the years to come would be the lack of public housing.

There is an unfortunate situation where people can no longer go to access the workforce because they are dependent on rent support which is conditional on them being unemployed. The situation is intolerable. We cannot go on indefinitely chasing the rising rents and at the same time trying to pretend that the issue will go away or will resolve itself as nothing could be further from the truth.

At last, this Government has recognised that there is a need to reintroduce the public housing programme. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and I know full well that the situation is dire. We have discussed this on many occasions and I am sure everybody else in this House has discussed it with her as well. The problem is so vast now that, without anything else happening at all, we would need at least 20,000 houses in each of the next four years in order to come to grips with it, but it would be a great help if we had even half of that number, and we are not going to have that.

There are a number of things that need to be done as a matter of urgency. First, we must discover how it is proposed to fund any major housing project. There are a number of ways. Of course, because of the troika, we cannot allow these issues to emerge on the Government's balance sheet, and that creates a problem. There are other ways, which I have submitted already to various Ministers. I believe that a Government bond should be launched to deal with specific infrastructural deficits of which this is one. I believe such a bond could attract funds from private pension funds and savings which currently fall within the remit of DIRT. The loss in interest to the Exchequer would be very small but a significant positive impact would accrue on two levels, the social housing issue and the employment generated by a serious housing programme.

In my county, for example, we had a similar situation in the late 1980s. In the 1980s, we had a large number of people on housing lists which were inherited from another problem of economic downturn. At that time, the local authority had two systems. One was direct build of local authority houses, of which they built between 300 and 400 every year and which had the effect of stabilising the housing market. In addition, the local authority loan system also awarded between 400 and 500 loans each year. The odd aspect about that was the variety of persons who qualified under those headings. Young nurses, young gardaí and young public services, to a significant extent, were able to qualify. In fact, I was in this House for several years and still would have qualified for a local authority loan such was the extent to which that funding was made available at that time. Wisdom, or what went for it at the time, prevailed in some quarters and it was all changed, there were no, or only a few, local authority houses built, and responsibility was handed over to voluntary housing agencies, all of which are good in their own way and meet a certain part of the market, but are not the answer and do not have the statutory responsibility. Unfortunately, as a result of these failed policies, we have an intolerable situation.

As for what we do about it and how quickly, I think the Minister of State is going the right way about it, but this is only the initial stages. As she will be aware, I would plead that at the earliest opportunity something be done by way of launching a bond, encouraging the launching of a bond or creating a situation whereby funding could be made available from a source that will not be reflected on the Government's balance sheet which we know cannot happen, but will make a serious impact on the number of people currently on local authority housing lists.

The number on the waiting list is difficult from another perspective as well. In years gone by, it was a regular occurrence that a mobile home was pulled into somebody's garden at the side of their house and families lived there in those kind of conditions. That is no longer acceptable. For a start, it was dangerous. Many lost their lives or their health because of fire hazards etc. Most importantly, it was not a resolution to the problem. The only resolution to the problem at that time was to build the houses or provide loans to people to build them themselves.

Now we have another problem, that of available land on which to build houses. We must use legislation that is in place. I refer to infrastructural deficit legislation which deals with situations where in an emergency - this is an emergency - it can be possible to purchase serviceable land and provide blocks of houses on a planned basis over a four or five year period which would have a sufficient impact on the housing market to achieve two aims - meet the housing needs of those on the housing list and be a stabiliser for house prices. As long as the considerable numbers - there are approximately 100,000 families - remain on those housing lists, they are in the market seeking accommodation from the private sector, which is fine for the investors.

Incidentally, I could not help an inward smile in recent weeks when I heard rent prices have gone up by 8%, 10% or whatever when, in fact, they have gone up by 40% in the places that I represent over the past six to eight months. Unfortunately, that is the way it is. The reason for the increase is the investors are caught between the lender and their own interests and must jack up rents in order to show the lending institutions they are making a serious effort to repay their borrowings, and as a result the tenants get squeezed.

In that regard, there are many decent landlords throughout the length and breadth of this country who look after their tenants as if they were their own family and whose only wish is that the property is kept in a good state of repair and that they get a reasonable rent. They do not hustle tenants around. They do not target them on a regular basis to increase the rent. Such landlords are in the minority. Unfortunately, a trend has developed, in particular over the past 12 months, whereby tenants get notice of the intention of the landlord to recover the property, for instance, to put it on the market, and then the property is re-advertised at, in some cases, double the rent previously being paid. That is how serious it is. If that kind of trend continues, it will end in disaster because property prices will go back the way they were previously and we will find ourselves in a situation whereby the lending institutions will continue to lend to fund properties that are already inflated in price. I totally disagree with the notion put about in some quarters. It was not 100% mortgages that caused the problem. It was 100% inflated valuations on properties that caused the problem that we saw emerge over the past number of years.

