Seanad debates

Friday, 26 March 2021

Residential Tenancies Bill 2021: Second Stage

 

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

10:30 am

Pauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to the House.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful to the Acting Chairperson and all of the Senators for facilitating debates under this very urgent legislation in Seanad Éireann before the Easter recess. I also record my thanks to the Chief Whip and to members of both the Business Committee and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Residential Tenancies Bill 2021 to be read a Second Time here today.

The Bill is a timely and proportionate response to the continued elevated threat and impact of the pandemic. The time-sensitive nature of the Bill is an inevitable consequence of the constant reassessment of the pandemic and its evolving nature. I thank Senators for facilitating its passage in the same co-operative spirit that has enabled similar Bills to pass swiftly since the Covid-19 crisis erupted.

This is the fourth Bill the Government has brought forward since coming into office to protect tenants during this pandemic. The virus has mutated and challenged us in different ways but we have responded to ensure the vulnerable are shielded from the unprecedented economic fallout. Today's Bill is a further important action to safeguard tenants in the face of an ever-threatening pandemic.

In light of this prolonged challenge, I ask Senators to pass the Residential Tenancies Bill 2021 to enable its early enactment to provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 to extend the application of its enhanced tenancy protections for a further three months from 13 April to 12 July 2021. The Bill also provides for technical amendments to enhance the interoperability of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 and the Residential Tenancies Act 2020. Subject to the conditions and procedural requirements, the former Act currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction and rent increases during the period from 11 January to 12 April 2021. It is considered that the ongoing threats and impacts of the third wave of Covid-19 necessitate this Bill to extend the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act's protections for a further three months until 12 July 2021. The three-month extension is a proportionate response, balancing constitutional property rights and the common good. While the numbers directly invoking this legal protection have been small, it has provided a strong safety net to vulnerable renters and sends a clear signal to the rental system that the State will protect tenants. In this context and because of strong direct financial supports, we have prevented huge turmoil in the rental system.

It is important to note that these protections are separate and distinct from the Residential Tenancies Act 2020, which provides for a moratorium on evictions taking place, with limited exceptions, during a period of 5 km travel restrictions in an area specified in regulations made by the Minister for Health and during the ten days following the lifting of such restrictions. In broad terms, the protections are on separate economic and health grounds, respectively. This Bill seeks to clarify that a 5 km travel restriction does not affect the legal obligation on a tenant to pay rent. Instead, tenants in circumstances where they cannot pay their rent due to the pandemic can avail of the separate protections under this Bill.

This clarification is required as the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act already provides the necessary tenancy protections for any tenant in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy. The Bill removes this duplication and potential confusion around obligations to pay rent. Importantly, significant and enhanced State income supports are available from the Department of Social Protection. I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and to seek every available State income support. For example, the enhanced illness benefit for Covid-19, the pandemic unemployment payment, rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowances can assist tenants to meet their legal obligation to pay rent.I also encourage landlords to show forbearance and to afford tenants the time to stabilise their income through State support, if necessary. It is in the interests of both parties to sustain a viable tenancy. Overall, the State has spent some €11.5 billion on Covid-19 welfare supports. We have not, and will not, be found wanting in supporting any tenants in difficulty.

At this point, the earliest possible expiry date for the current moratorium on evictions across the State under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 is 15 April 2021, that is, ten days after the review date for the expiry of the 5 km travel restrictions. The Government will consider this matter in light of public health advice over the coming days. Regardless of that decision, this Bill will ensure protections are in place until 12 July for tenants economically impacted by the pandemic. The Government recognises that lockdowns are especially difficult for some people and that low-income tenants are disproportionately employed in sectors that are severely affected by Covid-19, such as hospitality and retail.

As I have said, the State is here to help and we will continue to provide immediate income support to families and individuals in private rented accommodation through the Department of Social Protection’s rent supplement scheme. The scheme provides short-term income support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source.

The scheme ensures that renters experiencing a temporary loss of employment can continue to meet their rental commitments. The aim is to avoid any tenant going into rent arrears. That said, the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 complements and supports the provision of rent supplement and other State supports by providing time and security for tenants while engaging with available State services in a bid to resolve their financial difficulty and meet their obligation to pay rent.

The Government also recognises that 70% of landlords own just one rental property, that 86% of landlords own just one or two rental properties and that Covid-19 has given rise to financial difficulty for some landlords. The 2020 Act provides the requisite balance between the rights and obligations of tenants and landlords in a carefully calibrated manner, recognising the legitimate interests of both. This strikes an equilibrium between property rights and the common good in the midst of a pandemic.

We have to continue to address the economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protect as many jobs as possible and ensure that families and businesses can manage financially. The economic consequences of Covid-19 are far-reaching but the hit for certain sectors and some tenants has been extremely challenging. The emergency measures introduced by this Government have prevented systematic problems in the rental sector. The rental measures proposed under this Bill will help further.

I will now outline the provisions of this urgent Bill. The Long Title and recitals of the Bill describe our policy aims and the policy context in which the limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally protected property rights will serve the social common good for three more months to 12 July 2021. The Bill is technical in nature and contains just three sections, with section 3 being a standard provision outlining the Short Title and collective citation of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 are the substantive provisions in the Bill and I have already given a good flavour of their intent.

Section 1 provides for a number of amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 by updating various dates to reflect the extension of the "emergency period" defined in the 2020 Act to 12 July 2021 under this Bill. The proposed amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 provide for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 April 2021 to 12 July 2021, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under that Act, where tenants have been economically impacted by Covid-19 and, consequently, are unable to meet their obligation to pay rent, thereby risking tenancy termination.

Section 1(a) extends the expiry date of the "emergency period" within the meaning of section 9(1) of the 2020 Act from 12 April 2021 to 12 July 2021. During this period, enhanced tenancy protections apply for tenants in arrears, subject to conditions and procedural requirements. Sections 1(b) to 1(d) provide consequential amendments throughout the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 to reflect this extended emergency period.Section 1(e) will provide a technical amendment to section 16 of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 to provide that RTB tenancy tribunals need not be held in public until 12 July 2021. The aim is to continue the protection of the health and safety of participants in the proceedings and of RTB staff during the Covid-19 emergency period.

Section 2 will amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 to enhance its interoperability with the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020. Clarification is provided that the 5 km travel restriction does not affect the legal obligation on a tenant to pay rent. The legal obligation on a tenant to pay rent under section 16(a) of the Residential Tenancies Acts is a key protection for landlords who take the business risk of providing residential rental accommodation. The Bill clarifies that, similar to cases where tenants engage in anti-social behaviour, a landlord is not required to accommodate a tenant in breach of his or her obligation to pay rent and can proceed with a tenancy termination in accordance with the usual procedures. Tenants in rent arrears can, of course, make the necessary declaration to seek the enhanced protections under the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020. The Residential Tenancies Board is available to assist tenants in rent arrears to seek assistance from the Money Advice & Budgeting Service to avail of State income supports from the Department of Social Protection. Rent increases and tenancy terminations will be prohibited for tenants who are protected by the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 until 12 July if the Bill is enacted.

