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Joint Committee on Disability Matters debate -
Tuesday, 30 Mar 2021

Housing Policy and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

We will get straight to business because our time is limited and we would like to get everybody in. The Minister of State with responsibility for planning and local government, Deputy Peter Burke, and officials from his Department are with us. I thank him for joining us. He may call on these officials to speak briefly to clarify points. I am aware of the wide range of issues that will form the subject of today's discussion. If necessary, further and more detailed information on certain issues that are raised or questions that arise may be sent to the clerk to the committee for circulation afterwards.

Members are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the precincts of the Leinster House complex. In that regard, I ask all members to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus prior to making their contributions. For the information of anybody watching online, Oireachtas Members and witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely. Only the Chairman and the necessary support staff who are essential to the running of the meeting are physically present here in the Seanad Chamber. Due to the unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting, I ask everybody to bear with us should any technical issues arise.

With regard to privilege, witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Witnesses giving evidence from a location outside of the parliamentary precincts should note that the constitutional protection afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, the evidence given is covered by absolute privilege. Persons giving evidence from other jurisdictions should also be mindful of their domestic statutory regime, although that does not apply in this case.

I call on Minister of State to give his opening statement.

I thank the committee for inviting myself and officials from my Department and the Housing Agency here to discuss the very important subject of housing for people with disabilities. I am joined today by Paul Benson, principal officer in my Department, and by representatives of the Housing Agency, John O’Connor, chief executive officer, and Claire Feeney, senior executive officer.

I will make a brief opening statement and we then look forward to answering questions from the committee. We also welcome the insights of the committee into these important matters. This is a very timely meeting as we embark on a new overarching housing strategy, Housing for All, and a review of the National Housing Strategy for People with a Disability 2011-2016.

Housing is a top priority for this Government and the approach set out in the Housing for All strategy and the programme for Government is clear. The Government is working towards a housing system that caters for all our people. In this regard, the programme includes a commitment to ensure that an appropriate mix of housing design types is provided for older people and people with disabilities, which is obviously very important.

Since taking office, the ministerial team in the Department has set about this work with our officials, other Departments, local authorities, delivery partners and key stakeholders. My Department has also been reorganised with a new division established at the start of the year which focuses on housing inclusion, homelessness and affordability.

The record €3.3 billion housing budget for 2021 is a clear signal of the Government’s intent to deliver on the programme for Government, and it is only the very beginning. This investment will provide further impetus to important schemes targeted at housing for persons with a disability such as capital funding for social housing to local authorities, funding to approved housing bodies including funding through the capital assistance scheme, and the housing adaptation and disabled persons grant schemes.

Three major strategies were published in 2011: the National Housing Strategy for People with a Disability 2011-2016, the national implementation framework for the National Housing Strategy for People with a Disability 2011-2016, and Time to Move on from Congregated Settings – A Strategy for Community Inclusion. In conjunction with the Department of Health, the HSE and other stakeholders, my Department has been working hard to implement these strategies.

The vision of the National Housing Strategy for People with a Disability 2011-2016 is “To facilitate access, for people with disabilities, to the appropriate range of housing and related support services, delivered in an integrated and sustainable manner, which promotes equality of opportunity, individual choice and independent living.” The strategy uses the term “disability” in reference to four categories of disability aligned with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD: sensory disability, mental health disability, physical disability and intellectual disability.

The strategy is a joint initiative with the Department of Health and its aims are aligned with the UN convention. A key output of the strategy has been the establishment of a housing and disability steering group in each local authority and preparation of a strategic plan for the delivery of housing for people with a disability in every single local authority area. This is supported by a national housing sub-group made up of representatives of my Department, the Department of Health, the HSE, the National Disability Authority, NDA, and other stakeholder organisations. This group meets regularly to co-ordinate relevant actions on a national basis with executive support from the Housing Agency.

The overall national housing output requirement in the coming years coming years is estimated at 33,000 new homes per annum, including social, affordable and private homes. All delivery channels and mechanisms will be needed to achieve these targets. We are planning for delivery of these homes in the new housing strategy - Housing for All - and the needs of people with a disability will be factored into this process at national and local level.

With regard to social housing, the programme for Government commits to increasing the social housing stock by 50,000 units over the next five years, most of which will comprise new builds. The level of allocations for social housing to people with disabilities has increased significantly over the past ten years, with more than 10% of all allocations being made to people with disabilities.

The work on the strategy will also include an examination of adaptation, conversion and refurbishment programmes and grants for existing stock. For example, the housing adaptation grants schemes have assisted 115,000 households to stay living in their homes since 2008. This is very much in keeping with the objectives of the UNCRPD.

Regarding the building regulations, part M, access and use of the building regulations aims, to foster an inclusive approach to the design and construction of the built environment. While the part M requirements may be regarded as a statutory minimum level of provision, the accompanying technical guidance encourages building owners and designers to have regard to the design philosophy of universal design and to consider making additional provisions, where practicable and appropriate.

As members will note, there is clear alignment between the objectives and approach of housing policy for people with a disability and the UNCRPD. This can be bolstered further as we develop the two housing strategies mentioned. I have outlined in appendix 5 key achievements in this area to date. We can provide the committee with more detailed briefing on areas they may find of interest following today’s session. We look forward to the discussion.

Without further ado, I call Senator McGreehan who has six minutes, three minutes for questions and three minutes for answers.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. It is refreshing to hear his conscious positive bias towards people with disabilities and the provision of housing for people with disabilities. He knows there have been many difficulties in getting adequate housing for people with disabilities over the years. I wish to raise one issue that was brought to my attention recently. It concerns a girl in long-term local authority housing in the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Her rent allowance is €29 a week but her rent is €73 and she also has housekeeping costs. This girl has fallen into poverty because of the caste system. There is great inflexibility. I have been working with different Department on this case. One Department says it is the responsibility of another Department and that Department say it is the responsibility of the other one. Given the inflexibility of the means test for RAS, how can we justify giving a person in receipt of a disability allowance a means test, allowing her rent allowance of €29 a week but charging her €73 for rent and €80 for housekeeping, which puts her into poverty and means she will never be in any way independent? It is a specific question. I believe in the philosophy of universal design and I am sure that will be well covered in today’s discussion. However, I would appreciate if the Department could examine the specific issue I raised. I have been coming up against a brick wall trying to deal with it. That girl has been means tested but she has no means. If she was able bodied, she would be in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and would get much more assistance. That is my question.

