Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 16 April 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Private Residential Tenancies Board: Discussion with Chairperson Designate
I welcome Ms Caitríona Walsh, chairperson designate of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, for a discussion on her future role. I draw to her attention the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise Ms Walsh that the opening statement and any other documents she has submitted to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Before inviting Ms Walsh to commence her presentation, I would like to make the following comments. The continuing inability of people to buy homes in the current climate goes against the trend of our history. Irish people have always aspired to owning their own homes, but this seems to be no longer possible for the vast majority of people in the generation coming up. Accordingly, the private rental market is becoming more important and we need to ensure it operates effectively and fairly. We need to ensure the interests of tenants and landlords are protected and that good quality accommodation is provided at an affordable price. We also need to ensure landlords are remunerated sufficiently to allow them to maintain their properties to a high standard in the long term. Given our current economic problems, this presents many challenges and I am interested in hearing Ms Walsh's views on how the interests of both tenants and landlords can be protected. I invite her to address the committee.
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
I provided a submission last week and presume it has been circulated to members. Rather than read it verbatim, I propose to paraphrase it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to appear before the joint committee in my capacity as chairperson designate of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. I will begin by outlining my career to date. I am a solicitor in a firm in Wexford called Ensor O'Connor. We operate a general practice in Wexford, with offices in Enniscorthy and Wexford. We are a general legal practitioner service provider and in these challenging times are considered to be a large practice in the south east. We have approximately 24 staff, with four partners, including me, and a new salaried partner coming on board. I have been a solicitor for more than 17 years and a partner in Ensor O'Connor since 2002. My area of expertise covers the District Court. I am a District Court prosecutor and practitioner.
I will outline what this means for me.
We deal with many public authorities. I am prosecutor for Wexford County Council and Gorey and Enniscorthy town councils. That implies I have wide-ranging and varied expertise and experience. My local authority role is as a prosecutor in the District Court. I deal with issues such as housing, including applications for possession, the collection of rent arrears and debt collection. I prosecute for the local authority in the area of planning. Therefore, I deal with planning enforcement prosecutions. Obviously, I deal with appeals and provide advice on these prosecutions. I also deal with any other matter that might come before the District Court in regard to planning.
With regard to the environment section, I carry out prosecutions in the area of waste management and water pollution. Many prosecutions pertain to litter pollution and associated elements. More recently, we have carried out quite a number of prosecutions under the Water Services Act 2007.
With regard to finance, I carry out prosecutions regarding commercial rates and engage in seeking warrants in respect of commercial water rates. I deal with a very extensive area in respect of local authorities. The cases are all related to the District Court and I am generally prosecuting on behalf of the local authority.
Recently I was appointed as one of the solicitors to prosecute for the National Educational Welfare Board in Wexford. Cases pertain to children who are not attending school. The children's parents are prosecuted. I am also the solicitor in Wexford for Inland Fisheries Ireland and carry out prosecutions for it. The matters are very specific, unless one is a fisherman. Much expertise is needed, given the detail involved.
The other major task I carry out in the District Court is acting for the Health Service Executive. I carry out all of its prosecutions in respect of tobacco. I carry out food regulation prosecutions and other prosecutions of this nature. Most important for the Health Service Executive, I am its child protection expert in the District Court in Wexford. I do all of its child protection work. In addition, I engage in criminal defence work in the District Court, the Circuit Court and the Court of Criminal Appeal. I do licensing, family law and civil work. The list is exhaustive with regard to the District Court.
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
My days in the District Court are very busy and varied. Much general litigation experience is required, in addition to a high level of understanding of legislation and its interpretation. It is a matter of presenting cases to the District Court judges and trying to do the very best for my clients. That is what I have been doing since 2000. I am one of the main people in the District Court because I am there quite a lot, given the nature of the work I do.
Although the Private Residential Tenancies Board might seem like a world apart, it runs in train with the work I do. The board is a statutory body that was set up in 2004 and has a number of functions. It registers tenancies and tries to regulate them between landlords and tenants. It also has a dispute resolution service which is very broadly based on the court system. It provides advice for the Government on questions of policy or questions the Government might have on the private rental sector.
