Táim buíoch don Leas-Cheann Comhairle as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Tugaim faoi ndeara go bhfuil an t-ábhar seo tar éis a bheith ardaithe ar an Ordú Gnó le míonna beaga anuas agus tá go leor de Bhaill an Tí ag tnúth leis an bpíosa reachtaíochta seo le tamall anuas. Fáiltím roimhe agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus le gach duine a bhí páirteach i gcur le chéile na reachtaíochta.
In addressing this particular issue I must admit that for me one of the reasons for being involved in politics is social housing, and its importance to the well-being of Irish society, the impact it has on individuals and families, the manner in which the quality and nature of the housing we provide for our people impacts on their health and general well-being and the way in which housing influences the extent to which people can benefit from the educational opportunities and, very often, the employment opportunities which exist. It is a key plank, or should be, of public policy and an area which ranks in importance together with education, health and employment.
I commend the Minister of State on many aspects of the Bill. She has a strong social conscience and I see her personal influence at play in some aspects of the Bill. There are aspects of the Bill about which I am less enthusiastic and I will come back to them. Deputy Heydon referred to the visits of the Minister of State to Kildare South and I know she has been in other constituencies.
It is quite clear the Minister of State has taken on board her experiences in Limerick and what she has heard from people throughout the country on the particular problems which confront communities with regard to anti-social behaviour. It is a plague on estates throughout the country and it happens in private estates just as it happens in local authority provided estates. The activity of a small number of people in these estates, and the pressure that a small number of totally irresponsible and remiss individuals place on ordinary decent citizens who are trying to live their lives, is quite intolerable. All of us as public representatives, when we go among the people and do our clinics, meet on a weekly basis people who are harassed and whose lives are being made a living misery by the problem of anti-social behaviour. I am glad the legislation sets about tackling this particular issue. I am also glad in doing so it also seeks to protect the complainant or whistleblower. The whistleblower, however, is not always right. In some cases the whistleblowers may themselves be perpetrators of anti-social behaviour, but none the less it is important that anonymity is available to them.
Addressing the business of anti-social behaviour raises the responsibilities of local authorities which, in my view, have not taken adequate action within the powers available to them to address the issue. We should have a multiagency approach, including the local Garda committees, and other efforts should be made to deal with this particular issue. It is particularly important where the State aids people, through the provision of housing or subsidies or subvention for the acquisition of housing, that some vetting takes place. It is not right that local authorities allocate properties in estates to people who have a track record in the sale and distribution of drugs. People who give the fingers to society and who inflict lasting damage on communities should not be rewarded by the State or local authorities through having the benefit of housing made available to them. They should know that if they engage in these types of practices the State will address the particular challenge they pose and they will not be rewarded.
I commend the Minister of State on addressing the issue of social segregation. She knows there are areas in the country where a disproportionate number of people have participated in anti-social behaviour and have had the capacity in this way to make life for other residents in these estates extremely difficult in many respects. She also addresses the plight of separated individuals. Over several months many Deputies have raised the difficulties of separated people trying to get on local authority waiting lists. I am particularly conscious of people who have been the subject of domestic violence and the plight in which they find themselves as they try to get on a local authority list. I commend the officials in Kildare County Council on being very sympathetic in how they try to deal with these situations. The overall body of regulation and legislation surrounding this particular area has made it inordinately difficult for such people to access housing in the past.
The Minister of State is also to be commended on the announcement of the new incremental purchase scheme. I must admit I wonder about this. I am struck by the fact that since it was first introduced several years ago, I have not been inundated by people seeking to avail of it. The old traditional method of the sale of local authority houses at a discount where such houses had been tenanted for a considerable period of time was a good system. I welcome the fact there is a purchase scheme. It remains to be seen whether it will be as effective as it might be. There is a major shortcoming in what is proposed, in that the moneys realised by local authorities are not to be ring-fenced for the provision of housing or housing-associated facilities, and this is a serious shortcoming in the legislation.
