Wednesday, 19 December 2018
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue. I am glad to have the opportunity to raise it because it is extremely important.
The behaviour witnessed at the weekend was like a scene from 19th century Ireland. There are no appropriate words we can use in this Chamber to describe it, only "completely disgusting behaviour". The Government should remind the banks who exactly bailed them out. They were bailed out by the people, taxpayers, which they seem to forget. The crux of the matter is that we need to see the banks being reined in. They are standing over evictions and putting considerable pressure on families. I have countless stories of families with whom the banks will not negotiate on their mortgages. They have put so much pressure on borrowers that many have taken their own lives in the past few years because of their financial difficulties, yet we bailed out the banks. We are, however, starting to see people stand up for themselves, which I welcome. There will not be as much tolerance of this behaviour in the future.
Deputies who abstain on or vote against important legislation with anti-eviction measures have a great deal to answer for. They can no longer sit on their hands while this is happening.
What happened in County Roscommon is evidence of what is seen in many parts of the country. People are very angry that the banks which bankrupted the country are sending in security firms to evict people from their homes in the most abusive manner. While the security firm in this case is based across the Border, many of the security firms involved in other places are based in Dublin, Carlow and Longford, among other counties and they, too, are acting in the most abusive fashion. Something has to be done to rein them in. Clearly, there is a need to put legislation in place. It is welcome that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has acknowledged that this needs to happen. Legislation needs to be brought up to date to ensure the particular groups involved - they are thugs really - will be reined in and regulated properly.
Another issue is that the banks are not dealing with people. We should not be talking about this as a justice matter but as an issue that is being dealt with appropriately by the banks. Many borrowers approach them to try to make deals, but they cannot do so because the banks will not deal with them, which is simply wrong. The banks need to be brought to account.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing us to raise this important issue. I will repeat what I have stated on numerous occasions in recent days. I grew up three miles down the road from the family in question. I went to school with them and know the case well. The two Deputies who have spoken are correct. There is extreme anger in the area. I use this opportunity to appeal for calm.
We must ensure people who are heavy-handed will be taken out of the system in removing people in evictions. What I would like to see every Member of the Dáil address, if at all possible, is the introduction of legislation in order that we will not have such firms involved in this work. Evictions are unfortunate. When one talks about the eviction in Strokestown, County Roscommon - the Minister and everybody else in this Chamber is aware of the history of what happened there - one must remember that "eviction" is a very dirty word in that part of the country where it has left a sour taste, particularly since the Famine in which so many people were either lost or driven out by the British. While it is a place of great peace and people do not want to engage in violence, they are extremely angry, upset and annoyed at what has happened.
As the Deputies are aware, a High Court order was executed last week for repossession of a property at Falsk, County Roscommon. As the Deputies appreciate, the courts are, subject only to the Constitution and the law, independent in the exercise of their judicial functions and the management and conduct of cases which are brought before them and I have no role in the matter. Sheriffs are officers of the court and independent in the exercise of their functions and duties under statute passed by the House and the rules of court. The sheriff, or the county registrar acting as sheriff, is responsible to the court for the enforcement of court orders. The law and procedures governing the execution of court orders are contained in the Enforcement of Court Orders Acts, 1926 to 1940, and the rules of court made thereunder. As Minister, I have no operational function in this matter. However, it should be emphasised that there is a clear difference between persons or companies employed to execute court orders and vigilante groups carrying out acts of organised and serious violence, as occurred on Sunday. I condemn in the strongest terms the violence that occurred at Falsk, County Roscommon, early on Sunday morning. A Garda investigation is under way following the violent incident that occurred there, during which a number of people were injured, some of whom were hospitalised. It is important that the Garda investigation take its course and I note that arrests have been made. Gardaí are required to carry out their important duties in accordance with the law and should any person have a complaint about the actions of a garda, he or she should go to the independent complaints body - the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.
I will not comment on any individual case, but I stress that violence is never justified. An Garda Síochána is the sole legitimate guardian of the peace in the State, charged with upholding the law in the interests of the whole community. It is never appropriate for vigilante or criminal groups or gangs to take the law into their own hands and commit acts of serious violence against people, animals or property, as happened in County Roscommon on Sunday. I strongly condemn the incidents. It is welcome that An Garda Síochána is investigating the matter and there is a criminal investigation under way. I am deeply disturbed by the thinly veiled references to vigilantism made in recent days on social media and elsewhere. This is a very dangerous road to go down and vigilantism and private armies will not be tolerated in the State.