What I want to see happen in the shortest possible time is the formulation of a plan to target the numbers on the housing lists in each local authority. There is quite a variation. In some parts of the country, the lists are not long. In Kildare County Council, there are 8,500 at present, and addressing it will take a lot of overhauling. It is all fine to say there is private property that they can rent or they can go elsewhere.

It is not so easy for parents with children to go elsewhere. They generally like to remain within a reasonable distance of their family supports, as they should. That is particularly so for those who might rely on child-minding facilities from parents or in-laws. It is obviously a major advantage for them to be able to rely on child-minding facilities from a grandparent, aunt, uncle or other relatives. Many such issues need to be addressed in the context of housing generally.

From time to time, we hear criticism that people on local authority lists are in some way a burden on the State, but nothing could be further from the truth. All those on housing lists want is to be able to have a home of their own. In years gone by, there are those who suggested that we should be like the rest of Europe, content to live in apartments. There are a number of reasons that would not work, including the culture of this country and the quality of housing involved. We have seen numerous instances where the quality of housing deteriorated and did not meet householders' social or economic needs. In addition, in many instances the space available was so restrictive as to make it virtually impossible to rear a family in such box-type accommodation.

We need to revert to traditional accommodation, such as an ordinary house that is sufficient to meet people's needs for whatever length of time they wish to remain in it. A notion has developed over the years that people should be moved regularly from one quality of house to another, but that is absolute nonsense. Every time one intervenes administratively in anything of that nature, it costs money and causes delays.

I am sure both the Minister of State and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle can remember a time when a family was reared in their original house. They were quite happy to upgrade it as time went on and buy out the house themselves, which then became their home. They were committed to it, invested in it and were proud of it. They still are, to this day. Unfortunately, however, the practice of providing homes of that nature is no longer in operation.

People may say we are living in different times now and cannot do it the way we used to, but that is not true. If we do not provide an adequate amount of accommodation of sufficient quality to meet the needs of our growing population, we will have a dissatisfied community which is not a good way to proceed. Therefore, the sooner we recognise that we must revert to traditional means of meeting the housing needs of our population, the better.

I congratulate the Minister of State on recognising that and doing it. I regret that the proposed numbers are not higher, although I know the reasons for that. That is why I have suggested we should examine the possibility of a bond, which is the answer. It has been used in the past as a way of doing something about the housing issue.

There were glitches in the past that could have been resolved but were not. For example, the shared ownership loan scheme is a disaster because the rules were changed halfway through. Initially, the scheme was designed so that a person could borrow part of the equity of the house and have the remainder of it repaid on the basis of rent with a local authority. The condition was that the remaining rental part could be repaid within a 25 year period. However, the rules were changed and some genius came up with the idea that they should buy out the second part of the equity within 25 years. That is not what was originally proposed, as everybody in this House knows, but some clever genius decided to slip that into the mix along the way. It had the result of penalising people in that income category. They have been the worst hit group in society for the past ten years because they have had to pay more interest and ever-increasing repayments but got little in return. It was a disgraceful way to treat people who followed the rules as best they could. They set about purchasing their homes but were frustrated at every turn.

I hope the Minister of State will keep this in mind in dealing with the current situation. The problem now is bigger than it ever was before. It will fall to the Minister of State to deal with it because nobody else will do so. That will be her legacy when she goes before the people in a few years time, as I and every other Deputy must do. The greatest accolade for the Minister of State would be if she could say she tackled and resolved the housing crisis.

There are those who say they would do it differently, but I would like to hear what they are going to do and when they propose to do it. It should be remembered that there are 100,000 people with no long-term accommodation prospects. That has a disruptive potential for society. We cannot go on that way, so we must accept responsibility that those families are in need of rehousing now. It is a bit like someone in severe pain being put on a waiting list for an operation. Who wants to be on a waiting list when suffering severe pain? Similarly, who wants to be on a housing waiting list for five, seven or ten years? Many people have been on local authority housing lists for up to ten years.

Every day in my constituency a number of families become homeless and have nowhere to go. It is an appalling legacy of the people who planned housing. I will not name names but we all know who they are. There have been reports on housing in this country to beat the band and we know where they went. I am amazed that nobody has come forward to say they were wrong and it did not work. Everything they said was wrong and the expert opinion was rubbish. The fact is, however, that people are on waiting lists with very little prospect of being accommodated. The only prospect is what the Minister of State can do now to resolve the matter.

I have listened to some of those who spoke in this debate and were critical of the Minister of State, but it is grossly unfair. She inherited something she did not create. Some may say she is in Government now and should deal with it, but that is utter hypocrisy. The Minister of State was not handed funding by anybody when she took office. Nobody said: "Here's a cheque. This is how we're going to solve the housing problem that you inherited."

A fair amount of soul-searching has to be undertaken with a view to setting down markers, outlining a programme, dealing with the issue by setting annual targets, and achieving them. We must not avoid the issue, which has happened for the past 12 years at least. The previous administration avoided the issue, pretended it was not there and hoped the private sector would deal with it. It was handed over to the private sector which depended on the markets. They did all the things that did not work.

