Housing (Homeless Families) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

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.

I welcome the Bill from Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and the Labour Party and confirm that it is Fianna Fáil's intention to support it and to impress upon the Government the need to address this matter within the existing Housing Act. The reference to the State's intention to house applicants - the primary applicant and those who normally reside with him or her - is something that needs to be amended and we accept the need to do so. We are also conscious of recent motions of a similar nature that came before the House and referred to the European Social Charter and housing. The Government gave a commitment, not only on foot of a motion that was then before the House but also in its programme for Government, that those items be brought before the relevant committees with a view to advancing that issue. The purpose of this commitment is to ensure that, in the context of the various mentions within our Constitution of housing and, in particular, to the family and children, the State is unified in its approach so that there might be no contradiction within the Constitution regarding these matters. The 1916 Proclamation and the later Declaration of Independence refer to civil liberties and equal rights for all and to cherishing our children. Unfortunately, that is not borne out in the figures for homelessness, particularly the 3,000 children not to mention the other 5,000 people in emergency accommodation who find themselves in this terrible predicament.

There have been many debates here since this Dáil was formed. The Government's first task was the establishment of an all-party committee on housing to make recommendations to the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, regarding his efforts to bring forward a document, having consulted various stakeholders, that was reflective of this. As was often said, it was a very worthwhile process. There was good engagement with the relevant sectors, stakeholders and ourselves and recommendations emanated from our committee, many of which were taken on board and many of which were not. It is the right and duty of Government to do as it wishes in that regard. There was a period of reflection, the process had a chance to bed down and there was an opportunity for that policy to become a reality and for action to reflect the rhetoric spoken at the time. Members on all sides of the House always said that it was about implementation and the Minister driving the Department, the Department driving local authorities and local authorities being beholden to the representatives in an effort to address this issue. I was not unique in that regard.

Unfortunately, the figures have consistently got worse so it is our duty to bring forward proposals and offer solutions and initiatives. It is the duty of Government to recognise its failure, not to seek to give the impression, as was the case in recent days, that the figures, as stark as they are, are somehow normal. They cannot and should not be construed as normal. They should only serve as a means to redouble our efforts to ensure that the commitment which has been given on many occasions is honoured, that schemes relating to affordability or rapid-build units are honoured, that commitments relating to this process yield results and that people are held to account.

We are at the coalface in respect of this matter by virtue of the constituency clinics we hold on a regular basis and the large numbers of representations we receive from people who find themselves in terrible and unfortunate predicaments. I refer to those individuals who are living in rented private accommodation, those who are in receipt of HAP from the State, those who are languishing in the homes of their families or friends, those who are couch surfing, etc. The Government has tried to give the general population the impression that this is somehow normal when one compares and contrasts matters as per an OECD report, on the first page of which it is stated that it should not to be used for the purpose of comparing the situation in different countries because many of the methodologies used to gather the data in the various countries are different. It might be a report compiled this year but if we look at the material relating to Ireland, we can see that the 2015 figures are used and that the report does not take account of many circumstances in which people who are homeless or who are seeking help and assistance from the State find themselves. It belittles those who spoke in favour of that being normal. When one hears Fr. Peter McVerry or Brother Kevin Crowley on the radio earlier today expressing the frustration and anger they feel, it only serves to remind us that we need a much more inclusive approach and an understanding and recognition of failings in this area.

The Taoiseach spoke at his party's conference the weekend before last about his and his party's ability to be inclusive and work with other parties to ensure they achieve results. In the same week he gave that speech, the House suggested a way to deal with the lack of inspection of private accommodation by local authorities following the overcrowding issue highlighted on "Prime Time". The majority of the House supported the introduction of a new mechanism, such as an NCT-style system in which local authorities would be funded to vet properties for health and safety issues, fire safety and adherence to planning and building regulations. The Government did not agree with that. The Taoiseach should practice what he preaches and take on board the suggestions coming from the majority of the House. He would then be in a position to tell the electorate the Government has been as inclusive as one would expect it to be considering the convoluted composition of the Dáil and that it acts in accordance with an agreement between the two major parties to pursue various objectives in our economy and society and that results emanate from that. To date we have not seen that. I am only taking five minutes of the time allocated to my party so I do not have enough time to go through all I have proposed since the Dáil came into being or more recently.

I was led to believe that €245 million was spent on social housing by local authorities up to 1 November 2017. I need the Minister to tell me how many units it delivered. If it was 1,000, as was indicated, it could not correlate to €245,000 per unit. We can compare it with the likes of the Ó Cualann housing body in Ballymun which can get State land for €1,000 a site and offer houses for sale at €140,000 to €200,000. People ask me what is affordable by today's standards. That is affordable by today's standards. It is something that should be replicated throughout the country. It is the best model and best use of State lands I have heard of to date. Many local authorities have said they have embarked on a path of seeking expressions of interest with regard to how such land can contribute to dealing with the crisis. That has gone on for 12 or 18 months and there has been no progress. In Meath, for example, historically sites were bought at an exorbitant price. When such a site is brought to the market with a view to providing social and affordable units, the unit cost has to be recouped. In that instance we are starting at €100,000 and that is replicated again throughout the country. I cannot go into greater detail on this Stage of the Bill. However, I support the content of the Bill and the good faith behind it. I hope all parties and none can come together to ensure the Housing Act to which the Bill refers will reflect the needs of children and families, which are of various natures these days, and that local authorities are given the authority to prioritise that in housing.

I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for introducing the Bill. The Deputy is a colleague on the children's committee, where her voice is heard at all times representing the voice of the child. That is what the Bill is about - the voice of the child and laws that govern matters concerning children. The voice of the child is not considered by local authorities. The Ombudsman for Children has said that under Irish law, there is no specific law providing for the voice of the child to be heard. The person making the application has such a right but it does not cover the rights of the child. Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, provides for the right to food, clothing and a safe space. That means a child must have a roof over his or her head. A child's world should not revolve around two beds. When one is a mother of kids and rears a family, one understands the value of having a roof over one's head. We also have to acknowledge the right of children to be educated with their friends, to be able to travel to school in a community and to grow up in a community. It is incumbent on the councils to look after people who present to them. It is incumbent on them, when people present as homeless, not to tell them they have a good family and can place children with different family members while remaining on the housing list. That is not correct. At all times we must ensure the voice of the child is heard. We had a referendum to enshrine the rights of the child into the Constitution but we are neglecting it. When parents or guardians present as homeless, the voice and rights of children should be considered. Does the child have a disability and does that come into consideration? Are they part of a team or a club? That voice needs to be heard. Those receiving people as they present to the various county councils throughout the country must recognise it is not only the parents or guardians who are presenting but a whole family unit. We have to recognise the value of that family unit. That is what the Bill is about. It is about acknowledging the value of the family and the child. My party and I commend and wholeheartedly support Deputy O'Sullivan and her Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I commend Deputy Jan O'Sullivan on bringing it forward. We have to be mindful of families when we speak about homelessness. It is a difficult situation for anyone to be homeless but particularly for families with young children, especially children with special needs. Sometimes they are left outside of the discussion which is particularly sad. It is particularly sensitive for everyone involved in that situation. They need to be given priority to assist them in having delivered some type of social housing or supports through whatever mechanism is possible. We must go back to the root cause of the issue that brings us here this evening. There are a number of different categories which we have all spoken about and which affect families, particularly those with young children and children with special needs. Lack of supply is a massive issue at the moment. We have to double our efforts to ensure we make greater attempts to bring supply into the market. Supply affects everything. We have engaged with the Minister on this issue on numerous occasions. It is a massive problem on which we need to double our efforts.

