Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Residential Tenancies Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:10 pm

Paul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I want to reflect on a number of issues that were raised in the earlier part of the debate. One was the decision by the Oireachtas housing committee to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. As Vice Chairman of that committee, I want to put on record the reason for that is that we wanted to ensure the maximum number of Deputies in the House had the maximum amount of time to debate the Bill in full, rather than a smaller number of us getting that, with the risk of the protection expiring or it being pushed through. That stands, and the length of the debate we have seen on this has proved it. There will be far more Deputies speaking against this Bill than there will be actually voting against it.

On the points raised by Deputy Eoin Ó Broin and other Opposition Deputies, I am scratching my head a little. This is the fourth time we have brought in protections. None of the claims, even late last year, that renters would be thrown to the wolves, that Fianna Fáil was not protecting renters or that we were putting people at risk, have come to pass. I would say to those Deputies that this Bill is extending protection for renters. The 5 km protection, as long as that stays in place, protects renters, and other legislation was introduced prior to Christmas which also protects renters.

Who does it not protect? It is clear from the sections of the Bill that deal with this that the people it does not protect are those who refuse to pay rent even though they have not been financially impacted, who refuse to engage in a process to resolve this or who are engaged in areas like anti-social behaviour. We want to protect renters and we have protected renters, but that should not mean there is a blank cheque for people not to pay their rent when they have not been financially impacted by the crisis. They should not be protected if they are engaged in anti-social behaviour, such as illegal drug dealing, the unofficial sale of alcohol or other anti-social behaviour.

I thank the Minister for protecting renters and for again bringing this forward. As to the point on why it is only three months, Opposition Deputies in this House state continually that we need a referendum on the right to housing. I agree and so does the Minister. However, they cannot have their cake and eat it and pretend this is not needed when the Minister can only introduce a three-month ban. There is a constitutional issue that needs to be dealt with, and that is why the three months is there. They should not pretend in this House that does not exist when they are seeking a longer period.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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In 2002, as I have learned, 560 council homes were built or acquired across County Donegal. In the past 11 years, it was 543 council houses. Therefore, in 11 years, in Donegal, 543 were either built or acquired, although in 2002, in one year, more were built or acquired. That is the scale of the intentional failure of public housing in our county. What has that led to? As I speak today, more than 2,300 families are renting in the private sector in Donegal under the housing assistance payment or the rental accommodation scheme. This means that other families are struggling to find private rental accommodation and, if they are able to find it, they are paying way more than they would expect in the economy in Donegal.

What I am painting is a picture of intentionally designed failure on public housing. I appeal to the Minister in his wrap-up speech today to address what will be done in my county of Donegal – I am sure every other Deputy can give similar examples - to address this serious failure that impacts so profoundly and creates the difficulties that are being dealt with in this legislation. As I said, in one year, 2002, 560 houses were built or acquired and, in the past 11 years, it was 543. That is a damning indictment of the failure.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Boyd Barrett is sharing time with Deputy Barry.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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This Residential Tenancies Bill is, for the most part, a deception and a fraud. It is an attempt to suggest the Government is trying to protect tenants in the midst of the Covid pandemic when, in reality, apart from a tiny cohort of tenants for whom protections will be extended, literally a few hundred tenants, the Government’s real intention is, as of 5 April, to allow vulture funds and landlords to evict people in the midst of a pandemic purely on the grounds that the 5 km rule has changed. That simple fact seems to escape Deputy McAuliffe and it seems to escape the Minister, despite the fact I have repeatedly cited for four years now, including on multiple occasions with the current Minister, the example of St. Helen's Court in Dún Laoghaire. It is just one example of what happens when tenants are persecuted for profit by vulture funds and of the failure of the Government and successive Governments to put in place protections for those tenants, who have not done anything wrong.

They have not committed anti-social behaviour and have always paid their rent. They simply have the misfortune to live in an apartment complex, many of them for up to 20 years, which was unloaded by NAMA into the hands of one vulture fund and then another, as happened with many properties across this city and country. These vulture funds have persecuted the tenants for profit and for no other reason. First, they tried to put up the rent by 60% but failed. Then they tried to evict tenants on the grounds of substantial refurbishment when, of course, there was no need to evict them to refurbish the complex. Next they tried to evict tenants en masse. Ten have effectively been driven out over two years, persecuted by anxiety and hardship. The funds then tried to evict the remaining ten tenants but luckily, they fell foul of the Tyrrellstown amendment. Weeks later, they came back and said that they could not evict ten tenants because of the Tyrrellstown amendment but would evict eight. It is not as if anybody believes that the other two evictions will not follow immediately afterwards, given that the fund tried to evict all tenants on two previous occasions. I went to the RTB with those residents on numerous occasions. The barrister representing Mill Street Projects Limited, the vulture fund involved here said "This is ugly. This isn't very pleasant but our owner has to maximise the value of the property". The fund has sat on the ten apartments from which it managed to drive tenants out, through sheer anxiety. Those apartments have been sitting empty for two years. As of 5 April, the remaining tenants will have ten days before they are evicted in the midst of a pandemic.

The preamble to this Bill says that the Government does not want to worsen the public health situation and that evictions could contribute negatively to the transmission of Covid-19 and of course they could. That is absolutely right. These people will be, and some are already, knocking on the door of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and engaging with its homeless services. We are talking here about families and individuals, some of whom are pensioners but the Government is not protecting them, which is what it should be doing. Neither is it protecting thousands of others like them. The suggestion is that when the 5 km restriction is lifted, it will be easier for them to find alternative accommodation in south Dublin or even in Wicklow or Wexford at the rents they are currently paying, of approximately €1,000 per month. These rents are high but what will they go up to, given that average rents in the area are approximately €2,000 to €2,200 per month? Where are these people going to find somewhere to live? The Government is failing to protect them and many other tenants like them. It is not extending protections to such tenants.

