Right to Housing: Discussion

At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, members and those in the Visitors Gallery are requested to ensure their mobile telephones are turned off completely or switched to aeroplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device, for the duration of the meeting. It is not sufficient to place telephones on silent mode as they will still interfere with the broadcasting system.

No. 2 on the agenda is the right to housing in an international context. I welcome Ms Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on the right to housing, and Ms Julieta Perucca. I welcome Mr. David Joyce, Mr. Conor Casey and Ms Sinead Kerin from Mercy Law Resource Centre

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Ms Farha to make her opening statement.

Ms Leilani Farha

I thank the Chairman. It is a distinct pleasure to be here. I am the UN special rapporteur on the right to housing. I was appointed in 2014 by the UN Human Rights Council to serve as a global monitor on housing conditions and state obligations in this regard. I am visiting Ireland on an academic visit, not an official mission, so I am not here to assess the implementation of the right to housing in your domestic context. Instead, I hope I might be able to offer a useful point of view based on my work and experience in light of Ireland's not insignificant housing issues. In my short time here, I have learned homelessness is on the increase - up an alarming 27%, at least, in the last year - there is paucity of social housing, and large financial actors that are profit driven are playing a dominant role in the housing market. At the same time, the Parliament recently voted down the inclusion of the right to housing as an enumerated right in the Constitution. The right to housing is not included in Rebuilding Ireland. Ireland has a reservation on housing rights provisions in the European Social Charter and it has yet to ratify the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

When I am confronted with housing situations like these, I am concerned that a state's international human rights obligations may not be met or engaged and that commitments made with respect to housing under the sustainable development goals will not be achieved. As members may know, target 11.1 of goal 11 of the sustainable development goals commits states to ensuring access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services by 2030, which also means ending homelessness within this timeframe.

The best way forward for Ireland to address the housing crisis and meet its international human rights commitments and obligations is to adopt a human rights-based housing strategy or a national action plan that recognises and implements housing as a human right. Why are human rights so essential to housing strategies? Homelessness and grossly inadequate or unaffordable housing are an assault on dignity and life and go to the heart of what triggers, or what should trigger, human rights concern. Human rights violations of this nature demand human rights responses. Human rights demand that governments interact with people who are homeless and inadequately housed as rights holders empowered to engage and be involved in decisions affecting their lives. A rights-based approach clarifies who is accountable to whom: all levels of government are accountable to people, particularly marginalised and vulnerable groups. Human rights incorporate universal norms that bring coherence and co-ordination to multiple areas of law and policy through a common purpose and a shared set of values.

My most recent report focuses on the core principles that should inform a human-rights-based housing strategy. Let me describe a few of them. First, housing strategies must be based in law and affirm the right to housing as a legal right.

This does not necessarily mean constitutional provisions, although it could. Equally, it could be a legislated right to housing, such as measures enshrined in some other jurisdictions. Strategies must prioritise those most in need and must make an absolute priority of eliminating homelessness and addressing the needs of those in the most desperate circumstances. Strategies must adopt a comprehensive and whole-of-government approach. They must co-ordinate and guide the work of multiple Departments or Ministries, as well as multiple layers of government. Strategies must ensure accountable budgeting and tax justice as a means for states to discourage speculation and encourage affordable housing. Strategies must put in place independent institutional mechanisms to monitor progress and hold Governments accountable to goals and timelines. They must also ensure access to justice, including access to hearings and remedies for violations. Finally, strategies must clarify the obligations of private actors. The obligation to realise the right to housing lies with states and cannot be delegated to private actors. Housing strategies will not be effective if they fail to engage the dominant role played by financial markets and investors. Strategies must include robust measures to reorient private investment and development to ensure inclusive cities and affordable housing.

I encourage the committee to take bold and swift measures to urgently address homelessness as an egregious human rights violation. It is no different from any other violation of the right to life and the security of the person. In my short time here I saw and spoke with too many people living in deep hardship. I know Ireland can do better than this, and it must. I would be happy to answer any questions committee members may have.

Ms Sinead Kerin

I thank the committee for inviting us to speak today. I will explain a little about the Mercy Law Resource Centre, MLRC. It is an independent law centre that provides free legal aid and advice to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. We also seek to advocate changes in policies and laws that unduly and adversely affect people living on the margins of society.

We provide five key services: free legal advice clinics; legal representation in the areas of housing and social welfare law; legal support and training to organisations working in the field of homelessness; policy work; and a befriending service.

I wish to discuss the Second Right to Housing Report: The Right to Housing in Comparative Perspective. I have given a copy of the report to the committee for distribution. The report is a comparative perspective on the right to housing through consideration of the legal systems of Finland, Scotland, France and South Africa. A wide variety of structural and institutional means are applied by which the right can be guaranteed. There is no one-size-fits-all model. The right to housing does not necessarily equate to a significantly increased constitutional role of the Judiciary. While not a panacea, a legally enforceable right to housing provides a valuable floor of protection. The jurisdictions highlighted in this report show that the effectiveness of the right to housing relies heavily on the existence of fundamental and enduring political will and the allocation of resources.

A right to housing in the Constitution would not mean the right to a key to a home for all. A constitutional right to housing would, however, put in place a basic floor of protection. It would require the State in its decisions and policies to protect the right to housing in balance with other rights and to progressively realise the right to housing.

The report considers the position in Finland. Finland's homeless figures have been decreasing for the past eight years. It is a national priority there. They also have a housing first strategy coupled with a constitutional right to housing. Finland has adopted a form of constitutionalism whereby the democratically elected Legislature and an independent Judiciary are entrusted with a shared duty to protect constitutional rights. There is a combination of ex ante review by a constitutional law committee of the parliament, as well as a limited form of post-judicial review. The work of the committee is to scrutinise proposed legislation to ensure it results in the better implementation of socio-economic constitutional rights.

The report considers the position in Scotland. Scotland has the broadest legal protection for those who are homeless and at risk of homelessness. The protection is regarded as one of the strongest in the world. Scotland's statutory right to housing makes local authorities responsible for the long-term rehousing of homeless people and has an interim duty to provide temporary accommodation in emergency situations. Scotland also has a broad definition of those who are homeless. It also has an order that limits the use of bed and breakfast accommodation as emergency accommodation to seven days for families. The limit was reduced this year from 14 days to seven days. There is currently no limit for the use of bed and breakfast accommodation in Ireland. We regularly meet families who have been in bed and breakfast accommodation for two and a half years before they are appropriately socially housed. Scotland has statutory provisions to prevent homelessness. There is a duty on all registered social landlords, private landlords and creditors to notify the relevant local authority when proceedings are raised for the possession of a dwelling house. This may allow the local authority to respond on an individual basis to prevent homelessness occurring. The report from the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive published last week indicates that 48% of families who present as homeless in Ireland are coming from a notice to terminate. In other words, that is the cause of 48% of families becoming homeless. Under Scotland's model, all landlords have to notify the local authority, which may take action to prevent homelessness. That is a strong safeguard.

