Commencement Matters

Local Authority Housing Waiting Lists

I have raised the issue several times in the past of how Carlow County Council has one of the lowest income thresholds for people seeking inclusion on its housing list. As the Minister of State is aware, unless a person is on a local authority housing list, he or she will not get rent allowance or housing assistance payment, HAP. To qualify for Carlow County Council's housing list, the maximum net income for two adults with one child is €26,875 and €27,500 for two adults with more than one child. In Kildare, the limit is €38,000 for two adults with one child and €39,000 for two adults with more than one child.

There is a difference of approximately €11,000 between Kildare and Carlow. The difference between Kilkenny and Carlow is approximately €6,500. Given that ours is the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, why would people want to apply to Carlow County Council when they can join the housing list in Kilkenny while earning €6,500 more? That is a significant amount. The difference between Wicklow and Carlow and Wexford and Carlow are similar at €11,000 and €6,000, respectively. The only authority that is equivalent to us is Laois. These two authorities have the lowest thresholds.

I will provide some statistics. Recently, I dealt with three or four cases in my clinic. In one, a family had just one working member who was bringing home between €350 and €400 per week, which entitled that family to the family income supplement, FIS. When people qualify for FIS, it means that they are not earning enough and the Government is helping to bring them up to what they should get. However, someone in receipt of FIS does not qualify to get on Carlow County Council's housing list because it puts people over the threshold. Imagine someone with an income of €500 and rent of €250 per week being told that he or she does not qualify for Carlow County Council's housing list due to being over the threshold.

We have a housing crisis, yet people who are trying to work and make ends meet and who qualify for FIS are being told that they do not qualify for a housing list. Do they give up work, get their entitlements and go on the housing list or are we not meant to tell them that they can work and we will help them? By giving them FIS, we are putting them over the threshold for the housing list. I have encountered several such cases recently. It is an awful situation for any family to be in.

I also wish to discuss HAP, which gives rise to a similar issue. Under HAP, a one-time payment for a deposit is allowed, but it comes from the Intreo offices of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I recently encountered a number of cases in this regard. When someone finds a house and a landlord who will accept HAP, the person is delighted. If a deposit is required, fair enough. If it is a first-time deposit, I will tell the person that he or she is entitled to get a deposit but that it will be needed quickly. If the person instead borrows for the first-time deposit, which many do because a landlord will naturally want that security, he or she will be told that there is no entitlement as a result. Young people and families who have borrowed from families and friends are approaching me. They might only be borrowing the €1,000, which is a great deal, as €200 here or €200 there. I will give them a letter vouching for that. However, when they attend an Intreo office, they are told that they do not qualify for their first-time deposits because of the money they borrowed. This means that they will lose their houses, rendering them homeless.

We have Rebuilding Ireland and the Minister of State is doing his best, but there are many teething problems and the people on the ground are being forgotten. I hope that the Minister of State will address these points and revert to me as soon as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. On 1 April 2011, the social housing assessment regulations introduced a new standard procedure for assessing applicants for social housing in every housing authority. This included the introduction of maximum net income limits for each housing authority in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy.

Before the new system was introduced, there was considerable inconsistency in the approaches taken across local authorities. Some authorities had income limits for social housing, some had none. How income was assessed against limits also varied widely, with different arrangements in place in housing authorities. This meant that applicants for support who were on similar incomes in areas with similar housing costs could be treated differently just because of where they happened to live. This approach was neither efficient nor fair.

The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band, which were introduced in 2011, were based on an assessment of income needed to provide for a household's basic need, plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation across the country. The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants were drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities.

The maximum bands apply to one-adult households and can be adjusted by housing authorities to take account of additional household members. These allowances are 5% for each additional adult household member up to a maximum of 10%, that is, two additional adults, and 2.5% for each additional child up to a maximum of 10%, that is, four children.