The Bill is being introduced against the backdrop of the worst public health crisis in the history of the State and an economic collapse without comparison. I understand the anguish and frustration that citizens have experienced over these long months. As the evenings lengthen, however, and the vaccines are rolled out, we can look forward to brighter days if we stay the course. Until that time, the Government will do whatever it takes to protect the State and our citizens from the worst impact of the pandemic. None of us could have foreseen the fatal trajectory of Covid-19 on our island and globally when we debated the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 in early December. As legislators, we need to continue to work together to react quickly to suppress the spread of Covid-19. Sadly, the virus has been at its most deadly since our previous debates. The Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 protects both tenants and landlords. The Government wants these protections in place for longer to respond to the continued impact of the pandemic.

I commend the Bill to the House and ask Senators for their support to help tenants stay in their homes.

John Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his presentation of the Bill to the House and for the urgency with which he and the Department have brought it before the Houses. I suspect there will be some criticism of the decision made last week by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage to waive the pre-legislative scrutiny process but it is important to state that decision was made on the basis of advice from officials to the effect that failure to do so would have put tenants who have protections until 13 April in jeopardy of having no protections after that date. It was stated that it would be reckless to leave them in such a position, so it is important to pre-empt any criticism of the fact that pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill was waived.

I appeal to the Opposition not to distort the picture or in some way to present the Bill as something that will take away rights or protections from tenants, as was attempted yesterday by some in opposition in the Dáil. That will have the opposite effect to what we are trying to achieve, which is to protect tenants and make others aware that if they have been negatively impacted in financial terms as a result of Covid-19, there are protections of which they can avail.Negative commentary to the effect that the Government is somehow stripping away protections defeats the purpose of what all of us in this House are here to do, which is to protect people at the most vulnerable time of their lives, especially during the pandemic. It is not true to say that protections are being removed. Section 2 is being deliberately misrepresented because what we are actually talking about here is protecting tenants by means of section 1 and the previous iterations of the Bill, as we have done throughout the pandemic.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, stated in the Dáil yesterday that if we are still in the situation in July, the measure will be reviewed by the Government and that we could look at introducing further protections, if necessary, at that point. While it may be easy for the Opposition to say we should disregard the advice of the Attorney General or test the legislation in the courts, the reality is that the Government must ensure that any legislation we pass is proportionate, legal, constitutional and is not open to challenge. The Minister of State and his officials in the Custom House have done that with this technical Bill before us.

Given what went on in the Dáil yesterday, it is important to state that even though there were amendments and votes on sections that were opposed, the Bill was ultimately passed without opposition. No vote was taken on the Bill in its entirety at the end of the debate. I suspect that is what is going to happen again here today. We will have votes on sections but, ultimately, people will not put the Bill, which will protect tenants' rights, in jeopardy and remove those rights. I look forward to votes on various sections and on the overall substance of the Bill at the end of the debate if members of the Opposition are strongly opposed to elements what is proposed. Members can then put their money where their mouth is in that regard.

I will not take all of my allocated time because I am conscious that other speakers wish to contribute. There has been talk about evictions and incendiary language about throwing people out on the street but in fact we have significantly extended notice periods in recent years. The previous legislation extended the notice periods by ten days post 5 April in light of the 5 km restriction. There is also a minimum requirement of 28 days' notice where a tenancy is of less than six months duration. We have notice periods of 90 days or three months if someone has been in a tenancy of between six and 12 months. We have a notice period of 120 days where someone has been in a tenancy of between one year and three years. We have notice periods of 180 days or six months when someone is in a tenancy of not less than three years but less than seven years and 196 days when someone has a tenancy over seven years in duration. This is not something that will come into play immediately even if somebody is in circumstances where he or she has not been paying the rent.

As the Minister of State indicated in his contribution, 86% of landlords in this country own one or two houses. They too have bills and mortgages they need to pay on their properties. It is all about proportionality and balance. I do not know when we arrived at a situation where it is okay for a tenant not to pay rent.As a result of the pandemic, the Government has selectively catered for those who have been financially affected by Covid-19. We have put protections in place that are available to anyone who is in receipt of the temporary wage subsidy or illness benefit as a result of Covid-19. Those protections are available for anyone. Unfortunately, a large proportion of people in this country have the potential, if necessary, to engage with the protections in this legislation. Outside of that, we are talking about a small cohort of people who are not paying rents to their landlords for the properties in which they are in situ. I again commend the Minister and Department officials on bringing forward this legislation to protect tenants over the next three months up to 12 July.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for coming in to the Chamber today. I believe strongly that the rights of tenants need to be carefully protected at this stage. I am talking about the legitimate rights of tenants. Obviously, I agree with the previous speaker about somebody who is not paying his or her rent. There are, by the way, some extraordinary, egregious cases of people who have run up €30,000 in arrears and are coldly and callously blocking any effort by landlords to get rid of them. I accept they are a minority and there are people who do not have the money to pay at the moment. One cannot assume, however, that everybody who is not paying their rent is financially embarrassed. There are people who simply say they are not paying and that is it.

The big issue is that the property rights of landlords must be put into a balance with the circumstances that exist in respect of the Covid-19 emergency. I am always preaching and writing and speaking on the radio about how this is an emergency. I hope that everybody in government and the health system generally, including the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, realise that the State is in an emergency. It is not purely a virus; there are all sorts of economic and social emergencies such as delayed cancer treatments and so forth. I make the point that this is an emergency and I am quite happy to extend periods because this crisis has turned out in a way which none of us quite expected last autumn.

This is not a lawyer's point. The emergency period provided for in this legislation is defined by the 2020 Act, which, curiously, describes the emergency as being a period in respect of which the 5 km movement limit is in operation. I spoke yesterday on the radio and my interviewer said he would bet that the 5 km will move to 10 km or whatever. I had not actually read the small print of this Bill because I can say with certainty that if the consequence of changing the 5 km and taking it out of operation is that all sorts of tenants will lose their rights, no such relaxation will take place. It was a mistake in 2020 to define the emergency period by so closely relating it to the 5 km movement restriction. We could still have an emergency with a 50 km or 20 km movement restriction. We are now stuck in the position that the Government cannot relax. When this Bill goes through, as it will today because there was an early signature motion for it, it will become law and all tenants will be protected. As a result, however, we will not be able to relax the 5 km restriction rule without the consequence of taking away these additional protections we are giving to tenants. That is an unfortunate piece of drafting. It is not the fault of the current Minister. It is a 2020 fault that should have been picked up now.What we are doing now is cementing in place the 5 km restriction on movement until that date in July. Nobody should be under any illusions; that is what we are doing here today.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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It is not.

Mary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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It is not the only-----

(Interruptions).

