Other Questions

Housing Assistance Payments Administration

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

99. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the work of her Department to date in transferring its function in regard to the administration of the rent supplement scheme to local authorities with the roll-out of the housing assistance payment scheme. [41659/14]

The Minister's reply to this last question reminded me that Wolfgang Schäuble was in town last week visiting the branch office, where he met his branch managers, the Ministers, Deputies Noonan and Howlin. I suppose they gave him a report on how the branch office is performing, in regard to the Deutschland project and to his boss, Prime Minister Merkel. The fact is the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, did nothing constructive in the budget.

We are on Question No. 99.

In regard to the winding down of the rent supplement scheme and its transfer to the local authorities by way of HAP, incredible service difficulties are being endured by the 73,000 families and individuals on rent supplement. The Minister told the House recently that 50,000 of them have been on rent supplement for more than 18 months. Many of these are facing rising rents and must try to make up these rents out of their own pockets. This Minister slashed rent supplement by €200 million or €250 million and as she knows, I made a pre-budget submission to the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform asking for rent controls. I know there is no chance the Minister's Fine Gael bosses in the Government would allow her to introduce any kind of rent control, but will she give us a briefing on HAP?

I thank the Deputy for his question. He is correct to say there are approximately 73,500 people in receipt of rent supplement, almost 49,000 of whom are in receipt of the supplement for over 18 months. The Department’s strategic policy direction is to return rent supplement to its original purpose of a short-term income support scheme. Under the new housing assistance payment, HAP, responsibility for recipients of rent supplement with a long-term housing need will transfer to local authorities. HAP will provide a more integrated system of housing supports and has been designed to allow any householder that finds full-time employment to remain in the scheme. Rent supplement will continue to be paid to those already in the private rented sector who have a short-term need of rental support, often as a result of the loss of employment. HAP is being introduced on a phased basis. It was rolled out in County Cork, Limerick city and county and Waterford city and county in September last and was further extended to four other counties in October. To date, some 403 persons have been transferred to HAP following engagement between local Department staff and local authorities.

Officials in the Department continue to work closely with those in the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to support the implementation of HAP and transfer of 8,000 cases to HAP during 2015.

The Department is represented at senior level on both the HAP oversight group and the HAP project board. In terms of facilitating HAP, significant work has been undertaken by the Department at both local and central level. In addition, the household budget scheme was amended in January 2014 to support further the collection of rents for local authorities in advance of HAP roll-out. The Department is also undertaking development of its computer systems to support the direct deduction of local authority rents from social welfare payments, which will apply to HAP and other local authority housing recipients.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Is he saying that by the end of the Government's term, only from 8,000 to 10,000 of the 73,000 households will have been transferred to HAP?

What exactly does that mean in regard to the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014? The Minister of State will remember we had a lengthy and very passionate debate in this House with the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, about whether section 37 would mean that when these private tenants were transferred to the HAP, they would then be regarded as being housed. Has that matter been totally clarified? The Minister later said that, in her view, people would retain their places on the list and so on. It is a very important element of what is happening in regard to rent supplement.

This morning we received a briefing from the Simon Community which recommended an urgent review of rent supplement limits and increasing the limits to deal with rapidly escalating rents. Effectively, as the Minister of State will know from his constituency, rents are jumping by €200, €300 or more a month, with families desperately trying to keep up. What is the status of the so-called Dublin protocol, whereby rent supplement limits are allowed to be exceeded by the Tánaiste's Department in certain cases? Is it being expanded? Is it something in which the Minister of State has a particular interest?

To take the last question first, the protocol has been operating very well in conjunction with the local authorities and Threshold. So far, over 200 people have been assisted. I will send on further details, if the Deputy wants-----

That would only be enough in Dublin South-East. What about the rest of us?

The protocol has been recognised by the local authorities, Threshold and the families who have engaged with it as successful in maintaining people in homes, which is always extremely important.

On the other question, the Deputy is correct that the intention of the Government is that we transfer 8,000 to the HAP by the end of 2015, but, as he well knows, that does not cover the full term of the Government. We also have a very ambitious programme to build homes. It is far better to spend the money on building new homes rather than transferring funds to landlords. It was announced in the budget that €2.2 billion would be spent in the next three years on the social housing programme, which is extremely important, of which €800 million will be spent in 2015.

Time is up. I will come back to the Minister of State.

