I am sharing time with the Ministers of State, Deputies Peter Burke and Noonan.
In the 11 months since the first case of Covid-19 was recorded, our public services have been tested like never before. In this worst of times for so many, the best of public service and community spirit has come to the fore. The concept embodied in the Irish word "meitheal", daoine ag teacht le chéile chun obair a dhéanamh agus a gcuid fadhbanna a shárú or community co-operation in a time of social need, has been visibly lived across Ireland.
At the outset, I must acknowledge the sustained efforts and commitment shown by the staff of my Department since the start of this emergency. From the first day, the rapid redeployment of staff and a roll-out of ICT equipment have kept our essential services operating and allowed for full remote working. The Department's Covid-19 response plan consolidates national best practice with specific reference to our several work locations across the country. In addition, the Department assimilated almost 500 new staff following the transfer of heritage functions to it in September, leading to an almost 50% increase in the size of the Department. The vast majority of departmental staff are working from home, as is the Government's advice, but a minority is required to attend physically at work to deliver key supports in areas such as ICT and in Met Éireann to provide weather forecasts and warnings, services to aviation and flood forecasting. The park rangers and the staff in the National Parks and Wildlife Service are arguably busier than ever with people exploring their local areas within the 5 km limit, restrictions permitting. All State bodies have taken large leaps in providing services in virtual, online ways, and this will be one of long-term positive legacies of the Covid-19 experience.
In particular, I pay tribute to the members of the fire service throughout the country. As emergency responders, they are on the front line. I wish to mention especially the Dublin Fire Brigade paramedics, who are at the coalface of this pandemic. In addition, I pay tribute to all the staff in the 31 local authorities, many of whom are working in housing support and other crucial areas through the pandemic.
The shutdown of construction has been extended to 5 March. This nine-week shutdown will undoubtedly have a significant impact on housing delivery. I am working with the Department to assess this impact, but we will not be found wanting in exploring all options to make up any shortfall.
Regarding homelessness, we continue to protect the most vulnerable. That has been a key priority for me and my colleagues in the Department, especially those living in homelessness. The rapid and joined-up response by our homelessness services and their extraordinary commitment resulted in an unprecedented upscaling of services to keep users safe. To meet the challenges of social distancing, new facilities were rapidly opened. Shielding has been provided for those most at risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19 and additional accommodation has been put in place to allow for self-isolation. Thankfully, outbreaks of Covid-19 have remained low among the homeless population, a testament to the hard work of all those involved in co-operation between the homelessness services and our colleagues in the HSE and the Department of Health. The response of service users to the supports provided, as measured by the HSE's national Covid-19 service user experience survey which reported last November, has been broadly positive. The needs and challenges expressed by service users in the survey will be integrated into service planning and this will inform the provision of more integrated, person-centred services for anyone experiencing homelessness in Ireland.
My Department has provided approximately €12.5 million per quarter in additional Covid-19-related funding to support these efforts. I have also provided for the further costs that have arisen from the provision of 24-hour services in facilities, which were introduced to minimise the need for service users to travel. During this period we have made significant progress in tackling homelessness, although the situation is still challenging. The homeless figures for November show a decrease of 1,964 individuals or 18.8% on the total recorded in November 2019. Thankfully, there has been a 38.6% decrease in the number of families in emergency accommodation and a very welcome 72% reduction in the number of families accommodated in commercial hotels in the past year. We must do more, but more progress has been shown. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive recorded its highest number of tenancies created in a month last November, with 381 created in total. It is helping to prevent people from entering homelessness services as well as helping those who are engaged in them to exit successfully. The next quarterly report on homelessness will be published tomorrow, Friday, 29 January, and I expect to see a further reduction in the numbers of homeless individuals and families, which will be extremely welcome.