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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The definition of the emergency period is one of a period where the 5 km restriction is in place. That is, unfortunately, what we are doing. It probably makes no difference, because at the snail's pace at which things are happening it probably will stay in place. I am just saying that anybody who thinks the 5 km will be changed in the next few weeks should read this Bill and the 2020 Act carefully because we are handcuffing tenant protections to the maintenance of that limitation. That is a big mistake.

Apart from that criticism, this Bill should be passed. I regret that it has this unexpected side effect that the protections, which as the previous speaker said are genuinely needed, will be handcuffed to keeping in place the 5 km restriction on movement. That seems wrong.

Mary Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. Fianna Fáil will be supporting the extension of the protections for renters up until 13 July, as this Bill proposes. It is important that we are very clear with renters. I deal with people every day who are either homeless, at risk of becoming homeless or in inadequate housing. Unfortunately my constituency is one that has suffered from the decade of under-provision of housing. I know how valuable the protections this Government has, rightly, afforded renters during the pandemic are. At no time has home been more important than during this pandemic and the protections have provided those lucky enough to have a home with a safe place. However, the fact that the Government had to allocate more than €220 million for homeless prevention and emergency accommodation only underlines how real the housing crisis is for far too many of our citizens. The housing crisis has not gone away.

I have not been as far as the M50 since before Christmas. I would love to see the 5 km limit ended. I envy the Members who come from the countryside and I fantasise about stowing into the boot of their car and getting out of the city, much as I love it. In all seriousness, the indications from industry are that this delay and shutdown in construction is going to cost us about 10,000 housing units. The crisis is very real. This Bill will extend the protections for renters, which would have expired if we on the housing committee had asserted our right to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny. That would have had catastrophic effects - that is the exact term that was used - because the protections that are in place up until 13 April would have expired. Now we are extending them until 13 July. I accept the Minister of State's bona fides and those of the Department that they will continue to monitor this situation.

It is incredibly important that we also get a clear message to people outside this Chamber that the State and the Government have their back and are there to support them. I commend everyone in the local authorities, Threshold, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, the Intreo offices and all those who have worked on the front line during this pandemic, who have supported people applying for the housing assistance payment, HAP, rent allowance, homeless HAP or supplementary welfare payments.They have provided invaluable support to individuals and families. Many homeless people are single. They are isolated and vulnerable, so they appreciate the support they have received, including from NGOs and their key workers, all of whom have been a lifeline to people in housing distress throughout this period. I look forward to a day when we can start to think beyond the pandemic.

We must use our time in the Oireachtas to leave something behind that keeps those who follow us from having to deal with the same issues. We need systemic change in the State's approach to housing. The Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, understand that. I commend them both on securing the largest housing budget in the history of the State at €3.3 billion, but we will need to go much further than that. There has been an undersupply of homes over the past ten years. The Minister of State and the Minister's jobs did not come with magic wands and the pandemic has hit them, too. As such, I appreciate that their backs are against the wall, but the dynamic must be changed for our citizens. The Government is introducing legislation that will prioritise the use of public land for the provision of public housing. That needs to be social and affordable housing. Our local authorities have been restricted to just social housing, but we need to prioritise the affordable housing Bill and the Land Development Agency Bill so that local authorities, AHBs and not-for-profit NGOs can, as soon as the pandemic is over, be put to work delivering affordable housing, not just social housing.

Affordable housing must be affordable to purchase and rent. As the Minister of State and I know, the proposed affordable rental scheme gives people great hope. It means that renters will only pay rents that cover the cost of maintaining and managing their homes. That is how it should be – secure, affordable and good-quality homes provided by the State on State lands.

We have gone through a shutdown and I am sure the Government has not been able to spend as much of its housing budget as was allocated. I urge the Minister of State to ask the Cabinet to consider increasing the allocation to the affordable rental scheme. I understand why it was set at that level, but circumstances change and we need to change with them. I call on the Minister of State to seek a doubling of the scheme's budget. It would be a sound investment and give hope to many renters.

I am conscious that my time is running out. The programme for Government commits to establishing a commission on housing. Whenever we discuss trying to implement protections so that every citizen has a secure and affordable place to call home, the Seanad and the Minister of State as a Government Member need to champion an amendment to the Constitution so that it is updated to reflect the current and future social ambition that we all share for each citizen to have a secure and affordable place to call home. Will the Minister of State take this message to the Cabinet so that, as we move forward over the next three years, we do so in the context of seeking a mandate from the people for an amendment to insert in the Constitution the right to housing and we can give expression to what I consider to be a current social value to which we all subscribe, that being, that every citizen deserves his or her own home?

Rebecca Moynihan (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for once again attending the House to discuss residential tenancies and protections. We will support the Bill, but I will not respond to the macho posturing of being told to put our money where our mouths are and vote against the Bill. The Opposition is allowed to table constructive amendments and call out where the Bill falls down while supporting the overall protection of tenants.I will not have anyone tell me that we are not allowed to do that. This is the fourth time that legislation to protect renters has been taken in this Oireachtas. Each time the Opposition has offered constructive amendments, many of which would have provided renters with certainty and stability a long time ago. For example, Senator McDowell identified the issue with the 5 km limit. Given that he is one the most eminent legal and political brains in the country, the Government would do well to listen to him when we talk about tying the eviction ban to the 5 km limit. The Opposition proposed many amendments on that when the proposal first came before the House. We argued against tying the State's hands by linking the ban to the 5 km limit and said the Minister should decide on public health grounds whether the ban should be kept in place. The Government did not listen and decided to tie it to the 5 km limit, despite there being no good legal or political reason.

I remind the House that it is not the Attorney General who decides on the constitutionality of any measure. The Supreme Court is the only body that can decide the constitutionality of any Bill. If ever there was a time for a government to back renters and test a Bill before the Supreme Court, it is during the biggest public health emergency in 100 years.

This week, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, said this legislation safeguarded tenants in the face of an ever-threatening pandemic and that the Government had prevented turmoil in the rental system. That is not the case. The piecemeal approach to private renters in the past year has left tenants and, indeed, landlords, of whose rights the Government is so clearly mindful, with stress and uncertainty.

The report published by the Residential Tenancies Board this week specifically noted recent research which indicated that households in the private rented sector suffered a greater economic hit relative to other tenures during the March to June lockdown due to a higher concentration of employment in sectors most severely impacted by the pandemic. Longer restrictions will, therefore, have a disproportionate impact on households in the rental sector. It is against this backdrop that we are here, yet again, talking about rights for tenants. While the Government spin is that it has taken drastic action to safeguard renters during the pandemic, it has done only the bare minimum every time. With each successive Bill it places before the Houses, it takes away protections it said it was putting in place. That is also the case with its proposal to insert a new section 2 in the legislation.