We have tabled amendments to the Bill that provide for Covid-related protections to be extended until April 2022 for all tenants who could face eviction through no fault of their own. We have no idea when this pandemic is going to end, particularly given the mess the Government is making of the vaccine roll out. Beyond that, and in the intervening period, our amendments provide that the Government starts protecting tenants, full stop. Why should vulture funds, under any circumstances, be able to evict people just because they want to increase the value of their property? They simply should not be able to do so. Tenants should have security of tenure. Funds can sell or refurbish properties with tenants in situ, which is standard practice across Europe.

This Government is not willing to protect tenants because it has courted, facilitated and encouraged vulture funds and others who want to make profit from property, regardless of the human consequences for those who live in the property. It is absolutely disgusting, frankly, the stress and pressure that residents of St. Helen's Court have undergone for four years at the hands of vicious, ruthless, inhumane, profit-driven entities. These entities do not give a damn about human beings. I have asked this and previous Governments, again and again, to protect tenants like these but they simply will not do it. It is absolutely enraging, especially when the Minister has the cheek to come in here and suggest that this Bill is protecting a significant cohort of tenants. It will protect the few hundred who can jump through the hoops and show that they haves suffered direct, Covid-related income loss and are on the PUP but the vast majority of people who could face eviction will not get any protection under this Bill and will potentially be thrown to the wolves on 5 April.

1:20 pm

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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An Bord Pleanála has given the green light to and granted planning permission for Ireland's tallest building. At 140 m, the five-star hotel will have 34 stories. It is a €150 million development at Custom House Quay. Once upon a time the land at Custom House Quay was publicly owned and this project shows clearly why we should keep publicly owned land in public ownership. This is land that could have and should have been used for public housing. That is what Cork city and the ordinary people need. They need social and genuinely affordable housing, not capitalist glory projects.

This cannot be seen as separate from the docklands development and the plans of the establishment for the gentrification of the docklands. The docklands plans involve the development of an awful lot of expensive private apartments which will drive up the price of rent not just in that quarter but in the city as a whole. It will have a pulling and dragging effect and will push up the general price of rent in the city. What does that mean? We found out yesterday from the RTB that year on year, Cork city saw a 4.5% increase in rents last year. There was a 4.5% increase in the middle of a global pandemic. The greed of landlords in this country and in Cork city in particular, has to be seen to be believed. An increase of 4.5% in the middle of a global pandemic begs the question as to what rents will be when the pandemic ends and landlords have more of an opportunity to jack up the price of rent. This shows the need to have a ban on evictions and on rent increases that stays in place and is not lifted when the 5 km travel restriction is lifted. Such a ban should not be lifted in the short term, which is what the Government is aiming at with this Bill. We need to keep the ban on evictions and rent increases in place. We also need social and genuinely affordable housing for our people, not capitalist glory projects like this €150 million hotel development in Cork city.

Cormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome today's debate on the Residential Tenancies Bill. This short, two-page Bill amends the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act 2020 to extend the application of its enhanced tenancy protections for a further three months from 13 April 2021 to 12 July 2021. This extension is necessary due to the ongoing impact and threat of the third wave of Covid-19 and is a proportionate response that balances constitutional property rights with the common good. The Bill also provides for technical amendments to enhance the interoperability of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act with the Residential Tenancies Act 2020. Clarification is also provided that the 5 km travel restriction does not affect the legal obligation on a tenant to pay rent.

This is the fourth Bill that has been brought forward by this Government since it took office last summer to safeguard tenants during this pandemic. Like many Deputies, I have also been contacted by tenants seeking further protections and reforms of the rental sector in line with our programme for Government commitments.

I look forward to working with the Minister to achieve these important changes. I hope this short Bill, which is necessary to ensure Covid protections are extended until July, is supported by all Deputies.

1:30 pm

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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I very much welcome the Bill introduced by the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to extend the period of emergency rental protections to those who have been impacted by Covid-19 and to strengthen the supports provided to tenants at risk of eviction.

The ongoing restrictions have been very difficult on a lot of people. Many people are out of work and fear that they may have no job to return to. The economic and financial pressures on ordinary people are clear at the moment and the Government is acting to alleviate this as much as possible.

I welcome the Bill today that will extend the tenancy protections for a further three months. While those in the Opposition may choose to criticise the Government on housing because it fits their agenda to do so, this is the fourth Bill brought forward by the Government since it took office last summer to safeguard tenants during the pandemic. The Bill will ensure that those who are under financial pressure at the moment as a result of Covid are not at risk of becoming homeless or are not penalised for being temporarily out of work through no fault of their own. I commend the Minister on balancing these genuine tenant-centred protections and looking after the ordinary person in the process.

I also welcome the clarification provided by Bill for the tenant who simply fails to comply with his or her obligation to pay rent. This needs to be treated in a similar manner to tenants who engage in anti-social behaviour. It is right and proper that a distinction is being drawn between those who genuinely need understanding and assistance as a result of economic pressure and those who blackguard the system and refuse to make rents while also engaging in antisocial behaviour. I welcome that the genuine individual who is under pressure at the moment is being protected, as well as the right of the landlord to have the rent paid and the property protected from those who take advantage of the system for their own gain. I very much welcome the Bill from the Minister, Deputy O'Brien.

