Senator John Carty was in possession and has six minutes remaining.
Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).
I welcome the pupils and teachers from Mount St. Michael in Claremorris, my local school.
I join with Senator Carty in that. I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, back to the House.
I welcome the Minister. The purpose of this Bill is to improve housing services and many of the sections are most welcome. Section 11 provides that housing authorities should provide and maintain services ancillary to housing development, including roads, shops, playgrounds, places of worship and sites for various facilities. It is important that this be done, especially in large urban areas. Too often in the past there were housing developments which did not even include a green space where children could play. That leads to anti-social behaviour since the children have no place to burn off energy. There should be areas in housing schemes where children and young people can play football, hurling and other sports. That is most important so I welcome this section. When the Bill is passed I hope local authorities will ensure that these services are put in place.
Under section 14 the elected members of local authorities are obliged to make housing available and to put plans in that regard in place. I note with satisfaction that a time frame of six months is included in the section for a plan to be put in place and implemented. It is worth noting that elected members along with the management have an input into devising the plan. With elected members involved, the plans will have a greater connection with members of the public. After all, it is the elected members whom the public approach in the first instance about anything related to housing, be it securing housing, rent increases and so forth. It is good that the elected members are being given more power in this regard.
Section 22 deals with the rental accommodation scheme, which I welcome. It gives people an opportunity to get into the property market and own a house. However, over the years I have had a gripe with local authorities over one issue. When people get an increase in their social welfare payment in the budget the councils usually increase rents when preparing their estimates. That is wrong. The Government should put a cap on rents to prevent councils, when social welfare recipients get an increase in their social welfare payment, imposing an extra charge on them because of that increase.
I compliment my local county council. Over the years it has tackled people who behave in an anti-social manner in housing estates. I am delighted there is a section in the Bill which deals with this issue. County councils should be more proactive in ensuring that when people get a house in an estate they will not cause trouble in that estate or, perhaps, cause other people in the estate to have to leave it. My local council has done this in a number of cases.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward this comprehensive Bill. When it is passed I hope it will be implemented by the local authorities.
I wish to make a few comments on this important Bill. First, I welcome the Minister back to this House, with which he was so familiar in the past and to which he paid great tribute in his speech. The first note he struck did not surprise me, given my knowledge of his character. He spoke about the human dimension of the housing situation and the financial downturn we are facing.
I will reiterate something I had been saying for a considerable number of months before this recession, which is very worrying, had its major impact. It relates to repossessions. I accept this is not directly addressed in the Bill, nor would it be appropriate for it to do so. However, if there is a steep increase in repossessions, we may find that people who are the victims in that situation will apply for the type of housing envisaged in this scheme. It is important that the Minister use his influence with his colleagues to ensure a return for the support being given to the banks by the taxpayer. The sudden recent steep increase in repossession orders, about which I have spoken over the last six months and which was noted a couple of days ago by a senior judge in court, should be drawn to the attention of the banks and it should be indicated to them that this is not a positive way for them to behave in the current economic climate.
Housing is a sensitive area and is a human need. It is important that it is addressed. The Minister referred to an investment of €2.5 billion in social and affordable housing in 2008 to meet the needs of 20,000 households. Presumably, a significant proportion of that budget has already been spent, given that this is the end of 2008. How much of it has been spent? If the remaining figure is substantial, to what extent is it protected?
There are budget cuts. Earlier, I attended a pre-budget briefing by the Carers Association. I spoke to a couple of elderly people who were concerned about matters that are relevant to this legislation. They were concerned about the possibility of the removal by local authorities of special grants for people over 70 years of age to carry out maintenance and certain running repairs on their housing. One woman mentioned the problem of broken windows. It might appear to be a small matter and not a huge economic drain, but for people who have tight budgetary margins it can be significant because they might not be able to afford to carry out those repairs. That creates a knock-on cost for the Exchequer. What will these people do about heat? If they have broken windows, the heat will escape so they will either turn up the heat and get into debt or live with the problem and end up in hospital. It would be prudent to examine these issues carefully. I hope these people will be safe.
There are some new developments with regard to assessing housing needs and matching individual needs to the housing stock available. Like many of my colleagues, I receive a number of pleas from citizens throughout the country who have problems getting the type of housing they need. Assessing the need is very important. The Minister spoke about strengthening local democracy by reinforcing the role of elected members. If possible, I hope he will elaborate on that. I would be interested to see this spelt out a little more, if possible. It could be positive but it also could be negative in that one does not want too much clientelism or people getting a house simply at the nod of a local representative. However, it is useful for a local representative to be able to bring specific needs forcibly to the attention of local authorities. I have never been a member of a local authority but have written to many around the country because really critical human circumstances, which apparently have been ignored, have been brought to my attention. It is noticeable that a letter on Oireachtas notepaper sometimes helps to ease circumstances.