Evictions are another issue. Some of the families we are talking about here this evening have children with special needs while others do not but it does not matter, as we are concerned with the family unit. Families have been evicted by the banks as a result of mortgage arrears. It is a massive problem. We have brought forward a number of Bills to try to deal with that issue and to prevent homelessness. The difficulty in accessing the private rental market is another problem because of the lack of supply. Current market rents are very high and supports such as the HAP scheme are not adequate to deal with current levels of rent. People cannot afford to pay the rent differential, which leads to homelessness. It is a problem I have highlighted on a number of occasions here and we need a short-term solution to deal with it. There are also families that meet the criteria to get on the housing list but get no support because they are marginally over the financial means threshold. Those limits need to be reviewed because people are caught between two stools and are suffering. Nobody is reaching out to them. It is another issue for families. My own local authority, Kildare County Council, which I deal with regularly, is doing its best under extremely difficult circumstances while being under-resourced. It does not have the flexibility to give families priority in particular circumstances. That is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Families with children are living with parents and other family members, which is causing all sorts of welfare and social problems. We need to look at cases of families who have been on the housing list for a year. One such case presented to me last week. They have been on the housing list for a year and have a young child who is blind. It is very sad. They have been told it will be at least nine years before the local authority can deal with them as a family unit. They were advised to find housing they can rent and were offered support through HAP. However, they cannot get a unit because they need to access all the medical services and supports their child needs. That is an issue. If the local authority had a level of flexibility, it could consider prioritising housing that family given their child's needs. I support this very timely Bill and I hope it gets the support of the House.

Just over three minutes remain and we have three Deputies to speak, Deputies Murphy O'Mahony, Breathnach and O'Loughlin.

I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for bringing the Bill before the House. I agree with the principle of the Bill.

All Deputies will confirm that they are inundated with constituents attending their office with issues relating to housing and homelessness. I represent a rural constituency and while statistics on paper may show little homelessness, some houses in Cork South-West have three and four generations living in the one house rather than having people on the streets. This obviously leads to other problems, such as depression and different things to which overcrowding can lead.

Homelessness is a stark reality of our time irrespective of how much the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, might try to normalise it. I could go on forever, but we are obviously constrained for time. I would just like to focus on a family living in my constituency with a child with a disability. They would be rendered homeless were it not for the child's grandmother taking in her daughter and that child. It is a major problem and I support the Bill.

Ireland's rate of child homelessness, which has risen by 287% in three years, is unmatched anywhere in Europe, according to the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Indeed, it was widely quoted that the figure of 3,124 homeless children in Ireland announced yesterday is set to continue to rise in the coming months by 20 children per month.

In Louth, 60 people presented as homeless in September 2017 with 35 in Dundalk, 22 in Drogheda and three in Ardee. My local authority is certainly to the fore in trying to tackle this problem. This month 35 were offered help including fast-tracking for renting. Homelessness and child homelessness will continue unless we offer a solution through improving housing supply. A tiny 5% of all housing allocations across the country go towards homelessness. To date this year, Louth County Council has housed 36 family units but in order to keep pace with those presenting we need initiatives in addition to housing supply.

While I am an ardent advocate of all landlords partaking in the HAP scheme, the reality is that many landlords in the private rental sector are not co-operating with it. Once again success has been achieved in Louth. In this year alone an additional 48 families were placed in emergency accommodation through encouraging those reluctant HAP landlords and through more contact with letting agents. My point is a proactive approach is needed by the homeless officers in the housing departments with letting agents. When it is known that a family will have to vacate that property for the purpose of a sale, the local authority should be given the opportunity to discuss the purchase of such units.

I have much more that I would like to say, but I will conclude. Approved housing bodies employ approximately 6,500 staff. If these were distributed among the local authorities, we could get back to building houses.

Before I call the Minister, I wish to make a point. Obviously, it is not my job to arrange speakers, but it seems to be unwise to list more people to speak in a slot than can reasonably be expected to be accommodated.

I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for providing this opportunity for the House to discuss the various actions on homelessness that are being implemented, and the various challenges and difficulties that remain.

Significant work is being carried out across the sector by housing authorities, approved housing bodies and homeless service providers to tackle and address the housing crisis and the serious challenges facing us. When I took up office, I made it clear that tackling issues of housing and homelessness would be a top priority for me and the Government. As I have stated consistently in this House, one homeless individual or family is one too many. A lot has been achieved in this regard in a short space of time but clearly, a lot more remains to be done.

I acknowledge the good intention behind Deputy O'Sullivan's Bill, intentions that I share and for that reason the Government is supporting her Bill.

Homelessness is about people, not statistics. Homelessness is about families and individuals in great difficulty and requiring great support. I see that when I meet individuals and families who are experiencing homelessness. They all have their own story and it is right that we help and support them. While the existing system has proved successful in providing for the emergency accommodation needs of homeless families with children, we can always do more and we will.

Deputy O'Sullivan has presented a Bill that puts children at the centre of decision-making by a housing authority when a family including a child requests accommodation assistance. The Bill requires the best interest of the child to be the paramount consideration, as does the Constitution, following an amendment that I am proud to say was put to the people by Fine Gael and Labour when in government. Protecting the best interests of children is already at the centre of our approach to housing families requesting assistance for accommodation.

It is why we ensure that any family presenting with children is housed safely overnight and why we seek to work with each family to address not just their accommodation needs but also their other support needs that may run alongside their immediate need for housing.

This afternoon, I want to set out for the benefit of Members, exactly what happens where a family with a child presents to our services looking for accommodation assistance. When I say our services, of course I am including Focus Ireland, the Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust, all of which are directed by the State to provide services to people in need of accommodation, in addition to the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and other local authority services.

In most cases, our experience is that families at risk of homelessness will begin to engage with homeless services before their existing accommodation has become unavailable, whether that be days, weeks or months before they are actually homeless. Where this can be done, it can help prevent homelessness because it allows the housing authority time to consider the various requirements of homeless families and to tailor supports and consider accommodation options.

In many such cases homelessness can be prevented from occurring. To date this year in the Dublin region, almost 600 households that engaged with the homeless executive at an early stage have avoided entering emergency accommodation and have secured a new private rented tenancy under the housing assistance payment scheme.

State-funded prevention service is available through Threshold, which can provide support and advice to families at risk of homelessness and can examine for validity any notice to quit they might have received. Furthermore the Dublin Region Homeless Executive's prevention officers will also work with the families presenting to consider if they are eligible for social housing and assist in the submission of an application if appropriate. They will also engage with the landlord on the family's behalf on issues where advocacy can assist.

However, often prevention is not possible and families will require immediate temporary accommodation. As I have outlined, families requiring emergency accommodation will usually have already been in touch with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive prior to becoming homeless but even where they have not, we can still help them as I will now outline. The executive's central placement service, which I visited recently, conducts face-to-face assessments with families on a daily basis until 4 p.m. The executive's freefone helpline number operates from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Friday and 24 hours at the weekend. Any family that has been previously in touch with the central placement service will have an existing reference number and consequently accommodation can be arranged for them via the freefone number if necessary.

Where a family seeks out-of-hours homeless services for the first time, they will be referred to the Focus Ireland family homeless action team, which provides the contact point under a funded service level agreement with the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. The action team will consider the presenting family's immediate needs and will work with them to secure hotel accommodation for that night. The next day, a more thorough assessment of the individual family's requirements will be conducted. Following this assessment and information session, the family will be allocated a caseworker, who will work with the family throughout their homelessness episode with a view to ensuring that they avail of the available supports. Occasionally it may not be possible to secure hotel accommodation for a family presenting late, particularly for larger families. This can occur during peak season. There are a number of contingency family units available in existing homeless facilities in such instances.

Our focus is as follows: no child will fail to be accommodated. The best interest of children is first and foremost a secure safe place to sleep and we will ensure this for any family who comes to us. What happens next is just as important and I want to take the House through our supports for day two, day three and the days after that in providing the supports that families need. We accommodate children and families in hotels as an alternative to them having nowhere to go. However, let me be very clear that hotels are not a suitable or secure form of accommodation for families and especially for young children for anything other than a short period and as an emergency need. I am absolutely committed to this objective. I want to get to a point where no family presenting to a housing authority as homeless has to rely on hotel accommodation.

This is one of the key commitments contained in Rebuilding Ireland but in the interim we have to use this accommodation as an emergency first step. I am pleased to say that the number of homeless families being so accommodated in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation in Dublin is falling; it is still too high but it is falling. On the last day of September, a total of 690 homeless families were accommodated in hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. That number is down from 871 such families recorded at the end of March.

