Dáil motion on Mortgage Arrears and Social Housing
It goes without saying that unsustainable over-indebtedness is one of the most significant problems facing us today. One characteristic which has exacerbated this recession is the high level of personal debt of many people. One can observe the very human trait in many of us of ignoring a problem in the futile hope that it will go away, whether that be a health issue, a work-related issue, a relationship issue or, in this case, a financial issue. However, it is clear from experience that such problems rarely go away or sort themselves out. Instead, they grow, fester and worsen.
Unfortunately this approach was the one adopted by previous Governments with regard to the mortgage arrears crisis. Anyone who suggested that Ireland may have a problem with over-indebtedness was ignored or rebuked as a doom merchant. Anyone who raised concerns about an unsustainable property bubble was shouted down with false assurances of a soft landing ahead. This ignorance and indeed, arrogance, left the State in a much weaker position and ill-equipped to deal with the problem of over-indebtedness. When the recession’s grip took hold it was not long before the realisation suddenly dawned that a Victorian-era personal debt system was of little use or benefit in 21st century Ireland.
Since my election to this House I have obviously come into much greater contact with the legislative system, the law-making process, Oireachtas Standing Orders, procedures and so forth, none of which has been designed for speedy solutions. In fact, the legislative process can be frustratingly slow and even more so for the citizens in need. One of the most demanding challenges can be that of trying to implement change while ensuring that a system keeps functioning. However, there is no excuse for the absence of any meaningful personal insolvency legislative reform over the last decade or more. The ideal time to reform systems, such as the social welfare system for example, or legislation, is when demand is low but I suspect there is little to be gained from dwelling on this oversight now.
The Oireachtas must learn from this and I believe that the Government and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, are providing a lead by example with the radical new Personal Insolvency Bill. I also believe that this Bill, coupled with a new focused and fair approach by the financial institutions, all of whom owe their existence to Irish citizens, represents a hugely important step in addressing the mortgage arrears problem. Specifically with regard to mortgage-related debt, the new personal insolvency arrangements will be of great benefit in tackling unsustainable debt outside the court system. It is a less judicially-focused system that will, I am certain, prove to be a more consensus-based alternative to bankruptcy.
When the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, appeared before an Oireachtas committee recently I referred to an easy-to-implement system of transferring NAMA stock in lieu of unpaid development levies to try to get a social dividend for local authorities. The Minister of State said at the time that she would examine that possibility and I ask her to elaborate on that if possible. It would enable local authorities to work through their housing lists much more quickly and avoid one of the worst social problems, that of homelessness, by providing a home for those who need it.
When NAMA came into existence I was a member of a local authority and thought there would be a bonus to local authorities in terms of land banks, unfinished estates and so forth being transferred to sort out the social housing problems that exist in so many areas. In my area, due to the cost of housing and the value of land, local authorities have been unable to access affordable building land to provide social housing for those in need. I hoped at the time, and I still hope this suggestion can be considered. I ask the Minister of State to do that.