Let me refer to certain circumstances I have encountered. I am not sure they are directly relevant to this Bill, except in terms of the psychology of officialdom. I have just been dealing with a case that has been resolved concerning a person who has been in the country for quite a number of years, contributed to the economy through work and applied for citizenship. The person was a victim of persecution and, tragically, has now acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The person has a wealth of letters from medical personnel and social workers stating a particular kind of accommodation is absolutely vital. One of the letters in the person's file was from a housing official who stated the authorities examined the file and decided there was no reason the person deserved the required housing. Furthermore, the official stated the case was being closed, which was astonishingly abrupt and arbitrary. We need to monitor this kind of response and ensure a certain sensitivity applies and that, where there is strong professional representation from both the social services and medical authorities, cases will not be pushed to one side brusquely by someone who does not have complete qualifications in this area. The Minister of State referred to strengthening the link between local needs and the provision of resources and consistency. This is exactly what I was talking about.
I welcome the incremental purchase acquisition scheme, which is a very good idea in that it gives people ownership. In certain circumstances, when one gets a proportion of a house, one pays one's mortgage and accepts full responsibility for the house's maintenance. Surrounding homes may not have been acquired privately and may still be in the hands of the local authority. Is the maintenance monitored for a transition period by the local authorities? It would be rather unfortunate if there were decent people who did not buy their houses, or could not afford to do so or to get a mortgage — this may now become more difficult — who had somebody next door who was not doing proper maintenance on his or her house. Is this being monitored?
The question of anti-social behaviour is really troubling. I am not sure what the solution is, nor am I sure there is one contained in the Bill. There are attempts to address it, and it is certainly not ignored, but we cannot tolerate circumstances in which a person is consistently anti-social in his or her behaviour, be it by way of drug dealing, drunken neglect of property, rowdy parties or antagonising neighbours, and has the neighbour-from-hell syndrome one sees on television programmes. What happens to such people and where do they go? If they cannot provide housing for themselves and if they make themselves impossible tenants for the local authority, is it a case of, "To hell or to Connacht"? The people are still alive and therefore one must ask how society should cope with them.
That is the problem.
Is it not a problem? Is there a quarantine area? Do we shove all the people onto Spike Island or some such place?
One aspect of the explanatory memorandum to the Bill that I found to be very positive and refreshing was the fact that it does not have significant financial implications. This means it is probably safer than much other legislation that has been floating around the Houses recently. There is capacity to recycle State money through the various schemes. Therefore, I hope that since it is seen as broadly Exchequer neutral, we can push ahead with it.
I have received some briefings from a group I had not heard of before called MakeRoom, which seems to be a coalition of very responsible bodies such as Simon Communities of Ireland, Focus Ireland and Threshold. Broadly speaking, the organisation is pleased with the Bill but believes it could be strengthened in various ways. There does not seem to be a specific, precise and clear definition of "homelessness" in the Bill. Will the Minister of State provide a definition of "homelessness" to incorporate the criteria I have mentioned? Will he account for equitable assessment and adopt a clearly human rights-based approach to the legislation?
I welcome the Bill. Particularly in the current circumstances, it is important that we continue to provide a positive legislative lead in the sensitive human area of housing. I hope the Minister of State will reassure us that, since the Bill is described as being broadly Exchequer neutral, its provisions will be safe. I hope he may be able to address some of the questions I have raised.
My new-found friends in MakeRoom have indicated they will supply positive and constructive amendments. I am sure many of us have been in contact with the organisation and may have received those amendments. I will be happy to table them or, if my colleagues table them, I will be happy to support them to the extent I regard them as being constructive. From what I have seen of the vague outline given in the briefing document, the amendments will be constructive and helpful. I am sure the Minister of State, whom I remember as a constructive colleague in this House, will find it possible to accept some of them.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, back to the Seanad. If anybody knows anything about housing, it is he because he has many years under his belt as a member of a local authority.
This Bill is very timely because it addresses circumstances that have obtained for some 40 years. The question of social and affordable housing, which has featured for quite some time, has been addressed on a somewhat piecemeal basis and this Bill will restore order to what can only be termed as thead hoc procedures that obtained heretofore.
There are a number of provisions in the Bill that are particularly welcome. They have been already touched on but I will repeat them because they bear doing so. The incremental purchase scheme will enable existing social housing tenants and households qualified for social housing support to become owners of houses newly built by housing authorities and voluntary and co-operative bodies. The scheme provides for the transfer of full ownership of a house to a household on the purchase of an initial share of the equity. Clearly, this is a very important provision. It gives the purchaser a sense of ownership and this will drive the tenant in a direction he might not have gone heretofore. He will have pride of ownership, which is very important. Most of us who had to put our hands in our pockets, dig very deep and convince the bank manager, SDA, Housing Finance Agency or building society that we constituted a reasonable risk will know how difficult it was when we started making repayments. Purchasers, when they buy the initial share in their house, will understand what people who go through this experience must endure. As the old saying goes, borrowed horses very often have hard hooves.
It brings tears to one's eyes to see the manner in which certain houses received by tenants deteriorate in a relatively short period, perhaps within six months. Thankfully, I do not refer to all houses. Houses for which people would pay huge amounts of money in the private sector are given away, provided by the taxpayer and the ratepayer at a differential rent. To see them abused in the manner in which they often have been is heart-rending, to say the least.