The number of families in emergency accommodation in the Dublin region reduced in both August and September, which is the first time in three years there has been a reduction in consecutive months. We do not want families in hotels and, therefore, we are focused on providing more suitable transitional accommodation that is family friendly and has the services available to meet the development and welfare needs of a child, which a hotel clearly cannot.

These family hubs are family-focused and are a better response than a hotel but they are still only a first response. An amount of €45 million in capital funding has been allocated for these family hubs. There are now ten family hubs operational in the Dublin region and one in Limerick, providing temporary accommodation to approximately 300 families. Works are progressing on the delivery of a further seven hub facilities which should become operational before the end of the year, providing temporary accommodation for a further 180 families. Over the course of the coming two weeks I will open two new family hubs in Dublin alone. A further five hubs are already scheduled for delivery in 2018 and they will cater for more than 230 additional families.

These family focused facilities will offer family living arrangements with a greater level of stability than is possible in hotel accommodation, with the capacity to provide appropriate play space, cooking and laundry facilities, communal recreation space, while move-on options to long-term independent living are identified and secured. These arrangements facilitate more co-ordinated needs assessment and support planning, including on-site access to required services such as welfare, health, housing services and appropriate family supports. However, this requires a whole of Government response. Therefore, we have ensured that further additional family support services are being made available through the Department of Children and Youth Affairs by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, such as a special provision under the existing community child care subvention programme of free child care for children from homeless families; Tusla’s school completion programme is placing an emphasis on children from homeless families; schools with home school community liaison co-ordinators are proactively engaging with the parents from homeless families to assist access to any other supports that may be of assistance; and children in homeless accommodation are being prioritised within the school completion programme for services such as breakfast and homework clubs.

This debate also requires that we acknowledge the significant activity that is, and has been, taking place to address issues of homelessness. The long-term solution to the current homelessness challenge is to increase the supply of homes. Accordingly, Rebuilding Ireland is designed to accelerate all types of housing supply; in particular, it seeks to increase the delivery of social housing by 50,000 additional homes over the period to 2021. I could quote a number of other statistics but I know statistics can be cold comfort to people, be they individuals or families, who are facing this crisis in their personal lives.

I thank the House for providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important issue. We must always discuss it. As Members of this House and people in public life, we must always keep this crisis in our focus because we know the very difficult circumstances that people are facing in these situations and we know our responsibilities to cater for those people, look after them and make sure we can help them through this crisis period into more secure, sustainable accommodation.

I am aware of the values held by our society and the threat posed to these values by homelessness. We are taking urgent action to tackle these issues. That requires more than housing and buildings, we have to look at affordability and new schemes that will help people to secure their own accommodation for themselves. That is why €25 million was announced in the budget for a new affordability scheme. To answer some of Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's questions, that is being developed as we speak. It will be announced very shortly. We have looked at the Ó Cualann model, which we know is successful on a small scale. We want to deliver that now at a greater scale and to secure those options for people who need our help. Sometimes a small bit of help can go a very long way.

With regard to the vacancy issue, we have established vacancy teams in each local authority in the country. We have an empty homes unit in the Department since July of this year. We have figures coming in from each local authority in the urban areas as to what vacancy potential they think is there. We know it is low-hanging fruit. By the end of the year I will have those figures from other local authorities around the country.

In the budget announced for 2018, a new incentive scheme for bringing vacancy out of the private stock into private use was announced. We also will be announcing changes to the repair and leave scheme to help bring vacancy into use for social housing purposes. A report from the Department of Finance will be commissioned to examine the potential of introducing a vacancy tax to see how that could also work as a stick to try to get more vacant stock back into use.

We recognise the problem of overcrowding, and Deputy Cowen referred to this. We are not rejecting the fact that we need to do more in this area. We have already announced ring-fenced funding for increased inspections next year. It is not that we do not think that an NCT-style system for private rental accommodation might not be an option worth pursuing. We believe that the option that is already being pursued by the Government might be a better, quicker and more powerful way of putting sanctions on rogue landlords - to call them landlords is a mistake - who seek to abuse people's human rights for their own personal profit. It is correct to say that we are not short of ideas but we are not short of action either. If we look at some of the figures, they will show there are improvements in many areas when it comes to the Rebuilding Ireland programme and other aspects of the challenge that we face, but other figures show that there have not been improvements and that matters have got worse. We must recognise that. We can learn from what others are doing but we can also learn the mistakes we have made ourselves on previous policy interventions that have not been successful.

I will continue to drive our actions on behalf of the State, the taxpayer and every citizen and implement them with compassion because compassion and care is what is needed. Homelessness is not normal. We must never, nor will we ever, treat a homeless individual or homeless family as being normal. We must always ensure that our interventions and supports that are put in place to help people in these very difficult times of crisis are put in place in a way that assures those individuals and families, and every other citizen in this State because we all have a stake in this, that we are meeting the housing and accommodation needs of our families and children. We are doing that to provide dignity for everyone to help them in this time of crisis and to make sure that their welfare and care is always paramount in the work we do with the voluntary sector and the local authorities.

I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for tabling this valuable legislation for our consideration. I am happy to hear it will be supported by the Government. This is not just a theoretical piece of legislation, it will have a real, practical impact. The Deputy outlined some of the families she has dealt with in her constituency and elsewhere who have been affected by the lack of protection, the addressing of which this legislation will now provide.

We all have experience of dealing with families who have presented as homeless seeking emergency accommodation who have been split up either, as the Deputy outlined, where children are left with extended family members or the two partners are split up and sent to opposite sides of the city with children split up, sometimes for lengthy periods of time. That idea that the law would recognise the family unit is quite important in tackling that particular problem.

The Minister's description of what happens when a family presents as homeless is not the experience that many families on a daily basis live through. That is not to say this is not way it should be or is not the way it is for many families, but many people are coming to us telling us that their experience is different. It is important that the Minister hears that and acknowledges it.

There are many families who present and are told when they present that there is no emergency accommodation, and that is when they present early in the day and often day after day for several weeks on end. They are given a list of hotels and told to self-accommodate. To add to the stress of, for example, reaching a notice to quit date, they have to then ring a long list of hotels, day after day, to try to find emergency accommodation. If they have nowhere to go that night, they have to ring the freefone number. As the Minister is aware, on any given night, the freefone service might not be able to provide emergency accommodation, or the family might be genuinely fearful of the type of emergency accommodation they might end up with, late on a night, particularly in this city. The in-take service will also advise that, on occasions, they have placed families in emergency accommodation and then the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive or the local authority after several days has instructed the in-take team to cease the payment for that family and they are then back out of the hotel.

There is a problem for some of these families - I am not saying it is for all or for the majority of them - which needs to be addressed. There is also a case of increasing numbers of young families who have lost private rental accommodation, have then gone into extended family accommodation where stress and strains force them out of that, and when they present to the emergency accommodation section of the local authorities they are simply sent away and not even given the options that I have just outlined. There is an increasing trend of people coming from the extended family overcrowded stressful situation who have been turned away. That is also creating a problem.

It is very timely that we are having this general discussion on homelessness because it has been a very bad number of days for the public debate on homelessness, particularly from the point of view of the Government and State agencies. The comments of the chair of the Housing Agency and the director of the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive are deeply unfortunate and have caused a real level of hurt among people in emergency accommodation and people who have experienced homelessness, and we heard some of that today, but, more worryingly, the idea that, for example, homelessness will always be with us or that homelessness is the result of bad behaviour displays a set of values which I thought were long gone from our understanding of homelessness and homeless services.

This betrays a Victorian attitude that somebody's being homeless is a result of their own decisions, bad lifestyle choices or character, as opposed to the result of a housing system that is designed in a particular way and cannot meet the needs of various groups of people.

For me, though, the most disturbing comments were those made by the Taoiseach at the weekend.

