Thursday, 12 November 2020
Regulation of Private Security Firms Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is unacceptable that there is no regulation governing the activities of the personnel who enforce court orders, including orders for eviction. That lack of regulation is hard to fathom and comprehend. This legislation came about in response to the shocking scenes we have seen at evictions in recent years. I instance, in particular, the evictions at North Frederick Street in Dublin city more than two years ago and the eviction that took place in Strokestown, County Roscommon. There are other examples which may not have come to media attention to the same extent. It is a fact that the persons involved in enforcing those court-ordered evictions were not subject to oversight and there was no opportunity for the people who were the subject of the evictions to complain. The personnel involved did not conduct themselves in an acceptable way. Indeed, their conduct was very heavy-handed and quite scandalous.
Following the North Frederick Street evictions, I contacted the Private Security Authority to make a complaint regarding my dissatisfaction with the way they were conducted. I was informed that those involved in the enforcement of court orders, including eviction orders, did not come under the remit of the authority. I was absolutely amazed at this. I conveyed my concern to the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who confirmed that this was the case. It is astonishing that we have allowed a situation to develop, whether by oversight or however it came to be, that people who provide security in bars, restaurants and shops are subject to far more oversight and regulation than those responsible for carrying out evictions. The person working the door of Mothercare is subject to more regulation than a person who has the authority to force somebody out of his or her home.
Deputy Martin Kenny and I drew up this legislation to fix that very significant loophole, which is not without consequence. We propose to amend section 2 of the Private Security Services Act 2004 by adding a new category of security personnel within the remit of the Act and the scope of the Private Security Authority, namely, persons involved in the execution and-or enforcement of court orders for repossession. This would bring them within the remit of the legislation and the authority generally and would also, for example, make the provisions of sections 29 and 30 of the same Act applicable to them. The Bill makes explicit that all personnel operating within the private security industry must identify themselves and that they will fall within the remit of the legislation. The authority is responsible, for instance, for the control and supervision of persons providing security, including the granting, suspending and revoking of licences, maintaining a register of licensees, issuing identity cards, specifying qualifications, setting minimum standards of practice and administering a system of investigation and adjudication of complaints. The latter point, in particular, was one of our main reasons for drawing up these proposals. As a public representative, I had a way of expressing my dissatisfaction with what happened on North Frederick Street. In the case of tenants, who are directly affected by such events, there is nowhere for them to take a complaint. The current lack of regulation means that the people carrying out this role, and the banks and financial institutions employing them to do so, have carte blanchein terms of how they conduct themselves. Those banks and financial institutions can choose to employ whomever they like, with no need to have them vetted, and send them off to force a family out of their home. That is completely unacceptable.
Subsequent to the North Frederick Street evictions, in late 2018, I said to the then Minister for Justice and Equality that if he did not address the matter, we would bring forward legislation. He said he would do so but no Bill was forthcoming. We published this legislation in early 2019, at which point the then Minister undertook, yet again, to introduce a Bill. Once again, he did not do so. When I looked at the legislative programme of the new Government, I saw no reference to any legislation of this kind. I am informed that the Government will support our proposals and had intended to bring forward its own Bill. The tabling of this debate has perhaps pushed the matter up the agenda. There has been talk of action for two years but no progress, at least publicly, from the Department. That is not good enough and we absolutely need action at this point. I welcome the Government's indication that it will support our Bill. Far too often, the approach has been to vote down good legislative proposals or send them off into the never-never. My understanding is that this will not happen on this occasion and I hope the same will apply in respect of other useful pieces of legislation. I am glad that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, recognise the value of this Bill.
It is important to point out that evictions hit a very raw nerve for people in this country. What happened during the Famine and the Land War, and everything connected to those events, is seared into our collective memory. It offends us emotionally to think of people being forced out of their home unjustly, because they cannot afford their rent or mortgage payments or for whatever reason. Despite that, we have a situation where not only are the people who enforce court orders - the descendants of the bailiffs of old - not regulated, we also have inadequate protections for tenants. That issue must be resolved urgently. At this time, the eviction ban the Government has put in place during the current Covid restrictions is due to lapse in a couple of weeks if we move out of level 5. If it does, an eviction could happen before Christmas or just after Christmas and the same lack of regulations will apply. The banks can send in whomever they like to do whatever they like, other than what the criminal law prevents them from doing. As I said, there is an urgency to resolving this issue and it is unacceptable that it has continued for so long.
We also need to do much more to protect tenants and prevent evictions. We must ensure that nobody is evicted into homelessness and nobody is evicted on a basis that is unfair and unjust, as happened in our past. The reality is that such evictions could very well happen because there are people, particularly in the current Covid crisis, who are out of work and under pressure as their bills and debts mount up. Many people have received a notice to quit, including people in my constituency who have notices from early in the year. The successive stays of execution have allowed them to hang on until now but they are potentially facing eviction in the future.
More broadly, the Covid-related ban on evictions needs to be extended to January and then reviewed. I say reviewed because it should not necessarily be removed, but the situation should be evaluated at that time. The Focus Ireland amendment to prevent people being evicted into homelessness should be implemented and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage should move to ensure that tenants can get contracts of indefinite duration. There has been some talk of reforms in that area which the Department feels would go far enough but my sense of the matter is that they would not. It is talking about a technical change which will not allow tenants that contract of indefinite duration and the security this would offer. I urge the Minister of State to engage with the Department to ensure this measure is introduced.