I am pleased that Westmeath County Council, of which I was a member for some 25 years, has a proud record of providing accommodation for the Travelling community, who rate among some of our best tenants. I hasten to add that we have the other kind as well, but that is not alone pertinent to the Travelling community but to the settled community also. However, it is only fair to say that some of our best tenants are members of the Travelling community. The manner in which they keep their houses is a credit to them.
The Bill includes new powers for elected members to adopt strategies for the prevention and reduction of anti-social behaviour in the local authority housing stock and an extended definition of anti-social behaviour to cover graffiti and damage to property. This is welcome, and I welcome any measure that will give powers to locally elected members. However, I want to introduce an important caveat in this regard. A lady recently brought her son to my home. The family was living in a certain housing estate in a certain Midlands town and the son was being bullied beyond all human endurance, which is the best way I can put it. The family was advised by the local authority and the Garda Síochána to move. Why should the offended have to move? Why not the offender? It begs the question.
The problem is that if the offender is to be taken to task, somebody must go to court, point the finger and identify the person or persons causing the problems, and explain the problems being caused. It is a difficult problem but it must be tackled because it will not go away. In this case, the family did move, which is a defeat for law and order, as I know it. We are all entitled to live our lives in a peaceful and harmonious way. We must get down to the nub of dealing with anti-social behaviour. It can only be beaten through people power, with the help of the Garda and the local authority. There is no doubt that elected members also have a pivotal role to play.
I welcome the Bill. It comes after 40 years and gives a basis to the adage, "It is never too late to do the right thing." This is the right thing to do. It will be the jewel in the crown if the Minister of State can find an answer to anti-social behaviour. By that, I am talking about graffiti, people being bullied and, of course, drug dealing. I am toldad nauseam about what is going on by people who come to my office, in the same way my councillor son, my secretary and every other elected member in the area has been told this. There is no point in talking about it. We have talked the talk. Now, we have to walk the walk. We must deal with this problem.
The Bill will broaden the choices available to those seeking social housing by establishing a more developed framework for contractual arrangements to secure rented accommodation for social housing. These provisions are based on experience with the rental accommodation scheme, which involves housing authorities progressively taking responsibility for accommodating people in receipt of social welfare rent supplement who have a long-term housing need. By the end of 2008, between the rental accommodation scheme and other forms of social housing, the Government expects to have rehoused more than 16,000 households with long-term housing needs that were previously supported through rent supplement.
To be honest, while rent supplement is a very important part of addressing social need, I have always considered it a waste of money. I would far rather see that money invested in providing housing, although I understand there is a short-term solution and a long-term solution. The Bill takes many strides in the right direction. What I have heard from all sides of the House should give the Minister of State great comfort because the Bill has great support across the board, which I welcome. I commend the Bill to colleagues on all sides of the House. I look forward to Committee Stage, when I am sure suggestions will be brought forward.
I will conclude on the following point. We must grasp by the scruff of the neck the issue of anti-social behaviour in our housing estates. There is no point talking about it because we have talked long enough. We must deal with it immediately, and the Bill is a basis for doing that. It enables local authorities and their members, as well as tenants, to deal with it. Together, we can beat this problem. An unco-ordinated approach will not work because that is what we have had thus far, and we have got nowhere.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to the House. He is a not infrequent visitor to my area of Waterford and south Kilkenny. I am sure he is well aware of the serious cases of anti-social behaviour — criminality is probably a better word — which have taken place in Waterford in recent months. Some 14 houses have been burnt down, 11 of which were local authority houses, children have been shot at, cars have been rammed, large caches of weapons have been found by the Garda Síochána and even a pipe bomb was placed in one estate as a result of a feud between various families in the area. I pay tribute to the gardaí involved for their bravery, understanding and professionalism, and to the local authority staff and mediation services, who have done great work.
Can we imagine ordinary tenants, perhaps a son or daughter of ours, living in those estates and having to put up with this terrorism — I can think of no better word for it? To refer to Senator Glynn's point, I have been approached on numerous occasions by residents of such estates who are looking to move out or transfer because of the hassle and terror they and their children suffer as a result of these events.
While these are extreme cases, there are other ongoing cases. I am glad the Bill addresses anti-social behaviour because any local authority member to whom one speaks throughout the country has come across such cases. The Bill refers to violence, threats and intimidation. Unfortunately, these are commonplace in many estates throughout the country. We on this side of the House will not be found wanting in support for any measure, in any Bill, that will help to address these issues. It is a shame that decent, honest tenants throughout the length and breadth of the country are held to ransom by a small number of individuals who are causing distress to others.
It is certainly distress that is caused. The people who come to me, and I presume those who come to other representatives, are distressed. They are fearful for their families and their children. When they go home in the evening they do not know what is facing them regarding damage to their properties. This must be rooted out. The Minister will have support from all sides of the House for this. There will be do-gooders saying they have to be looked after the same as everybody else but everyone wants fair play. Anti-social behaviour is one of the largest problems in many, not just local authority, estates. It will have to be tackled.
The tenant purchase scheme allows for a maximum discount of 30%. There were more generous ones in the past. Perhaps the Minister could look at increasing the discount to allow people to purchase more local authority houses. Many people in the voluntary housing schemes, including Refocus, Cluid and Respond, are precluded from buying their houses. If they are funded by the State and local authorities, there should be some system for people living in those houses to purchase them. I ask the Minister to give some consideration to that matter.