While conscious that the full facts of the case are not in the public domain, it is clearly deeply distressing to see a family lose their home, particularly at this time of year. I hope the issue can be resolved peacefully through dialogue and mediation.
On the broader issue of mortgage arrears, the Government is committed to helping borrowers to achieve solutions that will allow them to stay in their homes. Abhaile, the national State-funded mortgage arrears resolution service, has provided free financial advice for over 10,000 households in mortgage arrears since it was established. That over 116,000 mortgage restructures have been completed to date and that 87% of them are on track is proof positive that engaging with a lender works. There is help available for those in mortgage distress who wish to avail of State support. Furthermore, my departmental officials are in the process of drafting a land and conveyancing law reform (amendment) Bill, the principal purpose of which is to broaden the range of matters a court must take into account when deciding whether to grant a repossession order to a lending institution on a borrower's principal private residence. I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, in that regard.
I welcome that the Minister has condemned the situation. However, the point is that there will be more incidents such as this throughout the country if we do not deal with the fact that in many cases and certainly the vast majority of those with which I have dealt the banks will not engage with people. They will not negotiate. They haunt people with letters, phone calls, emails and texts and get them to the stage where they are bullied out of their homes and hand back the keys. Five or six years later, the houses are sitting empty in the middle of a housing crisis. Many people are willing to engage and try to reach a deal, often a very reasonable deal, with the bank but the bank does not want to know about it. Nobody is holding the banks to account but a few years ago when their coffers were short they were not shy about holding out their hands for a bailout. This House has to get real and start doing something about this issue because what happened on Sunday is just the start of it. It will continue if we do not address it.
Repossession through the courts is one part of the issue but many repossessions occur when people agree to hand back their house under duress. They are put under huge pressure with which they are unable to cope.
There is often a narrative that a person whose home is repossessed must be some type of scoundrel or be in terrible trouble. That implication is being made in this case. Reference may be made, as it was in this case, to people's past debts which have been settled or to businesses in which they were formerly involved. None of that is relevant. The only thing that is relevant is that the banks are doing the dirty work.
Although the security firms and the banks have the law on their side, that is the only thing they have on their side. The people are certainly not on their side. It is time for the Government to recognise that the ordinary decent people of this country are very aggrieved that citizens can be treated in this way and that the State will stand by and watch. The footage of the events in Country Roscommon shows gardaí standing outside the gate of the property, watching the eviction. That really angered people.
Action must be taken to ensure there is no repeat of those events. It is quite clear that what happened in County Roscommon could happen elsewhere and we must ensure it does not. All Members want to work together to that end, but it will require legislation that protects the people rather than the banks.
It is quite distressing for me to see what happened to people I know for many years. Like the Minister and other speakers, I acknowledge that we must condemn all violence and all types of thuggery. However, this unfortunate event began with the eviction. Nobody in this House can condone what happened last Sunday evening. However, because a criminal investigation is ongoing, I will say no more about it.
I accept that there must be more engagement by the banks. Yesterday, I spoke to representatives of KBC bank on behalf of the family and asked them take a step back, allow the situation to calm down and begin negotiations as soon as possible. I have had four engagement in the past two years with banks in the Roscommon-Galway region, which I represent, and in each case I was able to get matters solved through negotiation. However, people must tell us if they have problems and allow us to get involved with the banks. I agree that the banks need to do more and to be more accommodating.
I call for calm in our region and, please, let everybody work to settle this situation which is currently quite critical.
Although any repossession of property is deeply regrettable, the number of repossessions is declining. The latest statistics from the Courts Service for this year indicate a downward trend in the lodgement of applications for possession orders. In addition, the total number of repossession orders granted by the courts in quarter 2 of this year is down on that in previous years. It should be noted that in quarter 2 of this year more repossession cases were refused, struck out or withdrawn in the courts than granted.
I acknowledge that there is some disquiet about private security operators who may be employed by third parties to enforce court orders. I recently requested that my officials examine the regulation of such operators with a view to bringing them within the remit of the Private Security Authority. I expect a report from an intergovernmental group chaired by a senior official of my Department in January 2019 and I will take all the necessary and appropriate steps in light of the report.
However, I reiterate my very strong concerns regarding vigilantism and criminal gangs operating outside the law. Such activity has no place in Irish society and cannot be equated with the lawful enforcement of court orders within the State. Any action outside the law is unacceptable.