The government Robots.txt file

Does anyone notice anything strange about the Robots.txt file on irlgov.ie?

Does the 13th of May 1999 ring a bell? The Public Accounts Committee of that date appears to be disallowed.

Might be nothing. Just wondered.

Update:
Thanks to the commenters below for their efforts in relation to the PAC documents. I have been looking at the Foreign Affairs website to see why certain Press Releases appear to have been disallowed. There appears to be no logical order (besides chronologically upwards from 1 or thereabouts) to the archive of the press releases on the current Foreign Affairs website, especially in the early years. I found this one, numerically one above one of those blocked. It relates to the period Ray Burke was Minister for Foreign Affairs.

If you go here http://foreignaffairs.gov.ie/Press_Releases/19970718/318.htm, it seems to follow the logical order that the ASP referral to 317 precedes this release. There are a slew of press releases missing from that period, at least in as far as the archive system seems to be constructed.

At one point it appears the website was moved from one system to another, converting ASP pages into HTML, though my expertise in that is sorely lacking.

Any technical help would be appreciated.

Update 2
: I found this quite funny. Apparently Dermot Ahern was not only alive in 1899, he was also the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

# robots.txt for www.irlgov.ie
# mail webmaster@irlgov.ie for comments

User-agent: *
Disallow: /webguide
Disallow: /webkit
Disallow: /scripts
Disallow: /topic
Disallow: /entemp
Disallow: /statelab
Disallow: /ngi
Disallow: /nli
Disallow: /valtrib
Disallow: /valoff
Disallow: /environ
Disallow: /FOREIG~1
Disallow: /_private
Disallow: /_cgi-bin/
Disallow: /aras/_private
Disallow: /aras/_vti_bin/shtml.dll/
Disallow: /committees-99/c-publicaccounts/990513/debatebot.htm
Disallow: /garda/_vti_bin
Disallow: /iveagh/mediacentre/display.asp?ID=271
Disallow: /iveagh/mediacentre/display.asp?ID=277
Disallow: /iveagh/mediacentre/display.asp?ID=316
Disallow: /iveagh/mediacentre/display.asp?ID=317
Disallow: /tec/_private
Disallow: /tec/_vti_bin/shtml.dll/

7 thoughts on “The government Robots.txt file”

  1. funny from the commitee.

    Vote 12 shows the amount expended on the Secret Service in the 12
    months under consideration.

    Anything to do with it?

  2. Interesting, I guess. Anyway, here’s what I found/don’t know.

    1. The file that they’re blocking is “debatebot.htm”. I searched google for that file on the irlgov.ie web site and found only one other reference to it – April 15, 1999. I think debatebot.htm determines whether the debate page – default.htm – will load.

    2. Try http://www.irlgov.ie/committees-99/c-publicaccounts/990513/default.htm and see if you get anything. At first I didn’t.

    3. However, when I turned off javascript, that page loaded fine. So, I can see the whole debate. You would have to think that there must be something in there, but maybe not. I don’t have time to go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see what’s going on here.

    Maybe one you will find something here?

  3. Mr. J. Meade (Secretary and Director of Audit, Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General) called and examined.

    Financial Statements 1994-7: Rent Tribunal.

    Mr. J. Farrelly (Secretary General, Department of the Environment and Local Government), and Mr. E. Sullivan (Secretary General of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs) called and examined.

    Chairman: The next item on the agenda is the Rent Tribunal annual financial savings of 1994 and 1997. In addition, we will be taking the value-for-money report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the administration of supplementary welfare allowances which involves both the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Department of the Environment and Local Government.

    Witnesses should be made aware that they do not enjoy absolute privilege and should be apprised as follows: attention is drawn to the fact that, as and from 2 August 1998, section 10 of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997, grants certain rights to persons who are identified in the course of the proceedings. For the most part, these rights may be exercised only with the consent of the committee.

    I welcome Mr. Jimmy Farrelly, Secretary General of the Department of the Environment and Local Government who is Accounting Officer for the rent tribunal. Perhaps he will introduce his accompanying officials.

    Mr. Farrelly: I am accompanied by Tom Corcoran, principal officer in the housing division; Sheila McMahon, assistant principal on the Rent Tribunal work; Garry Byrne, secretary of the Rent Tribunal; John Murphy, who is here in connection with the next item on the agenda, value for money on supplementary welfare allowances and Denis Conlan who is also in that area of work.

    Chairman: You are all welcome. I also welcome Mr. Eddie Sullivan, Secretary General of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. Perhaps he will introduce his accompanying officials.

    Mr. Sullivan: I am accompanied by Brian Ó Raghallaigh, principal officer in the Department; John Hynes, director general of social welfare services and Anne Tynan our accountant.

    Chairman: I welcome Ms Melanie Pine from the Department of Health and Children and the chief executive officer of the Eastern Health Board, Mr. Patrick McLoughlin. Perhaps you will introduce your accompanying officials.

    Mr. McLoughlin: I am accompanied by Mr. Michael Walsh, programme manager for community services and Martin Gallagher, finance officer and acting programme manager for mental health.

    Chairman: You are both very welcome. Also present are Mr. Tony Gallagher and Mr. Gerry Kenny from the Department of Finance.

    I ask Mr. Joe Meade, Secretary and Director of Audit, Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, to introduce the report on the Rent Tribunal.

    Mr. Meade: The Rent Tribunal was established in 1983 by the Minister for the Environment primarily to arbitrate in the determination of tenancy terms for dwellings which were formerly rent controlled. I audit the accounts of the tribunal. As most of the operational costs of the tribunal are provided by the Department of the Environment and Local Government on a non-repayable basis, the bulk of the expenditure of the tribunal relates to fees and travelling expenses of the members who serve on the tribunal and contribute their legal and property valuation skills in its overall work. The overall cost of the tribunal, taking account of those two factors, in 1997 was of the order of £77,000. We have no comment to make.

    Deputy Ardagh: This session leads on from a session we had not too long ago where all the witnesses present, plus representatives from Dublin Corporation, were in attendance. The main item that arises, and the main reason for the continuation of the discussion today, is the question of rent allowances and whether they should be administered by local authorities or by the health boards. Mr. Farrelly said at the time that his Department would not be found wanting in terms of distributing the allowances if that was the method agreed.

    There was an implementation group at work whose report was to be completed and with the Government by November last in relation to the administration of rent and mortgage allowances. What is the current position?

    Mr. Farrelly: I thought that was the next item on the agenda.

    Chairman: I was just about to say that it is the next item on the agenda.

    Deputy Ardagh: The rent tribunal has finances of £20,000 as far as I can see. The total information I was given as a member of this committee is a set of financial statements with nothing in them apart from the expenditure and the amount, and it is of no importance to this committee from a financial point of view.

    Chairman: If you like we can dispose of the Rent Tribunal quickly. We took these other items because they are in the same area.

    Deputy Ardagh: I have no questions on the Rent Tribunal.

    Deputy Bell: There is not much that can be questioned because it has a very small allocation compared to what we normally deal with. Regarding the terms of reference of the Rent Tribunal, one of the problems has been the quality of accommodation, particularly in urban areas, and the substantial subsidies that are paid for mortgages and rent by community welfare officers. We very often find that the standard of accommodation is way below even the basic standards in terms of health, fire safety and so on. In many cases landlords are substantially breaking the law and getting away with it. Has the Rent Tribunal any say or function in relation to the quality of accommodation vis-à-vis the payment of public moneys without proper standards being set for such accommodation?

    Chairman: That is the next issue which obviously we will be dealing with very soon. Perhaps we could hold off on this for a moment.

    Deputy Bell: They are interlinked.

    Chairman: That would be more relevant to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the health boards.

    On the Rent Tribunal, we are in a situation where rents are being driven up dramatically. People who have lived in the same dwelling for years now find their rents are being forced up in many areas. I know many people who, having lived in the same flat for many years, have been forced to leave. What rights do they have? Is any consideration being given in the Department to changing the law? Is there any scope to change the law to protect people?

    Mr. Farrelly: Let me clarify the position of the Rent Tribunal and get it out of the way. The Rent Tribunal was set up as an arbitrating body in the determination of tenancy, both rent and responsibility for care and maintenance of dwellings which were formerly rent controlled. It dates back to 1983. Certain provisions of the rent restrictions Acts at that time were found to be unconstitutional and a new system was brought into place for such rents, the former rent-controlled dwellings. It was subsequently modified by a 1983 Act and the Rent Tribunal was assigned the role previously carried out by the District Court. This is a limited operation. It relates to people who have clear rights to continuing tenancy dating back in time. It relates to a very small number of dwellings. It is said to be of the order of 10,000, but we feel that is overstated, and we have asked local authorities to write to landlords to clarify to what extent they still have tenants with rights. Unfortunately, the landlords do not notify the local authorities when tenants cease to occupy these buildings. It is a limited area of operation.

    In the absence of an agreement it is open to either party to apply to the Rent Tribunal to fix the terms including the rent. The tribunal’s determination of what is a just and proper rent in these cases must have regard to the nature or character and the location of the dwelling; the terms of the tenancy; the means of the landlord and tenant; the date of purchase of the dwelling by the landlord and the amount paid; the length of the tenant’s occupancy of the dwelling and the number and ages of the tenant’s family residing in the dwelling.

    A decreasing number of people are involved and where the terms of the tenancy are fixed by the tribunal, an application may not be made for a review of such a tenancy until a period of four years and nine months has elapsed. The terms can be reviewed when substantial improvements are carried out to the dwelling by the landlord. The terms of tenancy are dealt with either by oral hearing or on the basis of written submissions. Landlords and tenants can have legal representation at an oral hearing.

    It is a fairly small operation as indicated by the amount of money involved. The membership consists of a chairman, who is paid a fee according to the number of cases and the number of days involved, three vice-chairmen and two ordinary members. The operational costs are as small as £7,600 per annum. The level of activity has declined dramatically in recent years from over 100 applications per annum during 1994-96, to 60 in 1997 and about 83 in 1998. It is an area of legislation which is subject to a number of court cases so I cannot go into great detail but I get the impression that this is not really the area about which Deputies are raising questions.

    Deputy Bell: Much of what Mr. Farrelly has said is news to me, although I have been a member of a local authority for nearly 30 years. Is there is any obligation on the local authorities to force landlords to issue tenants with the rules of tenancy? I was not aware that this information was circulated to members of local authorities and, therefore, it is difficult to understand how tenants would be aware of their legal rights when elected members do not even know them. Might it be appropriate to have the information circulated by local authorities or to make it compulsory for landlords to issue tenants in rented accommodation with a copy of their rights?

    Mr. Farrelly: Three sets of regulations apply in general to the private rented sector. Under the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations, 1993, landlords are obliged to ensure that rented houses, including flats and maisonettes, let by them comply with specified physical standards. They apply to most private rented accommodation and include former rent-controlled and local authority dwellings. They do not apply to temporary or holiday lettings or mountable dwellings let by the local authority or certain voluntary housing. The regulations require a landlord to keep a house in a proper state of physical repair, to provide sanitary, heating, lighting and ventilation facilities and to keep common areas such as passageways, stairways and basements in good order.

    The Housing (Rent Book ) Regulations oblige landlords, including local authorities, to provide tenants with rent books at the commencement of tenancy. These regulations apply to all letting of houses, including flats and maisonettes, made by private landlords, local authorities, public and voluntary bodies. They do not apply to holiday or to former rent-controlled dwellings. The Housing (Registration of Rented Houses) Regulations, 1996, require private landlords to register houses, including flats and maisonettes, with the local authority.

    Chairman: Are there any steps proposed to stop the exploitation of vulnerable tenants by landlords in the current market circumstances where rents are being raised in an unconscionable way? Some tenants are being pushed out of dwellings in which they have lived for ten or 12 years and many of them have no real means of defending themselves. Is there anything proposed or any consideration being given to try to protect people in those circumstances?