France has a statutory right to housing known as the droit au logement, DALO, legislation of 2007. This involved a complete overhaul of the French system. The right to decent independent housing is guaranteed by the French state to all people who reside in France. It is exercised through mediation and, if necessary, through an adversarial process. This is patterned after the Scottish model and includes both an entitlement to emergency shelter and a legal cause of action for individuals who have been denied the right to secure long-term housing, thereby helping to ensure security of tenure and accessibility. Protection is given to those who have a priority of need. If the priority of need is met, the qualifying person may file a petition with a local housing mediation committee for urgent rehousing. This committee comprises state representatives, local county and municipal representatives, representatives of social housing organisations, as well as individuals from tenant rights organisations. The committee refer matters to a local authority prefect, who must then find suitable social housing for the applicant within a time period – usually three months. The decision can be judicially reviewed and enforced.

South Africa has a constitutional right to housing. It demonstrates that the right to housing is subject to trial in a court of law. It offers a legal floor of protection. However, it does not relatively alter the balance of power between decisions concerning the allocation of public moneys and resources. I recognise this is a concern in Ireland.

The right to housing is recognised in Europe in the constitutions of Belgium, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. It is recognised in the legislation of Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. Across the world the right to housing is included in 81 constitutions. The right to adequate housing is provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Social Charter.

As an economic and social right in accordance with international human rights, the State's obligation would be to progressively realise the right to the maximum extent of its available resources. The most important definition of the right to housing is the obligation of the State to progressively realise the right to housing to the maximum extent of its available resources and to do this by all appropriate means, including the adoption of legislative measures.

How would the right to housing alleviate the crisis in homelessness? All legislation and policy would have to be proofed to ensure reasonable protection of the right to housing in the same way as other rights are protected. If the State decided to cut funding for hostels for people who are homeless, such a move could be challenged as a breach. The failure of rent supplement and housing assistance payments to meet market rent could be challenged as a breach of the right to housing. The fact that there is no legal aid for those facing evictions in Ireland could be challenged as a breach of the right to housing. More important, a right to housing would require the State, in its decisions and policies, to protect the right to housing in balance with other rights. This would mean that the courts would look at State decisions or policy as to whether they were proportionate by reference to the right. It would mean the Government, in its stated policies and actions, would be obliged to respect the right.

As shown clearly in our last three High Court cases, there is no right to housing in Irish law nor is there a right to shelter. One has no clear legal right to rely on. The fundamental failure by the State to provide adequate emergency accommodation to a family with young children cannot be challenged directly in the courts.

I thank the committee for the invitation to attend today and for the attention that members have given us here. My colleagues and I would welcome questions.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations.

I thank Ms Farha and Ms Kerin for their presentations. Ms Farha has been exceptionally busy during the two short days that she has spent in this country and we have followed her interventions. It is a pity that she is not here on an official visit to assess our implementation, or non-implementation, of the right to housing because the picture might be a little more bleak than her opening remarks suggest.

I compliment the Mercy Law Resource Centre on the work that it does and I say so not to be polite. The centre makes a huge difference to the lives of a very significant number of people. For the benefit of people who do not know the organisation, it must be one of the smallest housing non-governmental organisations, NGOs, in the country, and the only one that has a legal basis, yet it punches way above its weight.

In 2014, the Citizens' Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority of 88% to have the right to housing enshrined in the Constitution. Therefore, I believe that all of our conversations on housing must start from that point. The Government set up the Citizens' Assembly with the aim of asking citizens for their views. The vote on housing was the single largest vote in terms of the deliberations on socio-economic rights. Many of us were members of the Dáil Select Committee on Housing and Homelessness, which met before the current Government came into office. While we could not get agreement between the parties over calling for a constitutional right to housing, although many of us argued for it, the committee made a clear recommendation that the current Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government should explore the issue. In fact, the Government included the proposal in its Programme for Government. Our problem is that the responsibility has been taken away from us. Last year, the Dáil voted against the wishes of a minority of us and transferred the responsibility from the housing committee, where it belongs, to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. To me, the idea that such a committee could have the lead responsibility in deliberations on socio-economic issues clearly shows that the parties that voted for that resolution thought that the matter should, first and foremost, be based on cost implications. I do not want to turn this matter into a political football. All I will say is that I urge all of the parties to reconsider those arguments and to see whether we could bring the matter back to this committee, even to work in parallel with the finance committee, so that we can consider the housing policy implications of this important issue.

I have a few questions for Ms Farha. Many of us here are not as conversant with international human rights law as Ms Farha. Can she tell us what international human rights obligations Ireland has and how they should impact on our debate on this particular issue?

Sometimes we spend too much time talking about the negative aspects. Can Ms Farha, from her international experience, give us as much information as possible in the short time available about what works in other jurisdictions? Such information will give a sense of the positive examples of best practice that we might seek to apply here.

Many of us attended the launch of the MLRC's report that took place a month ago. It is a very good report that sets out different options. Can the witnesses, as front-line human rights defenders of housing rights, tell us their preferred option? What is the best way that this State could protect and vindicate the right to housing? Crucially, how do we fix the gap between having a constitutional right, which in and of itself is important, realised in Government policy and having legal vindication? I do not want to put the witnesses on the spot but please give me a straight answer to the following. Do they believe the Government's housing policy is human rights compliant, in terms of their understanding of the right to housing?

I thank Ms Farha for her presentation. Indeed, this morning I had the pleasure of attending a conference organised by Lorcan Sirr and supported by the RTB. I heard a number of thought provoking contributions, including one from Ms Farha.

I thank the Mercy Law Resource Centre for the report that it has published. I have read the report and it outlines the options that are available to us.

