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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 1 Oct 2019

Vol. 267 No. 5

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Rehabilitative Training Allowance Payments

The country was a bit taken aback and none more so than those with disability, their families, carers and supporters, and those working within the disability sector. The rehabilitative training, RT, allowance facilitates independence and recognises those who are working hard to better themselves. In turn our economy and community benefits from them. We get new workers, new skills and new talents. It is certainly not charity. We benefit the most from when people with disabilities like the rest of us are accommodated into the workforce and into society.

The training allowance has been debated in the lower House. I have done my homework and I hope the Minister of State has also. I do not wish to sit here and read the same script I could read on I hope the Minister of State will progress the debate and answer the questions I pose here today.

Sinn Féin launched our alternative budget this morning. We make ten pledges for disability all of which are costed. Out of those ten we are proposing €3.7 million for the reinstatement of RT allowance.

The first rationale the Minister of State gave in the Dáil for phasing out this payment was to bring equity and consistency between people with a disability attending HSE-funded training programmes who receive the payment and those attending similar HSE-funded day services or other State schemes such as further education and training. Surely another option is to extend the payment to similar HSE schemes.

In a similar vein, he said the redirected funding, amounting to €3.7 million over four years, will be ring-fenced to facilitate 140 full day placements or 370 enhanced day places nationally based on priority of need. This pits one person against another when they are affected by the policy. I can think of several less worthy waste-of-money projects, including the mismanagement of the national children's hospital, the money for which could have been used to retain the training allowance and provide new day placements. It is unfair and quite underhanded to pit these two against each other - divide and conquer is the old adage.

Before the Minister of State says that we are in opposition and the Government has to take tough decisions and uses other spin, I point out that in our alternative budget we have stated that we will reinstate the allowance. He might say that it is an extra. It is true that some families will be able to replace the €31 to allow their young adults to get late-night transport, meet friends and ultimately develop their lives so that they are independent, but many more families are stretched and will not be able to pick up this slack for the Department.

In these cases, the Government has taken away their only resource to gain independence, socialise and practice life skills needed for the workforce. They will lose out and so will we. We constantly talk about equality and inclusion and yet here we are battening down the hatches and taking a badly needed allowance away from individuals who need it and who are among the most vulnerable in society. I urge the Minister of State to reconsider.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue and for the opportunity to outline the position on the rehabilitative training bonus payment and to clear up some of the misleading information that was unfortunately put out during the summer period when the Seanad and Dáil were closed.

The Government's priority is to provide access to high-quality day services to as many people with disabilities as possible. The HSE currently funds day services for more than 27,000 people with disabilities, including day services and RT programmes. Placements in day services are invaluable as they provide people with disabilities with a range of supports to allow them to make the types of choices available to other adults, enabling them to live independent lives of their choosing.

The HSE's New Directions policy seeks to reconfigure and personalise HSE-funded adult day services and offers a flexible and individualised set of supports to enable each person to live a life of their choosing in accordance with their own wishes and needs.

The RT programmes are designed to equip participants with basic personal, social and work-related skills. Approximately 2,300 people attend RT programmes and since the start of September, approximately 400 school leavers have commenced their RT programme.

The rehabilitative training bonus payment is currently payable at a rate of €31.80 per week to attendees of these programmes, who can attend for a period of up to four years. The rehabilitative training bonus was introduced in 2001, aligned with a similar FÁS training bonus that later became the SOLAS vocational training programme payment. It is important to note that this payment was reduced in 2011 and discontinued in 2012.

Over the next four years, from September 2019, the rehabilitative training bonus will not apply to new attendees. Rather, the money that would have been spent on the bonus, estimated at approximately €3.7 million over four years, will be redirected to address unmet need in day service provision for people with disabilities. The redirected funding, which the HSE has confirmed will be ring-fenced, which is a word often used by colleagues, will create approximately 148 additional full day placements, or 370 additional enhanced day places nationally, for those with a reduced service or no service based on priority need. These new day services will be of great support to those with a disability and their families.

Each community healthcare organisation area will have the flexibility to redirect its own savings to address local service requirements, of which there are many, and the HSE has confirmed it will be reporting regularly to the Department of Health on the additional placements realised. I emphasise the 2,300 current participants in rehabilitative training programmes will not be affected and will retain their allowance, and their payments will continue until they complete their four-year programme.

