Dáil Éireann - Volume 651 - 08 April, 2008

Written Answers. - Social Welfare Benefits.

Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the status, activity and output of the working group established under Sustaining Progress to monitor the impact of changes to the rent supplement scheme in 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12804/08]

  Deputy Martin Cullen: A working group was set up under Sustaining Progress Agreement to facilitate engagement with the Social Partners in relation to certain changes made to conditions for Rent Supplement announced as part of the Government’s Spending Estimates for 2004.

The group included officials from my Department, the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, representatives of the Community and Voluntary Pillar and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. The group was chaired by an official from the Department of Taoiseach.

The terms of reference of the group were—

[456] To monitor the impact of the Rent Supplement measures announced in November 2003, with a view to identifying instances where the implementation of the measures may be causing hardship and the factors that may be leading to that outcome.

To propose and consider possible solutions to any difficulties associated with the implementation of the measures.

To produce a short report by mid-year outlining the findings and recommendations of the Working Group, for consideration by the Minister for Social and Family Affairs.

The group met on four occasions from April 2004 to June 2004 and a report was produced for consideration to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. The group concluded that the new measures which were introduced in 2004 were not having any significant, adverse impacts having regard to the design of the measures, including the operation of the appropriate levels of discretion by the Community Welfare Officers. A number of recommendations were also agreed by the group and submitted to the Minister. The agreed recommendations were—

1. There should be an integrated housing policy which caters for the housing needs of people who currently rely on rent supplement on a long-term basis.

2. Short-term income support is best met by a welfare-based approach while long-term housing needs are best met by an accommodation based approach.

3. The new measures should continue to be monitored and evaluated. Issues which arise could be addressed through the Housing Forum as provided for in Sustaining Progress.

4. There should be closer co-operation and liaison between Local Authorities and Health Boards so as to achieve the best outcome for meeting people’s accommodation needs.

5. There should be a standard approach by Local Authorities regarding the assessment of Housing Needs and common criteria for referral of cases by Health Boards to Local Authorities.

6. Consideration should be given to developing improved information and other customer services for rent supplement claimants.

7. Arrangements should be put in place to systematically record data which would help inform policy in this area, particularly in respect of applications for rent supplement which are refused and appealed as well as those which are approved.

8. The Group particularly welcomes the announcement of July 2004 of the new initiative to meet the long-term housing needs of rent supplement recipients. These new measures will refocus the rent supplement scheme on meeting short-term income needs while the local authorities will assume responsibility for long-term housing needs. The new initiative and supporting institutional arrangements provide the appropriate framework within which to implement the recommendations set out in this report.

Many of the recommendations agreed by the group have been addressed by the introduction of the Rental Accommodation Scheme which was introduced by the Government in July 2004. This gives local authorities specific responsibility for meeting the longer-term housing needs of people receiving rent supplement for 18 months or more, on a phased implementation basis. Housing authorities can meet the housing needs of these individuals through a range of [457] approaches including the traditional range of social housing options, the voluntary housing sector and, in particular, a public/private partnership type rental accommodation scheme.

Latest figures from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicate that to February 2008, local authorities have transferred some 6,172 rent supplement recipient cases to RAS units, 2,926 in the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and 3,246 in private rental accommodation. Local authorities have also transferred a further 5,808 recipients to other social housing options. The objective under RAS is that local authorities will have completed the transfer of rent supplement recipients with long-term housing needs to their care by the end of 2009.

When the new rental assistance arrangements have been fully implemented it is expected that in excess of 30,000 individuals will have transferred from the rent supplement scheme to the local authorities under the rental accommodation scheme or other social housing schemes. This will enable the rent supplement scheme to revert to its original objective, namely that of a short term income support scheme.

The programme for Government also includes commitments to reduce long-term reliance on rent supplement. This will be done mainly by keeping the standard means test for rent supplement under review to provide enhanced financial incentives for people taking up employment or other professional options and by providing long-term housing solutions under the rental accommodation scheme and otherwise.

The rent supplement means test has seen significant improvements in the meantime, with most recent improvements effective from June 2007. Where a person has additional income in excess of the standard weekly rate of supplementary welfare allowance, the first €75 of such additional income together with 25% of any additional income above €75 is disregarded for means assessment purposes. This ensures that those who participate in employment of up to 30 hours per week or in training schemes are better off as a result of taking up such an opportunity.

In addition, rent supplement may continue to be paid to a person who engages in full time employment (over 30 hours per week), subject to their satisfying the improved means testing arrangements, as outlined above, and where they have been accepted as having a long term housing need under the rental accommodation scheme.

I intend to keep the rent supplement scheme under review and my Department will be working closely with the Department of the Environment Heritage and Local Government in ensuring that RAS meets its objective of catering for those on long term rent supplementation while enabling rent supplement to return to its original role of a short-term income support.