On the review of rent supplement limits, is the Minister of State doing anything serious or is it just a PR exercise, given the fact that the Tánaiste slashed rent supplement supports? She could have approached the issue from the other end in that she could have looked at rent caps or limits, or even taken the suggestion made in regard to inflation. However, as I said, her Fine Gael masters will not allow that to happen; therefore, it cannot happen, although we desperately need rent controls as part of the solution.

I welcome the point the Minister of State makes about the protocol, but, unfortunately, these are all tiny steps. My great predecessor in Dublin North-East used to say as Minister, as one of his key themes, if one looks through his various books, that members of the Executive were personally responsible for the suffering that happened within their remit. The suffering of the children in households we represent, for whom there is grave uncertainty about being evicted and who endure terror, is the responsibility of the Ministers opposite and something they should address.

I am trying to answer the Deputy's direct questions, one of which was where would a person be on the transfer list if they were to be included in the HAP scheme. The transfer list reflects the specific priority a resident had on the waiting list. As far as I know, the local authorities have been notified by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in this regard.

Rent allowance was increased last June. The Deputy knows as well as I do, coming from a Dublin constituency, that the real problem, especially within the greater Dublin area, is supply. While I will certainly be keeping the rent bands under review, the real problem is supply; that is the issue that has to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

Rent Supplement Scheme Administration

Mick Wallace

Question:

100. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection her plans for a review of the current system of rent supplement in view of rising rental prices; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41699/14]

Supply is a problem the Government has not addressed in a serious way. It is a very serious problem, probably one of the most difficult facing the State, but it is not difficult to understand what is happening. The question relates to the levels of rent supplement the Government is prepared to offer. It has refused to build social housing, turned to the private market and offers rent supplement that is not high enough. As a result, it is driving people into poverty and homelessness. This is not difficult to understand; it is logical. What, in God's name, is the Department going to do about the fact that existing rent supplement levels are driving people into poverty and homelessness?

I will try to answer as many questions as I can directly. This question follows on from Deputy Thomas P. Broughan's question.

The Department is undertaking a review of rent limits. An analysis shows that the impact of increasing limits will yield only a very marginal increase in available supply for rent supplement recipients, with little or no new housing available to new recipients. I will continue to keep this matter under review. I am acutely aware of the difficulties people are experiencing in maintaining affordable rented accommodation in areas of high demand in the current market, including those in receipt of rent supplement. However, raising rent limits may not be the solution to the problem, as it is likely to add to further rental inflation and could impact not only on rent supplement recipients but also many lower income workers and students.

I assure the Deputy that officers administering rent supplement throughout the country have considerable experience and make every effort to ensure accommodation needs are met, including through the use of their discretionary statutory powers, as necessary. The Department has sent a letter reminding staff of the discretionary powers available. In the light of a particular concentration of the homelessness problem in the Dublin area, the Department has agreed a tenancy sustainment protocol with the Dublin local authorities and voluntary organisations to support families on rent supplement who are at risk of losing their accommodation. Since the launch of the protocol in 2014, over 160 families have had their rent supplement claims revised by the Department which is examining the need for such protocols in other areas.

I agree with the Deputy that increasing housing supply is the real answer. We must focus on building social housing across the country, particularly where there are key demands. I know that the Deputy's constituency is probably suffering the same problems faced by my constituency in Dublin. That is why, as I outlined to Deputy Thomas P. Broughan, money has been made available in the budget - some €2.2 billion is being put in place in the next three years. Representing an inner city community, I am acutely aware of the demand for social housing and driving this home is top of my priorities since I recently became a Minister of State. I thank the Deputy for raising the issue.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Increasing housing supply and the reactivation of construction activity is a critical issue for the Government and key to restoring stability to the rental market. In this context, it should be noted that the Government has recently launched the Construction Strategy 2020.

As part of budget 2015, the Government also announced significant capital investment of over €2.2 billion for social housing in the next three years. In 2015 over €800 million will be invested in a range of housing programmes, representing the first major investment in housing since 2009. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, is also due to publish a social housing strategy shortly. This will propose a range of approaches and reforms that are innovative and challenging and will provide a basis for an improved and sustainable approach to the provision of social housing supports in Ireland.

If the Government ever gets around to building social housing, it would be a big help, but it is two years away. In September alone, 45 families became homeless. We must deal with the people who are most vulnerable, given that this is supposed to be the Department's priority. Why does the Minister of State not have a chat with the Minister for Finance? The National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, was set up in order that we would not flood the market with too many properties too soon that would be sold too cheaply, but that is exactly what has happened. Big blocks of houses and apartments have been sold to speculators. What are they doing with them? They are banking them; they have become the new landlords. As there are not very many of them, it is easy for them to form a cartel, which is one of the main reasons rents are rocketing in places such as Dublin. There are too many rental properties in the hands of too few people who bought them at rock bottom prices because the Government decided to sell off NAMA assets at well below cost of most of this property and allowed the banks to do something similar. As it has added to the problem, rent supplement is worth bugger all to the many who are trying to find a home because it does not meet the rent charged. The Government can talk about building social housing, which is great as we want it to build it, but what is it going to do to prevent homelessness in the meantime, in the next two years?

