Thursday, 4 March 2004

Questions (11)

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

9 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the additional provision he intends to make from within resources available to his Department in 2004 for the provision of accommodation for lone parents and other persons on low incomes, particularly in view of the decision by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to impose severe restrictions in eligibility for rent supplement and her views that the housing needs of such people should be met by local authorities; the length of notice his Department received from the Department of Social and Family Affairs regarding the planned changes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7138/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

Lone parents and persons on low income who are unable to provide housing for themselves from their own resources are entitled to apply for social housing which is provided by either a local authority or a voluntary housing body. The Government's positive commitment to the social housing programme is shown in the increased provision for social and affordable housing in 2004. The total housing provision, Exchequer and non-Exchequer, in 2004 of €1.884 billion represents an increase of 5.4% on the 2003 provision. The increase in the housing provision will allow for 5,000 starts under the main local authority programme, an increase of 500 above 2003 levels, and a further 500 commencements under area regeneration programmes in 2004. In addition, the voluntary and co-operative housing sector will provide some 1,800 units of accommodation in 2004. Many of the housing units being provided by local authorities and voluntary and co-operative bodies in 2004 will be let to lone parents and persons on low incomes.

The regulations made by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, in regard to changes in the SWA rent supplement scheme provide a number of exemptions. These are also reflected in guidelines issued by her Department to health boards regarding implementation of the new rules. My Department has advised housing authorities in regard to the changes. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs gave specific assurance in regard to the recent changes in the rent supplement scheme. She indicated, for example, that people who have particular problems and difficulties will be cared for, including people who are at risk of becoming homeless and other vulnerable people. In addition to the specific exemptions in the regulations, health boards have wide discretionary power to award rent supplement where the circumstances warrant payment. Accordingly, the question of additional provision in this context does not arise.

The regulations providing for the changes to the rent supplement scheme were made on 18 December 2003. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs informed me on 12 November of the proposal to introduce changes in this area in the context of the 2004 Estimates. During the intervening period there was a considerable amount of interaction between the two Departments, particularly in relation to the need for adequate safeguards and exemptions to ensure that people with genuine needs would not be adversely affected and to monitor closely the effects of the changes. These matters have been reflected in the regulations and guidelines.