Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Residential Tenancies Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am grateful to all Deputies for facilitating debate on this urgent legislation in Dáil Éireann so that it can become law before the Easter recess. I also wish to record my appreciation to the Chief Whip and to members of both the Business Committee and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Bill to be read a Second Time today.
The Bill is a timely and proportionate response to the continued elevated threat and impact of the pandemic. The time-sensitive nature of the legislation is an inevitable consequence of the constant reassessment of the pandemic and its evolving nature. I thank Deputies for facilitating its passage in the same co-operative spirit that has enabled similar Bills to pass swiftly since the Covid-19 crisis erupted.
This is the fourth Bill the Government has introduced to protect tenants during this pandemic since I came into office. The virus has mutated and challenged us in different ways, but we have responded to ensure that as best as possible the vulnerable are shielded from the unprecedented economic fallout. Today’s Bill is a further important action to safeguard tenants in the face of an ever-threatening pandemic.
In light of this prolonged challenge, I ask Deputies to pass the Bill to enable its early enactment to provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act 2020, PDRTA, to extend the application of its enhanced tenancy protections for a further three months from 13 April 2021 to 12 July 2021. The Bill also provides for technical amendments to enhance the interoperability of the PDRTA with the Residential Tenancies Act 2020.
Subject to the conditions and procedural requirements, the PDRTA currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction and rent increases during the period from 11 January 2021 to 12 April 2021. It is considered that the ongoing threats and impacts of the third wave of Covid-19 necessitate this Bill to extend the protections for a further three months until 12 July 2021. The three-month time increase is a proportionate response balancing constitutional property rights and the common good. While the numbers directly invoking this legal protection have been small, it has provided a strong safety net to vulnerable renters and sends a clear signal to the rental system that the State will continue to protect tenants. In this context and because of strong direct financial supports, we have prevented turmoil in the rental system. Deputies will be aware that thankfully less than 2% of tenancies end up in dispute, but these protections are required and proportionate, and we need to extend them up to July.
It is important to note that these protections are separate and distinct from the Residential Tenancies Act 2020, which provides for a moratorium on evictions taking place, with limited exceptions, during a period of 5 km travel restrictions in an area specified in regulations made by the Minister for Health and during the ten days following the lifting of such restrictions. In broad terms the protections are on separate economic and health grounds, respectively. The Bill seeks to clarify that a 5 km travel restriction does not affect the legal obligation on a tenant to pay rent, nor should it ever have been the case. Instead, tenants in circumstances where they cannot pay their rent due to the pandemic can move to avail of the separate protections under this Bill and I encourage people to do so if they have not already.
This clarification is required as the PDRTA provides the necessary tenancy protections for any tenant in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy. The Bill removes this duplication and potential confusion over obligations to pay rent. Importantly, significant and enhanced State income supports are available from the Department of Social Protection. I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and to seek every available State income support. For example, the enhanced illness benefit for Covid-19, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowances can assist tenants to meet their legal obligation to pay rent. The legislation similar to this that we introduced last August put in place permanent protections to help tenants who fall into rent arrears from the beginning by engaging at an early stage with MABS and the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and that is working very well.
I also encourage landlords to show forbearance and to afford tenants the time to stabilise their income through State support, if necessary. It is in the interest of both parties to sustain a viable tenancy. Overall, the State has rightly spent €11.5 billion on Covid-19 welfare supports. We have not been, and will not be, found wanting in supporting any tenants in difficulty.
At this point, the earliest expiry date for the current moratorium on evictions across the State under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 is 15 April 2021, which is ten days after the review date for the expiry of the 5 km travel restrictions. The Government will consider this matter in light of public health advice in the coming days. Regardless of that decision, this Bill will ensure protections are in place until 12 July for tenants economically impacted by the pandemic.
We recognise that lockdowns are especially difficult for some people and that low-income tenants are disproportionately employed in sectors that are severely affected by Covid-19, such as hospitality and retail. As I have said, the State is here to help, and we will continue to provide immediate support to families and individuals in private rented accommodation under the Department of Social Protection’s rent supplement scheme. The scheme provides short-term income support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source.
The scheme ensures that renters experiencing a temporary loss of employment can continue to meet their rental commitments.
