Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Deputies will know that last year, during the second lockdown, many universities moved to remote learning and, as a consequence, students who had prepaid for student accommodation or were in student accommodation in or near campus had to vacate their licences early. As students do not have the same protections under the Residential Tenancies Act as other renters when it comes to exiting licence agreements early, many students and their families were significantly out of pocket. There is a widespread practice of students being required to pay rent for three, six and in some cases the full nine months in advance of taking up their student accommodation. That meant thousands of families across the State lost substantial sums of money because there was no requirement for student landlords to repay those moneys.
Many of these families had been hit very hard by Covid. Some were on the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, or the wage subsidy scheme and were, therefore, experiencing hardship. The loss of €3,000, €6,000 or €9,000 was a great financial blow for the families in question. If these had been standard private rented tenancies, the tenants could have given a 28-day notice. They would have forgone the first four weeks' rent but they would have been refunded any rent paid beyond that period.
At the time, the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, rightly complained students were not being given fair play. The USI contacted both the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Opposition housing spokespersons urging us to change the law to give students the protections they so rightly deserve. I am aware the Minister met the USI and he has always engaged constructively with it on these and related matters. I and other Opposition politicians did likewise. Those engagements on the Opposition side led to the Bill before us today. It is a USI Bill; it was designed and led by the USI. The Bill has the support of 56 Opposition Deputies who have co-signed it. I believe others who have not signed it will also support it.
The Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers provided considerable assistance on the Bill and we thank OPLA staff for their work on it. The Bill does three very simple things, two of which are Covid-19 related protections and one is a permanent change to the protections for students. First, if a student in student accommodation is forced to leave that accommodation early because of future Covid-19 restrictions, he or she would be able, as all other tenants are, to give a 28-day notice and get refunded for any additional rent paid in advance beyond that notice period. Likewise, if a student is not able to take up pre-booked accommodation due to Covid-19 restrictions, he or she will be able to issue a 28-day notice to exit that licence early and be fully refunded for any additional rent paid in advance beyond the notice period. These are fair and eminently sensible changes. Landlords would have 28 days' rent covered and any rent paid beyond that would be fully refunded.
The permanent change proposed in the Bill is that the practice of pre-charging students for three, six or nine months be ended. It is simply an unfair burden. This is particularly true in respect of working families in many parts of Ireland who are sending their sons and daughters to universities in the cities and towns and must come up with such large amounts of cash when, in general, regular renters pay a deposit of one month's rent as well as one month's rent in advance.
The core message of the Bill is that we should give students fair play. Let us ensure student renters are given exactly the same protections as all others. Where landlords are served with an early notice of termination, they will, under this Bill, get four weeks' rent. If that is good enough in the private rented sector generally, it should be good enough for student landlords. Equally, the Bill provides that students will get fair play and be refunded any rent paid beyond four weeks. Crucially, once we get to the other side of Covid, the practice of requiring the prepayment of thousands of euro by hard-pressed working families will come to an end.
This is a reasonable and sensible Bill. I urge the Minister, as he did previously when he worked, while in opposition, to protect students, to work with the current Opposition and pass the USI's Bill in order to ensure fair play for students.
As my colleague stated, the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021 seeks to end the rip-off relating to students and their families. I would first like to commend the USI and the previous speaker, my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, and his team for the work they have done on this Bill. In addition, I acknowledge the 56 Opposition Deputies who have already signed up to the Bill.
We are living through a housing crisis that has a real impact on access to third level education, especially for people living outside the cities and large towns. Despite Ireland having the highest fees in the EU, accommodation is, for many families, the biggest financial barrier to getting students to third level education, particularly those from rural Ireland. Students are often in low-paid, part-time work or rely on the support that their families can afford to give them.
Students are treated differently by landlords, particularly those in purpose-built student accommodation, where they are often asked to pay a full semester's rent in advance. We have to be cognisant of the financial situation of students themselves, who have not been able to get employment in the pandemic, and of their parents and siblings, who have lost employment. In recent days, figures released by Social Justice Ireland show that a quarter of working families are living in poverty. These are the same people who we have allowed to be robbed in the past year because they are paying upfront for something which, under law, they were prevented from using.
Approximately 30,000 students live in privately provided, purpose-built student accommodation. When the pandemic hit last March, it exposed the severe injustices students face in the rental market. They were on the hook for accommodation they no longer needed and the vast majority never received refunds. Since Fine Gael entered government, it has given €87 million in tax breaks to the providers of purpose-built student accommodation. Despite the huge amount of public money they have received, many of these landlords have refused to issue refunds. I must, however, commend the landlords who issued refunds straight away.
During the summer and after the experience of the first wave I and others repeatedly warned of the risks that would be faced by student renters if college moved online again. Students were given the optimistic assessments and positive headlines when they needed the Government to be straightforward and realistic with them. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, said on 31 August that "students were treated a bit shabbily"when colleges closed their doors at the beginning of the pandemic. I agreed with him in that regard. He went on to say: "If ever ... there were further restrictions and colleges had to close, we need to make sure that all the students get refunded." That was a month before it was announced that students would not be returning to campus. In October, after colleges had moved online and reports of students again being denied refunds began flooding into all our offices, I asked the Minister how he would ensure that students received refunds. The answer was that he had no powers directly available to him under the existing legal framework relating to private accommodation. When I raised the issue with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the housing officer, I was simply told that the matter did not fall within the remit of the Department.
I commend the USI and everybody who has worked on this Bill. The Government should have introduced emergency legislation in this area in the first instance. However, it is never too late to do the right thing. Student renters were cast aside again. They were the subject of too many promises and were left under-protected. We can never allow that to happen again. The aim behind the Bill is to ensure that students will not be left in the position I have outlined in the future. If the Bill becomes law, a student will be able to end a tenancy in purpose-built student accommodation by serving the landlord with a notice of termination of 28 days and get a refund.
We owe it to the students of Ireland and their families to right the wrong that has been done to them since the beginning of the pandemic. If one of us went into a shop and paid between €5,000 and €9,000 for something, as these families have done, and were then ordered to leave the shop without getting what we paid for and were told we would never get our money back, we would not accept it. Why should student renters be treated differently? There is a real opportunity here for us to work collectively across the House to put this right.
The legislation brought forward by Sinn Féin this morning is very important and will deal with a significant problem that has caused hardship and stress for families in my constituency of Laois-Offaly and other rural counties from where people must travel. Recent reports estimate that 3,019 students from County Laois and 2,984 from Offaly attend third level college. Many of these students have to secure rental accommodation in Limerick, Galway and Dublin as there is no third level college in the constituency. Traditionally, both counties have had lower than the State average level of attendance at third level, and this is important to note.
Under current legislation, student accommodation is treated differently from all other rental accommodation, as landlords are permitted to charge students more than one month's rent in advance, often charging three or four months' rent or the whole term in one go. This means students from counties such as Laois and Offaly who attend Galway have to pay an average of €5,000 in one instalment and could be asked for up to €9,000 if attending a college such as UCD in Dublin. Some families may have more than one child attending college at the same time. This is a huge outlay for many families, especially for those households who cannot access SUSI grants. The Minister is familiar with such families. These families are trying to pay mortgages, most are likely to have two cars on the road to access their work or to run their businesses, and they have other substantial outgoings.
Many students paid their rent in lump sums prior to the Covid outbreak last year. Some were never compensated when they returned to their parent's homes under national health guidelines. I have dealt with many such people. This is very unfair. The Bill, supported by the Union of Students in Ireland, will give greater protection to student renters and ensure that in future refunds will be provided where accommodation is unusable due to public health restrictions. It will prevent landlords from charging students more than one month's rent in advance and it will ensure student renters are treated in the same way as other renters. This is important legislation that will provide students with more secure and fairer rental situations. I commend all of the Deputies on the Opposition benches who have supported the Bill and I hope Deputies in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will also back it. I call on all Deputies to support the Bill.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this important Bill. The fact it has garnered such support from a wide range of Opposition Deputies, 56 in total, shows just how vital the legislation is. We know that rents continued to increase in the academic year 2019 to 2020 and into the 2020 to 2021 academic year, despite the pandemic exposing the unsustainable and twisted nature of accommodation inflation as rents in the capital rose by 0.3% over the pandemic period. This also begs the question as to where this unresponsive upward spiral of growth is going to end.
There is no invisible hand regulating supply and demand. Rents continue to rise even amid a global pandemic. In 2020, Ireland was the fifth most expensive country in Europe to rent a home. This proves again the effect the pandemic has had on Irish families. We know a battle ensued when students were told to go home, and prevented by law from using their accommodation. A huge number of Clare students contacted my office at the time and I remember how distressed and confused they were. They were not getting fair play. These students and families were already struggling to meet rent demands for their accommodation and this lack of fairness compounded the issue. Many have had to go to moneylenders just to get by. We need to ensure this does not happen again.