Johnny Guirke (Meath West, Sinn Fein)
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I will raise the issue of one-bedroom accommodation. In my constituency of Meath West I called the local authority yesterday on behalf of a woman who is on the housing list. She has Athboy, Trim and Navan down as her three preferences. Athboy is currently dealing with 2006 applicants, Trim is dealing with 2008 applicants and Navan is dealing with 2009. On top of that, the maximum housing assistance payment, HAP, for one-bedroom housing for single people or couples is €690. One will not get anything around Navan or Trim for less €1,000. The difference, therefore, is more than €300. The local authorities will not approve these agreements between tenants and landlords because of the difference in the HAP and what people have to pay. This means that many of these people end up in emergency accommodation, which costs the State and the local authority a lot more money. Will the Minister address the issue of one-bedroom accommodation? The HAP has not been updated since 2016. More than a quarter of the people who are on the local authority housing list in County Meath are waiting on one-bedroom accommodation.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I will focus on one of the major issues affecting people right now which is the lack of houses. It is incomprehensible that given the length and depth of the housing crisis in Ireland the building of homes in this country is currently deemed non-essential. Hundreds of people have died in homelessness on the streets of our towns and cities over the last number of years. Many more will lose their lives over the next number of years if this Government does not get serious with the building of family homes. The building of homes has been disrupted massively by Covid-19 and construction is practically non-existent in 2021. Every week that sites are closed, some 800 homes are not built. I ask the Minister to think about that. This is 10,000 houses that have not been built this year. This is 10,000 homes. At the same time Focus Ireland states that there are 8,313 people who are homeless in the State. That we cannot join the dots between the massive need that exists in the State and the provision of homes is incredible.

The cessation of construction will decimate the supply of properties in an already under-supplied housing market. Failure to reopen the construction sector will lead to an increase in rents, an increase in house prices and an increase in homelessness. It will also lead to increased deaths in the future and all the misery that entails. There is already an under-supply of all forms of housing. Continuing the Government's blanket lockdown in this area is, in my view, nonsensical. I have spoken to workers in the sector. There is an abject fear that jobs and livelihoods will continue to be lost and that it will be very difficult to rejuvenate or kick-start the sector again in the future.

The Government needs to be forensic. We need to make sure to protect workers and protect every single person who works on a building site, but we have a situation where the State is allowing for social housing to be built, which I welcome. How is the building of a private house any more dangerous than the building of a social house? The truth of the matter is that all of those houses go into the same pot of housing supply. They all affect the rents, the house prices and the ability for people to get homes.

Contrast this State's attitude towards the blanket banning of construction and that of Germany. Ireland has had nearly 190 days of lockdown, which is more than any other EU country. Ireland is an outlier in this. No other Government in the European Union has tackled Covid with a complete reliance on blanket lockdowns. They have used other tools and have allowed for forensic restrictions to exist so that issues of real importance, such as home building, can happen. A brickie, a plasterer or a chippy can work outside on a house, or maybe in a well-ventilated house that has not yet got its windows. They can work together in small, well-organised bubbles to make sure they get the job done in a safe manner. We need to make sure that we get back to this very shortly.

Of course we must be conscious of the threat of Covid, but it is an incredible situation that in my Meath constituency people who are single are waiting 12, 13, 14 and 15 years on the housing list for a home. How can it be right for any human being to apply for a home at 45 years old and possibly get a home when he or she is 62 or 63? It does not make sense at all. It shows that we need to get real about building homes in Ireland. We 100% need to protect people on construction sites. There is no doubt that those who have underlying health issues, or who have vulnerable people at home, should be allowed to stay at home. Ignoring the warning signs in the housing sector will have enormous consequences for those hundreds of thousands of people who are in severe housing distress today. The Government needs to get forensic with how it handles this.

I will turn now to how the Government has been dealing with the vulture funds over the past number of years. The vulture funds have had massive access into the Department of Finance. They have paid very little tax in Ireland. They have been allowed to distort the housing market. We have large international companies buying up lots of stock in the rental market, thereby having massive control over the rates and rents. We need to make sure this power is taken from them. We need to equalise the system so that families who need to pay rent to get a home can pay a rent that is not excessive so they are not in danger of being thrown out on their ear.

Matt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Rental tenancies have become a very emotive subject over the past 20 years in Ireland with the fallout of the Celtic tiger followed by an economic upswing, which failed to deliver a commensurate rise in new house building and residential property supply. Even before Covid, rents were on an upward trajectory requiring rent pressure zones in an effort to contain further price increases. The Irish residential letting sector has, largely, two broad categories of rental investor. The first is the REIT property hedge fund or vulture fund that has access to pools of investment capital and is based on large economies of scale. The second category is the private investor who is often the accidental landlord who has inherited a property, or the future retiree who diversified his or her pension into a buy-to-let property. A snapshot of buy-to-let properties from a 2020 fourth quarter Cental Bank report demonstrates there are significant issues facing small private landlords in Ireland today.

Of a total of 96,400 residential mortgage buy-to-let accounts, arrears for 16% of the overall account were shown as follows: 19% were overdue by two to five years, 30% were in arrears five to ten years, and 13% were in arrears of more than ten years. That scale and longevity of arrears demonstrates a failure to provide private landlords with the legal supports to terminate property letting quickly and successfully. That is particularly true where a tenant is using all of the protections under the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, protocols, as well as other legal means to drag out the process. That reality is removing small private landlords from the property market and, in so doing, is further constricting rental opportunity and supply.

Previous Covid-19 legislation has seen Government rightly provide additional protections to tenants who find themselves in arrears as a result of Covid, including providing emergency access to welfare supports. This Bill proposes to extend to June the provision that a tenant cannot be evicted during level 5 restrictions except where mortgage arrears have extended beyond five months. It also continues to allow support for landlords when they register with the RTB as being unable to pay their mortgages because of the non-payment performance of tenants due to Covid-19.

There has been much public discourse in Ireland around private home ownership and the rights of tenants to long-term letting agreements and fixed rent periods. While I welcome the proposed introduction of this legislation, I remind the House that our national housing issues are largely centred on our construction capacity, the available land supply, amenable planning, and future controls on predatory pricing. I make specific reference to governmental fees in terms of council levies, Irish Water connection charges, VAT and development fees, all of which are contributing to the spiralling cost of home ownership, whether council or privately funded, and currently amount to more than 30% of a new house build.