The specific Bill before us is a small, practical and sensible Bill which needs to be progressed. I urge the Minister of State not to allow this to sit on Committee Stage. We have this evening's debate and there may then be a launch or statement by the Minister at a later stage before the Bill goes off into the never-never and nothing happens with it. This failure or gap could potentially facilitate heavy-handedness, confrontation, aggravation and violence if it is not legislated for. We cannot continue to allow banks and financial institutions to employ whoever they like while allowing An Garda Síochána very little scope to do anything about it. In this situation, the tenants affected can do nothing about it and have nobody to whom to complain. Níl sé sin maith go leor. Caithfear é a réiteach.
Cuirim fáilte roimh tacaíocht an Aire Stáit don Bhille atá os ár gcomhair tráthnóna. Tá sé tábhachtach agus luachmhar. Ba chóir dúinn é a chur chun cinn chomh luath agus is féidir, go síneoidh an tUachtarán é agus go gcuirfear i bhfeidhm é, ach ní leor é sin ann féin. Cé go gcuirfear fáilte roimhe, caithfimid cinnte a dhéanamh go gcuirfear deireadh le daoine a chur amach as a gcuid tithe agus go dtabharfar níos mó cearta, cúnaimh agus cosanta dóibh, mar atá luaite agam, trí reachtaíocht agus trí bhac a chur ar dhaoine a chur as a gcuid tithe go dtí an bhliain nua. I thank the Minister of State. I look forward to listening to him and to other Deputies.
I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who initiated this legislation during the term of the last Dáil. We are in a totally impractical situation in which court orders can be executed in a very heavy-handed manner. We have seen this in some evictions and other situations in which court orders were used to repossess property. It does not always have to be a person's property - it can be vehicles, business premises and so on.
In very many cases, we see security firms operating in a very heavy-handed way. Their operatives often wear masks and really bully and intimidate people. I have spoken to members of An Garda Síochána who have been present in these situations and they have felt very uncomfortable with what they have seen unfold in front of them but there was little or nothing they could do other than advise that the security personnel were stepping over the mark and needed to give those being evicted a chance. Very often this advice would be ignored because these so-called security firms recognise that they are one step ahead of the law because they do not come under regulation.
This legislation will bring them under such regulation and will ensure they will have to comply, register and maintain a certain level of credentials. They will have to have proper management structures in place and will not be allowed to breach people's dignity as they do. This has happened very often. That was certainly seen to happen not far from me in Strokestown just over 18 months ago. A very heavy-handed firm came in, many of whose operatives were from another jurisdiction, which is another problem as people sometimes come from outside the country to do this kind of work. This is not the kind of work which many people should be inclined to do. It is certainly against the grain of everything Irish people stand for.
Stepping away from the rights and wrongs of the matter, we understand that banks sometimes feel they have to prosecute people in order to recover debt. In these cases, repossession orders may be issued. Apart from the rights and wrongs of that, we must consider the wrong of these security firms operating so heavy-handedly when dealing with people, who are sometimes very vulnerable and stressed. This can often have great implications for these people's mental health. It is absolutely scandalous.
It is welcome that both the Minister of State and the senior Minister have indicated that they accept the bona fides of this legislation on the basis that it is trying to do the right thing and move this situation forward. I understand that the Government is working on other legislation and that this may be incorporated into it. If we can, we will co-operate and work with the Minister of State on that. That is certainly what we need to do. I expect that this legislation will get the support of all sides of the House because this behaviour really affronts people's sense of dignity. We see big brother coming in and bullying people. We understand that this is sometimes carried out by very big businesses with very deep pockets and that tenants sometimes have debts they refuse to pay. There can be quite legitimate reasons for the issuing of court orders. Other times, however, these court orders are issued in situations in which people are very vulnerable. Particularly in those situations, the use of these security firms is completely out of hand.
With regard to the issue of evictions during the Covid pandemic, an extension of the bar on evictions needs to be closely examined. That needs to be looked at very seriously because we cannot allow a situation in which people who are already stressed and under pressure are also put in fear of repossession of their properties and of losing their homes under these circumstances. A lot of work needs to be done in this area. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that it is an area on which many of us in the Houses get representations from constituents. These are often not from the people who are feeling the brunt of the problem but from people connected to them because these people feel somehow unable to advocate on their own behalf. Somebody connected to them, perhaps a neighbour or relative, will ask what can be done for these people who are under serious pressure and whose homes are about to be taken from them. That is a reflection of the situation in Ireland, whereby many people start to blame themselves when they get into such circumstances. We need to tell people who are in that situation that businesses sometimes fail and that people's circumstances in life sometimes fail, but that people do not fail. People can recover and can come back from such situations and work through them.
This legislation is vital to turn these matters around and to make a clear statement to the public that the people who are engaged in executing these court orders have to come under the authority of the State, have to be responsible and have to be regulated. I welcome the Minister of State's response to the effect that he will support the legislation.
I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for bringing forward this Bill. At the outset, let me state that the Government fully understands and appreciates his reasons for bringing it forward and is supportive of the important public policy objectives that underpin it. For this reason, the Government has decided not to oppose the Second Stage of the Bill. However, I would like to advise the House that the Government will be bringing forward legislation in this area which will achieve a similar objective to Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill and is intended to address some other issues.
Many of us will recall the removal of persons trespassing and illegally occupying a private property on North Frederick Street in September 2018 on foot of a High Court order. The persons were removed by a private security firm. The personnel who attended at the property on behalf of the private security firm are not currently subject to regulation or licensing by the Private Security Authority, PSA, under the Private Security Services Act 2004, as amended. This is because this activity does not fall within the definition of what constitutes a security service under the Act.
