Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019: Report and Final Stages

There are a number of amendments, some of which are grouped. Amendments Nos. 1, 3, 5 to 7, inclusive, and 11 are grouped and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 8, to delete line 11.

The issue of fees was discussed at length on Committee Stage, and I am pleased to bring these amendments forward to reflect the positive engagement we had. As was said on Committee Stage, registration fees for deemed approved housing bodies, AHBs, under section 35 was deleted, but I also undertook to bring forward an amendment to delete fees under section 28(2)(e), and that is proposed in amendment No. 7. If amendment No. 7 is accepted, fees may only be charged under section 27(3), which is on making a copy of an entry in the register that would be available on request and the payment of an appropriate fee, and under section 63(2), which is on the making of an appeal that can be accompanied by an appropriate fee as well. In this case, many of the provisions provided for in section 11 are redundant, so I am proposing under amendment No. 3 to delete the section and to account for the fees, where they should arise, in sections 27 and 63. Amendments Nos. 1, 5 ,6 and 11 are the necessary amendments to account for this. To recap with the Deputies who were present on Committee Stage, this is as was agreed.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 9, to delete line 34.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 13, to delete lines 33 to 39, and in page 14, to delete lines 1 to 39.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 8 are related and may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 26, between lines 20 and 21, to insert the following:

“(4) Where an AHB provides ‘special needs accommodation’ for tenants with additional needs beyond an inability to provide for their housing from their own resources, “special needs accommodation” shall be defined as accommodation provided to persons who by reason of old age, physical or mental disability or other cause require special accommodation and support to enable them to live in the community.”.

I will not delay the proceedings by repeating what we said on Committee Stage. I will not press amendment No. 4 but I tabled it because I want the Minister to look at it again between now and the Bill proceeding to the Seanad. In addition to outlining the other categories of housing such as social housing etc., there is a need for this section of the Bill to have a robust definition of special needs housing because it is one of the central factors of all approved housing bodies. While I am not pressing the amendment, it is there for the Minister and his officials to take a look at it and to consider if something similar could be inserted by the Minister when the Bill proceeds to the Seanad.

I assume the Deputy has seen amendment No. 8 from the Government. There is nothing wrong with the definition in and of itself. I have an issue with the definition's placement within this section and with whether it is the right place to put such a definition in terms of the different legislation we have on housing. Amendment No. 8 is offered to try to capture that, and perhaps the definition the Deputy is looking for might be better placed in another Bill. Amendment No. 8 was seen as a compromise between those two positions, noting that a big part of the remit of AHBs, depending on the AHB, is to make sure the different accommodation needs of the different categories of tenants are catered to without spelling it out as precisely as the Deputy does in his amendment. I am not against that definition. It is a good definition but this section or this Bill was not necessarily the place for it and that is why we have offered amendment No. 8.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 26, line 33, to delete “the appropriate fee” and substitute “such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Regulator”.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 27, line 2, after “applicant,” to insert “and”.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 27, to delete line 3.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 35, line 17, after “AHB” to insert the following:

“, including the types of dwellings provided or managed, or both, as the case may be, by each category of AHB to meet the different accommodation needs of different categories of tenants”.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 9:

In page 35, line 31, after “Minister” to insert the following:

“, following consultation with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government,”.

We discussed this on Committee Stage. Insofar as what the Deputy is considering with consultation, I know we discussed this happening with certain planning changes. That is when it comes with an exemption and it is something specific. It is one of a few cases where the obligation to consult is there. The point I was making on Committee Stage was that should the direction be made, I would be accountable to the committee to answer on that direction. However, we have to draw a line, where we can, between executive responsibility and the responsibility of the Houses, and therefore I cannot accept the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 10:

In page 51, line 31, to delete “(1) ‘dwelling’, ‘approved housing body’ and ‘Regulator’ ” and substitute “ ‘approved housing body’, ‘dwelling’ and ‘Regulator’ ”.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 11:

In page 59, line 19, to delete “the appropriate fee” and substitute “such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Regulator with the approval of the Minister”.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 62, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:

“Report of Minister

67. (1) The Minister shall, not later than 12 months after the coming into operation of this section, following consultation with the Regulator, AHBs and housing authorities, arrange for the preparation of a report relating to the transfer of dwellings provided by AHBs for the purpose specified in section 25(2)(b)(i) and any matters arising on such transfer, including legal and financial matters and matters relating to consultation, for the purposes of such transfer, with the Regulator, the Residential Tenancies Board and the AHBs, housing authorities and any third party concerned (including tenants of the dwellings to be transferred and any mortgagee or other person who is the owner of any security or charge affecting those dwellings).

(2) A copy of the report prepared under subsection (1) shall be laid by the Minister before each House of the Oireachtas.

(3) The Minister shall arrange for a report laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas in accordance with subsection (2) to be published on the internet as soon as practicable after a copy of the report is so laid.”.

