Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Accommodation Provision

I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, to the House.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I have been asked by Councillor Rory O'Connor of Wicklow County Council to raise this important issue with the Minister on behalf of the parents and staff of St. Andrew's national school in Bray.

As the Minister may be aware, St. Andrew's national school is a fantastic school with a long and impressive history, having been founded in 1888 under the patronage of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It has undergone many changes, funded for the most part by the generosity of the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian communities in Bray. Over the years, it has expanded to include pupils from the Methodist Church.

St. Andrew's national school is unique as it was the first, and remains the only, school in Ireland to be shared by three churches. This arrangement has worked very well and is mutually beneficial, with all three churches playing an active role in the life of the school. The board of trustees comprises representatives of all three churches and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin is the school's patron. The ethos of the school is inclusive in nature and it welcomes everybody equally. The problem now facing the school is that there is no feeder status for St. Andrew's national school to any school in the area with the same ethos. As we know, Article 44 of the Constitution confers freedom to practice one's religion and State aid for schools. Schools cannot discriminate between different religions and denominations and parents of minority faiths have a right to send their children to schools of their ethos and values.

I have been told that currently some of the pupils in sixth class in St. Andrew's national school still have no places allocated to them for next year. The transition to secondary school is challenging enough for young people and their parents, without the added impediment of there being no school available with their religious ethos. For example, pupils from St. Andrew's have no category 1 access to any school in Bray. Newpark Comprehensive School is the closest to St. Andrew's but it is still some distance away and over-subscribed. Outside of Newpark Comprehensive School there is little choice for parents unless they have the means to pay extremely high fees to other schools which are not close to Bray. The options could not be more limited. Parents with children in St. Andrew's national school find themselves in a unique and, frankly, worrying situation. In Bray, there are barriers to their children accessing places in schools of other faiths. For example, to gain admission to the Presentation College, Bray, category 1, a child needs to have a parent who is a past pupil or a sibling who attended.

Loreto school is fed into St. Patrick's school first. St. Andrew's school worked tirelessly 25 or 30 years ago to get East Glendalough school in Wicklow up and running, only to be told St. Andrew's is not in the school's catchment area. Indeed, I represented East Glendalough school in my time in the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI.

In 2011, the school began a campaign to build a school such as East Glendalough school in Bray, but was told it could only bid for the proposed school in Greystones. The school was initially assured that the new school would be regional rather than local. It entered the bidding process and again received verbal assurances that the catchment area would be regional. However, it was subsequently informed it would be a local school for local children, leaving a considerable number of pupils outside the catchment area. One possible solution is Temple Carrig school, which is only five minutes up the road and is the only nearby school in Wicklow of a similar ethos. Will the Minister give serious consideration to giving feeder status to Temple Carrig school for all St. Andrew's pupils?

I understand a new secondary school is being fast-tracked to open next year with capacity for 1,000 pupils. St. David's Holy Faith secondary school is getting an extension in February 2020 to bring its capacity to 750 and Temple Carrig school is seeking an extension to accommodate 1,000 students. For St. Andrew's students to access places in Temple Carrig school the school places would have to be ring-fenced and St. Andrew's assigned category 1 feeder school status. I hope the Minister will have good news today for the pupils, staff and parents in St. Andrew's in Bray, who deeply need a school that shares their ethos within a reasonable distance of pupils' homes. I thank the Minister for taking this matter today and for his attendance in the House. I look forward to his response.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an cheist seo a ardú inniu. I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to outline the position relating to the provision of post-primary schools in Bray and the position of St Andrew's primary school as a feeder school.

The question of enrolment in individual schools generally, including the setting of catchment areas, is the responsibility of the board of management on behalf of the school patron. My Department does not seek to intervene in decisions made by schools in such matters. My Department's main responsibility is to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all pupils seeking school places in the area.

A board of management may find it necessary to prioritise the enrolment of children from particular areas or on the basis of some other criterion, including giving priority to applicants who have attended a particular primary school, known as a feeder school. The criteria to be applied by schools in such circumstances and the order of priority are a matter for the schools themselves. Parents have the right to choose which school to apply to and, where the school has places available, the pupil should be admitted. However, in schools where there are more applicants than places available, a selection process may be necessary. This selection process and the enrolment policy on which it is based must be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. This may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice. As the Senator may be aware, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 provides a new framework for school enrolment that is designed to ensure that every child is treated fairly and that the way in which schools decide on applications for admission is structured, fair and transparent.