I am chairperson designate and awaiting formal approval. My role in regard to the Private Residential Tenancies Board is to try to gather as much information as possible and examine the challenges it faces. I agree with the Vice Chairman that the challenges are numerous and increasing every day.
Let me outline the key points of importance in regard to the Private Residential Tenancies Board. First, the dispute resolution service is broadly based on the court system. When there is a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, it proceeds to an adjudicator or, I hope, mediation, with which everyone, even those in the court process, agrees. Mediation is the most important process. An adjudicator comes next. The adjudicator makes a decision which is appealable to a tribunal of three who make the ultimate decision. After that, it is a little like an appeal from the District Court to the Circuit Court. One is appealing on a point of law to the High Court.
The dispute resolution service is important. It is important in that it affords time to people. My experience in the District Court is that while people might complain about the decision made, it is important that they are heard and that time is allowed to hear them. They should have the opportunity to say exactly what they want to say to put all their points across. They ought to believe they are being heard and that a decision will ultimately be made. Unfortunately, this means it takes quite a bit of time to get through cases in the dispute resolution service if one is going to try to provide people with that opportunity.
Resources are a particular issue for the Private Residential Tenancies Board, particularly in these challenging times. It has been self-financing for the past year or two. This is to be welcomed, but it obviously brings its own challenges. It is a public body and its staff numbers are decreasing every year. My understanding from reading the literature is that the number of staff dropped from a high of 70, possibly in 2010, to 54. I understand that under the programme for Government and the Croke Park agreement, the staff number will have to be reduced to 33. This is certainly reflected across private industry. I found the Private Residential Tenancies Board's reaction to be positive. It wishes to comply with Government policy and has made a serious investment in information technology in recent years. The tenancy-management registration system went online in the middle of last year. One hopes to see the long-term effects of the information technology being rolled out in the next few years. One hopes serious investment will in some way redress the balance following the loss of administration staff. Nowadays, everyone seems to have an online presence, be it through the purchasing of insurance or otherwise. It is hoped landlords will register online and that the bulk of the dispute resolution service can be offered online. It is hoped this will reduce waiting times.
There have been significant delays associated with the dispute resolution service and there seem to be delays at present. From what I can gather, there are delays in the region of ten or 11 months. In the case of an appeal, one is talking about three months. I understand there is a facility in place to deal with urgent cases much more quickly. However, the information suggests this means a figure of approximately five months, which is reflected across the board. I was in the District Court in February looking for a hearing date for a contested criminal case and given a date in October. All of the sectors that deal with this work are stretched.
I hope there is something I can bring from my experience in the District Court and the way in which I see cases being managed in the District Court system to do something to alleviate this problem or reduce the delays somewhat. It will be a bit of an ask, but it is necessary because, ultimately, the Private Residential Tenancies Board is all about providing a service. The whole point of establishing the board in 2004 was to provide a more speedy, effective and cheap service than was available on the market at the time.
These are the challenges I will be facing. Mine is a very challenging role. As the Vice Chairman said, the subject is very topical. People seem to be renting more and buying less, which puts stress on the service. Another is the Bill going through, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012, which will bring the bulk of the voluntary housing bodies within the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. However, some of them are excluded.
There is a suggestion in the literature that I have seen that this will mean another 20,000 tenancies coming under the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. That obviously will present challenges. I hope the full roll-out of the information technology that is being introduced will be a short-term expense for a long-term gain. My experience in the District Court in which I have had to deal with all the different things that can be thrown up will, I hope be helpful in my role as chairperson designate of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. Obviously my appointment is subject to formal approval. I think there seems to be a good system and it is a question of trying to get the very best from the existing resources. The management team led by Ms Anne Marie Caulfield seems to be progressive. I look forward to working with them. I am glad to see that problems arising from IT difficulties have been addressed and I hope we will see the benefits of the implementation of the new technology. In the private sector, investment in technology is a means to stretch out staff resources.
I am interested in the challenging role of chairperson of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, subject to formal approval. I hope to bring my skills set to the role.
I thank Ms Walsh for her opening remarks on this challenging role. As she is experienced in prosecuting, I would want to be careful about what I say. Of all the prosecutions mentioned by Ms Walsh, will she address the issue of tenants' anti-social behaviour, and the impact on others of the neighbours from hell?