We need to ensure that student renters are given the same protection as other renters.
This Bill is needed to protect the rights of students who have not been afforded their entitlements as tenants who have, as they say, been milked for all they have been worth for years. This Bill, for example, will prevent landlords from charging one month's rent in advance. I believe it is as good a time as any to re-evaluate the precarious rental situations of many students and take concrete actions towards rectifying the discrepancies in the supply of and making student accommodation accessible and affordable in the future.
I call on all Deputies to support this Bill.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin, Ailbhe, the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and all the team that contributed to this important legislation.
This is a motion for grafters. It is for workers. It is for those who saved for years, paying their mortgage, USC and property tax, and who got nothing in return. Some have been trying to give their child an opportunity that they did not get.
People from all around Kerry, from Listowel, Rathmore and Cahirciveen, have been in touch with my party's office because when the lockdown happened, they had no lobby group or union to advocate for them. They looked for help and none was forthcoming. There was no rebate, no refunds, only reality for those. They found that the system was stacked against them. The odds were against them. There was no tax incentives for them, but tax incentives for the builders who were allowed to loosen the construction standards and allow for co-living arrangements, and the colleges by and large were allowed to outsource accommodation.
This Bill is why we are in Leinster House and in the convention centre today. It is help for accommodation during academic term times. It is to help with one month's notice and to refund relevant payments. This is the type of legislation that we should all be associated with.
So much for "We are all in this together". These students, who cannot go abroad to college, could not enjoy the college experience and were left with nothing. This is the type of legislation that I want to be associated with and I urge the Government Deputies to support it also.
As a Deputy with Maynooth University in my constituency of north Kildare, I am very happy with what is being proposed here in this Private Members' Bill, PMB, from the USI.
Maynooth University plays such a huge role in my local community and in providing educational life opportunities across the State. Students in the State have paid a big price in their educational life, not to mention their social life, during this coronavirus pandemic. They have also been unable to get part-time employment to help subsidise their living costs during Covid-19.
Due to Government decisions and lack of decisions, lockdown became our sole defence against the virus. This has not made it easier on the students in Maynooth and in every college across the State. I have spoken to students in my home town of Maynooth who, on the promise of college attendance from the Government, found places to rent in the town yet did not attend a single lecture in the university throughout the year. These students and their families forked out outrageous rents for accommodation they did not even need. Many of them put themselves into debt.
This Bill will protect them in three thorny areas: the payment of rent in advance, notice and refunds. On rent in advance, it proposes a period of one month as opposed to a term or the full academic year which has been a massive burden on middle-income families who do not qualify for SUSI grants because of the half-baked assessment criteria.
Notice to leave would also be set down as 28 days, and refunds on deposits would be guaranteed. There has been untold worry and stress in families over the past year trying to get refunds on rents paid when students had to either come home early on account of Covid restrictions or not take up their place at all.
With Covid, life has been difficult for all of us, but it has been very difficult on students. People need protection when they are faced with this insecurity and it is the Government's duty to step up there. Sinn Féin is committed to protecting students and their families and this Bill does exactly that.
I commend my comrades, Deputy Conway-Walsh and Ó Broin, on working with the USI to bring forward this Bill and I call on everybody in the House to vote for it.
Táim ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis an Teachta McAuliffe, sé nóiméad dom agus ceithre nóiméad don Teachta McAuliffe, le cead an Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
On behalf of the Government, I thank the Deputies opposite, particularly those who brought forward this Bill, the purpose of which is to amend the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2021. The Bill specifically includes safeguards relating to student rents and the protections that should apply to students. I agree with previous speakers that lessons should be learned from the pandemic and that where additional protections are required, we should put them in place. I thank USI in particular for its input into the preparation of this Bill. As was mentioned earlier, this is the USI's Bill. It is the union's work and its legislation. I really welcome the engagement the USI has had with Opposition parties and the Government. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I have met USI representatives, as have Deputy McAuliffe and several Deputies opposite. It is good to see that students can bring their issues forward, with proposed solutions.
I wish to advise the House that a working group comprising officials from my Department and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will ensure that there is ongoing co-operation between the two Departments and that we will act in tandem as much as possible, particularly on the issue of student accommodation which is still an area of concern.
The Bill before us is both helpful and timely, as is this morning's debate. I am pleased to support pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislation. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned measures introduced last year by the previous Oireachtas, involving the co-operation of many on the housing committee including myself, Deputy Ó Broin and the former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, relating to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. We worked with the USI on those measures and I want to continue with that collaborative approach.
The key objective of the Bill is to limit the amount of rent payable in advance by students, thus limiting their exposure to losing quite significant sums of money. There are some elements in the Bill which we will need to work on. In that context, I advise Deputies that my Department, in consultation with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, has been working on the general scheme of a housing and residential tenancies Bill that will provide similar protections across the entire residential rental sector, not just the student accommodation sector. I will provide more detail on this later but I accept and recognise that this Private Member's Bill aims to help students in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government Bill, which I expect to bring forward and enact this year, will help all tenants in the long term. We need to ensure that we have long-term fixes and not just reactions to what has happened during the Covid pandemic. I will work to ensure that the best aspects of the Bill before us are teased out and integrated into that legislation.
As it stands, the Residential Tenancies Acts do not prescribe specific terms and conditions regarding the payment of rents, deposits or refunds for inclusion in individual letting arrangements in the private rental market, including the student-specific accommodation sector. Contract law governs such arrangements and the specific terms associated with them and the obligations are likely to be set out in a written contract signed by both the student and the landlord. However, I am committed to working with all interested parties to see how we can strengthen this and provide clarity in those areas. The Acts now provide that disputes relating to non-refunding of deposits and rent setting may be referred to the RTB, on foot of changes made in the last Oireachtas. I intend to ensure that this continues to be the case. Any further amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act to govern specific terms and conditions regarding refunds payable on foot of Covid-19 under individual letting arrangements in the student-specific accommodation would need to be carefully considered. That is why I welcome the opportunity for this Bill to go before the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
I wish to advise Deputies that the general scheme of the housing and residential tenancies Bill that I intend to bring to Government for approval in the very near future includes proposals to restrict the amount of any upfront payments of rent and deposits across the entire private rental sector, not just the student accommodation sector.
I want to go further than that by restricting the level of deposits across the sector. That Bill is being worked on as I speak.
To give Deputies some insight, subject to Government approval, the Bill will aim to provide that all tenants in the residential rental sector, including, but not limited to, students, would only be required to make an up-front payment on tenancy commencement that does not exceed an amount equivalent to one month's rent plus one month's deposit; thereafter, only one month’s rent can be payable in advance; a landlord will be legally obliged to adhere to this practice; and non-compliance by a landlord with this obligation could be referred by a tenant for dispute resolution to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. I will be working through those provisions individually with the joint committee.
The provision in the Government Bill for a maximum up-front payment would protect all tenants and counter discrimination, in particular for lower income groups. That is what we want to do. This debate and the Bill brought forward by the USI is timely. I want to bring in some of the changes across the rental market, not just specifically to students. I welcome the debate and look forward to the Bill going for legislative scrutiny.
As with previous speakers, I start by thanking the Union of Students in Ireland for bringing forward a solution in this area and campaigning on an issue which impacts USI members, as it does on many issues which impact students in Ireland. I also thank the Government for allowing this Bill to progress to pre-legislative scrutiny in order that we can examine some of the measures in it. There may be legal questions with some of its provisions but the joint committee will examine these. I also thank the Opposition for using its time to allow this Bill to be introduced.
The Bill deals with student-specific accommodation and includes safeguards in relation to student rents and other protections. It is billed as the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and I have engaged with the Union of Students in Ireland. I thank the USI for dealing with each party as it has allowed us all to support the principles of the Bill and bring forward solutions.
Covid-19 is not the only obstacle with regard to student accommodation. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and I supported the protests by the students' union at Dublin City University about the Shanowen shakedown and we subsequently supported the amendments made by the then Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. That whole debacle highlighted the complex area of student accommodation.
I am pleased to hear what the Minister has just said to the House. I have not heard him outline so specifically the proposed general scheme of a Bill on tenants reforms. I hope I did not misunderstand him but he appeared to inform the House that he intends to limit the up-front payments to which so many students are subjected. I hope those reforms will be with us long after Covid-19 has gone so that students will benefit.
The Minister outlined to the House that the Government would bring forward measures that students and all tenants will be protected from initial rent payments up front. Students and tenants will welcome the news that up-front payments will be limited to one month's rent plus one month's deposit, and that, thereafter, monthly payments will be made one month in advance. In addition, landlords will be legally obliged to adhere to that practice and sanctions of up to €30,000 will apply to landlords who breach that requirement. Students and tenants will welcome this commitment, particularly families who do not have access to large savings and have been discriminated in the market by being forced to compete with others who can pay three, four or five months' rent in advance.