Deputy Ó Broin made a fair point. Recently I was appointed the housing spokesperson for my own party so I have looked at this matter with fresh eyes. Homelessness and housing is the biggest single challenge for this country and it is the biggest single blight on the State. Thankfully, everyone wants to resolve the matter. The idea that the finance committee would have total control over the matter and view it purely on the basis of the potential cost implications is not something that should continue. I personally believe that aspect should be reconsidered. I am particularly interested in the Scottish model. However, I do not rule out the constitutional option by way of a change to Bunreacht na hÉireann or a legislative change. I am also interested in hearing Ms Farha's preferred option. Clearly, she prefers a constitutional change. Any such change must be backed by legislation and I am interested in seeing how that would be implemented.

Ms Farha is a special rapporteur appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. From her experience, can she list the best applications from both ends of the socio-economic scale? Ireland is viewed as a wealthy country, although many people do not feel that it is.

I have a few questions for the Mercy Law Resource Centre. There has been a call for a whole-of-government approach and for housing-proofed legislation, particularly in terms of homelessness and suitable supports. What option does the delegation from the centre prefer? Do they prefer a constitutional or legislative change? As the centre is vested here in Ireland, what elements of best international practice would they choose for speedy implementing in Ireland? That is all for now but I shall ask supplementary questions later.

As we are under pressure for time I suggest that we take three questioners now. Is that agreed? Agreed. I call Senator Grace O'Sullivan

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. This morning, I attended a presentation on the pre-budget submission by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The submission states that in Ireland as many as 780,000 people live below the poverty line, 85,799 households are in need of social housing and almost 10,000 people are homeless. I have been an elected representative for two years and I have witnessed the widening gap between some of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. When it comes to housing and homelessness we are in an emergency situation or a real crisis yet the Government has not recognised this. Occasionally, we have heard the Government use the word "crisis" but we have never heard it say the word "emergency". Even though there is emergency accommodation all over the country there has been no action whatsoever. In this country there is no right to housing for those who really need it. People have had to remain in emergency accommodation for more than years, which is an abuse of human rights. Such a situation shows disrespect for the dignity of those who must live in these horrific circumstances. I wanted to state on record that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has made a pre-budget submission and I hope that the Government will listen to the society.

I have a few questions for the MLRC delegation. Ms Kerin has talked about South Africa and uttered the sentence: "A legally enforceable right to housing provides a valuable floor of protection." To me, her use of the term "floor of protection" was unfortunate because we seek a legal roof of protection. Sadly, we are on the floor. In fact, we are on the ground and below the surface.

Earlier Deputy Ó Broin asked the witnesses to outline what works best, in terms of policy. I would like to know what three things do not work. I believe that the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme does not work. Do the witnesses believe HAP works? What three actions should the Government take?

In terms of best example of a human rights approach to housing, in Ms Farha's experience, what do we need to do as soon as possible?

Ms Leilani Farha

I thank members for their questions. I will respond first to Deputy O'Brien's question around a constitutional versus legislative approach and a constitutional and legislative approach. When I hear that a State is in the midst of making constitutional amendments, or is at least open to constitutional amendments, and it does not currently have the right to housing in its Constitution, my first response is that it should go for it. More than 80 countries around the world have constitutional protections around the right to housing. Members are correct that many of those nations do not implement that right but they have it. I have worked for many years with people on low incomes and living in housing disadvantage and homelessness and I know how meaningful it is for people to have that constitutional right. It changes their relationship with the world in which they live. They feel validated and recognised as human beings and part of the human family. Human rights is about bringing us all together as a human family and recognising that we are all but humans. My advice, therefore, is to go for it constitutionally. Government worries are generally unfounded. Mercy Law has provided, and could provide even more, evidence that having a constitutionally enshrined right to housing is not the beast and the burden that some believe it to be. If I was in the Legislature I would be proud to support the idea of contributing to people's human rights.

On legislation, in my own country, Canada, I have been advocating for the right to adequate housing for many years. Canada is currently engaged in a process of adopting a national housing strategy based on human rights. Under the current Government, constitutional provision on the right to housing is off the books. It will not happen and so we have shifted our attention to a legislative approach. There is some merit in this approach. I do not know enough about Ireland and how this would work here but I am sure Mercy Law could, if it has not already done so, turn people's mind to instruct how this could be powerful, albeit not constitutional.

In terms of best practice, I would not go much further afield than the examples chosen in the report. Finland always comes out on top, particularly in the European context, because it is the only country that has reduced homelessness in the last two years. I work very closely with the Government of Finland because it supports my mandate, not in terms of resources, but politically. There is no doubt Finland is genuinely committed to addressing homelessness and inadequate housing. It has a broad understanding of what constitutes homelessness in that it considers anyone living in an institution to be homeless. Finland understands this in a deep way. Its first kick at the can to try to eliminate homelessness was, to its mind, unsuccessful in that while it did reduce homelessness it did not meet its target in this regard. It then decided to take another kick at the can. In doing so, it looked at the structural causes of homelessness and then set about developing policies and programmes that go deeply into those structural causes. In the last year, it has been quite successful, which shows its commitment. A constitutionally entrenched right to housing is part of its culture. One builds human rights culture through law and practice symbiotically. In terms of the other end of the spectrum I, too, would point to South Africa. The commonality with the case studies presented in the report before us today and my examples is a legally entrenched right to housing. This is where one will find the most success at both ends of the spectrum. South Africa has not ended homelessness and it is in a lot of trouble but it has made huge strides such that shack dwellers count on the constitutional right.

On Ireland's international human rights obligations, we talk about the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing, which is the standard. Article 2 of the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights states that the right is to be progressively realised but not all aspects of the right are progressive. Under international human rights law it is understood that States do have immediate obligations. For example, there is an immediate obligation to address discrimination in housing. There is also an immediate obligation to address homelessness. The progressive realisation element does not kick in with homelessness at the first instance. In other words, states must act immediately, urgently and aggressively to address homelessness because there is a thin line between living homeless and dying. Human rights are supposed to protect us from this and so there is that immediate and urgent obligation.