I thank the Senator again for the opportunity to outline to the House the position in respect of feeder schools and the provision of post-primary schools in the Bray planning area.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I thank him very much for his response. With regard to the current environment in Ireland, many people are watching from abroad to see how we treat members of other faiths. In this particular instance, members of three faiths attend the primary school. There is an opportunity for the Government to be seen as magnanimous and understanding with regard to the placement of children. If Temple Carrig school could give category 1 status to pupils of the national school in question, it would go down well with the local community and would help show Ireland as a caring and understanding country with respect to the observance of the ethos of specific religions. We are becoming more multidenominational. I take the Minister's point regarding the opening of the multidenominational school in Bray, but we have to keep parents' right to choose under Article 44 of the Constitution to the forefront. Will the Minister commit to at least examining the possibility of giving category 1 status to such pupils applying to Temple Carrig school? Will he get his officials to have a look at that and to see if there is some way in which it could be facilitated?

I thank the Senator once again. One of the things I found out very early in this job was how important the integrity of all 314 school planning areas is. We had an issue in Dublin quite early on. Parents were making a similar demand. They also wished for their feeder school to be moved into a different planning area but the integrity of the planning areas must be respected because we would otherwise not be able to operate a structure to measure demographic changes and demand.

On Temple Carrig secondary school, which the Senator has mentioned, this is a 750-pupil post-primary school established in 2014 with a Church of Ireland ethos. It is in the adjacent Greystones school planning area, some 4 km from St. Andrew's national school in Bray. New schools established since 2011 to meet demographic demand, including Temple Carrig secondary school, are required to prioritise, in the first instance, pupil applications from within the designated school planning areas they were established to serve. The important point, which I know the Senator accepts, is that this does not preclude schools from enrolling pupils from outside of the school planning areas where sufficient places are available. Rather it reflects the need to accommodate, in the first instance, the demographics for which the school was established. There is therefore nothing precluding young primary school students from applying to Temple Carrig secondary school but, because of respect for the integrity of the school planning areas, pupils from within the school planning area are prioritised.

I will reiterate that there are six post-primary schools in the planning area and that demand is growing as a result of demographic increases. This is not only occurring in greater Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare, Meath, and Louth.

I was in the Leas-Chathaoirleach's own county - the kingdom of Kerry - on Friday. As I went through different urban areas of the county, I learned that pressures like increases in the number of housing applications are increasing the level of demand for school places.

I would like to give an indication of the position in the Bray school planning area. Woodbrook College has a Catholic ethos. Loreto secondary school has a Catholic ethos. Presentation College has a Catholic ethos. St. Kilian's community school is an interdenominational school. Coláiste Ráithín is a multidenominational school. North Wicklow Educate Together secondary school is a multidenominational school. There is continuing pressure on school places. As numbers change over the next five or ten years, the pressure will come off the primary sector and there will be increased pressure on post-primary schools. I understand where the Senator is coming from on this matter. If places are available at Temple Carrig school, I am sure students and pupils from St. Andrew's national school will be accommodated.

Local Authority Housing Eligibility

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. I have raised on many occasions the serious issue of the local authority threshold being too low to allow people to access the housing list. Carlow has one of the lowest thresholds in Ireland. Over 1,000 people are on the housing waiting list in the county. They have met the criteria, including the €27,500 threshold to be eligible to go on the Carlow County Council housing list. Many people are living at home in cramped conditions. They have nowhere to go because they do not qualify for social housing or a mortgage. They do not earn the right amount to satisfy either set of criteria. Eight years have passed since the last review. I understand that a new assessment was due to be made last summer. There is an urgent need to finalise this review and to increase the income eligibility limits for social housing in Carlow and - most likely - in other counties. I assure the House that there are no millionaires out there looking for help. I am talking about people in real families who work hard but are not getting a break. I have been told that the review was due to have been completed already. I am still waiting. People around the country are waiting. I want to know what is happening with the review.

Today is far different from eight years ago because we are in a housing crisis. I would like to know whether the qualifying thresholds are realistic. I do not believe the threshold in Carlow is right. We are unwittingly excluding genuine people who should qualify for social housing. It is unacceptable that people who are trying to work and make ends meet are being told that they do not qualify for the housing waiting list. I was recently contacted by a family that was looking for help. As the family's weekly earnings of between €350 and €400 are over the income threshold, it does not qualify for registration on Carlow County Council's housing waiting list. I am worried because I am being contacted by families that are getting family income supplement but are not qualifying for registration on the housing list because €27,500 is too low. I would say it is the lowest threshold in the country. The other problem is that there is no appeals mechanism. It does not matter if one exceeds the €27,500 threshold by €10 or €20 - there is no appeal and one cannot go on the housing list.