In light of the widespread dissatisfaction with events at the property on North Frederick Street and the inherent risk associated with unregulated persons carrying out such functions - and I note the stress and fear such occurrences can cause for people and that they are an affront to people's sense of what is right - the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, made a commitment to the Dáil in September 2018 that the law governing the area of persons involved in the execution of court orders that are not licensable by the PSA would be examined. The Minister established an interdepartmental working group chaired by the then Department of Justice and Equality. It consisted of officials from the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána, the County Registrars Association, the Revenue Commissioners, the then Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the PSA.
The remit of the working group was to examine the steps necessary to bring the regulation and licensing of security personnel assisting those enforcing court orders for eviction or repossession within the remit of the PSA. On 9 April 2019, the then Government approved the publication of the working group's report and the drafting of a general scheme of a Bill to give effect to the proposed legislative amendments.
Bringing such personnel within the licensing remit of the PSA was the key recommendation of the interdepartmental working group report. On 22 October 2019, the Government approved the drafting of the private security services (amendment) Bill. I would like to assure the Deputy and the House that progressing this Government legislation is of high importance to the Government. Work on the Bill is at an advanced stage and the intention is, subject to the will of the Houses, to have the Bill enacted in the first half of 2021.
Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill proposes to amend section 2 of the Private Security Services Act 2004, as amended, by inserting a new section 2(1)(i) into the Act. This new provision would add "persons involved in the execution and/or enforcement of Court orders including Orders for Repossession" to the list of private security services to be licensed by the PSA under the 2004 Act.
The Government Bill that will be introduced has a similar objective and will amend section 2 to include a new category of enforcement guard in the list of private security services licensed by the PSA under the 2004 Act. Detailed consideration is being given to this provision beyond that outlined in Deputy Ó Laoghaire's proposal. It is proposed to give further definition and clarity in the Government Bill. As outlined in the general scheme, an enforcement guard will mean a person who as part of his or her duties, is authorised to remove persons from a premises or place, in order to take possession of the premises or place; controls, supervises or restricts entry to a premises or place in order to take possession of the premises or place; or seizes property or goods in lieu of an outstanding debt. The scope of this definition is being examined in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General.
While similar in terms of objectives, the detailed legal consideration that is being undertaken by the Department's officials and the Office of the Attorney General seeks to avoid unintended consequences and legal uncertainty. In line with the recommendations of the working group, and as outlined in the published general scheme of the Government Bill, the Government legislation will contain proposed amendments to other legislation in this area. It is proposed to repeal a provision in relation to the display of court messengers' names and places of residence in courthouses, in the interests of the safety of such personnel. It is also proposed to amend section 33 of the Private Security Services Act 2004, as amended, to allow the register of licences to be available on the Internet as well as the PSA's offices. It is also proposed to amend section 3 of the Act to exempt from licensing those engaged in the enforced collection of Revenue liabilities by a sheriff. Where, in exceptional circumstances, there might be a need to engage security personnel, existing protocols have been updated in Revenue to include a requirement that such personnel are licensed by the PSA.
Detailed and considered work on the Government Bill is at an advanced stage. The Bill will deal with these issues more substantively and with greater legal certainty. Further provisions may also be considered as timely additions to this Bill. Officials from the Department are in constant contact with the PSA. They welcome contributions from any quarter, including from the Deputy, to ensure the legislative framework for the PSA is fit for purpose. As I have said, the Government is seized of the importance attaching to this issue. I hope to be in a position to publish the Government Bill shortly, with a view to its enactment as early as possible in 2021.
I share Deputy Ó Laoghaire's genuine concerns that the law in this area should be comprehensive and that those providing security should operate to the highest standards. I am pleased that when the necessary amendments to the primary legislation are in place, it will be an offence to operate as an enforcement guard without a PSA licence. Such individuals will also be subject to the training standards and licensing regime operated by the PSA. It will also be an offence to represent oneself as an enforcement guard by advertisement or to display any object purporting to indicate that the holder is a licensed enforcement guard. For both offences, a person may be liable for a class A fine or imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both, on summary conviction. A conviction on indictment can lead to imprisonment up to five years or the imposition of a fine, or both.
The PSA is an important independent agency under the aegis of the Department of Justice. It is charged with introducing, controlling and managing a comprehensive standards-based licensing system for the private security industry. Private security staff occupy a position of trust, engaging in regular interactions with members of the public. It is therefore essential that this area is properly regulated in order to protect public safety and confidence. The PSA has made significant progress in regulating the private security industry since its establishment in 2005. Confidence in the industry has greatly improved due to the manner in which the PSA carries out its functions, providing clients of private security service providers with assurance that the industry is working to the highest standards possible. I want to place on record my appreciation of the work of the PSA and its staff in this regard.
Last week, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, welcomed the PSA's annual report for 2019. The mission of the PSA is to regulate the activities of those involved in the private security industry to ensure the interests of consumers are fully protected through the establishment, promotion, monitoring and enforcement of appropriate standards. With the introduction of these amendments, the PSA can continue to provide its important role in the private security industry and contribute to the protection of our community.