In response to questions he said: "By international standards, compared with our peers, we have a low level of homelessness. They are the stats and we can provide them for you. Of course it is a good thing that in Ireland we have a low level of homelessness compared with our peer countries." I have in my hand the statistics and the report from the Taoiseach's press office which we all have now. There is not a shred of evidence in this report that allows the Taoiseach to make that claim. It does not allow anybody to say that our level of homelessness is high or low. On that basis, the Taoiseach should withdraw his comments. It is not acceptable for the Taoiseach of the country to deliberately, which is what he is doing in my view, downplay the level of homelessness or to present the picture as something other than what it is. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy's defence of the Taoiseach at the housing committee this morning was, I think, regrettable.

I do not have further time to go through other points I would like to make but I do not think the Government is doing enough. I am not saying it is not doing anything, but it is not doing enough and that is why the problem is getting worse. Until it accepts that, the figures month on month are going to continue to go in the wrong direction.

Go raibh maith agat. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo, atá curtha chun cinn ag an Teachta O'Sullivan. Táimid an-bhuíoch di.

In the Taoiseach's world, everything is going just right. That is what the Taoiseach and his Department of spin seem to want us to believe anyway. This entitled Taoiseach has a feckless and dilettante attitude to the most vulnerable in society. He is starting to believe his own propaganda and wants us to believe it too. If we are prepared to be taken in by this spin, then the homeless crisis really is not a crisis - "it is not as bad as it looks, lads". It is more important to the Government that we massage the figures and sweep the shame that is the homelessness crisis under the carpet. It wants to present to the world a different image, one that ignores the realities of everyday life in Ireland and has no place for those left behind during the years of austerity. It is an image that is as false and fake as the Government's effort to end this homelessness crisis.

Fr. Peter McVerry is not talking down this country when he speaks of the homelessness crisis. Neither I nor anyone else who works with the homeless, and sees the effects of homelessness on families, individuals and the community each day, intends to talk down the country. If that is what the Minister genuinely thinks is happening, he should do something about ending this crisis. He should allocate the resources required to end homelessness and divert them away from pet projects that benefit the few, usually the comfortable or well off. It can be as simple as that.

As the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Taoiseach step over the rough sleepers on their way to their respective offices from Dáil Éireann, as they pass the memorials to those homeless who have died a stone's throw from this Chamber, and as Christmas fast approaches, they should know that this is beyond urgent. Something needs to be done about these problems and it is an emergency issue. The Government should put its efforts into ending this crisis and stop trying to silence people. The real problem is the homelessness crisis, not the coverage of it. Hopefully this Bill will help correct an anomaly by recognising the family as a unit and will consolidate and protect the rights of children within the family unit who have unfortunately found themselves homeless. This Bill is but a small step and we support it.

The housing crisis has been with us for years. Every day, week and month it is getting worse. The Minister takes debates in this Chamber almost on a weekly basis now and he gives essentially the same recycled speech, that the Government is doing its best, this problem cannot be solved overnight, and we have a strategy and a plan. Despite all of that, the situation is getting worse. We heard from Deputy Eoin Ó Broin last week that the overall number of people on the housing waiting lists has gone from 91,000 to 99,000. We have heard that there is an increase in homelessness. The figures speak for themselves almost every month when they are published. The problem is real.

The Taoiseach's response to Teachta Adams this morning on the issue of housing was an absolute disgrace. He accused my party of seeking to manipulate people's sense of hurt and suffering because of the fact that they are victims of the housing crisis, that we somehow thrive on their suffering and that we do not have solutions. That is absolutely not true. The Taoiseach knows that and it is quite cynical coming from a Government that has done precious little really to deal with the housing crisis.

Teachta Ó Broin and many Members of this Dáil sat on the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness. They were diligent, did their work and listened to witnesses. That committee did excellent work, produced a report and set targets that the Government should be meeting. The Minister will not even work to implement those objectives, modest as they were, that would actually solve the housing crisis. My party has put forward dozens of solutions and Teachta Ó Broin has published dozens of policy positions on how we can address the housing problem. The Minister and his Government have simply ignored them. It is not good enough.

I will never, cynically or any other way, play on people's emotions or fears who are victims of the housing crisis. I represent them. I come into this Chamber and represent them. We put forward solutions. That is what we want, not hollow words or honey words. Teachta Ó Broin has gone through those solutions. The Minister knows what they are and all I can say is that, at the very least, he needs to commit to implementing all of the recommendations of the all-party report into which so much work and effort was put.

We are discussing homeless families. The number one reason for homelessness is when someone or a family receives a notice to quit from a private landlord. The number one excuse being given these days is substantial refurbishment. If a landlord wants to raise the rent, get people out, get new people in and charge them more, substantial refurbishment is the way to go. This is particularly the case with mass evictions, since the Tyrrelstown amendment came in. The Minister must close this loophole.

The organisation Threshold states tonight in the Cork Evening Echo that there is a mass eviction pending in Cork city.

I do not mean to interrupt the Deputy, and the same applied to Deputy Cullinane, but we are talking not in a general sense about housing but about the Labour Party Bill. It would be more appropriate to actually focus on the content of the Bill.

I will focus on the content of the Bill. There are families being made homeless here. At Leeside Apartments, on the corner of Grattan Street and Bachelors Quay, 70 households have received notices to quit with the reason alleged to be substantial refurbishment and renovation. These apartment blocks were sold earlier this year. The property piece in the Irish Independent said that the rental income is currently €676,000 and could be increased to €970,000. The apartments were bought by the Larea Fa Fund II DAC. It has two directors. In respect of one of them, 24 of his 25 directorships are based in a building in Molesworth Street. All 12 of the other directors are based there. That Molesworth Street building is the home of 593 companies which leads me to think we are looking at a vulture fund-style operation here.

That is all very well and it is very important, but we are talking about a Bill.

On the issue of the Bill-----

Everybody who has spoken so far has spoken on the wider issue of housing and homelessness.

That is true.

We will be coming to Deputy Healy in a minute.

I believe that people and families who have notices to quit hanging over them should be included in the homelessness figures. In this apartment block, we have young families with children who go to school in the vicinity. One family I spoke to pays €700 per month in rent. They have gone out to look for alternative accommodation. The prices being asked are from €1,000 up to €1,300. There are queues going out the door at those properties.

Homelessness is a real threat for these families. We are looking at mass evictions. The reason for this is profiteering. It is outrageous. People should organise and fight against what is happening. The Minister must close this loophole. People with notices to quit hanging over them should be counted in the figures. We will support this proposal.

The Minister said that homelessness is not normal. He is contradicting the chair of the Housing Agency. If he really believes this, he should ask the chair to withdraw his comments. Or are we looking at a game of good cop-bad cop, with the Taoiseach claiming the homelessness figures are low, the responsible Minister of State saying we will be viewed poorly internationally if people keep talking about homelessness and the chair of the Housing Agency saying the figures are normal? There is an attempt to normalise and minimise the homelessness crisis. It is cold, calculating and co-ordinated. The Fine Gael Ministers involved should be ashamed of themselves. However, I do not believe they will fool the people on this issue.

People Before Profit will support this good Bill. Any measure that will keep families together in a crisis, such as that relating to homelessness, is good.

The problem of homelessness seems to have no end. For the Taoiseach to claim we have a situation of normality with homelessness is an insult to everybody's intelligence. I accept that the Government is trying to address legacy issues relating to the homelessness crisis. However, I cannot understand how anybody can believe that having over 8,000 people in emergency accommodation is normal. It is abnormal; it is almost social whitewashing when claiming that this is normal practice in Ireland and across the world. That is an indictment on our society, our housing system and international systems of housing people. How can one find it normal that people are living on the streets when there is an abundance of housing? How can it be normal for hundreds of families and children to live in emergency accommodation? If anybody in the Government or an NGO finds that normal, he or she should resign immediately.

There is a bubble in Leinster House where people think it is acceptable that families are in an emergency accommodation. As a Deputy for the Dublin Mid West constituency, I see the problem every day. It is an embarrassment that, in 21st century Ireland, people are living in emergency accommodation while the country is so wealthy and there is an abundance of housing.