It is important to note that while the majority of attendees of HSE day services qualify for disability allowance, paid at a rate of €203 per week, which was increased in the three most recent budgets, they also qualify for a free travel pass. The additional rehabilitative training bonus payment is only payable to attendees of rehabilitative training programmes. This decision will maximise the use of finite resources and, crucially, will ensure that all attendees of HSE-funded day services have the same level of support.

There is no cut to the payment of the rehabilitative training bonus and there is no cut to the number of rehabilitative training places available. Since 2 September, approximately 400 school leavers who opted for a rehabilitative training placement have commenced attending their programmes.

The Minister of State started by saying this misinformation was during the summer when the Seanad and Dáil were not in session. The Minister of State can spin it whatever way he wants but I call them cuts and they occurred when the Seanad and Dáil were not available. Last week, Senator Dolan spoke passionately about this. He has a finger on the pulse of the disability sector. There is extreme disappointment that the Minister of State has not acknowledged this will damage a very vulnerable section of society, which he has worked very hard to bring up and make more visible and protect their demands and rights. This does not do anything in this regard and just puts more people in the poverty trap. We know disability is linked to the highest rate of poverty in this country. It pits one section against another. Expansion is needed and not contraction, which is what this is viewed as. Voices in the sector have tried to influence the budget due next week to reverse the cuts and I hope the Minister of State has also done so.

I thank Senator Devine for her interest in this issue. Of course I always listen to the voices in the sector. I reassure those with disabilities attending the rehabilitative training programmes and their families that the phasing out of the bonus will not affect anyone currently attending the rehabilitative training programme. I emphasise there is no cut in the payment of the rehabilitative training bonus. Those receiving it will continue to do so for the remainder of the rehabilitative training programme. There is no cut in the number of rehabilitative training places available. All rehabilitative training participants continue to be eligible for the disability allowance of €300 per week and they receive a free travel pass. No expectation of the rehabilitative training bonus payment has been created by the HSE for the 2019 participants of rehabilitative training programmes.

The Senator has raised very valid arguments with regard to poverty. Of course I accept that many people with disabilities have extra costs.

We are considering that matter. A group within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is examining a proposal to increase the amount for disability services. However, I cannot discriminate by giving 400 people an allowance and not giving it to the other 26,000. Were I to extend it - I would love to if I won the lotto - it would cost in the region of €30 million. I would rather put the money into day services and emergency residential places, given the current crisis therein.

The budget next week might help Senator Devine.

Senator Bacik is next. For the first time ever, we were to have four female Senators moving Commencement matters, but one has dropped out. It was going to be ladies' day.

Family Reunification Policy

Tá fáilte romhat, a Aire Stáit.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to the House and thank him for dealing with this matter, which calls on the Minister for Justice and Equality to provide information concerning persons in respect of whom he has given permission to come to Ireland from Syria as part of the Irish refugee protection programme humanitarian admission programme, IHAP, but whose access to travel documents has been impeded by the conflict and the relevant authorities, and to make information available regarding a procedure for assisting persons to travel here urgently, as their lives are in many cases in serious danger in Syria.

As the Minister of State will be well aware, the Minister announced the IHAP last year to provide a pathway for eligible family members coming from major conflict zones as part of the Government's commitment to realising the target of 4,000 persons to come to Ireland under the Irish refugee protection programme. The IHAP was to provide for 530 vulnerable family members to be admitted before the end of 2019. Figures released by the Minister in the Dáil show that, unfortunately, far fewer than that number have come to Ireland because 75% of the first round of applications have been refused. This is a matter of grave concern. I have met members of the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement, ISSM, and members of the Syrian community who tell me that there are all sorts of obstacle in the way of persons submitting their documents. Sometimes, documents may be incomplete due to a lack of identity papers or people may lack accommodation.

The specific issue I am raising relates to persons who have received permission for vulnerable family members still in Syria. I have been in communication for a number of months with the Department of Justice and Equality's Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, and travel document section relating to a family in an urgent situation. Family members are in Idlib, which is under siege. They cannot get out of Idlib. They have been given permission by the State to come to Ireland where they have close family members, including siblings. I keep getting a circular response from INIS to the effect that they must travel to the Irish embassy in Ankara, Turkey to access their travel documents, but they are unable to do so. They are in a terrible situation. Their lives are at risk daily. There are several hundred thousand civilians stuck in Idlib, which is under bombardment, so this family is not the only one in such a position. As a matter of urgency, would it be possible for the Department, INIS and the travel document section to arrange for Irish officials from Ankara to travel to the Turkish-Syrian border to assist with the beneficiaries' travel documents and arrange for safe passage out of Syria?