With respect to what is stated under international human rights law in terms of what is adequate housing, there is a definition in an instrument called the General Comment No. 4, which lays out seven characteristics, two of which I will focus on now. The first is affordability. Affordability must be measured on the household income of the person or family. It is not based on what the market can bear or is charging. Rather, it is based on one's ability to pay, which makes sense. What is affordable to a household is what they can afford and not what the market can bear. The idea that affordability would be 80% of market value, which is used in many developed countries, would be inconsistent with international human rights norms. The second key characteristic of adequate housing is security of tenure, which I believe is important in the context of Ireland. As I said I have not been here long enough to really understand the situation here. I am aware that some of the new legislative provisions introduced have made things a little better but I understand from anecdotal information I received and from some of the reports I looked at, that there is still a security of tenure problem. We know why security of tenure is important. The worry and anxiety created by a lack of security of tenure can be crippling and debilitating. Also, the worry of losing one's home can cause all sorts of health and employment related problems. Yesterday evening I heard a young gentleman talking about how he and his wife had just had a baby, lost their home, were living in adequate housing that is overcrowded and facing homelessness. Is this what we want for our young families? Obviously not. None of us would wish that on anyone. I also met a woman in her late 50s who owing to insecure tenure had been bounced around and ended up homeless at age 57. She has some health issues that she cannot deal with when she is homeless and was recently given bedsit type accommodation. This is not acceptable for people in later stages of life. This women also does not have many family. When one is homeless one cannot deal with any crisis that emerges. Security of tenure is a cornerstone to the right to housing, for obvious reasons.

Ms Sinead Kerin

To us, the system is broken. A successful day for me is a day on which I get emergency accommodation for a family that has been previously refused it.

Every second week, families that are homeless and that have been denied access to emergency accommodation for myriad reasons present to me. Last year, we went to a full decision at the High Court on three occasions. We were in the High Court nine times last year trying to compel local authorities to provide emergency accommodation to families. One of those families was staying in a tent outside the council building. I went down to see it. The three families in question were denied access to emergency accommodation and that was upheld by the courts because there is no right to emergency accommodation in Ireland, full stop. As a result, the courts cannot compel local authorities to provide emergency accommodation. This, to us, is grievous. If that is a civilised society, we need a rethink. That is our bottom line. Families are presenting that have lived in bedrooms with perhaps five children for two and half years, so there is a long-term detrimental effect on children and parents. They will be suing the State in ten or 15 years' time, and I hope they will do so.

In the meantime, we can look quickly at either Scotland or, ideally, Finland. Ireland loves the Constitution. Constitutional protection would prioritise the issue, show the Government leading and show that it is a national priority. However, this must be backed up with investment. Without allocation of resources, constitutional protection would only provide a basic floor of protection, by which I mean access to emergency accommodation only. We do not want to waste Government money and our own time going to the High Court looking for emergency accommodation. If there were a right to housing, there would be an obligation on local authorities to provide emergency accommodation. The word "shall" must be used. At present, provision is optional, is made when "reasonable" and is subject to the opinion of the council. In Scotland, the use of bed and breakfast accommodation is limited and has been reduced this year alone from 14 days to seven days. We have no limit, so there is no end to how long our families stay in bed and breakfast accommodation. They are staying there for two and a half years. How long will they have to stay in hubs? There is no definition or limit, and that is our concern. Finland and Scotland have both implemented a limit, and this can be judicially reviewed. As a result, if the State went over the limit - let us say, three months in Scotland - we could judicially review it and enforce that right to appropriate housing, not bed and breakfast accommodation.

I am sorry. Someone's phone or iPad is interfering with the system. Could they move it away from the microphone? Ms Kerin will not be heard clearly. It is fine in here, but she will not be heard on the broadcast.

Ms Sinead Kerin

I was referring to Finland and Scotland. Ireland loves the Constitution. If such a provision were made in the Constitution, it would be a constitutional national priority. In the meantime, we must do something immediately to stop the long-term use of bed and breakfast accommodation in Ireland and the refusal of emergency accommodation for families.

In addition, the definition of "homelessness" in Ireland is really narrow. It does not include people who are sofa-surfing, families moving between friends' homes, thousands of women and children staying in domestic violence refuges or people living on the streets. We do not know, therefore, what the real problem is because we are not counting it. Unless we take responsibility and get to grips with the situation, we will not be able to come up with the solutions. Many other countries around the world are improving in this regard. Finland's national priority is to reduce homelessness, and it has done so. It has now reduced it to 7,000, and only 214 families are homeless in Finland today. That is an amazing reduction.

Mr. Joyce will take a number of questions.

Mr. David Joyce

There were a number of questions, one from Senator Grace O'Sullivan about the current system. It was a general question thrown at us as to whether the current system in Ireland is compliant in terms of human rights. It certainly is not, particularly in view of the clients we deal with and the nature of the issue of local authorities unfortunately refusing people even emergency accommodation and putting them at risk of rough sleeping, bringing children into cars and sleeping in their cars, which we have come across among our client base. Clearly, we are not compliant. Taking the entire system across the board, it is not compliant with international standards or the right to shelter and housing across the world.

What has happened to our system? What has happened to a country that had a good record of provision of social housing in times when the State did not have a lot of finances? We have created a system whereby we have become deeply reliant on the private sector without real regulation or real control of what is happening in it. As a State, we seem to be haunted by the ghost of Blake v. Attorney General, a case in the 1980s in which rent controls were found unconstitutional and any interference with private property in any way would seem to have been found unconstitutional. The two previous items of housing legislation that went through these Houses in recent years, the 2009 and 2014 Acts, have created a situation whereby local authorities, which have traditionally had a responsibility in respect of housing and in many cases performed it quite well, have been effectively disempowered, have in some cases welcomed that disempowerment and are now losing a kind of institutional ability to be housing authorities.

HAP was specifically mentioned. HAP is an absolute disaster on a number of levels. We have created a system of social housing assistance in Ireland whereby we are actually creating discrimination within the system. There is discrimination between a HAP applicant, a HAP tenant, a local authority tenant proper, shall we say, and other tenants and housing support receivers. This discrimination in itself is creating a problem. People on the payment lose their HAP supports if they go €1,000 above their income limit. Local authority tenants can go well above their income limits and their rents are assessed proportionally compared to their incomes, making it ultimately uneconomic, perhaps, for them to stay in their houses, move into the private sector or whatever. We are creating a system of injustices in various forms of social housing support and for tenants across that sector, and it is an issue that will be litigated on because it has been litigated on in other countries. I was speaking briefly earlier to my colleague from Canada. There is a well known case in Canada, the Sparks case, which looked at the inequalities across various housing supports. This will ultimately, unfortunately, end up in court. HAP is a disaster for two reasons. It took away from the local authority - the housing authority under our legislation - a responsibility to secure tenancies. It has placed an obligation on disadvantaged families in many respects and put them at the mercy of the private market without regulation and without protection.