The aim is to avoid any tenant going into rent arrears. That said, the PDRTA complements and supports the provision of rent supplement and other State supports by providing time and security for tenants while engaging with State services in a bid to resolve any financial difficulty.
The Government also recognises that 70% of landlords own one rental property and 86% own one or two rental properties and that Covid-19 has given rise to financial difficulty for some of those mom and pop landlords. The PDRTA provides the requisite and proportionate balance between the rights and obligations of tenants and property owners in a carefully calibrated manner, recognising the legitimate interests of both. This strikes an equilibrium between property rights and the common good in the midst of a pandemic.
We have to continue to address the economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protect as many jobs as possible and ensure that families and businesses can manage financially. The economic consequences of this pandemic are far-reaching, but the hit for certain sectors and for some tenants has been extremely challenging. The emergency measures introduced by this Government have prevented systemic problems in the rental sector. The rental measures proposed under this Bill will help further. Other measures that we brought forward have worked and this an addition and extension to them.
I now wish to outline the provisions of this Bill. The Long Title and recitals of the Bill describe our policy aims and the policy context in which the limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally-protected property rights will serve the social common good for three additional months, to 12 July 2021. The Bill is technical in nature and it contains three sections, with section 3 being a standard provision outlining the Short Title and collective citation of the Bill.
Sections 1 and 2 are the substantive provisions. I have already given a summary of their intent. Section 1 provides for a number of amendments to the PDRTA by updating various dates to reflect the extension under this Bill of the emergency period to 12 July 2021. The proposedamendments to the PDRTA provide, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under that Act, for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 April 2021 to 12 July 2021 where tenants have been economically impacted by Covid-19 and consequently are unable to meet their obligation to pay rent and risk tenancy termination.
The remaining sections are outlined in the remainder of my speech. The Bill is being introduced against the backdrop of the worst public health crisis in the history of our State and an economic collapse without compare. It is incumbent on us all and the Dáil to ensure that the protections that are rightly in place for the most vulnerable tenants are extended further to 12 July.
I thank Deputies for their attendance and their interest in this matter. I look forward to the debate this evening and again tomorrow when we will resume Second Stage and take Committee and Remaining Stages as well.
The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has done it again. He is tabling legislation that promises to protect renters. What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. The Bill extends protections to a small group of renters for a very short period of time. Crucially, it removes protections from a much larger group of renters with immediate effect. This would be unacceptable in normal times, but it is totally unacceptable in the difficult and dangerous times we find ourselves living in now.
Section 1 of the Bill extends from April to July the ban on rent increases and evictions of tenants in arrears due to Covid-19 income loss and in receipt of a Covid-19-related payment. Section 2, as the Minister outlined - my language would be a little more direct - strips all other tenants in rent arrears of the protection against eviction linked to the 5 km travel restriction. Before I outline the problems with these two sections, I want to express in the strongest possible terms the dissatisfaction of many in the Opposition with how the Minister has handled the tabling of this legislation.
Last week, the Minister requested that members of the housing committee waive pre-legislative scrutiny. The committee met with officials from his Department on Monday last for a briefing in advance of making its decision. We were not given a copy of the legislation. Following some protestation from some members at the briefing, we were shown screen shots of the legislation on Microsoft Teams. There was no adequate explanation as to the reason this legislation was not brought forward sooner. We have all known for some time that these deadlines were approaching. There was no explanation as to the reason protections for tenants in arrears due to Covid-19 income loss were being only extended for three months and no justification provided for stripping all other tenants in arrears of the protection against eviction.
While Government Deputies and Senators were happy to accede to the Minister's request - they were remarkably silent on section 2 - the Opposition in committee were united that this was not an acceptable way to proceed. We proposed a compromise that the committee would waive pre-legislative scrutiny for the Bill in respect of section 1 if the Minister would remove the controversial section 2 but, unfortunately, Deputies and Senators from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party refused to support us. Other Opposition Deputies helpfully proposed an emergency session during last week to deal with pre-legislative scrutiny, but that was also rebuffed. While I am sure Government Deputies will justify their decision on the same grounds as the Minister has done today, namely, the need to extend the limited protections of section 1, they will also have to explain to their constituents who are renters in arrears why they are being stripped of vital protections through the provisions of section 2.