The cost base now prevailing in the Irish house building sector is creating indebtedness for future generations as a result of having consumers invest in home buyer mortgages sold principally on exceptionally low interest rates without any understanding of what a 30-year time horizon can do to family repayment commitments. That is a reflected image that is proving to be an economic millstone in the private rented sector also where rising rents are serving no one except professional landlords and financial institutions that continue to feast wildly on the financial arbitrage opportunities that exist in the Irish home building sector.

Like many Deputies I await legislation that will seek to disrupt the financial dysfunction that permeates house building costs in Ireland today and remove the State's requirement to levy fees that will require 30- to 40-year mortgage paybacks and shared equity agreements from private sector payers. Although this proposed Bill deals with tenancy rights in terms of Covid, the legislative conversation that will have to follow soon is the future direction of house build policy in this country. Such analysis will have to be much wider, deeper and more radical than what we have seen previously with the mission, first, to protect our citizens by protecting our economy. That will require the sustainability of our house build sector.

I point out to the Minister also that the Regional Group issued a press statement yesterday asking for the construction sector to be reopened on the basis of using antigen testing on a two-day format protocol. Currently, the UK Government is subsidising antigen testing and construction is open. We believe that at this stage we must get some economic activity going in the construction sector. It can be done safely with adequate screens and protective testing. I ask the Minister to consider that also.

1:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Bruton is sharing time with Deputy Cathal Crowe.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for bringing it forward. I fully acknowledge that we still have not got adequate protections for tenants across our legislative framework. Standards in tenancies are not adequate, quick resolution of disputes does not occur, and observation of obligations under existing legislation needs to be embedded much better. There are also unacceptable cases where these systems are being abused by landlords. However, it is fundamentally important we promote a viable tenancy sector, and the solution to this lies in the Land Development Agency in terms of the cost rentals and in the new initiatives being taken to ensure we can make tenancies affordable.

I would warn strongly against some of the proposals advocated by others such as rent freezes, blanket bans on terminations and banning investors from buying in the market. We need long-term investors who have the patience to wait for steady returns. That is what will build a sustainable market and we need to keep that in mind.

Cathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister again for bringing this legislation before the House. It is progressive legislation and is the fourth time since last summer he has brought forward such legislation before the House to protect tenants during the Covid pandemic. Despite what others have said in terms of populist grandstanding, this legislation protects people. I know several constituents, some of whom live close to me, who have been very much protected by this legislation to date. It is fine to talk about blanket eviction notices and so on, but there are a minority cohort who have chosen to use the Covid pandemic as an excuse to stop paying rents and ramp up their anti-social behaviour. What this legislation does and has done up to now is strike that delicate balance between protecting tenants and protecting those who own those properties from the properties being abused.

The income thresholds for social housing are an issue we have spoken about many times. I would love to see the Minister's Department progress that because the current income thresholds date back to the 2011 regulations. They were fine at the time but we have seen such fluctuations in the market since then in the price of housing to buy and sell, in the rental market and in social and local authority housing. We have seen the way people's incomes and everything else have fluctuated but the income thresholds have not changed in a decade. They need to be changed. I understand there is a memorandum in the Minister's Department. I would love to see it progressed and come out the other end, so to speak.

I would love to see the Minister's Department look more closely at houses in rural areas. On any housing application form in any county, there are probably only a dozen locations where a person can tick off a box to indicate he or she wants to live there. In between, community after community is being hollowed out. We need to look at that. There needs to be more spread in terms of where people are being socially housed and not ghettoise people into 100 or 200 housing developments. We saw in decades past how that failed. Small clusters of houses, such as the one the Department is currently planning, are the way forward in addition to more of a spread in and around counties to ensure rural areas are reinvigorated.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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While this legislation sets out to do something all of us would welcome in that it will protect renters and ensure they cannot be evicted because of the Covid pandemic, it also discriminates against other renters who may be evicted for other reasons. That is the basic problem the Opposition has with the Minister's legislation. It would be wise of him, in the interests of unity and bringing everyone in the House together, to ensure we can do something which represents everybody. It is totally unfair that people will be put out of their home and will have to try to find alternative accommodation in a pandemic, regardless of whether their income has been reduced due to Covid.

Other issues need to be raised with regard to social housing in particular. Two come to my mind that the Minister needs to deal with, one of which is the level at which the housing assistance payment, HAP, is made. Currently, in County Leitrim, a couple with one child has to find a home to rent for less than €450 a month, which is impossible. Everyone tells us that. Another issue is that many landlords refuse to accept HAP tenants and are doing that openly.

The third issue it is vital the Minister addresses is the level of income on which people can go onto the housing lists. Currently, it is way too low. People who cannot afford to rent in the private market are also excluded from going on the council housing list. That needs to be addressed also.

Fundamentally, with regard to this particular legislation, the Minister needs to accept the amendments put forward by the Opposition and recognise that what all of us here must do is understand there are many people who may fall into rent arrears in a pandemic and who will have to try to find alternative accommodation. That is totally inappropriate. The Minister needs to re-examine this legislation, accept the amendments put forward on it and do something about the three issues I raised, especially the HAP and the income level at which people can go on the housing lists.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Nolan is sharing time with her colleagues.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to extend the emergency period specified in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 until 12 July 2021 while recognising and balancing the constitutionally protected property rights of landlords. While that is welcome, many people will be asking why we do not apply such legislative imagination to introducing more robust protections around evictions generally. We have a situation, and I have raised this a number of times, where vulture funds are running riot in this country. Those vulture funds have questionable business models which, in my mind, do not constitute a fair and above-board business.

This needs to be looked at. I raised the forced sale of farms. There have been calls to deal with this matter since 2018, yet the issue is still going on.

Getting back to the Bill, I recognise that the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 provides, with limited exceptions, for a moratorium on evictions taking place during a period of a 5 km travel restriction and during the ten days following the lifting of any such restriction. The Minister will be aware that organisations such as Threshold welcome section 1 of the Bill but that they have concerns about section 2 and its application. I ask for that to be looked at.