I have consistently raised this issue and I have been told it is being looked at. People in Carlow who are in the low-cap zone are caught in limbo because they do not qualify under the social housing income threshold and they do not earn enough to take out a mortgage. I am sure there are people in other counties in the same position. We are meeting people who do not qualify for mortgages or the housing list. They are in limbo. This is a huge issue. I consider this to be another form of homelessness. These people are receiving no support. I need answers. Given that we are in a crisis, it is extraordinary that the Government is not allowing families that are under intense financial pressure to access rent allowance or housing assistance payment. We are condemning people to being unable to avail of social housing.

At the same time, those people have no chance of getting a mortgage to buy their own home. Will the Minister of State clarify whether the review has been done and if it is ready? What will be the increase in the threshold for Carlow County Council? In the past eight months, this has been the biggest issue I have been trying to address with regard to the housing crisis. As I do not have any answers, I tell people the review was to be done in the summer but there is still no answer. The threshold in Waterford is €35,000, in Kilkenny it is between €32,000 and €33,000 and it is even higher in Kildare. In Carlow, however, it is €27,500. It is not possible for people to qualify for the local authority housing list.

I thank Senator Murnane O'Connor for tabling this Commencement matter. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is unfortunately not available to attend today and has asked me to take this matter on his behalf.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. Under the household means policy, which applies in all local 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 local authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature. I emphasise there is discretion at local authority level to make that call.

The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band were based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs and a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation across the country. It is important to note that the limits introduced at that time also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation. This was done to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, both promoting sustainable communities and also providing a degree of future-proofing.

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. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. However, as part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area is under way, as the Senator noted. It has been under way for some time and we had hoped it would be completed earlier this year. The review will not be fully completed until the impacts of parallel initiatives in terms of affordability have been considered as these will inform where the thresholds should lie. These parallel initiatives include, for example, the €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund and the €310 million serviced site fund, which will deliver more affordable homes. It is open to all local authorities to put forward plans to access those funds. In addition, new agencies like the Land Development Agency and other key affordability initiatives such as the advancement of a national cost rental policy, together with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan and the help-to-buy scheme, will be factored in to ensure that supports are targeted where they are needed.

I emphasise that we are aware that a review of the thresholds was needed and we made a commitment to such a review in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The review is under way and one part of the work is complete but we have to complete the other parts as well. The Minister is hopeful that he will be able to bring forward a new social housing package in the weeks ahead, which will also deal with income limits. There is some discretion available locally if part of an applicant's income is temporary. The Senator gave an example of a family on €300 or €400 per week. A family with such an income would qualify under the scheme. The Senator may wish to highlight other cases but the family to which she referred would qualify.

I am disappointed that this review has not been completed. We are eight years on and we are in a housing crisis. Will the review be complete by the end of the year? It is crucial that we have it as soon as possible. We must not go in to 2020 with the review unfinished. I will persist in raising this issue and asking questions in the House.

On the appeal mechanism, someone who has been out of work for a while may have his or case reviewed but someone working part-time who has an income that is €10 higher than the €27,500 threshold cannot appeal. The decision will not change. I have received several letters stating that there is no appeal mechanism available to someone on an income of €27,500. If someone is out of work or sick, the position may change for a short time but in 99% of cases, there is no review or appeal available. I ask the Minister of State to have this matter examined in the review when it sets new thresholds for local authorities.

We are definitely the lowest in the country and it is just not right. It is unfair on people who cannot go on a local authority housing list to get housing assistance payment, HAP, and who do not qualify for a mortgage. Perhaps the Minister of State will come back to me. I will stay in contact with him and I ask that this review be published by the end of 2019.

We hope to bring forward a package of reform and change for qualification for social housing and issues around that in the months ahead. We hope to publish it before the end of the year, but if not, then early in the new year. To be clear, I will make sure that Carlow is looked at, as well as other band 3 regions like Monaghan. Some difficulties have been brought to my attention. We have met the local authorities in most of those counties to examine how we can make sure all of the rules have been applied properly and to consider every option to give people the best chance. We will continue to do that across all Departments. To be clear, the Senator gave an example of a family in receipt of €350 per week. That family would qualify for social housing. A family in receipt of less than €400 would qualify.

