I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:
“Dáil Éireann, while acknowledging the spirit of the Housing (Adaptation Grant For People With A Disability) Bill 2018, resolves that the Bill be deemed to be read a second time this day six months, to allow for the Government to further explore the extent to which the underlying ambition of the Bill can be addressed in the context of a review of the operation of the relevant grant schemes, which is already underway, and to allow for further consideration of certain legal issues associated with the Bill.”
I apologise if my voice is a bit croaky for some reason. It may be the result of weeks spent on canvassing during the local elections. I am sorry the Deputy did not get a copy of the amendment. It is on the Order Paper, however. It is a straightforward amendment which proposes to move the second reading of the Bill six months into the future, if possible. I hope Deputy Scanlon and his colleagues will agree to it. I will explain the reasons for doing so as I go along.
We recognise the spirit of the Bill and that it is not political legislation but a genuine effort to discuss how we can improve in this area. In that vein, while we are happy to agree with the Bill in as far as possible, we are seeking a time extension to deal with some aspects of it. We are not opposing the Bill, even if we might not agree with everything being put forward. This amendment seeks to secure agreement in the House. Deputies, councillors and others all agree that this is an area that needs change. We want to see this money spent much faster on the homes of those who need it. We started work on this issue some months ago. We want to continue with the review and the workshops that are taking place to enable us to implement the appropriate changes.
Clearly, everybody wants changes in this area but we have to get these changes right. Making some small changes now and then some other minor ones later is not the answer. We need full reform of this area, which is why we started the review. We also launched a document some months ago. It details a whole policy framework and a new approach from the Departments of Health and Housing, Planning and Local Government with all of the local authorities. It focuses on housing options for those who are ageing. The Fianna Fáil Party spokesperson on matters affecting older people, Deputy Butler, agreed with the plan and indicated it was a good process. The plan includes a commitment to review this whole area and the review started some months ago. We want to make changes and we recognise that has to happen. Everybody here has expressed that view as well. We are committed to making positive changes where that can be done. It is not the case that we are trying to hide or run away from this issue and this is not an attempt to apportion credit. People know me at this stage and that is not what I am into. This is about doing the right thing. Perhaps Fianna Fáil will come on board and agree to park this Bill for six months as we complete the work that is under way. That would allow us to bring in all of those changes as well.
I thank Deputies O'Dea, O'Rourke and Murphy O'Mahony for bringing forward the Bill. It is important that we have this discussion and debate. We probably do not discuss this issue enough in this House. I stated before that the whole issue of housing for the elderly and people with disabilities is one we have to focus on much more. At every meeting we have with local authorities we push the need to focus on the needs of those from different age groups and those with different abilities. We are also planning ahead for new housing for people who are ageing so that we will not always be trying to adapt. We recognised at the policy launch that while we are waiting for the supply of new houses to come on stream, we will have to adapt much of the housing stock in the private and public sectors. We are committed to doing that and to increasing funding in this area every year in the foreseeable future.
I may be incorrect but I thought I heard a previous speaker refer to funding of €1 million being available this year. The figure for this year is €71 million and it was €64 million last year. A second fund exists for the adaptation of social housing. Spending in the area we are discussing is €71 million this year. It is correct that it should be at that level and the amount allocated will increase every year. We need to do that because we recognise that there is major demand in this area. Last year, this funding helped with the adaptation of 11,000 houses and we hope to do the same again this year. Deputy Scanlon is right that in some cases the spending required is not substantial. In many cases, the amounts involved are between €8,000 and €10,000. A figure closer to €30,000 may be needed in some cases but in many cases an intervention of €10,000 makes a big difference and is life-changing for a family. We all recognise that and we want to work on that as well.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this. I am seeking to table a reasonable amendment to the Bill proposed by Fianna Fáil to defer the second reading for six months to explore further the extent to which the underlying ambition of the Bill can be addressed in the context of a review, which has been under way since April, of the operation of the relevant grant schemes and to allow for further consideration of certain legal issues associated with the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to introduce a requirement that local authorities adhere to a defined decision time when administering the housing adaption grant for people with a disability.
While not subscribing to every aspect of the Fianna Fáil Bill, the Government will not oppose it. In the time available, I will outline some of the issues that require consideration and some of the actions that are under way to improve the quality and management of the grant application process. We have workshops with all of the local authorities where we encourage best practice. Some counties excel in this area and make quick decisions, while others, which the Deputies will know well, are behind the curve in administering these grants. The money is allocated and the local authorities know it is coming, yet there are still major delays. These decisions are often administered locally. I want to stress that some local authorities do a great job and we must acknowledge that. We cannot paint everyone with the same brush.
