Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 10 Dec 2014

Vol. 861 No. 2

Other Questions

European Court of Justice Rulings

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


6. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the implications of the European Court of Justice ruling that member states may refuse non-contributory benefits to economically inactive EU migrants; her views that this effectively excludes persons with disabilities so severe that they cannot work from the right to freedom of movement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47083/14]

The Tánaiste spoke on this matter earlier as my question relates to the Dano judgment of the European Court of Justice, ECJ. Member states can now refuse social assistance payments to certain "economically inactive" people, to use the words that I think the court used. Does the Tánaiste share my concern that this ruling could affect people with severe disabilities that mean they cannot work but are in a member state, such as Ireland, to access medical expertise?

Under Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, every citizen has the right to move and reside freely within the territories of the member states. Those rights can be exercised in accordance with the conditions and limits defined by the treaties and by the measures adopted thereunder. The conditions governing free movement and the right of residence are set out in EU Directive No. 38 of 2004. Freedom of movement among member states is probably one of the most important and positive aspects of the EU for Irish people.

Under the directive, every EU citizen has an unqualified right of residence in another member state for up to 3 months. A right of residence for longer than 3 months is dependent on being employed or self-employed and holding comprehensive sickness insurance. If such people are not active in the labour market they must have sufficient resources for themselves and their families so as not to become an unreasonable burden on the social assistance system of the host member state. The Irish system is built on the contributory principle and this is the case in many of the better EU welfare systems. In the case in question, the person concerned is a migrant who is not in employment but argued that, in line with the equality provisions that co-ordinate social security systems across the EU, she was entitled to a social assistance payment on the same basis as citizens of the host country in the same position.

In its judgment the court found that to accept that persons who do not have a right of residence under EU Directive No. 38 of 2004 may claim entitlement to social benefits under the same conditions as those applicable to nationals of the host member state would run counter to an objective of the directive, set out in recital 10 in its preamble. This objective aims to prevent EU citizens who are nationals of other member states from becoming an unreasonable burden on the social assistance system of the host member state.

The judgment of the court has not introduced any new restrictions on free movement but has clarified EU law in this area. Accordingly, the free movement rights of disabled people, or other migrant groups, are not affected by the judgment. The judgment merely confirms what was understood to be the EU legal position.

I take it that this does not interfere with the right of an EU citizen to reside in Ireland if a social welfare payment, or its equivalent, is being paid by his or her member state of origin.

I was setting out the position of someone who travelled to a location within the European Union on health grounds and I was making the point that such a person should be supported by his original country and that there is a problem with that. Obviously, not all the social welfare rates are the same. Someone might move to Ireland because we have a specialty in heart operations but the person might not be given a provision for the different inflationary measures in Ireland. We discussed rent earlier, for example. The rent is higher here than elsewhere. On the basis of health grounds such a person may need to be close to specialty services. Is there any way this can be facilitated in such cases?

Was the State a co-sponsor of the action through the court, as suggested in Carl O'Brien's article in The Irish Times? He reported that Germany's position was supported by the Irish Government, Britain and Denmark. Was it simply that we were watching in the wings to see what would result?

No, Ireland intervened at the Court of Justice of the European Union along with several other countries in support of the German authorities since it was considered that the outcome of the case could seriously affect our ability to refuse assistance to non-employed European Union citizens who had arrived in the country never having been in employment here, with no resources and never having made contributions.

As I have often said to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, I have a responsibility to the people who pay PRSI and taxes. They are paying into a contributory system. For example, when they become older, they may be entitled to a contributory social welfare pension or a non-contributory means-tested social welfare pension if they do not have enough contributions. The same is true of other countries like Ireland which have strong and high-paying social security payments. We supported the case because it enforces what was the understanding of European Union law.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh gave an example of someone who might come to Ireland for medical treatment. The same would apply in the case of an Irish person, perhaps with a child, going for medical treatment in another country. If that person was in receipt of a social welfare payment, she should go to the local social welfare office and explain the circumstances. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh is aware, temporary absences for such purposes are entertained and cases have arisen from time to time. The person in question should go to the local social welfare office to discuss the matter and explain the circumstances.

