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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Housing (Adaptation Grant for People with a Disability) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "The the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of this Bill is to ensure that local authorities administrating the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability shall, as far as is practicable, process applications for the grant within a period of not more than four weeks from the date of receipt of the application. By application, I mean the date on which the application form and all relevant documentation is received by the local authority, which will include an occupational therapist's report recommending the work and the estimates of costs from certified contractors, in conjunction with required medical documentation. If necessary, which will depend on the nature of the proposed work, an architect or engineer's report should also be submitted. All information should be gathered by the applicant and submitted together so that it can be checked and improved within the shortest possible time. I propose that the time should be a period of four weeks. City or county councils should set out clearly all documents required so that applicants can gather them together and submit them at the one time. What is happening now is that application forms are submitted and people then have to submit other documentation. Things go to and fro and the process is taking forever.

We are bringing this Bill forward because we have been made aware that many people with disabilities and older people require adaptations to be made to their home as a result of mobility issues due to an accident, illness or age. They are often unable to live in their own homes until the required works are carried out. The work may involve a downstairs bedroom or bathroom, a level access shower, ramps to allow entry to a house for wheelchair users, grab rails, stairlifts, etc. With the addition of extra rooms or changes to the layout of a house, people can remain in their homes which is always the preferable option. However, because of the unacceptable waiting time for grants many people require an extended stay in hospital or have to relocate to a nursing home for a period of time which can be costly for the people affected and their families and, frequently, costs the State money. An additional stay in hospital is an extra cost to the State because hospital beds that other people are waiting on are taken up. Some 200,000 bed days were lost in 2018 due to delayed discharges. While all of them may not have been due to unsuitable accommodation, some certainly were.

As an aside, I am aware that the lack of contractors and increased cost of construction materials are having an adverse affect on this grant scheme. I hope that measures can be taken to address this and that the grant is increased to meet additional costs. Someone was recently approved for a grant of €30,000, the maximum grant, but the job will cost €48,000. There is no way the person can afford an additional €18,000. The person tried to secure a loan, but is not eligible. This is not what the Bill is about, but I am pointing out a problem that currently exists.

Many who have applied for the grant have been forced to wait months for approval. I am aware of one woman who was unable to use the bath in her house as a result of knee problems and had to wash herself at a sink or go to a relative's home for a shower. I know of another woman who is petrified of getting into the bath as she has an issue with balance and eyesight. She has already fallen and hit her head getting out of the bath. She requires a level access shower and has waited months for approval.

The Covid pandemic has undoubtedly increased waiting times, and this is unacceptable. It is having an unfair and disproportionate impact on older people and people with disabilities, and this needs to be addressed urgently. Many people are struggling on a day-to-day basis and something like a stairlift or level access shower could make a difference.

I am disappointed by the Government amendment which seeks to delay the Bill for a year. It is about reorganising an application process. It does not involve additional finance. It is about making an application process faster and more streamlined. By delaying this Bill, the Government is basically denying the rights of people with disabilities and older people to live in their homes with the necessary modifications that allow them to live independently.

As Deputy Tully has said, the Bill ensures that people with a disability and older people receive a timely decision on their applications for housing adaptation grants. As co-sponsor of the Bill, I would like to compliment Deputy Tully on all her hard work on this. If the Bill progresses, local authorities administering the housing adaptation grant for people with a disability shall, as far as is practicable, progress applications for the grant within a period of not more than four weeks from the date of receipt of the application. Deputy Tully has outlined all of the paperwork that needs to be handed in.

I say, "If the Bill progresses" because the Minister of State has proposed to delay it for a year. The reason for this is that the Minister of State knows the Bill is necessary and does not want to be seen to oppose it. Kicking the can down the road will prolong the agony for many families who desperately need a decision on their grant applications. I know of a number of cases in south Kildare where it has taken two years for a decision to be made. Let me be clear; I do not blame council staff or officials. They are being let down by the Government. They are struggling with poor staffing levels, delays in central funding allocation and under-investment.