I thank Ms Walsh for her presentation, which was forwarded to members last week. The manner in which Ms Walsh carried out her wide ranging duties in the District Court system is commendable. It would appear that her skills set is a fit for what is required in this new role. I wish to signal that I will not be present to hear the answers to my questions, but I will be able to consult the record later.
The advancements made in the registrations systems are welcome and the system appears to be running quite smoothly. The format to achieve a resolution to disputes has been addressed. The representations that I receive on a regular basis are from landlords and not from tenants. Landlords express their frustrations at the length of time they must engage in the process and the powers to enforce decisions seem limited, but perhaps I am wrong in that regard. I hope that Ms Walsh will appear before us following a period of six months in office and then give us her feedback on how legislation might be improved to address the concerns about the resolution of disputes.
The voluntary housing sector will be coming under the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board. It has now been confirmed that the registrations costs will not be an issue for those bodies. Ms Walsh placed the emphasis on the administration of the Private Residential Tenancies Board being cost neutral, which is commendable, but if this results in citizens being let down by virtue of cost, we need to know, and should the necessary improvements cost money, the funds should be sought from Government.
I thank Ms Walsh for her presentation. She has extensive experience at District Court level. The major issue of concern is that the workload of the Private Residential Tenancies Board has mushroomed in recent years, given the explosion in the number of registered private rented tenancies in addition to the 20,000 from the voluntary housing sector. I can remember a time when only a small percentage of private rented accommodation was registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. Given that the Private Residential Tenancies Board had a staff of 70 in the noughties, but by the end of this year the number will be down to 33, how will that be squared?
I am sure the developments in information technology will be of benefit, but the increase in the caseload will be significant and I wonder how that will be addressed?
Deputy Cowen mentioned that he receives representations from landlords, whereas I have some representations from landlords but the overwhelming number would be from tenants. There are good tenants and good landlords but there are also examples of bad landlords and tenants. The withholding of deposits is an issue that never seems to be resolved. We need a more speedy mechanism to deal with such disputes because the person needs to have his or her deposit returned in order to move to other accommodation. Landlords may terminate a tenancy when they are selling the property, but the tenant needs to have his or her deposit returned to move on.
The question of repairs has not been a major issue because the landlord had new housing stock but it is now starting to become an issue because much of the property was not built very well. The heating system in private rented accommodation can be a major issue. In general, many who are in private rented accommodation are on low incomes and one would want to be printing money to keep the expensive electric heating on. Landlords have made little or no attempt to improve the insulation of the building. Does Ms Walsh see that having a slot meter for electricity is an area that must be addressed? I see the use of slot meters as a means on occasions of extracting another cash source for the landlord, in other words, the tenant may have had to pay €100 for €50 worth of electricity.
The issue of anti-social activity has been raised. We do not hear about the successful tenancies but only the minority that cause problems. Anti-social behaviour can cause difficulties for other tenants in the middle of an estate. We had a situation in which we had to tell a landlord we would picket his house or the shopfront of the agency that had let the property to a heroin dealer as this was the only way we could address the problem.
A retired gentleman who lived in Dublin bought the houses down the country. It did not matter much to him what happened to these properties in County Laois but it mattered to the elderly neighbours who live there. Picketing was the only way we could get action on the matter. I know I have highlighted an extreme case. Serious anti-social activity is difficult to resolve for people who live in a housing estate but it is even worse for anyone living in an apartment complex. The problem will be bounced between the local authority, the Garda and the board. At the end of the day the matter will be returned to the board because the Garda will say it can only intervene if there has been a disturbance of the peace and in very specific instances. Tenants are reluctant to come forward to complain because a crowd of heavies may live next door or in an apartment overhead. There needs to be a more effective means to resolve the matter. The landlord has a list of tenancy obligations, and the 2004 Act contains one line stating that it is the landlord's obligation to enforce the tenant's obligations. I always use that provision.
I cannot see the board being able to do its job with just over 30 people. They would have to be superhuman to do the job. One of the first cases that the board must undertake, which the committee should support, is to approach the Minister for increased resources.
I thank Ms Walsh for her opening remarks and for the information she gave us prior to the meeting today.