Private Rented Accommodation Costs

Richard Boyd Barrett


7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection as an emergency measure, in the interests of preventing more persons moving into homeless services and to allow those currently in these services to secure private rented accommodation, whether she will issue instructions to community welfare officers to allow for rents in excess of the caps when an applicant secures a home within the average rents of a given area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47098/14]

As we are all aware, rents are absolutely skyrocketing throughout the country, particularly in Dublin and the big urban centres. The rent caps are woefully inadequate to meet rising rent costs. We all know the consequences. This is leading people into homelessness and dire circumstances. There are many associated issues, including the provision of social housing, the possibility of rent controls, etc. but I have no wish to go into that now. By the way, I thank the Minister of State for intervening in a case I raised last week. The person in question got the letter.

We need an instruction to go to community welfare officers throughout the country pending any wider review of rent caps to the effect that if someone comes in and explains that he is going to become homeless unless the CWO raises the rent cap to the level of rents in the area, then the community welfare officer should not decide that the cap applies and explain that there is nothing he can do. Instead, the officer should consult the daft.ie website and agree that a given rent is reasonable and agree to a rent cap at that given level. Otherwise the homelessness crisis will continue.

We discussed this at length earlier on. By the way, I take this opportunity to point out that Deputy Ó Snodaigh did in fact vote for that and I am happy to correct the record. I know he had many arguments on the matter. I am happy to correct the point immediately.

We are taking proactive action and measures. The Tánaiste met all the regional managers yesterday to explain section 38, which gives a certain flexibility. We have been in correspondence as recently as this week with all the community welfare officers and regional managers. We are keen to see consistency. I have no wish to set rent limits by the daft.ie website. I want to be proactive with the community welfare officers, who know in detail the market in their local area. That is important. We also need consistency throughout the country.

I was pleased when Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue in question in the House last week. I was listening upstairs and that was why I contacted the Deputy on the matter. I want our front-line staff to be proactive, to know exactly the nature of local market circumstances, to ensure that we get value for taxpayers' money and, above all, to ensure no tenant loses his tenancy.

Deputy Boyd Barrett can advise people who come to him for assistance in two ways. If a case relates to the Dublin area, he can refer them to the tenancy protection service operated by Threshold. The person should contact this service which will act as an advocate for the individual and work with the Department of Social Protection to ensure that the person will be able to stay in his tenancy and negotiate a solution. In cases outside Dublin, people should contact the health services.

The Tánaiste and I are being proactive. We want consistency throughout the country. We have no wish to see people losing their tenancy because of increases in rents. However, I have no wish to give a landlord's charter. After all, the Department of Social Protection has under its control over 30% of the market. We must be careful that we do not inflate rates throughout the country. I accept the Deputy's point. There is a problem. However, I assure the Deputy that I will be most proactive on this issue throughout the country. I represent an inner city constituency that has been affected by rent inflation due to the number of people who are going back to employment in the area.

I welcome the positive indications that the Minister and Minister of State are giving and the fact that the Minister met the regional managers and CWOs. That is a positive development and I hope it pans out. I genuinely welcome the intervention of the Minister of State around the particular case I raised. I am seeking as strong an assurance as I can get on this issue. The rent cap for someone with a couple of children in Dún Laoghaire is €975, but there is absolutely nothing for €975, €1,075 or €1,175 there. A person might get something for €1,200, but that person would have to be rather lucky. More likely, he would get something, not altogether brilliant, for €1,300.

A further three people came to my office this week who are in this situation. They asked whether they will go homeless, what services are available and how the system works. I have put it to them that the Minister is saying there is flexibility and if a person can find somewhere that is the best place he can find and which is reasonable, at least we can argue the case for him. However, we are encountering difficulty even when we refer people to Threshold. In the case I brought to the attention of the Minister of State last week, we had referred the people in question to Threshold but it could not get the community welfare officer to move either. It only happened as a result of the intervention of the Minister of State. While I appreciate the intervention of the Minister of State, we cannot do that for every case. There must be genuine flexibility and a reasonableness on the part of community welfare officers. They should be able to decide that a given rent level is fair and they should be able to prevent a person falling into homelessness.