Students living in student-specific accommodation will welcome the Government's commitment but it will also benefit students outside student-specific accommodation.
The Minister made previous commitments about the maximum termination notice period for students by which many are affected. He has brought forward proposals to match the ambition of the USI's Bill. I congratulate the USI. This is a great example of the House working together to deliver a solution.
Students have suffered significantly during the pandemic. Many of their families are now dependent on the pandemic unemployment payment and wage subsidy payments. Many are struggling not just financially but also due to the Covid-19 restrictions. For the current student body, most of the traditional third level experience has been absent. The experience of the current cohort of students is in videoconferencing and online lectures attended from their kitchen tables. For the most legitimate of reasons relating to protecting public health, students have been asked to stay away from their college campuses. They adhered to this advice and remained in their local communities, yet for many, the semester's accommodation is still expected to be paid for in full. We have introduced this Bill because we believe that student renters deserve greater protections and so that students will receive refunds where accommodation is unusable due to health restrictions. The aims of the Bill are simple and fair. The ambition is to ensure that student renters are treated the same as other renters by ensuring that landlords cannot charge student renters more than one month's rent in advance.
The University of Limerick is a superb institution that contributes greatly to the life and energy of Limerick city. In normal times, it is wonderful for the city to be injected with an array of ethnicities and a collection of students from all 32 counties, with the accompanying GAA jerseys in the colours of those counties. I look forward to the day when public health allows for the return of these students. They have been sorely missed.
When we look at the on-site accommodation fees that families are expected to pay, it is difficult to imagine how any family could send one child, let alone two, to a third level institution. The cheapest accommodation that I found was for a single room with no en suite in an eight-bed house. The total rent for an academic year came to over €4,000. Aside from application fees, the rent has to be paid in three instalments over the academic year. Accompanying this price is an ominous warning which reads, "Should you make an application for a full year place with us and cancel mid-way through your stay, you will lose your full deposit, be liable for the full year rent and will be unable to apply for accommodation with us in the future." While the university issued refunds, it was extremely disappointing that they were sometimes firmly resisted before relenting.
I also looked at some of the off-campus accommodation options where the fees are higher and which still require a full year's payment, with a four-instalment plan available. This locks students in and gives them no opportunity of choice. This is a tremendous amount for many middle-income plans, especially for those with more than one child in education. For many of those families, a series of thresholds make them ineligible. The Bill is supported by 56 Deputies. I encourage all Deputies to support it and the USI too.
I thank Deputies Ó Broin and Conway-Walsh. I also welcome the initial response from the Minister. I live in Dublin West, as the Minister knows. It is a community which, like his in north County Dublin, has a substantial youth population and a diverse population. We have thousands of students who attend college and who travel the length and breadth of the State. Every year, when students get the word that they have got their places in college, it soon turns into a time of stress and worry if they have to live away from home. I have had three children in college. They were lucky enough to be able to live at home and not have the worry and stress of having to find money, including money for accommodation. I do not know how parents do it.
As described by previous speakers, students are paying thousands of euro upfront, along with other substantial costs that can put college out of reach for many working families. Many of those working families do not qualify for SUSI or for any grants or supports whatsoever. It is extremely difficult for them to send their children to college. This Bill would prevent providers of student accommodation from charging one month's rent in advance. This would be a significant help to students and their families. We must learn the lessons of the pandemic and address the concerns raised by the USI about students and their parents not being able to access refunds when they had to leave or could not take up student accommodation.
The people of this country were asked by the Government to adhere to strict guidelines and the provisions of the relevant legislation. They did that, and many thousands of students did not take up accommodation that had already been paid for. What did they get for that support for the Covid-19 regulations? They were denied rent refunds for unused accommodation by many landlords.
Let us support them now and agree that this Bill allows for prompt refunds in such instances. This Bill would also enable a student to end a tenancy in student-specific accommodation by serving the landlord with a 28-day notice of termination. This is a reasonable request and a reasonable Bill.
There is a myth in this country, namely, that there is free access to education and that anyone can go to third level education, get a degree and even, apparently, get a well-paid job. All of that, unfortunately, is simply a myth. The issue much of the time is that universities rely on financing from students, whether international or EU, to fund their activities because they are not adequately funded by the State. If students do make it to university, no student should be seen as a cash cow. However, there are many financial barriers to third level education. Without even going into the detail of such aspects as the student contribution that students must pay, there is the simple basic fact that rents are simply out of reach for most ordinary students. That is especially the case in Galway city, where I am from, where we have the second highest rents in the State.
What I really like about this Bill is that it is specific about students' needs. It looks at those challenges faced by students, and specifically those students in purpose-built student accommodation. The strength of this Bill is that it has come from the students themselves, from their experiences and from their union. I remember very clearly that last September students were told to act like everything was normal and to put the deposit down on their student accommodation. In that same week, however, they were then told that all the university lectures would be online. The resulting situation was one where many students had already put down their deposits, and they did not see those deposits again. The students' union in Galway city dealt with 30 different refusals of a return of deposits in respect of one student accommodation provider because it was simply left up to the landlord.
Even this morning, I spoke to one student who has been waiting for seven months to get her deposit back. She has basically given up. This Bill, however, would legislate for that type of situation. It would also mean that students could give 28 days' notice in respect of purpose-built student accommodation, and that is important because we all know life does not always work out the way we planned. Some of this student accommodation costs approximately €7,000 a year and therefore this is an important issue. I am glad everyone will be supporting this Bill and it is important it is enacted.
Before I start my contribution, republicans in Dundalk are now saying farewell to Francie Doran, a man from the North. Like him, many people from Belfast settled in Dundalk due to the conflict and they played a significant role in republican and community activism. My thoughts are with Marion and his family and I thought I needed to make mention of it.
I commend Deputies Ó Broin and Conway-Walsh and the USI on dealing with an issue that concerns giving protection to students. We have already heard it mentioned frequently here that students, because of the pandemic, found themselves in a difficult situation regarding huge deposits and being unable to get their money back. This Bill will provide protections regarding a decent time to present notice. It will ensure protection regarding refunds and mean we will not have the awful scenario of people having to put a deposit of three, six or nine months' rent money together to give to a landlord to ensure they have accommodation to enable them to attend college.
There are already many obstacles in respect of who can access SUSI grants and many other things that happened long before that issue. Many interventions are needed from the State to rectify all these issues. However, this is a simple Bill and I welcome the support of the Government for it and for the tenants concerned. We just need to ensure that this happens.
In my town of Dundalk, we are delighted we have Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKiT . We must, however, deal with the overall housing crisis. People who work in companies such as PayPal can bunch together. We are talking then about people who can avail of the housing assistance payment, HAP, those who cannot and students all fighting for a limited amount of rental accommodation and all paying high rents. We are talking about rents of €1,000, €1,200 and €1,400.
I have spoken to the Minister about that previously. We must deal with the entire issue. We must deal with the issues that Louth County Council is facing in respect of land banks. I welcome the support in dealing with the issue in respect of students but we must deliver on the housing crisis across the board.
The Labour Party and our housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, thank the USI for all the work it has put into this Bill. We also thank Deputies Ó Broin and Conway-Walsh for putting Second Stage of the Bill on the clár.
It is most welcome to hear the Minister indicate the Bill will pass to Committee Stage. There is cross-party consensus that it is something that needs to be done. We have known for years that students have been absolutely rinsed in terms of rent. However, what the pandemic has brought to the fore is that they have continued to be rinsed by paying rent for accommodation without having the use of it. It has been incredible. Unfortunately, it took this unique global event and circumstance to get the legislative impetus behind this Bill. It looks like it is going in the right direction.
Our hope is that it will get to Committee Stage and pass that Stage soon so that it can become law. I welcome what the Minister said in respect of implementing the best parts of the Bill. In advance of Committee Stage, I would be interested in hearing the Minister's thoughts on what are the worst or weak parts of the Bill, so that we can be prepared for the Committee Stage debate and can ensure the Bill passes in a form that most closely resembles its current form.
This is a good Bill and one that should be impossible to block, given how much sense it makes and how much it will help people who need it. It should give us a moment to view how we, as a society, have viewed students. One of the previous speakers from Sinn Féin - I think it was Deputy Farrell and apologies if it was not - used the term "cash cows". Non-EU students, including American students coming to Ireland to do master's degrees, are viewed as cash cows. However, students availing of student accommodation, the very basics of shelter, in order to pursue their studies are also viewed as cash cows. That is wrong. It is absolutely disgraceful. We must view students for what they are - an investment in our future and the progression of our country and nation - and stop viewing them with euro signs over their heads.
We have seen a proliferation of purpose-built student accommodation crop up in our major cities. Why is that the case? It is because it has been very profitable for either universities, large funds or wealthy investors to create this purpose-built student accommodation. It is not for ease of access for students or to lower barriers to access third level education but to make money, and a lot of it.
