I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the many people, including some Deputies, who have already indicated their support for this Bill, which I commend to the House. No child should have to sleep on the streets. No child should be sent to a Garda station in the middle of the night for want of a place to go. No child should spend months on end with only a hotel room, shared with the rest of his or her family, to call home. The referendum to put children's rights into the Constitution was passed five years ago. It has to mean something to the most vulnerable children. According to the latest figures, there are 3,124 children in homeless services. Each one of them is vulnerable. When a child's family finds itself homeless, there should be a recognition of the particular needs of that child and the housing authorities should have a duty to respond to those needs.
This simple Bill is designed to have a wide application. When 12 families, with 30 children among them, presented as homeless in Dublin one night last summer, they were sent to a Garda station. It was reported that at least one of those families slept in a park. This led to Focus Ireland rightly calling for protection from such an outcome. Its director of advocacy, Mike Allen, said at the time "there must be a clear statutory responsibility that no family sleeps rough". We drafted this Bill in response to that incident. Having introduced it on First Stage in the Dáil last summer, we are now using the Labour Party's Private Members' time to debate it on Second Stage. I welcome the indications of support that have been received from other parties and Members. There has previously been cross-party support on other aspects of the housing and homelessness crisis. In light of the serious and complex nature of this issue, the best service we can give the people caught up in this crisis is to work together to bring solutions.
The purpose of this Bill is to oblige housing authorities to recognise a homeless family as a family unit and to have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families in crisis accommodation situations. The Housing Acts currently refer to a person as homeless if there is no accommodation available which the person "together with any other person who normally resides with him or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him" can reasonably be expected to occupy. While a homeless person is entitled to apply to a housing authority for accommodation or other assistance, there is no explicit recognition in our current legislative scheme of the "other person" mentioned in the Housing Acts as a person in his or her own right with entitlements under law. Specifically, there is no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit. Despite the passing of the constitutional amendment on children's rights, there is no statutory underpinning of the constitutional rights of homeless children.
Our intention is that requiring housing authorities to consider specifically the needs of families will affect how they make decisions in a broader range of circumstances. A child who is living in a hotel room when he or she is learning to crawl and subsequently to walk is not having his or her needs as a child met. A child who is living in a hotel room that is a long distance from his or her school and his or her friends is not having his or her needs as a child met. Living in a hub does not allow a child to enjoy many of the normal freedoms needed by children. It is intended that giving legislative force to the constitutional article on the rights of the child will have the effect of focusing the attention of the Government and the local authority sector on ensuring families spend the shortest possible time in inappropriate accommodation, including hotels and hubs.
Last Friday, I attended a seminar on family homelessness organised by Novas, which is a charity that works primarily in Limerick but also in other parts of the country. At that seminar, Kate O'Loughlin gave evidence of her experience of living in a hotel with her four children and of going into labour with her fifth child while in the hotel. She explained that she went into labour surrounded by her four other children while they stayed in emergency accommodation:
So I was in the hotel room, in one double bed, pregnant, with all the kids, in the one bed, and I went into labour. I'll never forget it.
Thankfully, she was offered a home to bring baby Michael to after his birth. Kate said it was like moving from darkness into sunshine. One of the most traumatic experiences for the family was when Kate had to decide to send her daughter Ellie to live with friends because the hotel could only take three children. I understand that this is the general position in hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation. Kate described how Ellie was just eight years old when she went to live elsewhere:
One day I looked over at Ellie and the tears were streaming down her face. It was heartbreaking. So I snuck her into the hotel room. Myself and my daughter Ellie always had a great bond. But then she just wasn't my Ellie anymore. I felt like I was losing her.
Getting a home brought the family back together. Kate said:
When we all sat down for our first cooked meal in the house, I could see the tears in Ellie's eyes. She said, "Mum, this is what I love - this is the best part of the day - we all get to sit down and have our dinner together".
Many Deputies will have seen Kate and Ellie on RTÉ news last Friday. There are many other testimonies from families and those who work with them. A Barnardos social worker who described the life of a two year old who was living in a hotel when she visited her at Christmas said that "her entire world was the space between those two beds". It is essential that these lived experiences of young children are not swept aside in the statistical analysis that represents so many human stories and damaged lives.
