The Government Minister responsible for older people said she has “genuine concerns” about a new measure aimed at freeing up more homes to rent by allowing nursing home residents keep all rental income on their homes.
Fianna Fáil Minister for Older People Mary Butler said she was concerned about the “unintended consequences” of the move and questioned whether it would actually increase the number of properties becoming available to rent to ease the housing crisis as intended.
Ms Butler said she wanted to ensure there were “no unintended consequences” that might lead to “premature entry into a nursing home” or that any older people “might be frightened at the moment thinking that they may have to go into a nursing home to free up their home”.
Advocacy groups representing older people expressed concern about the Government measure, saying that older people would be put at risk of financial abuse by the rental scheme when there were no adequate supports or safeguarding measures in place to protect them.
The Government announced plans on Wednesday to allow residents in nursing homes to keep 100 per cent of the rental income from their homes under the Fair Deal subsidy scheme. By increasing the incentive, the Government aims to free up more vacant homes for the rental market.
Residents can currently retain 60 per cent of the income from renting out their homes with 40 per cent going toward the cost of their care under the State’s €1.4 billion-a-year scheme.
The change was a key part of the Government deal struck with the group of rural Independent TDs to shore up support as the Coalition resisted a Sinn Féin vote to extend the evictions ban.
Ms Butler told RTÉ’s News At One that just 24 houses had come up for rental since the Fair Deal was changed in November to allow nursing residents keep more of the rental income from their home, increasing the share they could retain from 20 per cent to 60 per cent.
“There’s a myriad of reasons why people go into a nursing home and renting out their houses would not be their top priority,” the Fianna Fáil Minister of State said.
The Minister said properties in some cases could be “in poor condition” and “not suitable for rental” and that people were often in nursing homes for only short periods with their homes eventually “caught up” in wills and probates and not available to be rented out.
Ms Butler said she was “disappointed” she had not been consulted by her Government colleagues in advance on the decision being made.
“Maybe the unintended consequences weren’t given due diligence in respect of the potential changes,” she said.
She said she would meet her Fianna Fáil colleague, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, later on Thursday to express her reservations about the Government plan.
“I don’t raise these issues lightly because I have genuine concerns,” she said.
The Minister said she hoped the measure would be delayed until a six-month review of the last changes to the Fair Deal scheme in November were assessed.
Sage Advocacy, a support group for older and vulnerable people, said it was concerned that older people and their care in nursing homes were being used “as a political football as part of the wider debate about freeing up houses in response to the ongoing housing crisis”.
The charity challenged the view among public representatives that there was a “large stock of empty housing” belonging to older people that could be made immediately available to rent.
It raised concerns about “perverse incentives” that can arise and how some older people find they have been “shoehorned” into a nursing home after a period in an acute hospital.
“A key family member providing an element of care at home, usually an adult child and sometimes a spouse, who refuses to take a relative home, can effectively take possession of a property, dispose of their belongings and then rent it to their advantage,” the group said.
Some older people can be “effectively forced into nursing homes” because “there is an unwillingness to consider anything other than nursing home care,” the charity said.
Age Action, another charity representing older people, said they would be “put at risk of financial abuse” from the new measure “because appropriate supports and safeguarding measures are not in place”.
“Insufficient consideration has been given to ensure the rights of older people are protected,” said the charity, pointing to the more than 800 cases of financial abuse recorded by the Health Service Executive, with family members often accused of the abuse.