I am trying to be as constructive as I can. The Minister of State inherited an appalling situation for which she bears no responsibility. I am glad she is making this foray in trying to deal with the situation. All the support and help that should be available to her will be forthcoming from Members of this House.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan is next and is sharing time with Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.

Intense attention has been paid to the housing situation in recent weeks.

The Technical Group tabled a Private Members' motion on it at the end of April. We have had Leaders' Questions, Topical Issues, Other Questions and much media attention. The one thing on which we can agree is that there is a crisis which requires prompt attention so people feel a resolution is coming. Although the housing needed cannot be built overnight, if people see steps being taken and can feel confident there is a resolution, it would go a long way.

The facts, figures and statistics on the extent of homelessness are staggering. The picture of homelessness is changing from the sad, stereotypical minority of single men with mental health or addiction issues who have fallen on hard times. The homeless are very different now and include people and families who in other times would never have been in a crisis situation. It results from unemployment, negative equity and insufficient funding to the local authorities and housing agencies to answer those needs.

I have spoken on this before and identified that local authorities do not have enough housing to meet demand. Movement on the number of voids in my constituency is not prompt enough. I see it constantly in Dublin Central. There was insufficient funding for social housing and some of those contracted to build housing did not fulfil the regulations on social housing. In the private rental market rents are rising and there are other factors which cause landlords to issue notices to quit, which is putting further pressure on the housing services. Organisations do their best to source emergency accommodation so at least people are safe, warm and have a roof over their heads, but it is often unsuitable for families.

One solution is to give local authorities enough funding to make a difference, which means funding for those voids, and it must happen now. Some money is available, but this must move very quickly because of the extent of the problem. I see perfectly good accommodation boarded up. It is costly to board a house up and the longer it is left, the more it costs to renovate it. We have the workforce with the skills and we need to use them before they have all emigrated. We may have a problem in the future because we have insufficient training for young apprentices in construction skills. When I spoke on the Private Members' business I said rent supplement should never have been reduced without limiting the rents landlords can impose. Some landlords do not want rent allowance and that is discriminatory.

I note the three key elements of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, namely, a legislative basis for the new housing assistance payment, HAP; the new tenant purchase scheme for local authority tenants; and the reform of the process for terminating tenancies. In her speech, the Minister of State said she believed this would bring about the most radical reform of public housing support, but, unfortunately, it does not get to the crux of the most serious problem, namely, the lack of housing stock and opening up those voids.

The Minister of State has listed anti-social behaviours that merit terminations of tenancies and repossessions, namely, vacancy, squatting, anti-social behaviour, the death of a tenant or consistent failure to pay rents. I am in frequent contact with Dublin City Council's housing service. I acknowledge its flexibility in working out suitable and sustainable payment agreements with tenants who get into arrears. I was part of the Dublin City Council group that examined anti-social behaviour and put together the protocol. It was difficult because we all have different ideas of what anti-social behaviour is, and it can depend on one's age. We strove for a prompt and fair system where communities have been devastated by anti-social behaviour, particularly drug dealing and drug pushing. I have seen too much of the devastation it has caused where it is not addressed as soon as it is brought to the attention of the authorities.

The local authority has a process, albeit a slow one, for dealing with tenants who engage in anti-social behaviour. In the north inner city there is a very effective community policing forum which works directly between the community, local authority and gardaí in a confidential way and it has been very proactive in preventing issues from escalating. This aspect of the Bill does not address the private rental sector. In my constituency there are landlords who do not care what type of tenant they take and will not address other residents' issues about the behaviour of those tenants.

There are cases in which grandparents have brought up grandchildren for a variety of reasons, and when the grandparents die, those children, now adults, are moved from what was their home due to their changing needs and circumstances. There should be some flexibility on that. If a local authority tenant is evicted, the local authority is still responsible for housing him or her, and that creates a need for accommodation. The Bill addresses landlord compliance on accommodation standards and taxation. We are told that the housing authority will inspect the accommodation before or after the tenancy commences. That could be problematic and the inspection should occur before the tenant moves in. There must be a robust system to ensure tenants go into accommodation that is up to standard. Tenants have gone into appalling accommodation, and, equally, some have left what was perfectly good accommodation in an appalling state. We must examine the responsibilities of both tenants and landlords. We do not want to return to last year's figures which showed that over 90% of rented accommodation in Dublin did not meet basic standards and that 75% of landlords were splitting their houses into flats illegally. There must be provision for subletting by tenants, which is leading to overcrowding and health and safety issues.

We need a system in place with equal regard for the rights and responsibilities of both tenant and landlord. How will landlords be encouraged to join the scheme when they are doing their best to get out of schemes and are not accepting rent allowance or RAS payments? How can we ensure landlords will continue their discrimination and not get involved in the HAP? The Department of Social Protection asked Daft.ie to remove its rent allowance filter but the company made the point that when the prospective tenant talks to the landlord he or she must answer whether rent allowance is acceptable. There is a need to incentivise landlords to participate in the scheme and accept the housing assistance payment.

