Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2024: Second Stage

 

7:35 pm

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Teachtaí go léir. I thank all the Deputies. I will try to skim over some of the issues raised before I go to the closing speech. Deputy Bacik made a point as I came into the Chamber about the Labour Party's Bill. A number of aspects of the Bill have been addressed, including the model tenancy agreement, the non-registration of tenancies, tenancies of limited duration, and the rent increases in RPZs following substantial refurbishment. The RTB has a significant role in terms of monitoring unlawful RPZ rent increases and it does take action.

Deputy Cullinane and, similarly, Deputy Murnane O'Connor raised SETU, which is in my constituency as well. It is most welcome to see its evolution, progression and growth in the south-east region. I was a student in Carlow IT myself so it is most welcome to see its progression. The Taoiseach made very positive comments earlier today in response to questions on the Waterford Crystal site, in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy O'Donovan.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan raised digs accommodation. We responded positively to that last week. In my closing speech in that debate I stated that I wish it to be debated further in the committee. It is important we do that because it has merits. It is an important sector. The Government is being proactive. We take students' rights seriously. I refute any comments to the contrary. He also raised the need to tackle the rent-for-sex issue in legislation. Again, that is something the Government wants to address.

Deputy Canney raised purpose-built, State-led student accommodation, as did some other Deputies. A wider issue was raised by a number of Deputies, including Deputy Mairéad Farrell. The Bill will apply to a tenancy or licence created after the Bill is brought into operation via a commencement order signed by the Minister. He intends to commence the provisions as soon as possible once the Bill is enacted by the President. The Seanad will be asked on Thursday to pass a motion approving early signature by the President. A student would need to carefully examine any legal document he or she has signed, or is asked to sign, before the Bill comes into operation. That is an important point I wish to clarify.

In response to a point that was made by Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, this legislation relates just to student-specific accommodation, so there is no change for other rental properties. We have addressed a number of points that were raised by Deputy Harkin on provisions relating to the RTB. I take on board the points raised on public transport, which the Government is addressing as well.

I thank Members for their contributions and for the points they have raised this evening. From what I have heard, it is clear that Deputies agree that requiring students or their parents to pay for student-specific accommodation during the summer months is not acceptable to this House. It is also very clear that of all renters, seeking or requiring students to pay advance rent payments that exceed the lawful limit of one month's rent is wholly objectionable.

A campaign by the USI in 2021 was influential in having the Residential Tenancies Acts amended for all renters to restrict advance rent payments to no more than one month's rent and to place the same restriction on the amount of any deposit. Provision was also made in 2021 to allow students to pay a greater advance rent payment, if they wished and their landlord agreed. This provision was intended to help students but is being used to their disadvantage by some private student-specific accommodation providers to obtain large advance rent payments from students. Deputies have highlighted cases here this evening. This Bill will stamp out the practice. Under this Bill, an advance rent payment of more than one month's rent is only payable to a public or private education provider where it forms part of a combined payment in respect of both rent and tuition fees. This amendment should not have been required. In fact, it is regrettable that this entire Bill is required at all. The outcry when some private student-specific accommodation providers moved to a minimum 51-week letting was loud and clear. Expecting students to pay for accommodation that they do not need over the summer months is not a step too far - it is beyond a country mile.

An Taoiseach is very clear, and has been very clear from the outset in his former role as Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, as is his successor in that role, the Minister, Deputy O'Donovan, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the entire Government, that minimum tenancies or licences of 51 weeks for student-specific accommodation is unacceptable. Putting the cost implications aside, it is also clearly unsuitable for the vast majority of students.

I, too, express my sincere thanks to the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I am grateful that the committee waived formal pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill, given the time-critical nature of its provisions. With the limited Oireachtas time remaining in this session, there simply was not enough time to proceed with formal pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill prior to its publication. My Department officials attended the committee to provide a briefing on the Bill, which I hope Deputies found helpful. Their waiver has allowed this House to debate the Bill on Second Stage today and allows the Bill to progress through the Houses of the Oireachtas this week in advance of the summer recess.

I also express my gratitude to the Chief Whip's office and the Business Committee for making time available in the busy schedule at the end of this session to allow this Bill to progress through all Stages in the House this week. As Members are aware, this Bill provides for priority legislative proposals for a quick passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

In addition, I thank the Chair and all Deputies for facilitating the swift passage of this Bill to ensure these protections are in place as early as possible for students. The Government is sending a clear signal that we remain steadfast in our goal to introduce protections for tenants, in this case students, where they are warranted and can stand up to legal and policy scrutiny.