I shall pick up on the point made about the 33 staff. Obviously the board is not a private company and there is a mountain of work to be done. The one thing that the board must have is authority. People must be confident that if they approach the board their issue can be remedied in a reasonable period. Mediation is as time-consuming as court action and sometimes more so.
I presume that Ms Walsh's role is full-time and I seek confirmation of that. With regard to the merger of the PRTB and the Rent Tribunal, does she see any conflict? Has the matter been sorted? I understand the merger has taken place.
In my experience, constituents from all sides of the debate, whether they are landlords, tenants or neighbours, will approach me with issues. Frequently, neighbours will contact me about anti-social behaviour rather than the landlord or tenant. That is how the problem presents itself in the first place. I tend to advise my constituents about the PRTB remedy, although I give a health warning that there are long delays of ten months, a year or whatever. Many of my constituents will decide not to avail of the PRTB option because they cannot put up with the anti-social behaviour for such a long period. The delay is untenable. I do not think we can just take account of the length of time it takes at present. We must factor in the complaints that do not reach the board because of people bypassing it or availing of other options to remedy the matter, which sometimes include court options. The aim of establishing the PRTB was to avoid court options. It is important to remember that when considering the staff issue. One can do so much with IT. New technology is good for collection and administration but it will not solve the problem. Very often a human approach is needed, such as mediation, in order to resolve the problem.
New housing associations will be included, but they come in every variety because of the way they have been set up. Their inclusion will not be straightforward. Complaints by housing associations can differ greatly from those in the private market. Some housing associations take a firm hands-on approach with their tenants. A difficulty arises for other associations because the sector has been almost under-regulated. NAMA will also play a role, as some of its properties will end up being let. Obviously NAMA is looking at housing associations as a vehicle to administer those and the number that Ms Walsh mentioned could grow rapidly. It is important that we mark the provision as creating a new demand when considering the voluntary housing associations that will be included. We do not know how many will be added to the system. I would prefer if they joined rather than letting houses lie empty. I would also prefer that we did not have such a high number of people who are wholly dependant on rent supplement, RAS or whatever.
With regard to rent assistance, when Threshold conducted an analysis not so long ago, 61% of its clients reported that landlords had sought rent top-ups. Is that in the PRTB's bailiwick? Landlords are not supposed to seek top-ups but the research proves that rent assistance is below market rent and people have struggled to get accommodation for that amount. The findings throw light on another issue. Very often, when rent assistance is provided we have a body of law to protect people in private rental accommodation. Obviously, the longer a tenant resides in accommodation the greater his or her rights. The Department of Social Protection is undermining some of those rights by asking people, within the timeframe of a contract, to negotiate rent downwards. At the beginning of the year people might be told they can have €800 for a three-bedroom house in a designated place and the tenant must pay a portion of it. Tenants have rights in terms of not breaking the contract and an expectation that landlords will deal with them in a particular way. Six months later, the Department of Social Protection may tell a tenant to reduce his or her rent to €700. That is a serious conflict of interest. Tenants have tenancy rights which are being breached by the Government. That is the kind of issue that does not come to the fore. I am curious as to how the board will handle the matter. I have witnessed it happen quite a lot. Will the board be able to comment on rent control in the future? Can the board provide solutions? Does Ms Walsh see the PRTB as playing a role in resolving disputes? A multi-agency approach is the only way to deal with some disputes, particularly in cases of anti-social behaviour. For example, Deputy Stanley mentioned a case which obviously involved a drug issue. There may be other issues that will require a multi-agency approach in order to resolve a dispute. I would like to hear the views of Ms Walsh.
Finally, the retention of deposits has led to delays.
I am aware some changes will be made. Ms Walsh might address the deposit retention issue, because it absorbs a huge amount of the time of the PRTB.
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
I was not sure whether I should deal with them point by point or by way of summary. The common thread in the members' questions is that anti-social behaviour is a major issue for people. It is very easy for me to give the standard response, which is that the Garda has a role in that, but the members said that if one makes a complaint the gardaí will probably say one must contact the PRTB or send one somewhere else. In fairness, they have extensive powers under the Public Order Acts to deal with criminal damage or the problems we hear about such as people littering gardens and causing foul smells. I know that anti-social behaviour involves much more than that but it might even be somebody living next door not having the enjoyment of their own property. If they are creative about it, local authorities can do something about litter pollution, but the Deputy is right in saying that the PRTB has a role in that regard. The difficulty with anti-social behaviour is that it is across the board. Local authorities have the same problems in dealing with anti-social behaviour. The behaviour exhibited can be threatening to people. It can put them in fear and therefore people may have difficulty in reporting it or saying what they want to say about it.