1:50 pm

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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More than 3,000 renters are currently protected from eviction and rent increases under the emergency Covid-19 housing legislation, which was introduced on 27 March 2020. The purpose of this Bill is to extend the emergency period specified in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 until 12 July 2021 and to provide the necessary amendments to the Act and to the Residential Tenancies Act 2020. I welcome the Bill, under which tenants are protected in many cases and are offered 90 days notice of termination. There are exemptions to the rule in the event of incidents of anti-social behaviour, unauthorised use of the dwelling, a threat to the fabric of dwelling or if a tenant is five months in arrears and has not submitted the relevant documents from the Money Advice & Budgeting Service. One should note that a tenant who has been arrears for five months is protected but if this Bill is passed in its present format, any tenant after today who is in arrears of five months or more would not be protected. There are also exceptions for landlords where their only income is from rented property and where the landlord is under undue financial hardship.

I am a Rural Independent Group Deputy and I am on the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I came here at short notice last week to discuss this Bill. I waited for two days for a copy of the Bill but did not receive it. I asked the committee to sit on Wednesday through to Tuesday to discuss and scrutinise the Bill, which did not happen because it said it might not be able to get witnesses. I, as a Rural Independent Group Deputy, offered to do that as did Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats and the Labour Party but it was refused by the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party members of the committee. The Chairperson was completely out of order in how he spoke to every one of us about this. My job here is to scrutinise the Bill. My job was also to get the Bill, which I never got. We are here to protect the renters and landlords.

There are people who are renting properties and abusing the situation. There are landlords who are abusing the situation. My job on the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage is to scrutinise the Bill. A vote was taken on pre-legislative scrutiny and they could not even get that right. The vote was announced as being seven to five. I scrutinised it and asked for it to be checked again. When it was checked again, it was found I was right. It was seven to six and one person was absent. Members of the committee are there to protect everyone and to scrutinise the Bill, which I did not receive. We cannot allow this to happen again. We are here to protect everyone. I welcome most of what is in the Bill but it needs to be amended. We could have scrutinised it and got that done on time for this to be voted on.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. I think the clerk to that committee clarified matters.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am delighted to be able to speak on this Bill. I welcome the extension of the time. It is important during these difficulties with Covid to be fair to people as much as we can. It is nothing more than what we should be doing. I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. I had a brief word with him about the urban regeneration fund which Clonmel was unsuccessful in applying for. He has agreed to look at it and to meet with officials from Tipperary County Council. I thank him for his engagement and I wish him well in his portfolio as Minister. He understands that he will also meet with mayor Siobhán Ambrose later when we go through the score sheets and see what went wrong in that area.

Regarding this Bill, it is clear what is going on. There are some bad tenants and many good tenants. There are some bad landlords and many good landlords. There is always a percentage of people who abuse the situation. Before the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, came into office, the last Government did precious little to protect people and to make sure they had certainty. There are waiting lists of 12 years in places. With construction closed - and there is no sense or meaning to it - expected output of new housing units will be 25% less this year. We saw people, and even politicians, picture three construction workers getting takeaway coffees and then brand all construction workers as rogues. They are entitled to their coffee. They want to go to work and to continue to build. These same people are claiming we are not building enough houses. They cannot have their cake and eat it. One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

I refer to what has gone on in the courts all through Covid, especially under one female member of the Judiciary, who I will not name and who has run riot with open engagement for vulture funds. People have been evicted throughout the pandemic despite assurances that there would not be evictions. There has been open door access to the courts for the vulture funds. Land is now being sold off by banks to these vulture funds, which were invited into the country by the former Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan. He said they were good. The only vultures I ever see are pernicious, attacking young lambs when they are born, plucking out their eyes before they get their bodies on to the earth. They must be brought to book. They are plundering and raping our country.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I am afraid that this Bill may not protect the majority of people who are facing eviction. I do not think we fully comprehend the difficulties people go through when they are facing eviction. Some people have been fighting for years to try to hold on to their homes. They are willing to pay, have tried to pay and tried to negotiate. They are unfortunately facing the courts, which seem to be hell-bent on falling on the side of the banks. They are not willing to listen to people who are desperate to hold on to their homes. It is beyond belief that the vulture funds are being set up like this. I fear that with the pandemic, many businesses will be scooped up by vulture funds in another two or three years. We are at the beginning of a disaster.

There is a housing crisis in west Cork, from Kinsale to Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Mizenhead, Bantry and Dunmanway. People continuously come to me who cannot get housing. Construction has not resumed, which is a crisis in itself. People have homes wide open to the elements which have been destroyed by bad weather. Someone has decided that construction is a danger with Covid, which it is not. People want to move into their homes but cannot. People in Kinsale phoned me and told me that their homes have been exposed to all sorts of weather, ruining the work and changes done already. Many people do not want to be in social housing if they can avoid it. They want to work to buy a house. It is impossible for them to get loans and they are being refused. It is important for young people to find sites so that they can build in the community that they work and live in.

There is a disturbing matter about rezoning in Clonakilty. There are areas of ground zoned in the town which are very important. People have been in contact with me to say that part of that ground will be taken back in the county development plan. That is an outrageous attack on the people of west Cork. If that is happening in other towns in west Cork, such as Clonakilty, it will have devastating effects on an area which is in dire need of housing. The county development plan gives an opportunity for people to get planning in an area who otherwise cannot get it for five years. Our young people need to be looked after. They want to build homes and to pay for their homes honestly and fairly. I urge the Minister to look at the county development plans. I urge Cork county councillors to seriously consider not voting if they are going to dezone ground or to vote against it if they are not going to give young people planning permission, and to stand up for the people. I call on them to do that in the next year.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I want to say to Deputies that the separation of powers is sacrosanct and we should avoid, at all times and at all costs, making references to members of the Judiciary.

