Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 September 2022

Tailte Éireann Bill 2022: Second Stage

 

2:55 pm

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)

I thank the Minister of State. This is probably the least controversial Bill he will bring before the House in his time in office. Given the unseemly row we had the last time he was bringing forward legislation, it is probably better for both of us this close to the weekend. However, the fact it is not a controversial Bill does not mean it is not hugely important. It does say something about the slow-moving wheels of government that it has taken ten years from the initiation of the review of the potential merger of these three important organisations to finally get the legislation. That is not the fault of the Minister of State or that of the young officials in attendance, who were probably not in the Department when the review was initiated. However, it does say something about government overall, which should not pass without comment.

"Surprised" is probably too strong a word for my reaction but I would have expected the Minister of State to comment at some point during his opening or closing remarks on the issues of staffing and savings. In the regulatory impact analysis of the legislation, which, as the Minister of State knows, was a part of the committee's considerations during pre-legislative scrutiny, there was some brief mention of potential savings. To be honest, I do not think the savings are going to be very significant. There will be some at the back end in software, staff, etc. There were also modest suggestions that there may be some changes in staffing, particularly in respect of recruitment, etc. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could give us an update on those two matters in advance of Committee Stage.

I echo Deputy Gould's point that if there are any savings, and I am not convinced there will be any, I ask that they are retained within the organisation. I ask the Minister of State to ensure they go to improving the situation and dealing with some of the issues. The issue raised most frequently is that of the Land Registry service and the long delays in the registration process and, therefore, the inaccuracy of some of the information that is there. It can take up to 12 months for a new registration to go live on the site. That can often cause difficulties in various ways.

I suspect there will not be any changes in staff numbers, which have been pretty constant for the past two years, according to the regulatory analysis. I would welcome any information the Minister of State could give in that regard.

I am always pleased when he thanks us for the hard work we do in committee with pre-legislative scrutiny. I just wish that thanks was accompanied by incorporating the recommendations we make in those reports in legislation. We made two simple recommendations. I know one of those is not within the gift of the Minister of State, but I do want to speak to it. If it is a matter he can come back to us on, I would appreciate it. This would have been an opportune time for the Department of Justice to relinquish control of the Property Services Regulatory Authority, PSRA, and to locate it in Tailte Éireann. That would have made eminent sense. I know the members of the relevant Oireachtas committee have very little interest in the PSRA. I would be surprised if all the members of the Joint Committee on Justice knew the Department has that responsibility. The difficulty is that the PSRAis a toothless tiger. It does not have strong legislative underpinning, nor does it have strong enforcement powers. Given that we are moving to a period when there is an increase in property transactions and home purchases, albeit that increase is still far too slow, now is the time for us to have proper reform of that key function of our housing market. I do not believe that will ever happen as long as that agency remains under the auspices of the Department of Justice. I mean no criticism of that Department but it has many other and more pressing things to deal with. I believe that if the PSRA was a function of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, located in this new State agency, there would be more of an impetus, given the role of the Ministers of State, the Minister, the officials and us in the Oireachtas committee, to grab the urgent need for reform. We have an incredibly opaque system for the purchasing of homes. It is incredibly frustrating, as I am sure the Minister of State knows from his constituents, that the market is so poorly regulated. The PSRA has no teeth whatsoever. It has a voluntary code of conduct that is meaningless. It can write an angrily worded letter if an estate agent, auctioneer or property services agency breaches the code but beyond that, there is nothing there. The Minister of State could not have controlled that but I would be interested to know, on foot of the recommendation from our committee, if any attempt was made by the Minister, the Ministers of State or officials to engage with the Department of Justice. Has there been a conversation? Is that something to which we could return? I believe it would be of enormous value not just in terms of the technicalities of this Bill, but also in terms of the improvements of land-related issues and property service-related issues, which are ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The Minister of State said nothing about this, and I have not seen it in the Bill, but we made a second recommendation during pre-legislative scrutiny for a land transactions register. We have such a register for house transactions, which provides us with such valuable information on real-time property prices. As the Minister of State knows, that data is published by the CSO. Land is probably the most opaque market in the State, bar bitcoin, for those who have a weird interest in that particular phenomenon. It is virtually impossible to know the price of land at any given time in the marketplace. All we have are newspaper reports placed there by people either buying or selling land. It is usually information placed for their own vested interests in individual transactions. Given the centrality of land values, particularly those for residential development, in the ultimate cost to the purchaser or renter, it would be eminently sensible, logical and desirable for the Government to have a real-time land transaction register. Maybe that is the intention of the Government; maybe it is a function that will be a consequence of the outworking of this Bill but I suspect not. If we can have a live register in real time for residential property transactions, we can have one for land. There is simply no reason in law we could not. It is one of the small reforms any sensible, active land management policy and strategy by the Government should have. Again, if the Minister, in advance of Committee Stage or when we deal with these issues - we will table amendments with respect to this on Committee Stage - could return to this matter, that would be very helpful.

The last issue I will raise is not necessarily pertinent to the Bill, but the merger of the three organisations under the Bill is the right time to address it. The Minister of State will know that there are very often disputes involving adjoining sites and adjoining title. In many cases, far too often, the information that is on the Land Registry is not accurate or does not lend itself to resolving disputes over boundary title conflicts. If I understand the reason correctly, it is that when there was a process of digitisation from the old hard copy OSI mapping of land ownership to the digitised nature of that on the land register, the process did not necessarily happen as accurately as indicated in the Land Registry mission statement outlined by the Minister of State. I think he used the words, "accurate", "reliable" and "readily available". The vast majority of times that is the case. I use the Land Registry and its services a lot. It is an excellent service with very good staff but there is an issue we need to review and resolve. One of the useful things the Minister of State could consider, either by way of a friendly amendment by the Opposition on Report Stage or an amendment from the Government, is to build into the legislation an early review by Tailte Éireann into what went well and what did not go so well in that digitisation process. If two people have a dispute over title at a boundary, and if when they both go to the Land Registry the boundary is not clear or there is conflicting information, it is very difficult to resolve. The more we can keep these types of disputes out of the courts and have some independent mechanism to resolve them in a non-judicial manner, the better for everybody. This is the time to do it. I urge the Minister of State to consider that matter and tease it out with us on Committee Stage because it is one that would be mutually beneficial to all Deputies, all property owners and, ultimately, to our system of land management.

As we said during pre-legislative scrutiny, we support the Bill. There are merits to it. If the Minister of State could come back to us - I know he does not have an opportunity to do so at the end of this discussion - even through a short briefing note to the members of the joint committee on the issues I raised, that would be beneficial not just to me but other Members.

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