This is a significant amendment from the Minister in that he will present a report to the Houses of the Oireachtas not later than 12 months after this section's coming into operation, following consultation with the new regulator, which is welcome, the approved housing bodies and the housing authorities. The Minister will also arrange for the preparation of a report on the transfer of dwellings provided by the approved housing bodies etc. The Acting Chairman will be aware we discussed the issue of the approved housing bodies and the housing policy at the Committee of Public Accounts earlier this year and we issued the report in July 2019, before the legislation on the regulator was published. We called for such a regulator to be established and we are happy we are here now with the legislation.

There were two main points in the report and I want to read out one relevant paragraph of it.

I ask that the Minister considers changing the amendment before the regulator is established. Paragraph B44 of the July report of the Committee of Public Accounts outlined four statutory agencies, separate from the regulator that will now come into being, with relevant oversight for various aspects of AHBs. The first is the local authorities, which provide funding to the AHBs to ensure they meet the criteria to receive State funds. The second is the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. Tenants in AHBs are entitled to tenancy rights, which are overseen by the RTB. The third is the Charities Regulator. All AHBs are charities, which requires them to meet certain criteria, including having a memorandum to provide social housing and a clause to prevent them from selling such property. The fourth is HIQA. AHBs involved in the provision of social housing for tenants with specific medical needs or disabilities come under HIQA to ensure that the property meets the needs of the tenant, which is probably what Deputy Ó Broin was referring to earlier in respect of special accommodation needs.

On the passing of the legislation, five State agencies will have oversight of AHBs, namely, the new regulator, the local authorities, the RTB, the Charities Regulator and HIQA, each of whose roles I have explained. In preparing the report proposed in the amendment, however, the Minister will consult only the regulator, the AHBs and the relevant local authority, but not the RTB. The review is for tenants but the organisation that looks after tenants will not be included in it. As for the Charities Regulator, such bodies would not be AHBs unless they were approved charities and, therefore, it should be involved. Above all, for people with special accommodation needs, whom Deputy Ó Broin mentioned, HIQA has a specific role in legislation to ensure that accommodation meets the requirements of the tenant.

The Minister has omitted three important groups that, along with the Department, the regulator, the AHBs and the local authorities, should be involved in the review, namely, HIQA, the Charities Regulator and the RTB. Will he respond to what I consider to be an omission in respect of the review?

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Stage as I have significant experience in the voluntary sector, both through my local AHB, Caisleán Nua voluntary housing association in Caisleán Nua, County Tipperary, of which I am vice chairman and was chairman for ten or 12 years, and through the proactive works the housing associations undertake throughout the country to provide housing for families, older people, people with disabilities and the homeless, as well as the wide range of other social and community activities. They do that work in many areas, as the Minister will be aware. In my involvement in the sector over the past 25 years, it has grown fourfold and now plays an important role in complementing the role of local authorities, although in some cases it shows them up. When we were building houses, we received little support from our local authority and in fact many obstacles were put in the way.

Although housing associations in the past have often been overlooked, they now play an essential role in the revitalisation and redevelopment of both urban and rural communities. The sheer volume of unpaid hours - I stress unpaid - that voluntary board members of housing associations undertake has to be acknowledged, whether the work is in sourcing land locally or developing and managing housing projects, as well as providing local social health services. It has saved the State millions of euro. More often than not, local bodies and voluntary groups can acquire sites and get the goodwill of the community behind them more than can county councils or whatever.

The sector will have provided close to 40,000 homes by the end of 2019. The work has been ongoing for more than 100 years, despite some dedicated housing regulations. The sector has been regulated by a range of statutory regulators and regulatory requirements over the years, as Deputy Fleming noted. I welcome the changes made since the Bill was published, which now reflects more accurately the activities of the sector. I welcome the proposal to delete section 11 on the registration of fees for AHBs, which was unnecessary and counterproductive for the development of the sector, especially given that the sector has been hit with costs for annual tenancy registration, local property tax and, in some cases in recent years, HIQA registration. There is only so much the sector can be asked to do before it will have a negative impact on delivery and I believe that impact has arrived-----

I have no willingness to interrupt the Deputy but we are speaking to the amendment.

I was speaking to the amendment.

The Deputy will have an opportunity to address the specifics of the Bill at a later point. I ask him to speak to the amendment, please.

I respect that, but there is only so much that volunteers can take and they have had it up to here. They are brilliant people. In the case of my local AHB, the board comprises voluntary lay people and not one professional. The AHB has delivered 17 houses, which is a large number. If every small voluntary group did likewise, many houses would be built. Nevertheless, many challenges have been placed before the AHB, some of which are unnecessary.

The provision for "any third party concerned" is the cover for what Deputy Fleming outlined. The regulator provided for in the amendment will be the primary regulator and will have memorandums of understanding, MOUs, with all the relevant bodies he mentioned. The amendment relates to the transfer of assets, which has happened only on occasion. We do not necessarily expect a review to happen but we consider it necessary to state what, after 12 months of establishment, would need to be done.

I agree with many of the points Deputy Mattie McGrath made in respect of the important role of volunteers in the housing body sector.

If the Minister is satisfied that the points I made are covered in the "third party" provision, I will accept his assurances.

Amendment agreed to.
Bill, as amended, received for final consideration and passed.