Unfortunately, all indications are that the situation is worsening and I refer to two reports published yesterday. A report from daft.ie showed that rental prices are continuing to increase throughout the country while a report from the ESRI showed a continuing upward trend in the cost of homes. Both reports predicted that homelessness will increase rather than decrease, which is a stark prospect. I agree with those who say that increasing supply is crucial to reversing this unacceptable trend. We need more social homes that are provided through local authorities and voluntary housing bodies. We need more private homes that are affordable. We cannot allow the market to ramp up when it suits and when profits are high. Last year, the Labour Party introduced legislation that proposed a number of measures, including the implementation of the Kenny report to deter land hoarding at a time when house construction is needed.
We need to see a lot more urgency about getting some of this country's more than 180,000 empty homes back into use. The Minister might confirm the indications from yesterday's Cabinet meeting that the Department of Finance is to be asked to produce a report on the feasibility of a vacant homes tax. I understand the Minister has also spoken about this prospect. While such a measure would be a start, a report will not cut the mustard. It is long past time we had a strategy for using empty properties. One of the few examples of successful programmes to revive empty homes is the local authority voids scheme, which we started in 2013. This scheme has restored over 5,000 council houses and apartments that are now lived in. There is a great deal of potential in empty homes that are in private ownership. Many Deputies have spoken in this House about the urgent need to deal with this issue. I have often referred to the Peter McVerry Trust's call for vacant homes officers to be deployed to ascertain proactively which houses are empty in each local authority area, who owns them and what can be done to bring them back into use. We know this has worked well in Britain. It is urgently needed here. As Niamh Randall of the Simon Communities has said, this is the low-hanging fruit. It is much quicker to restore a house that already exists, even if it needs some work to be done to it, than to build a house from scratch. We need this low-hanging fruit to be brought back into use.
Another tentative move by the Government, which does not yet have much flesh on its bones, is the announcement in the Budget Statement that a redesigned role for NAMA is being examined. Last year, the Labour Party proposed that NAMA should be refocused and merged with the Housing Finance Agency to address the serious shortage of supply of residential accommodation.
Its expertise, experience and resources should be put to use in this time of crisis given that the previous crisis for which it was established has been confronted.
Leadership is required in respect of the current crisis. It is not sufficient - and it is clear what is required is not being delivered quickly enough - to tell local authorities to ramp up construction. Local authorities have nearly 700 sites suitable for housing between them. There are approximately 30 or 40 more owned by other public bodies that are suitable for housing. There is funding for the infrastructure such as the fund that has been set up but there is no blueprint and each council literally has to reinvent the wheel. It must design a scheme for each one of those sites, send it to the Department and get approval. As with all matters of this kind, things will go backwards and forwards but local authorities do not have an affordable housing scheme. My party leader, Deputy Howlin, raised this issue this morning during Questions on Promised Legislation.
We need a national affordable housing scheme as a matter of urgency in order to have the thousands of sites these sites can accommodate built. Social housing, affordable housing and accommodation for affordable leasing and the kind of mixed tenure accommodation to which the Government has said it is committed can be built on these sites. To date, however, delivery has been really slow because we do not have an affordable housing scheme. We have not had a blueprint into which each local authority can simply link rather than having to invent its own scheme for every single site in its possession.
Rapid build has a lot more potential to deliver quickly. Last year, there were targets in Rebuilding Ireland that, of course, were not met but rapid build was set out as an opportunity to build houses quickly. However, it certainly has not delivered that. Many of us have been impressed with the Ó Cualann model of co-operative housing. Ó Cualann entered into a relationship with the local authority where it got the sites for €1,000, an arrangement with regard to infrastructure and buy in from people who were going to live in the houses. It was able to provide very affordable homes in the Dublin area. We know this can be extended to other parts of Dublin and other local authority areas. Everybody has been very positive about that model as a way of delivering affordable housing. Again, we need to see that moved forward. We are not short of ideas. What we are short of is action.
I will briefly describe the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 amends the Housing Act 1988 by inserting a new section 10A after section 10. The new section is headed "Homeless persons and children" and applies where a request for accommodation or other assistance is made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person and another person who normally resides or who might reasonably be expected to reside, with the homeless person is a child. In such a case, the housing authority must, when making a decision relating to the request - including one about the provision of interim or urgent assistance - recognise the persons concerned as a family unit and must regard the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration. The housing authority must also have particular regard to the need by practical means to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation, in order to support and encourage the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within a family home. Section 2 provides, in standard form, for the short title and collective citation and construction of the Bill.
We accept that the Bill is only one of the many actions that are needed in this area. It will, however, give some protection to the most vulnerable victims of the housing shortage and I hope it will get the full support of the House.