2:00 pm

Emer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Renters in this country are in a precarious position. Job loss brought on by Covid-19 has meant that those who were already struggling to meet high rents before the pandemic are now barely staying above water. Sadly, many people's hopes of moving out of the rental market have been derailed by the events of the past year. Their plans of home ownership have had to be put on hold. Young families and working professionals in their late twenties and in their thirties have been hit hard in this pandemic and the uncertainty of being a renter has only compounded that.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government stepped in to provide emergency legislation that froze rents and placed a temporary ban on evictions during lockdown level 5 restrictions. It aimed to protect residents financially impacted by Covid-19 and to minimise movement while we are all subject to the 5 km restrictions. For those whose incomes suffered as a result of the pandemic and who did not know where their next rental payment was coming from, this legislation became a real lifeline. As we come to the end of that emergency legislation, we still find ourselves in a difficult situation and once again the Government is stepping in to protect vulnerable renters.

The Residential Tenancies Bill will extend parts of the emergency provisions to ensure that protections are extended, even when the 5 km limit is extended. This means that renters who have lost their job or income will not lose their home as well. This time last year we could not have foreseen that we would be further extending our emergency rental response to Covid-19 for the fourth time. It was never meant to be a permanent measure. As the vaccine roll-out ramps up, I know that we are all hopeful that we will not be in this situation for much longer. However, renters who have lost their job due to Covid need our assurance that they will be protected until we beat this virus. That is exactly what the Residential Tenancies Bill will provide.

In this last year we have been told time and again to stay at home. For many of us, our homes have become our sanctuary and by now we are well acquainted with every inch of them. Our homes have become a symbol of safety and somewhere to shelter from the uncertainty, and sometimes the dangers, of the outside world. This Residential Tenancies Bill will ensure that renters who have lost their job due to Covid will not also lose their home.

However, there is another cohort of renters that we need to support. What about all the couples and individuals who have saved hard for their deposit and are ready to buy their own home, but whose plans have been upturned through no fault of their own because of Covid? I am talking about the people who have their deposit saved, their mortgage approval in place and may even have an offer in on a new home. Unfortunately, for many in this situation, their mortgage approval has been rescinded because their employer has been availing of Government supports to subsidise their wages. These people are still working. Most of them are still taking home the same pay and they still have their savings. They still deserve to move on to the next stage of their lives. I ask the Minister to commit to looking at ways of enabling people in this situation to realise their dream of owning their own home.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome that this legislation does extend the protection for certain renters. We all accept that we are in a brutal pandemic and it has lasted longer than anticipated. However, we were already dealing with a huge issue, namely, the almost pandemic of ridiculous rental prices. There were people who were already absolutely stretched in relation to making these payments. There are people in my constituency who are paying rents of €1,000, €1,200 and even up to €1,600 per month for relatively modest homes. Some people were already in arrears and will not be protected.

I beseech the Minister to look at the amendments, particularly those tabled by Deputy Ó Broin, from the point of view of rectifying this and ensuring that these protections are included. I am talking about people who maybe do avail of the housing assistance payment, HAP. For example, it could be the case that a child has gone from the age of 17 to 18 and suddenly the family cannot avail of the same amount of money, so they find themselves in a worse set of conditions. We must deal with that.

While the Minister is here, I would also like to ask him about the European report that was critical of the standards on social housing within the State. I welcome some of the retrofit operations that are being put in place. They must be expanded to a greater degree. I know the Minister said he is interested in the local authority in County Louth. I will be dealing with him myself, because there is a huge amount of social housing work and maintenance that needs to be done and an insufficient budget with which to do it.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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This Bill is the perfect example of Government spin. It is being hailed as the protection for renters during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, extending protections to 12 July 2021. However, what the Minister is not telling us is that it is an opportunity for the Government to strip rights from many renters in arrears but not affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a short but dangerous Bill.

I would like to repeat the calls by Deputy Ó Broin and Threshold that section 2 of the Bill be deleted in its entirety. Section 2 of the Bill will amend sections 3 and 4 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2020. Therefore, even though there will be a moratorium on evictions, private renters in arrears may still be evicted. There is either a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic or there is not.

Threshold has asked for further consultation to take place on the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 before any changes are made. Obviously, that will not happen now that the debate has already started. Threshold has stated that "this Act has been very successful in preventing homelessness and precarity". When a charity dealing with preventing homelessness from the private rental sector tells us that legislation is working, why would we change it?

There has been low uptake of the scheme to deal with rent arrears as provided for in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020. Threshold has noted that the rent arrears scheme is complex and that it does not provide any significant solution to tenant indebtedness. It has stated that it is:

concerned that there are many private renters who will not be able to avail of the protections afforded by the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 and who could be lawfully evicted during lockdown when the 5 km limit is in place.

The rental market was a mess before Covid-19. Rents were unaffordable, people were living in unsuitable, cramped and overcrowded accommodation units and most people experiencing homelessness had been evicted from the private rental sector. Why would the Government now undo any protections in place for this cohort of renters? Is it seeking to get the homeless figures back up to over 10,000? It seems as if that will happen with this legislation. Does the Government want to rob some more children of their security and homes? I ask the Government to delete section 2 and consult with stakeholders who know what they are talking about and not just those who will make money on the back of its decisions.

The Government always likes to say that the Opposition or advocacy agencies never put forward any solutions to the housing and rental crisis. We do, all the time. It is that we do not just propose profit-producing solutions for landlords, real estate investment trusts, REITs, and investors. Ms Ann-Marie O'Reilly, policy officer at Threshold, stated:

Solutions, instead of evictions, for rent arrears need to be established. Threshold has proposed a number of solutions such as a low interest rent arrears loan fund, or a debt write off scheme in the direst of circumstances.

Why does the Government continuously ignore the real-life impacts of its policy decisions? Fianna Fáil continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth. The public-facing side says that it is protecting renters during a pandemic, but on the other side could be saying not to worry, it will get rid of those in rent arrears so that people can get new tenants and charge more.