    Mr. Farrelly: The reintroduction of rent control would have to overcome the kind of constitutional objections which brought down the previous legislation in 1982. There have been many calls in recent years for a temporary freeze or control of rents. This is almost a contradiction in terms. Rent control was introduced in 1916 and it lasted more than 70 years until struck down by the courts in the early 1980’s, which gave rise to rent tribunals. There are very serious constitutional implications for rent control but, if these are left aside, its introduction would have the unwelcome and inevitable effect of reducing the supply of private rented accommodation. Our departmental strategy statement specifies developing and maintaining a framework for an efficient private rented sector, which is an essential part of the housing system. The key to achieving stability in the private rented sector is the same as for the owner occupied sector, that is, to increase the supply of housing so that demand no longer outstrips supply. No legislation or control measures can achieve this. The fundamental objective of the Government housing strategy is to restore the balance between supply and demand.

    There are two major objections to rent control – the constitutional one on which rent control was thrown out in the early 1980’s and one based on the effect of rent control on encouraging landlords and private developers to provide housing for rent. The effect of rent control would be that rented housing would almost disappear off the market.

    Chairman: What is the legislation governing the Rent Tribunal?

    Mr. Farrelly: The legislation governing the Rent Tribunal is the Housing (Private Rented Dwellings) (Amendment) Act, 1983.

    Chairman: What is the scope of that Act?

    Mr. Farrelly: The scope of it is to establish as the arbitrating body the correct tribunal so that it may determine the terms of tenancy of dwellings that were formerly rent-controlled. It relates only to former rent-controlled dwellings which, because of the constitutional decisions reducing rent control, gave rise to a crisis. The Rent Tribunal was set up in order to strike a balance and ensure continuity for those tenants on the terms specified in the legislation.

    Chairman: Is anyone addressing protection for tenants who are vulnerable? I have encountered several instances of this in my constituency recently. Take the example of a woman working in Dublin for the past 30 years and living in the same flat for the past 15 years whose rent is doubled because of market forces. She has neither rights nor protection and has to vacate the premises because she cannot afford the rent. She is employed, therefore, she is not entitled to a rent subsidy. Is anyone protecting the constitutional rights of such tenants?

    Mr. Farrelly: The second Bacon report recommended that landlord and tenant legislation for which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is responsible, be reviewed in order to address barriers by means of investment in the private rental sector. It will also review the issue of an appropriate balance of rights between landlords and tenants. Responding to the report, the Government indicated that, on principle, we would establish a commission to examine issues relating to security of tenure. Are we looking at something broader than security of tenure? We are in touch with the Office of the Attorney General with whom we intend to arrange a meeting along with representatives from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform with a view to drawing up the guidelines for this commission.

    Chairman: “Fair rents” and “fixity of tenure” are terms that belong to the previous century and are again major issues.

    Deputy McCormack: A number of landlords do not register their property with the local authority. This offence incurs a fine of £1,000. Have many been fined since that regulation was brought into force?

    Mr. Farrelly: Landlords use court cases in landlord and tenant matters as a basis for non-compliance of payment of registration fees and similar issues. When the High Court judgment, on which one of these cases is pending, is known, we will examine what amendments are necessary. I agree that the performance of local authorities in relation to enforcing the issues of registration and rent books has been slow and difficult.

    Deputy McCormack: Was any fine of £1,000 imposed since the regulation was introduced?

    Mr. Farrelly: None of which I am aware.

    Deputy McCormack: That defeats the whole purpose of it.

    Chairman: We will suspend until the vote in the House has been taken.

    Sitting suspended at 10.45 a.m. and resumed at 10.55 a.m.

    Chairman: Mr. Farrelly, you mentioned the recommendation in the Bacon submission. Have any steps been taken in this regard?

    Mr. Farrelly: We are in discussion with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Attorney General’s office. The issue must be approached carefully as regards the terms of reference and so on. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has a major involvement because it has overall responsibility for landlord and tenant law.

    Chairman: Was that always the case?

    Mr. Farrelly: That was always the case.

    Chairman: What rights does a person who has been a tenant for many years and who does not live in the small number of rent controlled dwellings have against a plundering landlord?

    Mr. Farrelly: There was an amendment in the past few years which provided for four weeks’ notice to quit. It is a question of agreement between tenant and landlord and of what is in one’s agreement. At one stage, people were being evicted after one week’s notice. We made a provision requiring a minimum of four weeks’ notice to quit.

    In fairness, this is a difficult and complex area because the question of rent control was struck down as unconstitutional in the early 1980s. The constitutional issues are significant, hence the need for a commission to go into this matter. Until now, the expertise in this regard has been in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

    There are two issues involved. First, the constitutional issues, which are very serious and real, and second, if we are seen as having a policy which is not attractive to developers and landlords, housing or units for letting will not be provided. It is very much a chicken and egg situation. Threshold ran a seminar and the general conclusion was that there is no good experience to draw on at European level. Our problem, by virtue of property rights and so on enshrined in the Constitution, is greater.

    I feel very strongly that in the final analysis, the aim must be to maximise the provision of accommodation for renting. In recent years, we have introduced urban renewal schemes and schemes for students and others with a view to achieving that aim, but we must be clear that it is a different level of the market. At the same time, however, it provides units of accommodation. The provision of housing and accommodation for rent has not been attractive because we operated an absolute rent control system from 1916 until this provision was struck down as unconstitutional in the early 1980s. It is fraught with legalities and even the limited provision which we introduced through the Rent Tribunal to deal with the former rent controlled dwellings is being attacked in the courts.

    Chairman: I very much understand the restrictions and the market forces at play. There are many good landlords providing good accommodation and being fair to their tenants. There are, however, some landlords who put the Kray brothers to shame in that innocent people who have nobody to turn to for help are being put out on the street. I have certainly encountered that in my constituency. Is there an awareness that this is a new problem which has arisen because of the market situation and which must be addressed urgently? Innocent people whose rents have been hiked up dramatically have been effectively ejected from their flats because they cannot afford the new rents.

    Mr. Farrelly: There is an awareness of the problem. In dealing with it, one must look at the total housing situation. That is what we are attempting to do with a major emphasis at all times on the supply side. Equally, I accept what the Chairman said that there are provisions in relation to standards, requirements for rent books and so on. We are and will continue to push local authorities to ensure a greater level of enforcement on these issues.

    Chairman: It is not very satisfactory but I understand the limitations. We will note the Rent Tribunal report. We will move on to the value for money report on the administration of supplementary welfare allowances, which I will ask Mr. Meade to introduce.

    Supplementary Welfare Allowances:
    Value for Money Examination
    Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs (Resumed)

    Mr. Meade: The value for money report on the administration of supplementary welfare allowances came before the committee last October. The report looked at the efficiency of administration of the scheme, ways in which economies could be achieved, the effectiveness of the services in terms of non-financial supports and management issues relating to the overall effectiveness of the scheme. At the meeting last October, Members had a number of particular concerns regarding two areas covered in the report. Those concerns related to possible duplicate means testing and to rent subsidies.

    To recap, on the issue of means testing, the VFM report indicated that there was scope for savings in transferring responsibility for interim basic payments from the health boards to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, mostly by obviating the need for a second means test. There also appeared to be administrative waste and an element of duplication in the means testing for the back to school clothing and footwear allowances schemes.

    As regards the rent and mortgage supplements, the report showed they accounted for a significant increase in SWA payments and had now become mainstream supports.

    With regard to the rent and mortgage supplements, the report showed that they accounted for a significant increase in the SWA payments and had now become mainstream supports. It recommended that they should not be administered by the health boards. The report noted that an interdepartmental body would be making recommendations regarding which Department should have responsibility for these supplements.

    Last October the Accounting Officer for the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs indicated that there were some developments at policy level in terms of standardising means testing and efforts were ongoing to reduce the extent of interim payments.

    As regards the work of the interdepartmental body on rent subsidies, I understand that its work is almost complete and that it should be going to the Minister shortly. However, I am sure the representatives from the Department will be able to further update the committee on this.

    Chairman: Mr. Sullivan, do you wish to make an opening comment?

    Mr. Sullivan: I want to make a few comments on developments since the last time we spoke. With regard to one of the main elements of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, that is the basic payments, the numbers have been reducing here over the past few years reflecting the fact that there are more people at work and fewer people resorting to the basic supplementary welfare allowance. The numbers would be reduced even more but for the fact that there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers which was not a feature in earlier years. There is an underlying downward trend in the number of people receiving basic supplementary welfare payments.

    With regard to interim payments to which Mr. Meade referred, at any one time there are about 16,000 basic supplementary welfare payments made each week. It is probably useful to look at the composition of that. About 10,000 are awaiting a social welfare payment of one sort or other or, indeed, there might be some delay because of an appeal or whatever. About 3,700 are asylum seekers. Some 1,500 would be people who would be sick and who would have no other entitlement. Then there would be a number of others.

    Even with regard to the 10,000, about 40 per cent of those relate to unemployment payments. Therefore, about 4,000 people at any one time would be receiving supplementary welfare allowance on the basis that they had submitted a claim for an unemployment payment and were awaiting a decision either at the primary stage on the basic decision or at an appeal stage. About 35 per cent would relate to disability payments of one sort or another and about 20 per cent to one parent families.

    The Department is working, as we said before, towards reducing these figures and bringing the practice which operates very successfully in the Eastern Health Board region into the other health boards through the greater use of desk interviews in our offices when people claim – that would be in relation to the unemployment payments.

    The situation in relation to lone parents is somewhat different because of the nature of the scheme and the qualifying conditions. In all of this we must strike a balance between the speed at which we put claims into payment and the whole control issue of those payments. It is interesting to note developments in the UK in this regard, where they have stated that part of their difficulties has been placing too much emphasis on putting claims into payment too quickly and that that has repercussions down the line in terms of over-payments, abuse, etc. There is a balance to be struck and it is difficult to find.

    The second area I would mention, which Mr. Meade mentioned also, is rent and mortgage supplements. This obviously continues to be an area of concern, particularly on the rent side. There are about 40,000 rent supplements at any one time and they account for about half of all supplementary welfare allowance expenditure. There is, as has been mentioned, concern about the increasing rent levels and the availability of suitable accommodation.

    We would have lesser concerns on the mortgage interest side where the expenditure figures are reducing but, of course, we are conscious that there is a potential exposure in that regard if, for example, interest rates increased.

    As Mr. Meade stated, the interdepartmental group is just completing its deliberations on the transfer of the administration to the local authorities. I understand that group should be finalising its work shortly. Then it will be a matter for Government consideration.

    The other point I want to make relates to the computerisation programme of the Department on the supplementary welfare allowance side. As the committee will recall, the Department’s strategy here had been to integrate the computerisation of supplementary welfare with that of other short-term payments in the Department, notably the unemployment payments and the disability benefit payments. We started with the schemes administered directly by the Department but the system was built in order to cater for supplementary welfare allowance. That was first implemented in the Eastern Health Board region a few years ago and it is virtually complete. We experienced a number of hiccups along the way but, with the exception of about 1,200 payments, it is virtually complete. Effectively all supplementary welfare allowance payments in all health boards are now computerised and on the same computer system as the other short-term payment systems. There has been a good and positive response to that project. It has helped streamline and improve the interface between the Department and the health board and it has provided better customer service. It has actually reduced queues at health centres also.

    The last area I want to mention is the back to school scheme, to which reference was made. We said before that this is a scheme which the Department hopes to review during the course of this year as part of its wider programme of expenditure reviews. There are a number of related issues which the Department needs to look at, including how it is administered and, as the committee mentioned previously, the various cut-offs and its conditions generally.

    Deputy Ardagh: With regard to the community welfare officers and the supervisory community welfare officers, I want to put on record the esteem in which I and all public representatives hold CWOs for the hard work they do under difficult circumstances. I find them superb public servants. They do an excellent job.