One does not have to look too far back for a comparison. I refer to section 24 of the 2009 Act and what is known as RAS. There may on paper seem to be very little difference between RAS and HAP, but with RAS the responsibility remains with the local authority to secure and find tenancies and to ensure that applicants who are assessed and are qualified are placed in those tenancies. Perhaps this could be revisited. The other problem with HAP is, as I said, that it has taken away from local authorities their responsibility and taken away the institutional experience of managing and providing housing, which, when lost, takes a long time to rebuild, and then we create a situation whereby we are dealing with homelessness and people without shelter for the next number of years.

Another real answer - and it may seem as though we failed on this in the past - is house-building and direct provision by housing authorities. Under our legislation, local authorities are housing authorities. They have a responsibility for direct provision of housing and they need to get back to directly providing. I know from my work as a lawyer and from my colleagues that there is a level of discrimination and prejudice towards people who are social housing tenants in this country. Through my own background and my experience working with Travellers over the years, I have felt the discrimination and prejudice towards the Traveller community. We now have the same level of discrimination and prejudice towards social housing applicants on the basis that somehow they are pariahs and parasites on the State, that they are looking for something for nothing. Social housing is not free. It is not free to the tenant who lives in it, who may be working, securing employment and paying rent. They pay differential rents based on their income, and that message has been lost to the general public. The public believes that when we call on the State to build, we are somehow saying we should give out free houses and no one should have any responsibility to pay for them.

Of course, the State has some responsibility to ensure people have homes in which they can at least feel secure. That is not free. It is not free to the tenant who is quite welcoming of it. It provides security for the State not to have children living in and being born in hotels and homeless accommodation. Housing assistance payment, HAP, is an absolute disaster and needs to be revisited. It requires a simple tweak of putting the responsibility on to local authorities to ensure support continues for tenants.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are the biggest social challenges facing our country today. I would be interested in a global definition of homelessness. Our homeless figures are hovering around 10,000 people, including 1,700 families and 3,500 children. However, every month there is an argument with the Minister as he takes people off the homelessness list. He took 200 this month and 600 last month. We do not have any clear definition of “homelessness”, however.

We all had an aspiration to owning our own home at some stage. However, because of the affordability issue, there is a whole generation who can never aspire to owning their own homes. Every politician genuinely wants to fix the problem. We get down to the constitutional right versus the legal right to housing. Examples have been given of Finland, Scotland, France and other countries where there is either a constitutional or a legal right to housing. However, there still remains a housing crisis in some of these countries. Is it down to the will of the people to fix the problem? If we do not have that will, drive and passion to fix the housing crisis, then we need the legislative and constitutional framework to fix it.

Ms Leilani Farha mentioned delegation to private actors. We have clearly seen that we have a significant over-reliance on the private sector to solve the problem. It was a historical mistake made several years ago for which I am not blaming anybody. However, there is a clear indication that we need to go back to direct build. I fully agree with Ms Leilani Farha that affordability has to be based on the income of the family, not on other factors.

Ms Sinead Kerin mentioned security of tenure as one of the biggest causes of homelessness. While we would have no problem with a constitutional or legal right to housing, introducing it would not automatically mean the problem would be fixed. What key three or four key actions would the witnesses take to address the housing crisis?

I thank the witnesses for both presentations. While I was not able to be at Ms Leilani Farha’s earlier presentations, I was conscious from the media how she highlighted this issue. Bringing it up to that level of public discourse has been important and crucial. I was able to attend two presentations on this issue by the Mercy Law Resource Centre before, as well as the one today. It has been bringing it to public attention. Reference was made to having a bold and swift action and introducing such a right might break the cycle. There have been many efforts but very little success in terms of addressing the issues. Despite the fact we have a relatively functional economy, we have many of the same problems in housing.

I support the right to housing. The Scottish model is statutory. I would have thought in Ireland it would have to be constitutional because of the provision concerning property rights in the Constitution. At one stage, the Government promised 11 constitutional referendums over the next few years. Hopefully, removing the provision concerning women in the home will be the next one. There will be an opportunity to bring the right to housing into the Constitution. That is what will change practice.

In the Scottish model, the local authorities have the statutory obligation. How would that work in Ireland? Largely speaking, local authorities here do not raise most of their own moneys. Accordingly, there is that interaction between what they get from the Government and what they raise themselves. The question then arises as to how this would be implemented and monitored.

Ms Kerin spoke about progressively realising the right to housing. That may need to be spelled out more fully because there probably is some scepticism in Ireland as to whether anything would happen, were such a provision put into the Constitution. How does one make it happen? Will she elaborate on how this works in other countries?

We need to keep this on the public agenda. While there are financial elements to this, if housing is to be a human right, then it needs to come back to committees which deal with social rights, rather than those which deal with balancing the books.

I thank Ms Leilani Farha and Ms Julieta Perucca for their presentations. I thank Mr. David Joyce, Ms Sinead Kerin and others from the Mercy Law Resource Centre for their great work, as well as for often looking at and assisting with the cases that flow through my door of people facing the consequences of the current housing crisis. I thank Ms Leilani Farha for her intervention over the past several days. I attended her speech at the Simon Community event yesterday and everything she said was extremely welcome. I hope the Government is listening.

Obviously, some committee members are fully behind this proposal. Both Deputy Ó Broin and I have put forward Bills on changing the Constitution to put the right to housing above property rights. Deputy Pringle sought to bring in the covenant on economic and social rights. In all cases, the Government voted them down, as did Fianna Fáil. The concern for property rights is the issue. To my mind, that sets out the landscape with which we are dealing. We will keep on going and, hopefully, these interventions today will help push us in the right direction.

Ms Leilani Farha made a point yesterday which would be useful to draw out here. If human rights were being breached in respect of, for example, torture, then there would be an immediate intervention to stop it. It is a useful way of putting it. I believe having families, and children in particular, in a precarious housing situation for years, or in homeless emergency accommodation, or, worse, on the street, is a form of torture.

It would be useful if Ms Farha commented on that. It is extremely damaging to a person's mental and physical health and general well-being and amounts to a form of institutional or State torture when people are being treated in that way. Is that a fair way to put it?

Ms Farha also commented yesterday on the role property speculation is playing in our domestic housing and homelessness crisis and globally. I welcome her comments, not least because I have tabled a motion on this issue which will be debated in the Dáil tomorrow. It would be useful if she were to elaborate on that point because while we often discuss consequences such as the lack of public housing, we do not focus sufficiently on the fact that some people benefit from the torture experienced by those who are affected by homelessness and the housing crisis. There is an inverse relationship between the suffering of the many and the profiteering of the few through property speculation, land hoarding and so on. Does Ms Farha endorse that view?