There are currently three income bands applicable across the country, with Carlow County Council in band 3, as are 15 of the other 31 local authorities. This reflects the fact that the cost of rental and housing accommodation in the county is relatively lower than higher band counties, such as those in the greater Dublin area. The Senator mentioned Kildare. The threshold for a two-adult and two-child household in County Carlow is €27,500 net income after tax, PRSI and USC, with higher limits applying to larger households up to a maximum of three adults and four children.

Under the household means policy, which applies in all housing authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. The policy provides for a range of income disregards and housing authorities have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short term or one-off in nature.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. That said, I will confirm to the Senator that, as part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of the income eligibility limits for social housing supports has commenced. My Department is working in conjunction with the Housing Agency on this review and I expect the results to be available for publication later this year. We signalled this last year, as we recognised that the limits were set in 2011, since when much had changed. There will be an update on the review shortly, but there will be no change until it has been completed.

Thankfully, the Senator is a fan of HAP. Some people recognise how important it is and that it helps. In most cases, people are able to return to work and increase their incomes thanks to HAP. Previous rental supports did not allow for that or cater for people who wanted to better themselves and earn more money. That is why the scheme exists. That it works well has been recognised. It does not work well for everyone, but it is another option in the set of available actions and supports. I am not claiming that it solves the problem for everyone, but it does for quite a few.

I will raise the Senator's local concerns directly with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Since the start of January, the homeless pathfinder scheme has kicked in in all counties. Where a homeless person applies to a local authority for HAP through the pathfinder scheme, the deposit and the first month's rent will be paid by HAP, which differs from the current system in most counties where social welfare kicks in. If there are doubts in this regard, we will have them clarified. It should not be the case that, if someone manages to find money somewhere else to cover the deposit, he or she loses that entitlement.

As the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil, when it comes to raising money for rent or deposits, people often turn to family members, friends and other mechanisms. That is exactly what the Senator is saying. The Taoiseach recognises that because, like the Senator, he is in touch with people on the ground.

As we have gone well over time, the Senator must be brief.

I thank the Minister of State. It is important that Carlow's threshold of €27,500 increase to at least €31,000 or €32,000. People cannot stay within that threshold and they will not qualify for mortgages because they are not earning enough. Since timing is crucial, the Minister of State will revert to me as soon as possible. It must not be left until the end of the year. The report must be completed as quickly as possible. The threshold needs to be changed.

Seaweed Harvesting Licences

Senator Ó Clochartaigh is always swift and efficient.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá mé an-shásta gur tháinig sé isteach. No more than me, he is probably wondering why seaweed harvesting falls under his planning brief. That question has already been raised.

There is not much seaweed in his constituency.

I have a neighbour who harvests it.

The Minister of State is a great man for eating spuds that have been grown with seaweed. Strangely enough, we previously discussed this issue which affects many coastal areas.

We have the historical situation where seaweed is owned by the State but there are traditional types of seaweed harvesting rights. Quite a number of people might have land and a folio which would give them appurtenant rights to harvest seaweed on a foreshore close to their homes for domestic use, etc. Seaweed is a wonderful resource which can be harvested and create employment in rural areas. Many traditional harvesters do this difficult manual labour regularly and use it to supplement other forms of income. It is a vital resource and asset which benefits people in rural areas.

Seaweed harvesting is an issue in Connemara which I have raised with previous Ministers on several occasions. There is a review of the foreshore licensing regime which has come on foot of several issues. The largest seaweed processing plant in Ireland, Arramara Teoranta, which was a State-owned company, was sold to a Canadian company, Acadian Seaplants. There are several other companies working in this area. There are 13 applications with the Department seeking leave to harvest more seaweed in a commercial manner. They are under consideration, pending review of the legislation in this area.

We were trying to ascertain how many people would have the legal right to harvest seaweed in their area. The Property Registration Authority, PRA, was asked to do an audit of all the folios in the State to see how many have such rights. Has the Minister of State an update on this, as it was meant to be done a long time ago? That would, in turn, affect where licences could be issued. The licences are subject to certain limitations. We know a licence was recently granted to BioAtlantis for the harvesting of seaweed in County Cork which has raised a certain amount of controversy among locals there. There can be limitations around when, where, how much and what types of seaweed can be cut.