    I am concerned about the survey results in Appendix B of the VFM report on the administration of supplementary welfare allowances. There are a number of areas about which I am particularly concerned. One concern relates to question No. 19: 104 CWOs were surveyed, which is a representative sample. The results should be correct to plus or minus 5 per cent, which would be standard in any statistical sampling. On a fairly regular basis 20 per cent of CWOs personally have experienced violence or abusive behaviour while doing their work. This is a large percentage and it makes it difficult for CWOs to work in those particular circumstances. What has been done in the Eastern Health Board area to try to reduce the violence and abusive behaviour experienced by CWOs? I know it is a difficult problem and I am not saying there is an easy answer. What is Mr. McLoughlin’s position on this?

    Mr. McLoughlin: I thank the Deputy for the comments in relation to the CWOs. I know they are much appreciated. The Eastern Health Board has invested a considerable sum in security. I have to say that does not give me any great joy. We have had to employ many security personnel in the various clinics because of behaviour by particular clients. It has to be appreciated also that the community welfare officers are dealing with persons who are vulnerable and many may have an addiction problem. There may be a combination of factors; they may have been evicted. They deal with people who are vulnerable and at a particular traumatic stage in their lives.

    We also provide training in management of aggression but it is a problem. We try not to design buildings in such a way as to create aggression because sometimes putting up hatches, etc. adds to it in the sense that the person feels that the officer or official is protected. Many people in this area tell us that you are better off having a situation whereby security is not very evident but that you have as close a relationship, physically, with the client as possible. Those statistics are a concern.

    Deputy Ardagh: I may have misled Mr. McLoughlin. A total of 20 per cent said that they regularly experience violence and abusive behaviour and another 69 per cent said that they had experienced violence and abusive behaviour, but not very regularly. That totals 89 per cent and, in addition, another 5 per cent experience violence and abusive behaviour very regularly. That is very dangerous.

    Mr. McLoughlin: It is quite high.

    Chairman: I suspect that it is much more dangerous is some areas which are not represented by the average.

    Mr. McLoughlin: That is true. The sample perhaps represents the Eastern Health Board less proportionately in the country than might, otherwise, have been the case. Having said that, it is true that in a number of the schemes which we are implementing now we are trying to reduce waiting times, queuing, etc. If people were waiting prior to ISTS, or are waiting, in long queues in buildings which were not designed to take the number of people who are presenting, obviously, that causes problems. We have tried to bring in wherever we have these systems, queuing systems so that the public is at least aware that nobody is jumping the queue. Things like that can give rise to great difficulties in management of clinics, but there is a physical constraint in the number of health centres relative to the numbers that are presenting. Computerisation, which has been welcomed by the CWOs, has meant a reduction in queuing and they can spend more time with the individuals.

    Deputy Ardagh: Question 23 relates to whether training has been adequate. In all but one area, computerisation, the CWOs believe that training is not adequate. A total of 50 per cent believe it is not adequate in assessing clients’ needs; 62 per cent believe it is not adequate in providing information on entitlements; 75 per cent believe it is not adequate in offering advice on money matters and 56 per cent believe it is not adequate in referring clients to other organisations. Are those figures an indictment of the training scheme within the health boards?

    Mr. McLoughlin: I cannot comment on the actual training carried out in all boards, but the EHB has a full-time training officer for this group of staff; if you compare the numbers of staff employed by the EHB – of CWOs relative to a training officer – they are actually quite well catered for. I accept that the perception is that that is not adequate and, obviously, more can be done in that regard. I also point out that we do not see the issue of giving information to clients, etc., as being particularly the reserve of one group. We have put a lot of work and cost into training all front line staff, clerical officers, etc. in customer service and dealing with clients’ needs. It is part of the CWO’s job but not by any means the main component, as can be seen by the survey.

    Deputy Ardagh: Is the training adequate? Is there a need to improve the training of CWOs?

    Mr. McLoughlin: Clearly, the officers themselves have identified a need and that is something we certainly will be looking at. It is fair to say that the concentration, because of the need to get ISTS in and the consequential benefits in terms of queuing systems and better control, has been on the information technology side. These are quite senior officers. The persons who get those posts initially would have come through; and quite a percentage of them already have health care experience. They received training in other grades. We also expect that people keep themselves up to date in relation to the entitlements, etc. of clients. That it is not something which the organisation would have to do itself. All professions and grades are expected to keep themselves up to date with the information on entitlement for clients.

    Deputy Ardagh: That implies that the training is inadequate in all other grades below CWO. Training in private companies throughout the world is perceived more and more not just an unnecessary expense but as an investment in the human resources that are there. Is the same, or sufficient, value put on training within the health board? Could it be improved? I am not trying to blame Mr. McLoughlin in any way; I am just trying to see if it can be improved.

    Mr. McLoughlin: Certainly, it could be improved. What happened, and the records show that back in the late 1980s when there were severe cutbacks in the health care system, areas like training, maintenance, etc. were seen as discretionary in some ways and the core and front line services were protected. There is no doubt but that there was a curtailment of services in that area. Studies and reports have been done since, for example, in relation to management training. They identified gaps in the 1990s. Certainly, health boards appreciate that more money and resources need to put into that area.

    I believe that there have been significant increases but, as an organisation with about 10,000 staff, you need a very large training budget. A huge number of staff come in and leave the health services and move on. We have a training department but I certainly accept that more resources are needed and the training in many cases needs to be more localised. We are trying to concentrate resources on initial training and then on the job training rather than taking people out of their actual work environments, which equally costs money in terms of replacement of staff.

    Deputy Ardagh: But there is a need for further training if the resources were available.

    Mr. McLoughlin: I accept there is.

    Deputy Ardagh: Is there currently a system you offer where feedback from your clients is formally evaluated and procedures changed as a result? A total of 80 per cent of CWOs said that there was no system whereby clients could provide feedback which would lead to the improvement of the system or a change in methodology so that clients would be better served. The CWOs are doing the very best job. Is there a need to change the system so that feedback from clients is taken on board, evaluated and the system changed?

    Mr. McLoughlin: There is work in progress on that. What is important to realise is that you will not necessarily get an accurate view from the client if you interview them close to the point of delivery. For example, a person leaving a hospital may not give you a very accurate view at that particular point of the care that he or she received. Two or three months down the line, they may give you a much more objective and accurate view because they may have had time to consider, well was it good treatment, etc. We are trying to establish some benchmarks for each of the services. We are looking at contracting with a firm to establish what people think of the health services and the various aspects of the health services with which they come into contact, use that as benchmark and then to see if we can focus on the areas with which there are difficulties. One of the areas with which we have difficulties in public perception is that of rent supplements. There are schemes we administer which give rise to difficulties about the overall perception of the health board and health services.

    Deputy Ardagh: I am sure we will discuss rent supplements later. I would like to discuss CWOs further. On question 10, 14 per cent of the CWOs believe that the judgments of the current appeals system are unfair and 60 per cent believe an independent body is needed to deal with appeals. Why is there no independent body to deal with appeals from the SWA system?

    Mr. McLoughlin: There is an independent appeals mechanism and we have established a director of appeals within the health board who reports directly to me. There is also an independent system in the Department in relation to this. I was surprised at the degree to which people felt an independent body is needed. It would be preferable for us to have an independent body as regards many of our complaints. In many situations people say we are investigating ourselves and we co-operate fully with the Ombudsman as regards complaints he receives. It suits us as an organisation to tell someone that they can take their case to an independent person. That benefits us.

    Chairman: What percentage of appeals are successful?

    Mr. McLoughlin: I do not have those figures with me but I will be able to get them.

    Chairman: I suspect it is very low. I do not ever recall an appeal being successful.

    Mr. McLoughlin: There certainly are successful ones.

    Chairman: I must be unrepresentative.

    Deputy Durkan: It is political bias.

    Deputy Ardagh: The final question on the survey was, “Do you feel overworked”? Eighty four per cent of the respondents felt they were overworked by five hours or more in a week. Is that a case of, “They would say that, wouldn’t they” or are they really overworked?

    Mr. McLoughlin: In all of these type of self-assessments, there is an element of, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”. More time and motion studies on this may be necessary. Equally, if one looks at the degree of efficiency which was achieved in the period 1987-96, that relates to the fact that more people are able to access the system. The Eastern Health Board has shown a huge increase in efficiency, which relates to increased throughput.

    Deputy Ardagh: I congratulate Mr. McLoughlin on the increased efficiency.

    Mr. McLoughlin: There are workload measurement agreements with the trade unions specifically in relation to the community welfare service. They arose from industrial relations difficulties. For example, in relation to the services for asylum seekers, we agreed to an independent review which was carried out with the co-operation of staff. Generally there are accepted ratings and workload measurements which are agreed with the community welfare officers. The Comptroller and Auditor General mentions those in the Eastern Health Board. We use those, as well as other criteria, to determine time and measurement.

    Deputy Ardagh: In relation to the matter from which Mr. Farrelly escaped, the report on the administration of the rent subsidies, Mr. Sullivan stated at a meeting last October that he thought it would be ready to go to Government by November. Now he says it will be finalised very shortly. What is the reason for the delay?

    Mr. Sullivan: It is fair to say that what I said last October was what I understood at the time. The issue is very complex. We are looking at transferring the work in relation to rent and mortgage to the local authorities. A number of complex issues arise, such as what aspects ought to be transferred – should it be the whole rent and mortgage or just a sub-set of it and what are the logistic and other practical matters which need to be looked at. Even if a decision was made now, it would be quite some time before something could be done on that. Questions would arise as to whether it should go in its current format, are changes necessary in the current scheme if it is to be moved to local authorities, how does one then integrate it into the local authority network and what has to be done in the social policy area?

    There are a number of complex issues involved and I am pleased it is coming to a conclusion so we can move on to the next stage. It is a complex problem and I do not think it will be solved quickly. We need to get to the next phase and then move it along.

    Deputy Ardagh: The Secretary General of the Department of the Environment and Local Government said at a previous meeting that it could be looked at as an issue for the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, yet Mr. Sullivan said that he was informed that it was expected to have it completed by November. Is the Department of the Environment and Local Government dragging its heels in the finalisation of this report?

    Mr. Murphy: I will respond to that as I have chaired that committee since last October. We have given this a high priority. As Mr. Sullivan said, many complex issues are involved. We are anxious that, in producing our report for Government, we will have addressed all those issues and put forward a set of clear recommendations. We have met on several occasions in the past few months with a view to doing that. I am satisfied that when we have one further meeting to sign off on the report we will be in a position to put forward clear recommendations to Government and to move ahead to the next phase.

    Some of the complex issues were mentioned by Mr. Sullivan. One is how one integrates the provision of assistance to people in private rented dwellings with the rest of social housing policy. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report refers to the fact that social housing is delivered differently by local authorities to the way rent assistance is delivered. There is a distinction to be drawn between income support and longer term housing needs which are currently being met in the SWA system and the right balance must be found in ensuring that in the future income support needs will continue to be met by the appropriate agencies.

    Over 40,000 people are in receipt of rent assistance and over 7,000 people in receipt of mortgage supplement and, therefore, there is a need to ensure that new arrangements work effectively to secure our customer service. One of the strong points of the current system is that it can meet need quickly and we need to continue to secure that in any future arrangements.

    There are a number of organisational, staffing and IT arrangements which will take time to sort out if substantial changes are being made. It was necessary to tease out many of these with the Departments concerned. We must also take into account other submissions we received. I am satisfied that when we submit the report to Government, we will be able to identify the steps which need to be taken to move this forward. We are anxious to do that rather than produce a report which does not move us forward.

    Deputy Ardagh: Is Mr. Murphy saying there will be a meeting to sign off on the report?

    Mr. Murphy: Yes.

    Deputy Ardagh: So the executive of the committee and Mr. Murphy as chairman has put the report together and it will be put forward for final consideration by the working group.