The Bill is very positive in facilitating tenants who can sustain a mortgage payment to become home owners. The new scheme factors in the length of the tenancy, and that is positive. The HAP does not specify rent limits, which could be problematic, and there is a need for a review process to allow for changes in the rental market. Limits on the rent allowance or the HAP are acceptable only if rents are also limited. Although the Minister of State said the HAP will be better for tenants, landlords and local authorities, there is a significant question around the resources and the extra work expected of the local authorities. Given that they have been subject to cuts and have lost staff, I question how they will be able to cope with this in their understaffed and underresourced state.

While there are many positive aspects to the Bill, the essential problems of rising rents and accommodation unfit for habitation will continue. We need more robust legislation on that. Demand for housing will remain unmet. There is concern for the housing charities regarding financing and the change from the 100% capital grant scheme to a loan regime. I was a member of the Constitutional Convention, which recommended the Constitution be amended to include economic, social and cultural rights encompassing a specific right to housing. If that were moved and the Government took it on board it would be an achievement on paper. However we still need the resources to back up that right.

As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is not in the House, I call Deputy Robert Dowds.

I apologise for arriving late but bilocation has always been a problem for me. I welcome the Bill, as it deals with certain issues that must be tackled. I have spoken to the Minister of State about these on many occasions, as well as her predecessor as Minister of State, Deputy Willie Penrose.

The first matter is the termination of local authority tenancies where tenants have been extremely difficult. I support this provision, albeit reluctantly, as I do not like the idea of anybody being thrown out of a house. Nevertheless, I have witnessed the hell which neighbours of really difficult tenants have gone through. Night after night they are unable to sleep and they can be threatened and subject to all kinds of abuse. Termination of a tenancy should be and is a last resort but it is important that the option is there for the good of the neighbours, who may be decent tenants or home owners. It is important that we have such a provision, although I know it has had to be revisited because of the difficulties which certain county councils - including the council where I live - have had.

I apologise for interrupting but I understand you are sharing time with Deputy Penrose.

That is fine. I will terminate my comments sooner because Deputy Penrose is a much greater expert in this area than I am. I hope these provisions will stand up when challenged, as it is important for the sake of those who live around such extremely difficult tenants. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider if it is possible to have a similar provision where people in private rented accommodation on the housing list are causing hell for people in private estates. That issue also must be tackled as it is a problem in certain estates.

I have very mixed views about the tenant purchase process. On one level it is a very good idea because it encourages a tenant to take a greater interest in a house and surroundings etc. but we must tread carefully. I would be a full supporter of the scheme if for every tenant who purchased a house there would be a new dwelling built for others who needed to rent from a local authority. The reality is that has not always been the case. I ask the Minister of State to consider carefully how things are going in that regard.

I am pleased the housing assistance payment, HAP, is being brought under local authority control. It is good that direct payment to landlords is to be introduced, whether they are a county council or a private landlord. I am aware of people who get into financial difficulty and are then left in a position where they could face eviction. It is far better that people would not be allowed get into that position. We need to consider carefully what will happen to anybody who is evicted as I presume they would have to be housed again. It is important such people are not housed in an immediate neighbourhood where they would have caused great problems. It is a tricky matter and we must consider how it can be dealt with. It is important that people on the housing list and in private housing are not effectively excluded from taking up employment, and I am glad the Minister of State is addressing this issue, which has led to a poverty trap for people over the years.

I shall make a couple of general comments on housing before handing over to my much more distinguished colleague, Deputy Penrose. I sat in this Chamber the other day when the Fianna Fáil spokesperson replied to the Minister of State, and I was absolutely staggered by his attack as, in many ways, the policy that party introduced after 1997 is one of the problems which led us to where we are today, with an insufficient supply of council housing. In effect, Fianna Fáil left it to private landlords - who are mainly amateur landlords - to house people. It will take us quite some time to achieve the goal but it is important we move away from that process, as it puts people in a very vulnerable position. We can see to a major extent how many people are now losing their accommodation because a landlord is in trouble with a mortgage, for example, and is obliged to sell the property. Through no fault of their own, the tenants would be obliged to move in such cases. We should try to move away from amateur landlords to a much more satisfactory process.

I welcome the Government's initiative with the construction programme, and the faster this gets under way, the better. This applies both to private and social housing. As we know, there are people homeless or living in hotels today who should not be. We are in the midst of an emergency so I ask the Minister of State to consider temporary emergency accommodation while we wait for long-term accommodation to come on stream. It takes approximately three years from the time plans are initiated to get to when houses can be occupied, and there is a need to consider exactly how much temporary emergency accommodation must be provided. That should be brought about as rapidly as possible.

I congratulate and compliment my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, for bringing forward this important piece of legislation, which deserves careful scrutiny and debate. With well over 100,000 of our fellow citizens languishing on housing lists across the country, it is incumbent on us all, in a non-partisan way, to set out in a focused and detailed manner how to tackle this important issue.