Ultimately, the Minister got his way. There was an equally split Government-Opposition vote in committee in public session last Tuesday. The Minister, having got his way with the support of Deputies and Senators from Government in committee, is also trying to steamroll the Bill through the House. Once again, we are dealing in the Dáil with important legislation with limited time, particularly for Committee Stage debate and votes, with all Stages to be taken in the Seanad on Saturday. This is not an acceptable way to deal with significant changes to complex legislation such as the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020. Unfortunately, this is increasingly the way in which the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, does his business. This is not the first time, nor the only time, when dealing with Covid legislation that the committee and the Dáil have not been treated properly, in my view.
With respect to the Bill, I will now deal with the two fundamental problems. With respect to section 1, extending the protections for tenants in arrears due to Covid-19 income loss and in receipt of a Covid-19-related payment is a good thing, but it makes no sense to extend those protections for only three months. Many of the people who are availing of that protection will likely not be back in employment until the end of the year, if not next year, and, therefore, they will need those protections for much longer. What the Minister also did not say was that according to the Residential Tenancies Board data, which it sent to me last week, only 407 tenants have availed of this protection since it was introduced last August and that is out of more than 200,000 tenants in the private rental sector who are not availing of the housing assistance payment, HAP, or the rental assistance scheme, RAS, and 300,000 tenancies across the private rental sector. This Bill protects only a tiny group of tenants. At the same time, section 2 removes protections for renters in arrears, many through no fault of their own. The number then affected is likely to be much greater.
Who are we talking about here? We could, for example, have tenants who have not lost income because of Covid-19 and are not on a Covid-19-related payment but were hit with unreasonable rent increases in 2019 and 2020 by their landlords, rent increases which may be in line with the RPZ in the areas covered or higher than 4% outside of those areas, and are now falling into arrears. The difficulty is that allowing a landlord to issue a notice to quit and pursue an eviction where such tenants cannot pay rent puts those tenants and their children at increased risk from infection with Covid-19 because they will have to start viewing properties and, therefore, will be moving about more than is required. If they cannot find rental properties - we know this is an increasing problem - they could be forced into emergency accommodation, congregated settings, again putting them at even greater risk of Covid-19. Therefore, the protections should not just be for those who are economically impacted but also for those who, as a consequence of losing their tenancy, could be at increased risk of infection in either of the situations I have outlined.
This is not just my view or that of many Members of the Opposition. Threshold wrote to the housing committee this week to say that section 2 of the Bill will lead to "private renters [being] evicted even when the moratorium is in place". The letter from Threshold went on to say that this provision is "unnecessary and will cause considerable confusion and distress to a significant cohort of private renters". The Simon Communities of Ireland, members of which work at the front line of our homelessness crisis, has stated in correspondence to Deputies: "Such a blanket removal of protections from a vulnerable group at a time of crisis is unnecessarily punitive." Both organisations have called for the withdrawal of the controversial section 2 and better measures to deal with rent arrears.
I want to be very clear on a particular point. None of us in the Opposition is saying that if somebody has the means to pay his or rent and is wilfully refusing to do so, that he or should have any protections. Of course people in that situation should not have such protections. We are talking about groups of tenants who have fallen into rent arrears for reasons other than Covid-19 income loss and who continue to need protection. If this Bill passes, they will lose protection and will be at risk of losing their tenancy and becoming homeless. That is not something I can support.
Threshold and the Simon Communities of Ireland are right that section 2 of the Bill is punitive, unnecessary and will lead to the loss of accommodation and to homelessness. The section must be removed and I urge all Deputies to support the Opposition amendments proposing that removal. Equally, section 1 is not strong enough. Struggling renters need more than a few months to get back on track and I urge Deputies to support our amendments in that regard. There is something very Orwellian in a Minister coming into the House and claiming that a Bill will protect renters when not only the Opposition but leading advocacy organisations for tenants and front-line homeless services say it does the very opposite. Of course, Fianna Fáil could never be trusted to stand up for renters and this Bill from the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, proves once again that this is the case.