    Mr. Murphy: Yes.

    Deputy Ardagh: When will that occur?

    Mr. Murphy: Allowing for editorial work and any minor changes, that will be in the next two weeks. We will submit it to Government as quickly as possible thereafter.

    Deputy Ardagh: On the question of asylum seekers, I was interested to hear that 3,700 were on social welfare assistance. Anecdotally, it seems that people believe tens of thousands of people are on social welfare assistance. I was pleasantly surprised by the small number receiving it. Is this figure less than the previous one? What was the maximum number of asylum seekers who received SWA in the past?

    Mr. Sullivan: I understand that is the highest number there has been. Last year we were expecting it to be higher, based on different numbers we were getting but that is the highest number.

    Deputy Ardagh: What did you expect the highest number to be?

    Mr. Sullivan: I understood that we would get approximately 5,000 last year.

    Chairman: And what is the number now?

    Mr. Sullivan: Nearly 4,000.

    Deputy Ardagh: So the fear of the asylum seekers taking over the whole social welfare system has not occurred. Would you say it is a very manageable figure?

    Mr. Sullivan: I think it is. There is a lot of co-operation between ourselves and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform on dealing with asylum seekers – how they are dealt with and given RSI numbers.

    Deputy Ardagh: What is the position now? Are the asylum seekers dealt with in Charles Street?

    Mr. Sullivan: Mount Street.

    Deputy Ardagh: What are the administrative procedures like? Do asylum seekers have to queue for long?

    Mr. Sullivan: I am sorry but I do not know that.

    Deputy Ardagh: Does the health board administer that?

    Mr. McLoughlin: Initially we had the service in Charles Street; then we moved it to Castle Street. When the numbers increased we moved it to St. James’s Street. It is working very effectively now in Mount Street and on any visit I have made the queuing arrangements were quite good and the building was sized for the numbers presenting. When I last looked at the numbers, between 60 and 80 claims were being dealt with per week. Obviously, that might mean a family with three or four persons who might have to be accommodated and there would tend to be emergency accommodation for three to four months before they moved on to private rented accommodation.

    Deputy Ardagh: Do the 60 to 80 new claims represent an increase or decrease?

    Mr. McLoughlin: That has remained pretty static over the past two years. Until then it was rising to a rate of approximately 100 per week but it has certainly stabilised.

    Deputy Ardagh: So there must be a significant drop off as well if the figure of 3,700 has remained fairly static. If there are 60 to 80 new asylum seekers there must be a reduction at the other end of another 60 to 80.

    Mr. McLoughlin: Obviously people move out of that category and are either assessed as having been granted asylum or not, or else they choose to leave the country themselves. There is a lot of co-operation between us and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in that regard. We share the same building.

    Deputy Ardagh: The organisation must be better in that the treatment of asylum seekers is not getting the kind of media exposure it got in the past.

    Mr. McLoughlin: One of the advantages has been that a decent quality building has been available in Mount Street. The problem with the building in Charles Street was that it could not take the numbers presenting off the streets. We are working with Dublin Corporation to secure a building to enable us to move out of Charles Street.

    Deputy Ardagh: Are the staff dealing with refugees in Mount Street specially trained for this job?

    Mr. McLoughlin: Absolutely.

    Deputy Ardagh: What sort of training did they receive?

    Mr. McLoughlin: We have a huge range of supports, such as interpretation facilities, and our staff would have been trained with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform staff when being moved. The training was generally organised by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for staff who moved but we were carrying out training while still based in James’s Street. We also had systems where people could see they would be dealt with in a reasonable time and this was all of assistance.

    Deputy Ardagh: Regarding mortgage interest allowance, a number of people in Crumlin and Drimnagh have expressed concern to me that this allowance is being done away with. What is the exact position regarding this allowance? The concern arises due to the general fall in interest rates and the story that the allowance is to be abolished got out somewhere. What is the situation?

    Mr. Sullivan: I am not aware of any change in the mortgage interest supplement, unless there is some confusion with what is happening on the tax side.

    Deputy Ardagh: No, it has nothing to do with tax. Can you confirm that there has been no diminution in the services being offered?

    Mr. Sullivan: No, as I said earlier, the amount of money we are paying under it is less, which I presume is a reflection of the lower mortgage payments people are making but there is no change in that scheme.

    Deputy Ardagh: Can you give a representative example of the type of funds received by a person under mortgage interest relief?

    Mr. Sullivan: It depends on the mortgage and the interest element.

    Deputy Ardagh: Let us say it is a £20,000 loan at 6 per cent, which at £100 a month plus the principal, means the repayment would be £150 a month.

    Mr. Sullivan: The supplement is based on the interest not the principal.

    Deputy Ardagh: So that is what the problem is. In the real world interest rates are going down so the mortgage interest subsidy is going down faster because the principal is not going down. That is a problem. What percentage of the interest is involved?

    Mr. Sullivan: People would pay about £8.10 a week and the scheme would pick up the rest.

    Deputy Ardagh: Is that on the interest?

    Mr. Sullivan: That is on the interest element of the mortgage repayment and not the principal.

    Deputy Ardagh: What happens if someone falls on hard times and cannot pay the principal? What happens when they cannot pay? Are they told they have to sell their house?

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes. On an earlier point, the 4,000 figure relates to households of asylum seekers, so that could refer to 6,000 people including dependents.

    Deputy Ardagh: The 3,700.

    Mr. Sullivan: That would be over 6,000.

    Chairman: That means 3,700 refugees or their families are being assisted by the supplementary welfare scheme.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes, but when one adds in spouses and children that is over 6,000.

    Chairman: But that is less than expected.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes. I understand that for the first quarter of this year the number of new arrivals is down 40 per cent.

    Chairman: On the same quarter last year?

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

    Chairman: What was the total number?

    Mr. Sullivan: It was 855 as against 1,355.

    Chairman: So there were 855 individuals in the first quarter of this year compared to 1,355 last year?

    Deputy Ardagh: How many have signed off?

    Mr. Sullivan: Very few.

    Mr. McLoughlin: To clarify a figure given earlier, in 1997 there were 2,100 appeals decided and 359 were allowed, so it is a reasonable percentage. The 1998 figures will be published in our annual report.

    Chairman: What percentage is that? It is about one sixth or 16 per cent.

    Mr. Sullivan: When people are at the stage Deputy Ardagh referred to we encourage them to talk to their building society or reschedule their loan.

    Chairman: This is on the capital side.

    Deputy Durkan: Like the Chairman, I often experience feelings of insecurity, inefficiency and vulnerability when making an appeal under that system. I was never associated with a successful appeal to Castle Street. The reason is quite simple. I am not being biased about it; it is a mere fact of life. I would not recommend anyone to appeal through that system because I know in my heart and soul that such an appeal would not be successful. People adjudicate in a system in which a decision has already been made by one of their colleagues. That is not fair to them, nor is it fair to the constituent. The system has been in need of change for a long time as it is not independent.

    Reference was made to the number of asylum seekers who have signed off the live register. How many have signed off? Where did they go, did they leave the country?

    Mr. Sullivan: I do not have exact figures on this. Some people leave the country, some receive the status they have sought and some move on to other social welfare schemes.

    Deputy Durkan: One presumes that those who have received the status they have sought have permission to remain in the country and get work permits or whatever the case may be. Has any follow-up been carried out into what happens after that? Do they gain employment? Has the Department any statistics on that?

    Mr. Sullivan: No, we do not.

    Deputy Durkan: Would the health board have any?

    Mr. McLoughlin: No. In terms of emergency accommodation, they are treated in the same way as anyone else.

    Deputy Durkan: I suggest that action be taken to ensure statistics are compiled. I feel very sad and ashamed when I travel throughout the city and see poor, unfortunate people who are not allowed to work running up and down at traffic lights begging or selling The Big Issues, endangering their own lives and those of others. I see young men and women of 18, 19 or 20 years of age who are in a strange country being blamed by the public. Public reaction to these people is not good, for reasons I will pursue in a moment.

    Surely the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Social, Community and Family Affairs and the health boards could work out some kind of strategy to address this problem. There is the notion that nobody is entitled to come to Ireland, but the Irish are entitled to go everywhere is fine but the reality is that we should hang our heads in shame because of what is happening. If we do not have statistics and information which will allow us to monitor the situation as it evolves, we will never be able to solve the problem. Statistics should be compiled on the number of people who take up employment. Plenty of employers in my constituency are looking for people to work in various areas. At the same time, these unfortunate people are forced to walk up and down the road at traffic lights. That is daft and could only happen in Ireland. It is totally and grossly unfair. Would it be possible to compile such statistics?

    Mr. McLoughlin: We do not maintain any statistics on asylum seekers and refugees. I share the Deputy’s views on the manner in which people are treated and we train our staff to ensure people are properly treated. The people who walk up and down the roads at traffic lights are in receipt of the same benefits in terms of statutory entitlements as Irish people so, in financial terms, they are not being treated any differently to Irish people.

    Deputy Durkan: But they cannot work.

    Mr. McLoughlin: No, they cannot.

    Mr. Sullivan: I understand some work may be under way in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in relation to the points raised by the Deputy. We will certainly follow the matter up. The asylum seeker issue has been ongoing for a couple of years and it is time to examine it to see exactly what has happened.

    Deputy Durkan: It is time to move on.

    Chairman: I think Deputy Durkan wants to know whether people are merely being transferred to some other form of social welfare or whether they are gaining employment and leading fulfilling lives.

    Mr. Sullivan: That is reasonable. I understand some work may be under way on that but I am not aware of its exact nature.

    Deputy Durkan: I want to comment on the degree of antipathy generated by the system towards some of these unfortunate people. For example, a person born and raised in a particular location is competing for accommodation with an unfortunate person who, for reasons outside his or her control, is an asylum seeker. The health boards have a duty to provide accommodation and they must buy or rent houses as the case may be. To ensure value for money, two or three families may end up sharing a house which, in turn, causes negative reaction from people in local communities. Such situations are unhelpful to the development of good social or family relationships. The impression is being given that asylum seekers or refugees have an advantage over local people even though they are being treated equally under the same system. However, because of the intensity of their situation and the severity of their problems at a particular time, they tend to get ahead of a woman with one child, for example, who lives with her parents or in overcrowded conditions.

    My long lost friends in the Department of the Environment and Local Government have a role to play here. I honestly believe that unless housing needs are met on a more regulated basis than at present, problems will continue to arise. The Department of the Environment and Local Government must take account of the housing needs outlined by local authorities, to which it appears to have had only limited access until recently, and the need generated by people in emergency housing situations. I could ring up all the local authorities in the country and find out exactly how many people were on the housing lists.

    Mr. Corcoran: In terms of needs, we carried out a major assessment at the end of March and are getting results in at present. The Government recently announced a major increase in the local authority housing programme and has, for the first time ever, introduced a multi-annual four year programme.

    Deputy Durkan: What is the projected figure on the number of houses per year?

    Mr. Corcoran: We are to deliver 22,000 over the four year period, which is 5,500 additional local authority houses apart from what will be delivered through voluntary housing, shared ownership and so on. A wide range of measures are to be introduced.

    Deputy Durkan: Has any evaluation been carried out on people’s precise housing needs? From my limited knowledge, I imagine the Department should be talking in terms of 35,000, 45,000 or 55,000 additional houses. To the best of my knowledge, the number of people – many of whom do not qualify to be on the lists – is much greater than outlined. While announcements have been made on this issue, the Department has not been keeping in touch on an ongoing basis with the growing need in this area.

    Mr. Corcoran: I accept there is a wide variety of needs but they do not all fall to be met by the local authorities, nor would they be most appropriately met through the provision of local authority housing. Many people are marginal house purchasers, people who, as a result of house prices, have found themselves forced on to local authority waiting lists. The obvious response to that is to provide affordable housing for them. We have put in place a range of measures such as improving the shared ownership scheme, increasing voluntary housing output and so on. We recognise a range of different needs to which different solutions are required.

