Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Gerry Adams

Question:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the dates of the last meeting and the next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears. [11762/16]

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Gerry Adams

Question:

2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears in 2016 to date. [12982/16]

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Gerry Adams

Question:

3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears took place. [12983/16]

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Micheál Martin

Question:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet sub-committee on housing has met. [14452/16]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

5. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears will take place. [14506/16]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears in 2016 to date; and the proposed dates for any upcoming meetings. [14507/16]

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Ruth Coppinger

Question:

7. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet sub-committee on housing is due to next meet. [15851/16]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet sub-committee on housing is due to next meet. [15857/16]

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Mick Barry

Question:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet sub-committee on housing is due to next meet. [15863/16]

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Oral answers (28 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears was established by the previous Government and now stands dissolved. It last met on 8 October 2015. The new Government has established a Cabinet Committee on Housing, as committed to in the programme for a partnership Government, to deal with the challenges around housing, homelessness and mortgage arrears. Reflecting the priority that the Government attaches to these issues, this committee is meeting on a weekly basis in its early phase of work. It has met five times to date on 12, 20 and 26 May and on 2 and 9 June. The committee is scheduled to meet again tomorrow, Wednesday, 15 June.

These questions are in the names of Deputies Gerry Adams, Micheál Martin, Bríd Smith, Richard Boyd Barrett, Ruth Coppinger, Paul Murphy and Mick Barry. I call Deputy Adams.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply.

I wonder did these committees deal with the issues which I raised with the Taoiseach earlier. I asked him how could low income families hope to pay increasing rents and other bills, but he did not answer that question. My view is that he did not answer because he does not have an answer. Regarding the dreadful situation in which people, through no fault of their own, have found themselves, as the Taoiseach said earlier, we must not only talk about addressing it but the Government must take action. I am trying to grapple with the role of the committee in dealing with some of these matters.

I also want to comment on the plan announced today to give up to €200 million to local authorities to build infrastructure on sites already in the hands of the private developers. Was that planned? Was it discussed by the Cabinet Committee on Construction 2020, Housing, Planning and Mortgage Arrears? If so, we need to be told if developers sitting on undeveloped land will be required to pass on the savings in infrastructure to either private house buyers or local authorities. Citizens also need to know if the sites developed with public funds will have social and affordable clauses in order to address the severe housing needs of low to middle income households. Will the Government insert clear conditionality into this capital investment in order to ensure that the return benefits society as a whole, particularly those in housing difficulties and not just the speculators, the profiteers and the land hoarders?

Fifteen minutes has been allocated for these nine questions. Members will have to be fairly brief.

Fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes for the entire block of questions.

It is but it is part of the process that everybody has agreed. The next speaker is Deputy Martin, who tabled one of these questions.

Will the Taoiseach reply to all of us who tabled questions together?

Yes. I think that is best.

It has never worked before.

No. I do not think that will work.

It has never worked before. All right, fair enough, the Deputies want-----

On a point of order, a Cheann Comhairle, I believe you are right with the original proposal. If we are to manage the time, people will have to be brief.

I do not agree.

Deputy Adams had a number of questions.

Back and forth-----

We are wasting time now. Will the Taoiseach respond to Deputy Adams's questions, please?

I will. The programme for Government provides for increases to rent supplement and housing assistance payments, HAP, by up to 15%, taking into account geographic regions. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and his officials are working on that. It is important to note that the Department of Social Protection currently operates a targeted policy that allows for flexibility where landlords seek rents in excess of the existing limits for both existing customers and new applicants to the rent supplement scheme. More than 8,500 have been assisted under this scheme so far and anybody who finds themselves under that pressure is entitled to contact the Department of Social Protection.

The programme also provides for expanded access to a tenancy sustainable protocol throughout the country. With regard to the HAP, limits were increased in Cork, Galway, Kildare and Meath where flexibility allows for a 20% payment above rent supplement thresholds. For families in emergency accommodation in Dublin city, the HAP payments will be allowed for 50% above rent supplement levels.

We have also committed to maintaining relief for landlords who lease to tenants who are in receipt of social housing supports like rent supplement or the housing assistance payment, and they can avail of 100% mortgage interest relief on their borrowings where they commit to accommodating tenants in receipt of those payments for a minimum period of three years. In addition, from 1 January 2016, a landlord cannot discriminate against a person in receipt of rent supplement, housing assistance payment or any payment under the Social Welfare Acts.

In respect of the Deputy's second question, there will be a requirement for social housing on those sites.

I point out to Deputy Adams that it is not infrastructure on the sites; it is infrastructure to access the sites, be it roads or bridges as the case might be.

We have been very clear as a political party that the housing and homelessness emergency is the No. 1 priority which must be addressed by this Oireachtas. Hence, I support strongly and pay tribute to the special committee on housing which was chaired by Deputy John Curran and which is completing its work this week. It will present its work on Friday. What we have here is an inclusive, comprehensive and energetic process which raises the issues and points towards solutions. In that context, I advise some misgivings about the tendency towards, and disturbing signs of, a return to the old days of policy by leak whereby Ministers plant stories in the media rather than to engage in constructive discussion. We need to avoid that as it can cause damage as it did in the past number of years. We do not need a new strategy every three months. If there is buy-in from all sides of the House to the recommendations of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness, what we need then is an implementation plan on those recommendations. Therefore, regarding the €200 million that has been announced now, it is essential that whatever is said fits within the overall full policy approach. However, I must say following the contribution of the former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, on Leaders' Questions, it appears it is not new money at all. It is a bit longer put out than one is led to believe from the statements.