Many people require adaptations to be made to their homes as a result of a disability that has existed from birth or which has been acquired through an accident or illness. The grant helps to make changes and adaptations to a person's home. For example, it can make a home wheelchair accessible, extend it to create more space or add a ground floor bathroom, toilet or even a simple thing like a stairlift. That can have a huge impact on the quality of life these people deserve. However, people are often unable to live in their homes until the required works are carried out. This can regularly require an extended stay in hospital or having to relocate to a nursing home for a period of time. As Deputy Tully said, this can be costly to the person concerned, their families and the State. This takes up badly needed bed spaces in hospitals due to delayed discharges. We are very aware how valuable a hospital bed currently is, and if we are not there is something wrong and we damn well should be.

Many people who have made an application for this grant have been forced to wait months for approval. This Bill will, I hope, change this and I urge the House to support it.

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.

I thank my colleagues, Deputies Tully and Patricia Ryan, for introducing the Bill and, in so doing, highlighting probably one of the most unfair elements of the very long waiting times experienced by many people in accessing services in local authorities. Unfortunately, due not only due to Covid but also to the fact that local authorities still have not recovered to their full pre-2008 staffing levels, it is common for people to have to wait unnecessary lengths of time. For example, the current waiting time in most local authorities for a housing needs assessment is in excess of 12 weeks, while for a housing assistance payment, HAP, application it can be in excess of 15 weeks. Those are just two examples.

This particular issue deserves special mention, however, because while in all cases we should try to increase the efficiency of local authorities and reduce the waiting time, in this case we are talking about a specific and vulnerable group of people. In many cases, these are people who are not able to adequately live in the homes in which they find themselves as a result of age, an accident-related disability or another disability. The Minister of State must have constituency clinics like ours. He must have direct experience of older people, people with disabilities and people struggling with workplace or transport accidents who have to undergo the indignity of, in some cases, waiting six to 12 months for a decision. We have not even started talking about the time it takes to get the grant drawn down after a decision is issued.

In fairness to my colleagues, they have not tried to come in here and deal with the overall complexities of the adaptation grant schemes but, rather, simply to appeal to the Government to do one small thing. Sometimes it is the small things that make a world of difference in people's lives. I do not want to use the word "honest" because I have a lot of time for the Minister of State and I know he takes his responsibilities seriously. However, he has come into this House and said he has some sympathy with the legislation but, rather than dealing with the various technical issues he has outlined on Committee Stage by way of amendment and through reasoned dialogue with the sponsors of the Bill, he is simply kicking it into touch for a year, and we know what that mechanism is for. I appreciate that he is both a junior Minister and a member of the junior partner in government and he often gets the rough end of the stick when it comes to these types of sittings where he has to deliver a message with which, I suspect, deep down, he has a little discomfort. However, it cannot be beyond his ability and that of his officials to accept the Bill, flaws and all, and then go to the relevant committee with the sponsoring Deputies and the rest of us on that committee to work out some mechanism to ensure nobody has to wait six or 12 months for an adaptation grant application.

I have often said in respect of legislation that I have drafted and brought before the House that we do not have the advantage of civil servants with great experience, of legal advisers and of the Office of the Attorney General and our ability, therefore, to craft technically perfect or sophisticated legislation is often challenging. At the very least one would expect the Government to say this is such a reasonable proposition and to ask who could be against the idea of having a time limit within which this very specific category of people would have applications processed speedily. If the specific proposition, location and wording is not technically the best way to do this, my colleagues here are eminently reasonable people - I may not be as reasonable as them on all occasions - and would be more than happy to engage with the Minister of State on Committee Stage to work out how to do that. That could be through enabling legislation to change the regulations. Our problem, of course, is that we do not get to lay secondary legislation before the House, so this is our only option.

As the decision has been made and as the Minister of State has the votes on his side of the House, this legislation and the very important recommendation underpinning it will be thrown on the scrapheap along with all of those other pieces of legislation that have been deferred for 12 months or more. I urge the Minister of State, however, in the context of his responsibilities within the Department and his engagement with his officials and the senior Minister, to come back to us as quickly as he can not only with a mechanism to speed up the decision-making process but to speed up the entire process to make it much more user-friendly and accessible.