I have liaised on this issue with Senators Humphreys and Kelleher, who share my concern and have met the Syrian family in question. There is precedent from a number of years ago, where family members were at urgent risk in an African country and Irish officials travelled and were able to bring travel documents to the individuals concerned. It is essential that the Minister of State communicates with the travel document section and follows up on these beneficiaries, who have been given approval to come to Ireland but are physically unable to get out of Idlib.

There is the larger issue of IHAP applications being refused to such an extent that, given how we are now in October, it is unlikely that we will see the number of people who were supposed to be allowed admission coming to Ireland.

Is there a way the safe passage of this small group of people who have been granted permission to join family members here but are unable to escape the siege in Idlib can be ensured?

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and on my own behalf, I thank Senator Bacik for raising the extreme difficulties being experienced by some people from Syria in obtaining travel documents. As she stated, they have been granted permission to come to Ireland by the Minister as part of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, IRPP, humanitarian admission programme. I have met some people who have benefited from this programme, which as far as I know, is unique to Ireland. It is hoped that the full complement of 4,000 Syrians will be here before the end of the year. That is our intention.

Irish travel documents are normally issued only to people physically and legally present within the State and who, by definition, have had face-to-face contact with immigration and-or Garda authorities. The checks and balances arising from this requirement assist the State to satisfy itself that travel documents issue legitimately. However, exceptions are sometimes made for persons who are outside of the State. In such cases, the applicants are required to travel to the nearest Irish embassy to complete application forms and to pick up their travel documents. This is necessary to protect the integrity of the process. It enables verification of the identity of the applicant upon application and at the time of booklet collection and links up the elements in the chain between applying and receiving the travel document.

I understand that the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, may exceptionally issue a one-way travel document for those who do not have officially recognised documents. However, such persons must been granted prior permission to come to Ireland. For security reasons, and in line with best practice, travel documents are not sent through international post but are sent by diplomatic channels to the nearest Irish embassy. Even if the level of security offered by international post were acceptable, postal services to the required areas are not always available. I understand that this applies in Syria.

When Irish travel documents are issued, such as to programme refugee beneficiaries, it is to facilitate their travel, where possible. It is the understanding of the immigration service of the Department that while the recipients have been given permission to enter the State and reside in the State, they must make their own arrangements for getting here. While the immigration service will process a valid application and cause to have an Irish travel document produced for the applicant, it is currently outside the scope and resources of the immigration service to guarantee that the travel document will reach an applicant in all instances.

As mentioned by the Senator in her opening remarks, Syria, in particular Idlib, is in a war zone. We would not ask Irish officials to put their lives at risk by attempting to travel there. The ICRC can issue documents for one-way travel in exceptional cases. I am not sure if that has been explored in this instance.

I thank the Minister of State for his response but I am disappointed that he does not suggest any alternative. In my latest correspondence with the travel document section of the immigration service, I raised the possibility of a laissez-passer document being issued through, for example, the Red Cross as suggested by the Minister of State and that is currently being explored. The response I got from INIS was that the travel document section is exploring options for addressing the issue. Officials are aware of this matter but for months now the response has been that they are exploring options. I know that the family concerned is anxious to explore all options, including the option referenced by the Minister of State. Nobody expects Irish officials to put their lives at risk. We understand the need for checks and balances but given that permission has been granted and the very dangerous situation in which this family is in, I ask for an opportunity to meet the Minister of State directly to discuss this particular case in more depth. I am pleased to have had this opportunity to raise it as a more general issue as well.

I am always happy to meet the Senator, in particular on a serious issue such as this. I reiterate that for security reasons and to uphold the integrity of the Irish immigration system, a number of checks and balances must be completed by the Irish authorities before a travel document can issue. Our rigorous policies and procedures are in line with those in operation in other EU member states. As the Senator will be aware, UNHCR Ireland worked with us to design and implement the IHAP programme as part of the wider IRPP, which, as I said, earlier is unique to Ireland.

The Irish immigration service cannot involve its staff members, their relatives or associates of the intended recipient or third parties in the delivery of documents to locations that would require such persons to put themselves at risk to effect that delivery. Herein lies the problem. As mentioned by the Senator, Idlib is under bombardment such that the people concerned cannot get out to get the documents and our officials cannot get in. It is an impossible, extraordinarily difficult and awful situation. The Minister and I appreciate that some refugee programme beneficiaries in Syria encounter difficulties in accessing travel documents and may be impeded by conflicting authorities in the region.

