Right to housing should be inserted in Constitution

21 September 2017

I am on the side of those who say that enshrining such rights in the Constitution will make a difference. It will not solve all the problems but I believe it will make a difference, and I am not alone in that. Other Members have referred to the eighth report of the Constitutional Convention which recommended this back in 2014, as has the Mercy Law Centre and several academics, including Mary Murphy and Rory Hearne of NUI Maynooth and Gerry Whyte of Trinity College Dublin. I recently attended a conference in Trinity College which was organised by Independent Senator Collette Kelleher, the Simon Community and the Mercy Law Centre. It specifically addressed enshrining the right to housing in the Constitution. Another organisation whose opinion should carry weight is the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission which says in its publication, The Provision of Emergency Accommodation to Families Experiencing Homelessness:

The Commission notes the commitment in the Programme for a Partnership Government to refer the Eighth Report of the Constitutional Convention, which recommends the constitutional recognition of right to housing, to an Oireachtas Committee. The Commission is of the view that socio-economic rights, including the right to housing, should be enshrined in the Constitution of Ireland.

It also quotes, as have others, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which Ireland ratified in 1990.

Mary Murphy made a very interesting point at the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government this morning in the context of competing rights in the Constitution were the right to housing to be added as there is also the right to private property and issues involving the common good and so on. However, she said that adding it to the Constitution would be to give a policy direction which would hold sway. She also brought up a point raised by Deputy Ellis regarding the possibility that the Government might be able to challenge the fiscal rules if it needed money for building houses. She suggested that Germany has done so previously. There are very good, solid reasons a constitutional right would make a difference.

It would also strengthen the hand of Government in several ways. I welcome that the Minister has asked about compulsory purchase orders and is seeking legal advice in that regard concerning vacant homes. It would strengthen the Government’s hand in that regard if there were a constitutional right to a home. It would also strengthen the idea of having a vacant homes tax, the vacant sites levy, which will retrospectively come in at the beginning of next year, and also, as the Labour Party has proposed by way of legislation, the implementation of the Kenny report to control the cost of building land and to stop developers from hoarding land. All these measures would be strengthened if there were a constitutional right to a home. It is not a panacea, as has been said, but it would very much strengthen the hand of the State in those kinds of ways.

In regard to the more than 700 sites that are publicly owned, most of them by local authorities, if there were a constitutional right to housing, it would help with the bureaucracy referenced by Deputy MacSharry in terms of making these things move more quickly. Members have discussed these sites with the previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, in the House and the need to make things happen quickly. A letter I recently received from my local authority suggests it will take a long time for them to be developed. I agree with those who have called for an affordable housing scheme in order that local authorities can at least move on those sites. However, all these things would make local authorities and the Department move much more quickly in terms of addressing these bureaucratic issues and the interminable amount of time it seems to take to get from the idea of doing something to doing it. For all these reasons, I believe it would be effective.

The children’s rights referendum added a provision to the Constitution under the previous Government which is making a difference to the lives of children. It did not in itself make a difference straight away, but it has brought about actions that have since improved the lives of children. On behalf of the Labour Party, I published the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill which I hope to be able to get some Private Members’ time to introduce in the House. I introduced it on First Stage. It aims to implement that constitutional right for children who are homeless and to have their position within the family dealt with in order that they will not be sent to Garda stations when there is nowhere for them to go. Constitutional provision strengthens action and make things happen, perhaps not immediately but over time and in terms of policies and priorities.

Deputy Quinlivan raised the issue of rent pressure zones and the fact that Limerick has again been left out, as has Waterford. Good luck to Drogheda and Greystones on being included. Members have heard about rent pressure zones and whether they are working, but there would be some chance of it working in Limerick if there were one there. Rents in Limerick increased by over 12% in 2016 and it is still excluded from the rent pressure zones. When the previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, introduced that legislation, I said that the formula being used was inadequate, especially in regard to the use of local electoral areas. It does not work in certain areas. I urge the Minister, Deputy Murphy, to re-examine that.

It is not fair that certain parts of the country that are experiencing significant rent hikes and pressure on families are excluded from the rent pressure zones. It is not the ideal solution. I would have much preferred, as would others here, to have seen rent increases linked to the consumer price index but it is what we have so let us see it being fair around the country. We are happy to support the Bill. It is disappointing that it is not being supported by the two largest parties here. It has been adequately examined by a variety of bodies and does not need to be debated further by a committee. We should pass the Bill here this evening.

At the conference I attended, one of the strongest and most convincing speeches was made by Kitty Holland of The Irish Times, about children living in hotels and how their lives were thwarted by not having a home. They have nowhere to play, nowhere to do homework, they cannot bring their friends in, they are frightened, they are told to be quiet, and they cannot run around the place. This concerns the lives of real people as many have said tonight. It is a serious issue and underpinning it in the Constitution would help address the issues that face so many of our fellow citizens.

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