The inconsistencies mentioned by the Minister of State are very interesting because in the South Dublin County Council area, where I am a Deputy, it used to be the case that the local authority would source occupational therapists from the HSE. Due to the changing of the HSE staffing arrangements, for many years if one lived south of the Naas Road the HSE would provide one’s occupational therapist’s report. The good people of my constituency, however, had to pay the €100, €200 or €300 for their reports and if they were tenants of the local authority, that money would not be reimbursed. That reimbursement is only for private homeowners. In some senses, the kinds of inconsistencies this Bill is trying to deal with would be much more beneficial than a situation where, depending on the postcode lottery, one would get supports and occupational therapists reports in one geographical location and not in another.

To conclude, deep down I believe the Minister of State fully supports the principle of this Bill. Perhaps not in weeks and not in primary legislation, but we would ask for a very speedy decision at this initial stage. I ask him to use the influence he has to take on board the sincerity of the proposals in this legislation and to urge his colleagues in government and in the Department to come back with a resolution to this as quickly as is possible. He will find on our side of the House a willingness to deal with whatever legislative measure is proposed, whether it is a statutory instrument or primary legislation, to ensure that no person who is in excruciating pain and who cannot use their bathroom or sink or who do not have a quality of life that we would all hope our parents, brothers and sisters to have, can have the assurance that the application process, at the very least, does not take from six to 12 months and that it happens in a speedy, timely and eminently fair manner. I thank the Acting Chairman.

I wholeheartedly want to reassure the Deputies and the House about this Bill. As I know from my constituency, our common objective here is to help these people who are in extreme pain. This is a very good grant scheme. I will outline further in my closing comments that the streamlining of the application process will deal with many of the issues the Deputy referred to.

As I said, the Bill itself might have unintended consequences. From that point of view, I ask the Deputy to accept our bona fides, in that we are trying to achieve a much more streamlined and efficient process, much of which has been in place and is in train in recent years in any event, to ensure applicants can have their claims processed in a timely manner and in as efficient a way as possible. I accept wholeheartedly the thrust behind the Bill and its importance.

As I said earlier, we are not opposing this Bill but rather seeking to defer further consideration while we complete the ongoing review. While we support the objective of a timely decision on applications, some provisions need further consideration to ensure ease of access for applicants to the scheme.

This Bill seeks to address an administrative issue through the use of primary legislation. The current legislative base under the Housing Acts, and the 2007 regulations made under those Acts, already provide for the implementation of the measures called for within the provisions of the Bill.

Further, on a practical level, it is unclear what real effect the additional documentary requirements proposed in the Bill would have in terms of processing times for the application process. They run the risk of placing some additional burdens on applicants. Our concern is that the flexibility exercised currently by local authorities could be reduced by some of the provisions contained in this Bill. The Bill would potentially outsource the inspection of properties to privately recruited engineers, with the applicants themselves having to source and pay for this service. This work is already being done effectively by local authority technical staff. A personal visit by a local authority inspector to an applicant is very valuable in delivering a quality service to the people who need it.

Placing the responsibility for this work on the applicant would also result in either the applicant having to be recompensed or to bear the cost themselves. The Bill could also close down the flexibility for local authorities which already have a panel of occupational therapists, OTs, available to evaluate applications once received. This arrangement often provides the local authority with a reliable report on the needs of the applicant, and coupled with the input of the local authority technical staff, helps ensure the funding is safeguarded for those most in need.

The Bill also proposes to place an outdated version of administrative guidance on a statutory footing, which would result in a possible legal issue while also undoing the progress achieved in streamlining the application process over the past number of years.

Colleagues in the House know that local authorities strive in every way to get the right services to the people who need them. We all know of cases where people with a disability, or the elderly, apply under the scheme and where the local authority goes the extra mile, often prompted by their technical resource who has actually visited the home. I do not think any of us in this House want to lose those particular advantages and the impartiality of that.

I fully accept that consistency of approach is a critical issue in the administration of these grants and this is being pursued through the implementation of Housing for All, which commits to review the range of grants currently available to older people and people with disabilities. The Government is focused on taking concrete action to deal with certain inconsistencies which exist in the grant application process and the administration of the scheme nationwide.

The majority of local authorities have adapted their approach in recent years as part of the streamlined application process to ensure the available resources are targeted at those in most need, including prioritisation on the grounds of medical and financial needs. My Department seeks to bring together this experience that has been built up over the years since the scheme was introduced to ensure this shared knowledge is further developed across all 31 local authorities.