In the time remaining to me, I want to comment on the wider issues in the rental market that are relevant to this Bill, some of which are in the news today. The Residential Tenancies Board's latest rent index shows that rents continue to rise despite the pandemic, with a State-wide increase of 2.7% and a 2% rise in Dublin. The commuter belt has seen an astonishing 5% increase in rents. Nine counties show rent increases above 4%, including 8% in Carlow, 10% in Longford and 11% in Leitrim. No matter what the level of increase, tenants simply cannot afford any rise at all. This has to stop. All the while, the disorderly exit of tenancies from the private rental market continues, with 20,000 lost since 2017.
I see no evidence from this Government that it has a plan to deal with any of this. We need greater security of tenure, greater affordability, a ban on rent increases and a comprehensive plan to secure the stability and sustainability of the rental sector for landlords and tenants alike. I urge the Minister, in drawing up his forthcoming housing plan, to engage with the Opposition on ideas about how to do this. Otherwise, he will continue the same failed policies of his predecessors in respect of the private rental sector that have led to a dysfunctional market which is putting increasing numbers of tenants at risk of losing their homes or having to pay ever increasing rents.
In theory, everybody would welcome the extension of a ban on evictions until July. However, the ban provided for in this Bill is not the same as what was previously in place. We in the Labour Party have always said that we will work constructively with the Government to do whatever we can to solve this crisis, keep people in their homes and allow them to have hope that they have a future in Ireland. However, the stop-start nature of the eviction ban and the periodic need to produce new legislation to cover another few months is becoming intolerable. The Minister mentioned that this is the fourth Bill to extend the ban on evictions. Nobody here thinks that we will wake up on 31 July and Covid will be gone. Even if everybody in the world was vaccinated by that date and Covid had disappeared, the impact of this pandemic will last far longer than any perceived ending or winding down of the virus.
The protections that are required need to look beyond 31 July towards a longer-term view. The time for these periodic legislative provisions is well and truly up. My fellow members of the Business Committee and I see with increasing regularity that it is the time of year when the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is asking us to waive pre-legislative scrutiny on another residential tenancies Bill, and away we go again for another quarter. We cannot continue like this. It is dawning on people everywhere, including in this country, that the impact of this virus is going to last a long time. Our legislation needs to be robust enough and take a sufficiently long view to account, as best as possible, for that reality.
The protection of renters and the banning of evictions are key to that. They are key to tackling the homelessness crisis and everything we have been experiencing for the past ten years. The past five years have been particularly vicious, with people presenting at local authority homeless counters and having to go into emergency accommodation, which is generally provided in congregated settings. We know that the virus lives, breeds and is most comfortable in such settings. The eviction ban, when it worked at the beginning of the pandemic, was a good thing. However, what is proposed in this Bill is not that. The original protections are being diminished and stripped away and we cannot stand over that.
The Bill seeks to remove the blanket moratorium on evictions of renters in arrears. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that one in ten rental households had missed a rental payment due to financial difficulties. We are in no doubt that this number has increased almost exponentially due to the impact of the Covid crisis. The Government is now leaving he door open for anyone in private residential tenancies to lose the roof over his or her head. The Minister has said that the measures introduced in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 that encourage tenants to obtain services and advice from the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, and make arrangements with landlords have been a success. They have not been a success. He should talk to Threshold or any of the stakeholders and they will tell him that. The take-up has been very low and the legislation has not provided any real solution for renters who are in arrears. What has provided solutions and helped to protect people from losing their homes is an eviction ban.
This Bill is being brought forward at the same time as the Minister for Finance is flagging, very clearly and unsubtly, that changes to the pandemic unemployment payment are coming down the line. That payment will be reviewed again in June. For renters in financial difficulty who hear certain language from Government and see kites being flown about the PUP being restructured and that we are living beyond our means, mid-summer will be a time of huge anxiety and worry. People are concerned that they are going to lose their homes and this Bill does not give them any comfort.
