Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 8 May 2014

Vol. 840 No. 3

Topical Issue Debate

Rent Supplement Scheme Payments

I raise a particular matter in relation to the overall housing crisis and Ballymun families who are trying to find accommodation within the Ballymun area. The Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007 introduced a provision whereby regenerated areas could be exempted from the delivery of rent supplement to those who wished to apply in them. In 2008 a circular issued from the Department of Social Protection to the Ballymun office to ensure it would be prevented from allowing rent supplement within the regenerated Ballymun estate. I commend those who introduced the provision at the time, when it was the right decision. Ballymun was undergoing a massive overhaul in the largest urban regeneration project in Europe. It has been largely successful, notwithstanding the bee in my bonnet about the continuing lack of a shopping centre. I agreed with Deputies of the day and commended the endless efforts they made to ensure a ban was imposed on allowing further rent supplement payments within the Ballymun area. The aim was to ensure people would come in to buy private apartments and that there would be a social mix in Ballymun. Whether that aim has been successful is a matter we will allow the people to decide.

My issue is that in 2014 we have a massive housing crisis nationally, particularly in Dublin and other urban areas. Zooming right down to Ballymun, we find that the rent supplement ban is still in place in Ballymun. I do not know if it is a good idea to remove it, but we must consider the issue. People come to me every week who cannot find a place to live. Some of them would be able to find private accommodation in Ballymun through the payment of rent supplement if the ban was lifted. I emphasise that I am not asserting that the ban should be lifted. I am seeking an in-depth examination to determine whether we need to review it. The fact is that there are empty apartments in Ballymun, while people from the area cannot obtain rent supplement and are forced to move elsewhere. We must find a solution to allow some of the vacant units in Ballymun to be occupied. I do not know exactly how many are vacant, but it is a matter people question. While I do not believe there are as many vacant as people say, we need an innovative solution.

I re-emphasise that I am not necessarily saying we should do away with the ban introduced in 2007, but we need a solution to address the needs of people living in Ballymun today. They do not have homes in which to live and are finding it difficult to find homes in their native area. Given that the matter is the responsibility of the Department of Social Protection, I ask the Minister if her officials can investigate alternative solutions through the rent supplement scheme or another payment process to solve the crisis faced by people in Ballymun in trying to find accommodation within their own area. We have people who do not have homes or are finding it hard to find them. We also have empty units in Ballymun. Can we solve the problem for local people?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term income support for eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. The overall aim is to provide short-term assistance, not to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer. There are approximately 77,000 rent supplement recipients, for whom the Government has provided a sum of €344 million in 2014.

Section 25 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007 provides that a payment of rent supplement shall not be payable in respect of accommodation which is situated in an area notified to the Minister for Social Protection by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government as being an area of regeneration for the purpose of providing for greater social integration. In some ways, much of what the Deputy raises should be addressed to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan.

The Minister advised in 2008 that, on the advice of Dublin City Council, the Ballymun area merited designation as an area of regeneration for the purposes of section 25 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007. Accordingly, with effect from 27 November 2008, rent supplement is not paid in respect of accommodation situated in the Ballymun regeneration area as set out by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. It was supported by the public representatives and the local authority. We are responding to a request from the local authority to the Minister.

The reasons behind the provision is to support Government investment in regeneration and to attain a good social mix between private, social, affordable and voluntary housing so that we do not have an area dominated by one kind of housing such as social housing and we get a good mix of people. The people of the area lobbied for the restriction on rent supplement in the Ballymun area and it was introduced with their agreement. The measures provided for in section 25 are not a blanket refusal of rent supplement in areas of regeneration. Specific provision is made to ensure people already residing in such areas and in receipt of rent supplement may continue to receive payment, and people already residing in the area who may have recourse to rent supplement in the future will not have their entitlement restricted. There are currently 180 recipients of rent supplement in the Ballymun area. It is not a total ban.