I am aware of the difficulties faced by many students in accessing affordable and suitable accommodation to facilitate access to higher education. The Government is committed to addressing this challenge. I believe we share a common goal of providing quality, affordable accommodation for students where they are secure and protected.

Housing for All commits to improve the supply and affordability of rental accommodation and the security of tenure for renters, including students. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, outlined this in his opening contribution. Last week, this House debated a Bill proposed by Deputies Farrell and Ó Broin regarding digs accommodation. The Government very much values digs accommodation as an integral and distinct housing solution for students and others. Income from digs is very important to those who open up their homes to share with lodgers. The social interaction that both parties enjoy from a digs arrangement is also very valuable and beneficial to society. The Government agrees that everybody, including lodgers, should have a sense of security and protection in their home. I look forward to debates on the Bill. The Government acknowledges that accommodation for those unable to live at home is the largest cost faced by students.

The Government is developing a policy response to stimulate the supply of additional accommodation. This includes activation of projects with planning permission in the immediate term and the development of programmes for delivery of new accommodation through a standardised design process. Additionally, we will focus on vacancy and refurbishment projects and systematic responses to supporting measures to provide sustainable transport and access links to higher education institutions. This issue was also raised by many Deputies. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy O'Donovan, is committed to developing a new student accommodation strategy which will be published this year.

Earlier this year, both Departments became aware that a number of private SSA operators had moved towards a 51-week occupancy model, thus significantly increasing the cost of accommodation by up to 25% for students while attending third-level education. As I have outlined, the Government considers that students should not be sought or required to pay for accommodation beyond what is needed for the academic year, unless individual students request a longer tenancy or licence that suits them and their accommodation provider. We must avoid any cost increase that acts as a barrier to accessing and participating in, and progressing through, higher education. A third-level education should be accessible to anyone who wants it. Equal opportunity is our goal, for the good of all society.

It was also brought to our attention that some SSA operators are seeking advanced payments of more than one month's rent to secure a tenancy or licence, in contravention of section 19B of the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004-2022. To address these issues, the Department and I worked closely with An Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy O'Donovan, and his Department to reduce the barriers to accessing and progressing through third-level education. If enacted, the Bill will ensure that SSA tenancies or licences are aligned to the traditional academic calendar of September to May, up to a maximum of 41 weeks. This does not, however, preclude students from seeking a longer tenancy or licence if they require it for their educational or personal needs.

The Bill will also strengthen the protections for students with regard to advance rent payments to ensure they are not sought or required to make payments of more than what is currently legislated for to secure a tenancy or licence in SSA. As I have said, following the enactment of the Bill, the only exception in which payments of more than one month's rent in advance will be permitted is where a student pays both rent and tuition fees to a single relevant provider, that is, a public or private educational provider. In addition, the Bill amends section 58 of the Residential Tenancies Act, empowering the termination of an SSA tenancy or licence by a student by means of a 28-day notice period between 1 May and 1 October in any year, whether or not there has been failure by the landlord or licensor to comply with any obligations of the tenancy or licence.

The provisions of the Bill will not affect any existing tenancy or licence. However, I do wish to add my voice to those calling for the provisions of the Bill to be given effect in respect of any existing tenancy or licence. I am sure, if asked by providers, students would be happy to alter their existing tenancy and licence agreements to align with the improved protections under the Bill. Student specific accommodation providers have got this wrong and can put this right for the students who are their customers. The customer is always right and the customers are calling loudly and clearly.

I thank Deputies again for their contributions and I commend the Residential Tenancies (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill 2024 to the House. It is intended as a significant step forward in enhancing tenancy protections, and I look forward to progressing through the remaining Stages of the Bill tomorrow. I reiterate that I find it regrettable that the Bill is necessary at all. That said, the Government has no hesitation in protecting students and their families. The Government recognises that some families have more than one student to fund through third-level education at the same time, and this has also been recognised by some Deputies this afternoon. Every member of a family deserves the same chance to a third-level education and the Government is here to help families to manage their way through. Every person in the country deserves the opportunity to study at third level. The Government will continue to break down barriers. Our well-educated workforce is a credit to the sacrifices made by families the length and breadth of the country. The Bill seeks to ensure that SSA providers cannot cause families to make sacrifices that are unnecessary and deeply unfair.

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