I again ask the Minister to talk to the stakeholders, including Threshold. An example it gave of a tenant in difficulty is a man who has been renting his home for five years. He works full time and never had a problem paying his rent until the landlord increased it by 50% even though the tenancy is located within a rent pressure zone, RPZ. The tenant did not know about the RPZ rules and agreed to pay the increase. Understandably, he began to accrue rent arrears and he was subsequently issued with a notice of termination. This tenant is now disputing the unlawful rent increase and the notice of termination but he is not going to be protected under this legislation in seeing that process through. Another man was working part time and living in his rental home less than a year when the agent claimed he had arrears. He knew he was short on the rent one month but he has been told he was short on three occasions, which is not the case. If this Bill goes through, that man will not be protected. These are just two examples of God knows how many people who are not being captured by the system at the moment. This legislation, as it is currently constructed, is very worrying from the perspective of protecting such people.
Linking the ban on evictions to the 5 km restriction was a clear error by the Government. It was given an opportunity to remedy it before Christmas by way of the Minister extending, by order, the applicability of the ban in circumstances of reduced restrictions, having regard to the current public health guidelines. We will be making the same proposal in our amendments tomorrow and we hope the Minister will accept them this time. The ban on evictions and rent increases introduced by the Government less than a year ago helped people and gave them certainty in a very uncertain time. That certainty is being eroded and stripped back. The Bill before us today does not provide certainty at a time when people are at their most crestfallen and low. They do not know when this period of crisis is going to end.
There are problems in respect of jobs and job security as well. They now have the uncertainty of not having a roof over their heads to compound all of that at a time when we should be looking to a brighter future.
The Minister does have a significant opportunity here to accept amendments tomorrow and to take a longer term view of banning evictions. He could use Covid-19 as an excuse. Rather than waste a crisis, he could use it as a reason to keep people in their homes and build the houses he wants to build and has committed to building, including social and affordable housing and everything else he has said. We can keep people in their homes more by doing that. It is about bringing the supply in so that we do not have people turning up at the Fingal County Council homeless desk in Blanchardstown or the homeless desk in other local authorities. It is to reduce the number of people turning up at the centres of the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland or the Simon Community or ringing the Threshold lines. All of these things will continue to happen. There is an opportunity for the Minister to back up his aspirations on the supply side. I appeal to the Minister to consider that.
I wish to comment on a not-unrelated element of this. I have been contacted by several estate agents in recent weeks to discuss what is going on in the housing market. The problem is impacting younger buyers and those buying their first homes in particular. This element of the market is going 10% or 15% above any of the trends in other parts of the market because people are going up against institutional investors. It is especially tough for them since they are unable to view the houses because of the restrictions. That is understandable in a way. However, it is having this impact on the people who can least afford it. They are being pressured by all this uncertainty into paying inflated prices. We all know there is a correlation, and when house prices are inflated, especially at the end of the market made up of first-time buyers buying one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments or two-bedroom or three-bedroom homes, that ultimately has an impact on rental prices as well. That is happening now. I wonder whether the Minister is getting the same representations. These estate agents are not happy about this. They say these people are being pressured and forced into bad decisions. They are going up against institutional investors and they do not have a hope of matching those investors. It is an unfair playing field.
This is all linked, as the Minister knows. The Minister should use this as an opportunity to get more things right than wrong about housing. Unfortunately, this Bill is balanced on the wrong side. It can be improved with the amendments being offered by the Opposition. I hope the Minister will look at them overnight and accept them tomorrow.
I am happy to be here to discuss some of these significant issues. When the Minister was first appointed to Cabinet, I knew he was someone who would be a doer and who would try his utmost to help in all aspects of the housing crisis. This is one key fundamental part of it and the Minister has my support in that regard. I am vocal sometimes with regard to some of my views on the housing crisis but I imagine the Minister can appreciate the significant challenges that lie ahead of a new generation of first-time buyers in Ireland and people who are renting as well.
I wish to emphasise a particular point that has not been heard much today. It is something I came across and it is quite common in rural communities. A person may inherit a home as a result of a bereavement in a family. A person may accidentally end up with a house and end up renting it for income and to pay the bills and so on. I have come across a couple of situations - I will admit they are limited - but they were severe and significant for these people as a result of the provisions made by the Government. The tenants were involved in serious criminal activity. They were blatantly refusing to pay rent when they were in a position to do so. Yet, they were getting off almost scot-free. I call on the Minister to put a little focus on that. Often in politics there is a perception that all landlords are multimillionaires running around the country treating tenants poorly. However, there are other situations. In my constituency of Cork East there are some people who ended up in possession of a home, whether small or large, through a bereavement or inheritance and they have found themselves stuck in a couple of situations. The tenants in these situations do all tenants an injustice and damage.