In budget 2021, we allocated €218 million for homelessness spending, an increase of 31% on budget 2020. With numbers falling we are moving towards long-term solutions, not just keeping our head above water. Rough sleepers are at the sharp end of homelessness and are among the most vulnerable individuals in society. Rough sleeping is a persistent issue and I have provided the resources to ensure there is a bed available for everyone who needs one. In addition, I have instructed all housing authorities that local connection criteria should not be a barrier to accessing services. I am keeping this under review to ensure it is adhered to. Enhanced outreach teams operate 18 hours per day, interacting with people on the street and encouraging them to take up offers of a bed or to return to accommodation they may already have. I thank and highly commend all the people in the outreach teams throughout the country, many of whom I have met. They have been magnificent through this pandemic.
While Covid-19 has posed huge challenges, there have also been opportunities. My Department, local authorities, the Department of Health, the HSE and NGO service providers have worked together and existing relationships have been strengthened. The strong collaboration that has developed must continue and should yield longer-term benefits. For example, it is essential that health supports are provided in tandem with housing support, particularly for the most vulnerable homeless individuals who are on the streets or at risk of rough sleeping. I meet and speak to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, regularly and can say with a great deal of confidence that this is something on which we agree and are making progress. I also regularly meet my homelessness task force. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic is to the forefront of our thoughts and we regularly assess what is and is not working, what measures we must put in place and how we can improve. This will continue long after we have seen the back of this pandemic.
On rental measures, tenants and landlords are experiencing economic difficulties as a result of the series of restrictions aimed at suppressing the spread of the virus.
In order to mitigate those impacts on the rental sector, a number of legislative changes have been implemented to better protect tenants.
At the outset of the first lockdown, emergency measures provided that tenants could not be forced to leave their rental accommodation. Those emergency laws ceased to have effect on 1 August. Thereafter, I introduced the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 to protect tenants facing rent arrears and at risk of losing their tenancies. Subject to the eligible person making a declaration, this will provide protection and the earliest termination date allowed is 13 April 2021. In addition, for relevant tenancies, rent increases are prohibited until 13 April 2021, with no backdating allowed. Some members of the Opposition voted against these protections but, thankfully, they had a change of heart, which I welcome, and recently voted for their extension. In October, I introduced new legislation that automatically linked a 5 km travel restriction on public health grounds to an eviction moratorium. That legislation is in place now and runs up to at least 15 March. Again, there was some initial opposition to these measures but a more balanced response from Members opposite has occurred since and I welcome that.
Shortly after taking office in July, I announced a €40 million allocation to bring 2,500 vacant social homes back into use. This has been absolutely successful, with 2,565 social homes refurbished and allocated to people on the social housing list. This is very much focused on those who are experiencing homelessness in order to get them permanent homes. Overall last year, 3,607 social homes were brought back into use. The voids programme remains a very important tool in our armoury and is particularly relevant and important in light of the current shutdown in construction. I ask people to recognise where progress has been made, though others have sought to criticise.
As part of the July stimulus response to Covid, the Government took a decision to expand the help-to-buy scheme, which has helped over 21,000 people buy and own their own permanent homes. Again, some Members opposite have opposed this €30,000 grant to first-time buyers but I and my colleagues in government firmly believe this is a good use of Exchequer funds, which can help people own their homes. That was implemented in the July stimulus.
As regards local authority mortgages, in recognition of the financial pressures some borrowers are facing I have just this week put in place the fourth consecutive mortgage repayment break for local authority loan recipients. This is a further step to alleviate the burden on struggling households. Thankfully, just 3% of local authority mortgage holders have availed of this option but it is good that it is there.
Planning remains open. We are working with the Attorney General and looking at measures that we may have to bring in to extend existing planning permissions due to the construction shutdown.
These are extraordinary days of challenge but we can draw solace in some of the words passed down to us from generation to generation, containing a deep and abiding truth. Anois agus muid i ndorchadas an gheimhridh, tagann dhá sheanfhocal chugam: "Ar scáth a chéile a mhairimid" agus "Ní neart go cur le chéile". The wisdom of these Irish proverbs reminds us that we all exist in each other's shadow and that strength comes from unity. This should guide us in the months ahead as, slowly but surely, we turn the tide on this pandemic and look to brighter days ahead.