I want to bring one of those real-life stories to the attention of the Minister. I have already spoken about the housing and rental situation in Donegal. There is scarce availability of places to rent and while the rents seem lower compared to Dublin levels, incomes are also much lower. I would also like to support the comments of other Members in respect of the need to change the income level eligibility criteria for those waiting to get on the housing list. I have made representations to the Minister and previous Ministers on that issue.

Apologies, I have lost my train of thought.

Where a landlord refuses to accept HAP for privately rented accommodation, it is up to the tenant to inform the relevant authorities. That should not be the case. It is not fair to put the tenant in that situation. The County Council should be required to inform the relevant authorities.

I would like to provide an example of a woman, Ms Mary Coogan, who is trying to buy a home for herself in Dublin. She has appeared on RTÉ's "Prime Time", has written blogs and appeared on podcasts. Mary's third house-buying blog post is entitled "The Rage". The inspiration for this blog post came from a Journal.iearticle that profiled a single man looking to buy a home with a budget of €600,000.

That is not real life and it is not representative of people in the rental market looking to buy a home. It is not representative of the majority of single people, couples or lone parents hoping to stop paying someone else's mortgage in the form of extortionate rent and instead own their own home and have some security for the future.

Mary Coogan has put the situation facing many renters very succinctly:

Single people are largely invisible in housing discourse... Sure, we can be in mortgage ads happily unpacking boxes or dancing around our kitchen, but what they tend not to mention is that the happy dancer would need to either 1) be on a salary of 75k+ and/or 2) have received a gift of min. 50-70K to get her hands on those keys. Most of us are not on that kind of salary, and most of us don't have access to family wealth. So what do we do? Rent forever? Live in a house share into our 60s? I have saved the deposit on my own so I know I am well able to save, but no amount of skipped avocado on toast will enable me to save the 50-70k I need to get me towards a 2 bed in Dublin 12/10.

It is time for the Minister to start listening to the Opposition, the advocacy and civil society groups and the many people affected by housing policies that only benefit the few.

2:10 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We were supposed to learn from the Covid crisis and we were all meant to be in this together. As I speak, I feel like we are being handed pieces of a jigsaw without an overall picture. We had a speech this morning from the Minister for Health on the fantastic vaccination programme that did not provide an overall picture. Now we are discussing a very specific legislative proposal but we have moved on from the lovely language of all being in it together.

I will start with the positives. The Bill before us is short, which is welcome. I welcome the section that extends the timeframe for protections for tenants, but I agree with the amendments that have been tabled to extend those protections to more people. I hope the Minister will see sense in that regard. He delivered a speech yesterday that used the same type of language we heard this morning, encouraging us to look to a brighter day. We do not need those types of speeches and we do not want to hear that type of thing. People will make up their own mind based on information. In regard to vaccinations, they want to know where the roll-out fits into an overall programme to deal with Covid. They want to know where the protections set out in this Bill fit in as part of a housing programme that will deal with the housing crisis that has been in existence for years directly as a result of Government policies.

The Minister is back here today because of the sunset clause. He knew that clause would run out and that he would have to come back to the House with new provisions. I welcome his extension of the protections. However, while one hand is extending protection to certain lucky tenants, the other hand is going to remove protection from another set of tenants. He told us so in the lovely patriarchal language of it being for our own good and that we must balance the rights of landlords and tenants. During the debate, antisocial behaviour was thrown into the mix. As a former councillor and Deputy, I am a person who will not tolerate antisocial behaviour. However, it is concerning that it was thrown into the mix by various Members in connection with the non-payment of rent. In fairness to the Minister, he did not do so.

I do not accept the justification for the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny of these provisions. There was ample time for discussion. In a different context, for example, a Minister of State wants an Oireachtas committee to sit almost every day to deal with the Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú) 2019 because he is under pressure. There is no problem with extra meetings. I heard the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, say there was no problem with extra meetings in regard to the Bill we are discussing now, but those meetings were not facilitated. It is really shocking that the proposal not to waive pre-legislative scrutiny had to go to a vote in the committee. That proposal was won by seven votes to six but the pre-legislative process was waived anyway. I have no idea how the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, can stand over that type of scenario and say that we have a lively and healthy democracy. Pre-legislative scrutiny is absolutely essential when there is a proposal to remove protections from some tenants. He is shaking his head but that is what he is doing in section 2. He has been asked by Threshold and the Simon Communities of Ireland not to do so. They are much more expert on these issues than we are in this House. We, as elected representatives, send people all the time to Threshold because its staff know exactly what is happening in local areas.

To put the situation for renters in perspective, the Oireachtas Library and Research Service tells us that in the ten-year period from 2006 to 2016, the number of private renters doubled. That is a deliberate consequence of Government policies, which have facilitated the private market. I welcome the figure from the Minister that 70% of landlords own only one or two properties. I am on record as saying that there is a role for those types of landlords and that we need them. However, their rights must be balanced by a Government policy on housing that is fair and just. The State must be in the middle of the market in providing public housing on public land. From what I see in Galway city, it has gone beyond Dublin in terms of rent prices. In my own area, the rent on a two-bedroom house is €2,000 per month, which is beyond the ability to pay of most ordinary people earning a salary.

I appeal to the Minister to accept the amendments that are sensibly seeking an extension of time and to leave out section 2. I ask that he come back and work with us with a view to the Government putting forward a solution to the housing emergency that is a direct consequence, as Deputy Catherine Murphy said this morning, of dealing with homes as financial products.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. At the outset, I want to address the matter of pre-legislative scrutiny. Deputy Connolly noted that the committee voted on the issue and the result was seven votes to six in favour of proceeding with the scrutiny process. We respect the committee vote. I served on the housing committee in the previous Dáil and I respect the Oireachtas committee system greatly. It was not in any way, shape or form a slight on the committee that we sought to bypass pre-legislative scrutiny. It is important to note that this Bill is an extension of existing legislation.

