Monday, 15 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I want the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to report on what stipulations have been made on the Airbnb website regarding the regulations that pertain to level 5 restrictions. This is a very serious issue. Obviously the Covid-19 crisis has afflicted this country for the last 11 months. It is a very significant issue that has had a major impact on many parts of society. We are now in the middle of level 5 restrictions that have meant a complete lockdown of society, including schools and the construction sector. Every part of society has been grossly affected.
On my way here from Cork today I was stopped twice by members of An Garda Síochána, which I view as very positive. I complimented both of them on the courtesy and kindness they showed to me. The big issue in my part of the world is the blatant breaches of the level 5 restrictions. There is a phenomenon of weekend house parties where houses are being rented in scenic parts of rural Ireland and people have drinking parties for two nights. A few weeks ago, the Garda Síochána discovered seven people from seven different households in one house in Kinsale. That is the kind of scenario that is happening in rural Ireland and society.
When I looked up the Airbnb website this morning, I saw that there are over 200 properties available to rent tonight in Cork and thousands of properties available to rent throughout Ireland. Such properties are not for essential workers or people who have to go to work. They are for leisure only. The restrictions that are applied to other operators are not being enforced by the Airbnb website and we have a major issue with the lack of enforcement. The Garda Síochána cannot go door to door and it is unfeasible to think that would be an appropriate way to deal with this. We need real regulation to be put in place so that this job can be done. Unfortunately, such regulation is not there at the moment.
When I contacted my local authority, which is supposed to be the regulator for Airbnb properties inside a rent pressure zone, it informed me that it does not have a complete list of all such properties in the county because such a list has not been furnished to it by Airbnb. This is what we are dealing with. It is totally appalling that we have an unregulated market that flies in the face of what we are all doing in level 5. We need to know exactly what the Government proposes to do about this blatant breach of level 5 restrictions. The general public have done so much in the last few weeks and have worked so hard to bring this virus under control. It is the minority, and only the minority, who breach the restrictions but we need strong regulations to be enforced to ensure the minority do not breach the restrictions.
I need to know the following. What does the Government propose to do about Airbnb?How can the Government control Airbnb, which, at present, appears to be running amok in society?
I thank Senator Lombard for his well-structured contribution. Undoubtedly, he has raised an important issue.
On level 5 restrictions, under Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19, the Government has agreed that the current public health restrictions will remain in place until 5 March 2021. This decision has been informed by the latest public health advice applying in the context of the current prevalence and the projected trajectory of the virus. Level 5 essentially means a complete halt to tourism. Paid accommodation services are only allowed to take guests travelling for permitted purposes, but not for social, recreational, cultural or tourism purposes, as the Senator said. In addition, the Garda Commissioner was very clear on last Friday's "The Late, Late Show" that anybody in breach of many of the restrictions is running the risk of acquiring a criminal record. That is how serious this is and how seriously we must take this pandemic.
Airbnb is one of a number of online accommodation sales platforms and contains a variety of accommodation types, including not only self-catering properties but also bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels, guest-houses and more. While neither the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media nor Fåilte Ireland has any role in the regulation of these online sales platforms, accommodation providers offering services, online and otherwise, must abide by the Covid-19 regulations in place. The regulations set out the legal requirements, including provisions, prohibitions and restrictions, for businesses operating in this jurisdiction, whether in the tourism or any other sector, and the rules in regard to travel from place of residence. Neither the Department nor Fáilte Ireland imposes any additional requirements over and above these regulations. However, to assist tourism businesses reopen and operate safely in the current climate, Fåilte Ireland has published a suite of sectoral guidelines for various strands of the overall tourism sector. These guidelines are designed to assist tourism businesses meet requirements in line with the plan for living with Covid-19, the working safely protocol and the latest Government public health advice. For the types of accommodation businesses using the Airbnb platform, the most relevant of these guidelines are probably those for self-catering properties, bed and breakfast accommodation, hotels and guest-houses.
In terms of monitoring and enforcing compliance with Covid-19 related regulations, I am aware that all relevant agencies with industry oversight and a relevant regulatory role are playing a part. In this regard, the regulators forum, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach and including representatives from all key Departments, agencies and other bodies such as An Garda Síochána, is proving to be effective in dealing with any reports of non-compliant events and activities, through the relevant authorities. Although we have seen a welcome reduction in Covid-19 cases recently, the overall number of cases and, significantly, the numbers of those in hospital and ICU are still too high. For this reason, we must continue with all efforts to bring the virus under control by limiting mobility, social contacts and congregation as much as possible. I acknowledge that maintaining level 5 restrictions will place continued demands on society and business. Nonetheless, it is essential that we continue to hold firm and reduce cases in order to protect the vulnerable, protect our healthcare services, including maintaining non-Covid healthcare, and reopen schools at the earliest opportunity, which is a high priority.
I thank Senator Lombard for his contribution. We are under no illusions about the scale of the challenge and the many competing priorities facing the Government. However, I believe we can agree that it is right and proper that the primary focus of Government is on addressing the public health challenges as we battle this third wave. In tandem with this, through a variety of State supports in place we will be able to weather the current challenges and assist our economy to recover in due course.
I note the Minister of State's response. It is important that we deal with this issue, but there is not enough clarity in the response and I am not happy with the clarity that has been provided. The time has come to take down this platform. Within level 5 restrictions, Airbnb must be asked to restrain advertising on its platform. As far as I can see, there is no logic or sense in a platform that is advertising accommodation throughout this country, mainly for tourism purposes, to be operating under level 5 restrictions.The time has come for Airbnb use to be restricted during level 5 and it is important that we propose that the platform be taken down.
I thank the Senator. I note the points he makes but I want to be clear. There are stringent regulations in place. If someone embarks on a trip that is recreational or social, that is against the law. It is enforceable and punishable through An Garda Síochána. If someone partakes in such activities he or she may end up with a criminal record for putting public health and vulnerable people in society at risk. The staff in intensive care units are exhausted. They have gone through so much in the past couple of months it is incomprehensible that people would partake in these activities but these regulations are enforceable. Also, we brought Airbnb within the remit of the planning code. Local authorities will have to give planning permission for all Airbnb accommodation and they will have records of that but the message is clear. The level 5 restrictions are strict. They are enforceable and one runs the risk of getting a criminal conviction if one does not abide by them.