Housing Management Companies

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for taking time out of his busy schedule to come to this important debate. He will be aware of this issue because I have been in touch with him about it over recent weeks. Issues have arisen in the Park Retirement Village, Castletroy, over recent weeks, including the case of two long-term residents, Liz Lynam and Antoinette McEnnis, who live in bungalows and have been issued with termination notices by the owner. The Minister of State has visited the retirement village, which is marketed as Ireland's premier retirement village. What has happened is a grave injustice. The two women have been given notice to quit by 30 June 2020 on the basis that refurbishment will take place.

These bungalows have been their homes for many years. They came into the retirement village on the basis that this would be their long-term home. What has happened has been a grave shock to them. Furthermore, there have been notices to many other residents about rent increases, something that can happen in normal circumstances. However, what has happened has created such a degree of anxiety and distress among residents that I have advised them to take their case to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. There are complaints before it for adjudication. I ask that Ms Lynam and Ms McEnnis's cases be expedited.

Security of tenure is paramount for people who go into retirement villages. They have to be guaranteed that. If they are being evicted from their homes, a change in the legislation in the past 12 months means that if they return to those homes, rent can be charged at market rates. In many cases, rent could rise by €200, €300 or more. People cannot afford that. They moved to the retirement village at a time when it was marketed as a place they could live out the remainder of their lives in peace and tranquility in a safe environment. There have been other issues, such as the fact that there is no longer 24-hour security and instead a patrol system is in operation. I asked the management and owners to consult residents, which has not yet happened.

The most immediate issue is that the RTB needs to expedite the review of what I believe to be unwarranted and illegal evictions. I refer to one clause in Ms Lynam's letting agreement.

Under the section heading "THE PARTIES AGREE", paragraph 4.2 states: "The parties agree that the Management Company reserves the right to relocate the Tenant from their existing Dwelling to another Dwelling within the Retirement Village - there are 32 bungalows in the retirement village to addition to apartments - in the event that the medical needs of the Tenant change or in the event that the Owner of the Dwelling wished to take up residence in the Dwelling." Neither of those conditions apply here. Both residents, Ms Liz Lynam and Ms Antoinette McEnnis, want to stay in their homes. The owners of the properties are not going to live in them.

I ask that all the complaints and disputes concerning the tenants of the Park Retirement Village in Castletroy that are before the RTB be expedited. Furthermore, the Minister of State can provide reassurance on the security of tenure for retirement villages. Strictly speaking, this development was given planning permission on the basis it would be a retirement village, not for letting in the private sector. I would like to hear the Minister of State's view on this.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue concerning the regulation and operation of retirement homes and villages, to which I will respond in general. The Senator specifically raised the issue of the Park Retirement Village in Castletroy in Limerick city. It is an area with which I am familiar, and I visited the retirement village and was very impressed with it. I cannot get speak on it specifically as the matter is before the RTB. Due to the quasi-judicial role of the RTB, it would be inappropriate for me, as Minister of State, to comment on or interfere in the specifics of any case that is ongoing with it. I agree with the Senator it would be appropriate if this matter could be dealt with quickly and an outcome found. It is to be hoped the RTB has the resources, which I believe it has, to be able to deal with this matter, and it would be best placed to the judge the specific issues the Senator raised. I was disappointed to hear some complications and difficulties concerning the retirement village have arisen, and it is to be hoped they can all be resolved. As the Senator said, perhaps the best way would be for the new owners to consult the existing tenants and to agree some changes. Separate from that, the RTB will make its own decision, in which process I cannot get involved.

In general, retirement villages are based on a model of independent living for the residents whether these are homeowners or tenants. We are trying to encourage a greater provision of them, both publicly and privately, or a combination of both, with taxpayers' money and private money. They are not nursing homes. Rather, they are homes where people in an older age bracket may collectively live in a good location, often with centralised services. I have visited quite a number of retirement villages throughout the country in recent years. Most residents are very happy in them and have made lifestyle choices based on that as well in respect of their own homes.

As these are normal homes, they are subject to the normal planning and building control systems, as with any other development. Where the accommodation is rented, it is also subject to the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2019 and may be subject to rent pressure zone designation in relevant locations, as in the case of Limerick. The Residential Tenancies Acts set out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants. They apply to every dwelling that is the subject of a tenancy, subject to a limited number of exceptions.