A new phenomenon has emerged whereby private landlords will ask potential tenants what level of HAP they are on. If the potential tenant is on homeless HAP, the money the landlord gets is exorbitant. For example, a one-bedroom flat in Clondalkin was recently rented for €1,700. That is criminal. The people asking for this kind of money should be wearing balaclavas. However, they will extort that money from tenants and the Government. Private landlords are asking if people have homeless HAP meaning that other HAP recipients are being discriminated against. The whole system is crazy. When we find homelessness normal, we should walk out of this building because this place is no longer fit for purpose.

I support the Bill but I do so with a sense of nausea at the cynicism of the Labour Party in failing to recognise its contribution to the homelessness crisis through its policies. Sneering from Labour Members is not an answer. They should recognise the role they played when part of a majority Government that pursued policies which actively led to this crisis.

The Bill is an indictment of local authorities and our society when, five years after we amended the Constitution to give rights to children, we need to introduce legislation to direct housing authorities to consider the family and to recognise persons of the family unit. While I support the Bill, it has to be put in perspective. When Labour was in government with an overwhelming majority, it actively brought in policies that created the crisis relating to housing and homelessness. It put an end to affordable housing and lowered housing standards.

We put money into housing.

I would appreciate if Labour Members did not interrupt me. I did not interrupt them. The truth must out on this matter. We have again what we had in the time of Bertie Ahern, when we were told to take our own lives rather than whining. We had the exact same language from a Fine Gael Minister of State earlier. I read with horror what he said about our reputation abroad:

Some of this narrative has seeped into international coverage of our housing system, and it is damaging to Ireland's international reputation that our social response to this issue is being portrayed as dysfunctional.

The housing crisis is dysfunctional. The response of this Government and that which preceded it is dysfunctional. Let us make the English language mean something nó an Ghaeilge - is cuma liom. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach go mbeimid ionraic sa Dáil seo. Ba cheart dúinn an fhírinne an insint. The Government created a housing crisis with its reliance on the private market, claiming that it would provide. It has utterly failed to do so, however. The Government stood over legislation which enshrined HAP as the only game in town. When I was a member of Galway City Council, we were repeatedly told it was the only game in town. HAP is taxpayers' money going into the landlords' pockets at a capped level. In Galway city, as in other cities, no tenant can get a property at that capped level. To add insult to injury, the tenant or applicant has to get extra money to top up the rent. That used to be regarded as an under-the-counter payment whereas now it is a recognised official payment. HAP applicants are struggling to pay rents way beyond their capacity.

Over the years, I watched this problem grow. When I was a councillor, we appealed to the then Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to come to Galway.

I did go to Galway.

This crisis did not happen when Labour went out of power. It happened as a result of what it did when it was in power.

We gave a great deal of funding to Galway.

Not one single social housing unit has been built in Galway city since 2009. There was money but the previous Government made choices about it and decided not to build one single social house.

What Deputy Connolly says is completely untrue.

This year, we will build 14 social houses in Galway when there are 13,000 people there who have been on the housing waiting list since 2001. How many Governments have held power since then? Not one single social house has been built but we had plenty of money for the rental accommodation scheme and the HAP scheme. Then we came up with the land aggregation scheme. Is the Government even aware of this scheme? How much land from various local authorities has been taken back under it? Up to 13,000 people in Galway, some of them waiting since 2001, are on the housing list. In addition, there is a major crisis in the context of homelessness. It would be great if the officials in Galway treated those presenting as homeless as families.

That would be marvellous.

It is unfortunate that the resources of the local authority have been run down and, as a result, staff are strained beyond belief, moved from department to department and not allowed to build up an expertise or a feeling in respect of homelessness. They are now functioning as estate agents and looking for houses all over the city. If the Minister of State does not believe me, he should listen to the auctioneers in Galway, who would tell him there is no supply of private housing there. He should take a trip to see the homeless on the streets of the city. He should go the men's hostel in Eyre Square in the middle of our lovely city. When men turn up there, they are told the hostel is full and its staff can only give them sleeping bags so that they can be a little warmer while sleeping on the streets. I am not given to exaggeration, rather I deal in facts. These are the facts in Galway city.

Two weeks ago, I sat in a beautiful apartment in Salthill in which there were at least eight people from other apartments, all of whom got a notice to quit, ostensibly to facilitate the sale of the apartments. However, those people know it is to allow the apartments to be rented on Airbnb. It was reported in The Irish Times yesterday that a six-bedroom apartment in Dublin made an annual income of €163,000 through Airbnb. The Government has utterly failed to regulate in that regard. A similar situation obtains in Galway city.

What are the solutions? The Bill is part of the jigsaw. However, the main answer is to declare a housing emergency. The Government should tell Members what residentially-zoned land each local authority has in its possession. Members should be told what land in Galway that is zoned residential is now unavailable because a road cannot be built and will not be built in the next five years. Why is the Government not providing co-operative housing? That cannot be done in Galway because the land was brought at such a premium and high rate of interest that council officials cannot conceive of giving it at a reduced rate because of the debt incurred on the purchase.

I support the Bill but have the utmost cynicism about the motivation of the Labour Party in bringing it forward.

The Deputy's final comment was viciously bitter.

I am glad to again have the chance to discuss housing and people losing their homes. Private landlords seem to be blamed all the time by some Members. I do not condone the conditions of the properties of the landlords featured on a television programme recently or anyone who treats tenants in such a manner. However, there are good landlords. If a landlord has several houses, he or she has to pay 50% tax on the rent he or she receives. The Government should do something about the amount of tax landlords have to pay because it is driving up rents for tenants. I blame the tax take that is demanded from landlords, good and bad.

People lose their homes in different ways. They might have bought or built their homes and lost them through bad luck, misfortune and other things. It is very hurtful to see parents and their little children having to move out and present as homeless to local authorities and then be put up in bed and breakfast accommodation for weeks on end. There could be no end to it. It is very hurtful to see people finishing up in that situation. As I have highlighted and asked for before, when houses are being taken back by the banks, local authorities should be given funding by the Government to purchase those houses and rent them to those who are about to lose them. Such people should become tenants of the local authority and down the road it could be the case that their luck might turn and they would be able to buy back their houses from the local authority. That should be considered.

I am delighted to speak on this issue. Unfortunately, homelessness in Ireland is increasing year on year. Between December 2014 and August of this year there was a net increase of 5,412 in the number recorded as homeless, an increase of 189%. The upward trend has existed for several years and the number becoming homeless is still increasing. Figures supplied to the Dáil by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, showed that 2,700 people exited homelessness in 2016. If 2,541 people were accessing emergency accommodation in December 2015 and 7,148 were recorded as homeless in December 2016, the net increase in homelessness in Ireland during 2016 would be 4,607. That net increase can be broken down to 13 people per day. The estimated number of rough sleepers in Dublin on the night of the official count in spring 2017 was 161, which is the highest figure for the count since records began.

Who is codding whom? It is a bit rich of the Labour Party to bring forward the Bill, particularly as it was in government for five years. All Members know money was scarce at that time. There were multiple announcements by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly - or AK-47 - about what he was going to build. I told him he would not build a hen house in Toomevara or a dog house in Carrick-on-Suir and he did not do so. I am sick of the spin. It goes on and on. I asked the Minister last week and I ask again tonight that the Government bring up the chief executive of Tipperary County Council, Mr. Joe McGrath, and its director of housing services to meet the Minister. I will sit down with those people and other Members who represent Tipperary if they want to come. We are playing fox and goose. Eleven council houses were built in Tipperary in the years 2012 to 2016, inclusive. Someone is codding someone. We have announcements of money, this initiative and that initiative. It is all balderdash and whitewash. Unfortunately, homeless people get no solace from it.

I call Deputy Michael Collins. He can try to follow that.

