“That Dáil Éireann:
— Article 40.3.1° of the Constitution of Ireland states that the State guarantees in its laws to respect and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen;
— Article 40.3.2° of the Constitution of Ireland states that the State shall, in particular, by its laws protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen;
— Article 43.1.1° of the Constitution of Ireland states that the State acknowledges that man, in virtue of his rational being, has the natural right, antecedent to positive law, to the private ownership of external goods;
— Article 43.1.2° of the Constitution of Ireland states that the State accordingly guarantees to pass no law attempting to abolish the right of private ownership or the general right to transfer, bequeath, and inherit property;
— Article 43.2.1° of the Constitution of Ireland states that the State recognises, however, that the exercise of the rights mentioned in the foregoing provisions of this Article ought, in civil society, to be regulated by the principles of social justice; and
— Article 43.2.2° of the Constitution of Ireland states that the State, accordingly, may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good;
— the importance of the provisions that require protection of private property to be regulated by the principles of social justice and, accordingly, that the State may as occasion requires, such as the current housing and homelessness emergency, delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good;
— the statement of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government in the Irish Examiner on 11th May, 2016, as follows: ‘I think we have a national emergency that needs a response that is comprehensive and so I have been working late hours trying to start the process of putting that response together’;
— the call for the declaration of a national housing emergency by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Peter McVerry Trust;
— the recent statement by the Jesuit Centre For Faith and Justice, as follows: ‘As we mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we need to recognise that housing deprivation is one of the most serious forms of poverty in the Ireland of today and that in recent years the housing system has become the locus of some of the deepest inequality evident in our society...the Jesuit Centre is calling for a new direction for housing policy in Ireland, one based on recognising that housing is a fundamental human right’; and
— that a legislative precedent for declaring a national emergency exists in the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts of 2009, 2013 and 2015;
affirms that during the current emergency in housing and homelessness, the State is entitled to delimit by law the exercise of private property rights; and
calls on the Government to bring forward legislation affirming that a national housing emergency exists and, while that housing emergency exists and in order to end that emergency as quickly as possible, the State is enabled to bring forward measures which, in the public interest, impinge on private property rights in matters relating to housing provision in accordance with Articles 43.2.1° and 43.2.2° of the Constitution of Ireland in the matter of the exercise of private property rights.”
I am sharing time with Deputy Catherine Murphy. I welcome the opportunity to move this Private Members' motion, which calls for the declaration of a housing emergency in order to: tackle the housing and homelessness crisis; stop banks, vulture funds and buy-to-let landlords from evicting families; stop repossessions; freeze, control and reduce rents; and entitle sitting tenants to continue their tenancies in sale situations, among other measures.
There is no doubt that this country is in the throes of a housing and homelessness emergency. The Peter McVerry Trust put it starkly when it said, "The crisis is behind us and we have moved into a full-blown emergency." That housing emergency is getting worse. There are now 3,048 children in emergency accommodation, up from 2,973 in July 2017. This is an increase of 29% since August 2016. The total homeless population is now well over 8,000 people. Over 90,000 families are on local authority housing waiting lists and in excess of another 20,000 families are on housing assistance payments, a scheme which is a disaster for families and a bonanza for landlords. Thousands more are homeless, couch-surfing or doubling or trebling up with relatives. Sadly, we have seen deaths on our streets.
This housing emergency cannot be fully ended until huge numbers of social and affordable houses are built by local authorities. That will take time but tens of thousands of people are enduring a nightmare now. Thousands of children are being damaged now, as we speak here this evening. Irish society is treating these citizens cruelly. The short-term measures being used by the Government are, at best, grossly inadequate. The situation is getting worse. While it continues, this is not a civilised society. That is why much more far-reaching measures are necessary merely to stabilise the situation, that is, to stop the housing and homelessness emergency from getting even worse. Stronger emergency measures are needed to eradicate homelessness and end the housing emergency.
This motion seeks to avail of the existing provisions of Bunreacht na hÉireann to declare a housing emergency and to delimit private property rights on a temporary basis until the housing emergency is ended. Article 43.2.1° of Bunreacht na hÉireann makes the exercise of private property rights subject "to be regulated by the principles of social justice". Article 43.2.2° goes even further, making the exercise of these rights subject to the exigencies of the common good. This motion does not attempt in any way to insert any new provision into or amend any existing provision of Bunreacht na Éireann. There is already an existing and current precedent in Irish law which can be utilised in accordance with these articles of Bunreacht na hÉireann in addressing the housing emergency. The precedent exists in the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts 2009, 2013 and 2015. Those Acts are currently on the books and in operation. The private property rights of pensioners were delimited under this legislation. The current leader of the Labour Party and former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, confirmed that to me during the course of that legislation. Speaking to the Select Sub-committee on Public Expenditure and Reform on 10 November 2015 he said, and his words are worth quoting:
The bottom line is I agree with the thrust of what Deputy Healy said about pensions being a preserved property right. That has been determined by the courts. That is why we have taken very careful advices from the Attorney General, of which some have already been tested in the courts. The criteria required, as I have put on the record before, are that to sustain pension [reductions in a] contribution to [the emergency], [and the next line is very important] there needs to be an emergency which needs to be certified. The contribution must be one towards addressing that emergency. It needs to be proportionate in terms of the person's income and it needs to be non-discriminatory. In other words, one cannot say that a category of people should be deprived of a pension and that another category should not. It has to have general application.
I believe the criteria set out by Deputy Howlin are met by the motion I am proposing. It is quite clear that during the current emergency in housing and homelessness, the State is entitled to delimit by law the exercise of private property rights in accordance with "the principles of social justice" and "the exigencies of the common good". Furthermore, it is also quite clear that the country is in the throes of a housing and homelessness emergency. As far back as May 2016, the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, confirmed his belief that a housing emergency existed. He said, "I think we have a national emergency that needs a response that is comprehensive." Of course, the position has gotten much worse since then.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the largest civil society organisation in the country, also believes there is a housing emergency and has called for the declaration of such in its ten-point housing programme entitled "How We Can Solve the Housing Crisis". Point 1 of that programme states that, "to facilitate a rapid, coherent response, Government should declare a national housing and homelessness emergency and move to put in place a properly resourced, local authority-led emergency social housing programme." That call was also supported by Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and by Karan O'Loughlin, campaigning officer of SIPTU. The Peter McVerry Trust also acknowledged such an emergency and called for emergency measures, stating that the emergency powers needed to deliver actions that will immediately reduce the numbers of homeless individuals, couples and families must now be introduced.
It is clear that a housing emergency exists in this State. All the advocacy groups and all those involved in supporting the homeless and housing organisations believe so. They believe it has become much more difficult and that the situation has got worse over the last years. It is also clear that emergency measures are needed to address the situation and that it is possible to legally declare a housing emergency in accordance with the precedent in law which I outlined earlier. It is further clear that private property rights can be delimited in accordance with Articles 43.2.1° and 43.2.2° of Bunreacht na hÉireann.
I ask for the support of all Deputies in the House in respect of this motion, especially backbenchers of all parties, who know the situation at first hand.
These Deputies are dealing with this situation at the coalface in their clinics on a daily and weekly basis and they know that the situation is getting worse and that what I am proposing is the only legal, commonsense and effective way forward in terms of solving the homeless and housing emergency that exists in this State.