I thank the Senator for being timely in raising her issue. Does the Minister of State wish to respond?

I thank the Senator for her question. She made a very valid point. The explicit aim of what we are doing is to ensure everyone has a housing solution. Currently, a review process is ongoing in the Department of the means test for the income eligibility criteria. In connection with that assessment, we will examine what potential income disregards can be expanded. The Senator rightly pointed out that a person in receipt of disability allowance is among the most vulnerable in society who has to shoulder a certain burden. The key issue is that we have to examine this in the context of the other supports. The Minister, Deputy O’Brien, is currently reviewing other housing supports. Other actors of the State are coming into the process such as the Land Development Agency, LDA, which will bring in more units and in that context we need to examine the income eligibility criteria. That review is currently in the final stages and, hopefully, we will have more news on how we can expand that means tested area. I accept this review that been ongoing for a long time. We are very conscious of that. The Minister is on record also as saying he wants to bring this to a conclusion very quickly.

The next speaker is Deputy Emer Higgins.

I thank the Minister of State for comprehensively outlining all the work being done in this area. We as a committee are pleased we have identified him as the person responsible for overseeing this important area. There was some confusion in previous meetings. Therefore, it is great we know that he and his Department are responsible for this area. He has a given us a impressive overview of the work that is going on.

We learned something at our previous meeting, which came as no surprise to any of us. We learned from the representatives of Disabled Women Ireland that they feel that people with disabilities who want choice, whether to live independently or with their partners, families or friends, are not given that level of choice because the facilities or the infrastructure are not in place to enable that to happen. Does the Minister of State intend to review the national housing strategy for people with disabilities and, if so, when would that happen? He is doing a great deal of work on a consultation process. We are all wondering how the voices and experiences of people with disabilities are being included in the discussions and the plans for housing for all. Making housing available for disabled people is not enough. We need to start by pre-empting that houses are being built in this way. Some of the submissions I have read suggest that 7% of all social housing should be wheelchair accessible. Is the Department considering key recommendations like that and how it can adapt - forgive the pun - Government policy to ensure it is flexible and fully accessible to all?

I thank the Deputy for those questions. The sound and the connection dropped in the middle of her contribution for a few moments but I hope I got the gist of what she said and, if not, she can ask me a second question. One of the key recommendations in the national disability strategy was to have a steering group in each of the 31 local authorities. They are aware of the demand in each local authority and they are also the planning authorities for the way housing will be delivered into the future in their areas of jurisdiction. Each separate committee is led by a director of services and has members from the HSE, the local authority and various different groups. One change we are bringing about is to ensure the voice of lived experience is brought on to that committee from people with disabilities. That will greatly assist matters. They will assist in meeting the policy and targets within the council. The committees meet quarterly. The have many meetings with the Housing Agency to ensure the programme in terms of the national strategy is being implemented correctly and that process is ongoing.

In terms of providing different solutions, choice and independent living are key to the overall strategy. We are trying our very best to deliver that. Since 2016, we have seen almost a 300% increase in cast-building construction units. That is a colossal increase in a five-year period. Our grants have also increased by more than 100% in the year prior to Covid and 64% last year because of Covid. We are trying to give people independence and choice. The Deputy made valid points on the building regulations. A major study by the Churchill Fellowship outlined Ireland as a leader and the path to follow in getting to have universal design, bringing people along with it and encouraging that to happen. As I pointed out in my opening statement, we can note from the building regulations how much we have improved on issue, be it for commercial buildings or apartments having a disability certificate and ensuring compliance for visitors and those who use commercial buildings.

I acknowledge we have a significant volume of work to do in bringing the universal design side together. We have to do that with the advocacy groups and, I hope, in the new strategy as we try to develop it over the months ahead.

I thank the Minister of State for his statement. I acknowledge the pressure that the Department is under owing to the housing crisis but, as we know, the crisis comes down to Government policy, funding, schemes and the political will to address the issues. What seems to be forgotten about is that there are genuine issues regarding equality in housing policy because of the already-dire housing situation. It worries me that the housing crisis might be used as an excuse to deprioritise equality issues, especially when it comes to ensuring the rights of disabled people to access appropriate supports according to their housing needs and independent living. An example from my own constituency concerns a person who recently became disabled and who, as a current tenant of local authority housing, applied to have adaptations made by the council. The council stated the works could not be done on the property, despite the fact that the individual had received a quote privately and advice to the effect that the works could be done. The council then offered a transfer to a house that was considered suitable to meet the needs of the tenant but it completely disregarded the fact that the location was miles away from the tenant's support system, local shops and services and that the tenant would not be able to get around. The tenant was basically told that this was the best that could be offered at the time. There has to be more flexibility when these circumstances arise. I am aware that this is a specific case and I have taken it up with the local authority, but the housing strategy for people with disabilities must provide flexibility regarding the range of requirements for independent living. There must be a way to ensure that councils adhere to the policy even when resources are scarce.

I have a few points and questions. Why is the national housing strategy document on housing people with disabilities a document covering the period 2011 to 2016? I note that the plan was extended for this year but it seems like there is poor management of strategy documents that have been reviewed and refreshed. It makes me wonder how disability matters are prioritised in the overall housing strategy. Clare County Council confirmed to me yesterday that it only recently received the draft template for local authorities for the new strategy. It is to be completed by May 2021. Is there a reason this is at the last minute? Very late notice has been given for such important work.

I have a question on independent living. Submissions to the committee highlight a severe gap in housing and support service provision between the HSE and local authorities. People with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, are being left on social housing lists because they require allocations of funding, supported living or social care supports. Can the Minister of State elaborate on the process and the barriers to the provision of social housing to people with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities, who require a social care support? How will housing for people with disabilities be considered within the general national housing activities and how are local authorities and the HSE ensuring effective interagency co-operation to meet the needs of the group concerned?

