Thursday, 17 June 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
For three days a constituent of mine, Karl Byrne, has been boarded up in his flat in Charlemont Street, resisting eviction. Mr. Byrne is not a criminal or a law-breaker, he is a responsible citizen who fears for his future and knows that, once he is evicted, he will be declared homeless. He then faces a bleak future of going from hostel to hostel. His elderly neighbour, Essie Kealing, is also in a very vulnerable situation. Their names will be added to the corporation's housing list, which is already bursting due to similar cases. Yet, the Government sits back and does not appear to believe there is a housing crisis.
Security of tenure is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. He once said in a speech in Templemore that, as a society, we must protect elderly people from being robbed in their homes. I am asking him to protect elderly people from being robbed of their homes.
The law is on the side of unscrupulous landlords. Currently, the Constitution also appears to be on their side. Compared to tenants in other countries, Irish tenants have few rights. There is no rent control. If one can gets a lease it is for a year at most. Rents can be doubled at a landlord's whim. There is no security of tenure. A tenant can be asked to vacate the premises with one month's notice.
Even a sitting tenant, who would normally enjoy rights, is now very vulnerable. Section 16 of the Housing (Private Rented Dwellings) Act, 1982, is being used by landlords to gain vacant possession of dwellings. I had one such case last week, where a landlord, who had deliberately let a premises in Aungier Street run down, applied to the court to carry out a scheme of works. This necessitated the tenants, all of whom were pensioners, having to leave the house in which they were born. Does the Minister have any idea of the pain, suffering and sheer trauma gone through by these elderly people?
So far, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform's response has been wholly inadequate. It set up the working group on security of tenure in November 1994, following the proposed  sale of apartments in the Mespil estate and the threatened eviction of elderly tenants. The report runs to a mere eight pages and concludes that, having examined security of tenure law in other jurisdictions, it did not identify a single system abroad which would be importable. How very convenient for landlords and speculators and how disappointing for tenants.
The Minister said in reply to a parliamentary question I tabled on 5 May last that the Government had decided, in principle, to establish a commission to look at the issue of security of tenure. Yet another commission and yet another fudge.
The tragic fact is that this Government does not care about those in the rented sector. It does not care because those who benefit from the current situation – the ruthless landlords and speculators – contribute handsomely to Fianna Fáil. I would like the Minister to come clean today and say he has no intention of introducing this legislation, simply because he does not care.
The rights of tenants in private rented accommodation and the protection available to them are determined by the lease or other tenancy agreement under which the tenancies are held and the landlord and tenant code which governs the relationship between landlord and tenant. That code is, of course, the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
There have been reports of claims of an increased incidence of evictions from private rented accommodation. Surveys undertaken by representative bodies of auctioneers and estate agents indicate that the overall rate of increase in rents in 1998 was in line, generally speaking, with the rise in house prices. Tenants of private rented accommodation whose means are not sufficient to meet their needs, including their rent payments, may qualify for assistance by way of rent supplementation under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, SWA, which is administered by the health boards.
Security of tenure is a complex matter. There are difficult legal and constitutional issues inherent in the landlord and tenant relationship which have been the subject of High and Supreme Court judgments. There is no point in taking any action which is likely to fall foul of the Constitution.
Perhaps even more important, from a practical point of view, we cannot risk taking any action which might result in a negative impact on supply and a worsening of the existing situation. Calls for rent freezes or rent control ignore the potential impact on supply. It is easy to see how such measures would be attractive to those currently in occupation of rented accommodation. However, the resulting consequences for people  seeking rented accommodation now and in the future must also be taken into account. A balance must be struck between the rights and obligations of landlords, tenants and those who will require accommodation in the private rented sector in the future.
The Government has decided that a commission should be established to examine issues relating to security of tenure in the private rented sector. The proposed terms of reference, scope of remit and membership of the commission are being considered by the Department of the Environment and Local Government, in consultation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Attorney General's office. A great deal of consideration has been given to what is needed from this commission and to ensuring that the terms of reference adequately cover all the relevant items which need to be taken into account and addressed. In addition to examining security of tenure, the Minister intends that the commission will be asked to examine how investment in, and the supply of, residential accommodation for renting can be increased. Naturally, the aim is that any measures implemented as a result of the recommendations of the commission will have a positive overall outcome for the sector and will contribute to achieving a thriving, more diverse and well managed private rented sector.
The Minister also intends that, as part of its terms of reference, the commission will be asked to make such recommendations for changes to the legislation governing the private rented sector as it considers appropriate and feasible.
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