The Deputy is right. From what I can see in the literature, the PRTB deals with the problem by saying it is primarily the landlord's responsibility to regulate his or her tenancy properly and to ensure that tenancy is operated under the terms of the legislation and the law. That is fine and dandy if someone has a proactive landlord but, as the Deputy said, if someone has a landlord who does not want to know he or she has a difficulty.
There is a facility in the PRTB whereby if the landlord will not do anything about the problem third parties can make an application to the PRTB. From what I have seen in the past 12 months, there was a very successful outcome in Cork. The reason it was successful is that a band of residents got together, rather than being a lone voice in the wilderness, and made a complaint to the PRTB. That complaint was followed up by the PRTB, it was determined through the courts, and the residents received compensation for the failure of the landlord to act. That is something people should be thinking about also. There is safety in numbers, but I agree it is an issue. From what I have seen, the PRTB looks on anti-social behaviour as one of the dispute resolutions that must be fast-tracked, but the Deputy is right in that fast-tracking appears to take about five months. Five months is a long time for somebody who is suffering from anti-social behaviour. I agree it is an issue that needs to be examined.
There are common threads in what the Deputies said. The second concerns the deposit retention issue. There has been much talk about that. The Minister commissioned research to be done on it. A report was commissioned, which I believe was published at the end of the year, and it provides certain solutions to the deposit retention problem. I understand what the Deputy is saying. It appears to me from the figures that the bulk of the work of the PRTB - or the residential tenancy board, as it will be called - involves deposit retention issues, but I do not think it has progressed any further than that. Suggestions have been made for dealing with that, ranging from the Rolls Royce suggestion, which would have a huge amount of Exchequer support, to other systems, but as far as I can see that is still in the mix.
The Deputy is right that the workload has mushroomed. The board is considering outsourcing some of the common services, such as registration of tenancies. It is outsourcing that to allow it to concentrate on the most important issues. It is a question of selecting the most important issue and focusing on that. I understand that is an issue for people.
Regarding the point about the Department of Social Protection asking tenants to renegotiate rents, I did not know that, and from what I can see of the rules of the PRTB and the legislation, rents cannot be increased or decreased without notice to the tenant, but if the Department of Social Protection is reducing the amounts, that leaves tenants in a vulnerable position.
Deputy Stanley spoke about repairs. My understanding is that 80% of the tenancy fees that come in for landlords registering tenancies go to the PRTB, with 20% going to the local authority. That specifically relates to monitoring and inspecting properties. My understanding is that that is being done.
On the issue of topping up rents, approximately 100,000 households are on local authority housing waiting lists and I would put money on it that for a fair chunk of those, the rent ceiling, which for many categories in my area would be-----
People put down on paper that the rent is €120, but I am aware - as is everybody here, because we see it every day - that their rent is actually €130, €140 or €150. They are paying that differential out of their own pockets, on top of the minimum contribution of up to €50 for a couple. In many cases they are paying that out of the lowest social welfare payment, namely, supplementary welfare allowance.
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
Deputy Murphy referred to my role not being full-time. I have been asked to become chairperson designate, subject to the formal approval of the PRTB. It is not a full-time role. The chairperson is a part-time role. The directorate that runs the PRTB - Anne Marie Caulfield and her team - are full-time. My role is more to oversee the PRTB, organise the board and deal with the issues members have highlighted, which are relevant.
-----to be on the other end of the process. I will be specific because when members do not keep to the issues it is difficult to get answers to questions.
Ms Walsh has a wide employment history, from repossessions to child protection. She was quite successful in 2004 in the area of environmental health with the pizza restaurant case. It is not always easy to win such cases. She has wide experience in that area and I can understand where her expertise comes in regarding dispute resolution, on which she concentrated a good deal in her contribution, but as the Chairman outlined at the outset, with the changes in Irish society, we are looking at the cost of rental accommodation in the Dublin region doubling over a short period. Thirty-seven percent of accommodation in Galway is rental accommodation, and therefore this will be a strategic role for the next decade.
