Thursday, 14 December 2017
Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (Amendment) Bill 2017: Committee and Remaining Stages
As previously indicated to the House on Second Stage, I reaffirm the Government is not opposed in principle to this Private Members' Bill. However, as has been said previously, the provisions of the Bill require most detailed scrutiny to ensure consistency with the property rights and safeguards in the Constitution, with particular reference to Article 40.3 and Article 43. I am sure Senators will appreciate the importance of ensuring coherence with other statutory provisions governing the purchase of ground rents.
Senators will appreciate this is a complex area of law. As indicated previously, it is already clear that amendments to the Bill will be required to minimise the risk of further challenges on constitutional grounds. In these circumstances, I have agreed with the Attorney General to establish a small expert group comprising senior officials from the Department and representatives from the Office of the Attorney General together with a number of outside experts in the area of land law. It is important that they consider the issues at hand and report on the amendments necessitated by the Supreme Court ruling in the Shirley case. While it is not possible to set a deadline for the group to complete its task at this early stage, it is my hope and intention that a substantial amount of the group's work will have been completed by the end of the first quarter of 2018. I expect, therefore, that the group's conclusions and recommendations will provide a sound basis for future amendments to ground rents legislation.
Members will be aware the issue of ground rents has been something of a complex conveyancing matter going right back to the foundation of the State. Many of the pieces of legislation since then, and I refer specifically to the 1978 Acts, are complex and detailed and need to be looked at in the context of the Constitution. I ask Senators to bear with the committee to ensure we do what Senators Gallagher, Ardagh and Swanick, who are promoting the Bill, wish to do. I support their endeavours in this regard.
There is agreement in the House that we need to address this issue. What we have not finally established with certainty is the means by which this issue can be addressed. I acknowledge the importance of this legislation. The group will be happy to engage with the promoters of the Bill, and I hope that by spring next year we will be in a position to advance matters in a way that can deal with the issue as intended by the promoters of the legislation.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I acknowledge the help and assistance I have received from his office with regard to this ongoing issue. I acknowledge the guests in the Public Gallery, including former Ceann Comhairle, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, and some of the people affected by and involved in this campaign from Carrickmacross. I acknowledge all the work done by the group here and others, including Pat Byrne who compiled a documentary on this issue to explain it all. I also acknowledge Tony Donagher for the work he has done, and Martin Crilly, solicitor, now deceased, unfortunately, who also put much work into this issue.
I acknowledge all the Oireachtas Members from the Cavan-Monaghan constituency for their input into this Bill. I acknowledge the councillors from the Carrickmacross-Castleblayney municipal district for their input. It is an issue where, thankfully, we all sing from the same hymn sheet and it is critically important for the people of Carrickmacross. It has been an issue there for a long time and we are now hopefully in the final stretch of finding a resolution to this issue.
I note that the Minister has done some work in this regard already and that he said here this afternoon that he plans to get a committee together which will hopefully report in the first quarter of 2018. I welcome that. An important ingredient in this is time and many of these people in Carrickmacross do not have much time. I respectfully suggest that I would be grateful if this matter could be treated as urgently as possible because some people do not have the luxury of time at the moment, unfortunately.
I acknowledge everybody's contribution to this, the contribution of the Minister's office and I thank his officials for their help and assistance. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will be in here again to speak about this when the legislation will have given the people of Carrickmacross an opportunity to buy out the ground rent of their businesses once and for all.
I join Senator Gallagher in welcoming the Minister to the House and express my appreciation of the fact that the Minister has taken a constructive attitude to this legislation and welcomed, in a non-adversarial way, that there is unity on this Bill and that it merits support. We appreciate that. I heartily congratulate my constituency colleague, Senator Gallagher, on bringing forward this legislation and so competently and ably presenting it to the House and securing its passage. That takes a combination of good advocacy, good networking and good presentation. I commend Senator Gallagher on doing that with great effect. Before I refer to the content of the Bill, I join Senator Gallagher in welcoming the people from Carrickmacross to the Gallery, led by the distinguished former Ceann Comhairle, my own good personal friend, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon. I am glad to see them all in the Gallery and welcome them. It is important to the people of Carrickmacross from the Shirley Estate.
