I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
"Dáil Éireann, while acknowledging the spirit of the Housing (Adaptation Grant for People with a Disability) Bill 2021, resolves that the Bill be deemed to be read a second time this day 12 months to explore further the extent to which the underlying ambition of the Bill can be addressed in the context of a review of the operation of the relevant grant schemes, which is already underway, and to allow for further consideration of certain legal issues associated with the Bill.".
I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the Second Stage debate on the Housing (Adaptation Grant for People with a Disability) Bill 2021. The Government has tabled a reasoned amendment in response to the Bill, namely that the Bill be deferred for a period of 12 months to explore further the extent to which the underlying ambition of the Bill can be addressed, in the context of a review which is already under way on the operation of the relevant grant schemes and to allow for further consideration of certain legal issues associated with the Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is to introduce a requirement that local authorities adhere to a defined decision time when administering the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability. While not subscribing to every aspect of the Sinn Féin Bill, the Government will not be opposing it. In the time available, I would like to take the opportunity to outline some of the issues that require consideration and also, some of the actions that are under way to improve the quality and management of the grant application process.
Demand for the grants has been consistently high since they were introduced in 2007. There is a programme for Government commitment to increase funding and make the grants more accessible. The recently published Housing for All strategy commits to reviewing the grants available in the coming months, and this review has already begun. The housing options for our ageing population policy statement also emphasises the Department's commitment to streamlining the application process and ensuring that grants are more accessible to applicants.
This Second Stage debate provides us with time to consider the general principle of the Bill. I will outline to the Deputies some of the issues of concern to me and the Government. These are issues that will need careful reflection. The key provision in the Bill is that decisions on grant applications must be made by the local authority within four weeks. The motivation behind the Bill may be the longer waiting times that exist in some local authorities. The approach of legislating for a precise defined timeline on applications does not address the underlying causes of longer waiting times in some local authorities. The submission of incomplete applications can sometimes lead to delays, coupled with some local authorities requiring additional documentation. The requirement for planning permission for some applications is also a factor. The availability of occupational therapists, as well as construction tradespeople to provide estimates of cost, is also an issue in certain areas.
From a practical perspective, the Bill as presented may have unintended consequences. The grants already have a legislative base in the housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability regulations 2007. It is in these regulations that the operational arrangements are appropriately set out, not in separate primary legislation that may only serve to confuse the legislative landscape. The full scheme title as covered by the relevant regulations is the housing adaptation grant for older people and people with a disability. However, the Bill is entitled the Housing (Adaptation Grant for Older People with a Disability) Bill 2021. It is not clear, therefore, whether the Bill intends to cover all three grants available under the scheme or just the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability. If it is intended to only cover the latter grant, it may lead to a two-tier system where applications for the other schemes are processed differently.
The Bill proposes to place administrative guidance on a statutory footing. The purpose of administrative guidance is to provide clarity to the interpretation of the Act and statutory instruments. The administrative guidance itself has not been subject to the rigours of the legislative process and, as such, the proposed Bill, if enacted, may be constitutionally unsound. The Bill specifically references administrative guidance issued in 2014 that has since been updated as part of the ongoing streamlining of the grant application process and, therefore, does not reflect current practice.
Enactment of the Bill would mean an applicant would have to submit with his or her completed application a report from a construction professional such as an architect or building engineer to state that the dwelling is suitable for the proposed works. Currently, this function is normally carried out by local authority inspectors after an application is received. The Bill would mean the applicant would have to source and pay for this report before an application is submitted. We have to ask if that is the right approach to be taking. It is the view of the Government that this provision is contrary to the objective of reducing the quantity of documentation required at application stage and that consideration should be given to this issue before progressing the Bill.
We must also give consideration to the practical implications of legislating for the requirement for an occupational therapist's report. The Bill requires the applicant to submit an occupational therapist report with his or her application. I acknowledge that this approach is consistent with the practice of a number of local authorities where the applicant initially pays for the occupational therapist report and subsequently claims up to €250 back from the local authority. However, it would close down flexibility for other local authorities which engage a panel of occupational therapists to evaluate an application when received. The latter approach makes the application process easier on the applicant as the local authority handles the provision and payment of the occupational therapist. In addition, there are cases where the report of an occupational therapist is not necessary.
Last but not least of the issues I raise for consideration is the potential concerns that arise in respect of the proposal that two estimates of cost be submitted by the applicant, including proof of contractor's tax clearance. Following the comprehensive streamlining of the application process completed in early 2020, the Department recommended to local authorities that there should be no requirement for an estimate of cost to be submitted with a grant application. It is, however, open to an applicant to include an estimate of cost with the application. Only in exceptional cases will the local authority require an estimate of cost to assess the application. In the majority of cases, an estimate of cost and proof of contractor tax clearance should only be sought once the applicant has been approved for a grant and wishes to proceed with the works. The majority of local authorities are operating this policy and have advised that there is increasing difficulty in getting tradespeople to provide quotes. A return to the requirement for two estimates of cost alongside proof of contractor tax clearance would place an additional administrative burden on the applicant and untimely delay on the submission of the application.
Actions are under way to improve the quality and management of the grant application process. My Department has met with all 31 local authorities in the past six months to review the ongoing implementation of the streamlined application process and ensure a consistency of approach to the grants nationwide. Housing for All commits to undertaking a review of the range of housing grants available to assist with meeting specific housing needs both for our ageing population and for people with a disability. An initial element of the review has begun and is currently focused on the existing grant limits and income thresholds applicable to the grant schemes. The wider scope of the review, to be completed this year, is also currently under consideration and is being informed by ongoing engagement with external stakeholders including the Department of Health, the HSE, the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, and the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI.
In conclusion, the proposal in the Bill is a welcome contribution in addressing some of the issues affecting grant applicants and is deserving of careful consideration and analysis of the implications and impacts. Some of the issues I have outlined, particularly those that put additional requirements on applicants, are contrary to the objectives of the Department. Accordingly, I seek to have consideration of the Bill deferred for 12 months to allow for completion of the review process currently under way in the Department.