    Deputy Durkan: When do you start the housing assessment?

    Mr. Corcoran: The guidelines were issued late last year. It is quite a major statutory assessment which is carried out every three years. This was carried out on the last week of March. A lot of information needs to be collated and we should receive it by the end of May.

    Deputy Durkan: When were assessments first used as a means of identifying the housing need?

    Mr. Corcoran: This method was first used under the 1988 legislation. Non-statutory procedures were used previously.

    Deputy Durkan: I recall my reaction on hearing about the first assessment as a member of a local authority. I identified it as a means of postponing the identification of the true position for at least a year and a half. I was correct in that assessment. The question is how did we survive prior to the introduction of the assessments? How did the Department find out the number of houses needed throughout the country? How did it make contact with the local authorities? Did it get the information instantly over the telephone? This information is readily available in most local authorities. Did it spend nine months, ten months or two years trying to come up with a series of questionnaires to send to each local authority? Which system would have been the most efficient in dealing with the issue?

    Mr. Corcoran: In many cases the local authorities would take an application and not assess it until a house became available. This meant there were long waiting lists and the needs of these people were not assessed until such time as the local authority was building a scheme. The system was irregular because local authorities had different procedures. Therefore, we needed a more regularised means of assessing local authorities.

    Deputy Durkan: To what extent do you have access and reference to the various health board supplementary welfare payment systems in relation to rent supplements? To what extent has this altered your judgment in relation to determining the housing need, given that the rent supplements are being paid to people who would ordinarily be eligible for local authority housing, do not have a house of their own at present, are in need of housing or have family or other commitments?

    Mr. Corcoran: Our basic reference is when people seek local authority housing. Many people on SWA do not wish to receive local authority housing. There have been problems in some areas where health boards have insisted on a requirement where, if one seeks SWA assistance, one should also seek local authority housing.

    Deputy Durkan: The supplementary welfare system was never intended to resolve the housing needs, although this may have been the intention of the Department of the Environment and Local Government. To what extent is your Department aware of the housing need as evidenced from the number of people in receipt of a supplementary rent supplement? To what extent does this alter your judgment in determining the housing needs at any given time and is this being done at present?

    Mr. Corcoran: One of the questions will relate to whether those seeking local authority housing are in receipt of SWA assistance. A few years ago the Department got the ESRI to analyse our last assessment. They found that 22 per cent of people on waiting lists were also receiving SWA rent assistance.

    Deputy Durkan: According to your assessment?

    Mr. Corcoran: Yes.

    Deputy Durkan: How did you get that information, given that there seemed to be no knowledge of these people the last time I asked the question. I asked questions in the House on numerous occasions and I could never get a clear answer from the Department of the Environment and Local Government. Perhaps I was not clued in to what was taking place in relation to housing for the last 20 years, but if £75 million per annum is being spent on supplementary rent assistance, it appears that these people are in need of housing. Otherwise they would not have received this rent assistance. Why not pay this once, then transfer it over to capital spending and house these people and move on to the next group of people?

    Mr. Corcoran: If the £75 million is transferred over, it will house 1,200 of the 40,000 people on SWA.

    Deputy Durkan: For ever?

    Mr. Corcoran: Yes. We would then be left with the bulk of these people. Some 40,000 people are in receipt of SWA rent assistance at any given time but 70,000 households may go through the books in a year. Many people have relatively short-term needs for whom the provision of a local authority house is not the most important or most appropriate solution. The difference between income support and long-term housing needs has already been raised. There is an income support need and there is a long-term housing need and we are trying to distinguish between these needs in the report.

    Deputy Durkan: Would it be unknown to the Department that a person could be in receipt of rent supplement for ten years?

    Mr. Corcoran: It would be unknown to the Department if they did not apply for local authority housing.

    Deputy D

  4. (here’s the rest)

    Deputy Durkan: We are getting to the nub of a problem which must be tackled. There is no sense in one Department paying £75 million in rent supplement in lieu of a housing need which is clearly established and with which another Department should be dealing. It is not the responsibility of the other Department, this is being provided in lieu of an income supplement. This is totally uneconomic, not cost-effective and a disgrace.

    Chairman: This comes down to the question of who administers the rent supplement scheme and the mortgage interest scheme and whether it should be transferred from the health boards to the local authorities. Has this proposition been given any further consideration?

    Mr. Sullivan: The departmental working group is looking at the question of transferring the administration of the rent supplement scheme to the local authorities. Of the 40,000 people in receipt of rent and mortgage supplement, approximately half are in receipt of the rent supplement for a year or more. Approximately 10 per cent of people are in receipt of rent supplement for five years or more, 20 per cent for three or more but 50 per cent for one year.

    Chairman: When will the task force present the report?

    Mr. Sullivan: I understand it will report following its next meeting.

    Chairman: When will that be?

    Mr. Murphy: We expect to have one final meeting to sign off on the report. We will then proceed to present it to Government.

    Chairman: Will the meeting take place next month or next year?

    Mr. Murphy: The meeting will take place in the next two weeks.

    Chairman: Will the report then go to Government?

    Mr. Murphy: Yes.

    Chairman: The point is well made that if there is no clear-cut co-ordination of the housing need, people will fall between two stools. Apart from the inconvenience caused to these people, we are concerned about the cost to the Exchequer. I think it is crazy that local authorities do not have the responsibility for this, although they do not seem to be very willing to embrace it.

    Deputy Durkan: It is important from the point of view of value for money and efficiency to identify the total need and how to address the issue. This should not be done just on a temporary basis because of the temporary nature of the problem. There will be a certain amount of replication but a group of people need to have their queries addressed and their problems solved. The notion that more rented accommodation and more leased property is the answer is rubbish. That is a great deal of rubbish; it does not work because if there is not sufficient housing units to meet the need, one cannot house people in trees. I hope that the Department of the Environment and Local Government is addressing this issue seriously because it is projected that the population will increase by up to 500,000 over the next ten to 15 years. I would not like to have responsibility for housing unless something extraordinary happens in the meantime.

    Chairman: This is the extent to which the rent subsidy scheme increases housing demand. Many young people leave home to take advantage of it and in the process increase rents for everybody because they created increased demand. This refers to social welfare rules for unemployment assistance and medical cards, etc. Given the pressure on housing, has consideration been given to that issue?

    Mr. Sullivan: I take your point. There are guidelines in relation to people who leave home. They have to leave home for good reasons before they get the supplement. I do not know if this is helpful; about one quarter of those who are unemployed and receive the rent supplement are aged 25 or less. Another quarter are between 26 and 30—–

    Chairman: Is it only unemployed people who receive supplementary welfare?

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

    Chairman: Therefore, all recipients are unemployed in one form or another but may receive social welfare benefits other than unemployment assistance or benefit.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes, they could be lone parents or on one of the employment schemes but they could have retained benefits as a supplementary benefit for going back to work also. There are 4,000 of those. About 35 per cent of all rent supplements go to unemployed people and about 20 per cent to lone parents.

    Chairman: Has the extent to which housing demand has exacerbated because of certain social welfare rules been examined? I cite the living alone rule which means that if a parent can get a child out of the house, he or she will qualify for free telephone rental, television licence, electricity allowance, etc. The child will receive rent supplement, a medical card and unemployment assistance because he or she is not affected by the parent’s means. It is contributing to housing demand.

    Mr. Sullivan: I have no doubt that there is an issue there. I am not too sure about the extent of it. There are issues around the benefit and privilege rule and the cost of doing away with that. I have no doubt that there are household formations as a result of it but I do not know that it is happening on such a large scale. We have a group looking at the question of households and the individualisation of payments. Work is going on in that area. Again, that is another costly area; it is a very complex area as I am sure you will appreciate.

    Deputy Durkan: If one is single with family commitments, is currently entitled to the rent supplement, on the basis that one does not have a home, and has the option of obtaining employment, which option would Mr. Murphy choose given the circumstances that prevail at present on the basis that one can qualify for a rent supplement to cover a family home but if one goes to work one loses it? One pays £600 or £700 per month in rent towards somebody else’s mortgage and one is in an income bracket which is insufficient to render one capable of obtaining a mortgage for a reasonably priced house. What advice can be given to those people? That question needs to be answered as a matter of urgency.

    Mr. Murphy: First, I understand there are certain retention arrangements for a person in that situation who is unemployed, receiving rent assistance and has the possibility of taking up work. Perhaps, our colleagues in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs could elucidate on that. A person in low paid employment who cannot provide housing from their own resources is free to apply for any of the social housing options, including local authority housing.

    Deputy Durkan: When could they expect to be housed?

    Mr. Murphy: It depends on the priority; if you are talking about somebody whose preference is to seek local authority housing as opposed to going for shared ownership or one of the other measures aimed at people in the lower paid areas of employment.

    Deputy Durkan: What does Mr. Murphy consider a reasonable expectation for a person making an application in those circumstances? When could he or she expect to own a house? I know of a person who has waited for ten years.

    Mr. Murphy: Obviously, the situation will vary from one housing authority to another because there are many other categories of people on housing lists and who are in more needy circumstances, if they have no employment, have dependants, etc. I cannot say precisely how many years you are talking about. That is one of the reasons we were anxious to increase the provision of housing and there are various other social housing measures.

    Deputy Durkan: I wish to revisit this subject at a later stage. The question of value for money and expenditure in that area must be looked at seriously because, otherwise, good money is being thrown after bad money and wasted.

    Deputy Ardagh is correct that there is a problem in regard to mortgage interest relief versus rent supplement. A couple or a single person paying a mortgage who find themselves out of work and unable to pay the mortgage would have to sell their houses under the current system and become dependent on the social welfare system. They would then qualify for full rent supplement totalling £400 or £500 per month depending on which health board area they reside in but if they try to hold on to their houses, they will not receive a supplement towards their mortgage because unemployment assistance is assessed against them as means and excluded from the equation when determining their outgoings. It is therefore, taken into account twice and they have no chance.

    I have dealt with countless cases where the advice that the community welfare officers must give people in those circumstances is that the best thing to do is to sell the house because they can then help them. That is wrong and the Department and the health boards need to get together as a matter of urgency, remove that glitch from the system and make sure money goes to those in need regardless of their circumstances.

    Like previous speakers, I never tolerate the abuse of public officials but it should also be remembered that such people have the ultimate power when it comes to determining the needs of individuals. Very often people in vulnerable circumstances react badly and it must be recognised that a certain amount of give and take must exist. Training can be dealt with on the one hand but I could produce anecdotal evidence of incidents where everything went out the window and things went totally wrong, unnecessarily, in those circumstances. We have to ensure the officials are treated properly and there is no intent or attempt to intimidate.

    There was a reference to comparisons with the UK and having studied that at some length from time to time, I hope our systems do not necessarily always refer to the system in the UK because it is not necessarily the most effective or benign one. We should be careful about that. In relation to spending money we should assess the total need and respond to it. We should get away from the system where we spend £50 or £60 million a year in attempting to assuage the feelings of the community. The community at large have their feelings assuaged to the extent that they are under the impression that most people are all right, they are doing very well and get rent supplements of £500 or £600 a month. Their housing needs are not met and an attempt has not been made to meet their needs. For God’s sake, pull it into line, take over responsibility for it and deal with it because it is not being dealt with now. If the situation is bad now, wait five years and see what it is will be like.

    Chairman: In regard to the social welfare system in general, is there any proposal to amend the blanket prohibition on giving supplementary welfare assistance in certain circumstances to people in employment, except those in a back to work scheme, so that people in temporary difficulty in employment could be helped?

    Mr. McLoughlin: There is a prohibition on giving supplementary welfare payments to people in employment if the employment is more than 30 hours a week. If people are in low paid employment, they possibly could be entitled to family income supplement. There is an urgent needs payment within the supplementary welfare allowance scheme that people could get if they had a particular problem.