This is one of the key commitments to reform and it was announced by me in June 2011 with a policy statement prepared at the time. I salute the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, for bringing forward this legislation at this juncture, as it is critical in the context of the current housing position. I benefitted when my late parents were allocated a local authority house in 1960 and value the role of local authorities in ensuring the provision of proper and affordable housing to many thousands of families across the Irish landscape. Until the late 1970s we not only had to pay a rent, collected on a biweekly basis, but also had to twice yearly pay rates levied in July and December. I recall my late parents rearing two pigs to sell at the end of June through the late Matt Slevin, a pig dealer, with the money paid over in rates. For Christmas my late mother would rear turkeys, which were sold at the turkey show in Ballinacarriga. That was the second moiety, and Santa did not come into the equation because the rates had to be paid directly to the local authority.

That was for a rented house. We were not protesting about those charges. We were glad to have a roof over our heads, provided by the State and we acknowledged and valued it as such. We had to hand dig a trench 500 m to 600 m long in 1970 to bring down the water from the village as the house did not have a running water supply at the time. We harvested roof water prior to that for washing and carried water for domestic consumption from a private well situated across a neighbour’s field.

I am glad to have seen over the past 20 years the huge improvements in the provision and standard of local authority housing. It galled me that at a time of apparent plenty in the Celtic tiger years there was an effort to privatise or outsource the provision of accommodation for those on council housing lists. At a time when we should have launched a big programme of house building for local authorities we took it away from local authorities as if it was anathema to them to do that. This was done by way of various schemes. We spend over €500 million a year on rent supplement which creates its own problems. It made the private sector the de facto solution to the housing crisis. It was the antithesis of proper strategic planning by the State, which allowed a black hole open up and swallow a lot of money that could more profitably have been put into house-building. If even €1 billion a year had been spent on house building, it would have made a significant impact.

The policy of using the private sector must be reversed and the State should return to what is fundamental Labour Party policy, the construction of thousands of houses across the country, to replenish the housing stock and provide much needed employment in rural areas. This must be a central tenet of the review of social policy later this year. We are constrained by economic parameters and the need to achieve a debt-GDP ratio of 3% which circumscribes our ability to raise the necessary finance to undertake a significant house-building programme at this juncture. To get around this we must be innovative. We must reach out and encourage local authorities to set up companies, to make off balance sheet provision of financing. This must be explored seriously and new models of creative funding have to be considered to put this urgent house-building programme in place. Let us leave a real Labour Party legacy and policy mark on this pivotal role in the Department, by helping people who are unable to provide housing or accommodation from their own resources to do so.

I had also focused on housing supports, in particular the rent supplement scheme which was operated by the Department of Social Protection. Many organisations involved in social policy indicated this was contributing to a poverty or social welfare trap. It started out as a short-term support mechanism but is now a long-term one. People who took up work immediately lost the rent supplement. I was of the view that should not happen. I think the Minister of State is of the same view. To encourage people to take up work, one must not put obstacles or impediments in their way but instead facilitate that transition by continuing the payment for two or three years on a declining basis, much like the back-to-work allowance. That would encourage people to take up work. If people find their weekly calculations are in the negative, that would be an impediment on ordinary economic grounds.

I commenced a review of the rent support among other issues. I want to see local authorities become the repository for the administration of the rent supplement system. This is the thrust of the housing assistance payment proposal. It will be more equitable and efficient if it encourages that. I envisage landlords will receive their rent supplement directly from local authorities on condition they are tax compliant. This would eliminate the problem identified by many landlords whose tenants failed to hand over the rent supplement payment and had fallen into arrears. In the past two weeks a landlord came to me because a tenant on rent supplement was in arrears for thousands of euro. That is not fair to the landlords, many of whom provide very important accommodation. We would be in an awful state if we did not have this level of accommodation available. I envisage that every three months the local authorities will send details of rent supplement they pay to landlords to the Revenue Commissioners. That is how it would work. They also have to protect tenants. It is a two-way street. Rent supplement should only be paid in respect of accommodation that is suitable and in a full and proper state of repair. This will create a more equal and fair social housing system. The local authority will be the overarching supervisor. Why have bits and pieces of housing provision all over the place? One had to go to the community welfare office to get one form stamped then back to the local authority to get another one stamped. One would want to be a lamplighter to keep that up.

There will also be a direct deduction of rental contributions due to local authorities from the welfare payments of HAP recipients and local authority tenants. This will help eliminate the build-up of rent arrears. The local authorities were resolute in their view that this would have to be central to the administration system and I note it has been included in the Bill.