I trust that the Government's agreement not to oppose the Deputy's Private Members' Bill on the regulation of private security firms at the end of this Second Stage debate is seen in the co-operative spirit that it is intended. The House will note that the Bill deals with a reform that will be addressed by the Government in its private security services (amendment) Bill 2020, which includes additional provisions, and the drafting of which is at an advanced stage. It is hoped to be in a position to publish the Government Bill in the near future. We look forward to debating it in this House in due course. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing contributions from other Members of the House on this reform as an input to the Government's finalisation of its proposals. Once again, I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for bringing forward this Bill. The current situation is unacceptable. I assure the Deputy that the Government Bill addressing this matter will be prosecuted with eagerness. As I said, we will not just publish it but we will seek to have this Bill enacted in early 2021.
I compliment Deputies Martin Kenny and Ó Laoghaire for bringing forward this very badly needed legislation. I wish the Minister of State well in his new role as this may be the first time I have addressed him in this House. The Minister of State and I are aware of the case of the Hendrick family in Kilkenny, who are friends of the Minister of State and his father. They were treated in an appalling way a number of years ago.
Deputies Nolan, Michael Collins and myself met the CEO of the PSA, Paul Scanlon, in Leinster House. That meeting happened as a result of what happened on the roadside in Kilkenny and as a result of what happened to the White family under the famed Slievenamon in Charles Kickham country in Tipperary when thugs arrived in the middle of the night, broke into the property, caused untold damage and took away machinery. They were thugs and there was a Garda car sitting at the gate of the house while this was going on. This would not happen in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and that is exactly what it was.
We saw what happened in Roscommon. I am not going into the wrongs or rights of it but I am going into the fact that we have mercenaries coming from outside the State from Northern Ireland. Some are former SAS people and some come from foreign countries. They are well trained with wearing masks for Covid-19 because they are well used to wearing thick balaclavas. One would only barely see their eyes. They also wear gloves with knuckle dusters. I mention the equipment they had in the context of the injuries they inflicted on a member of the Hendrick family that night. They nearly kicked him to death and I am sure Deputy Howlin is aware of this too. Thank God he is a grown young man but his life was nearly lost with the kicking he got. His lungs could have been punctured when his ribs were broken. They pulled him off the tractor just because he was trying to take a photo of them while driving his father's tractor down a country road. It was barbaric. He waited two hours for a Garda car to come. That happened under the law because there is no law to deal with it.
I wish the Minister of State well and I hope he embraces this legislation and deals with this issue. We met the CEO of the PSA, Mr. Paul Scanlon, to give voice to our serious concerns about the capacity of the State to sanction unlicensed security personnel effectively. Our group organised that meeting to try to address the apparent lack of sanctions for those who engage in aggressive acts of intimidation while purporting to be linked to licensed security agencies. We saw in Roscommon case that some of the people who took part in that barbaric act dragged a poor man out of the house by the ear for everyone to see. They were fined heavily for that but that was all they got. It was a slap on the wrists. Heavy fines mean nothing to them because they are after blood money. They get massive money to do the dirty work for the banks.
Evictions have massive connotations in this country. That is why the New Land League was formed. The president of that organisation, Jerry Beades, attended that meeting with us. We had a further meeting in the PSA's headquarters in Tipperary but the legislation has not been enacted. As I said, that meeting was organised as part of the wider issue of having all of the stakeholders, including homeowners and property owners, consulted. Many of those people have received little protection from the courts because many of them had to go in as lay litigants. I was there with some of them in some cases. I was there for one case when a lady was brought from Cork in a prison van. She was traumatised and she could not stand up. She was screamed at to stand up by the judge but she was physically unable to do so, nor was she able to speak up either with the trauma of what was going on.
In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government went off with a paragraph or two in health legislation to remove the hearsay clause to allow these vultures to hire these criminals. That is what they are. Many of them have criminal records.
We saw what happened in Balbriggan. The Minister of State referred to that himself. The people involved that day parked their vehicles in the Garda station, and that is well known. It is time that some kind of order was brought to this situation.
Overall, we had very constructive engagement with the Private Security Authority in Tipperary and it is doing its best. Significant details regarding acts of violence carried out by rogue operators, and indeed some licensed operators, were put to the CEO of the PSA. We then found out that the board of the PSA, which needs reform as well, contains representatives who were appointed by a Garda assistant commissioner, the former Minister for Education and Skills and the former Minister for Justice and Equality. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that the previous Government was unaware of these problems. If it was, then is the PSA like more boards and quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations, quangos, in that it was not doing its job? The PSA is not doing what it is there for. We have boards, more boards and quangos, but are they doing their jobs?
I look forward to this legislation being embraced by the Government. I will be maintaining a vigilant watch to ensure that it does. I refer to the merciless receivership that is going to happen in this country in 2021 because of the removal of the hearsay clause and any protections for homeowners. These thugs are waiting for what is going to be unleashed. They need to be reined in.
I welcome this Bill. Along with Deputies Mattie McGrath and Michael Collins, I met the PSA and we dealt with several issues. What occurred at that meeting was a realisation that the current legislation from 2004 is far too weak and needs to be strengthened. I support what this Bill is trying to do, because this is exactly what we must do to protect people in repossession cases or where there are court orders. What has happened in this State is scandalous. I am aware of a widow, who was very sick, who had her land ploughed up by thugs. They were acting in the interests of a bank. In this day and age, it is beyond belief that this type of activity is happening. We are witnessing people being dragged from their homes.
