I propose to take Questions Nos. 467, 471, and 473 together.
Subject to certain conditions, the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards, provides for the payment of a weekly or monthly supplement in respect of rent to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation needs.
As the Deputies are aware I have recently introduced a number of changes to the rent supplement scheme. These measures are designed to ensure that rent supplement is paid in appropriate circumstances, in accordance with established policy and taking into account the objective of the scheme, which is to focus on meeting immediate, short-term income maintenance needs.
Specific provision has been made to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups such as the homeless, elderly and disabled are fully protected in the course of implementing the new measures.
Anyone who is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need and who meets the existing qualifying criteria will receive rent supplement.
The discretion of a health board to make a payment in exceptional circumstances where a board considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant will not be affected by the changes. In effect, the only people who will no longer qualify because of the six month rule are people who in the opinion of the local authority do not have a housing need. It is anticipated that up to 2,000 fewer claims for rent supplement will arise in 2004 as a result of the new six month rule. Given the careful manner in which these changes are being implemented I do not anticipate that any person will be pushed into deprivation as a result of these measures.
The measures will be implemented in the context of a greater role for local authorities in meeting the long-term housing needs of people who currently rely on rent supplement. This will achieve a better outcome both for the people involved and for the State. Following the announcement of the changes in November 2003 and prior to the introduction of the regulations which gave effect to the changes in January 2004, my Department initiated contacts and consultations with health board representatives as well as officials from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
In addition to these contacts, a number of meetings took place prior to the estimate announcements between officials of my Department, the Departments of Finance and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the future of rent assistance. Contrary to media reports the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and I have had several discussions on these and related matters.