Among the other problems I identify is that housing is not a priority in the Custom House, it has not been a priority for many years for county managers, and it is not a political priority. We all stand indicted for the fact that in recent years not enough priority has been given to this issue, given its importance to society. I take no great pride in the fact that my party, while having a proud record in the past on the delivery of social housing, in recent years has not done enough.
I acknowledge Deputy Willie Penrose as an expert in this area. When I was a member of Kildare County Council, I had the privilege of working with the late Joe Bermingham, a character in many respects, but a man who was absolutely committed to the role of the local authority as a housing authority, and was committed to the fact the local authority should have a continuous house building programme.
I assume my colleague, Deputy Wall, subscribes to the same position. However, the problem we now face is the absence of a serious construction programme. There are 90,000 people on the housing list, of whom 6,000 are in County Kildare. The housing officer could tell me today that in respect of County Kildare this year, 20 new houses will be built in Kilcock and ten houses will be renovated or reconstructed in Newbridge. In other words, while there is a waiting list of 6,000 people, 30 units will be provided for those people over the next year or so. This is a pretty pathetic effort.
I do not blame the Minister of State alone in this regard because this has not been a priority in recent years. I suggest to the Minister of State that one of the reasons it has not been a political priority is because many of those who are on the social housing waiting lists do not appear on the register of electors. They move around from place to place and do not vote very often. This is understandable because they are excluded in Irish society. They are not a factor for county managers because the number of council houses one succeeds in building during one's tenure in a particular area is not something that will particularly advance one's case for achieving a managership somewhere else. However, there are many other fancy sexy projects in which county managers could be involved that will garner positive press for them and will help their career paths. County managers are unable to further their case and career paths, which are very important to those gentlemen - unfortunately they mainly are gentlemen - through the building of council houses.
I was struck this week by the real impact on individuals of the lack of progress in this area. A young woman who has two children came to see me. She has been on the local authority waiting list for eight or nine years. Her daughter is 12 years old and during that period, they have been in nine different homes. The woman is on anti-depressants because she is distraught that she is unable to provide some sort of permanent home and security for her child. That is why I was appalled by what the media reported as a discussion in the Government recently on whether there should be a local authority purchase scheme. The tradition in Ireland was for local authorities to build houses, for purchase schemes to be introduced and for people to be able to buy them out. This was the way in which individuals progressed and communities developed. There is a right-wing attitude abroad now, which I must note is reflected in the actions of the Government. Perversely, if the media reports of what was going in government are correct, it appears as though Fine Gael, which obviously is the most right-wing element of the Government, was advocating a purchase scheme while the Labour Party was opposed to it.
Three areas are of concern to me. The Minister's housing assistance payment, HAP, proposal has many positive aspects. It makes a lot of sense to integrate the supports for housing within the local authority. However, it will not work unless the local authority provides the staffing to support the initiative. Down through the years, I have observed county managers making provision for road-building projects when such projects arose. They recruited engineers and various other specialists to build the roads but when housing construction programmes were under way, I never saw housing departments being augmented by additional draftsmen, engineers or architects to help in that system, although I must accept the standard of council housing improved enormously.
However, what worries me in particular, apart from the staffing issue, is that in Part 4 of the legislation, which pertains to housing assistance, the Minister of State proposes that when clients get their HAP payments, their housing needs will have been deemed to have been met. I understand from officials to whom I have spoken that this means people who get the old rent supplement, the new HAP payment, will be taken off the local authority waiting list. I understand the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has been telling local authorities that people who have been accommodated in the short-term schemes, such as the RAS units, five-year tenancies or the leasing tenancies of ten and in some cases 15 years, also are to be taken off the list. If this is the direction the Minister of State is taking, it constitutes a sad and sorry indictment of what her Department is about because a person who accepts a housing assistance payment is doing so because he or she has no other choice. However, the ambition of such people still is to get a home that will be their permanent place of accommodation.