In addition to strengthening this Bill to ensure there is regulation and vetting of all security personnel used by banks, we must also ensure that banks are regulated. Homeowners need protection. Only last week, I got a call from a distressed mortgage holder who told me that he made an arrangement with a bank after six or seven different people from the bank phoned him. It was verging on harassment. He made the arrangement, that was reneged on it, and the bank then sent him a letter for an amount that was €150 higher than what was agreed. People are still being subjected to harassment, so I feel we need to take preventive measures, as well as the measures contained in this legislation which I welcome wholeheartedly.
We must ensure that people are treated fairly and with respect. There is no need for violence, aggression or threats today. There should be security personnel who are professionals and who are regulated by the PSA. That will be of benefit in future, but preventive measures must also be taken. I ask that that aspect be taken on board, because it is a bit high-handed that we have people paying mortgages, and the banks profiteering on the mortgage breaks which we had during this pandemic, and then coming over heavy-handed with people. We are, unfortunately, going to see more repossessions because of this pandemic. People need to be treated with respect and with fairness. We are all responsible for the laws enacted in this country. We must ensure that they are enacted for our people and that it is done with fairness, equality and respect for all in this land.
I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for bringing this Bill before the House and I welcome the response from the Government in not opposing it and giving an assurance that we will see some action on this issue. As it stands, the enforcement of evictions and court orders is not covered under the Private Security Services Act 2004 and, therefore, do not fall under the remit of the PSA. Evictions and court orders can be carried out by anyone once a court order is issued. No licence is needed, force is permitted if it is deemed to be required and there is a complete absence of oversight and accountability. That is not good enough. It is not a hypothetical situation; it is a real situation and it is not a recent revelation.
There have been some high-profile evictions. I refer to the one in Roscommon, with the eviction of a family from their home near Strokestown in December 2018. The eviction was ordered by the High Court because of an unpaid debt to KBC Bank. KBC hired GS Agencies Limited to enforce the eviction. GS Agencies Limited is run by a debt collector who is an ex-British soldier, who served with the Royal Irish Regiment, RIR, and the Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR. He contacted former colleagues a month prior to the eviction, requesting them to travel to Roscommon and to name their price. Much of this was in the media, but it is important to say it here. The aftermath of the eviction turned violent, with several people injured, vehicles burned and a dog killed. A former colleague of the agency owner said that he seemed to get the jobs that no other security firm wanted. There is further subcontracting to get people to do the dirty work. When good security staff will not take up the job, where will the company turn? This was the kind of stuff to which reference was made.
The security firm was found guilty of six breaches of the Private Security Services Act 2004 due to its occupation of the house after the eviction, but the personnel involved could not be charged for their actions during the eviction. It was reported in the media that a Garda superintendent ordered both entrances to the house to be closed off during the eviction. There was also a Garda presence outside the boundaries of the property to observe the eviction taking place. That does not reflect well on the Garda. As has already been said, many gardaí do not want to be placed in this kind of situation.
Housing activists in 34 North Frederick Street were removed from a vacant building which they had occupied in defiance of a court order as part of the Take Back The City campaign in 2018. The 15 or 20 men who removed the activists wore balaclavas, refused to show identification and arrived in a van with no registration on the front and UK number plates on the back. The men were from a private security firm hired by the landlord to enforce the eviction. The Garda public order unit had a substantial presence on the scene and its members wore face coverings. The activist group said that physical force was used against several attendees and five activists were arrested. This was a heavy-handed and confrontational response to a peaceful protest which sought to highlight the extent of the housing crisis. The conduct of the gardaí drew criticism from the Opposition, Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL.
On 12 August 2020, tenants were evicted from a property on Berkeley Road in Phibsborough. The tenants had not received a legal eviction notice, but had received a message via Facebook. That is not that unusual in respect of the kinds of eviction notices people get. There is a presumption that such messages are sufficient, but strict protocol surrounds eviction notices and I am surprised how often I have seen those kinds of eviction notices issued, particularly to renters. In this case in Phibsborough, men from a private security firm, wearing masks, hats, scarfs and dark glasses, evicted the tenants and boarded up the property. Gardaí were called to the property by the tenants, who had called 999 to request assistance. Gardaí did not intervene as the tenants were physically removed from their home, according to video footage.
The footage also shows the gardaí telling the tenants that they had no right to be there any more and that it was not the Garda's responsibility if the tenants were homeless. That may well be true, but it is not how gardaí should be represented in this kind of situation.
It draws them in in a way that I believe is not conducive to governing by consent. The eviction was deemed invalid and the tenants returned to the property. Severe property damage was done to the home by the private security firm, personal belongings were destroyed, toilets were smashed, the electricity was switched off and doors were pulled from their hinges. The Policing Authority has questioned the "appropriateness of the Garda presence and of some of the things that appeared to have been said, and about the fact that circumstances were allowed to develop where the impression was conveyed that the Garda Síochána had an active role in the event". The ICCL has said an Garda Síochána should not be playing a supporting role in private evictions unless it is a necessary and proportionate response to actual or threatened criminal behaviour.
The latest figures available from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, indicate that 372 eviction notices were served between March and June 2020, with 131 of these being notified to the RTB between April and June 2020 despite the Government's introduction of an eviction ban and a rent freeze in late March. The RTB reports an average of six to seven calls per week related to unlawful termination of tenancies since March. They are the ones that are notified to the RTB. Many Members are also aware of individual cases. Threshold has also noticed a worrying increase in the overall cases of illegal evictions in comparison with last year. Since March, 44 tenants had contacted Threshold after being illegally evicted from their housing, of whom 17 ended up in homeless accommodation or sleeping in their cars. Once the moratorium on evictions came to an end in August this year, the number of tenants requiring Threshold's assistance with notice of terminations had increased and went back almost to 2019 levels. This really indicates the importance of seeing the need for a response way beyond the lockdown and well into next year as a minimum of what needs to be done.