One of the more egregious corners of our economy is how we are rinsing so many different elements of society for rent. We pride ourselves as a nation in saying that everyone will have access to education, the ceiling is high, the sky is the limit and young people can do whatever they want but that is not the case. The barrier still exists. Sometimes the barrier to third level education is generational in nature, access has not existed in a family or individuals in a community who go to third level are outliers rather than the norm. That must be changed in terms of how we promote third level in secondary schools and how we make it easier to access it in terms of understanding what needs to be done. For many people, the barrier to access is financial and economic in nature. For some people, it means they cannot pursue what they want to pursue because the course they want to do may be in a third level institution that is outside of the city in which they live. In Dublin, many students will have an advantage in that they may be able to live at home.
However, many people cannot afford to move to Dublin. Likewise, many people who live in Dublin want to go to Cork or elsewhere to study. Some want to attend agricultural college, for example, or simply want a different experience, but they cannot afford it. This Bill tackles that issue and it needs to pass through Committee Stage as soon as possible.
I welcome the soundings we are hearing so far. We are proud, as a party, to support the Bill. Students need proper, affordable education and there must be an easy pathway to access it. We cannot have a situation where students end up financially crippled as a result of pursuing education. Whatever the qualification, whether it is obtained at university, a further education institution or in a trade, once people obtain it, they are ready to contribute to society and build their lives and communities. They must not be left crippled with debt, whether from the cost of accommodation, fees or anything else associated with getting that qualification. We need to invest in our young people and support them. We must ensure that the ceiling on what they can do is raised as high as possible but the hurdles they have to jump are not so high that they cannot get over them.
Going back to my original point, for too long there has been an explaining away of the hardships of securing accommodation and going to college or university as some kind of rite of passage. That is a load of absolute rubbish. Getting affordable shelter above their heads in order that students can live and study in comfort is not a rite of passage. It is a right, and we need to support it. This Bill supports that right and I hope it will go through the Houses as soon as possible.
I thank Aontas na Mac Léin in Éirinn, the Union of Students in Ireland, for its work on these proposals. I also thank Deputy Ó Broin for his work in bringing forward the legislation. I welcome the Government's agreement to take the Bill forward to Committee Stage, which is very positive. There has been a lack of urgency on the part of the Government in dealing with this issue. If it continues at the same pace, we will be in a situation where most of the students who were penalised last year for complying with public health measures will be in difficulty again. I see the Minister is leaving the Chamber as I am making this important point. The students will have left college by the time this issue is dealt with by the Government. I thank the Minister for deciding to stay.
I thank the Minister for his kind words. He has agreed to implementing the best parts of the Bill. Will he tell us which parts he does not agree with and does not intend to implement? From his words this morning, he seems to have formed a view on that question. If so, the House has a right to know which parts of the Bill he believes should be implemented and which should not. It is only fair to the USI, which has worked on these proposals, to let it know what is planned. It is welcome that the Bill is progressing to Committee Stage but we should know which provisions the Government thinks are worth implementing and which, it has formed the view, are not. If there are challenges, we need to know what they are.
To be fair, I think the Minister was trying to be helpful with his intervention. I thank him for that and I appreciate that these issues will be discussed on Committee Stage. However, it would be useful to have his explicit view on the question I raised in order that we know where we stand. I thank the Minister for being willing to engage on that point.
The essence of these proposals is that students and their families were penalised last year for following public heath measures.
This should have been dealt with as a matter of urgency at the time rather than it being left to students and their families having to lobby and, in most cases, to achieve improvements. We were dealing with other matters quickly via legislation and there should have been leadership from the Government at that point.
Other Deputies made the point that charging in advance is a major burden on families and is very unfair. That practice needs to go. The essence of this is that students and their families should not be treated differently from other tenants or renters, as this is deeply unfair. We know that many people have had a very tough year and that students have had a particularly tough year. Most of them have been studying from bedrooms and it is very difficult that this amounts to their participation in college life.
This legislation must be seen in terms of wider reforms that are required to protect the rights of renters. I welcome the Minister's comments that he will do the latter. Renters in Ireland have faced some of the highest levels of rent increases in the European Union over the past number of years, with rents increasing in Ireland by over 40% over the past 13 years. That is double the European average. In the capital city, Dublin, rents for apartments are more expensive than any other capital city in the European Union. That has happened over the past number of years under the watch of Fine Gael, supported by Fianna Fáil, and the current Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition Government.
Part of the problem is State payments to private landlords to support low-income renters in insecure tenancies. Those payments are fast approaching the €1 billion mark. It is fine if the Minister is anxious to leave because I do not wish to delay him.
A matter reported this week which is related to the Bill is that rents are being artificially fixed. Rents are not being recorded properly and this should be addressed in the legislation that the Minister mentioned. This has implications not just on rent pressure zones and undermining the 4% increase protections but also for the State in the context of long-term leases. As the Minister knows, such long-term leases are being signed on the basis of market rents. I know from documents released to me under the freedom of information process that those market rents, in some cases, were not subject to independent valuations. That matter must be tackled.
What has happened with housing or the renting process for students is part of a wider problem of housing and renting being turned into a financial commodity in this country. We have seen that through the privatisation of emergency accommodation for people who have lost their homes and with the long-term leasing of social housing. We see reports this morning of investment portfolios being advertised to investors based on the guaranteed 25-year long-term leases that the State is signing. Apartments are being bought up en masse by investment funds, which is driving up rents and the cost of housing, including for students. We also see the favourable tax treatment for these investment funds, poor regulation and high rents that are being propped up because when investment funds are not able to fill empty units and do not want to lower rents, they sign a long-term lease with the State. We have seen subsidies for developers through the shared equity scheme that the Government is seeking to introduce.
We need a referendum on the right to housing and, specifically, on the wording in that regard to be agreed by the Government so we can move forward with it. We need to remove most grounds for evictions, as we have seen in most other northern European countries. We must remove the possibility of people being evicted into homelessness, which will require a multipronged approach.
I met student representatives, including those from Aontas na Mac Léinn in Éirinn, the Union of Students in Ireland, earlier this year and was absolutely horrified by some of the real-life experiences and stories from some of the students who had been renting, including how they had been treated, been dehumanised and been exploited.
It behoves all Members of the House to prevent that type of exploitation of students, who are often at a vulnerable stage in their development. It might be the first time students have moved out of home and it can be a daunting experience to come to college as a first year. Then one hears about some of the terrible treatment and the trauma and anguish caused to young students who are heavily exploited and treated in a terrible way because there are insufficient protections in place for them. They are put under mental health stress during what should have been a very positive time in their lives. That should remind all Members that it is important to have this issue urgently addressed.
I am sharing time with Deputies Paul Murphy and Barry.
I thank Deputies Ó Broin and Conway-Walsh for using Private Members' time to bring forward this Bill. Most importantly, I commend and congratulate the USI on what already appears to be a successful campaign of people power. That should be said. As a result of its campaigning on this issue, it appears that it has forced the Government to respond, somewhat belatedly, in respect of an issue that has been raised from the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the issue of the lack of proper rights for student tenants predates the Covid crisis, but it has been particularly highlighted during it. An absolute minimum requirement to support our students is that they should be extended the same rights as other renters or tenants, although it should be said that the rights of renters and tenants who are not students are also completely inadequate. However, at a minimum students should not have to pay more than a month in advance and one month's deposit, and they should be able to get refunds where they are unable to take up accommodation because of Covid-19. The fact that the Government is allowing this Bill to progress to Committee Stage and that it is also talking about a Bill of its own to cover the same issues is a victory for people power. I hope students understand that. It is campaigning and people power on the part of students that is forcing change. They deserve the biggest credit.
This Bill touches on just one of a large number of barriers. I should say that barriers continue to be erected. It is not just that they are not being dismantled, in many ways barriers are continuously erected against students, particularly working-class students and those from lower-income families, to be able to access third level, higher, further and postgraduate education. Students are caught up in the disaster of the housing crisis and extortionate rents. The situation is being exploited by investment funds in the context of shockingly extortionate, so-called purpose-built student accommodation and by universities that are increasingly acting more like big business than places of education to support students getting through their education and fulfilling their potential. That is absolutely unacceptable. We must control the price of student accommodation. We need purpose-built, public student accommodation with affordable rents in order that students can afford to study in comfort and that they and their families will not be not put under massive financial pressure, a pressure that is added to by the disgrace of the student contribution fee, which is one of the highest in Europe. Then there is the total inadequacy of grants, for those who can get them, in terms of finding accommodation.
I highlighted this issue recently. I will use this opportunity to raise it again because another aspect of the story emerged this week . This is just one instance in terms of postgraduate education whereby psychologists, who face huge fees of €7,000 to €15,000, must work on placement for free and are then somehow expected to pay the rent. How are they supposed to pay these rents?