I will give a case study from Threshold which shows how people can fall into rental arrears without losing a job due to Covid. Marcella was receiving rent supplement when she was directed to transfer to the housing assistance payment, HAP. She set about putting the paperwork together and following up with the landlord for him to submit his documents. However, the landlord delayed doing this. Within three weeks, and before the HAP documents were submitted, the rent supplement was stopped. Marcella paid the rent herself for two months but could not afford to continue doing so. Despite the landlord having delayed the paperwork to have the HAP set up, he issued Marcella with a notice of termination for rent arrears. Marcella, not knowing what to do, left the home and slept in her car for a while before finding somewhere else to live. She contacted Threshold when the landlord pursued her for the rent arrears and it assisted her with the RTB. This is a case where someone could potentially be evicted under section 2, even though we are still in the middle of a pandemic. As Senator Fitzpatrick correctly pointed out, the pandemic has not only had an effect on the rental sector. It has also affected the construction sector. There will be a lag, extending into next year, for people who are now in private residential tenancies. For the sake of simplicity and for the security of renters, we should safeguard renters at least until 2022 and put in place strategies to try to counteract the slowdown in construction.

If we decide in April to relax the 5 km limit, which many people desperately want, no-fault evictions will return although we remain in the middle of a pandemic.Evictions to look after a wide circle of extended family members will return. Evictions for potential sale will return at some point in the future. I have raised in this House on a number of occasions that I am not going beyond the 5 km limit. A family on my road potentially will be facing eviction if the 5 km limit is left behind. They are a married couple with two kids and they have a stay on eviction. The need for substantial renovations is the reason they have been given for their impending eviction and the only reason they have been able to be in their home with their kids, who I see every day, is because of the eviction ban. I also know of somebody else who has been told by her landlord that he is considering selling up and moving to Spain and she might have to start looking for somewhere else to live. The landlord is re-evaluating his life as a result of the pandemic. The lives of those two families will potentially be disrupted with no alternative in terms of moving into somewhere secure because we will still be in the middle of this pandemic.

Before the pandemic, it is estimated that one in ten households missed a rental payment due to financial difficulties. Nobody should be in any doubt that a higher proportion of people will miss payments in the next number of years. The procedures previously introduced by the Government for those in arrears are insufficient and have been described as overly complex by several stakeholders, including Threshold and the Simon Community. Furthermore, we know that the engagement with these procedures by renters has been very low. That is not the fault of the renters, it is the fault of the overly-complicated procedures and the criminal sanction attached to them. The solution for those renters who have been unable to engage in this complicated procedure is not to abandon those in the middle of a pandemic. Opening the door to evictions because of rental arrears will put many people and families in private residential tenancies at significant risk of losing their homes.

I ask the Minister of State to consider these circumstances. I ask him to make the case to Government that if it removes the 5 km restriction, it should consider extending the eviction ban for people in the private rental sector regardless. We are still in the middle of a pandemic. I ask the Minister of State to please give renters certainty that they will be able to stay in their own homes until we are out of this pandemic.

Vincent P Martin (Green Party)
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It is good to see the Minister of State in the House again. I listened attentively to his opening remarks. The purpose of this Bill is, in essence, to help people stay in their homes. It is important not to forget that. We are legislators and are here to constructively criticise, and I hope the Minister of State will take the following points on board. At the end of the day, the Government's move here is to protect family dwellings to ensure families are safe.

Dispensing with pre-legislative scrutiny should be used on the most rare of occasions but this legislation might well justify it. Many months ago, I was at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice at which we were urged to dispense with pre-legislative scrutiny in respect of the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill and it did not come before the House for several moths afterwards. We dealt with that Bill a few weeks ago. It introduced remote meetings and other small amendments deemed urgent enough to dispense with pre-legislative scrutiny, yet it took several months. I do not ever want to see an overuse or abuse of dispensing with pre-legislative scrutiny but I accept that this legislation is time sensitive. I also accept the Minister of State's point in respect of property rights. It would be a very foolish lawyer who would advise a person in a private dwelling about the wonderful, pre-eminent constitutional protection for a dwelling without looking closely at other rights that are in play in the Constitution, such as property rights. One cannot but consider them. An eradication or severe attack on the property rights in the Constitution would cause thousands upon thousands of landlords to run to the hills, and I say that as someone with a background in standing up for householders. It is a very challenging and delicate balancing act and, of course, one has to be proportionate. It is a question of whether the period could have been somewhat longer than three months rather than - I hate to say it - bringing us all back possibly in three months' time. We have seen this before in the House. Our ultra-conservative steps, for fear we will trespass or engage property rights in a negative way, are tying at least one hand behind our back at times as legislators. We have countervailing rights in the Constitution but we should not be ultra-deferential towards them. We should work as hard as possible to determine whether we can stay within the remit of the constitutional provision and yet do as much that is positive as possible.

I am concerned about the 5 km stipulation. Even the Independent Scientific Advocacy Group, which is the advocate of zero Covid, has said it is open to flexibility and some latitude. I am opposed to the blanket rule on the 5 km radius throughout the Republic of Ireland. My constituency and that of the Minister of State have both urban and rural parts. If I spent a day canvassing in some of the beautiful, panoramic areas of rural Kildare North, within a radius of 5 km, I would not get to very many houses, yet, even within a 5 km radius in a highly densely populated area, it would take me days to get through the houses. It is not comparing like with like. I am concerned and I fear Senator McDowell is correct in this regard. Is the policy going to shatter hope if we are handcuffed until 12 July? People might have only five friends or encounter five dwellings within a 5 km radius and many of their close family members and friends may be beyond that. If a journey beyond the radius is not to do an essential duty or offer an essential service, it may not be taken. Are there any assurances that the Minister of State can give us in respect of what I fear might be the unintended consequence of supporting this measure?

I will use my remaining time to make a point I have made previously: there is a requirement for a consolidation of the legislation. Experts find it so difficult to navigate through it. It is not accessible to non-experts. We really have to consider consolidation, demystification and simplification to make the Act more accessible and facilitate implementation. It is all over the place at this stage. If there were ever a need for a consolidated Act, it would be in this area.

I commend the Department on the improved website. For years, it was little short of an embarrassment. I am aware I am not comparing like with like in saying that while taxing one's car on the website has been so easy to do, navigating the old RTB website was at times so challenging for many of the stakeholders. Therefore, I welcome the improvement.

I am aware that the Department and board of the RTB can decide to have one-person tribunals. The relatively recent legislation no longer insists that there be three people on a tribunal, despite its obvious name "tribunal". I am a great believer in the three-person tribunal. Three heads are better than one. It involves a quasi-judicial role. The members are not trained, expert judges, yet there is so much at stake. I accept that in certain circumstances, a one-member tribunal would save money if there were a very simple issue.

I welcomed a number of years ago the introduction of the slip rule. Since the role of a member of the tribunal is quasi-judicial, there is rigid statutory interpretation by members and adjudicators in the first instance. Before the slip rule was introduced, it was farcical.Before it came in, it was farcical. People, tenants and landlords, were losing their cases almost because a "t" was not crossed or an "i" was not dotted, there was a digit out of place in the year or there was a misspelling. I ask the Minister of State to give that feedback to the Department which I am sure has good data on that. That slip rule has really been a Godsend, and also instills more confidence in the RTB.