Senator Norris mentioned repossessions. There have been approximately 300 repossessions recently. The mortgage allowance scheme provided for in the Bill could be a mechanism for people facing repossession to be referred to local authorities. There should be negotiations rather than the banks putting people on the side of the road. There could be some interaction with some of these schemes. I was never a lover of the share purchase scheme, and the mortgage allowance scheme is similar, but perhaps something can be done for the increasing numbers of people having their homes repossessed.
The issue of homelessness is not mentioned in the Bill. The Minister outlined his homeless strategy a number of weeks ago, but it is disappointing that there is little mention of homelessness in the Bill.
The money dried up months ago in Waterford City Council for housing aid for the elderly and the disabled person's grant, or housing adaptation grants as they are now called. I am sure it is the same in many local authorities around the country. These are some of the most vulnerable people in the community. I spoke to a couple who applied to have a shower put in instead of a bath; they are in their 70s and cannot get in or out of the bath, and it is dangerous for them. They applied for a grant for a shower, but they were told the money has dried up. There is no money for heating or various adaptation grants. Times are hard now — we have been told that — and after next week they will be even harder. We have prided ourselves in the past for looking after the elderly and people most in need, and I hope that continues into the future. These are the schemes that help those people.
The HSE had schemes but it does not seem to be looking after them any more. We are told it is finalising them and handing them on to local authorities. Will the money it was granted be handed to local authorities so that some of these people can be looked after? What is the position? There is a problem between the HSE and local authorities regarding the housing aid grant, and I ask the Minister to look into that.
There are more than 44,000 people on local authority lists for housing. It is a sad indictment of Government policy. We have a problem when marriages break down. Many males in their 40s and 50s are on housing lists, and that increases the amount that would not have been there heretofore. It must be addressed, perhaps by building apartments. It is predominantly men because women usually retain the house and children. The paper we received from the Oireachtas Library research committee mentioned that many private dwellings offered for rent are in a poor state of repair. There are many men in small flats who have visiting rights for their children, and they cannot bring children into them for a weekend. There is a need to look after these people, especially as there are so many of them on the housing list.
The Minister mentioned supporting the strengthening of local democracy. We support anything that strengthens local democracy, because over the last number of years we have seen the powers of local authorities being diluted in many ways. The Harbours (Amendment) Bill 2008 excludes local authority members. This has been a theme over the last number of years in various Bills. We can vote against it, but we need people from other sides of the House to stand up for local authority members and representatives. We support the strengthening of local democracy, but it must be an improvement on Better Local Government, which only benefitted the officials. The ordinary punter did not see any improvement in the provision of local services.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is the consolidation of 40 years of legislation in this area. In his speech the Minister of State stated:
Housing is an issue that affects everyone. In these turbulent days we are all too familiar with the issues arising in the housing sector, both in this country and abroad, and we are also aware of the human dimension of the steep downturn we are experiencing. This places a public spotlight on our public policy and finances. Are we getting value for money for our investment? Are we efficient and effective? Most importantly, are we protecting the most vulnerable sections of our society?
The Bill is timely. The Minister of State made reference to how important a home is for everybody, be they individuals or part of a family. People do not like to see their home under threat. Given the turbulent times we are experiencing in the public and private sectors, people are worried about the safety and security of their homes.
I envy the Minister of State his job. Housing is one of the most important things, and the Minister of State is involved in it at an interesting time. The downturn provides something of an opportunity. When I was a local authority member, we could not build houses fast enough. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council did not have an exemplary record for building houses. Much of that was due to the cost of land and similar issues. The high cost of land was due to developers buying up the sites to build privately and that squeezed the local authority out with the result that our housing lists grew. Is the Minister of State considering the option of purchasing houses because, given the slowdown in the housing sector there are many vacant houses and perhaps we can get value for money?
I find it difficult to reconcile local authorities owning houses because, as Senator Glynn indicated, people take pride in home ownership and that brings something to a community or housing estate. When people own houses in a housing estate that improves them greatly and it is a benefit to all the people living in the area. However, as a former member of a local authority I am conscious also that because tenants were allowed to purchase houses local authorities lost those assets. Where I live the houses are very expensive and there is no question of the local authority being able to afford them. Now that housing prices are a little more realistic, does the Minister of State propose to buy some of the vacant properties around the country?
It is proposed in section 13 that any moneys accruing to housing authorities from the sale of dwellings or clawbacks shall be placed in a separate account and may, with the Minister's approval, be used for housing related purposes. Local authorities are due to deal with their budgets at this time and people are anxious to see what will happen with that money. As the Minister of State no doubt appreciates, there is no reward for schemes that save money in the public service. In fact, local authorities are penalised. I appreciate the times are more difficult for the Government as we do not have as much money as we did in the past. Every penny needs to be accounted for. Is it the case that a local authority that is able to save money will be penalised for that? I do not suggest local authorities can hide money anywhere but if they want to invest money in better housing schemes, will they be permitted to do so?