    In general, I am loath to say that the supplementary welfare scheme is one of those schemes at which we will be looking as part of our expenditure review and that all these issues will come to the table.

    Chairman: In my experience the blanket prohibition on assistance for those in employment can be another one of those factors that makes the difference between taking a job or not taking one.

    In practice is this urgent needs payment ever given to people in employment?

    Mr. McLoughlin: It is in very limited circumstances. An analysis that we carried out on 30 April showed that of 16,324 claims, 2,180 related to people on schemes including back-to-work community employment – FÁS – which accounts for about 12 per cent. The schemes are not a barrier to people. A certain percentage are prepared to go back into those schemes and still maintain their entitlements to rent supplements. The difficulty with the urgent needs and exceptional needs payment is that they are identified on a case by case basis of which I do not have an analysis. It is those cases which often give rise to appeals where there are not specifics laid down in relation to in what circumstances people might be entitled to them.

    Chairman: I cannot recall a case where a person in employment received assistance even though there was an urgent and maybe temporary need. The blanket prohibition is a mistake.

    Mr. McLoughlin: Chairman, I do not disagree with you. Many people who probably eventually go to public representatives are persons who have already used the appeal system or ombudsman anyway within the boards.

    Chairman: The figures spoke for themselves, one sixth of the appeals succeed. Like Deputy Durkan I do not ever recall an appeal succeeding.

    Mr. McLoughlin: If I came up with figures which stated that 90 per cent of cases were turned over in appeal, we could equally be accused of being too harsh and that it was an indication of the whole system.

    Chairman: The reality is that it is not an independent system and it should be. If it was, there would be more confidence in the system. Maybe the decisions are valid but certainly there is a query there.

    Mr. Sullivan, has any consideration been given to the issue of providing additional provision for people getting supplementary interest free loans as in the case of the UK? People who are in exceptional need could get a loan rather than being forced to go to moneylenders. It would prevent people getting into a poverty trap or into a bind.

    Mr. Sullivan: Not directly in terms of consideration of the issue. I understand that those kind of loans were a cutback measure when introduced in the UK. There are a number of centres which provide budgeting advice throughout the country, where people can get advice on how to manage their funds. If they have a level of indebtedness, they will get help in negotiating with the various utilities or whoever it would be, in order to try to work out some schedule of repayment to clear the loan in line with their incomes. That service is very well used.

    Chairman: In the UK, during the time of Mrs. Thatcher it was introduced as a cutback but that should not blind us to the fact that there is a poverty alleviating or avoidance role for interest free loans. In this Celtic tiger, people are being milked by moneylenders in the city. I know people who lost their house in the past year over the same thing, and I am aware of serious threats by moneylenders to people who cannot meet the exorbitant repayments. There should be at least the possibility that people could depend on the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, and the Combat Poverty Agency to do exactly what they are supposed to do, combat poverty.

    Mr. Sullivan: Over the years we have been doing work with the credit unions in relation to taking over some of those loans.

    Chairman: When you say you have been doing some work, is there any conclusion or are we near conclusion?

    Mr. Sullivan: I do not have the details but work has been done in Cork by one of the credit unions where there was money rolled over for people who were given loans in order to pay debts. I would have to make a number of inquiries to find out exactly how that stands.

    Chairman: Have there been any recent studies within the Department of the problem of moneylending?

    Mr. Sullivan: A study was undertaken by the Combat Poverty Agency a number of years ago. I do not know of any more recent work but I will check that information for you.

    Chairman: It is certainly still a problem. It might not be a huge problem but the most vulnerable people must go to moneylenders whereas the repayments on an interest free loan from the Department could be stopped at source every week which would be a great help to these people. Significant steps have been taken in that direction. For instance, stopping local authority rent at source has reduced dramatically the number of rent problems in local authority housing where a number of people had been threatened and stressed by the threat of eviction.

    Mr. Sullivan: The money advice and budgeting service around the country was designed specifically for that, and came from that earlier work we referred to. The household budget facility which is available for unemployed people and a number of other schemes where payments are taken at source to pay the various utilities subject to various limits, has been very popular and proved to be very effective for the utilities, local authorities and the people themselves.

    Chairman: It is a great help. This is something which is a gap in our social welfare system. It would greatly alleviate some of the most troubled people in terms of finance. As it is a loan it does not have major implications for the Exchequer. Also are there any moves towards a single means test?

    Mr. Sullivan: The last day we mentioned – as did Mr. Meade – that something has been done on streamlining policy. As I said, we are trying to create a framework so we can collect means information once and make it available to other agencies. We collect a lot of means information and we have a database of means records. We are considering how to use it. It is not as up to date as it ought to be. We should ensure that the elements required for different schemes are available and updated when possible and that the other agencies can tap into it.

    This raises many other issues regarding the access to and sharing of information and data protection. We are trying to create a framework in which all this can happen. Some progress has been made. Our work on computerisation with the health boards and the SWA is helping in that regard. It will take time but it is certainly on our agenda to tackle it at that level. Obviously policy changes for a common means test – although that is not what I think the Chairman was talking about – would have significant implications.

    Chairman: I do not accept the last point. There are no financial implications. We have been fooling ourselves for years in refusing to have a common measure of means. There are approximately 17 different means tests in the public sector. That duplicates work across Departments. Even within the health boards, several sections carry out different means tests. An unemployed person could go through the hoops six or seven times in a few weeks with officials from different Departments, or even sections of the same Department. Different criteria are employed in these means tests so means in one are less than means in another. That is ridiculous, the person has the same amount of money. Why can we not have a simple form which asks about sources of income, the amount per week, the person’s outgoings and net income? We could then give a certificate of means which lasts for one year and can be used for all State agencies which would then know the person’s means. A level can then be applied for benefits such as differential rent, civil legal aid and footwear. We are humiliating people by sending them 16 or 17 means tests when they are at their most vulnerable. A lot of official time is being used and money is being wasted. I am tired of hearing that it is being considered. I have been hearing that for 12 or 13 years.

    Mr. Sullivan: There is not too much disagreement in our statements. There are two angles to this. First – and I agree fully – we need to capture a person’s means information once and make it available. There is no disagreement on this. The way in which the information is used in different schemes is a different issue. For example in relation to SWA and unemployment assistance, the SWA requirement is immediate need. When we examine a person’s means we consider his past means and a future projection before we award anything. They are different things. However, the elements of what people have are the same and that can be shared and much work can be done in this area.

    There are expenditure implications if we have the same means test across all the various schemes.

    Chairman: No, that is a misconception. There is complete confusion about this all the time by officials. People’s means are their means. Currently there is a pretence. To suit the convenience of a scheme the measure of means is altered and it is a complete distortion. If I receive £100 per week, I receive £100 per week. There is only one measure of means but there are currently 17 measures of means and the purpose of this seems to be – at least in part – to distort the picture. Why should people not have one certificate of means? They could go to their local health centre, have their means assessed and receive a certificate of means. After that those means could be applied to different schemes. Obviously limits would have to be set to keep within the present costs. That is what should be done.

    Mr. Sullivan: That is what I was saying.

    Chairman: If a person becomes unemployed and does not have enough stamps, he goes to the health centre for temporary supplementary welfare and does a means test. He then goes to the unemployment office where he is told he will not receive unemployment benefit for a few weeks until his means are tested and they carry out another means test. He applies for a medical card through a different section of the health board and does yet another means test. If he wants the back to school allowance for his children, he does another means test. If he goes to the civil legal aid board he does another means test and if he is on differential rent he does another means test. People who have lost jobs are humiliated enough without having to be put through that.

    It also costs a lot of money. This committee is sick of hearing about Departments and agencies needing more staff while staff are tied up replicating work. Something must be done about it this year because it has gone on too long. Every year we raise this question.

    On certificates of means tests, £60 per week in Clondalkin may not have the same value as £60 per week in Ballina. Likewise £60 per week in Ballina may not be the same value as £60 per week six or seven miles outside Ballina as one would have the cost of getting into Ballina. If one lives in Clondalkin one has the cost of bus fares into town which one would not have living in the inner city. “Liabilities in kind” should be built in and allowances made for local costs and factors. This is very simple. It would take some of the humiliation out of the social welfare system. Much has already been done and Mr. McLoughlin’s statement about the health board is true. However, we have a long way to go to take the humiliation out of the system and streamline it. Could we please have some progress on it this year?

    We will now move on to the rent subsidy scheme. We can see from Table 3.2 that in 1989 rent subsidies cost £6.1 million and in 1996 they cost £64.1 million. Over seven years they increased to more than ten times the original amount. If one allows for inflation, in real terms they probably increased to more than eight times the original amount. What is the figure for 1998 and what are the projections for the next few years?

    Mr. Sullivan: The rent element for 1998 is £88 million and the estimate for 1999 is £103 million.

    Chairman: It is continuing to escalate.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

    Chairman: Are alarm bells not ringing in the Department?

    Mr. Sullivan: I said in my opening statement that there are still concerns about the increasing rent costs which are largely due to an increase in prices charged on the rental market. Rents are increasing all the time and this is a significant concern.

    Chairman: Costs are increasing because rents are increasing. Presumably numbers are also increasing.

    Mr. Sullivan: The numbers are not increasing. The rent limits—–

    Chairman: What are the numbers for 1996 and 1998 and the estimate for 1999? From 1989 to 1999 it has gone up from £6.1 million to £103 million, an increase of almost 14 times. You can give us the numbers when you are ready.

    Mr. Sullivan: The numbers last year would have been 40,000, the same as this year.

    Chairman: Some 40,000 in 1998 and you estimate the same number this year, an increase of £15 million.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

    Chairman: That represents increased rents?

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

    Chairman: That is approximately 20 per cent.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes. The figure for 1997 was 36,800.

    Chairman: How much did you give in rent subsidy?

    Mr. Sullivan: £75 million.

    Chairman: It went up by £13 million in 1997-98 and by £15 million in the 1998-99 estimate.

    Mr. Sullivan: The figure for 1996 was 34,700, where we paid £62 million.

    Chairman: From 1996-99 it has gone up from £64 million to £103 million?

    Mr. Sullivan: There is a slight conflict of figures here, Chairman.

    Chairman: The table indicates £64 million.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes, and £62 million is what I have here. In 1995, 31,800 was the number and £54 million was the—

    Chairman: The table indicates £53.96 million. They are in the same general area.

    Mr. Sullivan: They are generally the same figures.

    Chairman: The figures increased from 34,700 in 1996 to 36,800 in 1997 to 40,000 in 1998. Why do you think they will not increase this year?

    Mr. Sullivan: We think the trend has slowed down.

    Chairman: From 1996-99 there was an increase of £30 million which is just short of a 45 per cent increase.

    Mr. Sullivan: From £40 million to £60 million, a two thirds increase.

    Chairman: You are right. It is a 66 per cent increase in three years.

    Mr. Sullivan: Four years, Chairman.

    Chairman: Four years. The numbers would have increased by 14 per cent, which is alarming.

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes, and it is reflecting the increasing—

    Chairman: How many millionaires are we making? Do we know what the top ten landlords are gaining from this assistance scheme? Is there any way of measuring who is benefiting from this?

    Mr. Sullivan: We do not have that information, Chairman. There is provision for return of subsidies under the Taxes (Consolidation) Act, 1997 and we have been working with the Revenue Commissioners to give them information on addresses at which rent supplements are paid for them to follow up. It is something on which we have worked with the Revenue recently and information is now going to them in relation to that. It has been a very difficult job because of the manual nature, in the past, in which the information was held, but a lot of work has been done and we hope to streamline that in the future. That is one development that has taken place in the recent past. At least it is being returned for tax purposes.

