Dáil Éireann - Volume 565 - 10 April, 2003
Adjournment Debate. - Health Board Allowances.
Ms Harkin Ms Harkin
Ms Harkin: The Social Welfare (Consolidated Supplementary Welfare Allowance) (Amendment) (No. 1) Regulations 2002 set out the maximum amount of rent in respect of which a supplement is payable for the period commencing 22 November 2002 and ending 31 December 2003. This amount is determined by the local health board. The rent allowance currently offered by the North-Western Health Board, the lowest in the country, is totally unrealistic. The maximum allowance in the North-Western Health Board area for a single person is €77 per week. The equivalent figure in the Eastern Regional Health Authority area is €107 and just across the border in County Mayo, in the western region, the figure is €115 per week.
The maximum allowance in the North-Western Health Board area for a couple with one child or a one parent family is €115 per week. In the Midland Health Board area, which covers County Roscommon, again just across the border, the figure is €140 per week. In the Western Health Board area, the maximum allowance is €175 per week, while the figure in the Eastern Region Health Authority area is €225 per week. As the Minister of State will have gathered, the rates allowable in the North-Western Health Board Area are ridiculously low and are causing serious and even insurmountable problems for those who find themselves caught in this position.
A recent survey of landlords and auctioneers in Sligo indicates that a one bedroom apartment costs approximately €127 per week in the town, but a single person or a couple with one child has available to them just €77 and €115 per week respectively. This means that they simply cannot access accommodation in Sligo town. The average cost of a two bedroom apartment in the town is €170 per week, but the maximum amount available to a couple with three children is €153. Again, this is totally unacceptable.
I have in my possession a letter from the Department of Social and Family Affairs, dated 25 March 2003, which was sent to Sligo Social Services Council and states: “The Department is not aware of any case where the introduction of the new Regulations has resulted in individuals being made homeless.” I can state categorically that two cases today presented to Sligo social services as homeless because they could not access  adequate accommodation at the rent supplement levels provided. They will spend tonight in temporary hostel accommodation.
As the Minister of State is probably aware, Sligo social services acts on an agency basis for Sligo Corporation in responding to cases of homelessness. It has confirmed to me today that a significant number of people – its phrase, not mine – have presented to Sligo social services as homeless because they are unable to find accommodation in Sligo town at the levels provided for by the health board.
The letter from the Department also states that data from the CSO indicates that rent levels in the private sector have continued to fall. This data means nothing to the two people who presented as homeless to Sligo social services today – who will be accommodated tonight in temporary hostel accommodation – nor will it mean anything to the couple who came to my clinic some three or four weeks ago. They are renting a house in Sligo which is to be sold and this means that they will have to move at the end of June when their son completes his leaving certificate. They will be allowed to spend €115 on accommodation and will simply not be able to find any reasonable accommodation in Sligo for a figure even close to that.
I ask that the Minister review the rates used by the North-Western Health Board or requests that the health board does so. If he waits until the end of December, it will cause untold hardship and real anxiety for many people who need to rent accommodation. As he and I are both aware, those who find themselves in this position are often very vulnerable.
Mr. B. Lenihan Mr. B. Lenihan
Mr. B. Lenihan: I reply to the matter raised by Deputy Harkin on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Coughlan.
The supplementary welfare allowance rent supplement scheme is payable to people receiving social welfare payments and aims to ensure that applicants pay reasonable rents for their accommodation. The rent supplement scheme is administered on behalf of the Department by the health boards and provides for the payment of a weekly or monthly supplement in respect of rent to eligible persons in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation needs.
As individual health boards are in touch with local market forces, they set the limits on the amount of rent per week or month. Payment is subject to certain conditions, one of which relates to the amount of rent an applicant may incur. Each health board is required to set maximum rent levels for different categories of person, for example, single persons, one parent families and couples with children. The limits are set by reference to local property considerations within the board's functional area.
The requirement for individuals to find accommodation appropriate to their circumstances, within the rent limits set by the health board, is a  standard requirement of the scheme which has not been changed. The level of rent a person may incur and the amount of supplement payable towards that rent has always been subject to limits. The provision whereby rent supplement is not payable in cases where rent exceeds the appropriate maximum level is not new, although it is now set out in regulations for the first time.
Rent supplements are normally calculated to ensure that a person, after the payment of rent, has an income equal to the rate of social welfare allowance appropriate to his or her family circumstances, less a minimum contribution of €12 which recipients are required to pay from their own resources. The reason rent supplement is not normally payable where the amount of rent being sought exceeds the health board's appropriate limit is that to do so would leave a person, after payment of rent, with an inadequate income to meet his or her basic needs.
The new regulations do not rescind the discretion allowed to health boards to deal with exceptional cases. The legislation governing the payment of rent supplement allows health boards to exceed their limits in cases where, in the opinion of the board, there are exceptional circumstances. The primary purpose of the new regulations introduced in November 2002 was to maintain the maximum rent levels, as set by the health boards at their current rates until the end of December 2003.
The data provided by the Central Statistics Office, to which the Deputy referred, showed that rent levels in the private rented sector had been stable for some time and had actually fallen. I accept the Deputy's point that the circumstances in particular regions can vary. The purpose of health boards is to reflect and respond to such circumstances. More recent data from the CSO indicates that this trend is continuing. Accordingly, there is no need for health boards to set higher levels of maximum rents for the purpose of the rent supplement scheme.
The new regulations have not curtailed access to rent supplement. In this regard, on the day the regulations were introduced, namely, 22 November 2002, there were 52,855 rent supplements in payment. This figure has risen to the extent that, as of 4 April this year, there were 57,113 rent supplements in payment.
The effects of the regulations are being monitored on an ongoing basis by the Department. Health boards are required to notify the Department of instances where supplements are put in payment in cases where exceptional circumstances are involved. Since the new regulations were introduced, 46 such cases have been notified to the Department and in each case the health board in question decided to pay a supplement above the maximum level as an exceptional measure. All aspects of the current system of rent supplement are being reviewed in the context of a review of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme currently under way in the Department.
The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 April 2003.
Dáil Éireann 565 Adjournment Debate. Health Board Allowances.