In the recent Threshold renter's survey, one third reported a reduction in income due to Covid restrictions, and a large number of renters feel less secure in their rental homes since the beginning of the pandemic. One fifth of those surveyed said they are paying more than 50% of their net income on rent, with 57% paying more than 30% of their net income. The private rental sector offers a hugely insecure option in terms of housing and rent, where very often people do not have any other options. I spoke recently to a pensioner who has fairly serious issues with compromised health. She told me that she is more scared of being evicted from her home than catching Covid. That says an awful lot.
Higher standards are needed from private security firms and the Garda in the enforcement of court orders and evictions. We need to ensure that security services hired to enforce legal orders act humanely, professionally, and are held to account for their actions if they deviate from that. By bringing these private security firms under the remit of the Act, anyone who is involved in enforcing court orders would be subject to high standards, oversight, licensing, complaints procedures and would be required to carry identification. I believe this is a bare minimum of what is needed. There are a whole lot of other issues around the insecurity of the whole rental sector and the threat of eviction for people who have mortgage arrears.
I commend and congratulate Deputy Ó Laoghaire on bringing this legislation before the House. The Deputy has spotted a requirement to sort a gap in the 2004 Act. I remember there was a protracted debate about regulating the security industry through the late 1990s and right up to that period. People understood that there needed to be regulation, proper training and proper identification of everybody involved in the security industry, be they people who provided alarms or safes in houses, or people who worked security standing at doors and who sometimes completely overstepped the bounds. While there is a schedule to the original 2004 Act, people assume there is a comprehensive list. Clearly, as time goes on we learn that it needs to be expanded. This Bill simply adds another category of people to be encompassed by the 2004 Act. It is not a difficult thing for us to do as a Legislature.
I will also make a general point, and it is something we worked on very hard in the previous Dáil. Where the Government did not command a clear majority it allowed people actually to look at gaps in the law and propose legislation. The Oireachtas itself armed Deputies not to be as passive as they had been for a very long time and to be proactive in producing legislation. It has taken a long time for the Government actually to get up to pace with that and to accept legislation from the other side.
I have been around here a long time and I am always wary when people say they are going to set up an interdepartmental working group. In the Westminster annals, of course, that means sayonara and that it is never to appear again. That is not to be ungenerous to interdepartmental working groups as I am sure they are very good. One year on since the announcement by the Minister that they wanted to set up an interdepartmental working group to see whether this category should be included in the auspices of the Act, the Minister tells us today that the main conclusion in the report is that, yes, they should. This is what the Minister had indicated ab initio in the review. We still have not seen the legislation. The Minister has promised legislation next year, which I welcome. I also welcome the fact while there is a majority in the House, it is not the instinctive reaction to vote it down.
It would be a good thing simply to enact the Bill as presented. There is still the notion, and I have a number of pieces of legislation myself, that legislative style is important and so on and there is always a reason it cannot be done, no matter how well crafted a piece of legislation. This is not complicated. It is simply adding a new category to the definition section of an existing Act. If it needs to be superseded when there is another omnibus Bill in the future, then so be it.
On the meat of the Bill, I will not rehearse what has already been well rehearsed by some of the experiences whereby completely unauthorised people who have no identification and who are not known present themselves to intimidate our citizens. That is not acceptable. Sometimes that will lead to a reaction, which is equally unacceptable, where local vigilantes counter that sort of perceived intimidation. We have to stop that. The way to do that is to ensure that people respect the courts, the decisions of the courts and the implementation of the courts' decisions. If a decision of the court is unjust, then the decision must be appealed and the court must be trusted to deal with it. Where a court's decision is made, it must be implemented, but not in any heavy-handed way, not in an unacceptable way, and not in a way that horrifies our own people. I am afraid that in some of the instances that have been so ably elucidated before the House this evening, this is the case.
We need to do this. I suppose it is with the luck of God that we do not have a catalogue of visible cases. There are probably a lot of cases that have not been brought to our notice because they are individuals who do not reach out and they just endure that sort of thing.
The sooner the better we get this legislation enacted in order that there will be no cases and that anyone involved in the enforcement or execution of court orders for repossession will be licensed, identified, regulated and subject to complaint and proper training. It should not be a case of just gathering the lads. That cannot be right. It is not right and we have to stop it.
I want to mention a separate issue, which is security of tenure in any event. We have a long way to go as a society as regards renting. It is probably something instinctive. Deputy Ó Laoghaire stated that there is something visceral in the Irish psyche when it comes to evictions. It is because of our folk memory that we are passionate about security of tenure and having a roof over our heads. People will go without food rather than risk losing their homes. That is the fact of it. However, there is a new reality now. Most people of my generation always wanted to buy their own house but there is a whole generation now that, sometimes because of economic necessity, are required to rent long term or permanently. Some people choose to rent for life, as is the continental norm. They rent from their local authority and although there are generous buy-out schemes available, they choose to stay permanently as tenants. In the private sector, it is the norm across Europe and the United States for people to be in rent-controlled buildings. They have security of tenure, sometimes intergenerational security of tenure, and there is never any fear of eviction or exorbitant or unrealistic rent hikes being imposed on them. We need to get into that space and we need to have that debate.