The phone mediation service is going exceptionally well at present. For the first time, the RTB can deal with cases remotely. My prediction and hope - maybe the Minister of State will confirm this - is that the remote hearings will survive the pandemic. There were only seven or eight venues throughout Ireland, but many of these matters can be dealt with effectively and most efficiently by remote hearings, which, I hope, are here to stay.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister of State here today to discuss issues relating to the protection of renters. It so happens that two weeks ago Sinn Féin introduced a Private Members' motion in the House. I and my colleagues argued for increased protections for renters and immediate steps to be taken to reduce rents and prevent an increase of rents for three years. During that debate, I was assured by Government Senators that Sinn Féin had got it wrong and that the Government was busy working away on a raft of legislation that would strengthen protection for renters. A Senator said that the Government parties understood the crisis and that they would tackle it, "not through sloganeering or motions, but by doing the hard work of legislating". To be honest, what dawned on me in that debate was that I was one of the few people here whose friends were all renters. The Government amendment talked about legislation for tenancies of indefinite duration and the Housing for All policy which will be launched later this year.

Then we get this Bill which is rushed and unambitious. If one were to ask any renter if he or she would prefer the measure in my party's motion two weeks ago or more of this type of legislation from Government, I wonder what the renter's preference would be. It seems strange that the Government says it is listening to the concerns of renters yet it misses the point every time it brings forward legislation on this subject.

Put simply, this is the latest dilution of the initial protection measures introduced in the first lockdown last year. Since the Minister was appointed, he has picked away at protections in a rushed and unco-operative manner. All Stages of this Bill were rushed through the Dáil this week. It will be finished here in the Seanad on Monday but our amendments were due to be in before the Second Stage debate. Pre-legislative scrutiny for this Bill was mentioned. That was waived by a vote of Government parties at the committee last week. The last time housing legislation was introduced in the Seanad, it was done in order to bypass pre-legislative scrutiny at the committee. Many in the Seanad felt that was a disingenuous move to outwit the committee.

The Bill deals with a series of deadlines everybody was aware of. The most urgent is the protection for renters who are in arrears because of Covid-19 with that protection due to run out at the end of April. We knew this deadline was approaching yet again we waited until the last minute to do anything. This is unfair on officials in the Department, on staff in the Oireachtas, especially in the Bills Office, and on the committee, and it reduces the calibre of debate and discussion that can take place.

I wonder why the end of July was chosen as the date to extend the eviction ban. Most people who have lost employment because of restrictions are unlikely to see their situation improve before then. They are unlikely to return to employment. These are the type of questions that could have been asked of officials and of the Minister and the Minister of State had the necessary pre-legislative scrutiny taken place.

Of course, I want to see the deadline extended and I have submitted amendments to do this. Why did the Minister not introduce a Bill to extend the Covid-related protections to what are a small group of people and have another Bill deal with the more general issue of arrears? We are talking, in section 1, about a very small group of people. According to the RTB, tenant self-declarations number 407. That is the number of people we are dealing with in section 1. According to the RTB, a small group of people have availed of this protection.In reality, the Bill protects a very small number of renters and strips protections from many more. The Government is taking away protections from many more people than it is extending them for.

Rent arrears are real and the issue is not going away. A total of 2,401 warning letters have been sent to tenants in arrears since August 2020 according to the RTB. Does the Government have any plans to introduce legislation to deal with the issue of arrears in general?

Sinn Féin wants to see the extension of the ban on evictions and rent increases for tenants in arrears due to loss of income and on a Covid-19 social welfare payment until the end of the year, at least.

Rent in Ireland rose by 2.7% in last year to an average of €1,256 per month. When the pandemic eases, the issue of rent will still need to be addressed. The Minister's record does not instil renters with much confidence, and it is little wonder that renters increasingly see Sinn Féin’s plan as the only viable strategy to give renters a break.

Eileen Flynn (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today. This debate allows us to express our opinions on all sides. This is why we are all in politics. We all have a different story and we are all looking at things from a different perspective.

I share concerns that section 2 of the Residential Tenancies Bill 2021 will leave some tenants at risk of eviction. Threshold, the national housing charity, has raised these concerns. Provisions in section 2 of the Bill that deal with people in rent arrears will allow them to be evicted. We all know how difficult it is for people to get a house in Ireland these days. We have a housing crisis and have had for many years. We are in the middle of a pandemic when people have been asked to stay as close to their homes as possible. Not only are these changes a bad decision but they come at the very worst time in the middle of a pandemic.

I understand the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 includes measures to deal with rent arrears. However, the scheme is complex and uptake has been low. There is no guarantee that all private renters in arrears will be able to take advantage of this scheme. We are talking about a lot of people. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that one in ten households had missed a rent payment because of financial difficulties. What would it mean for these households if they faced losing their homes in the middle of a pandemic when they are forced to find a place to live during a housing crisis?

Section 1 of the Bill extends protections for renters whose income was affected by Covid-19. I welcome these protections but we are forgetting about renters who are in financial difficulties for other reasons. They also deserve the attention of the Department.

Threshold believes the changes in section 2 are not necessary and I agree. Threshold believes that the Residential Tenancies Act has been very successful in preventing homelessness. We should listen to organisations that are working on the ground with tenants. We should also listen to these organisations that have suggested solutions to the problem of rent arrears.As we have all heard, Threshold has stated that broader consultations with stakeholders are needed before any changes are made to the Act. I strongly agree.

The Minister of State indicated that the State was here to help. Why would we want to change an Act that has helped to prevent homelessness? We need to do all in our power to prevent homelessness; that is common sense. On Monday, my colleague, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, and other members of the Civil Engagement Group will propose amendments to change the reference to a 5 km limit to a 20 km limit.

I ask the Minister of State to listen to NGOs and other organisations that work with people on the ground. For once, when we talk about accommodation and homelessness we must listen to the people, especially during a pandemic. If a Roma woman and her family were evicted in these times, they would face a harder challenge to get a house, not only for money reasons but because of discrimination, racism and who they are. We need to have bigger conversations. Right now, we have asked for very little. I ask the Minister of State and his Department to listen to the organisations that work with residents and tenants.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I do not intend to dwell on this issue for too long as my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, has expressed our party's views.

I welcome the Minister of State. While we will always be issues with tenants, the Minister, the Minister of State and their Department have shown no hesitation in ensuring that tenants are looked after and are not wronged.

I recognise the right of every Senator to make their views known or have reservations. However, one sometimes gets the impression from Dáil and Seanad debates that there is no protection for tenants in this country. We have nine different Acts covering the rights of tenants. I do not have copies of them here but they include the Landlord and Tenant Act, the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 and many more. I have not read them all but I know they all give protections to tenants in some way or another. The reason I raise this issue is that I dealt with a case last November where an individual who had listened to a Dáil debate on housing concluded that he could face eviction in two or three weeks. That view also appeared on social media as well. That is wrong and untrue, unless an issue arose with anti-social behaviour, which is a different situation altogether.

