I thank the members of the joint committee for inviting me to present the Bill for discussion. It is a Bill entitled an Act to make provision in relation to requests for accommodation by homeless families and for that purpose to amend the Housing Act 1988 and to provide for related matters. I introduced it on First Stage in Dáil Éireann in 2017. It was supported and unopposed on Second Stage on 15 November 2017 and referred to the committee. I have submitted a statement to the committee. I do not propose to read it in full, but I will go through some elements of it.
We all know that there are wider issues surrounding the provision of housing and homelessness, of which members of the committee are very well aware. There is a specific need to address the issue of children and families affected by homelessness, particularly in the context of the referendum on the rights of children. In the context of the wording of the amendment inserted into the Constitution, there is a need to ensure laws are drafted in order that those rights can actually be vindicated in a practical way. In particular, they would require local authorities and the State generally to recognise the rights of a child in a family unit when applying for accommodation or other forms of assistance.
We started to draft the Bill following an incident people will remember in which 12 families with 30 children between them could not be accommodated by homeless services in Dublin on 23 May 2017 and were sent to Garda stations because there was nowhere else for them to go. It has been reported that at least one of the families slept in a public park. The 30 children had no right to protection, safety or a roof over their heads, except as the dependants of their parents. Since the Bill was passed on Second Stage, Ms Margaret Cash and her children slept in Tallaght Garda station because they had no alternative. Whatever disputes we may have about the actual homeless figures, we know that close to 4,000 children are living in homeless accommodation. We are also aware of the effect this has on children and the fear and anxiety they face, including about losing contact with friends and communities, etc.
The focus of the Bill is on the perspective of children. Statistics published by Trinity College Dublin show that 42% of homeless adults are women, many of whom have dependent children in lone-parent households. It is clear from the research that there are not enough services available to cater for the needs of these families. This underlines all the more the need to specifically provide protection for the children, as well as their mothers.
Homeless charities have stressed the importance of strengthening the law on families in crisis, but I want to mention Focus Ireland, in particular, because it worked very closely with us in drafting the legislation. Mr. Wayne Stanley is in the Visitors Gallery. I also refer to the Mercy Law Resource Centre. Some members were present at the launch of its most recent report, Children & Homelessness – A Gap in Legal Protection, when the Ombudsman for Children pointed to the need for legislation to protect children and families affected by homelessness. I do not know if the committee plans to hold further hearings, but if it does, I suggest Focus Ireland, the Mercy Law Resource Centre and the Ombudsman for Children be invited to appear before it. It may decide not to do so, but if it does, I recommend that course of action.
A family who are homeless present to a local authority and a housing assessment is undertaken by a staff member. If the parents are assessed as homeless under the Act, they may be offered emergency accommodation. In recent years it has become common practice, particularly in Dublin, to require a family to identify its own emergency accommodation in a hotel or a bed and breakfast, with the local authority's being responsibility reduced to paying for the room. It is commonly known as self-accommodation. No assessment is carried out to identify whether the family are capable of securing such a room or the impact of the uncertainty caused on the children. Over 500 families in Dublin are in self-accommodation without any support from a case worker. Most such families do secure accommodation, but where this is not possible, some local authorities, particularly in Dublin, provide a number of "contingency beds" which are made available as a last resort. Where no such rooms are available or they are unsuitable, there are no official guidelines on the advice that should be given to the family or how the incident should be recorded or reported.
I have provided some detail in the written statement on Focus Ireland and the statistics it has given us. Most startlingly, it told us that between January and the end of August it had no alternative on 180 occasions but to recommend that families go to a Garda station. In 21 cases it was confirmed that a family had, in fact, slept in a Garda station. There was some improvement when contingency beds were provided, but we understand the problem is again becoming acute. Focus Ireland has told us that a legislative provision to provide direction for local authorities in these difficult circumstances is necessary. The Bill will also ensure there will be an holistic response in the support of families in hotels and hubs, not only in providing a roof over their heads but also wider supports for the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family home.
I will provide more detail on the technical aspects of the Bill. In mechanical terms, it is a short Bill, with just one operative section which will insert a new section, to be numbered section 10A, immediately after section 10 of the Housing Act 1988 which relates to the provision of accommodation or other assistance by housing authorities for homeless persons. Under section 2 of the Act, a person is homeless if he - the Act uses the term "he" rather than "she" - is unable to provide accommodation from his own resources and there is no available accommodation which he, together with any other person who normally resides or might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably be expected to occupy or remain in.
This includes cases where persons may be living in a night shelter or similar institution for want of any alternative accommodation. Under section 10 of the Act, a request for accommodation may be made to the housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person. The housing authority may then, subject to ministerial regulations, make arrangements with an approved body to provide accommodation for the homeless person or directly provide the person with appropriate assistance, including financial assistance, or rent accommodation, arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of accommodation or lodgings for the person.
As I said, the Act refers to a person as homeless if there is no accommodation available which he, together with any other person who normally resides with him, or who might reasonably be expected to reside with him, can reasonably be expected to occupy. There is no explicit recognition in the current scheme of those other persons as persons in their own right, with entitlement under law. In 1988, there was no statutory recognition of the needs of a homeless family as a family unit, nor is there any statutory recognition of the constitutional rights of homeless children. Under the constitutional amendment, the State recognises and affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and it must, as far as practicable, by its laws, protect and vindicate those rights. That is the crucial outcome we are seeking to achieve today. The sole purpose of our new section 10A is to oblige housing authorities to recognise persons in accommodation crises as a family unit and to have specific regard to the best interests of the children of homeless families.
I do not know how much more time I have. I can give the committee some more technical information.
The new section 10A is headed "Homeless persons and children" and applies where a request for accommodation or other assistance is made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person when another person who normally resides or who might reasonably be expected to reside with the homeless person is a child. In such a case the housing authority must, when making a decision on the request, including a decision about whether to provide interim or urgent assistance, recognise the persons concerned as a family unit and must regard the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration. The housing authority must have particular regard to the need, by practical means, to protect and assist families, including by providing them with safe accommodation in order to support and encourage the effective functioning of families and the development, welfare and protection of children within the family home.
The language used in section 10A is not original. The requirement that in certain cases the best interest of the child be regarded as a paramount consideration is to be found both in the constitutional amendment and the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964. It is enshrined in Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which provides that in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration.
Under section 8 of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, the two principal general functions of Tusla are to support and promote the development, welfare and protection of children and to support and encourage the effective functioning of families. We have borrowed and adapted that language to spell out the approach a housing authority should adopt when dealing with a homeless family in need of assistance.
I hope that gives the committee some detail on the language used in the Bill. I am happy to answer any questions.