The Bill also deals with several other areas in need of reform. Section 62 of the Housing Act 1966 - the legal mechanism by which local authorities repossessed houses from tenants - fell foul of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 where factual disputes arose concerning the reason for the evictions as sought. Part 2 of the Bill sets out new procedures for repossessing local authority dwellings where serious breaches of tenancy occur, which I am glad to say includes anti-social behaviour. Regrettably, this has become a very serious issue and has caused great misery and wrought great havoc for many people who have lived for years as part of a community in a housing estate and want peaceful and quiet enjoyment of their buildings without let or hinder or interruption. It is important to protect people who are law-abiding. There should be a remedy for people who do not obey the law to ensure the protection of the majority who pay their rent and are glad to have the house and a roof over their heads.

The new tenant purchase scheme was long awaited and Part 3 provides for an incremental purchase scheme for existing houses which covers local authority homes, apart from those captured by the Housing Act 2009. The Minister of State will deal with discounts, method of determining the purchase price and the period of the charging order. What other criteria for discounts does the Minister of State have in mind? The charge will be made in equal annual portions over the charge period. If the house is to be sold during the charge period by the tenant purchaser, the local authority will have first option to buy it back at the then prevailing market value, less what is owed in the incremental purchase scheme. It is important that the local authority has that opportunity.

A couple in Longford have contacted me frequently about a problem in the tenant purchase scheme. They have lived for 25 or 30 years in their house and want to buy but cannot get a loan from the local authority because they receive an invalidity pension. The purchase charge they would have to pay is less than their rent. The local authority is fully conversant with their situation and is aware of their ability to discharge the rent over the years and would readily facilitate them with a loan if it could do so, it is not permitted to do so. It goes to the Housing Agency for evaluation but the minute it sees that a person is in receipt of social welfare, it rejects the loan application.

The housing agencies are examining this problem. We cannot preclude people who live in a house from the possibility of buying it. It ignores people’s equity in the house when, after being tenants for 15 or 20 years, they would qualify for substantial discounts. It makes no sense and is discriminatory, especially when the tenants have a clean record for payment of rent over many years, without arrears or default. Surely all factors should be taken into account and evaluated in the assessment and determination process.

I could not believe what I read in a recent report that some local authority houses were vacant for a year or 14 months. I welcome the Minister of State’s recent announcement of additional funding which has been allocated to address the problem of council houses which have been vacant for a long time. This process must be speeded up because so many are languishing on the waiting lists. It also makes for good estate management and gets the stock back into operation and generates rental income for local authorities. There must be a streamlined approach to tackling the voids in each local authority. Very often, however, local authorities go overboard and do not allocate a house even when it is in substantially good repair. It might need painting or something else that a tenant will do. The local authorities want everything to be in pristine condition. It should be allocated if a tenant takes on the responsibility of painting it. If it is boarded up it stays that way for a long time and becomes a focus of anti-social behaviour. The faster it is turned around the better.

The level of rents, about which the Acting Chairman spoke eloquently and with more knowledge than I have, and the pace of the increases in recent times is causing significant problems. Notwithstanding legal issues which surround rent control, there must be a review of this issue, and at least the possibility of the linking of rents to the consumer price index would ensure that rents cannot be increased by more than the cost of living increases. Perhaps in this context we could examine what prevails in other European countries.

On the question of the housing adaptation grants, the funding for which is €35 million or thereabouts, I remember fighting tooth and nail to protect that when the troika appeared with all kinds of proposals to slash spending. This is something that is germane and is in my DNA. It is probably the most cost effective, efficient grant scheme operated by the Minister of State's Department. It represents outstanding value for money, has a very positive cost benefit analysis ratio and the impact upon the morale of the recipients who get an opportunity to stay within their own home and environment is incalculable. It saves a great deal of money for the State, considering the cost that would be incurred if somebody had to have recourse to a nursing home place, which would necessitate significant payments each week under the fair deal scheme. I urge that additional money be sought for this scheme as it plays a very important role in helping people stay in their own homes.

I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing forward the Bill and I look forward to seeing further improvements by way of Committee Stage amendments. The Minister of State should be open to considering various amendments because this is an issue that transcends politics. It is one in respect of which each and every one of us has a role to play in ensuring that our people are housed. It is something I feel we would almost elevate to a legal right, that of having a proper house and accommodation.

I echo everything my colleague, Deputy Penrose, said. He has spoken a great deal of sense in regard to this legislation and I cannot disagree with any of the points he made. All of us who are dealing with housing issues on a day-to-day basis would echo what he said. He has a clear understanding of the issues.

I welcome this Bill. It is a positive development and it contains many positive aspects. In particular, I want to select one issue, the mandatory payment of rents through social welfare. It is a positive development in that it will ensure hopefully that people will not fall into substantial arrears. There are cases where families have fallen into arrears running to thousands of euro. They have difficulties managing funds and many of those households are probably also dealing with many other social issues. In tandem with that, we must radically overhaul the rent supplement system and ensure that moneys are paid directly to the landlord. This will ensure that the money is paid to the landlord and if an overpayment is made, it will be far easier to recoup it from a landlord than it would be from a tenant. The process that will apply will be similar to the scheme in respect of social welfare. The balance of the payment that will be made by the tenant to the landlord will be paid directly to the local authority and the local authority will then pay it on to the landlord, which is the process that applies to the rental accommodation scheme.