The ongoing designation of Ballymun as an area of regeneration is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I am advised that while the physical regeneration element of the Ballymun project will be completed this year, the social regeneration programmes will continue beyond that date. Current considerations regarding tenure mix will continue and, for that reason, we have not proposed to change it. I have been in Ballymun with the Deputy on a number of occasions. If we receive advice from Deputies and the housing unit at Dublin City Council makes representations, we will be prepared to examine the matter in a way that best contributes to the continuing regeneration, given the efforts of people in Ballymun and of the regeneration agency, in ways that are supportive of it.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. In case anyone takes me up the wrong way, I am not asking for the rent supplement ban to be removed because that is not the right decision. The regeneration of Ballymun was about trying to create a social mix. We have an anomaly whereby people in Ballymun who cannot find a place to live but who can identify places in Ballymun where they could live, and who qualify for rent supplement, cannot avail of it in the area. We have a problem and we need a solution. I am aware that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has direct responsibility and it is under his instruction that the circular was issued from the Department of Social Protection to support the concept of regeneration. I will work with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Social Protection to seek a new solution. Removing the ban on new candidates for rent supplement is not necessarily the best way because we need to keep in mind the social mix in Ballymun to create a good future for the area. Ensuring a good mix of people from all backgrounds was one of the major elements of the social regeneration, which will continue.

I am willing to work with Dublin City Council, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Social Protection to address the issue. We can come up with a solution to ensure local people from the area who are forced out due to current restrictions can find a new way forward. Perhaps some of the legislation being introduced by the Minister of State with responsibility for housing concerning the housing assistance payment scheme can be examined, and I will work with the Minister of State in that regard. I thank the Minister for taking the time to appear in the Chamber and I am delighted to see she is willing to work towards an innovative solution to address the housing needs of people in Ballymun.

I am interested in the Deputy's comment that local people believe there are empty private investor apartments in Ballymun. It would be helpful to get data on this point to find out how many we are talking about. Some 180 people are in receipt of rent supplement in the Ballymun area. The regeneration project has cost €750 million and it is one of the biggest investments by the State in the regeneration of areas. It is important that any actions taken enhance the regeneration and take account of the huge amount of work that has been done. People such as the Deputy have put their lives and hearts into the new Ballymun we know today.

The latest figures from 2012 with regard to housing types in Ballymun suggest that 25% of housing in the regeneration area is owner-occupied, 56% is rented from the local authority and 2.5% is rented from a voluntary body. We want to make sure, although it is not the direct responsibility of my Department, that we keep a good mix of privately owned affordable homes and homes rented from the local authority or from housing associations. The critical issue is to establish, through the local authority or websites dealing with property, whether there are many such vacancies available. In terms of rent supplement, we are moving to a new model, the housing assistance payment, administered by the local authorities in conjunction with the Department of Social Protection in the initial stage. A pilot project is under way in Limerick and it may be that some variation will address the issues raised. It would be disappointing to hear of empty apartments at a time when people need them. There are many empty local authority apartments and houses owned by the four Dublin local authorities, and it distresses me when I see them boarded up at a time when people need those houses and apartments. The same is true if that is happening with private investors in Ballymun.

I call on Deputy Mick Wallace to defer his Topical Issue.

I wish to defer the Topical Issue concerning building regulations until Tuesday, 27 May, when the Minister is available.

Industrial Disputes

I know the Minister is aware of this issue because I have been in contact with the shop steward in the Congress Centre and she said contact had been made with him. On 16 April, 42 workers and two supervisors at the Dublin 12 job initiative scheme received termination notices and were quite shocked at the way in which the situation was handled. Very little information is trickling down to workers on why this is happening and to where the situation can move. There were three meetings of the workers and they asked that the representatives, presenting a united front, approach the Minister seeking a new host to employ the 42 workers and two supervisors to keep the work in the Dublin 12 area. It is a question of whether the Minister can assist these workers in finding a host organisation to keep them doing the good work they do in the area. They know there is a sponsor in Canal Job Initiative Limited.

