I welcome the reversal by the Government of its proposal to impose a guillotine on this debate.
Will the Minister of State and the Government seriously consider the fact that quite a number of Deputies have raised very serious questions and concerns about this Bill which should give the Government pause for thought? If the Minister of State, as she indicated, wants to reach a solution over which we can all stand and which deals with this crisis, the Government would be well advised to put back the reconvening of Report Stage for a quite a while and convene some sort of forum, which is not time limited or strictly controlled, where we can sit down and try to come up with something that would work, including discussions about how we could finance long-term social housing provision but also the short-term issues, because we might actually get somewhere. There have been some useful exchanges in this debate and some understandings and illuminations to which all of us have contributed. If we could take that forward instead of being dragooned into accepting this legislation in a few days' time or whatever, we might actually get somewhere. That is just an appeal to the Minister of State.
I would like to make three points on the issue of direct deductions. It is effectively punishing people who are victims of the recession and the economic crisis which have impacted on families in manifold ways - in a whole diverse range of ways into which I cannot even begin to go now where people may fall into arrears. Of course, there are cases of people who are just negligent, who are abusing the system or whatever, but they are a minority. There is, however, a very significant problem of rent arrears which has escalated in recent years and one can absolutely see the correlation between that escalation of the rent arrears crisis and the impact of recession, austerity and cuts in other areas on families and their capacity to pay rents. Therefore, the fact people get into arrears is often because of circumstances completely outside their control. I will give a few examples.
One very common example is that many council tenants actually pay their rent ahead. They pay more than their rent as a safeguard against anything ever going wrong. This is very common among council tenants. They pay their rent plus a bit just in case anything ever goes wrong, where they have exceptional needs, a death in the family, an illness or some difficulty which will mean they may not be able to meet their normal rent commitments. Those sort of emergencies and crises hit almost every family at some point in their lives, if not a couple of times. Suddenly, they can find themselves, for a period of six, eight or ten months, not able to meet their normal rent commitments which they have done religiously for all of the period of time they have been council tenants. However, they will be punished under this measure because of circumstances outside their control. That happens often.
I will give another common example before I get to specific examples, where somebody faithfully pays his or her rent and declares all income, earnings and all relevant circumstances to the housing department, in terms of the assessment of his or her rent, but the council makes a mistake. This happens all the time. The council assesses the person's rent as being at such a level but a year or even two years down the line, it says, "Sorry, we made a mistake" and although the tenant answered all the questions faithfully, when it looked at their assessment, it saw it should have been charging a higher rent. Over night, through no fault of the tenant, he or she is suddenly told that although they thought they were in the black, they are actually in the red to the tune of €4,000 or €5,000. This happens all the time. I deal with rent sections which say they are sorry they made a mistake but the person has to pay for the mistake and that they will take it directly out of the person's money even though it is through no fault of the person's.
I will give another example of a family where somebody in the house has a problem - say one of the principal earners has a problem with drink or something like that but his wife and children believe he is paying the rent and are giving him money to pay it but he is not doing so and they do not know about it. He is culpable and the council has a legitimate case against him. In one particular instance, a couple subsequently separated but the whole family was evicted for rent arrears. Some €12,000 of rent arrears had built up through no fault whatsoever of the children or the wife but they were all evicted. In this case, the money would have been directly deducted from their income even though it had nothing to do with them. That is not fair and this is the problem with what the Minister of State proposes. There will be innocent victims of all sorts of situations which are not the fault of those tenants. Of course, we should help and assist people who may have difficulty paying their rent but the best way to do that is to make sure people are not pushed into poverty.
I will give another example, of which I should have thought and which is coming up all the time now. The different quality of council housing means that many tenants, in particular those in older council houses, have to pay much more on heating than tenants in new council houses because there is chronic damp and the houses were built a long time ago and are substandard. A tenant, through no fault of his or her own, has to buy an electric heater because the place is damp. It is really the council's responsibility, and often the council will say it is its responsibility but it does not have the money to dry line the house or to put in insulation, so people have to fork out a much higher proportion of their meagre income on heating the place than somebody who happens to be in a new council house. As a result of the need to keep warm during the winter, people find themselves in arrears and unable to meet all of their rent commitments. They will be hit on the double because the council will say it is now going to grab the money from them, making a bad situation worse. That is not uncommon. There is a lot of housing stock in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and I am sure elsewhere, where there are chronic problems of damp, lack of insulation, cold and so on and where people are forced to spend massive amounts of their meagre incomes on just keeping the place warm, in particular during winter, and let us not forget the fuel allowance has been cut, making that situation worse.
Under this measure, these people will be punished and told that the council will grab a portion of their social welfare payment, pension or whatever. It is absolutely not fair. We must have measures to deal with people who are abusing this but if people are having difficulties, we need compassion, flexibility and housing departments which have the flexibility to actually recognise where some people have got into difficulty through no fault of their own and should not be punished as a result. On those grounds, I ask the Minister of State to seriously reconsider this measure.