My motion refers to dealing with the issue of vacant properties. Will the witnesses comment on good examples of countries that have been able to return to use large numbers of empty and vacant properties?

On affordable housing, I believe one of the reasons the Irish Government stubbornly refuses to define the term is that if it were to do so in the way I suspect the witnesses would like it to be defined, that is, related to income and ability to pay, it would have an immediate impact on the private interests of developers. If the State were to set a figure for what is affordable at significantly below the price at which housing can be bought on the open market, property developers or speculators would object. I ask the witnesses to comment on that.

I refer to the inequalities in housing support and the housing assistance payment, HAP, raised by Mr. Joyce. This is a terribly important issue. Mr. Joyce described it in a way that had not fully struck me previously, even though I deal with the consequences every day. Are these inequalities justiciable on the basis that the small difference between the HAP and rental accommodation schemes and the significant difference between those two schemes and local authority housing make all the difference in the world to people who are in housing trouble and cannot afford housing on the open market? When the legislation giving effect to the housing assistance payment scheme was being introduced, I and a number of other Deputies pointed out that the Government's proposal to place responsibility for securing accommodation on the housing applicant would be a disaster, and so it has proved. Would housing applicants have a case before the courts? That possibility has never struck me before. Could someone argue a case on the basis that he or she is receiving a different housing support of lesser quality from the State than a person on the HAP scheme and a support of even lesser quality than somebody who has been allocated a council house? At the moment, the system is arbitrary and ad hoc. There is no consistency as to who will get a RAS or HAP tenancy and who will be allocated a council house. There is no rhyme or reason to the system. Does Mr. Joyce believe legal cases could be taken on the basis of the argument that people are being discriminated against by being offered a lesser form of housing support?

Deputy Mick Barry was due to contribute next but he has stepped out of the room. We have about 20 minutes left and two more members will ask questions.

Mr. David Joyce

I will deal with two of the questions before my colleague, Ms Kerin, responds to some of the other points. I will deal with the last question first. I believe there is clear discrimination given the definitions used in the housing legislation. Across the various housing supports currently offered by housing providers, namely, local authorities, those in receipt of supports are treated in different ways. Housing authorities come under the definition of a service provider for European equality legislation and even under the Constitution. There is an expectation of equality before the law. Distinctions are clearly being made between various recipients of housing supports who qualify. The clearest discrimination exists between HAP recipients and local authority tenants.

I noted that legal action had been taken on equality grounds and non-discrimination grounds in other jurisdictions. I mentioned a case from Canada and I see similarities in that case and what is occurring in our system. Certain demographics will rely on one type of housing support. If memory serves, in the Canadian case it was primarily single parents and women who were reliant on one particular type of private support as opposed to other supports offered by housing authorities. In that case, it was successfully argued that there was an indirect discrimination against the recipient and the demographic in question. I see the same discrimination here and it is an issue we have examined within our capacities. It needs to be equality proofed under our domestic equality legislation and on the basis of constitutional rights and the right to equality before the law. There are issues in this regard and we will examine them. Lawyers in the equality area and generally should also examine them.

One of the first questions was on whether we need a change in the Constitution and if rights should be written into legislation. This comes down to a fundamental approach as to who we believe should provide housing and social housing. If we believe the State has this responsibility through local authorities, as housing providers, we do not necessarily need a constitutional change. However, we have made an ideological decision in recent years that the private sector will also be contracted into social housing provision. Having done this through the housing assistance payment and various amendments, we need a change in the Constitution to balance the rights of property owners with housing as a constitutional right. If we go down the road of excessive reliance on the private sector and private landlords, we will need a constitutional right to housing and a balance of the property rights of individuals with social housing recipients.

If the State returns to a more direct role in housing provision, the most appropriate approach would be to strengthen legislation and create a clear right in law. It is an ideological decision as to how we will provide social housing and housing to people who are qualified. A basic right that sets a bare minimum or floor, as someone described earlier, could be written into the Constitution. However, from a lawyer's perspective and from our perspective, the issue is who will be contracted to provide accommodation. If the State takes a more direct hand in this area through local authorities and housing bodies, it will not be necessary to make a change to the Constitution and strong legislation would be sufficient. If, however, we continue on the road we are on and maintain the provisions of the 2014 and 2009 Acts, under which social housing provision has been effectively subcontracted to the private sector, we will need to provide balancing rights in the Constitution. We are haunted by the ghost of Blake v. Attorney General and interference with housing and private property. We need a balance in favour of social housing and a person's right to shelter and a roof.

Ms Sinead Kerin

On constitutional protection for the right to housing, I will note briefly the relevant provision of the South African Constitution, which is as follows:

Everyone has the right to access to adequate housing. The State must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right.

The issue is one of moving forward and legislation can be introduced subsequently. It is not an issue of providing a key to a home but of moving forward and progressively realising the objective, much like the model adopted in Finland where there is a constant state of improvement.

Therefore, an obligation would be put on the council to provide emergency accommodation and limits would be placed on the length of stays in emergency accommodation. That is progressively realising that right. In none of the jurisdictions we examined was there a situation of judiciary versus the allocation of resources. That difficulty does not arise. It is not shown in any of the jurisdictions. I do not know if our psyche causes us to be paranoid about private rights. This involves the progressive realisation of a right. It is a basic flow of protection. It means trying to improve the situation going forward. There is no right to a house per se. The difficulty that arises between the judiciary and the allocation of resources is not played out in other countries. I do not know where that difficulty would arise here because it is a progressive right. It is not an absolute right. That is our take on it. None of the jurisdictions we looked at has that difficulty. In South Africa, there is deference to the state as the legislature to allocate the resources as it sees it fit. However, the job of the judiciary is to ensure it is proportionate, reasonable and balanced against other rights. It is not a black or white situation. It is about a balancing of the rights. I hope that brings some clarity.

Ms Leilani Farha

I will pick up where Ms Kerin left off. If one looks at the jurisprudence from around the world where the right to adequate housing has been litigated through constitutional provisions, the standard that has emerged is a reasonableness one. Judges are inherently conservative in every country. The reasonableness standard is just that. It is reasonable. Governments are expected to act in a way, under constitutional law and the right to adequate housing, that is reasonable as determined by a judge. The quaking in one's boots about what it means to have a constitutional right to housing can be laid to rest if one just reads some of the jurisprudence.