I thank the Deputy. I assure her that the Government is determined to tackle and resolve the housing crisis, as shown by the budget of €3.3 billion, a record budget, in the Department. We have a huge hill to climb, however. The reality, as seen from the new housing needs and demands assessment, is that there is a requirement for 33,000 units per annum. I am very conscious that no construction is going on in this country. Therefore, there is a huge gap for the Government to fill. We are willing, ready and able to fill it. As a result of the new builds the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is arranging, through the LDA and the affordable housing legislation, the Deputy will see housing unlocked and people getting the opportunity to own their own home.

In a moment, I might ask Ms Feeney to add to the points in the strategy. The strategy was extended under Rebuilding Ireland and it is not being delayed. We want to go through a very robust consultation process this year to ensure we bring in all the stakeholders concerned. I am aware that we are dealing with very vulnerable people and we need to ensure they have an opportunity to have a say on the policy that will shape their lives and housing options in the future. We need a strong strategy to go forward with.

The Deputy mentioned a case, which I will not go into because I cannot refer to any particular cases, but there are a number of options for people with disabilities in terms of funding streams through the local authorities. The schemes are very robust. There is significant uptake. Where there are pressures in local authority areas, demand is so strong on the ground. That is why we have consistently increased the allocation over the past five years to give people a choice of independent living, which is so important to us and which is enshrined in the programme for Government.

Let me refer to the various allocations. The housing adaptation grant for people with a disability gives up to €30,000 to cover up to 95% of the works. Under the mobility aids grant scheme, applicants may obtain quickly a fund of €6,000, which may cover 100% of the cost of the works. This is to try to give people assistance, where they need it, to live in their own home. That is notwithstanding the disabled person's grant for works on local housing authority stock, together with all the various construction works and acquisitions under the capital advance leasing scheme, the capital assistance scheme and local authority-led housing policy. There is a large number of areas.

The demand for housing for the disabled on the national list amounts to 8%. The Department allocates an average of 12%. Therefore, we are outpacing demand and trying to deliver solutions in a very challenging environment. We are doing our very best in that regard. I have heard the points the Deputy made. I ask Ms Feeney to comment on the current position on the strategy and our sense of urgency in bringing all agencies on board in respect of it.

Ms Claire Feeney

I will comment on the local strategic plans initially and then I will refer to the overall consultation. The deadline we have for the strategic plan is a soft deadline, namely the end of May. The reason we have settled on that date is to try to ensure we are getting the local pictures as well as the national feed-in so it will not be a case of taking submissions at national level, with submissions being received only through the website. It is a matter of also taking on board local input, even the local strategic plans in draft. If any local authority or housing and disability steering group has a concern about the short timeframe, we can absolutely address that and take a submission in draft initially.

With regard to the overall strategy and the consultation, I will give a rundown on what we are doing. As the Minister of State said, the deadline for the completion of the strategy is the end of this year. I am told we will have it ready on the Minister's desk by the middle of November. At present, we are in the consultation phase. We currently have a landing page on our website, There are a number of versions of the questionnaire there, including English and Irish versions. These have been enabled to be compatible with all text-to-speech systems. We have an easy-read and plain English Word version because the platform we use did not allow for full easy-read capability. The easy-read Word version can be downloaded, completed and posted back to us. The address is on the website. We also have a PDF version that can be completed and emailed. In addition, we have a video that goes through all the questions. It is only ten minutes long. People can use it as a guide, whether they are doing a facilitated session with people or otherwise.

The next round of advertisements will be in the newspapers on Sunday. They will include a contact number that people can ring to request a hard copy of the survey because we are conscious that not everybody might have access to online services. In addition, we are making people very much aware that it is not just about the questionnaire; if they want to make a submission, they should do so. We have set a deadline of 16 April for closing off the survey or questionnaire but we will accept submissions up to the end of May.

On the issue of hearing the voices of people with disabilities, there have been 920 online submissions to date. Of the 872 people who answered the initial question, "Who are you?", 184 or 20% are disabled people and a further 35% are a family member of a disabled person. It is encouraging that we are getting the real views of the people we are going to affect through the new strategy.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for joining us today. The first thing I want to talk about is the local authorities' housing adaptation grants and all that goes with them. I have come across a situation in my constituency whereby people apply for these grants and find themselves going over an income threshold, in some cases because they have somebody in the house. I know of an elderly couple who have a daughter with special needs in the house. Their three incomes were combined and it meant they did not get the full value of the grant because they were over a certain threshold. The thresholds are there for a reason but they should be looked at and index linked each year rather than leaving them static over a long time.

The housing adaptation grants are great for people who want to remain in their homes and I compliment the local authorities. However, there should be a bit more support for people who need it to allow them to remain in their homes. That is especially the case with the adaptation of a bathroom, for example, where a bath needs to be replaced with a level access shower. That type of thing should be fully endorsed with a good lump of money for applicants because they will come up with the balance, whether through going to the credit union or whatever is necessary.

There is also a lack or gap in the system when it comes to people who acquire an injury which leaves them in a wheelchair, or where they have an accident and must have a limb amputated, or where they acquire a brain injury. All of a sudden, such people's whole lives have changed. They might need to adapt the house fully to make sure they can live there. Take the example of a two-storey house with bedrooms upstairs. If one wants to build a ground floor area where an injured person can live a truly full life, the amount of grant available is small compared with what the overall cost to do something like that can be. That needs to be looked at.

Parents who have children with autism have told me they want to make sure they have some sort of sensory room within their homes for their children. There is very little support for something like that. What we have in terms of grants for adaptations from local authorities is good but they need to be reviewed and the thresholds need to be increased. We should also look at increasing the amount of money available, especially for people who, all of a sudden, find themselves in a position where their lives have changed and they have to adapt their houses in a speedy way. Such people often have to borrow money to make those alterations, which is on top of all the stress of their lives having changed.

In general, with the designing of houses for private or public use, it is important the housing agencies are included in what we are doing here. When a universal design is built, there is an additional cost that must be borne by the State to make sure we allow people to live full and independent lives as much as they can. We are now reviewing local authority strategies, but the local authorities also need support from central government to make sure things happen.

