I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity today to present the Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019 to the House. This is a balanced and proportionate Bill, which provides for the regulation of approved housing bodies, AHBs, for the purposes of supporting stronger governance and the financial viability of that sector, with a particular focus on safeguarding the significant public investment being made in the delivery of social housing by AHBs. Similarly, the Bill will provide stronger assurance to tenants, the public and potential investors that the sector is well regulated.
As Deputies are aware, AHBs provide and manage social housing. They are independent, private, not-for-profit organisations, formed for the purpose of relieving housing need. AHBs provide housing in response to a range of different needs, including families on low incomes and households with special needs, older persons, people with disabilities and homeless persons. Under existing legislation, housing bodies are granted approved status by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 for the purpose of being able to receive funding from local authorities to provide social housing. This arrangement has been in place since 1992 and although operating well it is acknowledged that a more modern regulatory system needs to be put in place to oversee a sector which has developed significantly since then.
Ahead of the establishment of a statutory regulator, which is the aim of this Bill, an interim regulatory office for AHBs has been in place, based in the Housing Agency, since 2013. The interim regulation committee, supported by the regulation office, oversees implementation of a voluntary regulation code for AHBs. This existing framework will ensure that the statutory regulator, once established, can become fully operational much quicker than would otherwise be the case. Regulation is currently conducted through the voluntary regulation code, entitled Building for the Future: A Voluntary Regulation Code for Approved Housing Bodies in Ireland, and is underpinned by a financial, governance and performance standard. At present, 275 AHBs, including the larger tier three AHBs, have signed up to the voluntary code. My Department’s register indicates that there are currently 552 AHBs in existence. However, many of these are inactive and an exercise will be carried out to de-list inactive AHBs from the register. Preliminary work has already commenced in this regard.
As Deputies will be aware, the Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness recognises the key contribution that approved housing bodies make to the delivery of social housing. They are committed to delivering one third of the 50,000 new social housing units that are to be provided over the period of the plan through a blended delivery of build, acquisition and leasing. In 2018, the AHB sector was responsible for 38% of the delivery of social homes. The overall target for delivery of housing solutions in 2019 is up 7% on 2018. The target for delivery through build, acquisition and lease is up more than 20%, from 7,869 to 10,000. The target for new build homes has almost tripled from 2,260 in 2016 to 6,545 in 2019. Delivery has exceeded its targets in each year of Rebuilding Ireland to date and we remain on target for this year in terms of our social housing supports. Last week, I provided an update on Rebuilding Ireland and published the social housing construction status report, which demonstrates positive progress made in advancing national local authority and approved housing body new build construction projects.
It is misleading to suggest, as some in this House and commentators outside do, that AHB housing is not social housing. Some say it does not count and so exclude it when reporting on social housing delivery. That is wrong. Housing bodies have a proud history in the country, with bodies such as the lveagh Trust involved in providing social housing since before the foundation of the State. Housing bodies receive finance from the taxpayer and support people from our housing lists. They build on local authority land. As part of our new and more sustainable approach to social housing, delivery is not dependent on one single stream as it was in the past. Social housing is now delivered in a number of ways, protecting would-be tenants from any adverse shocks to the economy or the sector. These not-for-profit bodies complement but do not replace social housing delivery by local authorities, which are once again, thanks to decisions made by the Government, delivering the majority of new social homes. In particular areas, for example, housing for people with disabilities, housing bodies have the required experience and expertise in providing the most appropriate housing. I have big ambitions for the sector and I want it to continue to grow and to continue to provide the quality homes that it has for those most in need. I want to compliment the Irish Council for Social Housing, ICSH, and the Housing Alliance and all involved in what was a record year in 2018 for the delivery of new social homes. The AHB sector is playing a central role in contributing to the delivery of social housing under Rebuilding Ireland and I am committed to using all mechanisms and schemes to ensure that momentum towards meeting the ambitious 50,000 social housing target under the action plan is maintained. This Bill will support and strengthen that ambition by demonstrating to all that the sector is well regulated.
I will now move to the detail of the Bill, which contains 70 sections in nine Parts, together with one Schedule, and will outline the purpose of each Part and some of the key provisions.
Part 1, sections 1 to 6, contains standard legislative provisions in regard to matters such as construction, commencement, collective citation and interpretation and other technical matters.
Section 4 places a duty on the Minister to review the operation and effectiveness of the Act not later than five years after the establishment of the regulator.