I want to take another kick of the can regarding the constitutional provision. I have been sitting here reflecting on the constitutional versus legislative position. I do not know the whole legal landscape here but from my vantage point I have considered the situation in light of what has happened in Ireland and in light of the power property owners have here and worldwide. Private equity firms and pension funds have been invited into the country. Globally, residential real estate is valued at $163 trillion. It is a business that is doing well. Property owners are well-protected through tax provisions and a variety of other structures and infrastructure in this country and globally. Ireland has private property protected in its Constitution. That is fine. One should ask how that looks in light of a lack of protection around the right to housing and in light of the power, strength and protections already afforded, without a constitutional protection, to property owners. It is an optics thing almost in light of what is happening in Ireland at this point in time.

I was asked what can be done right away. I will give due credit to Ms Perucca, who suggested this. We had the advantage of meeting with NAMA yesterday. It was a very interesting meeting. The Government took some very quick, solid steps to set up NAMA. It devoted resources to NAMA and ensured it did its job. There was an energy around that to ensure the Government could recoup losses for the banks. Surely the same energy and determination could be applied to address inadequate housing and homelessness in the country. Everyone here has said it is an absolute crisis. It is hitting the headlines, not only here but globally. It is certainly on my radar and it brought me to this country. I expect the Government could find the energy, enthusiasm, commitment and will it thinks is required to answer the crisis. I think it can be found within Government to do something equal or more than what it has done through NAMA.

I will move along because a whole bunch of questions were put on the table. On the issue of homelessness and torture, I was not trying to draw a parallel between what it is like to live in homelessness and what it is like to be tortured. I could not really weigh in on that. Torture is recognised as a violation of human rights. I am sure it is recognised in Ireland as a violation of human rights. The right to housing is recognised as a human right by Ireland. It has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It enunciates in Article 11 that everyone shall have the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate housing. Ireland believes that housing is a human right. It has gone off to the UN and reported on the ways in which it is meeting those obligations. Ireland did that in 2015 and the committee had recommendations for it. Ireland has recognised it as a human right. When a State recognises something as a human right, one expects human rights responses to violations of those rights. Ireland has recognised torture as a violation of human rights. One would not just throw a few policies and programmes at it to address it. One would not just say we will have an anti-torture policy. One would see it is a human rights violation, so we will accord to it the highest human rights protections. Ireland has recognised Ireland as a human right so it must accord to it equally the highest human rights and constitutional protections.

On the issue of vacant properties, it is being dealt with around the world. It is a problem around the world. Mostly it is at city level or sub-national Government where one sees traction. For example, high taxes are often put on secondary homes. Paris started off with a 20% tax on vacant homes and found it was insufficient. There is a huge number - over 20,000 - vacant homes in the city of Paris. They found the tax was not high enough so they increased the secondary home tax to 60%. That is a pretty high tax. It is probably the most-----

Ms Leilani Farha

I love it.

That is what one wants to see.

Ms Leilani Farha

One should watch the mayor of Paris over the next number of years because she is doing all sorts of interesting things. We tend to see it at city level. The city of Vancouver took a more modest approach of a 1% vacant home tax. It is certainly an issue that cities are grappling with and trying to address. I am really interested in the issue of the power or lack of power of cities and local councils. I wrote my first report on the human rights obligations with respect to housing in cities. Anyone exercising Government authority has international human rights obligations. I do not know if it is ripe for discussion in Ireland but I think it is a pretty interesting discussion to have. What role could cities have if they had more power, resources and skills?

There were two questions about definitions. I hope that a lack of a firm definition of homelessness would not keep any Government from acting on homelessness. Certain people are homeless absolutely. It is a gross violation of human rights. There is an obligation and duty to act immediately. I have come up with a definition of homelessness that I think is human-rights compliant. It can be found in one of my reports. Here it is obvious the definition is too narrow. I find it shocking. It is narrow perhaps because the Government wants to be very exact in its measurement. The problem with that, as Ms Kerin rightly pointed out, is the numbers that are created and what is counted dictates policy. We end up with this very narrow policy that is not human rights compliant. Obviously people living on the streets are homeless. They are not counted in Ireland's homeless numbers which seems odd.

They are counted but come under a different heading.

Ms Leilani Farha

What about women fleeing violence and living in shelters?

They are not included in those numbers.

Ms Leilani Farha

That is also odd. There are some obvious things Ireland could do to get a better grip on who is homeless in the country. Even if we know in Ireland's narrow definition that 10,000 people are homeless, it is far too many for Ireland. We all agree on that. There needs to be immediate action.

There was a question about the definition of affordability. I addressed it under international human rights law. It is a very simple definition. It has to be affordable commensurate with household income.

It is a very simple definition; it has to be affordable commensurate with the household income. International human rights law is not too prescriptive. As a result of the fact that it has to be applicable across the world, it tends to use broader definitions.

I am conscious that the witness has to be in a taxi in ten minutes.

Ms Leilani Farha

I have covered as much as I could. I took a certain delight in the fact that the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach will discuss the issue of constitutionality and the right to housing. That is really interesting, and it is telling. There could be a joint committee to discuss the issue, but the Department of Finance has to be involved because of the maximum of available resources standard. That Department needs to know what its human rights obligations are. A nice lesson on international human rights law standards on maximum of available resources would be good for that Department. The folks at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government could attend as well.

We asked for that but it was refused.

I have been asked by 16 families who live in Cork, the second city of this Republic, to ask Ms Farha a question. I am aware that Ms Farha is dealing with broad brush stroke issues here and does not want to get too involved in the specifics, but I want to ask her if she would like to comment on this matter by perhaps dealing with the broader issues that surround it. The 16 families are living in an apartment complex. They are low-income families and many have children. Some of them have been living there for many years. The apartment complex - the Leeside Apartments - was purchased by a vulture fund.

At the start of the meeting I read out a statement to the effect that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege, and people should not be named outside of the Houses. I just wanted to remind Deputy Barry of that.

There is an Irish company involved. It is linked to Bain Capital, with which, I am sure, Ms Farha is familiar, which was founded by a man whose surname is Romney. I will not mention his first name. Within weeks, perhaps even days, of the purchase, these families were issued with notices to quit - eviction notices - which are currently under appeal. Two scenarios arise here were people could be driven out onto the streets. The complex could be turned into a de facto construction site with major refurbishment works undertaken to upgrade the building. It would be very difficult to live in the complex with a Kango hammer drilling next door while a person is trying to sleep. Also, if people do stay put and extend the appeals process, everybody knows that the rents in this place are going to be increased - possibly doubled - and people will be forced out via that method.