If that is the case, they would like to hear from the Minister whether she sees the Dublin 12 Congress Centre going into that initiative or whether there is a role for them that will let them remain in the Dublin 12 area to do the work where they have been doing it in the past 12 years.

One thing which relates more to the future than to this issue is the shadow employer and their long-term contracts and future pension rights. However, the immediate issue is as I have described it and the workers would welcome a positive response from the Minister today.

I was advised of this issue some time ago. No more than the Deputy, I was very shocked at how the job initiative workers were advised of this. Deputy Johan Collins, her colleague, Deputy Eric Byrne, and others have been involved for a number of weeks in seeking to assist the job initiative workers and to reassure them. There is no threat to their position from the point of view of the Department of Social Protection. The issue relates to the managers of the particular scheme.

The Department funds the Dublin 12 job initiative scheme, which currently has 44 participants and two team leaders. These participants are placed in various community facilities in the Crumlin, Walkinstown and Drimnagh areas. On 4 April the Dublin 12 Congress Centre, as sponsor, officially informed my Department that it did not want to renew its sponsorship of the job initiative scheme and requested the Department to source an alternative sponsor for the project. My officials are currently in confidential discussions with two organisations which have said they are prepared to sponsor this scheme and I expect these discussions to conclude in the near future. In the meantime, the current sponsors have assured my officials that they will continue to employ all of those involved until such time as a new sponsor is in place.

This issue has quite a long history. The scheme was originally under the partnership of KWCD, the Kimmage, Walkinstown, Crumlin and Drimnagh partnership. When this partnership was dissolved, the Dublin 12 Congress Centre agreed to take over the role of sponsor of the project. The Department expressed appreciation for that co-operation in facilitating the sponsorship of the scheme at the time and again expressed appreciation of the centre on its recent request to withdraw from its sponsorship of the scheme, as it is entitled to do.

The Dublin 12 Congress Centre is also the sponsor of a community employment scheme and a jobs club. The three schemes and the supervisory staff are all based in the Dublin 12 Congress Centre building. At the meeting on 6 March with the Department of Social Protection and the sponsoring committee, various issues which have been the subject of ongoing discussion between the Department and the centre were discussed. These issues have been the subject of negotiation following the centre's agreement to take over the sponsorship some time ago.

The renewal application for the scheme was received but was subsequently withdrawn. On receipt of confirmation that the sponsors wished to withdraw, the Department assured the Dublin 12 Congress Centre that it would source alternative sponsors. This is something we do with regard to the various CE schemes, of which there are over 1,000, and on which there are a couple of hundred people on the jobs initiative. From time to time a sponsor withdraws, and the normal practice is to seek another sponsor so that the people involved, particularly those on the job initiative, are never left out on a limb. I assure those involved that this has always been the position.

I thank the Minister for her response which will be welcomed by the workers in this area. They were shocked at what happened - not just the fact that they got termination notices, but the way it was done and the lack of any detailed information. The shop steward and the workers have been trying to get detailed information. The termination notices issued for 14 June have been withdrawn. However, can the Minister confirm that the congress will continue to receive funding after 14 June if another sponsor has not yet been established for these workers? This important question must be answered. Also, does the Minister think the new sponsor organisation will be able to take over the project by that date? How open are the sponsors with whom the Department is having discussions to taking over the project quickly?

There are also questions about negotiations with workers on how the new sponsorship will operate. The workers want to maintain their presence in the Dublin 12 area, in Walkinstown, Crumlin and Drimnagh, and do not want to be removed from there. When the KWCD partnership was dissolved and went to the Rathmines-Pembroke area, many of the supports in the KWCD area were removed. The Dublin 12 Congress Centre is one of the supports that remained for Walkinstown, Crumlin and Drimnagh. What negotiations will take place with the workers and the new host organisation before it takes over the project?