The whole area has been up in the air for the past several years because of lack of clarity around the legislation and the licensing regime. I know it is the Government's intention to overhaul it. It is high time we had an update on when this will happen. My concern is that we want to ensure the rights of the traditional harvesters are maintained. I have suggested to them that they should band themselves together in a co-op style organisation to ensure fair trade. Collective bargaining with the different companies would also ensure the best price for their harvests. Such a set-up would be appropriate and would benefit the companies too. We need proper management plans in place in areas to ensure seaweed is harvested properly and in a sustainable manner to ensure it will grow quickly again to be there for future generations.

I look forward to the Minister of State giving us a comprehensive update on this matter.

Originally, I was scratching my head when I learned this matter came under my Department's remit. However, I now understand why it does because it is important, from a licensing point of view, that this resource is managed properly and in a sustainable way. If one reads through the case in Bantry, one will realise we take this job seriously and put much work into ensuring our seaweed resource is managed in a sustainable way. As that licence was originally granted in 2011 by a Green Party Minister, I am sure a green approach was taken. In 2014, the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, added to that licence. My job in the past year in dealing with that case has been around the conditions of the licence and the monitoring of it to ensure harvesting is carried out in a sustainable way. If anybody steps out of line on that, we will deal with it. That proves the Department’s credentials, as well as mine and my team’s, in how we take our job seriously in this area.

That is another reason we are also developing a marine strategy for the next 25 years, similar to the national planning framework, examining the long-term ways of managing our marine resources. Like all the work we do in government, we take a long-term view on this. We deal immediately with live issues as they come across our desks and we also plan ahead for 30 years.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am aware he met with officials from my Department on 20 December 2017 when he was given an overall briefing on this issue.

The role of my Department in the harvesting of wild seaweed is to regulate the activity in accordance with the Foreshore Act 1933. In carrying out this task, there is a need to ensure the resource is managed appropriately, with the twin aims of protecting the marine environment and allowing for a sustainable level of harvesting.

Seaweed harvesting has a long and honourable tradition in this country. I recognise the valuable role seaweed plays in the environment, culture and economy of coastal communities, particularly along the west coast. Seaweed harvesting has provided a source of income to traditional harvesters and their families for generations. However, the image of hand harvesting of small quantities for domestic use, for example, is no longer reflective of the actual situation. It has changed from harvesting for personal use to primarily being harvested for sale.

Seaweed represents a valuable natural resource which, if sustainably exploited, can maintain and stimulate further economic development in some rural areas. While acknowledging the contribution this has made to household income over many years, the reality is that seaweed is now the key raw material required by certain cutting edge bio-pharma and similar type companies. These businesses face many challenges, one of which is security of supply of their most essential ingredient, seaweed.

My aim is to bring clarity to the regulatory regime applying to wild seaweed harvesting, seeking to balance existing rights and commercial potential, while also ensuring sustainability of the resource and compliance with the State's obligations under domestic and EU environmental law. The need to prevent the overexploitation of this valuable resource is the principle which must underpin the regulation of wild seaweed harvesting.

The key part of this exercise is to fully establish the implications of the interaction between these existing seaweed harvesting rights and the applications for licences by companies. In that regard, my Department has met with the Attorney General's office on several occasions to examine these issues.

To try to establish the extent and the nature of existing rights to harvest seaweed, my Department engaged with the PRA to attempt to establish the extent of appurtenant rights specified in Land Registry folios to harvest seaweed which may exist. On foot of this request, the PRA has provided my Department with data detailing the extent of the rights in seven of the western seaboard counties, namely, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal.

No decisions have yet been reached on the commercial seaweed harvesting applications which have been received by my Department. My Department is continuing to work on this complex legal issue. I hope to have made substantial progress on the matter by March or April 2018.