I am happy to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I thank Deputy Jan O'Sullivan for putting it forward. I support the Bill, which will amend the Housing Act 1988 and provide for a housing authority to recognise related homeless persons as a joint family unit when making decisions regarding their rehoming. As over 3,000 children live either on our streets or in emergency accommodation, it is very important that we make provision to protect their family units and childhoods as much as possible. The emergency accommodation available to such families is neither safe nor sufficient for the huge demand that exists. We owe a major debt to charities such as Focus Ireland, the Simon Community and the Fr. Peter McVerry Trust that assist the homeless community throughout the country on a daily basis. However, it is extremely disappointing that we are debating what kind of emergency accommodation we will provide for homeless people and families and whether we can accommodate parents and their children together in emergency accommodation, be that in shelters or hotel rooms.

This and previous Governments have done little to fix the housing crisis. It has been more than 15 months since A Programme for Partnership Government, which contains a section dedicated to ending the housing shortage and homelessness, was introduced. However, just over 2,076 new homes were built in the State last year, which is a fraction of the Government's estimate of 15,000. Nearly every week there are new motions from all sections of the Opposition in an effort to tackle the housing crisis but there has been little action on behalf of the Government. Recent figures show there are currently 1,442 families homeless in Ireland, an increase of 25% on this time last year. I am inundated by requests from constituents for housing, as is every other Deputy. People from Castletownbere, Kilcrohane, Bantry, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Dunmanway, Bandon and Kinsale have pleaded with me to find them accommodation. Sadly, I have no answer for them.

Every day we hear Ministers, Ministers of State, Deputies and ordinary councillors stating that we are building more houses in places such as Clonakilty.

When I became a councillor, the first thing I heard was that 40 or 50 houses would be built, and they were never built. Not a single block of those houses has yet been laid. Young people trying to apply for planning permission cannot get loans from banks because they do not earn enough, and the same families cannot get loans from Cork County Council because they are earning too much. It is scandalous. I plead with the Minister of State to accept this Bill to help these homeless families but, more importantly, to implement some real, significant action to increase the housing supply and permanently rehouse these families in this country.

This Bill should not be needed. I refuse to believe we cannot house those who are homeless and cannot deal with this housing crisis. It has been in the making for five or six years at its most extreme. I have concerns about the Bill, yet I can see it is not right for families to be separated. Local authorities sometimes take the view that the relevant section in the 1988 Act was for a cohort of people who had other complex needs but the basic point is that no child should be homeless. It is not acceptable for us to consider that any child should be homeless, and I do not want children to be labelled as homeless.

Some of what we have heard in the past week or two - the normalisation of homelessness, the comparisons to other countries, the attempts to minimise the extent of the crisis - is a backdrop to tonight's debate, unfortunately. The minute we accept family hubs as replacements for homes or accept child homelessness, we start dealing with the issue differently, and I have major concerns from that point of view. We have a Taoiseach who forcibly defended his comments that things are not that bad while more than 3,000 children will spend Christmas in emergency accommodation, and he has been supported by the chair of the national Housing Agency in some of his views. We are not dealing with reality here but with propaganda, and that propaganda is having a very detrimental impact on people who are suffering. Children are worrying about things that children should not have to worry about. Children's best interests surely are served by considering their constitutional rights in a very real way, by challenging the Constitution if it does not allow for the flexibility to use compulsory purchase orders, for example, or limit the extent of the rents that can be charged. I am not specifically talking about the Bill now but I saw the Minister on one of the "Prime Time" programmes in the past week listing all the things he was doing just to stand still or go backwards.

The children's fairy tale about the emperor not having any clothes very much comes to mind because this needs to be called out at this stage. There is no viable solution under way. The numbers we are talking about are so tiny that they are not making an impact-----

-----and the situation is getting worse.

The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, must issue a public apology to homeless families, children and individuals. The Taoiseach's dishonesty is breathtaking, and he and his Government are homelessness deniers. He deliberately and dishonestly abused an OECD report to deny and downplay the housing and homelessness emergency. The OECD report specifically states that its findings must not be used for comparison purposes. The statistics are not and never were comparable from one country to another. Into the bargain, the statistics are two years old. The Taoiseach must be called out on this issue and must do the decent thing and issue an apology.

Fr. Peter McVerry said today, and I agree with him, that the only solution to this problem of homelessness is to build social housing at a very intensive rate. It is quite obvious that this House and this Government are all talk and very little action. The Government is obviously not doing enough and will continue to put its faith in the private market, which has been a disaster for families. What will the Government's coalition partner do about this issue? I refer to Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil's hands are dirty on this issue and they are getting dirtier with every day. It has a supply-and-confidence arrangement with the Government and is keeping it in power. Fianna Fáil has a responsibility to sort out the housing issue once and for all and ensure that the Government builds large-scale local authority housing.

I will support the Bill but the hypocrisy of the Labour Party on this issue is monumental. It was in government for five years and has made the housing and homelessness crisis worse. During those five years, it held the housing portfolio at Minister of State and senior ministerial level and made matters worse.

It is now obvious that major demonstrations of people power will be necessary to ensure that this issue is solved and that large-scale social and affordable housing is built. I also call on the trade union movement to call a one-day general strike on this issue to ensure it is treated with the seriousness it deserves.

The cynicism of the Tipperary Deputies knows no bounds.

I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on bringing forward this very important Bill. As Deputy O'Sullivan set out earlier, children have no rights to protection, safety or a roof over their heads except as dependants of their parents, even though the rights of the child have been written into the Constitution. There is also no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit. The vast majority of us in this House who have constituency offices and advice clinics will have met and dealt with too many families over the past few years who have found themselves in bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels or worse. This is a terrible time to be in an insecure tenancy. Homelessness can hit almost anyone who cannot afford the ever-increasing rents. Homelessness has evolved and is striking a broader section of society and, as is always the case in crises, children are suffering the most. In my constituency of Dublin Fingal, Fingal County Council works hard to ensure families remain together if they have to avail of emergency accommodation or short-term housing. However, this needs to be underpinned with legislation. Unless we do this, the passing of the children's rights referendum five years ago will have meant very little.

It seems like the most oft-quoted line in Irish politics over the past few years has been "We need to start building homes". However, why, when money is available, as it appears to be now, are homes not being built quickly enough? Has the Minister seen data for the delivery times for local authority housing projects which have gone through the Part 8 and Part 11 processes but have not progressed any further? We have projects in Fingal which have not yet been delivered, despite having been approved for over a year. I believe - it is the view of the Labour Party - that the local authorities are not adequately resourced to deliver housing projects. We know local authorities stripped out tradesmen, architects, quantity surveyors and other specialists over the Fianna Fáil years, as public housing delivery was left almost solely to the private sector. We need to get real on housing delivery. The market will not solve the housing crisis because the market is not interested in so doing. The market is motivated solely by self-interest and profit. The only actor invested in resolving the housing crisis should be the State, and the State is not doing enough. The answer is not just money.

It has to include a delivery plan and local authorities are the key to this.

Housing staff in local authorities are currently over-stretched. They are managing homeless figures, leases for long-term rentals, RAS, the HAP schemes, etc. All of these have an urgency to them which usually requires immediate action. If that action is not forthcoming, then leases will break or fall and another family will turn up at the homeless desk the following morning. These officials work long hours, as we have to acknowledge, to meet these immediate concerns and they are losing days, weeks and months in pushing the building and delivery of new housing stock because their workload is spread across a range of functions. The hands-off approach will not work any more. The Minister of State needs to direct the chief executives to build homes quicker and, as part of the bargain, he needs to resource them adequately to achieve this. They need officials who are solely dedicated to the delivery of new housing stock. Purchased stock from the private market is a useful short-term response by local authorities but it does nothing to increase supply. It will contribute to pricing other young families out of the market by gobbling up the short supply that currently exists.