I explained to Deputy Boyd Barrett previously that in the particular case, Threshold did not work, but in the past week we have been working to ensure consistency of service and that flexibility is operated throughout the stream. Again, it is best for people to engage with the services and, indeed, for Deputy Boyd Barrett to engage with the services.

The Deputy is correct that I cannot intervene, but I did not intervene. What I was seeking was a consistency of service and quality of services. By and large the best people to understand the local market are those front-line staff who are dealing with it day in, day out. We must be very cautious about this. The lifting of the rent caps might have an effect on people on low income, students and families who are working and are currently in the rental market, because we could cause rent inflation.

It is a difficult issue. One solution does not fit every area, which is why there are a number of rent caps across the country. However, I assure the Deputy that we are monitoring this on a weekly basis. I am anxious to ensure that the front-line staff operate the discretionary powers they have under section 38 and we have outlined those powers to the staff in correspondence this week.

There were figures in The Irish Times a few days ago on how bad the situation is in Dublin. Dublin is a disaster but the situation in Dún Laoghaire is much worse. Dún Laoghaire had over 4,000 people on the list but 1,000 have joined it in a year so the list will now number 5,200. There has been a 20% increase in the number of people on the list in one year. This is due to rising rents. It is just a disaster; I cannot overstate it. I have no choice but to monitor it and to engage with the services every week. I telephone the people at Threshold but they are at their wits' end and I get the same rubbish from the local community welfare officer.

If there is a problem with landlords jacking up rents, which there is, we need rent controls. In the meantime, the Minister must not allow the person who needs a roof over their head to be piggy in the middle in the Minister's battle with the landlords. We must sort out rent control and the issue of the supply of affordable housing. The Minister must issue a stern instruction to community welfare officers to approve rent allowance to the level that is necessary to get somebody into a home, rather than to go into homeless services.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has launched a medium and long-term investment of €2.3 billion in social housing. There is also a short-term problem. It is a complicated problem and we must move carefully through it. The roll-out of the pilot scheme of HAP will be very useful and worthwhile as the local authorities will engage directly with the landlords. It will also assist people getting back into work. In my constituency the rent inflation I have witnessed is very much driven by the number of people who have gone into employment. What is happening throughout the country is different in each location. That is the reason we are engaging with the local front-line staff, to ensure that they have the flexibility which is provided for in legislation. We have emphasised that. I will do my best to endeavour to ensure that there is consistency of service across the country and to ensure the flexibility is operated.

However, we must be careful that we do not create rent inflation for young families who are working and renting in the private sector, so they can no longer afford it, as well as students seeking accommodation across the country. There is another layer involved and if we create that rent inflation, we will be responsible for causing another problem. We must be careful. It is a complex problem and we will work with might and main to try to deal with it.

Rent Supplement Scheme Administration

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


8. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the reforms she will introduce to the rent supplement scheme in response to the recent High Court ruling that the Department was wrong to discount the accommodation needs of a separated father's children when assessing his housing need; her views that the scheme as operated served to deny children their right to the care of both their parents; and the estimated number of persons for whom the ruling could potentially have implications. [47084/14]

This question relates to the recent High Court ruling that the Department of Social Protection was wrong to discount or ignore the accommodation needs of a separated father's children when assessing his housing need for the purpose of rent supplement. Does the Minister agree that the scheme as operated served to deny children their right to care from both of their parents and will she take action to remedy this denial of children's rights?

The High Court judgment did not find that the scheme as operated denies children their right to care of both their parents. As acknowledged in the judgment, the legislation provides that decision makers must have due regard to the circumstances of an individual and the relationship with his/her children in terms of financial and material support and dependency. In this particular case, however, the judge considered that the decision makers did not have regard to certain specified matters relating to financial and material support in deciding the case and remitted the matter to be reconsidered in the light of those issues.

The Department is reviewing the implications of the case and, if appropriate, revised guidelines will issue to staff. There are many criteria applying to rent supplement. Where there is a need, that is assessed and dealt with. It is not the Department's policy unilaterally to refuse rent supplement to fathers who have shared custody for anything other than a one-bedroom unit. Every claim for rent supplement is determined having regard to the particular circumstances of the applicant. We are currently reviewing the implications of the case and we will revisit the guidelines and re-issue them to staff where necessary.