There were 45 families in September. How many will there be in October, November and December?

The budget provided €344 million for that area. I do not call €344 million bugger all. There is, however, a real problem and we have to explore different ways of addressing it. One of the strong ways of engaging is through the local authorities. Too many homes belonging to local authorities are boarded up and it has been a key priority over the past weeks and months to ensure homes that have been blocked up or steel framed by local authorities are put back to use. Prior to moving Departments to become the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan made substantial funds available as the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, as has the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly. We are following that up with the local authorities to ensure homes that are currently boarded up come on stream.

It is true that we need to consider short, medium and long-term options. I want to see a concentration in the medium term on provision of affordable social housing across the country. The beginning of that can be seen in the recent budget. I am aware that Deputy Wallace has strong views on this matter, similar to mine, but I want to make sure this is delivered on. I believe the Deputy will see it being delivered in the coming months.

The Minister of State said that local authorities need to deal with units that are boarded up. It would be great if they could do so but, to take Wexford as an example, in 2008 Wexford County Council received €26.5 million to deal with issues like boarded up units but in 2012 it received €1.6 million. What can it do for the 4,000 people on the waiting list for social housing in Wexford with an allocation of €1.6 million to deal with its housing problems? There is no point in giving out about the local authorities if they are completely at the mercy of central government for funding. The situation has deteriorated over the past 30 years. For practical purposes, local authorities do not really exist in Ireland at present because they have been drained by central government. We have the most centralised governance in Europe. Our local authorities no longer really function because they have been stripped of their powers and finances. It would be great if the Government funded local authorities to deal with the problems on their doorsteps because they know best about what is facing them.

I do not want to concentrate too much on one specific area because a number of issues needs to be addressed. Certainly voids are an element, however. I do not like using the word "void", which is a technical term employed by local authorities. These are boarded up homes. The local authorities will get their share of the €2.2 billion that is being put into the situation. I recognise that people do not like to hear money is being put into position but we want to ensure that we get good quality homes back on stream as quickly as possible. I would be interested in sitting down with Deputy Wallace to discuss how we can ensure local authorities deliver in this area. I am doing this in my own local authority because I am sick and tired of seeing what I regard as good quality homes with steel shutters while people are waiting on the housing list for lengthy periods. I am concentrating on dealing with that issue in my own community and area. We need to focus on this issue because the local authorities have to deliver. There is nothing more frustrating than to be on the housing list and to see units with steel shutters.

As Deputy McConalogue is not present to put Question No. 101, we will proceed to Question No. 102.

Question No. 101 replied to with Written Answers.

Water Charges Administration

Joe Higgins

Question:

102. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection if she will report on the implementation of the €100 allowance for Irish Water bills through the household benefits package. [41680/14]

Will the Tánaiste agree that the €100 benefit against water charges is an utterly inadequate response to the uprising of ordinary people against this latest austerity tax?

The Department of Social Protection will spend €230 million this year on the household benefits package for almost 415,000 customers. The fuel allowance is paid for 26 weeks from October to April to almost 415,000 households, at an estimated cost of €208 million in 2014.

That means well over €430 million will be spent between the two schemes in 2014.

I announced in budget 2015 that recipients of the household benefits package or the fuel allowance would also get an annual water support payment of €100. This measure will benefit 650,000 households at an annual cost in the region of €66 million. The combination of household benefit and fuel allowance as qualifying payments for water support will ensure that the payment is made to those most likely to be impacted by the charges. It is in addition to payments to be made directly via tax credits as announced by the Minister for Finance. Work is under way on the system developments required to implement the payments in 2015. These are in addition to the payment that will be made in December restoring 25% of the annual Christmas bonus, which was, unfortunately, discontinued by the previous Government in 2009. The Christmas bonus will go to some 1.1 million people in the first half of December. In addition, in the first week of January, families who receive child benefit will receive an increase in the monthly payment of €5 per child.

I am happy that budget 2015 is the first in a number of years in which we have been able to have a modest but significant social welfare package to improve the situation, as well as a tax reduction package which takes 80,000 people out of the USC and reduces the rate of USC for those on the first two lower rates.

