I propose to take Questions Nos. 358, 363, 379, 387, 388, 394, 397 and 401 together.
The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term income support to assist with reasonable accommodation costs of eligible people living in private rented accommodation who are unable to provide for their accommodation costs from their own resources. The overall aim is to provide short term assistance, and not to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer. There are currently approximately 77,000 rent supplement recipients for which the Government has provided over €344 million for 2014.
The Department continues to monitor trends in the private rental market to determine the impact on rent supplement recipients. Following the most recent review of the private rental market revised maximum rent limits were introduced from Monday 17 June 2013 until 31 December 2014. Despite the overall pressures on the social protection budget, there were increases in the rent limits in Dublin, Galway, North Kildare and Bray areas.
Any further changes to the rent limits would have to be considered in a budgetary context. A full rent limit review will be commenced shortly and will be completed in time to feed into the budgetary process.
All prospective tenants, including those seeking to access rent supplement, are now finding it increasingly difficult to secure appropriate accommodation due to the reduced availability of rental properties. The market shows no sign of reaching its equilibrium and increasing the maximum rent limits for rent supplement will not resolve the current difficulties due to the reduced level of supply, and would result in further increases in rental costs for all persons renting including those on reduced incomes and students.
The Community Welfare Services, including through its work in the Homeless Persons Unit and the Asylum Seekers & New Communities Unit, works closely with local authorities and other stakeholders to facilitate homeless persons to access private rented accommodation. This ensures that where possible, people are diverted away from homeless services and towards community-based supports. Department officials have discretionary powers to award a supplement where it appears that the circumstances of the case so warrant and is of an exceptional nature.
In addition and in view of the current supply difficulties, the Dublin local authorities are currently engaging with the Department in finalising a further interagency intervention system to identify vulnerable families who are in receipt of rent supplement and at risk of becoming homeless due to the imminent loss of their tenancy to ensure that the necessary supports can be put in place. These cases will be assessed on an individual basis having regard to the individual circumstances and families requiring additional support will receive the necessary assistance, financial or otherwise.
The Department is represented on the Homelessness Implementation Team, chaired by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, which will ensure greater integration between the key agencies involved in the area of homelessness as recommended by the First Report of the Homelessness Oversight Group.
The Department's strategic policy direction is to return rent supplement to its original purpose of a short term income support. In July 2013 the Government approved the introduction of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). Under HAP, responsibility for recipients of rent supplement with a long-term housing need will transfer from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities. Officials in the Department are working closely with those in the lead Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, in piloting HAP in Limerick City and County Council with further roll out to a further six selected local authorities during the year.