The renewed application for this scheme was received and subsequently withdrawn. Obviously, the existing sponsor was free to do this. I understand this came as a bit of a surprise to a number of the Deputy's colleagues, particularly people such as Deputy Eric Byrne. The Dublin 12 Congress Centre is carrying out valuable work with its community employment scheme and its jobs club and proposes to continue with that. I hope it does so, because it is helpful in placing people in community employment and in getting people back to work. The jobs clubs are effective and I understand the one in Dublin 12 will continue, but it has requested to withdraw from the job initiative scheme.

On receipt of confirmation that the sponsor wished to withdraw, the Department assured people it would do its utmost to get alternative sponsors and asked specifically that the two team leaders and the participants be advised that their roles and posts were secure and that their employment would continue under the new sponsorship. This occurred before Easter and those involved have been reassured on this. Deputy Eric Byrne's office was involved in the issue at the time and was given full reassurance on the position. Unfortunately, the Department was not advised of the action to issue protective notice to the team leaders and participants, but we moved to reassure them that their position was secure. Confidential discussions are ongoing on this issue with two potential sponsors and I hope these discussions will conclude as soon as possible.

Broadcast Advertising Standards Regulation

RTE's refusal to broadcast Newstalk's advertising asking listeners to move the dial is an abuse of the State broadcaster's dominant position in the broadcasting sector. This restrictive approach to advertising is a direct attack on competition within the broadcasting market. Action must be taken to ensure RTE cannot hinder competition from independent broadcasters and it should accept the offer of revenue from Newstalk and run the advertisement.

I express my belief in the principle of public sector broadcasting and my recognition of the good work RTE has done through generations. I believe in the important role of a public service broadcaster to ensure its content is accurate and impartial and without external influence. That is the bedrock of what public service broadcasting should be about. I support this fervently and will continue to do so.

Having said that, when I see something I consider to be an abuse of a dominant position, I have a duty to raise the issue. There is no doubt that RTE enjoys a very privileged position, receiving approximately €180 million in licence fees from citizens and playing a central role in the nation's artistic, cultural and political life. At a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications I supported delegates from RTE in their condemnation of the broadcaster's inability to deal with its budgeting position because of the Government's decision to withdraw upwards of €5 million in licence fee revenue which would normally come from the budget of the Department of Social Protection. I did so on the basis that reducing its funding in this way would make the operation of the public service broadcaster all the more difficult in the light of the significant competition it faced. However, with RTE's special responsibility and special position come serious responsibilities, one of which must be to avoid abusing its substantial power. By refusing advertising revenue from a legitimate business operation and blocking a rival broadcaster from advertising on its stations, RTE has abused that position. It looks like a simple and petty attempt to frustrate a commercial rival. The nonsensical reason given for blocking the advertisement serves only to reinforce that impression. Station bosses say they blocked it because it contained a call to action. My simple understanding of advertising in general is that the entire point of it is to function as a call to action, that is, a call to consumers to act in a certain manner, whether it is purchasing a product or availing of a service.

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, has hinted publicly that he shares my analysis. I call him to action by way of asking RTE management to reconsider its position. The broadcaster has worked hard in recent times to rebuild public trust after a series of high profile problems. I have complimented it on the efforts made in that regard and the changes in its management structure which will facilitate the rebuilding of confidence. Unfortunately, however, unforced errors like this clumsy attempt to damage a rival serve only to distract from the station's important work.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte.

RTE is an independent national public service broadcaster, the remit and obligations of which are set out in the Broadcasting Act 2009. Section 114(1) of the Act states the principal objects and associated powers of RTE, while section 98 provides that it shall be independent in the pursuance of these objects, subject only to the requirements of the Act. As such, the Minister has no function in RTE's general day-to-day matters, including decisions on advertising.

It is clear that commercial revenue remains a key priority for RTE, to which advertising revenue is central. There has been a considerable decline in advertising revenue for all broadcasters since the economic downturn in 2008 and the advertising market remains challenging for RTE. Of late, however, there have been modest and tentative signs of stabilisation. The Minister is satisfied that RTE is continuing its efforts to exploit all commercial opportunities in pursuance of its statutory objects.