Having said that, I wish to highlight that the protections we brought forward were a major benefit to many families. It gave them certainty and a degree of security in what was a highly uncertain time for them. These are the times we are going through now. It is this aspect I wish to put in context.
The Minister knows my views from the perspective of student renters. I am heartened to hear he will continue to engage with the Union of Students in Ireland. I hope he will meet representatives of the union soon. I welcome the decision of An Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, to meet USI representatives to discuss their efforts to improve the situation of students throughout the country. It is critical to listen to the message from USI. In reality, many student renters in the country are dealt a cruel hand in terms of the landlords they experience. Many such landlords are major pension funds that are investing heavily in student accommodation. There are major landlords based within cities. Few exceptions are made when people are going through highly difficult circumstances. This is no direct criticism of the Minister but it is an area where I wish the Government had done more. It affects people in rural communities like mine in the constituency of Cork East. The tradition is for those who go on to higher education, whether apprenticeships, universities, institutes of technology or FETAC degrees, to move from home and rent in city centres. They have been put in precarious financial circumstances and, frankly, do not have the money to meet the rents. They end up being evicted and they are dealt with in a poor fashion. I will finish on that point and appeal to the Minister to put a particular focus on that area.
This Bill strips away from renters many of their protections from being evicted. It is unbelievable the Minister would include section 2 in the middle of a pandemic when, under public health guidelines, we should be trying not to put people out of their homes and having to look again for accommodation. Yet, that could happen with this Bill.
This is the fourth time the Minister has brought forward this legislation. One question must be asked. Why did he not bring in this legislation for 12 months? Now, he has brought it in for three more months. Everyone knows we are going to be back here in three months' time to extend it. My Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, has called for a ban on evictions and rent increases until at least the end of the year. That would help.
A report out today shows that in Cork city alone there has been a rent increase of 4.5%. People may ask why Deputy Gould and Sinn Féin are on about evictions and people being evicted. The reason is that many people cannot afford the high rents they face. There is so much more I want to say. This is typical of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. When push comes to shove, they back the landlords over ordinary people.
I agree with the comments of previous Deputies on the process around this. There should be time for all legislation we know is to come up for pre-legislative scrutiny. Too often with housing legislation the Minister seeks to waive that process. I put it to him the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage are all happy and willing to engage in thorough pre-legislative scrutiny of any Bills he wants to bring forward. I would encourage the Minister to work with us in future rather than try to bypass that process, as he has done in this case.
The single biggest achievement in stopping families going into homelessness since 2014, when there was a major increase in families and individual adults going into homelessness, has come in the past year when the ban on evictions was brought in as a result of Covid-19. That was the single biggest achievement.
If the Bill is passed without amendment, it will further reduce the protections for renters and increase the flow of families and individuals into homelessness. The level of protection for renters during a pandemic in Ireland will be the same as the level in many other European countries at all times. That is the only protection there will be.
I wish to raise a point with the Minister. Like other Deputies, including myself, I am sure he has examined the figures concerning the number of families that have entered homelessness during the past year and seen that the greatest decrease was during those months when the strongest levels of protection against eviction were in place for renters. I am also sure that he has noticed that the highest peak in the number of families being evicted into homelessness was in August 2020 after he lifted protections for renters. Why has he not realised the importance of these measures in protecting families from homelessness? I received a phone call today from someone who was working in this field. That person could not understand why the Minister and his Department, having seen the success of these measures in preventing homelessness, have not acted on them and tried to imbed them. What are needed are not further extensions, but reforms that will protect renters in the long term and bring us into line with other European countries. That is the approach that should be taken.