The Bill does not need to be debated again nor am I suggesting that happen. Its object and logic are that people should be fit to buy out their freeholds. In other words, they should be able to buy the freehold of their estates and not go on being subject to ground rent and possible vagaries, changes and future increases in that ground rent. It is a reasonable proposition that they should have security of tenure and freehold and not be subject to changing ground rents in the future. I am delighted to support the Bill on behalf of my group, to commend it to further Stages and urge the Minister to bring it to fruition as quickly as possible since it is in the interests of the people in the area of Carrickmacross and those affected by this nationally. I am very happy to support the legislation and I unambiguously congratulate my colleague in his first term in the Seanad for initiating important legislation. He has every reason to be proud of it.
Land ownership and landlords are an emotive issue for Irish people. It is in our hearts. It is not just the past history of centuries of landlords but it continues today and will affect our lives tomorrow. Michael Davitt was guided by the motto, "Let justice be done tho the heavens fall." I doubt he would be impressed by the propensity of successive Governments to prostrate themselves in the interests of unfettered landlordism. It is time to take up Davitt's fight again and ensure that justice is done.
Sinn Féin supports this legislation. I remember my parents marching in Dublin in the 1970s due to the unfair charges that one had to pay even though one was purchasing one's home and which are still there on my family home today. I am not paying them and do not ever intend to. I pay tribute to the work of Shirley Tenants Action Group in Carrickmacross which has been active on the issue. The initial case taken by Gus O'Gorman many years ago highlighted the need for legislation since 1978. Such legislation was promised in the Fianna Fáil Party manifesto since then. My colleague, Teachta Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, has consistently asked, almost since entering the Dáil in 1997, when legislation will be published.
It is hard to believe the economic development of part of Carrickmacross is being held up by an absentee landlord who is currently basking on the Isle of Man. I hope this Bill proceeds through the Dáil and succeeds in highlighting the vulnerable nature of tenancy in general. Ground rent landlords demand money for nothing. They possess parasitic traits, exploiting ordinary working people and their day is done. I would like this Bill to enshrine that in legislation. I welcome the Bill from Fianna Fáil which sets it against aggressive landlordism. I am sure thousands of people across Dublin and the State will be pleased to see this change in attitude by the junior Government partner. We will wait and see and I guess time will tell, but well done on bringing the Bill to fruition.
I acknowledge the contribution of Senators to this important legislation. I had not noticed my former colleague and friend, Dr. Rory O'Hanlon, in the Public Gallery until reference was made by a previous speaker but I will avail of this opportunity to welcome back Dr. O'Hanlon to Leinster House. I acknowledge his great contribution over many years. In particular, I recall his positive and constructive work on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. He was one of the founding fathers of what was the basis of a strong and active relationship between Parliament in Westminster and Parliament in Dublin. I believe those strong links are now needed perhaps more than ever. Dr. O'Hanlon was one of the few parliamentarians who blazed a trail on fostering good relations.When I first entered the House as a young Deputy for the constituency of Laois-Offaly, the advices I received from Dr. O'Hanlon from time to time were very well placed and always worth listening to.
I acknowledge the importance of this legislation. On behalf of the Government, I accept the message from the Seanad that there is all-party support for setting about enshrining in law the right of ground rent tenants to purchase their ground rents in properties, albeit in different circumstances throughout the country. There are no immediate or simple solutions in this complex area. I acknowledge the support of the Government for the approach I am taking. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has expressed a particularly keen interest in this matter since the spring of 2012, when the Supreme Court delivered a judgment in a complex and protracted set of legal proceedings arising from an application to acquire freehold title in Carrickmacross. While the tenant's application in this case was ultimately successful, it is important to stress that the manner in which the Supreme Court interpreted certain technical provisions of the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (No. 2) Act 1978 had the effect of narrowing the scope of the ground rent purchase scheme under that Act. As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, certain ground rent tenants who had been eligible to acquire the fee simple interest, or freehold title, in their properties may no longer be able to do so. This has given rise to uncertainty and concern. Any narrowing of the grounds on which a ground rent tenant is permitted to acquire freehold title will affect other ground rent tenants in Carrickmacross and elsewhere in the State.
I acknowledge the contributions of Senators to this debate. The property rights enshrined in the Constitution mean that a resolution of this issue will be neither straightforward nor simple. I acknowledge the support of Senators for my proposal to establish an expert group. I will be happy to keep the proposers of the Bill fully informed on the work of the expert group. I hope to be in a position to return to the Oireachtas in the spring with a framework arrangement that will allow us to proceed further. I would like to express my appreciation to the proposers of the Bill. I have received all-party support from Senator O'Reilly and Senators from other parties. I will report back to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as soon as we complete the Final Stage of the Bill here this afternoon.