I wish to touch on the rental accommodation scheme which, in principle, is a good scheme but there are problems with it. I know of a case where a young family was approved by a local authority - not my local authority - for the rental accommodation scheme in a property. Families have to source the properties now rather than the local authorities. The previous tenant had been rehoused by the local authority because it was felt that the house was unfit for human habitation. That should not happen under any circumstances and it should not be facilitated by a local authority. We need to get back to a situation where there is proper monitoring of these properties prior to the tenant going into a property in the first place. It needs to be made clear that the lease is a long-term one and not only for summer months and that account must be taken of the winter months. It should be explained to tenants the downfalls in regard to a particular type of heating system and the impact of the lack of insulation, if a house is not insulated, during the winter months. It is too late when a family is in a house for six months and finds out that there is a problem with the house.

Another problem with the rental accommodation scheme, which discourages people from taking it up, is that people are taken off the housing list. They cannot get a long-term local authority house if they are on the rental accommodation scheme. That is a disincentive and it needs to be examined.

I want to pick up on the issue of anti-social behaviour which has been raised and provision in this respect has been made in the legislation, for which I commend the Minister of State. However, it does not address the issue in regard to the rent supplement scheme. As far as the Department is concerned, this is an issue for the Department of Social Protection and even though that Department is paying more than €400 million a year in rent supplement for 86,000 houses, it is saying that the issue of anti-social behaviour is not an issue for it, rather it is a matter for the landlord. Communities are being terrorised because of one delinquent tenant in a private housing estate or in private accommodation in a public estate as the landlord is not prepared to take action in regard to one tenant. Even though the State is bankrolling that tenancy it is not prepared to intervene. That must stop. People cannot be left in a situation where families are allowed to run riot purely because they are being funded by the State, yet the State is not prepared to intervene and tell them that they will be out on their ear unless they behave in a normal manner.

Another issue I wish to raise in regard to the rent supplement scheme is the fact that the thresholds have not been revised. We have huge problems because of that in parts of the country and it is not isolated to the east coast. It is a problem in my constituency where families cannot get accommodation because of the rent thresholds that are in place. It is not only an issue in County Roscommon, it is also is an issue across the border in County Westmeath. It is forcing families out of private rented accommodation into emergency accommodation. I do not believe in the current economic circumstances there is any justification for our spending €2,740 every day on bed and breakfasts and hotels to provide accommodation for families. It is not good enough for the Minister for Social Protection to say that we will review the rent supplement thresholds and we will have a decision by the end of the year. Those families need to get stable accommodation now. They should not be housed in bed and breakfast and hotel accommodation and we should not be paying €2,740 every day to pick up the tab for those bed and breakfasts and hotels. There is no justification for that and it needs to stop now.

Another issue associated with an overhaul of the rent supplement scheme that needs to be addressed relates to the county boundaries. I am not the only one proposing this in that the Minister's officials have recommended that changes need to take place in regard to county boundaries. I will give the example of the community of Monksland on the edge of Athlone in County Roscommon. The rent threshold for a couple with two children is €410 but if they go over the white line on the middle of the road the rent threshold is €110 a month higher on the other side of the white line. As bad as all that is, if one travels 14 miles up the road from there to Ballinasloe, the differential between getting accommodation on either side of the white line in the middle of the road is €315 a month of a difference. That is causing geographical discrimination for people in County Roscommon who cannot access accommodation in their own county. It has an impact in regard to schools, shops, community services, communities, local sports clubs and the GAA in that children cannot attend their local school or live in their community where there parents come from because of a discrepancy of €315 or because there happens to be a white dividing line in the middle of road, with the requisite extra being made available for accommodation on one side of the white line. The Minister's officials have written to her asking her to deal with this anomaly and to date she has not been prepared to do so. The failure to revise the rent allowance system is causing unnecessary hardship, causing homelessness and forcing families on to the road.

There is no justification for that.

Based on the local government report for 2012 which is the most up-to-date available to me, one in 18 local authority houses was vacant. Four of every ten of those houses require major refurbishment. All of us are knocking on doors around the country at the moment. It is soul destroying to go into local authority estates and see vacant houses that are perfectly suitable to accommodate people and do not require major refurbishment. However, it is completely devastating, as the Minister of State will know better than anyone, to see houses left to rack and ruin in local authority estates. They bring down the estate and demoralise the whole community. Given the housing crisis this issue needs to be addressed. We have more vacant houses than we had in 2008 and yet far more people are on the housing lists today than in 2008.