The Deputy should remember that the witness is under time pressure.

These 16 families are facing homelessness on the basis of a money grab. There is an attempt to virtually double rent in this complex. Does Ms Farha wish to make any comments around the broader issues surrounding that? Is she aware of any countries where it would actually be illegal?

I let three non-members of the committee contribute before I had a chance to ask a question. I thank the witnesses for attending this morning. I do not disagree with much of what was said, or the sentiment. I am not sure how much Ms Farha knows of where Ireland has come from or what policies were in place here previously, but the initial action plan on dealing with homelessness was dealing with it in isolation, and that cannot be done. We changed that into the Rebuilding Ireland plan. Ms Farha spoke about a strategy that must prioritise those in most need. Our strategy does that; the most vulnerable people in society always have to be looked after first. That plan was not just a Government plan. Some members here might have made submissions to that plan in some shape or form, as well as various organisations, economists, chartered surveyors, architects, the Peter McVerry Trust and the Simon Community. All of these parties were involved in putting the plan together, which sought to deal with the totality of the housing problem and not just to treat it as an isolated issue. That is the strategy we are working off.

Someone mentioned that the first can had been kicked and that the second can should now be kicked. The second can is Rebuilding Ireland, and it takes a wide approach in terms of the issue. I am not saying it is a perfect plan, but rather that it is the Government policy and that many people contributed to it. We were dealing with a construction sector wherein activity had dropped by 90%. We had mass emigration. I do not really want to look back on that time because we have come so far since then, but I just want to provide some context. We are trying to rebuild a country and the construction industry after unemployment had reached 16%. Dealing with that issue had to be the priority at the time.

A whole-of-Government, cross-departmental approach must be taken. Housing First is an example of such an approach. An inter-agency group was established in September 2017 to co-ordinate the responses of people with complex medical and health needs, as well as for those from other countries who may not have housing rights in Ireland but are trapped in emergency accommodation. A cross-departmental approach is taken when it comes to housing. Such an approach must be taken. The Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs, Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government are all involved. A cross-departmental approach is being taken, and people can argue about that, agree or disagree or say that there are imperfections or that it is perfect. I am not going to get into that, but it is actually happening.

I fully recognise what Mr. Joyce has said about leaning on the private sector, but in order to increase supply and to get the construction sector and financial institutions up and running, we are, unfortunately, reliant on a private rental market. Our local authorities lost many members of staff and expertise during the downturn. They also did not have the finances from 2008 onward to address the problems. That has all taken time, but we are two years into a five year plan. Our aim is that, by 2021, more people are in social housing supports than are in the private rental market schemes, such as HAP or RAS. In my eyes, one homeless child or one homeless family is far too many. I will not get into numbers; I hate putting numbers on the number of people who are going through difficult situations because each one is different and each needs a different response. There is probably no one-size-fits-all solution. I am of the view that we should treat people with respect when it comes to that.

Ms Farha does not have the time to answer many questions today. I would have loved to have gone further in this discussion. What has been done to get us to this point has not been mentioned. It has not been perfect, but we have achieved a great deal in very difficult circumstances and with a budget of approximately €6 billion. Local authorities are now coming forward with ambitious plans on over 700 sites around the country where we can provide affordability, cost rental and social housing. It cannot happen overnight. Those proposals are now coming in. I was at a launch of 12 houses last week in Dún Laoghaire where people were getting their keys. We are starting to see results. It is taking time, and it will take more time, which we can only expect.

I wanted to put into context the difficulties we have had and the point we are arriving at now. One solution does not solve a housing crisis. I say to Deputy Ó Broin regularly that we may differ on how we propose achieving that solution, but everybody here wants that solution, for every family to be housed and for every individual to have a roof over his or her head.

I disagree with the proposal to insert housing as a right into the Constitution. I do not have time to go into that because I let non-members of the committee speak before me, but I am sure we will have the chance to discuss the matter at another meeting.

We have to balance what is being done and what needs to be done. We need to do a great deal more. However, what we have done to get to this point has not been reflected in the meeting. I am trying to provide a little of balance to that. The priority is to put a roof over people's heads. Whatever their circumstances, it is not for us to discriminate against anybody. Deputy Mick Barry asked Ms Farha a direct question. I do not know if she has time to answer it.

Ms Leilani Farha

I definitely want to answer it. I will answer in point form. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and I ask him to convey my thanks to the 16 families for sharing their difficult situation with me. There is no doubt it is a global phenomenon. Private equity firms are doing this in many countries. I have witnessed it in Sweden, New York, Barcelona and London. I know of nowhere it is considered illegal. Some places deal with it differently from others because some have good protections around when rents can and cannot be escalated and to what extent. It is a matter with which I am seized. I wrote a report a year ago on the financialisation of housing. I identified this as a troubling practice, which is certainly not compliant with governments' human rights obligations. I stress that because it is up to the Government to ensure this does not happen, and to regulate the private sector accordingly and in compliance with its international human rights obligations. The case of these 16 families, which the Deputy described, suggests that it is not being regulated sufficiently, at least not for the 16 families he mentioned. I would very much appreciate more information about that situation because it is a matter with which I am seized.

On the comments made towards the end - I am sorry; I cannot read the members' names - I am not here to assess Ireland and my comments were not to meant to reflect that Ireland is not taking steps. However, when I glance at Rebuilding Ireland, I note that the right to adequate housing is not mentioned, nor does it inform concept, standard or norm. Ireland may not be as successful as it would like to be without that framework. That framework necessitates and requires the right to adequate housing being entrenched either in the Constitution or in some legislative format. I will rest my comments there. I thank all the members for inviting me here. I catapulted in and I appreciate that very much. I hope I got things right and that I contributed to the committee's conversations.

Ms Sinead Kerin

I thank the Chair for inviting us. We just want to leave the committee with two points. Currently, there is no right to shelter in Ireland. We have families living in bedrooms for two and a half years. I hope the committee will show leadership, move forward and improve the lives of several thousands of children. I thank members for their attention and for inviting us.

I thank all our witnesses for attending and for engaging with the committee.

The next meeting of the joint committee will be on Thursday with ICTU on Irish Water's proposed move to a single utility and discuss where we are going to go on the pre-legislative scrutiny on the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill 2018, following on from today.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.55 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 June 2018.