    Chairman: I would like to ask a few questions on that sum. Expenditure of £103 million for 40,000 works out at almost £50 a week, so the average rent subsidy is about £50 a week. To go back to the Department of the Environment and Local Government and Mr. Murphy, or perhaps his colleague, would it not be cheaper to build or to buy apartment blocks for this purpose?

    Mr. Corcoran: There is an argument for that. You could spend a certain amount of money building apartment blocks but there is also the argument that it is quite expensive to build local authority housing. If that sort of money was made available, and we estimate that, for that amount, we could provide about 1,200 local authority houses. That is a once-off and we would have them—

    Mr. Durkan: In one year?

    Mr. Corcoran: Yes, in one year. There is also the question of whether we are keeping the local authority programme low because we are spending so much money on this. We are expanding the local authority programme. There are certain constraints in the construction industry but we will be working out a large programme over the next few years. That is a separate issue but there is not an economic argument that you could shift that money and provide for anything remotely like the same number of households. It would take a number of years. Depending on the outcome of the committee’s work, the greater co-ordination that we envisage in terms of rent support for people who are in private rented housing will allow us to make easier comparisons, particularly when we know the nature of the long-term and short-term needs. There is a major factor here: the social welfare allowance system meets a large number of short-term needs and their needs are not met by building local authority housing. We must look at the situation down the line where, partly, some of the longer-term needs that are now met by social welfare allowance will be met either by the provision of local authority housing or another social housing method, voluntary housing.

    Chairman: Here we have a scheme which in ten years has multiplied 16 times from £6.1 million to £103 million. It is an alarming growth and calls for a very detailed and urgent review, including a review of the social welfare rules that might be contributing to this. The same landlords that are increasing rents for long-term tenants are now being made millionaires by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. It offends me, and it offends many people, and it has no regard for the section of the Constitution which deals with property rights, which also calls for principles of social justice to be observed. Principles of social justice are not being observed in this area.

    Mr. Rabbitte: What year was that?

    Chairman: It was 1989. It is on table 3.2 on page 20 – £6.1 million in 1989. This is something that greatly upsets me. It appears as though all the people with money and property have rights but the people on the other side have no rights and nobody to defend them. Somebody said that you will not get too many judges as tenants but there might be a few of them as landlords and there is a real concern that the system is swayed completely against the tenant and against the Exchequer in this case as well.

    I want to go on to the question of the Eastern Health Board. Are the health boards, and the Eastern Health Board in particular, giving rent subsidies in respect of dwellings that have no planning permission or do not meet the planning criteria or the housing regulations? Has that practice stopped or are you still giving rent subsidies regardless of people ignoring planning and housing regulations?

    Mr. McLoughlin: It is not an issue, Chairman, that we can take into account and we have had advice on this. We are working closely with Dublin Corporation and that body recently sought additional environmental health officers to deal with the issue of registration and standards. We welcome that. If a person comes to us who is within the guidelines of the scheme and has contracted with the landlord, there is nothing we can do. That has been held in queries that we have referred to the Department. The boards do not see this as an appropriate scheme to be administered by them because they are not in control of the planning or fire regulations. We cannot determine where people actually live or deal with the issue of value for money, for example, the £40 million that we spend on it. It is certainly not a scheme that we feel is appropriate.

    Chairman: Should the health boards be involved?

    Mr. McLoughlin: No.

    Chairman: It should be done by the local authority?

    Mr. McLoughlin: That is the unanimous view of the board.

    Chairman: The local authority could then take the fire, housing and planning regulations into account. You are confirming that you cannot do this.

    Mr. McLoughlin: We cannot take these regulations into account. The local authorities are working closely with us and increasing the resources in that area. If a person is within the scheme they have contracted with the landlord and we can visit and check the property. However, if we have concerns, we refer the case to the local authority but we do not issue a certificate of compliance.

    Chairman: There have been complaints from me and many other public representatives that areas of this city are being run down by the over-occupation of dwellings. All or most of the tenants of these dwellings are receiving rent subsidies although the buildings are not meeting the minimum planning or housing regulations. Not only are individual houses being run down but whole communities by the excessive number of rent subsidies being given in these circumstances. Are you saying that you received advice indicating that you cannot take the other laws into account?

    Mr. McLoughlin: Chairman, the advice we have is that we cannot discriminate against the individual, confine or restrict the person’s freedom of choice regarding the accommodation or the location where they choose to reside. Any agreement, for example, between the landlord and tenant is private and clauses concerning noise or cleanliness can be inserted if agreed by both parties but the Department does not have a role in this. Standards and regulations are clearly issues for the local authorities and, while we can work closely with them on that, we cannot debar a client a rent supplement over non-compliance. The local authority could insist that a person should have a certificate but that creates difficulties. Even if that matter was resolved we still cannot examine the money being spent on this and ask if it represents value for money. We carried out a survey this year which shows a significant number of people in receipt of rent supplements – probably about 74 per cent – are single people. We studied the length of time people are in accommodation: 51 per cent stay more than one year and in a total of 2,200 cases, the average stay was 13 months. This type of information and analysis should be looked at by a housing authority.

    Chairman: It is appalling that a statutory authority is ignoring the housing, planning and fire regulations which are established in law. Do we have to wait until we have a “Stardust” type incident when 13 or 14 people are burnt to death in a house full of rent subsidy clients to get action on this?

    Mr. McLoughlin: Chairman, we are not wilfully ignoring this but if somebody satisfies the terms of the scheme, we cannot refuse them an allowance.

    Chairman: Mr. Sullivan, is there any urgent consideration being given to ensuring that rent subsidies can only be paid for dwellings that meet the criteria set down by law?

    Mr. Sullivan: Not in the manner about which you speak. When a person applies for a rent subsidy, if there is a home visit and if there are concerns about the premises or about the suitability of accommodation, the CWO will refer the case to the local authority. A rent supplement should not be paid if it is known, for instance, that the local authority has given a decision that the standards in the regulations are not complied with.

    Chairman: Your guidelines are that rent subsidies should not be paid –

    Mr. Sullivan: Where a local authority has given a decision that a particular premises has not complied with the regulations – it is a question of finding out whether it has. If it is known that a local authority has said that this is not suitable accommodation then a rent supplement clearly should not be paid. If this situation arises, the guidelines indicate that the person should be advised to seek alternative accommodation and given some time to do so. This is a very complex issue. Deciding which accommodation is suitable and which is not, as Mr. McLoughlin said, is really up to the local authorities and the CWOs.

    Chairman: With respect, there are laws setting down criteria for fire, planning and housing regulations and your Department is deliberately avoiding implementing or upholding them. In the process you are endangering lives and ruining communities throughout this city. I suggest you go along the North Circular Road or many other areas and see the effect of this.

    Mr. Sullivan: Chairman, the Department has no intention, by any of its actions, of endangering lives – quite the opposite. Our guidelines cite that a client may be considered not entitled to rent supplement if the accommodation that he or she resides in does not meet the standards laid down in the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations already mentioned. This may occur where the CWO is aware that the local authority has given a decision to this effect, following a request by a CWO for a decision regarding the suitability of particular accommodation. This may be at the CWO’s discretion or at the request of the client. A client already in receipt of rent supplement for accommodation that does not comply with the required standards should be given sufficient time to seek alternative accommodation before the supplement is withdrawn. There is no intention on our part to leave people in that kind of accommodation.

    Chairman: You will not go so far as to say that there should be a clearance certificate from the local authority before a rent subsidy can be paid.

    Mr. Sullivan: As Mr. McLoughlin said, the question of accommodation is a matter between the tenant and the landlord. If it is known that it is unsuitable or if there are concerns about it, these could be raised by the local authority and in this case the rent supplement will be withdrawn after –

    Chairman: Secretary General, this is not merely a matter for the landlord and tenant. There are laws dealing with these matters for good reason so that communities are not destroyed, lives are not jeopardised and property is not run down. There is a community and public interest in this matter and the minimum we should ask is that the laws be applied and a dwelling clearance certificate, similar to the tax clearance certificate, should be issued from the local authority before any rent subsidy is paid. If the public service will not respect the laws of the land what chance is there for the general public? There is a complete lack of determination to deal with this issue. I understand there are fears, which are unfounded, that if this issue is addressed it will result in a shortage of accommodation. The ESB insists on separate connections to each dwelling within a house where it is a multi-occupied dwelling. That information is not supplied to the other authorities. If necessary the data protection law should be changed to require the ESB to inform an authority of a local authority before any such connection can be made. This is for safety and planning reasons. Would it be possible to give this consideration in any proposed change of the law?

    Mr. Sullivan: I will follow that up with whoever is responsible.

    Chairman: This is a case of various public authorities doing things differently with no co-ordination between them. The result is that the Exchequer is left carrying the can. This gives rise to lives being endangered and communities being destroyed. Will the Department of the Environment and Local Government make a comment on the lack of application by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the health boards of its housing, planning and fire laws?

    Mr. Murphy: The local authorities are directly responsible for the registration of dwellings. Regarding claims for payment of social welfare allowance rent assistance, not all of these concerns are referred to local authorities. First, the person coming to the health board is a tenant of a private landlord, is unable to pay the rent and is seeking financial assistance. It is not a case of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, the health board or the local authority insisting on the accommodation the tenant must occupy. This complex issue is a concern of the committee of which I am chairman. If no one was to be paid rent assistance unless certain standards were met the consequence would be financial difficulty for many.

    Chairman: Would you agree that notice could be given – for example, as and from 1 January 2000 or a year from today – that allowances will not be paid unless landlords have got planning permission and so on?

    Mr. Murphy: That is a possible option. A balance must be struck between ensuring that there is a supply of good quality rented accommodation and at a price that both tenant and Exchequer can afford. There has been a growth in expenditure on that scheme over the past ten years. We do not want a situation that will result in further substantial rent increases in the short term. This matter cannot be dealt with in isolation; we must have regard to the entire housing market and to other measures being taken to address the wider housing issues.

    Chairman: In other words, we enact laws without expecting them to be applied by the people responsible for running the public authorities. This is a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem. It is farcical; it destroys communities and it must end. The minimum this committee requires is that Departments uphold public laws and not ignore them. If there are consequences they must be confronted. I propose that we report to the Dáil and insist that the laws be observed.

    Where the ESB refuses to inform the local authorities of the date to ascertain whether the law has been complied it is a matter that needs to be changed. The average subsidy is £2,600 per year.

    Mr. Sullivan: £50 per week.

    Chairman: That assumes that the allowance is paid for 52 weeks. What is the average number of weeks paid to each person?

    Mr. Sullivan: The people who discontinue to receive the allowance have been on an average of 23 weeks. That distorts the figure because it does not take into account those who have been on more than a year. Therefore, it is higher than that.

    Chairman: Will someone inform me what is the average number of weeks of payment of rent subsidy? Is the Department of Finance upset about this escalation? Is there any other programme of public expenditure that has increased like this.

    Mr. Gallagher: I hope not. I understand the reasons for it and the difficulties faced by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. Rents have increased and accommodation is in shorter supply than it was a few years ago. There is a free market in rents. The constitutional issue means that rent controls cannot be imposed. Even if the Constitution were not a barrier there would be supply difficulties in the short term. Many landlords would withdraw from the market and sell their properties to private owners for substantial prices.

    Another reason for the increase in expenditure is attributed to the demand. The household composition has become more complex because of the increase of lone parents. There is no solution available in the short term; we will have to await an increase in supply. We hope that consideration of the report on the transfer of responsibility for social welfare assistance and rent and mortgage supplementation will alleviate the problem.

    Chairman: Article 43(2) of the Constitution which grants these property rights states:

    1. The State recognises, however, that the exercise of the rights mentioned in the foregoing provisions of this Article ought, in civil society, to be regulated by the principles of social justice.

    2. The State, accordingly, may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good.

    I do not see any sign of those principles being upheld in the property market. Landlords, compared with tenants, are getting away lightly. The common good and social justice do not appear to feature.