That was a commentary. Does anybody want to say anything about the level of grants from local authorities, which I think are brilliant?

The Deputy hit the nail on the head in terms of allowing people to live independently and supporting them to do so. That is the first choice for people. They want to be kept in their homes. I acknowledge that 80% of the grant aid comes from the Department, with 20% a key allocation from the local authority. We will, towards the end of this year, review the thresholds. The various grants have different thresholds. One progressive move that was piloted in a few counties and which we will be implementing is that the three main grants will be under one form. That will make it easier for people to understand and make the grants more accessible.

It can be hard when demands and needs are great and means thresholds are set because there is always going to be a difficult case outside the threshold. That is difficult but we will do our best to review it and accommodate as many people as we can. It can be seen from the uptake of the grants that they are strong. It just shows society is using them and they are making a difference. We will work to try to keep rolling out the grants as quickly as we can. I would also note that if there is any spare money, it is often allocated to local authorities for this purpose because it is providing a considerable service to people and their lives. I acknowledge and note what the Deputy said about building regulations.

I thank the Minister of State and Ms Feeney. While the 12% may be ahead of the 8% demand, a concern we have and we have seen in submissions to the committee is that a number of people who have a disability and are in need of independent housing are not, in fact, even on the housing list. What work can go into identifying those who may be housed per se but are not housed in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and in a way appropriate to them that reflects their rights and choices?

Others have asked about congregated settings. I know the Minister of State will be creating new instruments, but some of those he has had to use were from a pre-UNCRPD era. For example, a crude measure of the number of people in a house, be it four or ten, does not capture the idea of choice for persons with a disability and, indeed, the obligations of the State in that regard. Choice for Travellers should also be included. How do we bring in disability standards in respect of Traveller accommodation and halting sites?

In that regard, what are the plans to review Part M of the building regulations? It is not currently fit for purpose. Part M refers to the visitability of buildings. As the Minister of State has acknowledged, the regulations set a minimum, and while it may encourage other standards, the issue is around the quality criteria. We must raise the technical specifications as a whole for all buildings, and that could be done by reforming Part M. The State can and should be doing more by adding quality criteria in terms of universal design in housing built by the State. What are the Minister of State's plans in respect of universal design for housing that is built, purchased or funded by the State? What are his thoughts on raising the Part M specifications as the minimum? I am explicitly thinking about new builds and new housing but also in terms of publicly owned housing.

This comes into the area of the Land Development Agency. I am concerned about the ratio of social and affordable housing affordable to commercial housing proposed by the Land Development Agency. Does the Minister of State think there is a case for an additional percentage specifically in respect of disability accessible housing that would be publicly owned and public rental for persons with a disability which would then increase our housing stock and be there as something that could be used again? I am suggesting publicly owned public rental housing for persons with a disability and, perhaps, putting in a specific additional cohort of social housing in respect of that, as well as raising the general universal standards.

I have two quick questions in respect of public amenities because the Minister of State's remit includes planning. How do we ensure universally accessible public amenities are factored into the design of all of these new neighbourhoods we are planning to build? Could there be a proposal for combining housing adaptation and retrofitting grants?

We know large-scale retrofitting will be rolled out. Could there be a combined proposal for which people could apply? I believe that would be appealing to many people and would allow the standard to be raised.

My next question relates to renters. There are many disabled people in the private rental market. How do we ensure they can seek housing adaptation and be supported in doing so? How do we ensure they do not have security of tenure jeopardised if they seek measures? Under much of the current tenancy legislation adaptation or works to premises are among the things that push people out. Bearing in mind that statutory home care provisions are on the way we are going to see a significant push up in demand. We need to get ahead of the curve in that regard.

My thanks to Senator Higgins for raising those important points. The Minister will be setting the affordability criteria by regulation in respect of the Land Development Agency. This will be a key driver in delivering affordable and social homes. Reference has been made to liaising with the local authority. The local authority will be driving this with the Land Development Agency as the product manager carrying out work on these sites. The disability groups within the local authorities will shape the demand in each different area. It will be up to the local authority to ensure it is delivered through the Land Development Agency. It is something we are keen to look at to try to increase the level of housing available for those with a disability. We are doing that through all the schemes.

I mentioned the major increase in scale. I know we are coming from a low base but there has been a major increase. I cited 300% over five years under the capital assistance scheme in delivering construction units suitable for people with disability and to encourage independent living.

Deputy Canney has acknowledged the support we need to get to the appropriate place in terms of the building control regulations. Currently, the National Disability Authority and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth are looking at how we can bring universal design more into the delivery of new units. That working group is entitled Building for Everyone and is due to report soon. We are currently working on that across the Department.

Reference was made to public areas and planning. One of the key actors within the Department is the urban regeneration and development fund. That is one thing we will really prioritise. We have had an allocation of €1.3 billion in the past three weeks to try to unlock the potential for all citizens within our regional cities and towns. We are talking about making publicly-run places more conducive for people from all sectors of society, including those with disabilities. One key asset we have is a competitive process to unlock the potential of our towns and cities. I see that as an important process in delivering on this measure as well.

The Senator referred to various schemes to help to keep people in their homes. As I said to Deputy Canney, they are being reviewed at the end of the year. We have had one application process to cover three schemes. We have improved our language in terms of ensuring it meets the threshold of plain English and that it is accessible for people. We are willing to work with and assist people through that process with a shared goal whatever the sector. This applies whether we are talking about the private rental sector, working through the disabled person grant scheme with a local authority or where a person owns his or her own home and is looking for an intervention through adaptation and mobility grants. All those different grants to try to unlock the potential. The Senator rightly said that time has passed since the UN charter was signed. Two-year and four-year reporting mechanisms will be built into the agreement. Now we are approaching our two-year reporting mechanism. We are looking under the various different areas at the progress we have made. We acknowledge that we have a great deal more to do.

Articles 9 and 19 directly impact on our Department in terms of delivering housing. I have referred to the work we have done relating to Part M of second schedule to the building regulations.