Having said that, I take the Deputy's point. It is not something I would like to see done on a regular basis. In fact, it should only happen in extremis. I genuinely have taken on board the points Deputies have made, particularly those of members of the housing committee. As I said, the decision to waive the pre-legislative process was not in any way meant as a slight on committee members and their expertise in scrutinising legislative proposals. This is the fourth Bill on this issue and it is very similar to the previous Bills that were brought forward. I certainly have noted Deputies' comments on this issue. I reiterate that I do not want to see pre-legislative scrutiny being set aside with any degree of regularity.

In this instance, however, there is an urgency around the extension of protections for those who need them most. On each occasion that I have brought forward legislation in this Chamber, I have said that if we need to do more at any stage, we will do it. Anybody looking to arrive at a fair assessment of what we have done in regard to tenancy protections will agree that I have done exactly that. The measures we take must be proportionate, legal and constitutional. I have a job to do to balance the rights of tenants with the rights of property owners. Some may wish to set that aside or dismiss it, and that is fine. Deputy Connolly did not do so, to be fair.

I want to correct one point she made. A total of 86% of landlords own one or two properties. They are normal people and some of them depend on rent as an income. I have to protect their rights alongside, and proportionate to, the rights of tenants. The wilful non-payment of rent by tenants is not acceptable. Even Deputy Ó Broin said yesterday that neither her nor the Opposition in general seeks to protect anyone who wilfully refuses to pay his or her rent. I agree with him on that point and this Bill will ensure there is clarification in that regard. For anyone who needs help or assistance with paying rent, there are Government supports in place that are being accessed and should be accessed. I have said that time and again. More than €11 billion of additional social welfare supports have been brought in by the Government to help people during this pandemic.

It behoves people to be realistic in this debate. Last August, we brought forward new protections in the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which some in the House opposed. Many of those who have criticised the Bill before us voted against bringing in these protections in the first instance. In the area of rent arrears, we introduced in that Act a new process to get MABS and the RTB involved at the first stage of arrears arising. Before that, we never had data and assistance for people in this regard.

I know right now, as Minister, that 2,401 warning letters were issued for rent arrears, as when the first rent arrears letter is issued by a landlord it must be copied to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, as well. The tenants must also get a letter detailing what supports are in place for them. That measure, by the way, has been very much welcomed by Threshold and others who I greatly regard and from whom I seek support and advice regularly.

Let us remember that the provisions I am now thankful are in law were opposed by many of the Members opposite. If we had gone down the road proposed by many of the Members who contributed to the debate today and yesterday, we would not have those additional supports in place for tenants right now. The voting record is there for everybody to see. I remind people that when we discuss this matter, we should do so with a bit of realism and honesty. We might stop trying to play both sides that way. Fundamentally we are ensuring a proportionate response to what is happening right now. It is about extending further protection to the people who need it most and whose income has been affected by the pandemic, with the associated risk of going into rent arrears, or who are in rent arrears already. Through a self-declaration, they can get protection until 12 July this year.

If we need further action, I will introduce further legislation, as I have done before. In the overall context of tenancies and rents, we are working on a package of reforms separate from the pandemic and responses we are discussing in this Bill. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Connolly, spoke of the bigger picture, and that is being addressed. I will bring those provisions before the House later this year. We must look at replacing rent pressure zones, RPZs, if anything is to replace them. Work is ongoing in that space. In the meantime, we must ensure those who need protection most will get it.

Going back to the question of rent arrears, we must be realistic. I respect what the Members opposite have said and listened to them intently, but there is a reality that, since 2018, we have seen a loss of approximately 18,000 tenancies. Individual landlords, whether people like them or not, are leaving the market. We are trying to build our public housing stock and deliver affordable rental and affordable purchase schemes, which I hope the Members opposite will support. The Land Development Agency will ensure we will build on State-owned land, putting it to productive use to deliver public and affordable housing for people. Again, some people critical of this Bill voted against that legislation also. We are getting to the stage where those Members are against this and other provisions, so we must ask what they are for.

Approximately 750 notices of terminations were issued - not effected - on the grounds of rent arrears, and that is in the context of just short of 300,000 tenancies that are in place. That is a quarter of 1% of all tenancies. Those notices of termination are not necessarily effected and there are additional protections under existing legislation. From listening to Deputy Boyd Barrett in particular and others, one might swear there is no protection at all for tenants and the purpose of this Bill is really just to rip any protections out from under these tenants. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are additional provisions. I just ask for a fair reading of what is there. We must act on this urgently.

I remind Members there was much discussion last summer when we moved out of the blanket eviction ban introduced by the previous Government into something more sustainable. It introduced legally robust provisions. Again, at the time, many Members predicted a tsunami of evictions if protections were removed, but that has not come to pass. That is not to be in any way complacent about the matters before us and we are still ensuring there are protections in place. Many of the Members who oppose this legislation were the same who predicted a massive increase in evictions that did not happen because the protection we introduced worked.

I will address something a couple of Members mentioned. Approximately 407 individuals have sought protection under the existing Act. Some people have said only 407 people have sought protection, so it must not be working. Would it be better if there were 4,007 people seeking protection and we knew there were disputes and distress for them, as opposed to approximately 400 people? It is a counter-intuitive argument and the fact the protections exist means the market knows tenants are protected. Nevertheless, Deputy Ó Broin and others are saying only 400 people are getting protection and they would much rather if 40,000 people had to sign a self-declaration about being in arrears and losing their income. One of the reasons that has not happened is the Government support put in place through the pandemic, with the emergency rent supplement, the employment wage subsidy scheme and the more than €11 billion in social welfare supports that have correctly been used to help people.

Deputies cannot have it both ways. These protections are working and all I am seeking from the Dáil and the Seanad later in the week is to allow the most vulnerable and those affected by the pandemic to be protected further until 12 July. Anybody with a fair mind looking at this would think this reasonable. If others want to find reasons not to support this, it is up to them and I will respect that action while not agreeing with it.

Question put and agreed to.