If, as it appears, it is the Minister of State's intention to remove HAP recipients from the housing list, she will have achieved something for the Government by massaging and manipulating the figures, whereby the number of people on waiting lists will appear to have reduced dramatically. However, their housing need will remain and that girl about whom I spoke earlier, who has been in nine different properties over 12 years, will still be in that situation. She will be forced out when private landlords do as they inevitably do, that is, pass the property to someone who can pay a higher rent or sell it when its value increases on the open market.
This came to my attention recently when I was addressing the issue of the RAS and leasing with my local authority. Given that local authorities can now only offer casual vacancies in terms of council stock, my thinking was that rather than giving such casual vacancies to people off the list, they should be given to those who have a proven track record in the RAS or the leased accommodation in order that they could progress from a short-term provision into long-term provision, having proven themselves as tenants. However, this is not the case. Furthermore, a predicament has arisen whereby the fluctuations in rents to which many of Members have referred mean many local authorities can no longer get landlords to provide units to them to enable RAS contracts to be renewed. The local authorities have a statutory responsibility to accommodate people who, through no fault of their own, find that their contract has ended. This applies both to RAS and to leasing. Due to the timing of the scheme's commencement, the issue in respect of RAS now is becoming a problem. Many people are challenged and are finding it very difficult, as are local authorities, to secure premises. In ten years' time, when large numbers of people begin to come out of leasing arrangements, the same problem will present itself to whoever is in government at that time and it will be a major problem.
The Minister of State has not included the issue of voluntary housing in this Bill, which is a weakness. What is needed in respect of voluntary housing is a purchase scheme for those who are in the voluntary housing-provided units. I am familiar with many of the voluntary organisations in Ireland, although to describe them as "voluntary" is something of a misnomer because they are large enterprises that depend in large measure on the rental income they receive from those properties. However, the people who live in those units are not there by choice. They are living in those units because there was no other choice. The units were paid for in full by the Department and by the Government through the capital loan subsidy scheme, CLSS, system. I do not refer to specialist housing built under the capital assistance scheme, CAS, but to the mainstream housing units in which people were accommodated because they had no choice. They came from the local authority waiting list, as did local authority tenants.
I must admit an interest in this regard because I have established and am actively involved in voluntary housing. In my constituency, there is an estate in Monasterevin called Millstream Avenue where the voluntary housing association acted as agents for the council and built both voluntary and council units. The people who live in the council units can avail of the proposed incremental purchase scheme, as they could of its predecessor, but their neighbours, who had the initiative to establish the voluntary housing association locally in the first instance, cannot buy. One reason they cannot do so is because, as the Minister of State and I are both aware, the Irish Council for Social Housing and some of its participant bodies are opposed to a purchase scheme. I believe it is fundamentally unfair to deprive such families, who had no choice at the time they availed of these offers, of the opportunity of buying.
I will conclude by noting that some Members have made reference to the Part V provisions. In particular, I have heard my colleague and good friend from Kildare North, Deputy Lawlor, speak frequently about Part V.
I would disagree with many of the initiatives in which my former colleague, Noel Dempsey, partook but it was an inspired initiative when he brought forward the Part V legislation. Ideally, that legislation was going to force the creation of a degree of social integration which it had not been the practice to provide in this country. The Minister of State knows that parts of towns and cities had swathes of local authority housing on one side while the other side had bungalow bliss and private accommodation and there was no social integration. I say to the Minister of State, for the love of God, to please protect Part V and to please make it work. In my view a lot of local authorities need a kick in the backside because of how they dealt with the very important Part V provision.
I am concerned about the level of homelessness. Local authorities are now struggling to deal with the homelessness challenge. In my own constituency, the funding available to agencies such as Michael Garry House and Youth for Peace is hopelessly inadequate. The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, as the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, opened a women's shelter which was built at a cost of a couple of million euro. However, only two of the units in the shelter for women and their children fleeing domestic violence can be opened and this situation needs to be dealt with urgently.