Time served on a local authority can be some of the best spent in public service because one is working on the ground on issues that matter to people. That is especially true of housing. There is scope for expansion of the anti-social provisions in the Bill. In my local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council tenant purchase schemes provided training for new home owners on how to get used to owning their own homes. I am pleased such measures will become more prevalent and will help combat anti-social behaviour.
Does the Minister of State intend to consider within the scope of the Bill a provision for tenants of flats to buy their properties? At one of the first conferences I attended as a member of a local authority I met a Labour councillor from Dublin City Council who was a tenant of the Ballymun flats. He told me that when the Ballymun flats were being allocated initially one had to be a sterling tenant to qualify. One had to be up to date with rent, for example, to qualify for consideration as a tenant of the Ballymun flats. When a scheme was introduced to allow local authority tenants to purchase their own homes, tenants with any kind of get-up-and-go left. It was then that the Ballymun flats became a type of ghetto as the less than sterling tenants remained. The problem I see developing if people are not allowed to purchase their own flats in a block of local authority flats is that they become ghettos of sorts. I encourage the Minister of State to consider the possibility of allowing tenants of local authority flats to purchase them.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, and wish him well in his job as Minister of State with responsibility for housing. I have no doubt he has a deep interest in this aspect of local government. Although I have some misgivings, in general, I welcome the Bill. Its provisions will help to address some of the problems we face in the housing area.
In 1987 at a time of recession when Fine Gael and Labour went out of Government there was no waiting list for local authority houses. One can ask what has gone wrong in the past ten years given that when we had the greatest boom in the history of the State we have the longest housing waiting lists in every local authority.
It was brought to my attention recently that a number of local authorities are selling affordable homes but that they are overvalued. As a result, people do not know whether to buy them. The lifetime of some of those loans can be in excess of 20 years and purchasers may find that in ten or 15 years' time when they want to buy another home they may not realise the value. It is a sad state of affairs when people who work in fairly well paid jobs still cannot afford a home on the open market and must resort to buying an affordable home that is overvalued. The Minister of State should examine the matter.
In some towns — including one in my own county — many houses are boarded up. Action must be taken by the Government to tackle the problem. I do not know whether local authorities do not have the funding to deal with them. The figure of 15% of local authority houses being vacant is bandied around. That is a startling statistic at a time when so many are on waiting lists for local authority houses. I cannot understand why local authorities do not give priority to this housing stock. In Ballina a whole street of houses lie vacant and are boarded up, and that is also the case in Longford. One wonders if the cause is a lack of funding from the local authority, if it is not channelling the funds through and why these houses are vacant and cannot be turned around more quickly.
I raise the matter of the single rural house, which may not be an issue in every local authority but it is in my county, and the length of time it takes a local authority to proceed from processing an application to building it. In many cases it takes from three to five years. This needs to be addressed. Such houses are a necessary evil in many cases and there is a demand for them, especially in rural, isolated areas. These should be fast-tracked and they do not cause any great expense to a local authority. There are only one or two in most cases on an annual basis.
The case has been well made by Senators from all sides of the House for the provision of housing for single males, whether it is single or two-bedroom apartments. There is a lack of accommodation for such people. This matter should be examined urgently and funding should be put in place.
Under section 17 councillors can make a housing plan which is similar to local authority members making a county development plan. The plan must come before the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for approval. I am not happy with this section, as it may be the case that the Minister is not the only person unhappy with the plan. If a county manager is not happy with it, he will refer it to the Minister and his officials, who will take it upon themselves to change the plan to suit either the Minister or the county manager. This is not enhancing local democracy. If local authority members are given powers to make a housing plan for their area, the power and the consequences should lie with them.
The electorate will deal with them on that basis in due course. How can the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government make a plan for every local authority throughout the country and examine it in detail? Every local authority should have that power and the obligation should rest with the local authority members. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, to examine this matter.
There have been several new aspects introduced recently. We are all familiar with the disabled persons grant and the essential repairs grant. However, there are new grants which I welcome. I congratulate the Minister of State for the introduction of the housing adaptation grant, the mobility aids grant and the housing aid for elderly people grant. My local authority, it would seem, would need considerable funding to carry out all the work entailed, given the number of applications made to the local authority. The grants sought by applicants to Mayo County Council under these schemes totals €5.7 million. While I welcome the proposals and the new schemes, they must be backed up with extra funding.
A former Member of the Dáil, Dr. Jerry Cowley, provides through the Safe-Home Programme Ireland accommodation in Mulranny. Those involved in the programme do tremendous work for people on their uppers in England, the USA and various other countries. They bring such people back home for their last days. In past years, these people sent home money to this country during very poor times. Any house or extra funding that can be provided in this area is very welcome. Any additional schemes provided by local authorities would also be very helpful and rewarding for such people in dire straits in those countries. I welcome the Bill and I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, will examine the areas I have highlighted.
I thank Members for their kind words on my return to the House, after having spent so many years here. I also thank Senators for their contribution to the debate on Second Stage, for their attendance during the debate and for their supportive comments on the legislation. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 is a milestone in the development of housing policy, not only in terms of the enhancement of the legislation code, but also in advancing the reform programme set out in Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities. The Bill will radically improve the capacity of housing authorities to plan and deliver their services in a coherent, flexible and responsive manner. It will improve customer choice with the inclusion of the new rental accommodation scheme and the incremental purchase scheme. It will strengthen the powers of housing authorities as social housing landlords and enablers of social housing provision.