The suite of housing adaptation grants for older people and people with a disability for private homeowners is 80% funded from the Exchequer, with a 20% funding contribution from the resources of each local authority. These grants are implemented locally by the local authorities. Three distinct grant types are available. The housing adaption grant for people with a disability provides a grant of up to €30,000 to assist people with a disability to have necessary adaptations, repairs or improvement works carried out on their homes. The housing aid for older people scheme provides grants of up to €8,000 to assist older people living in poor housing conditions to have necessary repairs or improvements carried out. The mobility aids grant scheme is available to fast-track grants of up to €6,000 to cover a basic suite of works to address the mobility problems of a member of a household. Demand for the grants has been consistently high since the schemes were introduced in 2007. Rebuilding Ireland includes a commitment to increase funding and make the grants more accessible. A similar commitment is made in A Programme for a Partnership Government and the policy document launched some months ago and sponsored by two Departments. Everybody is focused on this area. Deputy Scanlon acknowledged that he is trying to be helpful and is not being political.
The recently published policy document, Housing Options For Our Ageing Population, also strongly emphasised the Department's commitment to streamlining the application process and ensuring that grants are more accessible to applicants, specifically those who need them. This debate on Second Stage provides us with some time to consider the general principle of the Bill. I will outline some of the issues of concern to the Government on which we need to reflect in the months ahead. The key provision in the Bill is that decisions must be made by the local authority on grant applications within four weeks. The motivation behind the Bill, as I mentioned, may be to address the longer waiting times that exist in some but not all local authorities. The approach of legislating for a precise defined timeline on applications does not address the real underlying causes of longer waiting times in some local authorities. There are a number of issues involved, including the priorities of some local authorities and the demands they face in respect of local agendas. The submission of incomplete applications can also lead to delays. We have addressed this issue and we want to focus on whether the forms are too complicated and if there is too much red tape involved in the process. Deputy Scanlon referred to that point. Some local authorities require the submission of additional documentation. We also want to focus on that issue, try to reflect best practice and streamline the processes involved. A requirement for planning permission is also a factor in some applications. This is very often a grey area that needs to be clarified. The availability of occupational therapists and construction tradespeople to provide estimates of costs is another issue in certain areas.
From a practical perspective, the Bill, as presented, may have unintended consequences. The grants already have a legislative base under the Housing Acts and the regulations made under those Acts. It is in those regulations that operational arrangements are appropriately set out, not in separate primary legislation that may only serve to confuse the legislative landscape. It might be a case of having to change those regulations instead of the primary legislation. The full scheme title, as covered by the relevant regulations, is the "Housing Adaption Grant for Older People and People with a Disability". This Bill, however, is entitled the Housing (Adaptation Grant for People with a Disability) Bill 2018. It is unclear, therefore, whether the Bill intends to cover all three of the grants available under the scheme or just the housing adaption grant for people with a disability. I trust that probably is the intention but this matter must be identified and rectified.
If it is intended to cover the housing adaptation grant only for those with disabilities, it may lead to a two-tier system whereby applications under other schemes are processed differently. I doubt that is something the proposers want to achieve.
Enactment of the Bill would mean an applicant would have to submit a report from a construction professional such as an architect or building engineer with the completed application stating the dwelling is suitable for the proposed works, which is to say that it is suitable for a person with disability. Currently, this function is normally carried out by local authority inspectors following the receipt of an application. This legislation could require an applicant to source and pay for a report before an application is submitted. That is the danger of the way the legislation is drafted and it is something we want to address. I accept that is not what it is sought to achieve, I state simply that it arises as an issue. We have to ask whether it is the right approach and tease it out. The Government's view is that the provision is contrary to the objective of reducing the quantity of documentation required at application stage. We should give consideration to the issue before progressing the Bill.
We must also consider the practical implications of the legislation in respect of the requirement for an occupational therapist's report. The Bill requires that such a report be submitted with an application. According to Deputy Frank O'Rourke, the intention is that the community occupational therapists will provide the report, but in some cases people have to pay for that service. I acknowledge that the approach is consistent with the practice of a number of local authorities which require an applicant to pay for the occupational therapist's report up front and to claim up to €200 back from the local authority. However, the proposal would close out flexibility for other local authorities which cover the costs by engaging panels of local occupational therapists to evaluate applications when they are received. The latter approach is easier for the applicant as the local authority handles the provision and payment of the therapist who works on a panel. Further, there are cases in which an occupational therapy report is unnecessary.
I raise also the concerns that arise in the proposal that two estimates of costs be submitted by an applicant along with proof of a contractor's tax clearance certificate. Local authorities already operate this policy, but they advise the Department that applicants are finding it increasingly difficult to get tradespeople to provide quotes. Local authorities do not require two costs estimates if there are genuine difficulties obtaining them but the Bill has the potential to remove this flexibility. I recognise that the majority of authorities have this requirement, but they are telling us they want to move away from that. It is something one might want to change in the Bill.