Local authorities need to focus on delivery of new homes, built from the ground up, as they did in the past and were very good at in the past. The statistics on homelessness continue to horrify and disappoint in equal measure. With children sleeping in Garda stations, in cars, in tents and on the street, the changing nature of homelessness needs to be recognised in law. A Garda station may be a safe overnight location for an adult, but it is not an appropriate place for a child or a family. Our Bill would change that by requiring housing authorities to regard the best interests of the child as paramount and to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation. It will also ensure that there is a holistic response to support the needs of families in hotels and hubs with not just a roof over their heads, but also the wider requirement to support and encourage the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family setting. Homelessness charities, including Focus Ireland, have told us that it is important that the law is strengthened and changed to support families in crisis situations. Mike Allen has said there must be a clear statutory responsibility that no family sleeps rough. This Bill goes some way to achieving that and while it will not solve the housing and homelessness crisis, it would be a positive step along the way.

I thoroughly enjoy my work as a Deputy and public representative. I relish the challenge of finding solutions for my constituents in Dublin Fingal. However, the most frustrating aspect of all of that work relates to housing and homelessness in circumstances where I know that the only advice I can give to people who come to my clinic is to do exactly what I know that every one of them has been doing every minute of every waking hour of every day. This will continue until sufficient supply comes on stream, as the Minister of State knows. No stone can be left unturned until this is achieved. Our Bill will help to drive that imperative and I urge all parties and individuals, including those from Tipperary, to support it.

I will add a few comments to the debate. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has already addressed most of the issues. I compliment Deputy Jan O'Sullivan on bringing forward this Bill and I am glad that we are in a position to support it. I know that the Bill and the motives behind it are genuine. It is unfair that others engaged in roundhousing and used the occasion to try to give a kick to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, the Labour Party or others because they are trying to bring forward solutions and focus attention on families.

There are aspects of the Bill we want to change and work will have to be done to get it legally correct but the concept and the principles are right. It reflects the change in the situation of homelessness. Even in the good times at the height of the boom, approximately 4,000 individuals would have been homeless but they were not families. We now have a situation where 8,000 people are homeless and over 3,000 of them are children and families. A change in the nature of homelessness has happened in the past couple of years, which the Deputy is right to reflect in tonight's debate in what she is trying to bring forward in the Bill. I am glad we are able to work with the Deputy on that and that the Bill has the support of the House.

It is not the occasion for people to try to blame the Labour Party, Fine Gael or anybody else. They do not recognise that the situation is how this country was and, thanks to the great work of Deputies Howlin, Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny, as Taoiseach, the finances of this country were brought back to order and we were put in a position where we could try to address all the concerns we have with homelessness, emergency housing and the need for more housing. We are all politicians. If we had the money, we would have spent it four or five years ago. Deputy O'Sullivan was Minister of State at the Department of Housing and Planning and Minister for Education and Skills. Likewise, we would have spent more on education if we had the money too but, in the first chance, we have got over the past couple of years, towards the end of the term of the previous Government and the first year of this Government's term, we are allocating the money where it is needed. We we could not do that four years or five years ago, even if we had wanted to, because there was no money. There was no money in the private sector or the public sector. Thankfully, since the country has been restored to some order with the previous Government and this one, we have finances again and, on behalf of the taxpayer, we have committed in the region of €6 billion to solving this housing emergency across all the different categories, including social housing, people who are rough sleepers, homeless people in temporary accommodation, those in need of affordable houses, those in private sector housing and so on. We are intervening and trying to tackle the situation. We cannot do so overnight but the resources are present and I have no doubt, as I have repeatedly stated, that if we can stick to the plan, make changes - I have no problem doing that when people have good ideas - and spend the money, we will fix this. I wish we could do it yesterday but we cannot. We will intervene as quickly as we possibly can.

In the meantime, it means putting in extra money into services for those who are homeless and in emergency accommodation. In some cases, it means having to rely on private sector landlords, who have houses that they own throughout the country and that we use through the HAP scheme. We know it is not ideal. We would rather own them all ourselves but we do not. As we rebuild our housing stock, we have to depend on the HAP scheme or rental subsidy schemes.

Deputy Brendan Ryan asked about local authorities. They are central to fixing this. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, and I travel throughout the country with officials from our Department to meet local authority managers and housing officers - we did so as recently as yesterday - on a weekly basis. We engage with them through our Department, their council offices and on sites and have conversation. We tell them this money is real. It is taxpayers' money and it is there for local authorities to spend on driving forward housing solutions. We tell them that they are central to fixing this. They were prevented in the past by other parties that decided to restrict their abilities in this area and then, during bad times, we could not put them back up. However, now we are putting the capacity back into the system. The solutions to this will be led by local authorities. They are central to delivering the 33,000 or more houses that we want to build directly but they also have a role in working with approved housing bodies when it comes to leasing and buying houses, and in other areas. They are the drivers of this and they are up for it. We are giving them the extra personnel they need to try to do this and to strengthen their teams.

Likewise, we are strengthening the delivery system. The Minister attended the housing summit, at which all the housing managers, including the Tipperary housing manager and his team, were present in September. We engage with Tipperary a lot. Deputy Mattie McGrath never waits to listen to the answers but always scoots off afterwards since all he wants to do is make a show like many others around here. We engage on a regular basis and we are changing the structures of delivery. We made changes last year to the delivery system where we sat with all the housing officers. We will meet them again on 22 November to discuss the new delivery method that will be on a par with the private sector. It will be a system of which we can proud in the context of delivery. The day of waiting two, three or four years to get a site will be gone. We are putting in place a system that will match the industry norm. Our housing teams throughout the country are buying into that and putting a system in place. All of our jobs will be to drive it on. That also means our councillors doing their job too with Part VIII schemes and holding their executives to account. We all have a role to play here on a cross-party basis.

Tonight, I have heard many views to the effect that we are doing nothing and that nothing is happening. I tried to discuss that last night. The Taoiseach never said, as Deputy Catherine Murphy said tonight, that it is not that bad. That is fake news. That is not what the Taoiseach said. I did not say it either. None of us said it and none of us is trying to hide it. We publish the figures every couple of months. Over 8,000 people are homeless and no one is hiding that. The rough sleeper count is approximately 150 or 160. It could be less or more - the figure varies. We provide that information. No one is hiding this. We want to debate all the solutions. We accept criticism that we cannot do it quickly enough but please do not keep saying that we are doing nothing. That is the point I made last night because that is not fair on this country or on anybody looking in. It is not fair on all the people working night after night to provide solutions either in the short term, the long term or for emergency accommodation. Earlier today, after a committee meeting, I went to an event relating to the Irish Council for Social Housing community housing awards initiative. It had its awards a few weeks ago in Limerick and is launching the brochure today, reflecting the winners of that and putting across a number of class projects to prevent homelessness, help people who are homeless and older people, rejuvenate old buildings and bring them back into use, as well as a range of other initiatives. I visited some and they were excellent. They all say likewise. They are fed up that no one recognises their work and of all the commentary about nothing being done.

These people are out there. Some of them are in voluntary housing associations and some are in pooled housing bodies. Day in and day out they are working to bring forward projects that may have been started ten years ago but over the past few years, there was no money to finish them. Now they are being finished and they feel a bit hard done by that nobody mentions the work that is being done. Collectively, we all know that it will not be enough to solve the problem, and I cannot say that enough. The Taoiseach has said it is unacceptable. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has also said it, and I am saying it. We know it is not acceptable but there are solutions and we are working through them.

In some cases, the trends are coming right. It comes back to the supply of housing and thankfully the trends in that area are right. Planning permissions and commencement notices are up and we will be able to get our infrastructural funding on-side to open up sites that we believe are key. A lot is happening to bring forward the supply of housing. A lot is also happening to bring forward supply of social housing and next year we will see a commitment in local authority capacity to build the 3,800 units, which is double what it will be this year and double what it was last year. We are way back up from three or four years ago when we were building 75 houses. We are up to 3,800 houses next year. We know that 3,800 houses will not be enough when there are 7,000 or 8,000 people who are homeless, but it is where we are going. We are putting the capacity back in the system. The commitment is there to match what every Deputy in the House wants, which is to deliver 10,000 social houses per year. We are committed to doing this under Rebuilding Ireland and this is what we will achieve.

