Thursday, 30 July 2020
Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
Darragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
For the genuine information of Deputy McGrath, no one is looking for an extension in this grouping of amendments. I will put section 4 in context first, and then I will deal with some of the queries and points raised by other Members. It might be helpful if I set out the purpose of section 4 of the Bill. I wish to make it clear to those who tabled amendments on behalf of the Opposition, however, that I will not be accepting them. I will be moving the Government amendment to this section which is also one of those in this grouping. I refer to amendment No. 17.
Section 4 of the Bill provides that Part 2 shall not apply unless the tenant makes a written declaration that he or she is unable to comply with his or her obligations to pay rent. On the issue regarding literacy and the ability to swear a declaration, this is a self-declaration. Further on, my amendment will allow this to be done electronically as well. That is one of the Government amendments to this section. Much advice and assistance is provided by Members of this House, MABS, the Citizens Information centres etc.. We intended that a public information campaign would accompany the passing of this Bill. These are real protections for a targeted group.
Section 4 will not apply unless the tenant makes a written declaration that he or she is unable to comply with his or her obligations to pay rent because he or she was temporarily out of work due to having contracted Covid-19 without entitlement to be paid by his or her employer, or he or she was in receipt or entitled to have received the temporary wage support subsidy, TWSS, or "any other payment out of public moneys provided for by or under statute, paid for the purpose of alleviating financial hardship resulting from the loss of employment occasioned by" the impact of Covid-19, including the rent supplement and-or any other supplementary welfare allowance and, as a consequence, he or she is at a significant risk that his or her tenancy will be terminated by his or her landlord.
Such a declaration will be served on the Residential Tenancies Board and copied to the landlord and it shall be an offence to make a false or misleading declaration. The Government has not included any superfluous provision in section 4. Every word of every line in section 4 has been carefully considered from a policy and, most important, legal perspective.
I simply cannot accept the Opposition's proposed amendments. The law here needs to be strong and these changes need to be on a primary legislative footing. What has been proposed by others is to continue the emergency powers under the emergency Act. That is not tenable because it is not a strong foundation to provide the protections that we need for the targeted group of people who are the most vulnerable in this sector.
The declaration and associated offence provisions are required. The Bill does not require the declaration to be made at any particular point in time and it is important that people know that a declaration can be made after the event. With the passage of this Bill, people who have been in arrears, people who believe they are in danger of falling into arrears and those who have been in receipt of these payments at a previous stage can declare now. I am referring to the Labour Party's amendment No. 14 when I say that. I believe the Government's provisions are a little stronger than those sought in the amendment, and I say that respectfully.
The key focus is to assist tenants who are faced with adverse economic impacts on foot of the Covid-19 pandemic and, as a result, find themselves unable to pay their rent and at a significant risk of the tenancy being terminated. We need to target State assistance at those tenants who need it.
I will move amendment No. 17, the Government amendment in this group. It inserts a new section 7 to clarify that any tenant can email the required declaration under section 4 to the RTB in order to benefit from the protections under this Bill during the new emergency period, which is defined as running until 10 January 2021. The Government wants to make it as easy as possible for tenants to get the help they need when faced with rent arrears. The RTB will provide a template declaration for tenants and I have instructed it to ensure the declaration is accessible and written in plain English. New communities will not be forgotten in this either and assistance will be provided and help made available for every single tenant.
Where the landlord consents, a tenant can serve the required declaration by electronic means. Not all landlords will have an email address so the tenant may have to post the declaration to the landlord. That is more of a procedural issue.
The effect of Deputy Ó Broin's amendment No. 2 would be to swamp the board by the removal of the provision for a declaration to be served. It would result in blanket coverage that would be legally unsound. I think the Deputy knows that. These measures must be focused.
I have also noted that provisions introduced in other jurisdictions do not go nearly as far as those we are providing for here. The only change made in the North allowed for the notice period to increase from four weeks to 12 weeks. There was nothing further. The Sinn Féin Minister for Communities introduced that change. The provisions the Government is introducing are much more sound and much stronger than those in the North.
We have considered the amendments with an open mind to see whether they would improve the legislation. I have concluded, respectfully, that they would not improve it and would, in fact, further complicate matters. Our measures must be targeted at those who need them, the people we discussed at length on Second Stage. Other parties have brought forward ideas on this and other legislation. Another Bill that was tabled by Deputy Ó Broin made no reference to protection from evictions in any way, shape or form. That one-page Sinn Féin Bill dealt only with rent freezes. This Bill is comprehensive legislation that will protect those who need protection.
I will not be accepting the amendments tabled by the Opposition and I will move amendment No. 17.