What is Ms Walsh's experience on other boards? I do not see that anywhere in the curriculum vitae. She mentioned in the documentation the importance of her role as chair, but what experience has she had on boards? Has she had experience of chairing other boards either in the private or the public sector?
Ms Walsh's experience is mainly within the courts. What attracted her to apply for the position in the Private Residential Tenancies Board?
It is very specific and I do not see anything in her curriculum vitae that would attract Ms Walsh to the position. I wonder, therefore, what encouraged her to apply. She touched on questions of policy. Policy and strategic thinking are a more important role of the board than dispute resolution. The deposit retention scheme which represents just under 50% of the board's work was touched on very briefly. I am different from Deputy Cowen in that it is tenants who come to me rather than landlords. In the last 15 years one landlord has approached me, while the rest have been tenants. Even where a tenant wins a case, he or she does not seem to get his or her €700 back. Some would say that is an impact on the individual tenant, but the State, in many cases, has provided the deposit. If one looks at the accounts, there is no record of a deposit having been returned in recent years to the Department of Social Protection. Obviously, quite a number of landlords are holding on to deposits.
Yes. The money never comes back into the system. Does Ms Walsh agree, from a strategic perspective, that there is a strong need for a deposit retention scheme administered by her board?
Ms Walsh touched on the voluntary housing sector which has had in the last decade a growing involvement in the provision of social housing. She mentioned a figure of approximately 20,000. Social housing will probably be financed through the voluntary housing sector during the next decade. How strategically has Ms Walsh been thinking in that context and what challenges are there in that area? What is her opinion on whether local authority housing will impact on the work of the board? She mentioned the element of upcoming legislation governing the voluntary housing sector. Has she considered how special needs will be addressed in voluntary housing and how current legislative proposals will impact? She seems to be very good on dispute resolution, but I want to see where she is on the overall picture and the strategy.
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
The strategy on local authority issues is a matter of policy for the Government. Local authorities are not part of the picture, which is not to say they will not be. Strategically, the board is very experienced and has had a long history. I do not have a great deal of experience as a board member not having sat on a public board. My work has been in the private sector. From a strategic point of view, the board has a corporate policy for the period 2011 to 2015 which sets out its strategic work. The issue of how the voluntary housing scheme is addressed will be a legislative reality in a short period and how we deal with it will be a matter for the directorate under the governance of the board. It is difficult for me to say anything as chairperson designate. I would have to be in place, sitting with the board and dealing with the issues to answer the Deputy. I understand where he is coming from in relation to strategy. While it will be difficult to bring the voluntary housing agencies within the remit of the PRTB, it will be done. There are many exclusions in voluntary housing bodies in relation to people with specific care plans or medical needs who will not come within the remit of the PRTB.
Is Ms Walsh referring to Part IV of the legislation? I am asking about policy because she said in her presentation that the question of policy would be consultative. I am trying to see from where she is coming rather than asking about forthcoming legislation. What are her thoughts? She seems to have significant experience of dispute resolution, but I am trying to see from where she is coming on questions of policy which the PRTB will have to address. There has been a weakness in recent appointments to the board of people who do not seem to have a great deal of experience of housing matters. There has been quite a change in the board.
A lot of experience has been lost. Certainly, the question of policy consultation between the Government and the chairperson is vital. That is why I am trying to tease out Ms Walsh's views on policy rather than hearing about the forthcoming legislation. She will be consulted on questions of policy and I want to get a flavour of her views, but she is not giving it.
A lot of discussion has been flagged on the issue of local authority housing being included within the PRTB's remit. Where does Ms Walsh see that happening? Has she thought about it strategically? Has she considered voluntary housing and the issues that will arise in terms of the reduction and management of staff and the deposit retention scheme, which represents 50% of the board's work but does not get good results? Strategically, has she thought about how she will work on these issues? I am getting away from dispute resolution where I have no problems. I am interested in strategic planning. Many Deputies have a great deal of experience in this area and have given it a great deal of thought. Does Ms Walsh have that kind of background?