The majority of landlords are accidental landlords who own one or two properties. They often offload their properties to companies that manage them for them. We need proper long-term security of tenure and long-term leasing possibilities so people can know that as long as they pay their rent, which is regulated and reasonable, they will have a permanent home and a roof over their heads. The maintenance of the home would also be managed properly, effectively and efficiently by landlords. That is the normal relationship that exists across the developed world and it has not embedded itself in sufficient form here. We have all dealt with cases ranging from bad landlords in some instances, who are entirely unreasonable, to bad tenants who do not pay their rent and do not mind the property. I want to be quite clear about that. We need a new settlement on this matter in order that there is a reasonable and fair, but not exorbitant, return for those who invest in private property to rent it, as well as absolute security for long-term living for those who want to lease and rent premises. They should be able to raise their families in those premises if they so choose without any notion that they will be dislodged from their homes, which would in turn dislodge their kids from their schools and so on. All of that is entirely unacceptable. That is a debate for a different Department than the Minster of State's.
Coming back to this specific legislation, I think Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill would be resoundingly supported by every Member of this House. Let us get it on the Statute Book. If a Government Bill comes along to subsume it later, so be it. The Bill will give the protection everyone in this House wants to afford to people who might face what I have to describe as the thuggery we have seen in the past. We must protect them from that and ensure people cannot be abused in our State. Where we have seen that happen, we as legislators have a responsibility to respond.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this matter. I support Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill. This issue was talked about last year and the year before. I welcome that the Minister of State is accepting the Bill but I note that the Government is talking about bringing in its own legislation on this matter. As Deputy Howlin pointed out, we all knew a year ago or two years ago - probably longer for anyone who has been here that long - that something was required in this area. I do not know why we put a group of people from all different Departments together to decide on what we knew already. I do not know whether they were drinking tea or what they were doing for a year. It would baffle one at times. We are where we are and we are moving on from that. Maybe the Government can bring in its own Bill with all the parts of this Bill in it, and the Minister of State said he wants to address other things in it as well. That is fine but if a Bill is not in the legislative sequence for the spring or whenever it is being done it will be kicked down the road and we never see the end of the road. That is the one thing we do not want. When a Bill has gone through Second Stage it should be moved on. The one thing we should never be is afraid of is accepting a different view or accepting legislation from all parties in this House. Ultimately, there is fair agreement on this and we are all shooting at the one star trying to do good for people. It is important that we are big enough at times to say someone was right or that something is good and accept it. I have huge respect for a person who will do that and I welcome what the Minister of State said.
This area needs regulation and there have been problems with it around the country where companies have been fined. The people involved should need identification and be trained in difficult situations. That is the first thing. We need people who are properly trained. We also need a registration system, so that people cannot just load up a few others in a car and away they go and that is it, they are a security company. All these things are important. Identification and knowing how to handle situations is fiercely important. All I can say is well done to Deputy Ó Laoghaire on bringing the Bill forward. I acknowledge what the Minister of State has said today and what he has done. I will not take up any more time except to say I support the Bill.
Like everyone else, I commend Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Kenny for bringing this legislation forward. Everyone accepts that it is absolutely necessary. I also welcome that the Minister of State has said the Government will not be opposing it. He spoke about this as a sign of an ability or willingness to work across the House. Hopefully we will see that happen. Whether we pass this legislation or other Government legislation that deals with this issue and possibly some other matters, the timeline is what matters. This needs to be addressed as soon as possible, as a number of colleagues have already stated.
It has already been pointed out by many people that this is a very simple solution to one particular problem but we probably need a suite of solutions across the board. Many have spoken about the difficulties we have in this State with a huge housing crisis and people paying absolutely extortionate rents. We do not have sufficient affordable housing projects and there is no proper affordable housing project across this State. That that locks people out.
People do not have security of tenure. I welcome what Deputy Howlin said in that regard. He spoke about cases of really bad landlords who need to be dealt with. We probably also have cases of tenants who have not played their part. Threshold has said that what we need is a professionalisation of the entire sector. That would provide the protections needed by renters and also give protections to landlords. We are talking specifically about the landlords who are leaving the sector.
Unfortunately, they are being replaced with vulture funds. These are the sort of outfits that are not sufficiently regulated, for which there are not sufficient protections and which have bought up a large number of loans. We will need protections across the board in this regard.
This legislation is straightforward. We are talking about people who are involved in the execution or enforcement or both of court orders, including orders for repossessions, and they should fall under the remit of the Private Security Authority. It is absolutely ludicrous, in that we expect door staff and those doing security work in shops to be subject to this regulation but here there are people involved in what can be incredibly distressing situations for those who are being evicted. As was said, we require people who are skilled, who are the right fit and who have been through proper vetting to ensure they are the right people for doing this type of work.
We should have protections for those being evicted because, as was said and as everyone knows, there have been many examples of thuggery in such instances which is not acceptable in this day and age.
This is incredibly simple and needs to happen as soon as possible. However, we need to ensure we deal with the other underlying problems in the sector. That means protections for the ordinary person, although not necessarily the protections we have at present, which make it easy for vulture funds and for people who are quite happy to get a posse together, which sounds like something from a Wild West movie, to arrive at somebody’s house to carry out an eviction. As many people have noted, that still resonates with the Irish psyche. It is a tradition arising from the Famine, the Land War and a time when many Irish people were utterly powerless. We need to ensure we put the protections in place for those who find themselves in these situations. It is a simple request and the Government needs to move on it as soon as possible. I accept it has stated its willingness to work with everybody in the House and with all the stakeholders to ensure protections for people who find themselves in a distressing eviction-type situation. We need to ensure that those who work in these situations are properly regulated and that controls are in place in order that we do not have a repeat of some of the situations of which we are all aware and which were spoken about tonight. The Government needs to move as quickly as possible. We will be more than happy and willing to work with it.