The RTB was established as an independent statutory body under the Act to operate a national tenancy registration system and to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants, as in this case. Recently, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019, introduced a number of key measures and reforms designed to enhance protections for tenants, which would include tenants in a retirement village, such as the one the Senator mentioned in Limerick or others. The Act strengthened the security of tenure protections to guard against unlawful tenancy terminations, including applying the new RTB sanctioning regime to improper conduct by a landlord who contravenes the tenancy termination provisions; requiring landlords to copy a tenancy termination notice to the RTB; requiring a certificate from an architect or surveyor to the effect that the proposed substantial refurbishment or renovation works in question would pose a health and safety risk requiring vacation by the tenants and that such a risk would be likely to exist for at least three weeks during such works; significantly extending the duration of tenancy termination notice periods, for example, a 180 days, or approximately six months, notice period for landlords who terminate a tenancy of between three and seven years' duration; and, where a landlord terminates a tenancy because he or she needs to refurbish or renovate the property substantially, the requirement to offer the property back to the former tenant upon completion of works provided the tenant has provided his or her contact details. That is a key part of the case raised by Ms Liz Lynam and Ms Antoinette McEnnis.

Given the strong planning and building control standards in place, and the strong protections for tenants under the Residential Tenancies Acts, there are no plans to have a separate system of regulation for retirement villages. There is a need, however, to have more options for housing for older people. To this end, and further to the Senator's question on security of tenure, we are in an area of policy development and we have an action plan, Housing Options for Our Ageing Population, which was published in February. The Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Health published a joint policy statement and a new framework for how we will work in the area. An implementation plan is progressing the 40 actions outlined in the statement to bring forward housing options, including supported housing for older people. We are examining security of tenure and various barriers to that, and the blend of private and public money.

The bottom line is that we want there to be more housing options for older people in every town and village but it is about giving people the choice to move or change home if they want. I call it "right-sizing", while others refer to it other names. Often, the debate in the media suggests that people will be forced out of their homes but there is not an ounce of truth in that. It is about giving people the option to move house and facilitating it. We will plan for more retirement villages similar to the Park or the private ones in various parts of the country and have them ready in order that people will have options. It is a choice. If the planning is done correctly, with all the necessary protections, including security of tenure, it will work well in the future.

Before I call the Senator to respond, I welcome Deputy Niall Collins and his guest to the Public Gallery.

The people in question moved to the Park retirement village in Castletroy because they wanted to do so. Many of them sold their homes. They have lived in the retirement village houses for at least eight or nine years. These are their homes and they are where the residents want to reside. It is a Hobson's choice for them. If the houses are renovated and they are offered them back, the rent will probably rise by a multiple to a price well above what they now pay. If they are moved to another unit within the complex, it will not be their home, but the rent will nonetheless be significantly higher. I want there to be security of tenure when someone makes the choice to move to a retirement village. It is totally different from the case of somebody renting in a private complex. People move to retirement villages for security and they will have made an effort to downsize. The eviction notices are causing a great deal of distress not only to Liz Lynam and Antoinette McEnnis but also to all the other people living in the Park retirement village.

I ask the Minister of State to provide an assurance that he will seek to expedite the matter with the RTB. There has to be defined security of tenure for people who move to a retirement village. Such facilities market themselves specifically as retirement villages for people who are old and infirm. I hope there will be a speedy resolution to the matter. I call on the new owners of the Park retirement village to engage actively with the residents. They moved there because they wanted to. While there are issues that will need to be addressed, they like their neighbours and where they live, and they should be entitled to continue to live there, given that it is marketed as a retirement village.

I am glad the Senator has raised the issue, both in general and in the context of the specific case in Limerick, which I hope the RTB will be able to resolve quickly. In general, it is important that we bring forward more suitable accommodation and housing for people who are ageing, which will include all of us at some point in our lives. A large part of the issue is that people want to feel safe and secure and have a sense of permanency. If one is to right-size, by selling or renting out one's home and moving into a new one, one has to know that one will be able to remain there for as long as one wishes. It is important we deal with that and we are doing so under policy interventions. An important aspect is the financing. Our implementation body, which involves all the Departments working together along with representatives of the older people associations and Age Friendly Ireland, are around the table, making decisions and driving forward the changes that are needed. There is a great opportunity in the country to provide appropriate housing for older people. I hope we can avail of that opportunity and bring it forward. It is important that all local authorities be involved in the planning aspect of setting out land and sites, specifically for what I have outlined, and ensure that it will be backed up by policy.

It is very important that all local authorities are involved in the planning aspect of this, that they set out land and sites specifically for this, and that they make sure there are backup assets and policies as well. I believe in general this can be a positive area. It is disappointing that there are difficulties in relation to the Park in Limerick, because it was quite a good example of what could be done right. Again, Senator O'Donnell has urged that the new landlords would sit down with their tenants. That is obviously the best outcome.

The management company, yes.

The management company as well. It is important that we see progress in that area too.

I thank the Minister of State very much.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.