We have been in this space before. Local authorities were able to deliver that many homes, and way beyond that figure, years ago when they had the teams and the capacity to do it. They want to do it again. Through all the good work of the committee, individually as parties and as a Government, this House is putting the authorities back into that space. They will be able to be proud of their work, of the quality of design and of the cost effectiveness and good value of what they produce. They are ready for that and we will give them the resources to do it. We have to recognise that while there is some progress, one person who is homeless is one too many. No one is denying this but we have to be realistic because this will take time.

The chairman of the Housing Agency did not say it was "normal". He said that given the situation we have been in for the past number of years, we could expect some of it. He was not trying to normalise it or make excuses for it. He was trying to have a factual debate. If we are to work together to solve the housing problem, I ask Deputies at least to deal with facts and stop always throwing quotes around and making up information and spin around one's own line. There is no point in doing this as it does not get us anywhere. It does not serve all the people who work in this sector and it does not do them justice. They are out there every night of the week, bringing forward projects, and we must respond to that and work with it in the best way we possibly can.

Deputy Danny Healy Rae always asks reasonable questions but manages to be gone from the Chamber when I get the chance to answer them. There are opportunities to keep people in their homes, such as the mortgage-to-rent scheme, which has been revamped. It did not work the way we wanted in the past. When Deputy Jan O'Sullivan was the Minister of State, she tried to make it better. It is an improved scheme now and if a person has an unsustainable mortgage, he or she will have the option to deal with it through their local authority or approved housing body, remain in their home, pay rent and have the option to buy it back in the years to come if they need it. I ask that more people look at the scheme. We can fund the expansion of it as we have different ways of doing it now. The scheme could help thousands of people. There are also other schemes. Some contributors to the debate have said thousands of people are being put out of their houses every year. That is not the case. There are far too many, but the figures are not in the thousands. The threat, however, is over thousands of people who are afraid that it might happen. They need to engage with us through the different services such as the MABS Abhaile service, and other ways, so that we can find solutions.

We also buy vacant properties. At a meeting yesterday, I said that the Housing Agency is out there and has viewed 900 houses. It will buy some 500 or 600 of those over the year. There are also some vacant properties where situations are not sorted out between the bank and the original owner of the house. It would be easier for us if the original owner came forward to try to do a deal to sell the house because sometimes the banks cannot sell the house until there is an arrangement made with the original owner. We try to engage with all the different players and I ask them to come forward. I ask that Deputies liaise with their local councillors about the different schemes for vacant properties. These schemes could be the quickest win for us all. There are schemes that, for whatever reason, are not being utilised. We will tweak them and make them better but all Deputies are in a position to spread the word to find solutions.

People want to keep commenting on the situation and that is grand. In fairness, most of the Deputies who are in the Chamber now contribute solutions on a weekly basis. There are other Deputies, however, who hang around the back. They come into the Chamber, throw darts and then head off again. They do not really bring solutions and that is not helping the situation. If Deputies have solutions, we will take them, but we must also recognise what is happening in some cases.

I will respond to the debate on behalf of the Labour Party. I commend my colleague Deputy Jan O'Sullivan on introducing this legislation. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is right that our job here is to find solutions. That is why people send Deputies to the House. We have tried to find solutions and I welcome the support of every Deputy who spoke. One or two Deputies who begrudgingly supported the legislation instanced the Labour Party's own time in government, as if by design we set about cutting public expenditure and we went into government to be unpopular. We went into government in 2011 during the worst crisis in the history of the State. We went in with our eyes open, knowing that our job was to try, and without any certainty of success at that time, to restore the economic fortunes of a country that was in economic crisis. I remember being briefed by the troika in advance of going into government and I remember the individual briefings I received from the National Treasury Management Agency, the Department of Finance and so on. I do not want to rehash all of that but there is a fatuous ignorance in the argument that does not recognise how perilous the situation was. It also does not recognise what happened in other countries like Greece, which took a different path to Ireland. Greece remains in mortal economic peril and its social protections have been destroyed.

We can argue about individual issues but it cannot be argued that at the end of that period of government Ireland is not now in a much more favourable economic position where the State can actually make choices. In the second last budget that I had the privilege to introduce we said that the biggest social issue to be addressed was housing and homelessness. The first few bob I could expend was allocated to local authorities to enable them to build houses for people as they had done for decades and to get that going again. That was no easy task because the capacity of local authorities had been hollowed out. We had to allocate 450 scarce positions to allow the local authorities to rebuild their housing departments, which had been destroyed during the boom time when there was a complete dependence on the private sector to provide houses. It strikes me as very odd that we have not made more progress in that regard. That allocation of money was several years ago. Why is it taking so long? I am heartened to hear the Minister of State say that he, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and others are travelling the State. The housing officers in each local authority talk with us and I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy Murphy, about what they say. They tell us that the levels of sanction required, step by step, by local authorities is hampering their capacity to build houses. Can we not just stop that? Can we just give the local authorities the wherewithal through an allocation of funding and tell them to spend it and to be accountable for it at the end? Let us not have this absolute dead hand upon them.

I also spoke to the Minister about two other points regarding time and costs in planning. There are developers who want to build social affordable housing in my county. One developer told me that nobody was going for the fast-track planning. He said that he wanted to build 400 houses but he would have to apply for them through the local authority in groups of 99 because the fast-track process is slow track. This was some weeks ago. Nobody has got through the fast-track process. I ask the Minister of State to look into this. The costs involved in the fast-track process are more expensive because of the additional impositions that are put on builders. I also spoke with a smaller builder who wanted to build 27 houses in Wexford, which would be 27 very valuable houses. He has had full planning permission since last January but it was appealed by a third party and it took until September for An Bord Pleanála to make a decision on the appeal. An Bord Pleanála told him that it did not have the capacity to make quicker decisions.

These are things we can and should fix. I will not mention some of the comments made over the past number of days which others have referenced. The Minister of State is a quintessentially decent person, but it is unfortunate that there was a confluence of commentary which seemed to minimise what everybody agrees is the biggest social issue we have to overcome. If we are seen to somehow seek to make it normal or whatever the unfortunate phrase was, it is simply that - unfortunate. Let us put that behind us now and have a consensus in the House that the biggest social issue this Oireachtas has to resolve has two subsets, namely, the homelessness issue and the housing issue. We have the financial wherewithal to do it, but we must insist on it being done.

It is the Minister of State's job to say nice things about the local authorities, which, by and large, are good. However, they are not uniformly good. Some are better than others and some are not building the local authority houses they should be. I was pleased to hear the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party instance my own county as the most successful house builder this year, but we need to ensure that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government insists that a quota is set and the houses are built by each local authority. We heard Deputy Connolly talk about staffing. If there are individual issues, let us address them case by case in an open manner so that no one can hide behind an issue. These are fundamentally important issues.

I return in the last two and a half minutes I have to the Bill before us. Our job is to find solutions, as I said. We have proposed solutions to the House before. The last housing Bill Deputy Jan O'Sullivan produced in the House dealt with a number of things. We should be bold and revisit that. It is unfortunate that the Government decided not to support the Bill. Fianna Fáil did not support it either and it died. However, it had three important components. First was the implementation of the Kenny report after decades to control the price of building land. If we do not do that, we will head into another crisis. I have listened to learned legal opinion that this is a constitutional issue which would require a referendum. My view is a simple one. Let us do it and, if someone wants to take a constitutional challenge, off with them. We can then determine the matter. Can we just legislate for the Kenny report? I ask the Minister of State to do that.

Why not have uniform rent controls across the country until the supply side issue is addressed? The supply side issue must be addressed and it will be. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, who is just joining us, started the process himself in pulling together an all-party consensus. Until it is done, why not have a national strategy on rent controls which ties rent increases to the consumer price index as an interim measure until supply is normalised? That is not an unreasonable expectation or demand. The control of the price of building land and giving tenants certainty could stabilise problems that manifest themselves in terrible hardship until such time as we solve the problem. From the time I started talking about this in government, we have all known that everything we do in terms of schemes or plans are ancillary to the main objective of providing sufficient houses. That is done simply by requiring local authorities to do what they did for generations, namely, build more local authority houses.

Question put and agreed to.