I have also referenced ongoing work with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. We have moved to have disability certificates for commercial apartment blocks and buildings. We have age-friendly and walkability surveys for 52 towns. I have mentioned how a streamlined application process for the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, could unlock that potential and make centres more age-friendly or disability-friendly. All of these are key in terms of Article 9.

The main thrust of our national disability strategy comes into being through Article 19. This is borne out by how we work in close co-operation with our agencies to deliver disability housing and give people the choice and independence to live in their own homes or in supported accommodation. That is so important and we are working to do that. We work closely with the HSE in delivering that.

My thanks to the Minister of State for his comprehensive briefing. I am heartened by the ambition of the Department to increase the social housing stock by 50,000 in the coming five years.

I note that studies of the economic well-being of disabled persons and person with disabilities regularly show that they are disadvantaged economically. While I welcome the plans for inclusion of disability needs across all types of housing, including social and affordable and private housing, we should make particular provision for social housing. I am heartened to see the figures on that and in particular that 10% of all social housing during the past ten years has been provided to persons with disabilities. Can the Minister of State give an idea of the percentage on the housing list who have denoted a need relating to disability and mobility provision? I am curious to know where the 10% figure fits in.

I note the strategy on community inclusion and the provisions relating to the policy on time to move on from congregated setting. Even with universal design houses are built to baseline standards. This costs organisations in trying to advance community inclusion in terms of having to retrofit houses. It would be wise for the Department to have conversations with great organisations like Cheeverstown regarding its advice and input. I believe it would be important to have a discussion with those involved about how universal design could be made even more universal and inclusive. Mobility champions like Colin McAndrew have really influenced my thinking on the surrounding infrastructure and the environment around housing to ensure we have accessibility by design. He has commented on how when we make society accessible for people with the least mobility, then we make it accessible for everyone now and in the future. Any planned need for housing provision should be linked up to the environmental infrastructure surrounding it.

My next question relates to the role of the local authorities from a social housing and infrastructure point of view. What engagement has the Minister of State had with local authorities specifically to advance that? My experience of South Dublin County Council was that it was fantastic, ambitious and open. I am keen to know how the local authorities are engaging with the Minister of State on this matter.

My thanks to Senator Seery Kearney for her comprehensive outline of the needs we have to meet. That is important to say. One of the priority actions under the national disability plan is action 1.1. As I mentioned before, this led to the establishment of a steering committee within each of the local authorities. It places an obligation on the local authority to put forward a five-year plan on how it would resolve and respond to the needs of those on the list, especially those in need of special accommodation for disabilities.

Senator Seery Kearney asked a question on local authority data. It normally runs around the level of 8% but can vary according to the different local authorities. Nationally, it is approximately 8%. That five-year programme sets out how the local authorities are responding to the need and shapes how they deliver their housing units.

One thing is really heartening. We are experiencing difficult times with Covid-19. I have referenced where construction is. The overall disability allocation for housing tenancies has increased by 64% from 2016 and we had 2,389 allocations in 2019 up from 1,179 in 2016.

The allocations are across all the categories that are so important, including physical, sensory, intellectual and mental health and they are being delivered on the ground by local authorities, which is so important.

I refer to new reference too in terms of the various needs, which was mentioned. Priority action 5.4 relating to mental health sustainability officers is something we really need to examine in the next plan to see how we can increase that provision.

It is very important to support people in tenancies. That is another significant issue. It can be daunting for those with a disability or a mental health issue when they are placed in a tenancy. We really need to get wrap-around supports in place. That will be a key part of the next process.

The Senator referred to local authorities. When I was a councillor and chair of my municipal district, an experiment carried out by the Irish Wheelchair Association with several elected members really opened my eyes. One councillor was blindfolded and another was put in a wheelchair and they were brought around the local town to experience the impediments there are that the Senator and I would not notice while walking around. It was an incredible experience in terms of making me aware of the basic infrastuctural improvements that we really need to deliver to unlock opportunities for people. We are working hard, through the 31 local authorities, to try to deliver in respect of those important issues.

I refer to the importance of the various forms being accessible and in plain English. It is very important to ensure there is no impediment to people in terms of applying and being supported through the application process for housing adaptations in order to give them that choice and independent living.

I thank the Minister of State.

I welcome the Minister of State to the committee. He may be aware that the remit of the committee is to ensure that all Departments adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and to implement it. Article 19 of the convention states:

Persons with disabilities have the opportunity to choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others and are not obliged to live in a particular living arrangement.

However, to take the example of my county of Cavan, I am aware of at least five persons with disabilities who have been waiting more than ten years for housing. I know their situation is replicated across the country. It is a direct denial of people's right to live independently and it is in contravention of the UN convention.

Disabled people are being forced to live with ageing parents who are being expected to provide what sometimes is quite complex care for a son or daughter. That is not dignified for anyone concerned. Many ageing parents, often in their 70s or 80s, constantly worry about what will happen to their son or daughter when they pass. They fear their child will end up in a residential setting, possibly miles from home and family and without the proper level of suitable care. We have many documents that outline that this issue will be addressed but it has not been addressed thus far. I want to be fair to local authorities because I believe they are trying to address this issue but there is a lack of co-ordination between them and other agencies. What can be done to bring the HSE in particular on board to ensure that supported living is provided to people in these situations?

At one stage last summer, there were six families in County Cavan who were local authority tenants and needed a transfer or significant works done to their houses due to illness or an accident making their current accommodation unsuitable. They had to wait quite lengthy periods and either live in unsuitable accommodation, remain in hospital or go into a nursing home. How much money is made available to tackle emergencies such as these? I am sure such emergencies happen all over the country. I make that point without even broaching the issue of private home owners who need work carried out on their houses.

I do not expect an answer to my next question today, but I ask that one of the officials forward an answer in writing. Ireland has the lowest rate of employment in the EU for people with disabilities. What is the rate of employment of people with disabilities within the Department of the Minister of State and in each of the local authorities? Are there disability or access officers employed within the Department and local authorities? If so, how many of those people have lived experience of disability?