It is not easy. However, as I have already stated, persons who cannot obtain documents from the relevant authorities in their country of origin may, in very urgent circumstances, approach the International Committee of the Red Cross for assistance. I am glad to hear that is being explored, as the Senator has said. The Minister believes the current system is the most robust and pragmatic means to facilitate travel to Ireland for those refugees in Syria who are in need of urgent international protection.

Environmental Schemes

I ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, in light of Ireland's climate change targets and the likely impact of increased fuel prices on tenants in particular, what his plans are to accelerate the retrofitting of social housing and raising energy ratings of private rental accommodation while protecting existing tenancies.

We know Ireland has been a laggard with climate action and it also has some of the highest home energy costs in Europe. Those costs will necessarily need to increase because the price will need to reflect the real cost of carbon. This increase will particularly affect the 372,000 persons currently in receipt of fuel allowance. Many of those who would be most affected by higher fuel costs are those who are renting; they would be either tenants in public housing or in private rental with less control over their environments and energy consumption, as well as the energy rating of the home in which they live.

The Government is falling far short of its target for retrofitting. The climate plan sets out a goal of 500,000 deep retrofits, or 50,000 per year, and although many would see a higher number done, last year there were only 250 deep retrofits and 21,000 shallow retrofits. Over the past six years there have only been 70,000 forms of retrofit at all with local authority housing.

Will the Minister address both energy poverty and climate action by deeply retrofitting the 9% of all housing stock that is currently publicly owned or under public funding, either through local authorities or approved housing bodies? This is a chance to take a significant step through mitigation and adaptation. By dealing with 30 to 40 landlords within that 9% portion of housing stock, the Government could have access to 150,000 homes. I am asking for a doubling or trebling of the resource allocation for retrofitting of local authority housing. St. Vincent de Paul has recommended €50 million at a minimum to take a step in that regard.

There is also an urgent need for a new approach in retrofitting of private accommodation. Rents in Dublin are 34% higher than the previous peak and there is low take-up of current schemes by landlords. The proposals from St. Vincent de Paul suggest we need to increase the energy standards in the private sector through a combination of carrot and stick. We may need incentives. I know there are improvements in the new rental and tenancies Bill, but this still allows for the raising of rent, which creates a pressure. Many tenants would prefer to absorb higher fuel costs rather than risk an increase in rent. We must recognise that retrofitting must happen without an increase in rent for Part 4 long-term tenants as it is about raising the standard to at least a C rating in private rentals by 2030. We should offer incentives to landlords but where we do, we must ensure we do not see an increase in rent as well. In effect, we should help them with compliance rather than giving a mandate for an increase in rent.

I hope we can front-load action in this area in the upcoming budget. There are many forms of climate action that are difficult and have multiple stakeholders. There is much capacity for action in this area. If we do not front-load this, the price will be paid by individuals in fuel costs; it will be paid by tenants and the State's citizens. This is a message about mitigation, adaptation and just transition. I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, sends his apologies for not being here today.

The aligned and shared vision of the national planning framework, in tandem with the national development plan, represents a joined-up planning and investment strategy for Ireland's future growth and development, focused on a series of ten shared national outcomes. It includes a number or ambitious climate action objectives specific to the built environment sector, including delivering, of course, more sustainable growth of compact and connected cities, towns and villages. Greater energy efficiency is a key benefit of this type of compact growth. The multi-storey and terraced buildings in close proximity that this type of development involves require less energy, as the Senator will know, and make renewables-based systems of energy distribution such as district heating or area-wide technology upgrades more feasible.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has responsibility for multiple actions in the all-of-government plan to tackle climate breakdown, including aspects of the built environment. The Department is driving a number of actions that will contribute to more energy efficient housing. In terms of social housing, securing improved energy efficiency has been the focus of concerted action for some time. Indeed, funding of €135 million has been provided from 2013 to 2019 to improve energy efficiency and comfort levels in over 70,000 local authority-owned social housing homes. In addition, energy efficient measures have been incorporated into the 9,000-plus vacant social housing homes that have been returned to productive use since 2014. This effectively means that approximately 50% of our social housing stock has had a certain degree of energy retrofitting works carried out, thus improving comfort levels and addressing issues around fuel poverty. This programme has two phases. The bulk of the work undertaken to date has been centred on phase 1, which has focused on lower-cost improvements, such as cavity wall and attic insulation. Phase 2 will target higher-cost improvements such as fabric upgrades and glazing. The roll out of phase 2 will be a key component of the retrofitting ambitions for the housing stock more generally set out in the Government's climate action plan, and will be taken forward in the years ahead in light of available resources.