The fact that we are back here for a fourth time debating legislation shows how engaged the Department is, that it is concerned about people's rights and that it wants to ensure that people are protected. As a Senator, I receive representations from all over the country. However, as I live in County Roscommon, most people who contact me are from the Roscommon and Galway region. I have kept in contact with people whom I knew were in trouble during my time in the Dáil and I helped sort them out. Those who are renting are satisfied that they are protected and they do not have many worries at the moment.

Perhaps we could some clarification on the 5 km issue raised by Senators McDowell and Martin. They are two very intelligent men and I know both have dealt with housing issues and tenants' rights for many years.On the other side of it - and Senator Cummins mentioned this issue - I know landlords who have one or two houses. They did not buy them with the intention of being landlords. Family circumstances were involved - a house was left to them or whatever. In a small number of cases, because of unruly and poor behaviour, those people have ended up in debt. That is not right either and it should be noted.

In general, I am quite satisfied that the rights of tenants are being protected. I reiterate that we are back here for the fourth time in a short period. This pandemic has gone on and on. We did not think it would go on so long. The very fact that we are back here shows that the Department and the Government are going to look after tenants. I would tell any tenants who are worried not to be. They will be looked after and cared for. They will not be tossed out of their homes.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. It is important that, in a debate on housing, there is a degree of listening and understanding. There is no silver bullet. I hear members of particular parties claiming in the House to have the answer to everything and that they are the only ones to understand people but that is not true. We can all relate to, understand and know the situations of a great many people who are in rented accommodation or trying to buy a house. To be fair to Senator Cummins, my interpretation of his remarks is that he was not referring to Members of the House but was talking about the allegation that rights are being taken away when they are not. As Senator Murphy rightly said, we are trying to protect people. All of us in this House are working to do that. I do not own a suite of houses. I am not a landlord. I know one thing, however; the Government and the party I stand for and represent want to protect all citizens and to give them the right to buy their own house or the right to an affordable or social house. We do not discriminate in our work as parliamentarians and policymakers. I hope we do that.

This Bill is about protecting people. It is about ensuring that those who are negatively affected by Covid-19 are looked after and supported. That is what we are doing. It is about time that we had a real and honest debate in respect of housing. People may smirk and laugh, but that is the reality. Let us put all the policies on the table and have a real debate.

We all welcome the further protections for tenants provided for in the Bill. The current protections are absolutely necessary. In the context of extending the emergency period, we need to get the construction sector back into operation. The Economic and Social Research Institute produced a report this week which states that there has been a decrease of 25% in the number of houses being constructed. That is not going to have a hugely positive impact on the number of houses completed.

In lifting the 5 km restriction from 5 April, which we should do, we need to offer protection to tenants and those who rent. Even in my own office this morning, I was dealing with people who are in precarious situations as a result of personal matters or the council. A practical, commonsense approach must be taken by everybody.

In the context of the Land Development Agency, we need to see the supply of affordable housing ratcheted up as a matter of urgency. The banks are not playing fair with people. I will not name the individual involved but I have in my hand documentation from a bank in which the State is a shareholder. This bank is refusing to meet the person to whom this matter relates regarding legacy matters. I have been in contact with the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. There is a need to work with people and not pursue them, especially in the midst of a pandemic.If the Minister of State reads the thread of remarks in these emails, he will see the frustration, fear and worry of a mother being threatened with having her home taken away from her, and she cannot work because of the pandemic. I appeal to him to tell the people in the faceless banks that they must engage properly with people. We must ensure we protect people at all rungs of the property ladder.

I will support the Bill. We must give hope to people who rent that they can buy property. We must provide private housing and social and affordable housing as well. All of us, I hope, aspire to owning our own home and we cannot take that away from people. I commend the Minister of State on his work in the Department. He has been positive and resolute and I wish him well in his remaining term in office.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend him and the Government on how they have responded to so many citizens since the pandemic started. They are to be commended on the speed of action and the compassion shown. That extends to every Senator. I would not set anybody apart. As Senator Buttimer said, we are all working together for a common cause and that is the way we have to proceed.

The Bill will provide a great deal of confidence and support to those who are receiving the Department of Social Protection's Covid payments, but the cut-off date of 12 July is too soon. I am rather sorry that the provision is not open-ended and that we in both Houses are not trusted to close it off as soon as it is the right time to do so. The people right now need certainty. Will we be back in the House on 1 July with a further amendment to the Bill to extend its provisions for a further three months and see where that goes?

My colleague, Senator McDowell, and members of the Government parties have pointed out that section 2 is flawed. The 5 km rule places golden handcuffs, as it were, on the Bill.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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On a point of order-----

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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If the Senator wants to speak, he should speak through the Chair.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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On a point of order, we did not say the Bill was flawed. I said I would seek clarification on the basis of what Senators McDowell and Martin had said. In case Senator Craughwell was referring to me, I point out I did not say the Bill was flawed.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I would not dream of it. I am not sure that was a point of order.

Various housing charities such as Threshold and Simon have pointed out there is a flaw in section 2, as has an eminent lawyer. Accordingly, I will accept that Senator Murphy did not say it; that is fine. I do not know whether the Minister of State can do anything about the 5 km rule at this stage but if he could reconsider it, I would appreciate that. I want to support the Bill and the Minister of State as he brings it forward. I will not vote for the hell of it nor push anything to a vote. What is most important right now is that we protect citizens.

On the wider housing issue, what has gone wrong in this State? In the 1950s, when we did not have a red cent in this country, we built the finest social housing. I recall my father telling me that if a piece of timber with a knot in it arrived where social housing was being built, they would have to take it away. It simply would not have been acceptable.From that point of view I am concerned that we are devolving social housing to housing agencies. We have approximately 500 housing agencies in this country, each with its own chief executive officer and chief financial officer. I admit that these organisations are trying to provide housing for needy people, but do we need 500 of them? Is it time that we stepped back and looked at the State’s responsibility to provide social housing for those who are in need?

It causes me great concern to see the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe say there is no legal framework for the right to housing for families in Ireland, and there are no statistics on the condition of local authority houses. One of my colleagues made the point that we should have the right to a home in the Constitution, but I do not believe we can put it into the Constitution until such time as we are in a position to provide homes for the needy in this country. We are not in that position right now. I fully support what the Senator said about putting it into the Constitution, but we must find the wherewithal to do it and we must have the resources to put it in place.

I could go on, but you have been rather kind to allow me to go on, Acting Chairperson. I apologise to my colleague, Senator Murphy. I was not indicating that he or anybody else saw a flaw in the Bill, but Members of the Government parties have said there is a flaw in the Bill and let those who said it step forward; those who did not are fine.

John Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I do not know what the Senator is referring to.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for being present. The Bill is welcome. Unfortunately, due to Covid, it is the fourth time that we have had to introduce legislation to protect tenants. It has been necessary to extend the period of emergency rental protections and to strengthen the supports provided to tenants at risk of eviction. That gives comfort to tenants. I know the legislation has only had to be called on a number of times, but that is possibly because it is robust legislation and there are those who know there is no point in trying to contest it.