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate her comments and her understanding of the situation. As one who has come from the local authority sector, she can really see first hand the challenges that are faced. I have articulated the various schemes and the increased allocations we have made, but one can always say it is never enough because we are speaking about the most vulnerable people who require the most additional support. I assure the Deputy that approximately €75 million has been allocated to the adaptation schemes this year. Obviously, those with disabilities will feed strongly into that process. Provision is also made under capital schemes such as the capital assistance scheme, CAS, and the capital advanced leasing facility, CALF, scheme. All of those schemes are targeted to ensure there is housing for the disability sector.

I will bring in Ms Feeney to outline in more detail how we are responding to Article 19 of the convention.

Ms Claire Feeney

The main thing for us, working through the housing and disability steering groups, is to ensure there is collaboration between the various organisations in order to support people to live independently in an area of their choice, which is exactly what the Deputy is talking about. One of things about which we and the Minister of the State have always had a concern is that people moving from congregated settings have a choice regarding where they go. It is very much about having a care plan that is developed with the person, not for the person. Circular 45/2015 set out clearly how the co-operation was to work. There are some really good examples of where co-operation has been worked, such as where funding may come through the HSE into one of the specific approved housing bodies, AHBs, to provide support and the local councils provide the actual housing. For example, there have been schemes in Fingal with the Housing Association for Independent Living, HAIL and Co-operative Housing Ireland, in Cork with the Cope Foundation, as well as in Longford and various other places.

The Minister of State alluded to the issue of mental health tenancy sustainment and the joint funding aspect of that. It is very much about ensuring that people can live in places and houses of their choice and be supported to do so. In 2017, a guide to the assessment of and allocations for people with a disability was issued to local authorities. That too was very much about ensuring there was choice for people and that they could work with their service provider and local authority with regard to the provision of housing. The guide provided examples in that regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. Senator Higgins covered some of the topics I wished to address, such as new builds by the State and State-provided housing, so I will address the issue of the private sector. I refer to the construction sector currently and the kinds of housing that are being made available on the market. Obviously, the requirement for appropriate housing does not just impact persons in supported housing; it impacts on the wider building stock. Many families would benefit from having greater choice, to which the Minister of State referred. Older people in particular would benefit from universal design.

We know that people with disabilities are more likely to experience poverty and are vulnerable to difficulties in securing housing. The reality is that many people with disabilities will use the housing assistance payment, HAP, to house themselves. In that context, I refer to build-to-rent units. Obviously, construction has been somewhat disrupted in 2020 and 2021. However, in 2019 turnover in the build-to-rent sector more than doubled, to €2.54 billion, as institutional investors came into Ireland and swamped the market. It is a highly profitable housing model. Sales of build-to-rent units in 2019 comprised nearly 3,000 homes, while the total number of units that were in train or of which construction had begun was in excess of 6,500.

Build-to-rent units represent a significant proportion of our new building stock. For those who are not aware, build-to-rent units have the following exemptions: there are no restrictions on dwelling mix; there is significant flexibility on the minimum storage standards and private amenity requirements; there is a default minimum or significantly reduced car parking provision; the requirement that all apartments in a proposed scheme exceed the minimum floor area standards by a minimum of 10% does not apply to build-to-rent schemes, so all the units can be the minimum space requirement, and is 37 sq. m for studio apartments, which is significantly lower than in 2014; and the requirement for a maximum of 12 apartments per floor, per stair core and lift, does not apply.

Build-to-rent typologies and building units do not necessarily represent high-quality building standards and they do not represent spacious building standards or universal design. As BTR housing is exempt from the standard requirements for storage and public amenities, all BTR developers must provide is evidence the proposed facilities are appropriate to the intended rental market. I take it that the intended rental market includes people with disabilities. My understanding of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is that we include people with disabilities.

Local authorities have a role to play here but the majority of BTRs are constructed under the sustainable housing development, SHD, scheme and are controlled by the Department. Does the Department believe build-to-rent provides appropriate housing choice to persons with disabilities? Does the Department take the view the planning guidance on build-to-rent is in compliance with the spirit or technical requirements of the UNCRPD?

Can the Minister of State outline the evidence the Department requires from developers in producing applications for permission to build-to-rent in relation to the suitability of the design for persons with disabilities? Does the Department provide guidance to developers or local authorities on build-to-rent specifically in relation to the provision of housing for people with disabilities?

I thank Deputy Hourigan for her questions. The Deputy well articulated the pressure points we face. On Government policy on design, the design guidelines issued for the construction of apartments state 50% of any developments of nine apartments or more must have a minimum of 10% increased, oversized space. There are also clear guidelines that developments have lift access and that floors have open thresholds in terms of rooms and design criteria to ensure they are more friendly for those with a disability.

I mentioned the Churchill fellowship in terms of the study done across many different countries, which put Ireland as moving quickly towards the ambitions set out in the UN charter. We are not there yet and, as I said, an upcoming report within the two years will articulate that. However, the planning system must try to deliver units that cater easily for, and offer choice to, people with disabilities.

As Deputy Canney outlined, we must be careful in terms of the consequences for delivery at present. With that in mind, we have asked that a cost-benefit analysis be carried out - it is currently under way in the Department - to report back on how we can get to this universal mechanism and support the private sector to get to it, which is important in terms of delivering units.

I previously articulated how Part M of the building regulations has improved and supported delivery of units for those with disabilities and in terms of disability access in commercial settings on the building control side, which has been significantly ramped up in recent years. While I acknowledge we are not there yet, we are improving. There is a considerable number of tenancies currently on HAP that are in the disability sector.

It is about offering choice and a chance at independent living for vulnerable people. I articulated how much the allocations and the grant thresholds from various funding streams have increased since 2016. We are working on a cost-benefit analysis. I already mentioned that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is working on, and feeding into, the design process. We are renewing our strategy in that context.

I am in Leinster House. I thank the Minister of State. Many of the questions I wanted to ask have already been asked. We have a shortage of social housing, in particular two-bedroom units. We need to consider building more two-bedroom units. If one drives into a local authority housing estate, or even a private estate, one rarely sees five or six bungalows beside one another. We must think about building more bungalows in the long term for people with disabilities and people who are getting older. That should be a priority.