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
The PRTB will give a certain amount of comfort to tenants of approved housing bodies through the strategies that will be imposed. Many tenants have monthly tenancies. The responsibilities of landlords and tenants in the voluntary housing sector will be established from a strategic perspective. The regulation of tenancies and dealings with tenants will be much clearer for approved housing bodies. The new regime will provide a service for tenants which they perhaps have not had heretofore to make roles and responsibilities efficient and clear. Is that what the Deputy is interested in?
Ms Walsh is very welcome. I take a different view on her experience. She said she had a great deal of experience of dealing with local authority issues on the other side of the fence. It is very valuable to bring the experience from the other side of the fence to the statutory side.
While Ms Walsh may not have been on the board we all say a bottom-up approach is good. I welcome that in any organisation because very often people on the inside are there so long that - although that is not the case in the PRTB - they can be blinkered and say the old ways are the best. The bottom-up approach brings new thinking which I welcome, having worked on the ground. In Ireland people did not have security of tenure until the introduction of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. People's views of renting are changing. In Germany people rent for life and no-one thinks anything of it, whereas in Ireland everybody wanted to own their own patch, as in The Field. People felt it was best to own their own house. The PRTB is very important now because people cannot own their own homes. They are stuck in places that they either own-----
I know that local authority houses are not included in the PRTB's remit but some are below the minimum standard and I have often seen queries about various premises owned by the one landlord. One might call these repeat offenders. There is a fine of €4,000 for an offender but one can re-offend. These landlords are not struck off the list as being unsuitable landlords. Will Ms Walsh comment on that?
The transfer of property is happening in the voluntary housing sector but in the local authority sector staff numbers have dropped as they have across the board. In many cases the numbers went up when there was no need for them. IT will help but will not do everything. Is there a proposal to transfer some of the local authority staff who have so much experience in planning and registration with the PRTB, rather than making them redundant, to the PRTB, if necessary?
A common complaint about rental houses is that they are below the minimum standard. The legislation is being changed to make sure that property being let will meet a basic standard which is a good move. I do not know if there are figures available for the numbers who stop paying rent. Landlords are often demonised as ogres but that is not always the case because they often have to put up with anti-social behaviour. People stop paying rent while the PRTB is dealing with their dispute and seem to get away with that although it is illegal. The longer the dispute goes on the better it suits the tenant. Some may bring spurious cases just to stop paying rent for a year. Statistics are vital and computers make it possible to compile them. It is vital to have statistics passing between the PRTB and the local authorities to make the system work better.
Landlords do have a case to make. Many of them do not bring complaints because they have an attitude of grin and bear it, get on and do it, and get the property ready and re-let it. Just because they do not bring cases it should not be assumed that they do not have cases to bring.
Deputy Humphreys' questions about establishing board policy and objectives were valid. One of the main aims of the chairperson of any board is to get the board's priorities and objectives right. I would like to see Ms Walsh here again when and if she is appointed - one cannot speak in definite terms about someone who is designated - to tell us that she has considered the whole situation from the inside out, having previously looked from the outside in, and outline her policies and objectives.
I congratulate the PRTB on being one of the few State bodies that is self-financing. That is positive. I look forward to seeing Ms Walsh here again when and if she is appointed.
I thank Ms Walsh for explaining what she plans to do. The most important thing she has to deal with is deposit retention. The sooner the PRTB can set up a scheme to deal with that independently the better because, as Deputy Stanley said, if a person moves out of a place and does not get his or her deposit that prevents him or her from moving to another place. That causes serious problems in people's lives.
Where I come from I do not hear many complaints about private landlords. One reason for that is the availability of so much private rental property. If a landlord does not treat tenants properly they move out fairly rapidly. In my experience they tend to get on all right with the private landlords. The problems I see in my office are brought by county council tenants. Does Deputy Humphreys know whether it is proposed that the county councils will be brought under the remit of the PRTB at some stage?
