Wednesday, 12 December 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí (Atógáil) - Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
On the North Circular Road there is a building with 16 families living in apartments. Many young children are living there, looking forward to Santa coming, but before Christmas all those families have been issued with notices to quit. The landlord is not a small accidental landlord but a businessman with multiple properties. Yesterday, he told the tenants they were great tenants but said the market dictates the rent. The ground for eviction is the supposed need for substantial refurbishment. In reality, the tenants and the landlord know - I presume everyone here knows this and has seen it happen time and again - that this is yet another renoviction, something that deserves a word for itself now because it is so widespread, with the need for refurbishment used as a pretext to kick out tenants and hike up rents.
If these tenants are evicted, they will mostly be evicted into homelessness. The Dublin Renters' Union and Solidarity have been assisting them in preparing to oppose any evictions. The Anti-Evictions Bill, which we will debate tonight and vote on tomorrow, would stop evictions like this taking place. Every Deputy will have a choice to take the side of landlords like that or take the side of the tenants. The vast majority of homelessness is being caused by evictions from the private rented sector and that is just the sharpest end of the conditions that face tenants.
Since the Government took office, rents in cities have increased by more than 30%. Average rent nationally is more than €1,300 a month and when combined with low pay and precarity, one in seven tenants now faces consistent poverty. The picture, unfortunately, was similar two years ago in January 2017 when we moved our previous Anti-Evictions Bill. That Bill was defeated by the casting vote of the Ceann Comhairle. It would have been passed were it not for the votes of the many landlords in this Dáil who voted against it. If it had been implemented then, 2,000 families who faced eviction in 2017 on the grounds of sale of property would have been protected.
The Taoiseach's Government voted against that Bill. Two years on, with landlords continuing to use grounds of sale and renovation to evict tenants, will the Government vote against an anti-evictions Bill again? Will Fianna Fáil sit on the fence and abstain again? At the very least, does the Taoiseach agree that the one in four Deputies who are landlords should recuse themselves from voting on this Bill because of a clear conflict of interest? That conflict of interest goes much deeper, of course, than their personal status as landlords. It is related to the commitment of the establishment parties to the capitalist system and the free market in housing, which allows landlords to profit massively from a crisis facing tenants and others. It means that tenants such as those on the North Circular Road and all those affected by the housing crisis have no choice but to organise for a ban on evictions, proper rent controls and the building of public and genuinely affordable housing.
I have no doubt that all Members are able to make a distinction between their personal interests and the public interest and that applies as much to people who are members of trade unions who might vote on employment legislation, employers who might vote on employment legislation and all of us here who are taxpayers voting on tax legislation. Members are able to make the distinction between what is a personal interest and what is a public interest and we all act in the public interest.
I am not familiar with the particular building about which the Deputy spoke but I acknowledge we need to act once again to strengthen tenants' rights. Hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland rent the properties in which they live and we have strengthened their rights in recent years, but we need to take further actions, particularly to deal with landlords who abuse the renovation provisions to empty properties and jack-up rents.
The rent Bill, providing additional rights to renters and tenants, was approved by Cabinet yesterday. It has four major provisions: first, the introduction of a rent register so that people can see what rents are being charged in the area in which they live; second, extending the notice-to-quit period so that people who are asked to leave the house that they are renting get much more time to find a new place to rent; third, a legal definition of "substantial renovation" to end renovictions and bogus renovations such as the ones the Deputy described; and, fourth, additional powers for the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to enforce existing laws and these new laws. This is legislation the Government is bringing forward and I sincerely hope the Deputy’s party will vote for it. I would welcome an indication from him as to whether he will do so.
I asked for an indication from the Taoiseach about a Bill we will debate later. Perhaps we could get that first and when the Government publishes its Bill, we will respond to it. Our Bill proposes to ban evictions on the grounds of sale which would mean, as is the case in many European countries, that sale would have to take place with tenants in situ. It would ban evictions on the grounds of renovations. In the case of a landlord saying he or she has to evict because he or she or a family member is moving in, six months' rent would have to be paid in compensation. Those are the kind of measures needed to guarantee the rights and circumstances of tenants.
On the question of personal interest versus public interest, does the Taoiseach not see it as significant that 4% of people in society as a whole are landlords? In this House, and within the Cabinet, 25% are landlords. Landlords are massively over-represented here. That is not just a question of personal interest and motivation, although one would be blind to believe those factors do not affect people, but it is a question of ideology. This Government is a landlords’ Government. It is the reason it passed a landlords’ budget, and the reason it pays lipservice to the idea of tenants and the reason I suspect, despite the Taoiseach saying he has not seen the Bill yet, that it will oppose it.
The Taoiseach will allow families such as those on North Circular Road to continue to face homelessness and he will turn a blind eye to it while the profits of landlords shoot through the roof.
Some landlords are abusive and bad but most landlords are just people renting out a property that they own, providing somewhere for people to live and we should not demonise landlords-----
-----because we need people to rent out their properties. A reason that we are facing the problem we currently face is lack of supply. People are not willing to enter the rental market any more to rent out properties or people are selling up because they do not want to be landlords any more. We have to bear that in mind and balance the rights of tenants with the rights of landlords. Legislation that states that somebody cannot move back into the house that he or she owns-----
If one is forced to sell the property and needs the money for some other reason, perhaps to pay medical bills for a relative, the fact that one cannot sell it is too extreme.
We will do four things. We will legislate for a rent register so that people know the rents being paid by others in their area; we will extend the notices to quit so that people have more time to find a new home to live in or rent; we will properly define in law what substantial renovation is or is not; and we will strengthen the powers of enforcement for the Residential Tenancies Board.