Many of the people I work with, in conjunction with the Carlow local authority, are looking for two-bedroom houses. A person with a disability would want a two-bedroom bungalow. We speak about adaptation grants, which we all welcome. They are so important. We have the mobility and disabled grants. In Carlow, all the grants are on the one form, which I welcome, but the funding comes from different sources. The mobility grant is not like the adaptation grant and nor is how one qualifies for it. I am glad it is being considered because grants are so important, and we all welcome them, but how does a person qualify for a grant?

I am working with a young lady who is a wheelchair user and who is living in a local authority house. She does not qualify for a grant for windows and doors because she is not over 66 years of age. One always tries to see what people qualify for but people under a certain age do not qualify for a grant for windows and doors. The grant system needs to be considered. Local authorities have received much funding this year for grants. It is welcome but we must ensure we balance the grants, so people who need to access them qualify for them, without having to be over 66 years of age.

I want to ask the Minister of State about the length of time people with a disability are on the housing list, which is an issue. We have 31 local authorities and the Minister of State is aware there seems to be a different mechanism in each local authority in order to qualify. There is no sense of urgency in terms of people with disabilities or people who need houses.

Will the Minister of State consider having a disability officer in each local authority to deal specifically with these issues? They are very serious. We spoke about mental health, which is another issue. Mental health will be so important going forward but people whose mental health is suffering and who need the help of a local authority should be able to contact a staff member who works solely on mental health. I ask the Minister of State to work on issues, such as this, because that is where we are falling down.

We spoke about the grant thresholds. Grants are means-tested. As the threshold for local authority housing has not been reviewed for more than ten years, I know of people who do not qualify to go on their local authority housing list because they are on disability but their partner or spouse is working. That is unacceptable.

I ask the Minister of State to consider the review of local authority housing because it is a significant issue. We must give out information on these issues. I can only praise Carlow County Council, which is my county council, whose staff are always so helpful when one is looking for information. However, we must give out more information.

People with disabilities or with mental health issues are not getting the proper information. I ask that the committee look at making sure information is made available as part of its work going forward. We have all gone through Covid-19. People are staying within their own 5 km area and everyone is trying to work within the boundaries. Local authorities’ hours have changed so if people must access their services, they have to telephone because the office is closed. That is okay because we must be respectful of what is happening now, but we cannot keep going the way we are going. I ask the Minister of State and his Department to look at these issues going forward.

Deputy Murnane O'Connor referred to the type of housing required in terms of bedrooms and units. For the first time under the national planning framework, the Department has a tool called the housing demands and needs assessment tool. That will shape the delivery plans of our local authorities regarding the type of housing required in specific jurisdictions and areas.

That will, hopefully, assist in alleviating the particular demand the Deputy quite rightly referenced. In terms of the allocations, and the Deputy rightly praised her local authority, there has been a huge increase. I know it can be frustrating to people but if I look back at where we were five years ago, we have increased the figure by 64%. We had 2,389 allocations last year of all types. I am talking about sensory, physical, mental health and different categories being catered for. It is still improving. I fully accept we have a long way to go but one can see the work being done on the ground and what is being delivered to people.

The Deputy raised a valid point in terms of forms and that is why we piloted a new medical and housing form this year in four local authorities, which was very successful. We have assessed it and made a few changes. We hope that from next month that form will be used throughout our local authority network. That will improve access for people to these important supports for those with disabilities. It has obviously been stress-tested and it is in plain English. I referenced in my previous contribution three main headline grants to support those with disabilities which we have put on one form and which is in plain English. Obviously, our disabled persons grants, DPG, are not means-tested for our local authority housing stock. A huge amount of work can be done delivering them on the ground. As a Deputy, I see, as I am sure the Deputy does, the various people who come into our clinics. One also sees many vulnerable people who have been looked after. What drives one on in politics is trying to address the demand. I refer to the gold-plated standard under the UN strategy which the Department is working very hard to try to achieve.

As I pointed out at the start, a €3.3 billion headline budget as outlined by increases in various sectors will hopefully bring about huge changes during the years ahead. Without sounding tone-deaf, I say that in terms of being under the pressures of Covid regulations throughout the construction sector.

I confirm I am in Leinster House. I thank the Chair for allowing me to participate in this afternoon’s meeting. I have followed the debate all along. I thank the witnesses for their participation. This is a matter close to my own heart. I have a few issues I want to put to the witnesses.

The Covid crisis has served as a wake-up call to many families particularly in parts of rural Ireland where there are elderly and ageing parents looking after a younger person with a disability in the house. Covid has caused us all to look at our own fragility. We have seen in excess of 4,000 people lose their lives in Ireland over the last 12 months. It is a reminder of the fact that many older people will not be around forever, and they need to future-plan for the needs of their child.

It concerns me that there is a mountain of applications for sheltered accommodation building. I do not necessarily believe we are meeting those needs. I hope some of the Minister of State’s officials can dig into some of those figures, if possible. Are there figures available in relation to applications versus availability of accommodation for people with physical and intellectual disabilities in the mid-west? Are those statistics available today? I will come in with another question afterwards.

We will take the Deputy’s question all at once.

I am happy to do that. I want to raise the point about the location of housing for people mainly with intellectual disabilities. There seems to be a trend around large houses at the edge of a village or a town, which are typically former bed and breakfasts that have ceased trading. One sees this regularly in county towns. There is an eight or ten-bedroom unit at the edge of a town or village, which nobody wants to buy because no family has a use for a property of that size. Quite typically, a section 39 organisation, such as Brothers of Charity or RehabCare, snaps up these properties. They are usually available at a competitive price. They become a site for sheltered accommodation for people with intellectual disabilities. I do not necessarily think they are in the right location and we really need to look at this.

There is a fabulous facility being planned for Ruan in north County Clare, which is a wonderful village. It is a village I, and many people in Clare, would love to live in. However, we have to ask whether it is best positioned for someone with an intellectual disability to have the highest level of independence he or she yearns for. I have someone quite close to me who has an intellectual disability. Someone with an intellectual disability needs to be able, at several times of the day, to walk out the door, go to local shops and access services, and go on local transport. Sometimes these former bed and breakfast properties which are being snapped up are not best fitted for the needs of those people.