The Bill amends the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act to extend the protections to 12 July 2021. It is unfortunate that it is necessary due to the ongoing impact and threat of the third wave of Covid-19. It is a proportionate response that balances constitutional property rights with the common good.

The best way that we can protect people who do not have their own house, and who are living in rented accommodation, is to provide them with home ownership. It is regrettable that in the past decade home ownership in Ireland has slipped to become one of the lowest in Europe. That is the real challenge that we have. It is important that those who choose to rent have the opportunity to do so, and to have security of tenure and cost, but many tenants wish to live in their own house and to avail of a social or affordable house. They are the people we must help and give them the opportunity to be able to do that.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on what he has introduced in his short time in government. For example, the first action the Department took was on the voids right around the country. The target was exceeded, and more than 2,500 vacant social homes were brought back into use. That was hugely important. The help-to-buy grant was also increased to help thousands more get on the housing ladder. It has helped more than 19,500 to buy their own home. Thankfully, the scheme has been extended to the end of 2021.The repair and leasing scheme, for which an increase in maximum funding was announced before Christmas, is important. The cost rental scheme is a very good initiative but it could have been more ambitious. The scheme proposed 390 cost rental houses to be delivered in counties Dublin and Cork and a scheme was planned for Leixlip in north Kildare. To be able to deliver that number of houses in the calendar year was really important. I know a scheme is ready to go in Newbridge, for example. I would like to see more progress on that.

In terms of the affordable housing Bill, again, affordable purchase on local authority land and the affordable purchase shared equity scheme, as well as the cost rental scheme I mentioned, are extremely important. A number of initiatives, therefore, have been brought in to help support those who need to and are working. We need a little bit of flexibility from the banks, which play a really important role in this regard. The Government needs to flex its muscle regarding banks supporting those who are working and who should be able to get a mortgage.

I believe we also need to look at other areas. I mentioned previously those who are renting in co-operative schemes and are not able to buy out their own houses. We need to bring in a scheme that enables them to do that. Much work, therefore, needs to be done but we are proceeding both at a local and national level to try to make up for the deficits over the past decade.

Mary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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From the outset of the Covid-19 crisis, the Government, under the Fine Gael leader and then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, moved to protect tenants affected by the unavailability of the opportunity to move property and, more crucially, their inability to work. Crucial protections were needed against people's inability to pay their rent brought about by the Covid-19 crisis. That is the origin of today's legislation.

The Bill before this House extends all those protections that have been repeatedly extended until April. Today's Bill extends those protections and goes further, however, and decouples those protections from the need for us to be in level 5, particularly for people who are in arrears due to the Covid-19 crisis.

The protections will, therefore, still be in place for those who are adversely affected by the financial impacts of Covid-19 and are unable to pay their rent. The protections for tenants financially impacted are extended until 12 July. Nothing about that prohibits us from coming back in. While in the grips of a pandemic, it is right that we are proportionate and responsible in how we deal with extended and enhanced protections for any sector of any market. Those in arrears are more likely to be in low-income industries or those industries most affected, such as hospitality and retail. They have been disproportionately impacted and their protections have now been decoupled from the level 5 requirement.

This Bill does not protect tenants who refuse to pay rent but can, or tenants who engage in antisocial behaviour, making the lives of people around them miserable. Tenants who are in arrears due to the financial impact of Covid-19 can make a declaration that puts them on the road to enhanced protections that were made before Christmas in the 2020 Bill. According to Threshold, that brings in anyone in receipt of the temporary wage subsidy or any social welfare payment or State support paid because they lost earnings due to Covid-19, including the pandemic unemployment payment, rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowance.

This Bill seeks to balance the rights of those who own properties and rent them out with the rights of tenants. Landlords include a large cohort of people who are landlords by accident and some who have invested in one property as a pension plan.Their property rights cannot be disregarded altogether. If we are to maximise the property market choices, we need private landlords as well as the State and the approved housing bodies. Many of these private landlords are relying on income from rent to earn their own living and pay their own bills. It would be reckless of this Parliament to bring forward a Bill that does not balance those rights and that relies on an Article 26 reference to the Supreme Court by the President. That would be an abdication of our role as legislators.

Outside these enhanced protections, if tenants fall into arrears their landlord must serve them with 28 days' notice to quit and if they do not address those arrears in a mutually agreeable fashion, they get a further 28 days' notice. There are protections in place. If the landlord does not validly serve the notice or act in accordance with the statutory requirements, the tenant can refer these matters to the RTB. These rights are supported outside of Covid and were there prior to Covid. Where arrears are not involved, the length of notice is directly proportionate to the length of the tenancy and ranges from 28 days to just over six months. In addition, we have rent pressure zones and a prohibition of rent increases of more than 4%.

Let us be clear: it is not ideal to be renting. Tenure does not last long enough, despite the provision of six months' notice. We need additional housing and approved housing. I am optimistic about the changes that will come from the Land Development Agency and the affordable housing Bill. Fine Gael has presided over increased housing supply while in government, although it entered office when the country was in a ruinous position. Senator Fitzpatrick seems to have selective amnesia about that matter in light of her constant digs about the lack of housing, which was due to the lack of money for the first number of years when Fine Gael was in government.

I welcome the Bill. It restores rights to where they were prior to Covid and it also keeps in place the enhanced protections for people who are in arrears because of Covid.

Erin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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We have three speakers left and not much time. Would Senator Conway share time with Senator McGahon, particularly as Senator Ward is not in the House? They will have two and half minutes each.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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That is fine. Hopefully Senator Ward will be here by then. If not, I will give way to my colleague. The Minister of State is very welcome.

This is an important Bill but I agree with other colleagues that a clear message needs to go out from this House that there are protections for tenants. There are significant rights in place for tenants. Tenants being thrown out of the places in which they are living is not tolerated in this country. It does not happen and should not happen. When Covid hit, we introduced legislation to ensure that evictions would not happen during the pandemic. Our being back here today is testament to the fact that this Government takes its housing responsibilities seriously, wants to protect tenants and does so.

I also agree with my colleague, Senator Seery Kearney, and others regarding incidental landlords. These are people who probably should not be classed as landlords. They bought properties with every good intention and their rights need to be respected and protected as well. It is called fairness and it is a very simple thing. The system has to be fair to everybody, protect people and be fair to people. It should protect tenants and citizens who happen to have a second home, which they make available and rent to tenants. It is about equity and fairness. The Minister of State does what he can and he and his predecessor have done what they needed to do to protect tenants. I think Senator Ward is here now.

Barry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I will quickly raise two matters relating to the Bill.On the whole, it does good and important things in the context of the current challenges. Both matters relate to the protection of renters who find themselves in difficulty. I am acutely aware that St. Helen's Court in Dún Laoghaire in my area saw the eviction of a number of tenants from a development. They were not in non-compliance with any of the conditions of their tenancies, they were not behaving badly and they were not in rent arrears. Rather, the owner of the apartments decided to select fewer than ten apartments to be renovated. Those people now find themselves with nowhere to go.