The Tánaiste was not asked about fuel allowances, Christmas bonuses or anything else; she was asked about the crushing new burden her Government has imposed on ordinary people, including poor people. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the chief executive of Irish Water made some shape of an apology in the last few days to the Irish people for the calamity that is the attempted introduction of water charges. Will the Tánaiste take this opportunity to make her own apology for her culpability in water charges and will she agree that her €100 allowance against water bills represents a panicked response to an uprising of ordinary people nationally against her latest crucifying austerity taxes on them? Will she take the opportunity, which she has not done to date, to apologise for the cynical deception she engaged in during the last general election when she promised to save people from Fine Gael's €238 water tax? Does she agree that her €100 in no way makes up for the Labour Party's treachery in this regard, and will she apologise to the 5,000 residents of the Dublin West constituency she is supposed to represent who turned out on Saturday in Blanchardstown in a determined opposition to water charges and to demand their abolition? Despite how out of touch the Tánaiste and her Government are with ordinary people with regard to this issue, will she recognise that last-minute panicked responses will not save their political hides, and just abolish the water charges?

It probably escaped Deputy Joe Higgins's notice - perhaps he was away at the time - that I announced the water support payment as far back as July. Not only that, it is written into the document that myself and the Taoiseach agreed on in the first week of July. It has been a matter of public record for some time. While it might have escaped the Deputy's notice, it was fully and publicly announced and mentioned in almost all media. Obviously, the Deputy did not spot it. However, he did spot it in more recent times. It was announced that far back, as it was my concern to ensure that households dependent on social welfare payments would get additional support for water charges.

What is essential is that all of the people in this country, including those I have the honour to represent in Dublin West, have a clean supply of high-quality, drinkable water. It is also essential that the people of Ireland, including those in my constituency in Dublin West, have opportunities to find employment in tourism, agriculture, industry and other fields of business which are heavily dependent on good, clean water supplies.

I thank the Tánaiste.

The difficulty that the Deputy does not recognise-----

I will come back to the Tánaiste.

-----is that it will require a huge level of State investment over the next ten years in order to fix all those issues which mean that people do not have proper drinkable water. This time last year, the entire Dublin region was threatened with the closure of pubs and hotels due to inadequate water supplies.

The difficulty is that the Tánaiste has reversed everything she said for ten years when she was in opposition, pretending to be the champion of working-class people. Once she got into power, she decided that she would lash another austerity tax on them in the form of water charges and not even look at the millionaires and billionaires who could afford a few hundred million to pay for the investment that is needed. She saddled people with these charges. Let us forget the nonsense that there is no clarity and no communication. There is communication, and people understand that a family of four, including an 18 and a 19 year old and two adults, will pay just under €500. Similarly, a family of five will pay under €600, and when metering comes in that will rise inexorably.

People are not stupid and the Tánaiste should not treat them as such. There is an uprising of working-class people out there that the Tánaiste does not seem to recognise, although, admittedly, her Government is dazed, pummelled, punch-drunk and panic-stricken, and so it should be. The Tánaiste is staggering from one crutch to another to extricate herself from the situation. Labour Party backbenchers have the demeanour of the politically condemned, and so they should have, as they will be wiped out in the next election if the Tánaiste persists with this.

A question, please.

The court of Marie Antoinette could not be more out of touch with the suffering and realities of life for ordinary working people than the Labour Party and this Government. The Tánaiste should get real, forget her €100, and abolish the water charges forthwith.

My answer to the suggestions and scaremongering the Deputy has just now undertaken in relation to the level of charges-----

What scaremongering?

-----is that I am happy to say it is my view that the charge for the type of household the Deputy described will be below €200.

Does the Tánaiste take the people for fools?

This comes out every day. One-word woman.

The water support payment of €100 will help to defray the cost faced by households of single individuals and those in which there are two or more people. The Deputy was very wide of the mark in the figures he announced.

They are the figures from the Commission for Energy Regulation.

For the figures involved, people will get what the country needs. The Deputy talked about my responsibility. My responsibility in relation to the country and Dublin West is to help to get people back to work in order that they can become financially independent.

The Tánaiste is a disgrace.

We do not need what Deputy Joe Higgins seems to want, which is for everybody to be on social welfare.

Get real. Get off the stage.

Actually, we need people to be at work. I am perfectly happy that the level of water charges will be modest and will result in the provision of a supply of clean water for this country.

The Tánaiste should be ashamed.

It is amazing what marches can do.

Stop, Deputies. That concludes Question Time.