Controversial Housing Agency chairman defends comments at Dáil Committee

Outgoing Housing Agency chairman Conor Skehan is facing fresh calls to resign immediately after staunchly defending his claims some homeless people are "gaming the system" and that record Irish homeless rates are "normal" by international standards, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

Opposition parties and campaign groups repeated their calls for Mr Skehan to step down immediately instead of his due departure in the coming months after he attended a divisive Oireachtas housing committee meeting about his remarks.

In a detailed interview in late December, Mr Skehan said some people may be "gaming the system" by pretending to be homeless in order to receive a local authority home quicker, and said the homelessness situation is "normal" when compared to other countries.

The comments led to an outcry in recent weeks, with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy forced to disassociate himself from the claims in early January and Mr Skehan being ordered to attend yesterday's housing committee meeting to explain his views.

However, despite an expectation Mr Skehan would apologise for the hurt and distress caused by the remarks, the outgoing Housing Agency chairman instead repeated his views.

Despite having no substantial research to support what he said, he faced down Opposition criticism by saying he meant some people "may" be "gaming the system", pointed to anecdotal evidence on Twitter to support his claims, and said Ireland should be "proud" the situation is not as bad as cities in continental Europe or the US.

"I stand over comments that there appears to be a body of evidence that's taking place, and I'm saying to you as responsible committee you should investigate this.

"I said there may be an issue and that should be investigated... I said homelessness is a dreadful thing to befall anyone, but we must know it happens everywhere in the world. That's what normal means," Mr Skehan told the committee when asked by Independent senator Victor Boyhan if he is "still fit to stay in office" after the controversy.

Asked by Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin O Broin if he had "crossed the line", Mr Skehan said he is "chairman of the Housing Agency board, not a member of staff, my role is to challenge", before adding people need to "look harder" at the facts.

Asked for those facts by Mr O Broin, Fianna Fáil housing spokesperson Barry Cowen and Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry - the latter of whom also said Mr Skehan should resign immediately - the Housing Agency chairman referenced a small number of cases and quoted remarks on Twitter.

He later confirmed he did not ask officials to conduct detailed research into claims some people are "gaming the system" before making the remarks, but rejected criticism he was wrong to speak out and said the debate "is too important to be fed by anecdotes".

Mr Skehan also quoted homeless campaigners Peter McVerry and David Hall to support his claims some people may be "gaming the system".

However, Mr Hall told the Irish Examiner his view was misinterpreted and that "I did not and do not support his claims which are unevidenced".

A number of homeless groups have said Mr Skehan should resign immediately instead of remain in position for the coming months before he is replaced later this year.

- Irish Examiner

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