There are merits in the Senator's suggestions for harvesters coming together in a co-operative structure. When I was in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, we looked at that model. It would have great benefits for everybody involved. It would also help in managing the seaweed resource in a sustainable way and maximising its potential for local areas. Seaweed has much to offer in many areas and certainly in medicinal products. As a country with so much of it, we should be in that space.

I welcome the Minister of State's comments, particularly around the co-operative approach. The PRA report has been there for some time. Is it possible for the Minister of State to publish those findings or make them available to me as an Oireachtas Member to allow me go over them? Can we expect some clarity on the legislative proposals within the next two months?

I will see if I can get the PRA report for the Senator. I cannot see any reason I cannot. I will come back in March or April with an update on how this is going to be progressed.

Television Licence Fee

I apologise to the Minister of State for keeping him waiting earlier. It was not my intention but I was delayed in traffic. I left it tight but the reality is that the traffic is much worse on certain mornings which is down to increased economic activity.

Many people do not watch conventional television anymore. The idea of a television licence man knocking on doors trying to find somebody with a television but without a licence seems outdated in the world in which we live today.

There is----

(Interruptions).

I am sorry, but I will have to stop.

I am sorry. Are they gone?

Thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh; it was really distracting.

In a world where we no longer watch television in a conventional way - many watch it on mobile devices, etc., are not watching it as much and not just watching the national broadcaster - we really need to look at this issue. The television licence does not make much sense to me, but we need a national broadcaster. We should not, however, go down the road of having US-type commercially driven, opinion-forming media. There is a place for the national broadcaster. Whether we need it to provide the services it provides is another question; that is a broader issue. I have suggested a system that would reduce the overall cost for everybody. However, I see difficulties with what I am suggesting. When Pat Rabbitte tried to do it, it was perceived as a broadband charge. That is a dangerous area into which to stray in the sense that there are people, some of whom contacted me in the past week or two, who say they choose not to watch television and ask why they are facing a charge. That is an issue.

RTÉ provides all of its television and radio stations; TG4, which is extremely important; the RTÉ orchestras; the Oireachtas television channel; the RTÉ Player and the sound and vision fund. It provides a huge array of stuff. However, certain things could potentially be reduced. We need to review how we think about broadcasting because the world is changing. This issue is difficult for the Government because it is political.

I want to be clear that I would not suggest anything that would affect people such as old-age pensioners who have the right to a free television licence. I have a difficulty with the argument in favour of a broadband charge in the sense that that is how it is perceived. It is something we need to address. I know that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment has found that the television licence system is not fit for purpose. Notwithstanding the difficulty in trying to sort out this issue politically, we need to bring the system into the 21st century.

I again apologise for being delayed.

There was no problem with the delay. It was interesting to listen to the debate about seaweed harvesting, on which I am not an expert.

It is great for regulating one's thyroid.

I am not an expert on this issue either which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, who sends his apologies. He recognises the important part public service broadcasters play in our democratic society. The provision of stable and adequate funding is essential to ensuring the continued delivery of their role in that regard. He is also aware, however, of the challenges facing the existing television licence system, including the current unacceptable levels of evasion. While the rate has fallen from 15.3% at the end of 2013 to the current rate of 14.6%, it is still much too high. In addition, the number of households required to have a licence under the current system is declining due to a departure from traditional viewing habits, as the Senator outlined. Recent reports show that 9% of households no longer have a television set. I do not have the statistic which shows the percentage of households that never had a television set because a certain number did not.

While the current television licence model has provided a measure of stability to date, the rapid changes in technology altering the traditional way in which television is watched, together with economic pressures generally, mean that there is a serious question mark against the ability of the current funding model to provide continued stable funding for public service media in the long term. In October 2016 the Minister requested the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to examine the longer term issue of the future funding of public service media. As the Senator will be aware, the committee considered this issue following a period of public consultation and stakeholder engagement. It launched its report on the future funding of public service broadcasting in November 2017. The Minister's officials are considering its contents and it is the Minister's intention to bring proposals to the Cabinet in the near future on funding options. In addition, he has proposed a number of amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2009, including amendments to allow for the tendering of television licence fee collection. The proposed amendments are being considered by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process. The Minister looks forward to receiving the committee's report as soon as possible. In the meantime, there will be no change to the existing television licence-fee arrangements.