To add insult to injury, however, this week, the HSE advertised assistant psychology posts, with a full range of duties at 20 hours per week, for people who are mostly trying to get on to doctorates of psychology, where they would work for the HSE for free. They would deal with clients and GPs, write reviews, deal with the literature and do all the work of psychologists while working for free. How are they supposed to pay the rent? It is absolutely unbelievable. The head of the HSE is getting in the region of €400,000. A massive pay increase is being talked about in respect of the Department of Health and yet student psychologists are being asked to work for free for the HSE. It is unbelievable.
I also congratulate the USI for pushing on this issue and forcing the Government to accept that there will have to be change as part of its broader Education for All campaign, which is a vital campaign to remove barriers to access education.
We are talking about students who are renting accommodation, many of whom have been forced every year to pay up to an entire term's worth of rent in advance. Some students have been hit with a bill of €9,000, in UCD for example, before they even buy a book. Then, with lockdown last year, many of those students have been completely unable to make use of their accommodation. They ask for a refund and their landlord tells them take a hike. This is a rip-off of students and their families, pure and simple.
We need to pass this Bill and progress it is as rapidly as possible through Committee Stage, without any messing around by the Government, to protect the interests of students. One month's rent in advance should be more than enough.
This Bill would also provide those who have been ripped off with a chance to get the refunds they so desperately need. It is a real issue right across the country, including for students in the Tallaght campus of Technological University, TU, Dublin. They are straightforward reforms to give renters a break and stand up to the corporate landlords who dominate so much of the student accommodation sector.
We need to fundamentally transform third level education in this country to remove all these barriers, including the astronomically high costs of accommodation, to provide genuinely free education. We need to scrap all forms of fees and provide a proper living grant for all students to cover the cost of education and make it accessible for all. It also needs to be linked into a general campaign to transform rental conditions, that is, proper rent controls and investment in quality public housing and genuinely affordable housing.
The proposition before the Dáil at the moment is simple. The idea is that if a student cannot take up the place he or she has rented for public health reasons, whether he or she is ill, has to isolate or is unable to travel, the rents and related charges should be returned. The vast majority of people would say that is basic common sense. It is, however, a common sense with which the corporate landlords have not agreed over the space of the past year and more.
Last year, in Cork, for example, the Uninest facility on Western Road, which is used by many University College Cork, UCC, students and which charges them an arm and a leg for accommodation - €9,000 worth - initially refused to give back the moneys that had been paid by students who were unable to take up their accommodation because of the pandemic. I congratulate the students' union, the students who protested and the campaign which forced a change on this particular issue.
While the corporate landlord in this case was forced to step back, still to this day, it has the legal right to do exactly what it did last year. These are completely unfair, unjust and extortionate policies. This Bill is about removing that right and, of course, it should be.
I also add my congratulations to the Union of Students in Ireland. It cannot trust the Government on this issue, however. How many Bills have we seen which the Government, for PR reasons, backed away from on Second Stage and then buried in committees? The pressure must be kept on Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party, which to its shame has been slow on this issue.
We need to scrap fees, introduce a decent living grant and for students to be able to afford rents which must also be reasonable. That is another whole debate which we will have here again sometime.
I support the principle behind this legislation. While many have highlighted this issue today, 12 months ago, during the first lockdown, I was pressing this issue. It was not just the private providers who were involved. The University of Limerick refused to give students back their funds for its own campus accommodation. Many landlords, including the University of Limerick at the time, turned their backs on students who had paid substantial deposits and upfront payments for accommodation.
Sadly, this was replicated during the back end of last year and into this year. These students have been told they are not getting their money back, even though they cannot utilise the accommodation, either on or off campus, because of the Covid-19 restrictions in place. I have pointed out on several occasions that the commercial private accommodation providers are not only availing of financial supports from the taxpayer but also tax incentives for much of this accommodation. These incentives need to be withdrawn forthwith from those providers unwilling to assist students.
The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, told me that, while he has urged private accommodation providers to be flexible in finding solutions, given the particular circumstances as a result of Covid-19, he has no specific powers in this area. Many of these accommodation providers acquired lands under licence or on the cheap from public bodies. Approximately 200 of them are in receipt of tax refunds at present.
When I questioned the Minister for Finance on this specific issue last July, he said he could not do anything regarding tax reliefs introduced previously. In the past 12 months, however, we have brought in emergency legislation that has restricted the liberty of every single citizen because of the health emergency with which we are dealing. If we can restrict the movement of individuals across the country because of a health emergency, we can also revise these tax incentives where landlords are not prepared to refund to students the substantial deposits which they have received from them to date.
On top of that, many of these commercial landlords are receiving the pandemic unemployment payment or their employees are availing of it. They are also availing of the wage subsidy schemes, rate relief schemes and other incentives. It is immoral that, on the one hand, these private providers ignore the genuine calls from students who cannot avail of accommodation while, on the other, they avail of the State incentives in place. Under emergency provisions, the Government can deal with this issue. It needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
All third level institutions should provide clarity to students as to how their courses will be delivered from next September. Will they be delivered on a blended basis? If so, will it be possible for students to access these courses remotely in order that they do not need to pay substantial deposits now to secure accommodation? The universities and third level institutions can provide the clarity now rather than waiting into the future.
Part of the registration fee, which every single third level institution collects from students, goes towards sporting and recreational, as well as health, facilities. That element of the registration fee should be refunded immediately. There should also be a reduction in these fees in light of the fact that students are accessing education online.
It is only right the Dáil gets an opportunity to debate these issues as regularly as possible. My colleague, Deputy Naughten, raised the important issue of private landlords refusing to refund rents to students who were forced to attend colleges by means of an online course and, therefore, did not require accommodation. It is not right that these landlords, many of which avail of the Government's support schemes during this current pandemic, refuse to refund rent deposits to students. This is happening in every part of country and I have dealt with several of these cases in Dundalk. Even third level colleges and universities have tried to do the same. The Government needs to look at this issue. As my colleagues have suggested, those who avail of the Government's support schemes while refusing to refund students must repay any supports they receive.
I run a constituency office in Dundalk which is pretty busy, the same as that of every other Deputy. For the past ten years, successive Governments have failed to address the housing situation. It is time we all worked together and put all party-political considerations behind us to tackle the housing crisis. I find it annoying I have people attending my constituency office who cannot get a council house. In Dundalk, a two-bedroom house in a council estate is currently for rent for €1,400 a month. The council sold this house several years ago to a landlord who is now charging this rent. What chance has a normal family to afford a house? If a family got a mortgage from a bank, they would pay between €800 and €900 a month, which is affordable. This does not make any sense.
Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, is looking for technological university status. Up to 5,000 students attend DkIT from the surrounding counties, Louth, Meath and Monaghan. However, 80% of their parents never got an opportunity to attend third level education. With SUSI and other grants, their children now have an opportunity to make something of themselves.
I have known the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for several years now. There are 100 vacant local authority houses in Dundalk. It makes no sense whatsoever that they should be vacant. The local authority blames the Government, claiming it will not give it the funding to restore these houses. Many people attend my constituency office on Mondays and Fridays who are willing, along with their friends and families, to get these houses up and running. I know many people who bought their own house and gave up their council house or cases where the local authority tenant passed away. These council houses could be vacant for between 12 to 18 months at a minimum, falling into disrepair with the radiators, for example, stolen, with burst pipes and so on. It makes no commonsense whatsoever.
All we need is someone to grab the Government, the local authorities and others by the scruff of their necks and make simple solutions. People need houses and people need homes. That is all they want. Children come to me with their parents and all they ask is for me to get them a home. It makes no sense whatsoever as if you walk down the main streets of Dundalk, you can see the large number of shops that have vacant facilities above them.
As for us not having enough money, we have had a very hard time in this country over the past 12 months. Despite this, we were able to find not millions but billions to help us to get back up on our feet again. All people want is to get an education and I ask the Government to help them get an education. People want a roof over their heads and I ask the Government to put a roof over their heads. People want a health system where they can still get treatment even if they have not got money or health insurance. These things are simple facts. It is about time all the parties in this House got together and all voted together for the good of people in Ireland. Let us give people an education. Let us give them their health. Most of all, please let us give families an opportunity to have a roof over their heads.
I first thank Sinn Féin for putting this motion before us. It is very important that what happened last year - and each and every one of us remembers what happened last September - does not happen this year. The colleges were supposed to open and it was bad foresight by the Government, though I am not blaming any one Minister, that one week after the colleges were supposed to open, it was decided they were not opening at all. Many parents from all around the country had paid for their children's accommodation and the students themselves had helped to pay the costs as well. It was frightening to think, as Deputy Naughten mentioned, that the University of Limerick would not give back the fees to many of its students. That was wrong. It was wrong also of private landlords to hold on to the money when students were not using the accommodation. I sympathise with landlords who were themselves in financial difficulty with the banks and so forth but those who were not should have given the students back their money, as the students were not using the accommodation.