As the Taoiseach knows, 39,603 jobseekers were referred to JobPath in the period from July 2015 to June 2016. In those two years, 8,340 people gained employment, a success rate of 25%. Those who gained full-time employment amounted to 6,111 people or 18% of the total figure, while those who gained part-time employment made up 4% of the total. When one looks closely and measures the chances of someone gaining full-time employment under JobPath as opposed to of their own accord, the numbers are very interesting. The most recent figures for 2016 show that JobPath only helped a further 2% of individuals to gain full-time employment. Figures for people who gain part-time work improve. Part-time work is often seasonal, precarious and has low wages. The State often helps to subsidise income through the family income supplement, part-time jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance. Why do we continue to pay a private company which has only served to continue the situation of income insecurity for people who the State must subsidise anyway?
I would like to read an excerpt from a letter I was given in Donegal about a person's experience with a company, People 1st. He is so intimidated by the service that he wishes to remain anonymous. It reads:
I am a client of People 1st and I have found my time there to be a very difficult one. The advisors put a lot of pressure on me. I feel extremely stressed, and made feel worthless. I try very hard to find employment but I can’t seem to get any work. I find my advisor to be very disrespectful, discouraging and not understanding of my circumstances. Although I have a third level qualification my advisor seems to put across that I am lazy. I have approached the Manager on a few occasions, regarding my complaints however it is not dealt with.
The letter aptly describes the direct consequences privatisation of our State services is having on vulnerable people across the country. The profit-driven model of these private companies applies unnecessary pressure to people. This should be treated as a State service, yet the Government paid these companies €58.5 million last year. That is money which could be spent on 500 houses in Donegal, five or six schools, or indeed reinstating social welfare income supports for part-time and seasonal workers to the 2012 levels across the State. The Government is blinded by the notion of private services being more efficient when the figures clearly show that this is not the case. Will the Taoiseach shut down JobPath and instead reinvest the money into State services, moving away from the encroaching privatisation of social service provision in this country?
We have gone from a situation in Ireland where, only five or six years ago, we were in the middle of an economic and unemployment crisis. Some 15% of people were unemployed and people were being forced to emigrate again. We have net migration now, with more Irish citizens coming home than are leaving, and unemployment at approximately 5%. We will soon reach full employment, the point at which there is a job in Ireland for everyone who genuinely wants one. We are almost there. That is enormous progress in only a few years.
That did not happen by accident. A remarkable thing about Ireland's economic recovery is that we had jobs growth and a fall in unemployment almost from the start of the recovery. Most countries would see the economy recover first with jobs coming later and unemployment falling thereafter. That happened because a decision was taken by the last Government, of which I was a member, with Fine Gael and the Labour Party, to adopt an activist approach to getting people back to work. That is why the Intreo model was set up and why JobPath was contracted by my constituency colleague, Deputy Burton. That is why we continue to support the local employment schemes.
Some people will just find a job on their own but others need help, support, encouragement and training. That is done through different mechanisms. Intreo is the in-house service provided by the excellent staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection around the country. JobPath is outsourced because the Department did not have the capacity at the time of mass unemployment to do all the work. There are also the local employment schemes around the country. These mechanisms have been successful. The JobPath model is a payment by results model. Companies get a registration fee but beyond that they are only paid if the person they are working with enters gainful employment and stays in it for more than three months.
There is a contract. Terminating any contract with any company involves significant costs and penalties for the taxpayer. We are certainly not going to cancel any such contracts. We are entering a different phase in our economy where we are heading towards full employment so obviously services such as JobPath may not be needed in the future but that is an assessment that the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, will have to make. In future, the focus will be less on people who are unemployed because unemployment is down so far, and more on activating and encouraging into the labour market people who are not on jobseeker's benefit or jobseeker's allowance.
I encourage anyone who has a complaint to make that complaint to the provider and if he or she is not satisfied with the response, he or she can complain to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which will investigate it. When one looks at the tens or hundreds of thousands of people who have been involved in the various programmes that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection runs, the percentage of complaints is reassuringly low.
There is no doubt that things are improving and people are getting jobs. That is welcome. Despite the Government spending €58.5 million on JobPath last year, it is not creating any significant extra jobs beyond what people are getting themselves. The data from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection show that. Those are the figures the Government has. We spent €58.5 million to have 4% more jobs created. That is not good value for money to me, and even the Government, having seen how the private sector works, would surely think that is not good value for money and that it does not work. This system is not working, it has not worked and the Taoiseach should accept that it has not worked. It will not work in the future either. People will find jobs if they get the support and the staff are already in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to help and support those people. The Government does not need to privatise it so why does it continue to do so?
We have the staff now. There are many staff in our Intreo offices around the country. When unemployment was three times what it is now, the Department and Government did not have the staff. That is why JobPath was brought in as an additional provider to provide these services to assist people to get into employment. The context is now changing and we need to use those models in other areas. We used a similar model with the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to reduce waiting lists significantly in areas in the public health service where we do not have capacity.
Waiting lists for hospital procedures on hips, eyes, knees and cataracts and for angiograms have fallen every month for almost a year and half. They are now lower than they were when the Government came to office because we used the private sector to augment our public services. It makes sense to do that on occasion.
If if had been possible to take hundreds or thousands of extra staff into the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection during a period of high unemployment, what we would do with them now? Would we let them go? It makes sense to provide public services through the public sector and, on occasion, to augment services with a private provider.