I have a difficulty with previous statements by the Minister regarding homelessness. When I was last in the Chamber with him, I asked whether the National Quality Standards Framework, NQSF, applied to all providers of emergency accommodation to renters who had been evicted into homelessness. He stated that it did, including to private providers. At a meeting of the housing committee the next day, however, Mr. Brendan Kenny of Dublin City Council confirmed that was not the case. Despite that, the Minister repeated in national media interviews a few weeks later that these standards applied to all providers, including private ones. Since then, "RTÉ Investigates" has confirmed that the NQSF is not applied to private providers. If the Minister would like to look at them, I have with me copies of inspection reports into homeless accommodation providers. They confirm that he was incorrect when he told the Dáil at the end of January that the NQSF applied to all providers. Will he read these reports and consider the difference between the report for a provider that is subject to the NQSF, which is ten pages long, and the report for a private provider, which is just one page long and only contains a small set of questions? Will he look into this detail and correct the Dáil record, given that he was wrong in January? I asked him previously to correct it. He should do the House that courtesy. We deserve correct information from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on these issues.
In terms of rent arrears, approximately one in three households in the private rented sector, or 70,000, had insufficient income prior to the pandemic to meet the minimum costs of living after meeting its housing costs. That figure comes from the ESRI. Rents are well in excess of what a mortgage would cost in most parts of the country and sharp increases in rent have been a key driver in increasing the number of people who have been evicted into homelessness since 2014. We need long-term measures that will address this issue and bring us into line with other EU countries.
The complex set of rules and limited protections that have been introduced have not worked well. There has been a low take-up. The Minister does not have to take just my word for that. Threshold has stated that uptake of the scheme established by the Act has been low and that it is complex and provides no significant solution to tenant indebtedness. Threshold is concerned that many private renters will not be able to avail of the protections afforded by the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 and could be lawfully evicted during the pandemic.
The Minister and his Department are taking a mistaken approach in section 2 of this Bill. The Simon Communities in Ireland have stated that the section does not live up to the Bill's preamble, as it allows some private renters to be evicted even at the peak of a Covid wave if they are in rent arrears, and that such a blanket removal of protection from a vulnerable group at this time of crisis is unnecessarily punitive. Will the Minister consider withdrawing section 2, which has been strongly criticised by organisations that work with renters and people who are experiencing homelessness?
We need to recognise that finding a new home during the pandemic has not become any easier over the past while and that removing these protections will lead to an increase in homelessness. Over the past year, homelessness figures show a strong correlation between decreases in the number of families becoming homeless and the introduction of protections for renters. The number at risk of homelessness is far greater than the small cohort of people who are registered for protection against eviction on grounds of rent arrears. We need to put in place solutions for this cohort of renters and their landlords and consider a combination of measures, for example, a rent arrears fund to help clear arrears.
The Minister is proposing a cut-off point of 12 July under the Bill. A later cut-off point would be much better, as it would give the Minister and the Department time to introduce much-needed long-term reforms and improvements in the sector. The Minister has committed to trying to improve conditions in the sector. The programme for Government makes that commitment as well. Why not start that work now instead of making rolling updates every few months?
Preventing homelessness is cost-effective. It also spares families and individuals the trauma of losing their homes and the negative consequences that flow from that. We know that shifting away from emergency responses and into protecting renters and long-term solutions, for example, long-term accommodation, is a much better use of resources. We also know that investing more in tenancy protection services, mediation, supports, debt resolutions and payment plans is a much better approach.
I urge the Minister to accept some of our amendments tomorrow so that we can improve the Bill. I urge him to take a long-term approach to improving security in this sector and driving down the number of people who are evicted into homelessness. I also urge him to update the Dáil record and withdraw his incorrect statement that the NQSF applies to all providers of emergency accommodation, including private ones, given that that is not the case. He should update the record.
As the Vice Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I wish to put on record the reason for our decision to waive the pre-legislative scrutiny stage. We are 19 days away from the current legislation expiring, at which point people will be at risk. Government members on the committee made the decision to ensure that the maximum time was available to the greatest number of representatives in the House during this Stage as opposed to a smaller number of us carrying out pre-legislative scrutiny and either the current legislation expiring or this Bill being rushed through the House. That is the context of our decision and I stand over it. Far more Deputies will spend their time speaking against the Bill than for it.
That is the nature of the allocation of speaking time in the Dáil.
I am scratching my head a little on this issue. I accept the bona fides of all Members who have spoken today on the Bill. I presume it is not being used just to land another charge of negativity against the Government. However, when one considers the renters who might not have the same protection under the Bill as they did previously, one should remember that as long as the 5 km restriction is in place, the protections will remain and we have no certainty yet regarding when the 5 km restriction will end.