    Deputy Rabbitte: Regarding the contribution from the Department of Finance, could it be explained why landlords would sell their property?

    Mr. Gallagher: There is a danger that if they were aware of the complexities and perceived they were being regulated too heavily they would believe it to be too much trouble. For example, they might have to spend much more on accommodation than they would wish so they sell it. It has happened already in areas of Dublin such as Rathmines that were once categorised as “flatland”. Many of those houses have been sold for single occupation. I cannot endorse the flouting of the law in relation to standards.

    Deputy Rabbitte: That is a way of thinking that comes from the 1960s and 1970s. However, it is either an economic dynamic or it is not – I accept that. Mr. Farrelly has left. I am puzzled that the law requiring registration of landlords is not being implemented by local authorities. County managers will boast about it because they say they do not have the staff—–

    Chairman: There have been means tests.

    Deputy Rabbitte: —–and will say that the Custom House is colluding with them in it. Why do we not require those people to comply with the law to register?

    Mr. Corcoran: When we started a fee of £40 was set which was designed to be sufficient to remunerate the cost of policing the various regulations and to provide a source of income to local authorities. We devised it in such a way that it would be implemented. We have cajoled to the extent we can to try to encourage local authorities to increase the policing in this area. This has not happened to the extent we would have wished.

    Deputy Rabbitte: You have a 27 per cent compliance rate. Maybe the Department of Finance is right that it would produce this dynamic. I am not persuaded. I am not sure to whom those guys would unload them. I am not sure what kind of purchaser can afford single occupation but that is another story. Why not implement this law? Is the Department of Finance not concerned that we have a 27 per cent compliance rate?

    One of the main considerations driving that legislation was to require those landlords to be registered for tax purposes. The reason most of them are not registered is because they are in the black economy. The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is giving them £100 million per year and they are not even registered for tax purposes. Does the Department know about this?

    Mr. Gallagher: I would be very surprised if the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs was knowingly paying—–

    Deputy Rabbitte: It is not the business of the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. It operates the scheme that is there and we have estimated it will cost £103 million in the present year. In my constituency most of the guys into whose banks accounts that is automatically transferred are not even registered for tax.

    Mr. Gallagher: If somebody has information to that effect they know to whom they should pass it on.

    Deputy Rabbitte: The information I have is that there is a law of the land that requires them to register. The Custom House is doing damn all about it and the county managers are shrugging their shoulders and saying they need more staff.

    Mr. Gallagher: I cannot comment on that.

    Deputy Rabbitte: Can the Department of the Environment and Local Government comment?

    Mr. Corcoran: There are different legal requirements. Obviously the tax laws are separate from the registration laws. The Department of Finance may speak in terms of compliance with tax laws but we have a difficulty in getting them to register. One of the reasons for this is that there has been a number of court cases challenging our regulations. The Secretary General has already alluded to the fact that we are awaiting a High Court judgment in one case taken in Ennis, County Clare, which certainly has serious implications, at the very least, for the regulations. Our regulations have been subject to serious legal challenge.

    Deputy Rabbitte: I would love to know the genesis of that legislation. In my experience Departments pursue less enthusiastically legislation they did not author. If it turns out to have been inspired by some of the political class there seems to be the attitude “we told them we cannot implement it”. It is unconscionable. The Chairman has adverted to Article 43 of the Constitution which gives the right in certain circumstances to delimit the right to private property where the exigencies of the common good require it or where it is dictated by the principles of social justice. In this case we, the taxpayers, are funding a new landlord class while there is a law requiring them to register and 27 per cent comply with it. Everybody I ask about it, shrugs their shoulders.

    Mr. Corcoran: On the point of the 27 per cent, the compliance rate is probably more than that. I am not saying it is satisfactory. That assumes there are about 100,000 houses to which the regulations apply. We estimate it is a good number fewer than that. The last census indicated that 80,000 dwellings were let for rent or other valuable consideration. There are certain exemptions in the regulations. For example, if somebody is renting accommodation with a resident landlord, that accommodation is not subject to the regulations. There are exemptions. We cannot say how many dwellings the regulations apply to but it is considerably less than 100,000. The enforcing authorities are the local authorities, not the Department of the Environment and Local Government. We have, in so far as we can, encouraged local authorities and facilitated them in every way, to implement the regulations. They have come against these legal challenges. That is a problem. After the High Court judgment we may have to revisit the regulations. Clearly, we will have learned from the last few years of the difficulty in enforcing them.

    Deputy Rabbitte: I read something in the newspaper this morning about a new role for traffic wardens. They will now be inspecting planners and architects. It seems to me they could be sent wandering through some of the estates in my constituency and it would not be difficult to identify the culprits. I do not want to labour the point but the will is not there in so far as I can gather. May I ask Mr. Sullivan the explanation for the rise in figures and so on? Rents are being arbitrarily increased by substantial amounts. The complaint I hear in my advice centres is that the subsidy is no longer sufficient to prevent the person being evicted. Is the Department looking at this problem? The biggest increase in rents for some years is now taking place. The ceiling on the supplement is such that it cannot support the person in the house. In any event it is probably an uneconomic instrument in the sense that it is probably difficult to justify a single parent with one child being supported in a three-bedroom house in 1999 conditions and so on. Rents are rising and presumably some increase in supplement is being contemplated but even that will not be sufficient and a more radical approach to it will have to be devised.

    Mr. Sullivan: The levelling off was just the numbers between this year and next year. In relation to the rent levels, the health boards are required each year to review and set maximum levels in each health board area having regard to the available accommodation. In the Eastern Health Board area the maximum fixed level for a single person went up from £50 to £60 from the beginning of the year. If there is a particular increase it is open to the health board to have a look at the rent levels. We are very much in the hands of the individual health boards in terms of setting rent levels that are consistent with what is available. Even within all the health boards the rent level for a single person varies from £35 to £70 per week, so that there is a substantial variation in the maximum rent levels in the health boards.

    Deputy Rabbitte: Has it reached the stage where we will have to examine the efficacy of this instrument, where there will be an alternative way to deal with the problem, or can we do nothing until there is a better supply of accommodation?

    Mr. Gallagher: As mentioned earlier, the report on this matter is being finalised, and the whole issue can be considered in the context of that report.

    Deputy. Rabbitte: Mr. Farrelly told me that first 18 months ago. Did we manage to put a date on when we will get it?

    Chairman: In two weeks.

    Deputy. Rabbitte: Mr. Farrelly must not be due back for a long time.

    Mr. Gallagher: When Deputy Rabbitte asked me a question earlier on landlords and Revenue, Secretary General Sullivan said his Department was working with Revenue to provide information on landlords.

    Deputy. Rabbitte: I welcome that, I was not aware of that. Could I hear a little more about what that means in practice? I thought the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs always maintained, for reasons with which I never agreed, that this was the traditional position?

    Mr. Sullivan: No. There is provision in the 1997 consolidation of taxes Act for Revenue to seek details of rent subsidies. We have been trying, in co-ordination with the health boards, to get details of rent supplements paid in various locations and to pass them to Revenue for processing purposes. That work has been ongoing for some time. Some information has been given to Revenue and more is coming on-stream as and when it is available. Because many of the procedures are manual, it is a tortuous operation, but it is starting to flow to Revenue now.

    Deputy. Rabbitte: Do the health boards have that information?

    Mr. McLoughlin: We have that information and I understand we transfer it on a monthly basis to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. There was a specific provision in legislation to allow us to transfer the information to get over data protection considerations, and it is transferred to the Department.

    Mr. Sullivan: This procedure has just started and we will review it again shortly to see how it is working and to try to streamline it, but it is a good step forward.

    Deputy. Rabbitte: I welcome that. It is an important point. On an issue raised earlier by the Chairman, as well as the money advice bureau system, the Consumer Credit Act has a major impact on the money lending aspect. I do not know if that has been pursued but it is a relevant figure in this case.

    Chairman: Mr. Sullivan, the table on page 12 of the report indicates that total payments of supplementary welfare allowance for 1996 was £152 million, of which the figure for rent and mortgage supplements was £72.5, just under half that figure. What is the figure for total expenditure on all supplementary welfare schemes for this year? You have given us a figure of £103 million for rent subsidy. What is the total figure?

    Mr. Sullivan: The total figure is £228 million. Basic payments were £54.7 million, rent supplements were £103 million, mortgage interest supplements were £8.1 million, other supplements were £5.6 million, the exceptional needs payments were £22 million and the figure for administration was approximately £23 million. The figure for the back to school allowance, which we normally associate with SWA, is £11 million.

    Chairman: It is actually going down. Approximately half of all supplementary welfare goes on rent and mortgage supplements?

    Mr. Sullivan: Yes.

    Chairman: This matter has gone on for a long time and it is getting worse. I propose we adjourn it for two weeks and seek a report on the steps it is proposed to take to uphold the planning, housing and fire laws in applying the rent subsidy. On the registration of landlords, what steps will be taken to ensure rent subsidies are paid only in respect of dwellings owned by registered landlords and dwellings which meet those planning, housing and fire regulations? We should also seek an update during the two weeks – given that the other report is supposed to be ready in that time – on whether a decision has been taken on transferring this matter from the health boards to the local authorities.

    Deputy. Durkan: We should also seek a rapid assessment of the actual number of people with housing needs, as opposed to—–

    Chairman: That is a separate issue. I am just talking about the supplementary welfare allowance.

    Deputy. Durkan: Can I rephrase the question?

    Chairman: In a moment. I want to make another point. What is preventing the Electricity Supply Board from giving the relevant information on connections to the local authorities? If there are inhibitions in this regard, can they be changed by law?

    Deputy. Durkan: Can we include a method to ensure persons in receipt of supplementary rent allowance are assessed for housing purposes and are on the books of the local authorities by way of rapid assessment other than a system whereby one must wait three years to have an evaluation? A person might have to wait two or three years and nobody might know of his or her existence.

    Chairman: In two weeks’ time, I would also like separate evaluations from the Department of Finance, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and the Department of the Environment and Local Government on how they believe the escalation of the scheme can be arrested, bearing in mind that it has increased 16-fold in ten years and that no other area of public expenditure has increased in this fashion. I ask the Department of the Environment and Local Government to address, in writing, the question of whether there are better means of spending this money to meet housing need, perhaps by the Department buying blocks of apartments.

    Deputy Ardagh paid a handsome tribute to community welfare officers. I want to be associated with that tribute because frontline staff in health boards and local authorities have a difficult job in that they often have to deal with people in distress or with a drug problem. They do a good job. One of the problems I have encountered is burnout on the part of the staff who are over-exposed to such problems. There has been considerable improvement in this regard in recent years, not only in respect of community welfare officers but also in respect of housing officers. They used to be part of the problem because of burnout from dealing with people who suffer from stress, but there has been an enormous improvement. While we are here to probe and criticise, we should also give praise when good work is being done. I say to the Secretary General that supplementary welfare is a safety valve in our system. Any probing we do here in that regard is not by way of questioning the validity of the system, which is excellent.

    There is also the question of our examination of the difference between the unemployment register and the quarterly household survey. I propose to bring forward the committee’s findings on that issue this day fortnight. We will adjourn consideration of both issues until then. That will mean a change in our agenda for that week. I will come back next week with proposals on the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry matter.

    The agenda for next week’s meeting on Thursday, 20 May, includes Votes 19 to 23 and Vote 33 – Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform – Appropriations Accounts 1997 (resumed) and Vote 16 – Civil Service Commission – Appropriation Accounts 1997. Is that agreed? Agreed.

    The Witnesses withdrew.

    The committee went into private session at 1.21 p.m.

    The committee adjourned at 1.22 p.m.

  5. Members Present (Deputies):
    S. Ardagh, C. Lenihan,
    M. Bell, P. McCormack
    J. Dennehy, P. Rabbitte
    B. J. Durkan,

    DEPUTY J. MITCHELL in the Chair.

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