The contributions of Senators touched on a wide range of issues and I will endeavour to deal with as many of them as I can, as time allows. Several Senators raised the issue of homelessness and the Government strategy, The Way Home. This new Government strategy on homelessness, which I launched in August, sets out a clear vision for the future where the occurrence of homelessness is minimised. Where it does arise, nobody will sleep rough or remain for more than six months in emergency accommodation. This is very important. When I launched the strategy I explained that there were people in emergency accommodation for up to eight years. As Minister of State with responsibility for housing, I was no longer prepared to accept this and I have set out a programme whereby we will not have people in emergency accommodation for more than six months.
Substantial legislative change is not required to implement this. The matter has been raised but we do not need new legislation. Housing authorities already have the power to provide emergency services for homeless people by virtue of the Housing Act 1998. This is one of a range of housing supports provided by authorities referred to in section 10. More permanent solutions to the accommodation needs of homeless people are encompassed in the various forms of social housing support described in section 19.
I am satisfied that the current statutory definition of homelessness in the Housing Act 1998 is sufficient. We carried out a review of the definition for operational purposes. Furthermore, in the context of the development of a new assessment of need for social housing support, we will provide a nationwide, consistent standard and an objective suite of criteria. The details of such criteria are best suited to secondary legislation and this is what the Bill provides for. In developing these regulations we will be informed by the European typology of homelessness and housing exclusion, which were alluded to in contributions and which were the basis of consultations with The Housing Forum on the new system of assessing needs.
An area of legislative change proposed in the strategy A Way Home deals with homeless action plans. If possible we will provide the necessary statutory basis for this during the passage of the Bill through the Oireachtas. This matter has been raised by some Senators. Senators Bacik and Doherty questioned whether it was intended that new schemes such as the rental accommodation scheme will ultimately replace traditional local authority housing to meet housing needs. The answer, which I wish to clearly state in this House, is "No". It is not my intention that this will be the case. There always will be a local authority housing programme. This Bill, however, provides the statutory basis for a change signalled in Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities. That change seeks to respond to the fact that, as the range of housing needs expands and becomes more complex, so also must the response from housing authorities if those needs are to be adequately met.
A point mentioned by several Senators was the unavailability of housing units for single people in many local authorities. I know that to be the case from my own experience of local authorities and I recognise that as a deficit in the system. The rental accommodation scheme is an ideal opportunity to deal with many of those cases. I see a major take-up by people in that regard and it is being used through the local authority system.
This move to a more flexible and graduated range of housing supports reflects the philosophy underpinning the NESC report on housing. We have invested significantly in housing in recent years to increase the level of output. The Exchequer spending this year will be more than three times that in 2000. In the past ten years, the output of newly built or acquired social housing has risen from under 4,000 units in 1998 to almost 8,700 units last year. When other forms of social housing support and vacancies arising in the stock are taken into account, some 14,600 households' need for social housing support were met last year. That is a substantial figure, and there is still more to be done.
Schemes such as the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, are providing additional choice in meeting this diversity of need. RAS has proven to be a very good response to the housing needs of single men, for example, which many Senators mentioned, who may not have got sufficient priority in housing lists in the past. Senators made strong points in that regard. If the needs of a RAS tenant or any other tenant changes, the appropriate response to that changing need can be reviewed and a different form of social housing support offered. Section 19 reflects this new reality, pulling together the various elements of social housing support that are available to meet the diversity of existing and emerging housing needs.
A number of Members, including Senators Coffey, Brady, Ellis and others, referred to the issue of vacancies in the local authority stock. The rate of such vacancies is monitored as part of the local authority annual service indicators as we are concerned to use our existing stock effectively. I understand that the median average for all local authorities at the end of 2007 indicated that 4% of dwellings were empty. That is the figure available to us. While there are many legitimate reasons for vacancies, we have strongly encouraged local authorities to turn around stock as quickly as possible. The local government audit service will be carrying out a value for money audit on housing management and maintenance in local authorities in 2009 and I look forward to seeing the results of that work to examine how we can make further progress on that issue.
Senator O'Malley raised the issue of the programme of works, people who save money and so on. Those are the type of internal receipts we see them use for the upgrading of existing stock. We would hope, through the service plans of the council, that is what would be done. There would not be any penalty involved. It would be a matter for the local authority members through the service plan. We see that as one area of the service plan where they could decide to implement a programme of refurbishment and upgrading of existing local authority stock.