The Senator has rightly pointed out that many people use mobile devices. I will try to avoid naming some of the bigger companies operating in that area, but people are already paying a fee to obtain that product. While public service broadcasting is done quite differently in the United States, as the Senator mentioned, there are other examples in Europe of how public service broadcasting is funded which should and I know will be examined. The television licence-fee arrangement has always been contentious because for many years RTÉ was the only television broadcaster and also the only recipient of television advertising revenue. There is the question of having a level playing field for other television stations that do not receive any part of the fee and have to compete for advertising revenue in order to survive.

The Senator has acknowledged that it is a complex issue, on which the Minister expects to bring proposals to the Cabinet in the near future.

I should have pointed out that what I am suggesting would avoid the evasion issue entirely because the telecommunications companies would collect the fee on behalf of the Government. Therefore, for a start one would be dealing with 20 organisations or however many telecommunications companies there are, rather than individuals. It is a very positive part of my suggestion.

I agree entirely with what the Minister of State said. He said people were being charged for the device used. However, they already pay a charge for Sky, Virgin Media, Netflix, etc. In addition, there is illegal downloading. It is a minefield. There is a load of stuff happening in the area about which I do not have a clue. Having a level playing field is a huge issue. It is arguable whether the funding should be spread and that all broadcasters have to be balanced, etc. It is a conversation we need to have. It is welcome that the Department is reviewing the committee's report. Perhaps we might be able in the near future to identify innovative ways to address what is a very archaic system.

I accept that the system is archaic, but even on the suggestion about broadband, as the Senator knows, there are-----

Areas without broadband.

There are large areas without broadband, which complicates the matter even more.

Therefore, we are in agreement.

Schools Building Projects Status

I welcome the Minister.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to take this debate. It is no surprise that I am bringing up the issue again. I have discussed it on the floor of the Chamber and elsewhere with the Minister during the past 18 months. I last raised it in October through a Commencement matter, at which stage the Minister said a site had been identified by the Department and that it was proceeding with the matter.

I do not intend to take any longer than I need. The Minister knows of my deep connection to the school and my extraordinary desire to see it move ahead. I am seeking an update on the search to find a permanent home for Stepaside Educate Together secondary school. The school is vital to the entire area, but when it is complete and full, it will be a major asset to what is the third fastest growing townland in the country.

The Department has been working closely with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council under the memorandum of understanding on the acquisition of a permanent site. Engagement with the council commenced as far back as 2012. The Senator will appreciate that in this highly urban area there is limited availability of suitable sites. Coupled with the high demand for land generally in the area, this has led to a protracted site acquisition process. I am pleased to inform the Senator, however, that a suitable permanent site option has been identified and that a formal offer has been made to the landowner to acquire the site. My Department is discussing the heads of terms, with a view to obtaining agreement. Unfortunately, owing to commercial sensitivities, it is not possible to disclose the location of the site until formal confirmation of the Department's offer is received. However, the school patron, Educate Together, will be informed of the proposed location as soon as it is possible to do so.

Agreement on the acquisition of the site will be subject to agreement on the heads of terms, including some technical design issues, on which negotiations are under way. Subject to agreement being obtained, it is envisaged that preliminary design work on the school building project can commence while the site acquisition process is being completed.

The Senator will probably know the details from the previous debate, but there is a planning issue that remains unresolved.

Given that I live 200 yards from the primary school, I am perfectly aware of it. I thank the Minister. I have no supplementary questions, but I would appreciate receiving any update as the process proceeds.

I will keep in touch with the Senator.