When we met the housing officials during the meetings with Independents prior to the formation of a Government, there seemed to be a distinct ideological resistance to building council houses. That needs to stop and we need to build them. It can represent the most effective and speedy way to get some housing stock back within the possession of the State apart altogether from purchasing housing and so on. Down through the decades, some great schemes were built which have left an indelible and positive impact on our communities. For whatever reason, there is a sense of inertia and reluctance to build council housing, which is an approach we need to change in order to start providing them.

I commend Deputy Curran for chairing the Oireachtas committee. I do not yet know what is in his report but, believe me, it will be a very welcome addition to the set of propositions which have come now from the different Departments with responsibility in this area to the Minister for housing, planning and local government. These are the Departments of housing, planning and local government, Public Expenditure and Reform, Social Protection, Justice and Equality and Transport, Tourism and Sport, all of which feed into the development of the strategy the Minister is putting together. Deputy Curran's committee's recommendations will be very gratefully received in that regard. I hope that the Minister for housing, planning and local government, Deputy Simon Coveney, is in a position to bring his draft strategy, an action plan for housing, to the Cabinet sub-committee by the end of the month and that we can develop it into a formal strategy, debate it here and, more importantly, implement it.

On the €200 million, which is double what was committed in the programme for Government for infrastructure development for access to sites, work there will start immediately and the first drawdown will take place in 2017. I agree with Deputy Martin that obviously the practice of building houses by local authorities has drifted over the years. It seemed to morph into the approved housing bodies, which would build houses, but obviously if tenants acquire those houses they can never buy them in the way the Department of the Environment used to provide through the scheme for tenant purchase every number of years so that they could own their own houses. The Minister has already called all the chief executives of the local authorities together and given them their targets and response times. He needs to know what it is they are going to do to start building houses for tenants. He has already made comments that if this does not happen, he is quite prepared to move project managers onto sites to see that it does. This is all about the supply of houses which is the great challenge when one now sees so much commercial activity going on around the country. The housing construction sector has not been able to respond for a variety of reasons. That is now being addressed. I hope Deputy Curran's report on Friday will include some practical recommendations that will be of value here.

Almost everything that comes into my clinic every week involves housing. No matter how much talk we hear from the Government or how many announcements, of which there are many, are made, it just gets worse. This week, I had a woman come into me who had a stroke three years ago, is partially paralysed, suffered a septic aneurysm and septicaemia recently, has epilepsy and is deaf in one ear. Her husband is her carer and they have been living in a car for the last four months. Another case involves a woman with mental health difficulties going to Cluain Mhuire. Her child has been put into care with her mother in order that she would be able to get on the single-persons emergency housing list. She lives in Dún Laoghaire and is told she has to accept a hostel in town, away from her family support network, or find HAPS. Both of these people, and they are just two examples, have no chance of getting HAPS - none, zero. We put a proposal to the local authority that it would set up a specific team to support people like this in finding HAPS, which they cannot find. The CEO of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown just said "I am not doing it, full stop", even though a motion had been passed. Why not? If one believes in HAPS, the least one could do is ensure that teams are put in place to go out and find HAPS for people like that instead of them having to live in cars. I ask for that to happen.

Even if one does that, the average rent for a three-bedroom house in Dún Laoghaire is now €2,200 a month. Even with the flexibility the Government is providing on HAPS, it is nowhere near enough. Forget it. There is no chance that HAPS is going to work. Of the 110,000 housing units the Government proposes to deliver, 75,000 are HAPS. It is not going to happen in Dún Laoghaire at all. That fantasy has to be dispelled with. I appeal to the Taoiseach in that regard because I will not even say what one might as well tell someone who is sick, old, disabled or paralysed as to tell him or her to go out and find HAPS. It is a nightmare that the Government is offering such people. How is the Taoiseach going to get rents down from €2,200 if he is depending on the private sector? It is twice the cost of an average mortgage that people are being asked to pay. It is not just a question of rent certainty. We must go further than Sinn Féin's proposal. There must be rent control that is linked to affordability. This is impossible.

It is time to go back to the Taoiseach for an answer.

I am asking the Minister that and I am also asking for the following basic thing. People who are in the absolutely desperate situations I have described must get every support and resource and the staffing necessary to deliver for them within the local authorities. They must have help to find something dignified rather than to just be thrown to the wolves and told to go out and find something themselves.

Can we go to the Taoiseach because we are practically out of time?

I do not have the details of the case Deputy Boyd Barrett raised. I always struggle to see - I think the Deputy said they were three years in a car-----

They have been in a car for four months but she has been very ill for the last three months and in a housing crisis for the last three years.

This is not acceptable at all. The Deputy asked the valid question as to how rents will come down. The answer is to deal with supply. The more houses one has, the less pressure there is on the housing stock whereby rents increase. The Government is committed to providing extensive student accommodation which every year takes up a couple of thousand spaces in apartments or other accommodation in the larger urban areas in particular.

The Government sees as an absolute priority the provision of social housing and private sector housing so that one can deal with the situation where so many people do not have access to housing and where one is required, by virtue of numbers, to bring in schemes that have helped over 10,000 people now to be able to stay in the accommodation that they are in by virtue of the housing assistance payments or the increased rent subsidy.

I take the point that the Deputy raises about the scale of rent levels in Dún Laoghaire or in other locations, particularly in Dublin, but this is an issue that is being discussed both by the Cabinet sub-committee and by the relevant Departments. Hopefully, all of that will come together in the action plan for housing, which I expect the Minister will be able to publish within the 100 days that he set out. It will take into account the question of the recommendations from the Oireachtas housing committee and from the other Departments and other people from around the country who have raised very practical suggestions as to how this particular challenge can be met. I hope that everybody working together can deal with this in the coming period. It will not happen in six months, but once one gets a stream coming through where houses are being built, where people know they are going to be accommodated, it provides the opportunity to deal with it once and for all.