I share the concern expressed by many Senators that local authorities should have mechanisms available to deal with anti-social behaviour in their estates. I understand from all Senators here and from contributions on the previous day that everybody is concerned about that matter. The legislation currently before this House, and which I hope will be enacted by the Oireachtas, will not solve this problem on its own. We must examine the reasons behind homelessness or anti-social behaviour. There is not just one reason. There are several reasons including family breakdown, addiction, be it drugs or alcohol, mental health problems and a range of other problems and therefore a range of agencies is needed to deal with the problem. What I am doing is putting in place a framework into which those agencies will be able to dovetail, whether it is the Garda, local authority members, the Health Service Executive, Neighbourhood Watch or community groups. They all have a part to play and I hope that will happen because anti-social behaviour is a scourge in some areas of our cities, towns and villages. It is a major problem for tenants who look after their houses and live within the laws as laid down by the State. Having their lives upset by anti-social behaviour is a major intrusion into their lives.
Anti-social behaviour can threaten the sustainability of communities and further disadvantage vulnerable households. The provisions of the Bill go some way to improving the existing regime by updating the definition of anti-social behaviour and introducing anti-social behaviour strategies in section 34. In conjunction with the Attorney General's office, I am examining the scope for further changes to existing legislation that will enhance the role of housing authorities in addressing anti-social behaviour. I will incorporate any further measures in this area during the Bill's passage through the Oireachtas.
A number of Senators raised important points which I will address. Senator Carty raised a number of issues. He complimented the voluntary housing sector on its good work, and I endorse that. We are fortunate that so many people have moved into the area of bringing forward schemes in the voluntary housing sector. They are providing good accommodation for people in need.
On private rental accommodation, ancillary services is a broader issue. It is important that housing estates, whether they be private, public or a mixture of both, have ancillary services including schools, shops and so on because they cannot develop into a community otherwise. One of my roles, apart from the one on housing and urban renewal, is the development of new areas. That is an area on which I intend to focus a great deal in the future. We are drawing up plans on areas throughout the country and I will insist that the Departments play their part in the plans being developed for those areas. The local authorities will be the policy makers to the extent that they will come forward with proposals to my Department but other Departments will have responsibility as well. There is no point in a Department saying it will deal with a particular school, road or library issue at another time. We must have integration. There is no point in talking about sustainable communities if we do not start from the bottom, that is, we must have integration of services in those new developing areas with the community to allow us build a sustainable community.
The Senator mentioned the housing service plans, which other Senators mentioned also. The housing service plans are a reserve function of the local authority. They were raised in the debate under two headings. Senator Norris said he did not want them to have autonomy to the extent that their plans would be the bible, as it were, and Senator Burke indicated that he did not want the Minister to have any major involvement. A bit of both would not go astray. It is a reserve function but it is necessary that the housing service plan dovetails into the national strategy. I hope that will be the case but the local authorities are the people on the ground and if the county manager, with the local authority members, bring forward a plan it will then go forward from the Executive. If conflict arises in some situations the Minister may have to take action. That process is available as a precaution to ensure the national strategy is in place.
Senator Norris made a very good point about the human dimension, which was made also by Senator O'Malley, namely, that in a downturn those who cannot shout loudly can be forgotten. I hope that will not be the case. I will be keen to ensure the importance of the human dimension is emphasised. People's homes are very important to them. I am responsible for ensuring people remain our priority.
Repossessions were mentioned by a couple of Senators. When I held my previous portfolio, I raised this issue with the Irish Banking Federation and the Financial Regulator. It does not bother me to say that banks and financial institutions should pursue repossession as a last resort. All possible avenues of resolution, such as discussion, should be explored before repossession is considered.
Senator Norris asked about a certain figure. It is really a matter for each local authority. We allocate a certain sum of money to each authority. I think approximately €2.5 billion is allocated within the voluntary housing sector. The local authorities are responsible for spending this money. I understand commitments have been made in that regard for 2008. Other money has been allocated through the grants system, etc. Any money which has not been drawn down has, of course, been accounted for.
The Senator also spoke about the assessment of needs, which is something I feel strongly about. There was a time when a person's name was put on a local authority housing list without his or her needs being assessed. I do not want that to continue. If a person asks a local authority to be considered for rehousing or some other form of housing support, in any of the ways open to the local authority, his or her needs should be assessed so that the most suitable form of support can be ascertained. The authority should not wait two or three years to conduct such an assessment. Local authorities in all parts of the country are doing that, however. I want people to be assessed. Local authorities should have a designated staff member whose job is to assess people as they make applications. He or she should be responsible for telling people whether they are suitable for participation in the local authority housing scheme or perhaps more suited to one of the schemes being provided for in this legislation, such as the incremental purchase scheme. We should not leave people in limbo. In many cases, people are left in limbo for many years.
Will this Bill give local authorities that facility?
No. As Minister of State with responsibility for housing, I am saying it is a good idea. We do not need to legislate for everything. I will encourage interaction between local authorities and ministerial offices. We can consider the introduction of regulations or statutory instruments if they are needed. It is common sense to suggest people should be assessed at an early stage to ascertain what form of housing support is most suitable for them.
Some councils have several housing offices.
Yes. That does not mean people cannot be assessed.
I agree with the Minister of State.
We have a responsibility to provide for early assessment. The housing grants schemes were mentioned by a number of Senators. Demand under the adaptation grants scheme has accelerated this year. Annual expenditure on the scheme has increased from €13 million to €71 million over the past ten years. There has been a major increase in activity. Some 74,000 grants have been paid under the scheme since 1997. In other words, 74,000 people, including people with disabilities, have been helped to stay in their homes and communities for as long as possible. It is a sizeable figure. Local authorities are to be complimented on the manner in which they have dealt with the scheme. I have some queries about prioritisation, however.
