Go gceadófar go dtabharfar isteach Bille dá ngairtear Acht chun an Bunreacht a leasú.
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Constitution.
The purpose of this Bill is to begin the process to allow for a referendum to be held for the electorate to decide on the insertion of a right to housing into Article 45 of Bunreacht Na hÉireann. The wording put forward in the Bill reads: "The State recognises the common good as including the right to adequate and appropriate housing and shall guarantee that right through its laws, policies and the prioritisation of resources, with particular regard to children." Article 45 of Bunreacht Na hÉireann sets out the directive principles of social policy and states:
The principles of social policy set forth in this Article are intended for the general guidance of the Oireachtas. The application of those principles in the making of laws shall be the care of the Oireachtas exclusively, and shall not be cognisable by any Court under any of the provisions of this Constitution.
The genesis of this Bill comes from a long-standing, deep concern over the housing crisis and, in particular, the increasing numbers of children experiencing homelessness, especially from 2014-15. In 2011, the Central Statistics Office stated that there were 641 children experiencing homelessness. This figure had increased by approximately 500% to almost 4,000 in April 2019. Without excluding other cohorts of people experiencing homelessness, the Bill explicitly states that there must be particular regard to children, given the longer-term impacts of homelessness on them.
In summer 2015, I met the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, and representatives of the Children's Rights Alliance, having contacted them that April to voice my grave concerns about the impact of the housing crisis, particularly on children. I met these children at constituency information meetings, week in and week out, and at that time, 911 children were being held in emergency accommodation. Four years later, in the week of 22 April 2019, that figure had increasing to an appalling 3,794.
In the intervening years and months, I have tabled countless questions to the relevant Ministers, including Deputies Coveney, Murphy and Zappone. I have also raised the matter many times with the Taoiseach and I raised many Topical Issue matters. Last February, a motion I tabled along with other independent colleagues was passed by the House by 71 votes to 43.
Some may question why we should seek to amend Article 45, which is not cognisant in a court of law. However, when we started this process of placing a right to housing in the Constitution, we originally looked at amending the children's amendment, Article 42A, and having a referendum on the right to housing just for children. However, when we met representatives of advocacy groups, they felt that while our idea was well-intentioned, it could overshadow other forms of homelessness. We then examined the possibility of amending Article 41, regarding the family, but that also might have excluded people without children who are experiencing homelessness. We believe that an amendment to Article 45 fits because it deals with the directive principles of social policy.
Fine Gael and the Taoiseach have said repeatedly that no constitutional change is needed and that the Government is doing everything within its legislative power to provide funding and increase supply. However, everybody will agree that we still have a dysfunctional housing market that is very far from equilibrium. Putting the responsibility on the Oireachtas, by amending the directive principles of social policy to give particular regard to children, would be valuable.
In mid-May, we debated a constitutional amendment Private Member's Bill from colleagues in Sinn Féin, which I strongly supported. The Bill sought to amend Article 43, on private property, and insert a new section 43A, stating that: "The State recognises the right of all citizens to adequate, appropriate, secure, safe and affordable housing." Despite Fianna Fáil saying it now believes that a right to housing is a necessity, it refused to support the Sinn Féin Bill along with the Taoiseach and Fine Gael. Other previous attempts at bringing forward a right to housing have also failed.
During debates on the Sinn Féin Bill, the Taoiseach's colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, said that Fine Gael was open to bringing forward the consideration of a right to housing. I am now giving its members the opportunity to consider doing that under the social principles.
Earlier this month, we received the results of a study by Royal Holloway, University of London, headed by Dr. Mel Nowicki and commissioned by Dublin City Council. The study was of 16 formerly homeless families and the impact of the experience of homelessness on the children of those families. The findings, although not unexpected, are shameful for every Member of this House, and in particular for the Taoiseach and Government Deputies. The findings included halted development of speech, children unable to crawl, problems with nutrition and so on; these are all problems that come from living in a crowded hotel room or a so-called family hub.
We all attended the recent INTO lobby day. I met teachers from areas where there is a significant number of homeless children in their classes, but little or no extra support is offered to the families, teachers or children. Based on the experience of my office, the lives of my constituents, particularly those who are suffering from homelessness, and the well-being of the almost 4,000 children experiencing homelessness, the time is here to put a right to housing into the Constitution.