It affected students in rural areas more than those in cities. Students in County Kerry must travel to Tralee or to Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin. It is a very worrying time for parents who seek to have accommodation in place for their children, to have a safe and proper place for them as for many students, it is their first time away from home. It is a very trying time for parents and students struggling to get going.
I am in full agreement with this Bill. Our students and younger generation have suffered greatly during Covid-19. The pandemic has exposed the severe economic injustice students face in the rental market. Thousands of students and their families have been forced to pay for accommodation they were prohibited from using. It is no longer acceptable for the Government to act as a spectator while wholesale financial exploitation of students continues. The speedy and successful passing of legislation is vital to ensure students of third level institutions are protected. It is incumbent on all Oireachtas Members to right the wrong which has facilitated the fleecing of students and their families when it comes to student accommodation. Many students in west County Cork are, together with their families, under this kind of stress and I am being contacted about it on a regular basis.
The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, has said he does not have the tools to do anything. Its sponsors believe this Bill provides the Minister with the necessary tools and now it is up to him. Emergency measures must be put in place to allow students to rent with some degree of confidence in light of the uncertainties still remaining ahead of the new academic year. According to the USI, students should, at the very least, be allowed partial refunds for university and college accommodation because they are not spending as much time there due to the pandemic. Students and their parents should not be financially penalised for following Government guidelines. A Government support scheme to refund returns of rent for students may also be needed, as some landlords' properties may have been taken over by the banks. Some students feel they should not be paying for accommodation when they are not there. Many students renting student accommodation currently pay a term in advance. This usually runs from September to May and can cost from €5,000 on average in Galway to €9,000 on average at UCD. Students and their parents paying for this accommodation are generally from outside Dublin and Cork and are from rural counties with no universities. In many cases parents are paying costs for more than one student at a time.
I will be brief. I first thank Sinn Féin for bringing forward this very important legislation. If a person goes into a shop to buy goods, he or she will not pay for them unless they receive the goods and leave the shop with them. We had a situation where students did not avail of accommodation yet at the same time, they, their parents, grandparents or families paid for that accommodation and never got a refund. That is fundamentally wrong. I very much respect the people who provide accommodation and who have mortgages and all that to pay. However, at the end of the day it is inherently wrong for a person to pay for accommodation he or she did not use or avail of. That is the point I wanted to make. I support the Bill.
I too thank Sinn Féin and support this Bill wholeheartedly. I must declare an interest as I have a dalta óg, a first year who has passed and flew through it. The money was taken from people of a Friday evening but what happened that very night or the morning after was really selfish and degrading. Many students and their families struggle to make this money and the costs are not cheap. They put it together but then, that weekend, they were told there would be no on-campus tuition and they would be working from home. It is a real three-card trick. We were all told we were in this together and at that time, I thought we were. I understand the expense for the people who provide accommodation as well, many of whom did stump up and helped out as best they could with refunds. However, some of them resolutely refused and it was downright blackguarding, downright wrong and we should have legislation to deal with it because we were depending on people's goodwill and us all being in it together but it did not happen.
Students have had enough trauma and first year students especially had gone through a traumatic year with the leaving certificate and with a new system of examination and everything else. This affected all students from first year upwards and those in continuing education. Therefore we must have some kind of legislation. Families are asking and pleading for it. They have been put to the pin of their collar. Many of them are out of work themselves, are depending on the PUP, have mortgages to pay, you name it. We all know the different stresses there can be in households. They vary but they are difficult and it is not easy. We must have legislation because the colleges and insurance providers must do more in this regard and must try to help the families of the students because the students' focus should solely be on furthering their careers. They should be able to fully invest themselves in that and not be worried about issues at home and at the dinner table. This is a hard and difficult time for everybody.
I am happy to speak on this Bill. I acknowledge the great work of parliamentary colleagues who have brought it forward. I acknowledge also the USI, which I understand to have played a significant role in shaping the Bill. I support the basic thrust of the Bill, namely, that students who are unable to access rental accommodation because of Covid restrictions should be able to access reimbursement of paid rent without undue burdens being placed upon them. There is a lot of talk about the barriers for students and the barriers for those who wish to progress to third level.
Students were treated unfairly by many landlords and property management agencies that refused to refund their deposits. This was a major issue of concern last summer.
We all accept that this exploitation has been be going on since last year. Almost one year ago to the day, on behalf of students in Laois-Offaly, I engaged with the then Minister of State with responsibility for higher education and former Deputy, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, to secure quicker refund levels for third level students who had paid for on-campus accommodation they could no longer use. Ms Mitchell O’Connor had stated publicly that the Government would wish to see pro ratarefunds issued to students in privately owned accommodation. As I said at the time, while the response from the then Minister of State was an acknowledgement of the problems that students were facing, it did not go far enough.
This Bill goes some way towards ensuring that the right to a refund is established. It has always been my view that consideration was going to have to be made in respect of introducing a statutory obligation directed at private or on-campus accommodation companies which refuse to engage with students. Students face average costs of between €700 and €790 per month for campus accommodation in Dublin, Cork and Maynooth according to the latest data we have from daft.ie. That is an enormous sum of money for students and their families to be down, especially when they have paid in advance. Action needs to be taken.
Like other Deputies, I thank the USI for driving this legislation in respect of the situation students were faced with last year. I thank Deputy Ó Broin, who also drove matters in the context of the drafting of this Bill. I was happy to sign the Bill on behalf of the Independent Group. I am speaking in support of the Bill, which I hope will get support from all sides of the House. I hope we can bring it through to Committee Stage as quickly as possible.
This is a straightforward issue. The situation is that students paid their college fees and arranged and paid for accommodation in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and other towns and cities. They then found themselves limited to online courses and were effectively barred from their college campuses due to Covid restrictions. They should be entitled to have their deposits and any rent paid refunded. This Bill will enable them to receive refunds. There is also a strong case for at least a partial refund of fees. These issues are dealt with in sections 1 to 7 of the Bill. Sections 8 and 9 are important in giving students who are in dispute with their landlords the right to refer the issues to the RTB. Beyond the issue dealt with in the Bill, there are other important changes which need to be made to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, such as giving students in digs the right to appeal to the RTB.
I also want to make some points on private, purpose-built student accommodation in the south inner city, a large part of which I represent in the constituency of Dublin South-Central. There are 15 of these student specific developments under way in the area. Some will have their own gyms and cinemas and rents will range up to €2,000 per month. This is way beyond the means of the average student and his or her family. The south inner city needs urgent regeneration, as does the north inner city. There are a large amount of derelict buildings and the area suffers from a general air of neglect. Jobs, public housing and facilities for the community are needed. We are getting private student accommodation for the well off and hotels for tourists. Not many young people from the inner city will be able to get college degreed and they certainly will not be studying medicine in light of the huge fees involved.
The higher education system in Ireland is skewed against young working-class people. Fees should be abolished and every young person should have a choice of a college placement or an apprenticeship. The Government should support this Bill wholeheartedly, get it through Committee Stage and have it enacted.
On Thursday, 25 February 2021, I was delighted to join with the many other co-signers to the introduction of the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021. It is a great example of the left working together with civil society groups on an important housing issue. The Bill, tabled by Sinn Féin, was developed in conjunction with the USI. As awful as the Covid-19 pandemic has been, in some ways it has brought opportunity and we should ensure we make positive societal and policy changes when we can.
One would be forgiven for thinking that the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science was still in his previous role as Minister for Health. I feel like we hear more from him on Covid-19 issues than on the myriad issues affecting tens of thousands of third level students, although he may also be off making TikTok videos and getting the Tánaiste to make cameo appearances. That seems exactly like what our third level students need. Maybe the Minister will be releasing songs in an indie style, trying to get Michael Fry to duet with him.
The websitewww.citizensinformation.iecontains the following information in the section on third level students and Covid for those who are renting:
You are expected to pay rent during the emergency period. Any rent arrears built up will be payable, but landlords have been asked to show understanding and reach local arrangements in these circumstances.
Ah yes, because landlords have been notoriously understanding, empathetic and generous when it comes to issues in the rental market. The recently published European Universities Association’s public funding observatory report looked into 32 higher education systems over the past 15 years or so. The report indicates that there were 155,000 students in Irish universities in 2008, with a budget of €1.5 billion and 19,300 full-time staff. By 2020, the number of staff had not changed and the budget had been reduced to €1.4 billion but there had been a 37% increase in the number of students to 213,000. Students have been penalised by the inadequacy of Government action and the lack of planning and decisiveness on the part of many third level institutions. Students have to be on-site for lectures, find a room to rent or move only to find out that their lectures will be remote. For many more rural areas, this has been a positive, as long as there is an adequate broadband connection to enable students to partake in online learning. It means that smaller towns and villages have not haemorrhaged as many young people as usual.