The contention that RTE refuses to accept advertising from rival broadcasters is materially incorrect. In fact, it has carried advertisements for several rival broadcasters, including Sky, Setanta, Newstalk, TG4 and TV3, in recent times. It has advised departmental officials that it has no objection to continuing to do so, provided the proposed advertisements conform to its own internal guidelines. Notwithstanding the corporation's continuing objective to maximise its advertising revenue, to which I referred, RTE does have internal guidelines which it provides for all advertising copy houses with broadcaster clients in order for an advertisement to be cleared for broadcast. These guidelines state RTE does not accept advertisements where, inter alia, the advertising broadcaster claims superiority over or denigrates another broadcaster, or requests the audience to tune in to another channel. I am advised that these are the only circumstances in which advertisements for other broadcasters may be refused for broadcast by RTE. It would clearly not be in the company's commercial interests to clear for transmission on its own broadcasting services an advertisement which served to denigrate RTE or effectively asked viewers to discontinue using RTE services. If a broadcaster is not satisfied with RTE's decision to refuse to clear an advertisement for broadcast, it may refer the matter to the Competition Authority, the independent statutory body that enforces Irish and European competition law. The Department does not have a function in the oversight of complaints of this nature.

On a related matter and by way of update, arising from the five year review of funding of public service broadcasters, the Department has commissioned Indecon to conduct an economic assessment of the advertising market in Ireland to inform the development of a revised regulatory framework. This review which is expected to be completed in the coming months will provide a comprehensive overview of the market, including an analysis of issues around pricing and competition, and for the introduction of a revised system for setting advertising minutes.

I note the Minister of State's reference to the guidelines RTE circulates generally to advertising houses and the prohibition on advertisements which seek to denigrate another broadcaster or request the audience to tune in to another channel. While I accept that no advertisement should in any way denigrate a competitor's product or service, whatever that might be, I am not so sure there is validity to the rule that states an advertisement cannot request the audience to tune in to another channel. RTE occupies the position it does by virtue of the legislation that gives it its reason to exist and is supported by the taxpayer to that end. It seems fair and reasonable to say any advertisement by any other broadcaster is effectively competing with RTE and requesting, albeit in perhaps more subtle terms, a shifting of the dial or a change to another service provider for whatever period of time. I am not convinced that this element stands up to competition rules generally, but that is for another jurisdiction.

The Minister of State's considered response seems to be at variance with the comments of the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, when he indicated his view that if he were the person making the decision - I am paraphrasing him - he would have allowed the advertisement to run. Consumers generally can be given credit for their capacity to discern what constitutes a good service. As I said, my understanding of the function of advertising is to show the choice that is available and, in that respect, it does represent a call to action. However, listeners are not so gullible that, having tuned in to another station and not liked what they heard or saw, they would persist with that station. It is incumbent on RTE to ensure it is able to develop and maintain a competitive advantage based on the quality of service it provides, rather than operating in a restrictive capacity towards its audience by restricting other potential broadcasters from accessing the marketplace. I hope the Minister will be in a position to convey his views directly to the board of RTE in a manner which might see a change in attitude towards what is essentially normal competition that does not in any way seek to undermine RTE or the quality of its programming.

I accept the statement made by the Deputy. If one were to trawl through recordings of RTE radio programmes, one might come across instances where advertisements for shows on sister stations were broadcast. I listen to RTE radio and this practice can sometimes seem contradictory. I also noted the comments made by the Minister, Deputy Pat Rabbitte. However, the reply I have just read clearly indicates that there are guidelines which apply within RTE in whether it accepts advertisements from other broadcasters. The station has set down its own rules in this matter. We all take the Minister's comments seriously, but it must be noted that he may have been speaking in a personal capacity. I did not hear the comments in question, but I imagine that what the Minister had to say has come to the attention of those in RTE. While it is important that the national broadcaster retain its autonomy, common sense must ultimately apply in this issue.

The Dáil adjourned at 1.50 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 9 May 2014.