Adjournment Debate. - Housing Aid for the Elderly.

I would like to thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter tonight.

Everybody accepts that the intent of this scheme is excellent. It proposes to arrange for minor alterations and repairs to the homes of the elderly to ensure that their houses last longer and that they have reasonable comfort in their later years. The intention is excellent but unfortunately the scheme is a total shambles.

It is a cruel farce being perpetrated on old and vulnerable people. Many applicants are traumatised by long delays, refusals or worst of all by being left in limbo and hearing nothing about the status of their application. This scheme was trumpeted by Government as the be all and end all of schemes. It was to deal with urgent housing defects, such as leaking roofs, rotting windows and doors, dangerous wiring, proper sanitary facilities and heating. It is under-resourced, underfunded and understaffed.

In south Tipperary the allocation for this year was £237,500 for the scheme and no staff was provided for the health board to operate the scheme. Furthermore, £100,000 of that money was committed for last year's applications. That meant that of the 450 applications received this year only 150 have been assessed. Two-thirds of this year's applications, 300 applications, have not been assessed nor have the applicants been visited. Elderly people are just lost when it comes to the operation of this scheme.

An applicant with whom I am dealing is 75 years of age and has only an outdoor toilet. This applicant applied seven months ago to have an internal room altered to provide an indoor toilet and bathroom facility. He has not even been visited yet; his case is not unique. That is how things stand for the 300 applications received by the health board in south Tipperary this year. One type of improvement applicants are waiting for is heating. Since in the region of 2,000 people die annually for want of proper heating one would think heating for the elderly would be a priority.

The scheme is totally underfunded and there is no staff available to health boards to operate the scheme. In south Tipperary alone I estimate that a reasonable provision to have work carried out for the applicants who have applied would be £1 million. That is a small amount for the benefits that would accrue to the elderly and to the health boards as it would ensure that the elderly could live at home in reasonably comfortable conditions in their later years.

I appeal to the Minister to fund and staff the scheme properly. This year there has been no additional allocation under the scheme. In previous years an allocation was made in late October or early November. That has not happened this year. The additional allocation was small, it was about £25,000 in south Tipperary last year, but this year not even that amount has been allocated. I ask the Minister to consider making a further allocation immediately to the various health boards and to ensure that in the forthcoming budget a reasonable allocation will be made to the health boards to meet the number of applications received.

I wish to apologise for the absence of the Minister of State, Deputy Molloy, who cannot be here tonight.

I thank Deputy Healy for having raised this matter and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the special housing aid for the elderly scheme and the funding provided. I will not refer to the question of staff as this matter is more appropriate to the health boards and the Minister for Health and Children.

The scheme is administered by a task force which was set up in 1982 under the aegis of the Department of the Environment and Local Government to undertake an emergency programme to improve the housing conditions of elderly persons living alone in unfit or unsanitary accommodation. In the interests of elderly persons whose housing conditions are improved under the scheme, it has, since its inception, been administered with flexibility and a minimum of formality. However, over the years health boards have evolved a priority list to ensure that the most urgent cases are dealt with as quickly as possible within the terms of the guidelines. Typically, aid is available for necessary repairs to make a dwelling habitable for the lifetime of the occupant. In 2000 the scheme was extended to include the provision of suitable heating systems, where necessary, to meet the needs of elderly persons.

The community care departments of the health boards operate the scheme using various mechanisms to carry out the work, including contractors, FÁS, and a grant based approach whereby the applicant employs the contractor. Health boards have been requested by the task force to use a combination of approaches, with the most suitable being applied as appropriate in individual cases.

The scheme itself is extremely effective. Between 1982 and the end of 2000 over 42,000 cases have been dealt with. A further 2,288 jobs have been completed in the period January to June 2001, an increase of 33% on the same period last year, and 2,360 further jobs are under way. An increase of 24% in applications has also been recorded. There has been an unprecedented level of demand for the provision of heating systems since the scheme was introduced in February 2000, with 429 applicants provided with such facilities in the balance of that year and 649 to June 2001.

In recognition of the valuable work which is being done, funding for the scheme has been increased significantly since 1997 with a provision of £4 million in that year raised to £5 million in 1998, £6 million in 1999, £8 million in 2000 and £8.65 million for 2001. The allocations to the boards are determined by the task force from the funding available and are based, not on the geographical spread of the population, but on the statistical returns received from the health boards showing the level of activity within the area, the actual number of applications on hand and the estimated cost of these applications.

Funding for the scheme is provided through the national lottery and no further funding is available for 2001. The fact that the scheme is so funded has caused difficulties, as we have been unable to top up the annual provision from savings arising elsewhere in the Department of the Environment and Local Government's Vote and, in this regard, the Minister intends to open a separate Voted subhead for the task force from next year, which should give us greater flexibility where additional funding is needed for the task force. Funding levels for 2002 are at present being considered in the context of the Estimates. However, health boards are being requested on the basis of funding being available next year to arrange further jobs which will not arise for payment until January or later.

It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to publicly express appreciation of the role played by the various agencies involved in the most valuable work being done under this scheme. I wish to thank and compliment the members of the task force, the health boards, FÁS and the other voluntary bodies associated with the successful operation of the scheme over the years.