My last point relates to locations. I refer to many of the units identified as housing for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, and the ancillary infrastructure around them. The Minister of State has already identified inadequacies in terms of footpaths etc. There must be metrics other than price and proximity to the edge of a town or village that can be looked at. We must look holistically at what a house has to offer in terms of overall accessibility and its usefulness to the person staying in it in terms of the quality of his or her everyday life.

I will bring Ms Feeney in on that point in a moment. I drilled down into the figure earlier on in terms of the current list nationally. There are approximately 5,002 approved applicants with a disability, and I cited that is around 8% of the national housing list. I referred to how we are providing 12% solutions. In terms of our allocations, we are prioritising, as much as we can, those within the disability sector to ensure their housing needs are met.

On location, one critical thing is that the national planning framework, to be fair, will point infrastructure towards housing needs. That in addition to our urban regeneration and development funding will absolutely give a huge chance. We have the plan to unlock the potential. I have seen on many occasions section 38 and 39 organisations purchasing properties out in the countryside with no infrastructure to support them, with no transport for very vulnerable people. This limits their choice compared to if they were in a town which had all services beside them to meet their needs. I absolutely agree 100% with the Deputy on that point. We need to look at that issue.

The Deputy highlighted another point. As a Deputy, I have seen elderly parents who have a son or daughter with a severe disability. They worry and experiencing stressful feelings about the future. That presents a huge challenge to the State. My Department is working with the HSE and we are doing significant work in that area but there is no doubt more that needs to be done. One can think of people who have a business. They are probably working longer than they should be. They are trying to hold on to their business in some cases where they may have no sibling or child to take over the business. They are worrying about whether their business is going to be wiped out in terms of means-tested applications for the future. I know Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is doing a huge amount of work in this area as well and have had discussions with her in that context.

I might bring Ms Feeney in to respond to Deputy Cathal Crowe on that issue.

Ms Claire Feeney

We collate all the figures by county so we will be able to provide the Deputy with it as part of additional information with regard to the allocations in the mid-west over the past five years and the need within the mid-west. A very important issue is looking at future need, of which the housing subgroup would have been very conscious, covering such things as elderly parents. We are working with the Health Research Board. It has a database that holds quite an amount of information about people's housing need, so it has details on the housing need of anybody accessing disability funding. We are looking at how we can share information so that at a county level, we can help to inform the local strategic plans. One of the most important things is around raising awareness of the benefits of being on the housing list and the housing options available to people. One section in the local strategic plans being produced by local authorities involves local authorities identifying how to raise awareness of housing options. We are aware that the Irish Wheelchair Association is planning a campaign shortly, which we will support 100%. It was raised at all of the housing and disability steering groups and it will be supported at local level. It will increase the number of people on the housing list and will then give local authorities and the Department a better view of how to strategically plan for housing need over the next five years through Housing For All.

Senator Higgins raised a few points and was somewhat disappointed that the witnesses did not get to all the questions she asked so could the Minister of State and his officials respond to any of the points that have been raised?

This is not a slight on the Minister of State. He answered a number of my questions but there were a few others, specifically around Traveller accommodation, that might be followed up in writing.

I would be happy to do that. This is an area for which I have responsibility. An expert review produced 32 recommendations. Our programme board met for the first time last week to implement these recommendations to deliver and unlock accommodation for Travellers. We approved the caravan loan scheme last week so there is much good news in that space.

The Minister of State might follow up in writing.

Arising out of today's meeting, there have been a good few points relating to targeting people with disabilities to make sure there is a housing policy across the country. There are issues regarding the adaptation grants. In some cases, the grant might need to be increased with regard to a specialised adaptation needed for the person with a disability. There should be a bit of flexibility in this regard to meet the needs of somebody with a specific need, who would be in a nursing home or healthcare facility if there was no flexibility or some way of addressing that issue.

Regarding two-bedroom accommodation mentioned by some members, the availability of housing for single people is causing significant concern across the country and needs to be looked at specifically for persons with disabilities. We will have an ongoing discussion with the Minister of State because issues will arise from time to time at which we need to look. What discussions is the Department having with local authorities regarding the county development plans and strengthening the connection between the Department and local authorities to make sure there is better provision for people with disabilities?

There needs to be a new discussion between the Department and section 39 organisations about how they are trying to get funding for their builds for respite and residential care. That is part of our remit and we will look at this issue. As members said, they are looking at value for money because they are charitable organisations and do not have endless resources. The Department needs to be very mindful of that and look under the various schemes, such as the capital assistance scheme, to ensure there is scope for section 39 organisations to get the best property to serve the people whose lives we hope to improve through the work of this committee. It is important that the Minister of State takes this on board from this meeting. Does he wish to make a few closing remarks?

I am happy to take the Chairman's comments on board. There will be a review later this year of the various grant schemes. I appreciate, understand and know the value and importance of these schemes. We can bring that in with our engagement with the HSE in terms of the Chairman's remarks on section 39 organisations. It is very important that we have cross-communication because there are so many different actors providing services in the disability sector on behalf of the State. As we shape and develop our new strategy, it is important that we cover them all in a more coherent way. I acknowledge that this is very important.

Regarding the Chairman's comments on the county development plans, the Department issued a direction in the past ten days to ensure that these plans meet the need for the process in line with the national planning framework and our regional and local strategies because it is so important that units are developed for the type of need that is there. Our regulator will be looking at this. Deputy Murnane O'Connor clearly articulated how two-bedroom units are needed so badly. We will look at all that and I am happy to engage with the committee in the future. I thank the members and my officials.

Deputy Tully has indicated that she wants to come in.

Is the Minister of State familiar with the Changing Places campaign on toilet facilities in public buildings? This campaign argues that public toilets are often quite small or are not very clean. The campaign made the point that if an adult with a disability needs to be changed, there are very few proper changing facilities. If this could be looked at in respect of planning regulations for public buildings, I would appreciate it.

I can revert to Deputy Tully on that.

I thank the Minister of State and his officials for attending today. We will have further engagement with him. We have a private meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m. to discuss issues before us and the concerning revelations in the recent "RTÉ Investigates" programme.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.59 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 31 March 2021.