I wish to discuss two particular circumstances, the first of which relates to tenants who are in dispute with a landlord for whatever reason and going before a tenancy tribunal of the RTB. Landlords who appear before that tribunal are much better resourced than tenants in terms of legal advice, legal aid and assistance generally and are often represented by some of the country's larger law firms. Conversely, many tenants come to the tribunal bewildered by the process and unaware of their rights. I am aware that the board is obliged to provide them with documentation in that regard, and I am sure it does, but the difference between providing someone with a leaflet and explaining to someone what he or she can and should do is significant. I have submitted a Committee Stage amendment on the question of whether we should provide an access-to-justice mechanism and a legal aid fund for those people. As with anyone who comes before the courts and avails of civil legal aid, tenants could avail of legal advice via a fund set up through the RTB. This important access-to-justice mechanism, which is absent currently, would allow tenants to perform better before the tribunal and in how they deal with the issues before them.

My second point relates to how, as far as I can see, the legislation places the evidential burden on the tenant rather than the landlord. In circumstances where a landlord is proceeding under section 34 to remove a tenant because the former intends to sell the property and move on, the Bill appears to suggest that any evidence from the landlord to the effect that he or she is going to sell the property is sufficient for the board's tribunal to take into account. That is legally wrong. Indeed, it has been found to be so by the High Court. The Minister of State should make it clear that, while a sworn statement, statutory statement or statement to the effect that the property is going to be sold is evidence, it is not sufficient evidence to uphold a decision under section 34 for a perfectly valid, hard-working and conforming tenant to be removed from a property.

John McGahon (Fine Gael)
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I wish to make a couple of points, the first of which relates to housing maintenance and housing transfers in my county of Louth. The county council's problem is that transfers are essentially non-existent. This is because it does not have proper funding to do up the houses. The cost of doing up a house is between €8,000 and €10,000 approximately. The council cannot effect transfers if it does not have the money to do up a house to a good standard for a new tenant. I plead with the Minister of State to consider this funding issue for Louth County Council. It is an important matter.

Under the HAP scheme, the rent limit for an adult in Louth is €575 per week or €650 for a couple. These limits are too low when rents in the Dundalk area are €1,200 or €1,300. I would appreciate it if we could review HAP and increase the limits for single people and couples.

Eviction notices have been mentioned. I do not know whether it is just my part of the world, but there are some chancers among landlords. I have seen more eviction notices served to people in the past two months than ever before. Tenants are coming to me in a panic and I am telling them that there is an eviction ban and setting out the story.

On Monday and Tuesday mornings, I almost become an estate agent because of the number of people from my town who come to me about not being able to find housing to rent. That is because people are sticking in their houses and not moving around. Every Monday and Tuesday, we go through daft.ieand to every estate agent in Dundalk to try to get people housing, but it is difficult. However, there is a positive in this. At the minute, the housing waiting list in Louth is flying. I am not being dramatic. People are flying off the list because we are building so many houses on the outskirts of Dundalk. That is good, as any politician in Dundalk would say regardless of whether he or she was in opposition or government. The key to this success is supply. If we build, we will sort out the housing crisis.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senators for contributing on this very important Bill and acknowledge their contributions. I acknowledge the speed at which the joint committee allowed us to go forward with the Bill and apologise as I know it is not ideal. However, the threat of Covid-19 and the trajectory of the pandemic means nothing is ideal about the circumstances in which we work, unfortunately. I value all contributions made in the House. It is important when we go forward with a Bill, that it is stress tested and that we do articulate all the views from all the different backgrounds in the House. I genuinely appreciate that from all the Senators.

Senator Cummins articulated what the Bill is about. In no way does it water down the rights of tenants. There is not one line, word or letter in the Bill which does that. It increases the rights of tenants, to try to protect them, some who may be economically challenged. The 5 km limit relates to different legislation, it is not in this Bill. This Bill is purely an economic Bill. The vote on it this evening and on Monday is only on an economic basis and has no relevance whatever to the 5 km rule. I want to be clear on that for Senator McDowell and others. That is a different regulation set by the Minister for Health to a different Act. It refers to the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, as he rightly said. This is a totally different Bill. It is important that we get the right balance. Senator McDowell did articulate that point well about the Constitution and the protection of very vulnerable people during a pandemic.

Senator Fitzpatrick rightly raised supply and the work of NGOs. When asked, the key issue Threshold raised with us was rent arrears. That is its biggest worry about the crisis. That is why this Bill covers that with all the actors working with the supplementary welfare allowance and community welfare who are turning around applications within three days. That is key in supporting people who are in very vulnerable situations and we need to continue to do that.

I acknowledge the scale of the budget for housing of €.3.3 billion. Affordability must be at the heart of it which is why we have two Bills before the House, the Land Development Agency Bill, which will be a game changer in providing supply of affordable houses, and the Affordable Housing Bill which contains key initiatives. Help-to-buy was already mentioned. There is also the shared equity scheme which I believe will shape the supply of the new starter homes which are so badly needed in the market. One third of first-time buyers are buying new homes and two thirds are on the second-hand market. A decade ago it was the reverse. That is why we need to shape that supply.

As regards Senator Moynihan, I want to acknowledge that all views are much appreciated. We are all trying to achieve the same goal, that is, to protect the most vulnerable in society through the biggest crisis the State has ever faced for our people. We know how frustrated people and communities are and we have seen many livelihoods challenged. I value the joint committee. We provided it with oral and written briefings. It is not ideal but I appreciate the committee giving us the opportunity to go forward with the Bill. That brings me to Senator Martin's comments. I acknowledge that we are under pressure here, without doubt. I will take up the points he raised about the board with the Minister.

One of Senator Warfield's points was 100% wrong. The passing of this Bill does not water down tenants' rights in any shape or form and it is so unfair for anyone to say otherwise, because it does not do so.Senator Flynn mentioned non-governmental organisations and the most important areas they raised. That is why we have listened to what Threshold have had to say. Its key point was that it was concerned about rent arrears. We have the statistics on warning letters. A warning letter does not necessarily mean that someone will be evicted. We have the supports in the State to try to work with the people affected and prevent that from happening. It is important for people to engage, as I said, with community welfare officers who are turning applications around quickly. We have the supplementary welfare allowance. Supports are there and we must be careful and ensure people are aware of them. We all have a job to do in that regard.

Senator Buttimer articulated how important it is we increase supply, although the construction industry is largely closed at the moment. We know the challenges and implications that has for society. I hope decisions that are made in the next few days unlock that. Many Senators have mentioned the financial, family and mental health sacrifices people are making. We must be careful about the longer effects down the road. There will be risks along the way. It is important we get construction back up and going again.

Question put and agreed to.

Erin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

John Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Next Monday.

Erin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 29 March 2021.

Sitting suspended at 4.01 p.m. and resumed at 4.18 p.m.