On students living at home and studying close by or moving away and renting. It all comes down to choice and access. According to the statistics available on the Higher Education Authority’s website, students in the 2018 and 2019 term from Donegal were most likely to attend UCD, Dublin City University or Trinity College Dublin. Only 2.6% are recorded as attending Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT. However, when one compares that with those ranked as being in disadvantaged areas according to the deprivation index, it rises to 6.9% of students attending LYIT and 20.7% attending National University of Ireland Galway. In 2018, just 1,450 students graduated from LYIT, 57% of whom were female and 43% of whom were male. The majority of those students were studying business, administration and law, with the second most popular area of study being health and welfare. Those are interesting statistics about deprivation and the access students have.
The Bill before us relates to rental obligations and notice periods and will provide for certain landlords to refund payments, if necessary, relating to Covid-19. The Bill amends a number of sections of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. It inserts a new section 13A and a new section 17A. It amends section 23 and inserts a new section 23A. It also amends sections 60, 66, 75, 78 and 115. It is a detailed and comprehensive Bill and would make a real difference to those covered by its terms and provisions.
It is more than one year since Covid hit and we introduced a range of protections for residents throughout the country. Rents were frozen and evictions were banned while people were being asked to stay home and stay safe. Some protections were introduced in March and then in October 2020, and another eviction ban was introduced for any time when we were to be restricted to travelling 5 km from home due to Covid-19 restrictions. This also allowed for a ten-day grace period after 12 April 2021. Rental laws were introduced to protect tenants who may have been economically affected by Covid-19 and fallen into rent arrears. The rent freeze and a 90-day notice period for ending a tenancy will be in place until 12 July 2021 but none of this applies to students.
A conversation has been taking place since the beginning of the pandemic with regard to how students and student accommodation should be treated. Many students have licence agreements, in-house shares or rent-a-room options and therefore do not benefit from the full suite of tenancy protections, or any in some cases.
This is why I co-signed this Bill, why I am happy to support it and why I urge the Government to accept it. Students have endured serious upheaval and confusion owing to inaction and indecision on the part of the Government and institutions alike. They should not be out of pocket for it too. It should not all be to benefit the private sector.
Deputy Pringle will be relieved to know that I cannot sing. He will also know the biggest issue facing students is Covid-19, so he will excuse me for continuing to speak about it. If we get the next few days, weeks and months right, we will begin to address and rectify so many of the difficult and horrific challenges young people in this country have faced.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin and all of the Deputies who signed the Bill for their honest attempt to address the very difficult circumstances that many students have found themselves in as a result of this pandemic. I am very pleased that the Government is in a position to allow the Bill to pass Second Stage and move to pre-legislative scrutiny. I note that this has been welcomed by Deputy Ó Broin and others.
I welcome the intent behind the legislation. My colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage outlined, on behalf of his Department and the Government, outlined our approach to this matter and our commitment to incorporate the matters raised by the USI in the forthcoming residential tenancies legislation. It is very important that the Bill advances on its journey through the Oireachtas. As the Minister with responsibility for further and higher education, I particularly thank the USI for the work it put into the legislation and the detailed consideration it gave to a range of issues on specific protections required in legislation for students. I stand with them and by them on this. I also thank the USI for more than this, because what the legislation has done is allow us to kick-start or restart an urgent conversation that must take place and that must be followed by action on student accommodation.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage was correct when he told the House earlier that the majority of students in university or college-owned accommodation received refunds, credit notes or other flexible arrangements when they were not in a position to take up their accommodation because of Covid-19. I thank the sector for this. What this actually showed very clearly was the benefit of college-owned accommodation, why we need more of it and why we cannot be so reliant on private supply when it comes to student accommodation.
As part of this debate, we need to have a broader discussion urgently on the issue of student accommodation in the context of overall housing supply. We cannot continue to allow a situation where third level students are almost pitted against young workers and young families in trying to secure a limited number of houses, apartments, flats or whatever. All this does is drive up prices and pressure for everybody. We need to look at what more we can do to support students, and I acknowledge the efforts the legislation makes in this regard and I wish to see it incorporated in legislation. We also need to ask ourselves what more we can do to make sure there is more on-campus college-owned accommodation.
For a start, and this is my view as the Minister with responsibility for higher education, we need to address the anomaly that exists whereby a university can use its borrowing framework to build on-campus college-owned accommodation but a technological university cannot. When all of us in these Houses voted for technological universities we did not vote for them to be second-tier universities. We need to rectify this anomaly and I have begun discussions with the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Finance and others in this regard. Our technological universities have an opportunity to transform education throughout the country and address regional imbalance. If our technological universities have an option to build on-campus accommodation, all of a sudden students will have an opportunity to move to the regions and live on campus and our technological universities will thrive. The benefits of this could be significant for students and housing supply. I am very pleased to tell the Dáil today that I have started work in this area and am engaging with my officials and are engaging with other Departments. I look forward to updating the House on this matter in the very near future.
As colleagues know, there is a national student accommodation strategy, which was launched by the previous Government in July 2017. It sets out a number of actions to increase the supply of student accommodation and to try to ease some of the pressure on the private rental sector. The strategy was developed by the former Department of Education and Skills in conjunction with the former Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and in consultation with stakeholders across the third level sector. It set a target of providing 7,000 additional student accommodation bed spaces by the end of 2019 and the provision of 21,000 bed spaces by the end of 2024. I am pleased to say the 2019 target was exceeded, with 8,300 bed spaces completed by the end of 2019. As of the end of 2020, more than 10,000 bed spaces have been completed.
I ask colleagues to be clear that I do not want my view to be misrepresented or distorted. I do not believe the strategy goes far enough, for the reasons I have just outlined. It is important and that it needs to continue to play a part and not only hit but exceed its targets. Alongside this, we need a strategy that relies less on private operators and more on college-owned accommodation. This is what our students want, what their parents want and what our institutions want. I look forward to having an opportunity to return to the House shortly to discuss badly needed progress in this area.
Regarding legislative change, today’s debate has been very constructive. I have listened to almost all of it and it has helped to tease out some of the important issues at play and the reasonable points made by students, their parents and Deputies have been highlighting. As mentioned by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the issues raised in the Private Members' Bill are under examination with a view to introducing Government legislation this year. However, it is important that we allow the Bill to pass Second Stage.
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute again to the USI. I want to particularly take this opportunity, in case I do not have another one, to pay tribute on the record of the Dáil to the USI's outgoing president, Lorna Fitzpatrick, for her tireless work. She has led the USI at a time of massive difficulty and challenge for everyone in the country and for students. Through my weekly engagement with Lorna on the Covid steering committee, she has constantly raised the issues faced by students to the very top of government in a very robust manner and I thank her for this. She sits on our Covid steering group and the issue of accommodation is something she regularly raises. She has also led a very important conversation on mental health and student well-being, and I am pleased to tell the Dáil today that as part of her work in chairing a new student well-being and engagement group she has presented me with a series of recommendations and more actions we can take now to try to improve student well-being. I expect to be in a position to announce news on this very shortly. Lorna will soon leave her post, and I very much welcome her successor, Clare Austick, and I look forward to working with her. Today, I want to pay tribute to Lorna for her advocacy and her work.
Covid-19 has had an impact on every one of us but we can all agree it has had a massive impact on young people, and perhaps this has not been discussed enough. They have suffered enormously. We can never endure another college year like this one. To be clear, intensive planning is under way in the third level sector and I will publish a plan and an update in June as to how we get our students safely back to campus at the start of the new academic year. We want our students back on campus in a safe way. This does not mean the online learning will cease entirely but we need to see a much bigger increase in on-campus attendance. The college experience is about more than a Zoom camera and students sitting in a boxroom or at the corner of the kitchen table of their mothers and fathers. It is about development, socialising and meeting people and we need to maximise on-site activity. We will be helped by vaccination and the roll-of rapid testing. I will be pursuing pilot programmes next month in NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork and UCD and in student accommodation. Despite the pandemic, more than 6,000 students remain in on-campus student accommodation and as we roll out this study, accommodation will be a key part of where we will deploy rapid testing.
The Government does not oppose the Private Members' Bill. The Government welcomes the Bill. I will work with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Government colleagues and I will consult the USI and student accommodation providers to ensure that protections for student renters are enhanced.
My Department is less than a year old. We have an awful lot of work to do. It is a Department for third level education. This means not just higher education but also further, community and adult education. In less than a year, we have seen the roll-out of the free laptop scheme, the doubling of the student assistance fund, the reform of SUSI announced, the first increase in postgraduate grants and income thresholds in a decade, for the first time we have seen a new fund for educational disadvantage, the expansion of student Wi-Fi through eduroam, more college places, action plans on sexual harassment, CAO reform under way, a new apprenticeship action plan to try to end the elitist attitude we have when it comes to further education and a significant increase in funding for mental health and well-being. We have a great deal more to do and I am very aware of that.