According to the most recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, census figures there are 88,918 separated men in this country. That is an increase of almost 16,000 on the figure for the census taken prior to that. Not all of these have part custody of children or are in need of rent supplement, although obviously a portion of them are. Has the Department estimated the number of separated parents in housing need with partial custody or joint custody of their children to assess fully the implications of the judgment? Is the Minister aware that there was a linked ruling by the Equality Tribunal about a year ago? The Equality Tribunal found that the Department's community welfare service had discriminated against an unmarried separated father of two who had moved from Britain to Ireland to be near his children. His rent supplement payment for a one-parent family with two children was rejected as his ex-partner was receiving it. If the Department is aware of that, why did it force the other man who took the most recent case to the High Court to fight his battle all the way through the courts?

I do not know whether the Department has the statistics the Deputy requested. If we have them, I will forward them to him. The Deputy is correct about the figure of more than 88,000. As the Deputy correctly said, a proportion of those might not have custody. The Department is commencing a technical review of rent supplement legislation and procedures to ensure they are compliant with the Equal Status Act, with particular reference to how separated or unmarried parents are treated. The High Court ruling will inform the review. We will examine the judgment closely. I do not have the statistics the Deputy requires but if they are available in the Department, I will ensure they are sent to him.

Has a timeframe been set for the review to ensure that within a number of months or perhaps a year the implications of the outcomes of the High Court case and the Equality Tribunal case from October 2013 are fully worked out and also to implement whatever changes are required to bring the rent supplement scheme into line with those judgments?

The Department is reviewing the implications of the case and that should be carried out within a reasonable amount of time. With regard to the Equal Status Act and the technical review being undertaken, I am not sure of the length of time involved but I will make inquiries.

Question No. 9 is in the name of Deputy Creighton. She is not present so it cannot be taken.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Rent Supplement Scheme Administration

Bernard Durkan


10. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection the extent to which she might be prepared to extend the emergency housing alleviation measures to address short-term housing needs currently available in Dublin to County Kildare and adjoining counties, having particular regard to the critical housing shortage arising from rent increases; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47050/14]

This question relates to the need for the provision of facilities in counties adjoining Dublin, where already alleviation measures have correctly been put in place in respect of those who are becoming homeless, and asks that they might be extended to the adjoining county of Kildare.

I am sure Meath and Wicklow will be able to look after themselves.

I am wondering how many times I can answer the same questions in a different manner. I know the Deputy's interest is in the Kildare area. The regional managers within the Kildare area were met by the Tánaiste yesterday. We are ensuring flexibility is given by the front-line officers to reflect the local market costs within those areas. Correspondence is going out to all front-line staff in regard to rent allowance. The protocol which is operating in the Dublin area has been working extremely well and we are considering the extension of that protocol to other larger urban areas. That is currently under review and we are working with Threshold in that regard.

With regard to Kildare specifically, I ask anyone who is currently in difficulty to recontact the community welfare services, which will have received correspondence from myself and the Department this week outlining their discretionary powers under section 38. We want to see that flexibility operated and we certainly do not want to see anybody who is currently in a tenancy lose it. However, we want to make sure it is operated in a fair and consistent manner across the country, and Kildare would not get a preference over Meath or Wicklow, obviously.

It is a very serious issue and people are extremely worried and anxious in this regard. It is witnessed in every clinic held by Deputies or councillors. We have given instructions in this regard and the Tánaiste met the regional managers only yesterday. What we want to see is flexibility, consistency and fairness. However, on the same basis, we do not want to see rent inflation created by the Department. There are families on low and middle income in the rental market also and we do not want to inflate rents as this would put them under pressure. It is a complex situation and we are doing our best. The Deputy knows very well about the long-term and the medium-term. What we need to do is get over this particular issue until the supply comes.

I thank the Minister of State for that comprehensive reply and thank the Tánaiste for her work in this area over a considerable time. For my sins, I deal with quite a number of queries from the Dublin area as well in regard to housing, strange as it may seem. I was only joking when I referred to Meath and Wicklow looking after themselves. It is an overspill of the situation from the Dublin area.