Part 2, sections 7 to 25, provides for the establishment of the approved housing body regulatory authority - the regulator - and sets out the functions and organisational structure of the regulator, the appointment of a chief executive, staff, preparation of a strategy statement and other related matters. The functions of the regulator, as set out in section 9, are to establish and maintain a register of AHBs, to register persons as AHBs, to prepare draft standards for approval by the Minister under section 38 and publish the approved standards. They also are to monitor and assess compliance by AHBs with this Act, in particular the approved standards, to carry out investigations under Part 5; to cancel the registration of AHBs under Part 6; to encourage and facilitate the better governance, administration and management, including corporate governance and financial management, of AHBs by the provision of such information and advice, in such form and manner, as the regulator considers appropriate and with a view to promoting awareness and understanding of this Act, make available such information as appears to the regulator to be expedient to give to the public about the operation of this Act, in such form and manner, as the regulator considers appropriate; to collect such information concerning AHBs as the regulator considers necessary and appropriate for the purposes of the performance of the regulator’s functions, and; to publish such information, including statistical information, concerning AHBs as the regulator considers appropriate.
Section 15 is an important oversight provision, which provides that the chief executive shall appear before relevant Oireachtas committees when requested to do so.
Part 3, sections 26 to 38, provides for the regulation of approved housing bodies and includes sections on the registration procedures for AHBs and their entry onto the register, as well as the drafting and approval of standards. To be eligible to register as an AHB, the persons or bodies must be a company with at least five directors, a registered society, a friendly society or a charitable trust with at least five trustees. The persons or bodies must include in their constitution the provision or management in the State of housing for the purpose of alleviating housing need, as well as provisions prohibiting the distribution of any surplus, profit, bonus or dividend to members or directors or other persons and requiring that its assets and profits be applied solely towards its primary object.
Sections 27 and 28 provide that the regulator will establish and maintain a register of AHBs and set out where and when the register may be inspected, along with setting out procedures for those persons or bodies who wish to apply for registration and what should be included within the application.
Section 35 enables existing AHBs approved under section 6 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 to be deemed registered. A body deemed registered under this section must apply for registration within a statutory period as set out.
Section 37 gives the regulator the powers, where it is necessary for the purpose of performing its functions, to require an AHB to provide the regulator with information, records or other documents in such form and manner as the regulator may reasonably require.
Section 38 provides for the drafting and adoption of standards for registered AHBs. Draft standards will be prepared and may make different provisions for different categories of registered AHBs taking into account a number of factors, including the nature, scale and complexity of activities of each category of AHB. Prior to submitting the standards to the Minister for Planning, Housing and Local Government for approval, the regulator will publish and allow for a period of representations to be made regarding the proposed standards.
Part 4 provides the regulator with the powers to monitor compliance by AHBs with the standards. Arising from the assessment, if the regulator deems that the AHB is not complying with the standards, it may require the body to draw up and submit a compliance plan.
Part 5 provides the regulator with powers to appoint inspectors and undertake investigations into the affairs and performance of AHBs. This Part also sets out the powers of the inspectors and the mechanism for the production of inspectors' reports.
Part 6 allows for intervention powers to be afforded to the regulator in respect of assets of an AHB where an offence has been committed, an AHB has failed or is failing to comply with any provision of the Bill, there has been misconduct by a director, officer or member of staff or the financial viability of an AHB is threatened. This Part provides, if a deemed AHB refuses to apply for registration after the relevant time period has elapsed or if registration is refused or if any AHB's registration is in the process of being cancelled or is cancelled and the regulator considers it necessary for the protection of tenants of dwellings, that the regulator may, by notice, require the AHB to transfer such dwellings to another AHB.
Section 55 empowers the regulator to seek a High Court order if he or she suspects that an AHB has committed an offence under the Bill; an AHB is failing to comply with provisions under the Bill; an AHB is misusing or mismanaging property in such a way that endangers the property; there has been misconduct or mismanagement by a director or employee of an AHB in relation to its affairs; there has been unlawful or improper use of funds; there is a serious risk to the financial viability of the body; it is necessary for the purpose of the protection of the tenants of dwellings provided or managed by an AHB; or there is information indicating any of the above. In such circumstances, the court may issue an interim or permanent order.
Part 7 provides for an AHB to submit appeals to an appeals panel where the regulator exercises its powers in relation to registration, compliance plans or cancellation of registration. This Part also provides that the Minister shall establish an appeals panel to determine appeals under the Bill. It sets out the qualifications and number of members, terms of office, grounds for removal of members and disqualification for appointment and the provision of resources to support the work of the panel.
Part 8 prohibits the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information.
Part 9 provides for the consequential amendments to the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992, and the construction of certain references in other Acts or instruments made under other Acts.
I intend to bring forward a limited number of amendments as the Bill makes its way through the legislative process in the Houses of the Oireachtas. These amendments will be broadly technical in nature and relate to the substance of the Bill. For example, two of the proposed amendments will relate to the application for registration process. Currently, there are no specific provisions in the Bill for either the withdrawal of an application by an AHB, before the regulator makes a decision on the application, or for incomplete applications submitted.
This Bill, if enacted, will support stronger governance and financial viability of the very important AHB sector. It will safeguard the significant public investment being made in the delivery of social housing by AHBs and it will provide stronger assurance to tenants, the public and potential investors that the sector is well regulated.
I commend the Bill to the House.