I agree with Deputy Connolly that the title of this debate is shameful for the Oireachtas and the country. It is particularly shameful for the Minister of State and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government that there is a debate on supporting children out of emergency accommodation. Children should not be put in emergency accommodation in the first place. If it were completely necessary, it should be for a short time and then they should be rehoused into permanent and secure accommodation the following day. In the UK, there is a six-week time limit on homeless families being kept in unsuitable temporary accommodation such as hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation. In Scotland, a seven-day time limit applies.
Babies are now being born into homelessness. Focus Ireland reported recently during the launch of its Christmas appeal that 140 babies of families with which it is working were born into homelessness. Focus Ireland has seen increases in the number of families it has helped but that only 9% of the children it works with have a child support worker. I have raised this issue many times with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone. At the end of September 2019, 3,873 children were kept in emergency accommodation, of whom nearly 3,000 were in Dublin.
Many colleagues have quoted from the report from the Royal College of Physicians about the shocking impacts of homelessness on children. We have all seen it in our constituency offices. These children are fearful and shaking at the prospect of losing their homes. The Minister of State must know that too, yet he has failed to take the requisite action. The European Observatory on Homelessness referred to the shocking lack of privacy, the lack of space for children and nowhere to bring home friends. Most importantly, there is the stigmatisation that children suffer. Going to school from homeless accommodation puts an incredible burden on these children at primary and second level which I see in my constituency. Just because of the Government’s ideological background, it has failed to address this issue.
Fifteen years ago, long before this Government came into office, FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless, defined child homelessness as the most extreme form of child poverty. As Deputy Boyd Barrett rightly said, it is also a form of child abuse being practised by the Government, for which it may be held accountable many years from now. When we look across the EU, of course, we can see the situation allowed to develop in Ireland is among the worst examples of family homelessness in the 28 member states.
The most recent study from the European Observatory on Homelessness at the end of 2017 found several countries such as Denmark and Portugal with low numbers of homeless families with children. Even states like North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany and Flanders in Belgium show proportionately how much worse the levels of child and family homelessness are in Ireland. Sweden effectively has no long-term homeless children because most homeless families are found long-term accommodation almost immediately. There is the Housing First policy in Finland where its Government will not allow people to become homeless and takes direct action by creating the necessary social housing. The UK, which we resemble most and constantly copy, after nine terrible austerity years under a savage Tory Government, has been a model for the disgraceful conditions which have been allowed to develop in parallel in this country. Yet Ireland’s GDP per capita is higher than almost all of the other 27 countries. Even when we count our national income as GNI*, Ireland is still among the wealthiest countries in Europe, yet the Government has permitted 4,000 of our children to become homeless and remain in emergency accommodation for up to and over two years. The bulk of the Government’s housing solutions are based on the housing assistance payment. The delivery of social housing by the Dublin and Fingal local authorities has been at a snail’s pace.
I commend the recommendations of the housing committee’s report, including the right to housing to be enshrined in the Constitution. Our group has a Bill before the Dáil on this. The committee also recommended a statutory duty be placed on housing authorities to regard the best interests of the child as paramount.
While all the report’s key recommendations are worthwhile, the problem is that the Minister of State has no intention of implementing them. Hopefully, in the forthcoming general election we will substantially address this matter.