The Minister of State correctly referred to those on low incomes in rental accommodation. On a point that is applicable in some cases but not all, might it be possible to look again at the cases where people on low incomes have a need for some portion of supplement in order to alleviate the most severe hardship that might come their way? I agree entirely that the purpose of the exercise would not be to inflate rents, which would make the whole exercise self-defeating. Nonetheless, it might be possible to be selective in looking at the cases where there is hardship for people who are at work, or not at work, as the case may be, but who are also victims of the market surge in rents that is outside their control.

I am well aware of this issue. I am sure every Deputy deals with queries from outside their own constituencies on all issues. I accept there is particular difficulty in the greater Dublin area but also in the Kildare area, where there has been a surge of employment, for example, in the construction industry, following the announcement of the jobs at Kerry Group and given the lift in employment in the IT sector, including at Intel, and in other areas. While that growth in employment is welcome, there has been a knock-on effect, especially in the Kildare and outer Dublin areas, whereby the numbers seeking employment in the private sector have caused the rent inflation that has happened.

While there are no plans at present to extend the protocol to the Kildare area, the front-line staff have been told to take into consideration the local market forces and to do everything within their remit to keep tenancies sustained. However, as I said, we also have to look at the other elements. It is very fine balance that we must achieve. The real answer to this is to get Kildare County Council building homes and the €2.3 billion that has been put into the budget for 2015 will certainly assist that. There is a strong case for some of those properties to be built in Kildare.

I again thank the Minister of State for a knowledgeable and comprehensive reply. The rents in Kildare are generally higher on average than rents in the Dublin area. I have compared them from time to time and they are surging ahead, unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be. We may be successful from the point of view of generating employment for a variety of reasons but, at the same time, it is hugely important we recognise the pressure people in rented accommodation are under, and that this pressure is getting greater. Many people have found themselves out of their homes and have floated into Dublin itself, because they were not able to find accommodation in Kildare, and they are now beneficiaries of the protocol that is applicable in the Dublin area. While we are grateful for that, at the same time, we need to try to resolve that problem by virtue of a similar procedure to that which applies in Dublin.

The Minister of State said the Department does not want to cause rent inflation, which is understandable, but rent inflation is already happening. A two-bed apartment in Dominick Street has gone from €1,000 a month to €1,400 a month in two and a half years. The reason for this is very simple, namely, there is a new problem in the private rental market. Given that the Government intends to be dependent on this going forward, it has to address the problem that much of the rental market is now controlled by a small number of players because NAMA and the banks have sold many of the apartments that are up for rent to investors, many from outside the country. The truth of the matter is that, unless the Government actively controls the private rental market in some way, this problem is not going to be solved, given that so few players have such control over a huge chunk of the private rental market in Dublin. Our private rental market is not regulated, although the market is regulated in many European countries, and this is something the Government will have to do.

I am not too certain of that, although I will look at it with a small group. My experience, certainly in my Dublin city centre constituency, is that the vast number of those taking rent supplement are in the buy-to-let area, where a single person had bought the property for their pension or otherwise. Some describe them as hobby landlords and, in many cases, that created problems because they did not give a professional service and there was not the required scale.

As Deputy Durkan outlined, there is a real problem of rent inflation within the city centre and we are in constant communication in that regard. I have seen this in the Ringsend-Pearse Street area because of the huge growth in employment in the IT sector. There has also been huge rent inflation in the central Dublin area, which started in the Docklands and has spread out very much from there. Therefore, I am not surprised by Deputy Wallace's point about rent increases in Dominick Street and areas like that.

I am not sure if Deputy Wallace was in the House when I explained this, but we have written to the front-line staff this week, asking them to operate under section 38 and to utilise the flexibility contained therein. The Tánaiste met with senior management and area managers from across the country yesterday to explain that we want to make sure tenancies are sustainable and that nobody would lose their home. We are urging Deputies to use the tenancy protocol that is in operation within the area.

Where that is not in operation, we are looking for a direct connection with community welfare services. My experience is that the people on the ground have a good understanding of what is happening and I am looking for statistics from them on a regular basis to see what is happening within areas and within the market. It is obvious this is happening in Dublin, but it is also happening outside Dublin in places where there is pressure and there has been little built during the recession. I hope the €2.3 billion outlined in the 2015 budget indicates again the start of the capital programme of building local authority houses. I hope this will happen as quickly as possible.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.