It is essential for that to happen. I deal with people whom I would call prisoners, not tenants, of Roscommon County Council. There seems to be nowhere for them to go when the place is not properly insulated. One person after another complains of dampness. They cannot go anywhere and nothing is done about it. If they want to move out of the house they are told they will not get rent allowance and will not be put back on the council list because they already had a house. They are regarded as ungrateful. The sooner the councils come under the PRTB's remit the better. I hope it happens. I meet many people in public accommodation whose life is made hell because there is no one they can call to solve this problem.
It will be a problem for the PRTB to deal with this on its limited resources. If it wants to take this problem seriously and move to a situation that someone renting a property here feels as secure as, for example, someone in Germany, the PRTB will need more staff. I do not approve of a handful of people owning thousands of properties which the rest of us poor cretins have to rent. I would prefer that people would be facilitated to own their own homes because that is the most secure way to deal with housing. I wish Ms Walsh the best of luck in her role. She has a tough job.
I welcome Ms Walsh to this meeting. I am sorry that I did not hear her introduction because I was in the Dáil. I apologise for my absence. In the context of proposed legislation and amendments to that how does Ms Walsh view the provisions for the PRTB to deal with anti-social behaviour? I am thinking of the adequacy of sanctions as a deterrent.
While one end of the spectrum of anti-social behaviour can be innocent but nonetheless annoying, the other can be criminal. I know this is a complex matter and that where one crosses the great divide is also an issue. To what extent could the legislation be strengthened to recognise the often criminal element of anti-social behaviour and should it include sanctions such as anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, which might act as a deterrent to a tenant and so on engaging in anti-social behaviour? One of the hallmarks of anti-social behaviour or nuisance with which people have to deal is the length of time it takes to get results.
I apologise. It has been proposed that the voluntary housing sector be taken under the auspices of the PRTB. I understand that while previously 75 staff were employed in the PRTB, that number has reduced to 33 following the outsourcing of various services. If the voluntary housing sector is to come within the remit of the PRTB, with what percentage increase in workload, in terms of the number of houses it would scrutinise, might it have to deal?
Like Senator Keane and Deputy Kevin Humphreys, I do not understand the reason the PRTB would have to elucidate on the issue of policy. The PRTB is a quasi-judicial-type body which enforces property rights between landlords and tenants. Therefore, it has little ability to manoeuvre. What it is required to do is already set out for it and all it has to do is ensure everything is done in accordance with the legislative requirements in dealing with disputes.
Ms Caitríona Walsh:
As mentioned by the Chairman, we have discussed the issue of anti-social behaviour. I agree with much of what Deputy Mulherin had to say. While the anti-social behaviour issue must be addressed by the PRTB, I am not sure the legislative provisions in this regard are strong enough. The PRTB needs to send a serious message about anti-social behaviour, including that, in enforcing determination orders, it can take account of anti-social behaviour orders made.
On the issue of voluntary housing bodies, the PRTB will have an input in this regard. However, of all the tenancies likely to be registered, disputes may arise in respect of only a small percentage of them. One would be hopeful that with outsourcing and information technology, this might be absorbed. However, I will not be able to determine the position until such time as I have had an opportunity to see how the system works and whether management of loads will be an issue.
Properties let under licence agreement are not covered by the PRTB. Some people who are unable to meet their mortgage repayments are taking tenants into their homes. In such cases, the tenant has no right of appeal to the PRTB. In other words, the owner of the house is the landlord, but because the tenant is brought in under a licence agreement, the PRTB cannot intervene. I mentioned statistics. If statistics in this regard were compiled, we, as legislators, could work out how many cases of this type were dealt with by the PRTB. Could the PRTB undertake this task and provide us with the information? As stated by Deputy Mulherin, it is our duty to enact legislation. However, we cannot do so without information.
In fairness to Ms Walsh, she is only chairperson designate. I am sure she will come before us again at a later date, if we so wish. We should, first, afford her the opportunity to bed in, make the necessary changes and establish policy in this area.
There are a number of groups waiting outside and we must vacate this room by 5 p.m. I thank Ms Walsh for attending and wish her well in her role as chairperson of the PRTB. I hope this exercise has been as useful for her as it has been for us. We look forward to meeting her again. I wish her every success in her new position.
I am not speaking about the committee's recommendations. We had a discussion earlier about previous appointments and are only feeling our way. This is part of the reform process. If it is deemed that we act as an advisory group on appointments, what is the formal structure for the committee?