I will make a suggestion to the Minister of State. In numerous cases families are allocated a house but the local authority does not have the resources to employ the painter or carpenter to carry out minor repairs to the houses. Many local authority houses fall into that category. If the incoming tenant is a qualified painter or carpenter or has a next of kin who is a qualified painter or carpenter we could come to some kind of arrangement for minor works. I accept that for electrical works etc. we need to have a certified competent contractor who is recognised by the local authority. However, with minor works surely we could have some mechanism where there would be a discount on the rent over a period of time and the tenant could then go in and carry out those minor repairs and have that property occupied rather than having it left idle resulting in windows being broken and eventually it being boarded up for months or years and families being left in private rented accommodation. There are plenty of tradesmen available who even on a voluntary basis would be willing to help out in that regard. Surely we could have some kind of joined-up thinking in that regard.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill. I commend the Minister of State on the work she has done and the huge amount of work that has gone on behind the scenes in bringing it before the House.

A number of elements of the Bill will have a very significant impact, including the new tenant purchase scheme, the housing assistance payment scheme, provision for direct deductions of rent contributions from social welfare payments, and the strengthened local authority powers to deal with individuals engaged in anti-social behaviour in local authority housing estates. These elements are all crucial and long overdue. The Bill's early enactment is essential to provide a procedure for housing authorities to recover possession of a dwelling where there has been a serious breach of the tenancy agreement, to restore to local authority tenants the opportunity to purchase their homes at a substantial discount on an incremental basis, and to enable the housing assistance scheme to be rolled out across the country without delay.

Based on the latest figures, 6,144 people are on the Kildare County Council housing list, which we can all agree is too many. Most of these people are on rent allowance. The rent allowance caps, which were mentioned earlier, represent a very significant issue in a number of the cases I deal with. In my area the cap for a couple with no children is €500 a month, for a couple with one child it is €650 and parents with two children it is €700. Neither love nor money would get a family two or three-bed accommodation in the Newbridge area for less than €900, if they can find a landlord willing to let to rent-allowance tenants.

The other very significant difficulty is that many landlords for one reason or another would prefer not to deal with rent allowance. In my experience the vast majority of people in receipt of rent allowance have been excellent tenants - perhaps even better than some tenants who were not on rent allowance. However, a small minority have given the scheme a bad name. The scheme facilitated that by having the rent paid directly to the tenant. I have come across cases where landlords have not received rent for a few months and when they checked up discovered that the tenant was in receipt of the rent allowance but was pocketing the money. So not only was the landlord at a loss in not getting it and might have to spend months going through the very expensive process of getting the tenant evicted, during that time the tenant was not only availing of free accommodation but was also pocketing State money, which is unbelievably frustrating.

We need serious reform of the PRTB. On the one hand people are saying landlords do not want to take in tenants, but landlords are not getting the cover from the PRTB, which is very much tenant focused. There is a lack of balance and landlords have the sense that they are wasting their time going to the PRTB. While I know that matter is not one for this Bill, it is a very significant issue.

I welcome the changes regarding the payment of rent allowance directly to landlords. It is just as important that the pendulum does not swing too far the other way. The landlords need to be tax compliant, need to have everything done right and need to be good landlords, and they need to be punished if not. I believe the balance went too far the other way.

Linked to that is the mandatory deduction of rent from social welfare payments. It has been crazy that where for social or other reasons tenants may have allowed significant rent arrears to build up, on the one hand the local authority is paying considerable money in pursuing these individuals for the rent arrears and on the other hand from the same coffers the State is paying them social welfare, with one not being able to talk to the other. This is a common-sense practical approach.

I welcome the changes to deal with anti-social behaviour. In my experience some of the worst cases of anti-social behaviour have happened in private rented dwellings where a landlord who may not live in the estate or the area has turned a blind eye and taken in tenants whom most of the neighbours would not want, as they know there may be a difficulty with them.

I know of people living in a private estate in south Kildare with a very large mortgage and in negative equity. They cannot let their children out to play because of anti-social behaviour. They are almost like prisoners in their own home. I know that on the Minister of State's visit to south Kildare some of the cases were highlighted to her. I have sympathy for the Garda which is very restricted in what it can do. As was highlighted during the Minister of State's visit to the constituency, we need a multi-agency approach, involving social workers, gardaí and others. The gardaí alone cannot deal with it and they are at the end of the problem in trying to deal with it in many cases.

The previous tenant purchase scheme closed in December 2012. It is very important for the many people who have had a local authority house for some time and would like to buy it out. I very much welcome that. With 6,144 people on the Kildare County Council housing list we cannot afford to lose stock. A reduction in our overall stock would not be good and we would pay a price for that.

I know we are moving much more local authorities towards long-term leasing, which concerns me somewhat because we may be storing up problems when in 15 or 20 years' time these houses need to be turned around and restored to the condition they were at the start. I would like to see much more social housing built. As a part of any stimulus it would definitely impact on our construction industry in a positive and measured manner in an area where we have a very significant need. At the heart of this is that housing is the most basic essential thing we do. Back to the time of the tenements and the establishment of the State, housing has always been a very basic social need and it remains critical.

I commend the Bill and I commend the work the Minister of State has done to get it to this point.

Debate adjourned.