I am very conscious of the social benefit accruing from the scheme, particularly facilitating people to remain living independently in their own homes. Very significant progress has been made on increasing the reach of this valuable grant scheme. More than 110,000 households have benefitted from this scheme since its inception and the best way to ensure the State fully meets its obligations to those who need assistance is through improved delivery and the development and implementation of improved policies and measures where required.

Notwithstanding the improvements to the processes that are involved with these grants, I think Deputies will agree how critical the increased funding that has been made available for the scheme in recent years has been. The level of funding has increased year-on-year since 2014, from €43 million in 2013 to just over €81 million allocated in 2022.

The review initiated under Housing for All is a significant process that will improve the operation of the grants and will achieve better application and processing arrangements, without losing the flexibilities that are currently working well for both the local authorities and for people who avail of the grants. Accordingly, the Government proposes the reasoned amendment in response to this Bill seeking that it is deferred for a period of 12 months to explore further the extent to which the underlying ambition of the Bill can be addressed through the review already under way and to allow for further consideration of certain legal issues associated with the Bill. I assure Deputies that we will keep them informed of the progression of the streamlining process.

I thank the Minister of State and my colleagues, Deputies Ó Broin and Ryan, for their support and for staying back on a Thursday evening when we are on the eve of a recess.

To explain again, the whole basis for this Bill is to help people all over the country to live comfortably within their own homes because they are unable to do so, sometimes for months and sometimes for longer, as they need adaptations done to their houses or they need mobility aids put in.

The application process takes far too long. I am just looking for a way to streamline and to standardise the process across local authorities. We must be conscious we have an ageing population, so the demand for this grant will probably increase as we go along. Many disabled people say it does not matter how old they are and that they still have their disabilities and are still disabled people. Regardless of age, if somebody has a disability or a mobility issue, he or she may need to apply for this grant. I had hoped to do something to speed up the application of the grant in order that more people could live in their homes. I am conscious Ireland has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. We need to implement it. That would play such an important role because it would allow so many disabled people to live in their own homes, in our community. That is the basis of the UNCRPD, so it has a huge part to play. It is very important that is addressed.

The Minister of State mentioned issues with occupational therapists, OTs, and so on. I have come across several people to whom the local authority sent out an OT who was not familiar with the person or his or her needs. Oftentimes the OT with whom that person is already engaging is much better able to advise as to what his or her needs are and to prepare a report. Perhaps that could be considered. The local authority employs an OT or team of OTs, but they do not always know the people. By coming out for one visit to assess a property, they will not always get their recommendations right.

I thank the Minister of State. I will hand over to my colleague.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I will not say to him I am over the moon. I am anything but over the moon. I am very disappointed. As Deputy Tully has said, our population is ageing. As Sinn Féin spokesperson for older people, I deal with older people every day. These are people who may not be able to get up a flight of stairs, to get to a bathroom or to get outside their doors because they do not have ramps or handrails. Sometimes the simplest of things would make life better.

I take on board what the Minister of State says about bringing the Bill back in 12 months. I beg him to look at it, to bring it back sooner than that and to do something constructive with it. It is highly necessary we do not have people lying on their sitting room couches, or on beds in their sitting rooms, with no access to a sitting room proper because it has become a bedroom. People come to the door of my constituency office every day, and Deputy Ó Broin said to the Minister of State that we all probably have the same kinds of people coming to our offices. I have no doubt the Minister of State is a good person, but good people do not solve problems unless they start shouting for the needs of these people. I do not want to come in here shouting and screaming about what we need. I think the Minister of State is well aware of what we need. In south Kildare, which I represent, he is more than aware of what we need. The local authorities in County Kildare have been doing the very best they can to help me in my constituency. Unfortunately, they are not given the funds or the resources.

I know I am going off topic but Deputy Ó Broin spoke about the housing assistance payment, HAP, and referred to waiting lists of maybe 15 weeks. It is 16 weeks in Kildare. I meet people inundated with such issues.

I plead with the Minister of State to have some consideration and to do what he can to bring the Bill forward. I thank him for his time.

Amendment put.

Beidh an vóta air seo nuair a fhillfimid tar éis shos na Cásca, pé am a bheidh leagtha síos ansin dó.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 7.15 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 26 Aibreán 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 7.15 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 26 April 2022.