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government meets 80% of the cost of the housing adaptation grants scheme, with the local authorities making a 20% contribution. In May of this year, I announced that a combined capital allocation of €71.4 million was being made available to local authorities for the operation of the scheme in private houses in 2008. It is a matter for each local authority to decide on the specific level of funding to be directed towards each scheme from the combined allocation made available to it. Each authority must manage the operation of each scheme in its area from this allocation.
I recognise that in a number of local authority areas, the demand for the housing adaptation grants scheme has outstripped the level of funding available this year. In recognition of the crucial role these grants play in supporting independent living by older people and people with disabilities, the Department has recently allocated an additional round of funding to a number of local authorities which have encountered particularly significant levels of demand. I hope to be in a position to announce a second round of additional allocations to local authorities in the event of further moneys becoming available. In the meantime, it is essential that all local authorities continue to accept and process applications on a prioritised basis in line with existing resources. This is necessary if they are to ensure the needs of the most vulnerable sectors of the community are addressed quickly and effectively. It is important to prioritise.
I wish to respond briefly to Senators' questions about the special housing aid for the elderly scheme. I will update the House on the arrangements for the transfer of responsibility for the scheme from the Health Service Executive to the local authority sector. As Senators are aware, the Government decided in February 2006 that a more integrated service could be achieved if responsibility for the scheme were to be transferred in such a manner. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government already had responsibility for the disabled persons and essential repairs grant schemes. The new housing aid for older people scheme amalgamates the provisions of the essential repairs grant scheme and the special aid for the elderly scheme. It provides assistance to older people who need certain improvements and repairs to be carried out.
In recognition of the fact that the transfer of responsibility for the scheme to local authorities would pose significant challenges to the workloads and resources of the authorities, and to ensure the satisfactory resolution of the outstanding issues, it was agreed that the special housing aid for the elderly scheme would continue to be operated and administered by the HSE until March 2008. There are some outstanding matters regarding staff and completion of works. Consideration of such matters is ongoing. I hope it will be brought to a conclusion in the near future.
I would like to respond to one or two other points that were made. Senator Cummins asked about local democracy in the context of housing plans. He pointed out that the Green Paper, which is being considered at present, is one of the most important aspects of this issue. It is obvious that local authority members have had a say in that. I was at the launch of two of the six regional seminars which were held throughout the country. I agree with Senator O'Malley's comments about the plight of the most vulnerable during the downturn.
This country's 30,000 vacant houses were mentioned by Senators. It has been suggested that local authorities should purchase houses and large areas where vacant houses are located. The Department no longer has a policy of reverting back to large local authority estates. The purchase of large areas for local authority purposes, or for rehousing, is not an option. It would not comply with the Department's thinking on the development of integrated and sustainable communities. It may be the case that some houses could be acquired, but that is a matter for each local authority, such as Dublin City Council.
Not all the houses in question are in locations where houses are wanted. I understand that 10,000 of the houses in question are in Dublin, with a further 20,000 in other parts of the country. They are not all in areas where need exists. When local authorities submit plans to the Department, they must be based on need. There is no point in going ahead with housing developments, on the voluntary side or on the local authority side, unless they are based on need. That is the bottom line, especially now that we cannot be as flathúlach with finances as we were in the past. We will not be able to provide for the increases in housing development which were observed in the past. It is important for all allocations, and all requests made to the Department, to be based on need. We can then respond on the basis of such need.
I was also asked about tenant purchase schemes, which are important. We hope to introduce amendments to this Bill on Committee Stage — perhaps not in this House, but certainly in the Dáil — to provide for the sale of flats to existing tenants. On Committee Stage in the Dáil, we will bring forward proposals for the sale of flats to existing tenants. It is an intricate area and there are legal considerations to be taken into account by the Department, the Attorney General and by outside legal people. However, it is my intention to come forward with a scheme for the sale of flats to tenants during the passage of this Bill through the Oireachtas.
The tenant purchase scheme was also raised. There is a tenant purchase scheme in existence at present. It is based on a 3% discount of the market value of the house for a ten year period, which means 30%. In addition to that, a sum of €3,809 is also deducted. For example, if the market value of a house is €140,000, that tenant can buy the house for €94,200. I do not have any proposals to change the scheme but I will always keep those things under review.
Senator Burke raised the issue of single rural houses. That might not seem important in Dublin or Cork, but it is still an issue with many local authorities where houses have been run down and are not capable of being repaired. In those circumstances, county managers and housing officers still deal in the provision of rural houses. This means that the person and his family are maintained in that rural area and they hold the fabric of that town or village together. There is still a need for that. Some elderly people may wish to move into a village where there are more services, but in rural townlands there is still a need for it.
Our focus has been in establishing a sufficiently robust foundation to allow the sale to proceed, but I have already said that. I am encouraged by the supportive comments here today, and the constructive contribution made on Second Stage, and I look forward to dealing with the Bill on Committee Stage and to interacting with Members of the House on it.