Education can be and is the great leveller in society. We in the House often debate all that is good and bad about our higher education sector but we cannot leave behind those who study in further or community education. Through my work in the Department I have seen women living in direct provision travelling from Leitrim to Tallaght to access the incredible services of An Cosan. I have seen the women of SAOL in inner city Dublin recovering from addiction committed to, and advancing, their education. I have seen a once homeless man take up an apprenticeship in TU Dublin and he now has a job and a home. Excuse me for slightly moving off topic but I want to be clear, and the Oireachtas wants to be clear, that we must support students from all walks of life to reach their full potential.
Accommodation can be a barrier that many face but so too is the broader cost of education and the narrow and sometimes elitist attitude and understanding that as a society we can attach to educational options. We need to embrace multiple pathways. Now is a time of change. It is an exciting and challenging time full of opportunity for further and higher education.
I look forward to working with colleagues across the House on these issues.
I thank the USI for initiating this debate. Some good will come from this, in terms of additional protections for student renters, but much more must come from it in terms of better, more comprehensive provision of on-campus college-owned accommodation.
I wish to begin by welcoming the Government's support for this Bill and by commending colleagues and the USI on their work in relation to this.
Of course, this Bill is not only about removing the lump sum that parents and students are expected to pay at the beginning but also is about removing the barrier that is there. There should not be a student in this State who is unable to move to go to college because of the cost of accommodation. It has been a major issue for students, for their parents and for their families for many years. I welcome this Bill here today.
The large sums of money that parents and students are to pay upfront follow much sacrifice made by them in gathering that money together well ahead of the college year, and that has been a huge difficulty. I dealt with a student who is in NUI Galway. Last year, his parents paid €5,000 for his accommodation. The course went online, the accommodation was never used and the provider refused to pay a single red cent of that back. From speaking to colleagues and knowing the position of students in other colleges, the amount of €5,000 was quite low when compared to what other accommodation providers charge. It was difficult to have to go back to that family and say I was sorry that they were not going to get a refund of €5,000, knowing what they had sacrificed in order to make that money and to allow their son to get to college. We need to see an end to that. I remember the accommodation provider at that time telling me that Government had not restricted the use of student accommodation in the Covid restrictions and, therefore, the accommodation could be used. It was ridiculous.
In the past, it was sometimes the case that one might go into student-specific accommodation in the first year and then one would go into private rental accommodation for the second, third and four years if that was the case. Now that is even limited because of the cost of rent and the lack of availability, and students are staying in student-specific accommodation for longer.
It is so important that we have clarity for the students who will, hopefully, be going to college in September. These accommodation costs are looked for ahead of September and we need clarity for these students and their parents in order that they are not put in a position where they will lose thousands of euro.
I commend and thank the Union of Students in Ireland, Deputies Ó Broin and Conway-Walsh, and everyone who worked on this legislation. The fact that this piece of work is student union-driven is important. It means this solution is coming directly from the people most affected and shows the meaningful role young people and unions can play in making positive change.
There is no doubt that students have missed out over the past year and throughout the pandemic in doing lectures online, coping with bad network connections and sometimes trying to work off their mobile phones, as well as not being able to have face-to-face human interactions with fellow students. On top of that, many of them had to deal with the logistical nightmare of sorting out their accommodation.
Student accommodation is an issue that disproportionately affects rural areas, like my own county of Wexford, more than others because most students have no choice but to move away to attend third level education due to poor transport options and the lack of availability of courses more locally. Hopefully, a university for the south east will be a step in the right direction in that regard.
Over the past year, with most classes moving totally online, many students are paying for accommodation they cannot avail of. This is not right. Extended profiteering from this pandemic should be scorned.
This Bill legislates for the prompt refunding of accommodation fees if the accommodation is not taken up or is vacated due to Covid-19 related public health restrictions. This is an essential protection for many families. For example, one of my constituents was in a position where she paid €5,000 for accommodation she did not use over the past year and she was told that they would only get €800 of this back which she still has not received. Her mother and father are self-employed and are only barely hanging on.
Leaving Covid-19 aside, student tenants need decent digs and greater protection. If this Bill becomes law, a student in student-specific accommodation will have the legal right to serve a landlord with a notice of termination of 28 days. Providers of student-specific accommodation would also be prevented from charging more than one month's rent in advance. These protections together will alleviate some of the financial strain ordinary students and their families face when trying to access third level education and accommodation and would spread the cost and make it more manageable for working families.
There is a lot of discussion about looking after the mental well-being of young people. There is no doubt that providing students and their parents with stronger protective laws in the area of student accommodation can only have an enduring and positive outcome for years to come. For that reason alone, this Bill should be supported by all Deputies who value and care about the younger generation.
I wish to start by thanking the USI, in particular, the president, Ms Lorna Fitzpatrick, and the vice president for campaigns, Mr. Craig McHugh, for all of the work that they have done in progressing this important legislation. I would also like to thank all of the 56 Opposition Deputies who co-signed the legislation - my colleagues in Sinn Féin but also Deputies from the Social Democrats, the Labour Party, People before Profit, Solidarity and RISE, and from Independents 4 Change. It is also heartening to see that this Bill is passing through the House today unanimously. Every Deputy who has spoken has spoken in favour of both the spirit as well as the substance of the Bill and that is a welcome fact.
In particular, I welcome the commitments by both the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to support this legislation, although I urge a small note of caution. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage mentioned a residential tenancies (amendment) Bill. It is not in the priority list of legislation that was published last week and therefore, while work on the heads of that Bill is progressing, it is unlikely we will see that until the early autumn. It is unlikely it will progress until late in or by the end of the year. Unfortunately, students do not have that time to wait. I urge both Ministers who spoke today but also members of the Oireachtas housing committee to allow this Bill to progress to committee as a matter of urgency for us to undertake the necessary pre-legislative scrutiny and, if possible, to pass this Bill in advance of the residential tenancies Bill from the Government in order to give students the protections they deserve as early as possible. That would be the most preferable outcome. Having said that, we will always work with Government on progressive changes to the Residential Tenancies Act and I look forward to the heads of Bill being published by the Minister whenever they are ready.
It is important for anybody watching this debate to fully understand that the passage of this Bill today unfortunately does not mean these protections come in immediately and therefore, I urge USI and students across the State to continue campaigning for the full enactment of this legislation. In fact, there is quite a lot of work for us to do to continue that.
As other Opposition Deputies have said, this is a good example of what happens when civil society, which is raising a real concern for the constituency it represents, engages with progressive politicians from a range of parties, tables good quality legislation scrutinised and enhanced by the office of parliamentary legislative advice and leans on the Government to do something that the Government may well have done in its own time but will certainly now be forced to do at a much speedier pace.
I would also like to make a couple of comments on the Minister, Deputy Harris's comments on the student accommodation strategy. This is obviously an area of work on which my colleague, Deputy Conway-Walsh, leads out but given that I have the opportunity to respond, I do not think my colleague will object. I welcome the admission by the Minister that there are significant flaws in the student accommodation strategy that s now expiring. The Minister is correct. It always over-relied on private sector provision to the detriment of not-for-profit on-campus provision by universities and institutes of technology, ITs. The Minister is correct that the inability of ITs to borrow meant that they were not able to provide on-campus accommodation. It is something on which I and my party have been calling for Government to take action for three years. I genuinely welcome that. That could be significant. However, that, in and of itself, will not allow the scale of on-campus or near-campus student accommodation necessary to be provided. The Minister will be aware that the Government's strategy identified a 20,000 bed-space shortfall at the start of the strategy and notwithstanding an increase in provision, public and private, there was still to be a 20,000 bed shortfall by the end.
I commend two other ideas to the Minister and maybe he can discuss these with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The first is to look at some of the supports that are currently being provided to local authorities and approved housing bodies for the delivery of affordable cost-rental accommodation. Similar funding streams could be provided by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to assist universities and ITs to structure their loan arrangements in such a way that they can have longer maturities and, therefore, lower rents for students.
Second, there are very significant capital provisions for AHBs that reduce the overall borrowing costs by providing softer loans to be repaid to government at a future date. A combination of some smart thinking about the financial underpinning of on-campus student accommodation by universities and institutes of technology, if the Government was of a mind, could go a long way.
I thank Deputies for supporting this Bill and urge everyone to keep the campaign going to get this legislation passed by all Houses and signed by the President to give students the fair play they deserve as a matter of urgency.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Ó Broin. Maidir leis an mBille um Thionóntachtaí Cónaithe (Cíosanna agus Cosaintí Eile do Mhic Léinn) (Covid-19) 2021, is é an cheist ná go léifear an Bille an dara uair. An bhfuil sé sin aontaithe? Tá sé aontaithe.