I listened carefully to Deputy Ó Laoghaire and the other contributors. It is important to highlight there is a common and shared objective, namely, to bring persons involved in the execution and enforcement of court orders, including orders for repossession, within the definition of "security service". It requires licensing under section 2 of the Private Security Services Act. The Government will not oppose the Bill and is not opposed to the principle underlying it. The case for bringing legal certainty to this situation is undoubtedly clear. The Government hopes to be in a position to publish its own Bill shortly with a view to its enactment as early as possible in 2021.
I acknowledge the various concerns expressed by Deputies about matters which we will ensure are considered in the ongoing preparation of the Bill. Several examples have been given and, like all the Deputies, I am only too familiar with localised examples of where this situation has caused serious distress and concern. As some Deputies mentioned, it has upset people’s dignity and sense of right.
I agree with the sentiment expressed by Deputy Howlin on style. When I was practising as barrister, I recall being in court for almost 45 minutes participating in a debate over the meaning that a semicolon gave to the first part of a sentence.
Where one has difference in style, one will have a difference in debate.
It actually speaks to a bigger issue, namely, the lack of plain English. That puts up a serious barrier in law for people to be able to access their rights. We heard much commentary about the lack of proper eviction notices. Very often people do not know their rights and when they go to look them up, it is hard for them to understand their actual rights. We still often see legal doublets in our law such as "null and void" and "without due care and attention". There is a historical reason for this, in that people spoke French, English and Latin in the past. Plain English is something that we need to desperately look at for our future law, however.
There is no question that the current situation in this area is unacceptable and needs to be addressed quickly. I am happy Deputy Ó Laoghaire brought this Bill forward. We are not opposing it on Second Stage. The Government's Bill will be brought forward quite quickly. While the intention is to have it enacted early in the new year, supporting the progress of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill to Committee Stage will keep the pressure on the Government. Passing legislation in this area as quickly as possible is in the spirit of co-operation. I agree with Deputy Howlin that the focus in here has very much been on the Executive over the past number of decades, with not enough focus on the Parliament and on using the expertise and the knowledge across the House. I hope the Government will continue to acknowledge this and will work in a spirit of co-operation.
I thank the Minister of State, the Ceann Comhairle and all the Deputies who spoke on this Bill.
The Minister of State made a point about pressure. That is important. We identified this loophole in September 2018 and called on the then Minister to act on it. At that point, the then Minister said he would. In the absence of anything happening, however, we published a Bill in early 2019. At that point, the then Minister said legislation would be introduced at some point soon. In the absence of that, we moved the legislation to First Stage. In the absence of anything else, we then moved it to Second Stage. It has taken pressure to get to this point.
I appreciate an interdepartmental committee was working on the issue, which came to the logical conclusion that the area needed to be brought within the remit of existing private security services legislation. That said, until this afternoon we had no indication it was necessarily happening early next year. It was not on the legislative programme. I hope that this has injected a further degree of urgency.
It should because legislation in this area is urgently needed. It speaks volumes to the fact of the potential and real abuses of power that can and do take place under this legislation that the word "thuggery" came up on several occasions in this debate, including among Deputies I consider to be judicious, careful and considered in their language. I like to consider myself as that occasionally too as it is a good trait. It speaks volumes that several Deputies felt that such language was necessary and warranted because of some of the instances that we have encountered over recent years and more.
On top of that, there is the potential abuse of power. We all referred to the emotional and folk response we have to this and to what evictions mean in the Irish psyche. We spoke about how people in these situations had no power over what was done to them. The fact remains that if those enforcing a court-ordered eviction come on to a property to remove someone, that person has little or no power. The person has no complaint mechanism or no right to demand for whom are the enforcers acting. There is no particular restriction. It is incredible that those enforcing the order are authorised to use force but we have no sense of what that force might mean or what might be involved.
In theory they may be governed by the criminal law, but if we have no way of understanding what force is permitted and what is not, it will be very difficult to bring charges against somebody for the potentially very extreme force used in the enforcement of an eviction.
This is important. I welcome the Minister of State's attitude. It stands in contrast to the attitudes we have seen other Ministers take in Private Members' time in recent weeks and months. Sometimes the tactic of calling for a 12-month or nine-month delay when the principle has been agreed really frustrates me. Sometimes Ministers have delayed legislation for childish or egotistical reasons. I am glad that strategy has not been adopted, and that is a credit to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne. I hope we do not see it used today and we can move this legislation on and bring it into force as soon as possible. I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and all Deputies for their support.
Tá súil agam go mbeidh muid in ann an reachtaíocht seo a achtú chomh luath agus is féidir chun cosaint a thabhairt do thionóntaí agus chun a dhéanamh cinnte de nach bhfuil foréigean á úsáid ina gcoinne i slí nach féidir glacadh leis. Tá súil agam go ndéanfaidh an Bille cinnte de go bhfuil an ceart ag tionóntaí a bheith socair, go mbeidh maoirseacht agus rialacháin ar dhaoine a bhfuil páirteach sa rud seo agus nach leanfaidh an éagóir a rinneadh ar roinnt daoine. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit agus leis an Teach.