Rented properties present a particular challenge in terms of energy efficiency upgrades owing to what is termed as a split incentive. I do not know if the Senator is aware of that effect but it refers to instances where landlords meet the cost of improvements, while tenants reap the bulk of the benefit. The objective is to identify the most appropriate policy interventions that would minimise adverse impacts on the availability of accommodation, while improving energy efficiency and addressing fuel poverty, of course. In that regard, there is an advisory group that is comprised of the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. The advisory group is reviewing the issue of the split incentive in the rental market. The group will shortly initiate a public consultation with the focus on identifying proposals, which will help to address the issue. That public consultation will be open to everybody, politicians and the like.

From 1 November 2019, building regulations will require that for all dwellings, including rented dwellings, where more than 25% of the surface area of the building envelope is renovated, the energy performance of the renovated dwelling should achieve a building energy rating, BER, of B2 or the cost optimal equivalent.

All newly-constructed properties built to the new Part L regulations from 1 November 2019 will typically require a BER rating of A2 for a new dwelling subject to transition arrangements. Enhancing protections for tenants is a priority for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. To that end, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 introduced a number of key measures and reforms designed to enhance protections for tenants across the board, including applying the new Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, sanctioning regime to improper conduct by landlords who contravene the tenancy termination provisions.

The Act provides that where a landlord terminates a tenancy because he or she needs to substantially refurbish and/or renovate the property, the property must be offered back to the former tenant who provides his or her contact details on completion of the works. The Act defines "Substantial change in the nature of rental accommodation" to illustrate the type of works that qualify for the exemption from the rent pressure zone, RPZ, rent increase restriction include works that result in a permanent extension, increasing the floor area by 25%, an improvement in the BER by at least seven ratings, an improvement in the BER by three or more ratings where the original BER was D1 or lower, or an improvement in the BER by two or more ratings where the original BER was C3 or higher, taken together with other changes. This provision allows the landlord to set a fair rent to reflect the substantial upgrade works carried out for the benefit of tenants.

In addition, the notice periods for the termination of tenancies in the rental sector have been extended significantly. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will be continuing to ensure improved energy efficiency and associated amelioration of fuel poverty, both in social housing and the private rental sector, will continue to be the focus of attention in the years ahead.

The Minister of State has given a very comprehensive response.

Unfortunately, he did not answer my question about the amount of money that is planned to be invested. He has stated only that investment will be made "as resources allow." We are not standing still on this issue as every year we fail to retrofit, there is a cost to the public and individuals. That is the reason I question the split incentive. It is a straw man. The real issue is the double penalty, the penalty paid by tenants and the penalty paid by the State because of a failure to retrofit housing, while landlords have been reaping the benefits. We cannot look at rents continuing to rise. I would like an exact answer to my question as to whether there is a plan to accelerate or double the investment in retrofitting local authority housing in the next year.

The Senator mentioned the effect of the split incentive, whereby the economic benefits of reducing energy levels did not accrue to the party who was achieving the savings. A landlord is not incentivised to upgrade a rental property to make it more energy efficient because he or she does not gain a direct benefit. I agree that that is a problem.

They may avoid a fine in so doing.

It is the tenant who benefits through cheaper energy bills and having a warmer home. This is reflected across Europe. I know that the group will be meeting in the next couple of weeks. I do not have the figure for or a layout of the cost in the coming years, but let me emphasise that more than €135 million, a substantial sum, has been provided for expenditure in the period 2013 to 2019, inclusive. If one looks at the fiscal space - we are in a tight space - by any stretch of the imagination, it is a large amount in the context of the size of the economy. In the coming months all stakeholders, including the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, as well as interested groups will meet to discuss the issue which is being addressed under action 63 of the climate action plan which is due to go for public consultation in the coming months as part of the long-term renovation strategy. I know that the Senator has a great interest in this issue. I ask her to wait for the recommendations to be made public. People like her and other interested parties can be part of the consultation process. There is an obvious commitment by the Government to deal with climate change. One of the best ways to deal with it is by retrofitting public housing.

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.